Travel to the Dominican Republic, Cigar Country
Visiting the Dominican Republic
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.
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.)
Flamenco Beach Resort
Playa Dorada, Puerto Plata, RD
Phone: (809) 320-5084
Fax: (809) 320-2775
Room rates: single or double: $110; suite: $225 to $450 Club Miguel Angel : $250
The 582-room Flamenco is a cut above all other properties in Playa Dorada. In 1989, 300 rooms were completed and in 1993, the hotel added the rest of the rooms as well as the exclusive, 30-room Club Miguel Angel (the inner sanctum of the hotel featuring private entry, private buffet breakfast, concierge services, express checkout, robe, reserved chaise lounge and towel by the pool and an exclusive private Jacuzzi for club-only use).
Unlike many of its neighbors, little wear is evident at the Flamenco. The beautiful, open-air lobby is subtle, with less fluorescent coloring and more whitewashed stucco and richly toned wood--a comfortable fit with the region and your eye. Hand-painted tiles dot the inner walkways, all of which seem to lead to the striking pool and the mammoth upstairs patio.
But the best part of the Flamenco is its style, which is cool, professional and courteous. These elements reach their apex at the Club Miguel Angel. The design of the club centers around the private pool, but each guest room is spaceous and inviting--staying inside is actually a viable option for club guests. Third-floor rooms have vaulted ceilings, second- and third-floor rooms have balconies and first-floor rooms have terraces. Extraordinary detail has been paid to the decor, such as authentic, Dominican-style furniture that's actually comfortable, and richly patterned new fabrics.
Like most hotels here, meal plans are available. However, two excellent restaurants are not included in most packages but deserve mentioning. The El Cortijo, which serves rich, subtly spiced Spanish cuisine, and Las Reses--a steakhouse which looks like the inside of a Cheyenne dance hall--serve quality food at reasonable prices. Wine lists are limited, though it is possible to find decent Spanish, Italian or Chilean wines.
Paradise Beach Club & Casino
Box 337, Playa Dorada, Puerto Plata, RD
Phone: (809) 320-3663 or (800) 752-9236
Fax: (809) 320-4858
Room rates: single: $150, double: $260 ($50 children); suite: $170 to $350
Three restaurants, three bars, boutiques, tennis, golf, horseback riding, water-sports, disco, bicycles, scooters
Most hotels at Playa Dorada are like the Paradise, only less so. The Paradise impresses with appearance and a graceful atmosphere, while still managing to balance between the young party crowd and families. This is not a luxury property. Rather, it accommodates most people by offering prompt service and clean, updated rooms. The lobby features vaulted ceilings with open pools of water, fountains and an overgrown jungle, however the rooms are less stylish than the Flamenco. This is a good place for families as many of the junior suites open into full-sized apartments.
But you won't be spending much time in your room. More likely, you'll make a nightly pilgrimage along the edge of the meandering pool until you reach Eden Grill, where you can sit by the ocean and dine while the sun sets behind the giant shadow of Mt. Pico Duarte.
Afterward you might visit the disco as well as a very clubby, European-style casino. It's less noisy than many casinos in North America, despite the fact that there are more than 70 slots in a relatively small room. There are also eight roulette wheels, three tables for five-card stud, 20 for black jack and three for craps.
During the day, there are two beaches to lounge on, and if you're feeling active, snorkeling, windsurfing, tennis, golf, bicycling and horseback riding are all available options.
Puerto Plata Beach Resort Hotel & Casino
P.O. Box 600, Puerto Plata, RD
Phone: (809) 586-4293, (800) 348-5395
Fax: (809) 586-4377
Room rates: single and double: $110 to $140; suite: $125 to $170 (children stay free)
This hotel suffers from location. Just off the Malecon, it's an excellent place for quiet, but you've got to go into Playa Dorada to get to the action. That said, the Puerto Plata Beach Resort has a more loyal clientele because it's away from the crowds. Another nice thing: because it's away from Playa Dorada, bracelets normally required to identify you as a paying guest are conspicuously absent--a liberating feeling for an American.
Entering through the front gate, there are a series of haciendas, all of which house variously sized, well-kempt rooms (none of which managed to escape the pastel paintbrush of refurbishment).
A disco and nightly entertainment are provided here, and there is a smallish casino, although its gaming tables tend to have more life due to the downtown proximity.
Puerto Plata Casinos
Jack Tar Casino
Jack Tar Village, P.O. Box 380,Playa Dorada Puerto Plata, RD
Phone: (809) 320-3800Fax: (809) 320-3372
There is really only one legitimate casino in Puerto Plata, the Jack Tar, which has an unfortunately '80s decor. But the room is very large and it is one of very few casinos in the country to feature more than one kind of slot machine. There are 24 black jack tables, five for poker (five-card stud) and three tables for craps.
Bets are limited to $200, although $1,000 is sometimes allowed for bigger fish. Ramon Perez Santos, the manager of the casino, says that Americans are the biggest gamblers, but they only come in the wintertime. As is the case with most of the larger casinos here, better customers (those who gamble heavily) are given better treatment. It's not unusual for big spenders to be treated to meals at Elaine's (a high-quality French restaurant hidden behind the slots and gaming tables) or receive free cab rides or special rooms at the casino's hotel (the Jack Tar).
The casino also has a sports book with a Vegas line and no minimums or maximums--although there's no betting on NHL hockey. "Nobody here understands the game," says Perez.
If you've come to the capital for a tropical getaway, you will be disappointed. Santo Domingo is a huge city with a population greater than 2 million and growing. And though the city seems much smaller than that, human and industrial waste has made the beach off the Malecon--the avenue where most major hotels are located--unsafe for swimming. There is also more evidence of poverty here, and the people are a bit more tourist-savvy and also less friendly. The hum and pulse of a major city give the hotel managers incentive to perform, and service, as well as the quality of everything from the food to the tap water, is better than in the rest of the country. Also, there are plenty of places to shop, and the capital is loaded with some of the oldest architecture in the hemisphere. A good guidebook (Foeder's guide to the Caribbean is recommended) will help you with navigation, and knowing where you are going will help prevent any "misunderstandings" between you and your taxi driver.
It is best to take in the sights in pieces, stopping at one of the many cafes to rest and to adjust to the pace of life here. Even if you're traveling at half speed, you'll still be moving faster than most of the people in the country.
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