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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.)

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.

SANTO DOMINGO

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.

There are several dozen fine restaurants in town, though at least half of them border on kitsch. Those which do not don't necessarily have anything special to offer. A few places--Cafe Capri, Exquisito and La Terezana--are more authentically Dominican, and there is more attention to the food than at other restaurants.

Hotel V Centenario
Avenida George Washington 218, Santo Domingo, RD
Phone: (809) 221-0000
Fax: (809) 221-2020
Room rates: single and double: $155 to $190; suite: $255
Three restaurants, two bars, pool, shops, casino, one tennis and two squash courts, sauna, gym, parking

 

A perfect example of what has happened in recent years to the hotel industry in Dominicana is the V Centenario. A two-year-old hotel, the V Centenario has already changed management. Despite this, it remains the best-looking property on the Malecon, mostly because it is modern and less careworn than the others. It borders on feeling a bit cold, but the 16-story, 200-room hotel is by far the most professionally run property and it manages to meet the expectations of an Intercontinental chain hotel. It is also the only hotel on the Malecon which plans on holding cigar dinners in 1995.

On the new executive floor there is a separate dining room and concierge desk with private check-in, and all rooms feature access to fax and copy facilities.

All V Centenario guest rooms feature safes (not an amenity to take for granted, since most hotels in Dominicana charge extra and keep your valuables in a safety deposit box inconveniently located at the front desk), minibars, cable, two double beds or one queen size. Suites have desks, sofa beds and one-and-a-half baths with giant sunken bathtubs. Throughout the hotel the style is muted, but exceptionally clean and quiet.

The V Centenario also has a casino, but this is not a good place for gambling. The coolness of the hotel doesn't meld with the necessity of excitement in a game room. It is possible to nap in this casino, so go elsewhere for action.

Jaragua
Avenida George Washington No. 367,
P.O. Box 769-2, Santo Domingo, RD
Phone: (809) 221-2222
Fax: (809) 686-0528
Room rates: single and double: $180 to $220; suite: $495 to $820

 

Just the opposite of the V Centenario, the Jaragua Renaissance Resort and Casino is bursting with energy, from its lively disco to its massive casino. It feels like Vegas, which goes a long way toward explaining the slightly fraying carpeting in the room, and suburban shopping-mall sprawl of the entire property. Better to stay out and enjoy the best pool in the city--afternoons are an excellent time for sipping Daiquiris and watching capitalinos schmooz their way around. In the evenings the most impressive-looking casino on the island pulses with cash and a bold, international exuberance. The 7,600 sq.-ft. casino is divided relatively equally between slots and regular gaming tables, with black jack, roulette, baccarat and craps all available. Of course, like all of the casinos in the capital, there is a sports book. It's unlikely that the Jaragua is a good spot for serious gamblers, as less locals come here and more tourists on fixed budgets come by to blow their souvenir money. But the ambience, with pink walls, gaudy mirrors and a perfectly tacky '80s exuberance, makes the Jaragua a fantastic site for gambling gratuitously.

Rooms here are adequate, and the VIP section is wisely removed from all of the casino buzz. However, there is no overriding distinction to the guest rooms (besides fuchsia), and overall they are a bit too dark for a country so blessed by clean air and bright skies.

Hamaca Beach Hotel
P.O. Box 2973
Santo Domingo, RD
Phone: (809) 523-4611, (800) 945-0792
Fax: (809) 523-6767
Room Rates: single and double: $115 to $175; suites: $135 to $255
Three restaurants, four bars, terrace, grill, tennis, scuba diving, archery, bicycling, horseback riding, snorkeling, sailing, windsurfing

 

The Hamaca is a welcome surprise. Fifteen minutes from downtown, its private beach escapes crowds and noise, but still allows for city tourism--and it's a bit closer to La Romana and the Consolidated Cigar Factory (Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd.) than its brethren in town. A different perspective is evident throughout Boca Chica beach, where the hotel is located. People slow down, and the staff is a bit friendlier. Enter the clean, terra-cotta-tiled lobby and a calm, tropical quietude returns. As you walk down the terraced landscape, through the lower lobby and the beachfront side of the property (the hotel is shaped like a rectangle, with the lower side of one long edge facing the water and the upper edge fronting a lush garden), you wind up on the hot, white sand beach where a palm-frond-covered bar is the focus of noonday respites. After an iced pineapple juice, it is possible to rent jet skis, windsurf up to one-quarter-mile out without encountering rough surf (the beach is naturally protected by a reef), go horseback riding or play tennis. The hotel is also adding a casino due to open early in 1995.

Rooms are sprightly decorated, with minibars, large closets and in-room safes. Suites are larger, with balconies, living rooms and a bit more panache.

The Hamaca is an all-inclusive resort, which means that some restaurants have á la carte meal service, and a few "gourmet"-style places are cash only. Naturally, it's necessary to drive downtown to find more dining variety.

Hotel Santo Domingo and Casino Hispaniola
Avenida Independencia and Abraham Lincoln
P.O. Box 2112, Santo Domingo, RD
Phone: (809) 423-3333, (800) 877-3643
Fax: (809) 523-8394
Room rates: single and double: $105 to $125; Excel Floor: $135 to $155
Three restaurants, two bars, pool, sundeck, sauna, three tennis courts, conference rooms and helipad

 

In the heart of the city, the Santo Domingo is the Oscar de la Renta-designed prize of the capital. But it is starting to look just a bit too funky (it was designed in the '70s), with lots of red and black lacquer which should be replaced. Nonetheless, a few excellent restaurants and very quiet rooms make this one of the best hotels in the city. Each floor has a concierge desk and the VIP floor has secretary, fax and copy facilities, as well as an open bar.

