Bávaro & Punta Cana
It wouldn’t be out of line to equate the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic as a sort of sea and sun Disneyland – after all, it is here where the megalomaniacal all-inclusive resorts snatch up broad swaths of cinematic beaches faster than the real estate agents can get the sun-soaked sands on the market.
Santo Domingo, or ‘La Capital’ as it’s typically called, is a collage of cultures and neighborhoods. It’s where the sounds of life – domino pieces slapped on tables, backfiring mufflers and horns from chaotic traffic, merengue and bachata blasting from corner stores – are most intense.
East of Puerto Plata
Cabarete long ago stole the crown of tourism capital of the north coast – here you can fill your days with surfing and mountain biking but still dig into great seafood at a beachside restaurant. Sosúa, Cabarete’s seedier neighbor, has a pretty beach, and a good selection of restaurants and hotels.
Squeezed between a towering mountain and the ocean is this working port town, the oldest city on the north coast. Wander the Malecón or the downtown streets surrounding the Parque Central and you'll see that small-scale revitalization efforts have replaced what was until recently a palpable feeling of neglect.
The Southwest & Península de Pedernales
Talk about criminally undervisited. Few travelers make it to the southwest: it’s remote, and its little-known highlights take some effort to uncover – but that’s exactly the reason to visit. You can explore the cloud forests of the mountains with their soundtrack of twittering birdsong, or the cactus-studded desert that stretches all the way to the Haitian border.
This one-time fishing and farming hamlet is now the adventure-sports capital of the country, booming with condos and new development. You’ll find a sophisticated, grown-up beach town, with top-notch hotels, and a beach dining experience second to none (not to mention the best winds and waves on the island).
Once a rustic fishing village, Las Terrenas today is a cosmopolitan town and seems as much French (approaching a colony) and Italian as Dominican. Fashionable-looking European women in designer sunglasses ride their personal ATVs with a bag of baguettes in tow, battling on roads with way too many motos.
One of the oldest settlements in Spain’s New World empire, Santiago is the country’s second-largest city, spilling over its original border, the Río Yaque del Norte. This sprawling city churns out rum and cigars, feeding off the large-scale tobacco and sugarcane plantations that make up much of the topography of the surrounding valley floor.
This traffic-congested and bustling city is a convenient stop for those traveling between Santo Domingo, 131km to the west, and the beach resorts further east. Surrounded by vast sugar plantations, the industry that bolsters its economy, and the enormous Casa de Campo resort a few kilometers to the east, La Romana feels slightly more prosperous than neighboring cities.
While Las Terrenas and Las Galeras can boast pristine swaths of sand and a sophisticated international vibe, Samaná town is mostly content to trudge along as the gritty workhorse of the peninsula. It would be worth little more than a backwards glance in the rearview mirror for most tourists were it not for the whale-watching on offer here.
Sosúa by day and Sosúa by night are two different creatures. When the sun is out, the beach and calm bay are ideal for swimming and attract a broad swath of Dominicans, foreigners and families alike. When evening comes, it’s no longer a PG destination. The inescapable fact, despite the mayor's efforts otherwise, is that Sosúa is known for sex tourism.
Península de Pedernales
The Península de Pedernales contains some of the most outstanding attractions of the Dominican Republic: Bahía de Las Águilas, Laguna Oviedo and Parque Nacional Jaragua; Cachóte; and world-class birdwatching in the Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco. Despite all this, tourism in this part of the country is surprisingly low.