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Travel to the Dominican Republic, Cigar Country

Visiting the Dominican Republic
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

To most North Americans, the Dominican Republic remains a mysterious place, rarely visited on business and seldom tread upon by tourists. However, two factors will likely erase this anomaly over the course of the 1990s. First, cigar tourism may well become a niche market in this part of the world. And as cautious as most Americans are about traveling to uncharted territory, the Dominican Republic (now officially remonikered "Dominicana" by the island nation's Tourism Promotion Council) is a rare bargain in travel.

Flush with a half-decade-long economic boom (which has included the construction of some stunning world-class resorts), Dominicana now boasts a stable economy mated to a populace already noted for its openness. And prices are far lower than the Caribbean tourist-trap average. At present, tens of thousands of Europeans visit annually, taking advantage of favorable exchange rates, tremendously varied terrain (from the highest peak in the West Indies--10,414-ft. Mt. Pico Duarte--to the longest, most serene beach in the Caribbean at Playa Punta Cana), excellent accommodations and omnipresent casinos. As of 1993, tourists contributed $1.23 billion to the Dominican economy.

Cigar-related tourism may soon add even more cash to the coffers. To help our readers-cum-cigar explorers find their way happily in the original cigar-friendly nation, Cigar Aficionado offers the following guide to lodging, dining and various Dominican idiosyncrasies. Hotels are listed in order of accommodation quality (with particular attention to service details, privacy and location). When applicable, casinos are evaluated on a similar scale, although, we have noted certain distinctions (such as unique gaming rules or a more professional gambling atmosphere), which may elevate a casino above a bland decor or second-tier location.

Most Dominican hotels have meal plans, which means that certain meals at designated hotel restaurants are included (rack rates mentioned do not include meal-plan prices). The best restaurants are usually excluded from these plans, but we comment on some hotel establishments that are exceptionally good.

We have only recommended a few independently owned restaurants in this guide, mainly because, while the food is quite good in Dominicana, it is generally very similar from place to place. Establishments which manage to rise above the competition are mentioned below.

PUERTO PLATA

The northern side of Dominicana has one of the most convenient, well-conceived tourist complexes in the Caribbean. Puerto Plata exists for tourism. And though the town has been around for centuries, most of its population either works in the tourism industry or in the Brugal rum-bottling factory, located in the heart of the 200,000-person city.

Most of the hotels are situated on the beach, just outside of town at Playa Dorada, a 10-minute taxi ride from the recently renovated Puerto Plata (La Union) airport.

This makes for safety and convenience, and most needs are met at a "first world" pace. All this utility, however, has the effect of homogenizing local flavor. As usual, there is a bright side. Location. Puerto Plata is a 90-minute ride from the cigar capital of the free world: If you rent a car (reserve in advance or you will find that no amount of Spanish linguistic acumen will get you a reasonable rate), take the Autopista Santiago-Puerto Plata to Santiago. On the way you'll encounter spectacular ocean views and on the descent into Santiago, tobacco plantations and curing barns line both sides of the highway. In town, if you plan carefully, you may see one of several cigar factories (see "Visiting Santiago"). Santiago also has many markets and museums. Only the capital, Santo Domingo, has broader cultural offerings.

After a day or more in Santiago, return to Puerto Plata via the Autopista Duarte. This will land you in the heart of downtown, where you can walk Puerto Plata's Malecon (a miniature version of the one in Santo Domingo) and stroll up to the Fortaleza de San Felipe, a 430-year-old fort built by conquistadors and then refortified after the French Revolution to defend Puerto Plata's tourist attractions. The fort is an excellent place to reflect on Hispaniola's violent history. Other sites include the Museum of Dominican Amber (amber is actually 50 million-year-old pine resin), a good place to pick up local crafts--though the prices are a bit high--and the Brugal bottling plant. The plant offers a free five-minute tour, which by itself is not reason enough to go. Instead, at the end of the tour, after quaffing free Daiquiris, buy as much Brugal Extra Viejo as possible. At 40 RD (about $3.50), this rum is an absolute steal. It's not only the best rum on the island and some of the best in the world, but it never sells for less than 90 RD anywhere else in Dominicana. On the way back to Playa Dorada, lunch at Dos Manguittos. This shoe-box-sized restaurant serves some of the best Sancocho--the national dish of Dominicana--on the island. (The stew is less like paella, from which it descended, and more like curry, but wholly unique. If you're going to try Sancocho, be sure that it hasn't been muted for a tourist's taste buds.)


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