Standard rooms are huge, with two queen beds and a clean, bold decor. Each room has been decorated in a different style, so ask in advance if you want (or don't want) your room to look like a bordello. Fortunately, some rooms are homey, and a dogmatic insistence on using natively produced materials has led to some very beautiful interior spaces.

Across the street at the Hispaniola Hotel (a lesser property) is the casino. It is no secret that this is not a thrilling casino atmosphere, but because they know that they can avoid tourists (poor gamblers who sour the pot), Dominicans come here in droves. The slots offer better odds (blackjack slots have wild jokers, increasing the possibility of winning an average hand), and the minimums at tables are lower, so more people can afford to bet. Five roulette tables dominate the center of the gaming room, while the slots are set aside in another room to keep the noise down for the card-playing gamblers. There are also tables for craps, baccarat and poker, as well as a "Texas table," which allows poker players to bet against each other (the house gets a modest share of the winnings).

LA ROMANA

Casa de Campo
Excel Club Villas
P.O. Box 140, La Romana, RD
or: 2600 S.W. Third Avenue, 3rd Floor, Miami, Florida 33129
Phone: (305) 856-7083, (800) 877-3643
Fax: (305) 523-8548
Room rates: deluxe three-bedroom: about $815 to $1,080; deluxe four-bedroom: about $1,015 to $1,308
Jacuzzi or pool, maid, butler, chef, bar, golf cart, VIP concierge and sports guide and all standard guest services

 

Everyone who's been to Casa de Campo knows what it's about--size. It may be the largest resort complex on the planet (7,000 acres). Where else can you find a private town, a 5,000-seat, Roman-ruin-style amphitheater and Altos de Chavon, a Mediterranean-style village and privately owned design school? New at Casa de Campo (see review, Cigar Aficionado, Winter 1992) are Excel Club Villas for rent, complete with butler, maid, cook, babysitter, unlimited bar, private golf cart and use of regular hotel facilities such as the fitness center and safari skeet range. The new homes are huge, with high ceilings, excellent, well-conceived amenities and a very Dominican, relaxed atmosphere.

Casa de Campo is also very close to Consolidated Cigar Corp., so cigars and a tour are both readily available to tourists.

PLAYA PUNTA CANA

Punta Cana Beach Resort
Punta Cana, Higuey, RD
P.O. Box 524127, Miami, Florida 33152-4121
Phone: (809) 221-CANA, (800) 972-2139
Fax: (809) 687-8745
Room rates: beach double: $73 to $135; tennis double: $68 to $120; superior: $78 to $145
340 rooms, three restaurants, four bars, car rental, scuba, windsurfing, sailboats, kayaking, four tennis courts, horseback riding and water-skiing

 

Both the Punta Cana and Bavaro Beach Resorts (below) are very far from anywhere. The capital is a three-hour drive, and though the Punta Cana International Airport can get you from Santo Domingo in an hour, or by jet from Puerto Rico even faster, everything seems rather far off when all you can see is blue sky, blue water and white sand. But the isolated feeling wears off two minutes after warm sand sinks in between your toes and you realize that nobody you know is looking at this vista or sitting on a beach (considered one of the 10 best on the globe) this pristine and handsome.

At Punta Cana the feeling is accentuated by a sleepy atmosphere, soft trade winds and the occasional lilt of a meringue band. This property, though it services a lot of guests, is perfectly divided, so that a room is never noisy (most of the guest quarters are in tinyvillas), and visitors don't feel rushed. Life is very, very slow here, and Dominicans who work at the resort smile a bit more.

Rooms (either on the beach or near the garden) are lovely, with lots of muted coral, blue, yellow and green-colored furnishings. They are rather spacious and clean, with nice touches like plants in hand-crafted pots and native art on the walls, which further emphasizes the Dominican beach feel.

A private marina is under construction to the south of the resort, and properties with slips will be for sale, with incentives for time-share usage.

One drawback to staying here or at Bavaro is the food. While it is adequately tasty, there are no alternatives--if you go down the road a piece you'll just find more road.

Bavaro Beach Resort
Higuey, RD
Phone: (809) 686-5997, (800) 336-6612
Room rates: single and double: $120 to $270; Palace: $150 to $330
1,955 rooms, 13 restaurants, eight bars, five pools, beauty parlor, cash exchange, medical center, 16-table casino, two discos, four stages,windsurfing, sailing, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, horseback riding (stable), six tennis courts, badminton, 18-hole golf course

 

Compared to its neighbor, Bavaro is huge. Although it never quite feels that way, thanks to a great deal of real estate. The five hotels in the group complex (Hotel Casino, Hotel Golf, Hotel Garden, Hotel Beach and Hotel Palace) are so spread out that it rarely seems that there are too many people here, even when the property is completely booked, which it often is.

At any of the hotels, rooms are pretty much equal, though farther off the beach they seem to wear better, and the crowd is a bit less rowdy. The rooms at the Palace strike a nice balance between loud (Beach and Casino) and somnolent (Garden). Interiors feature lots of wood and fabrics are natural, batik-dyed. Typical amenities include minifridges, hair dryers and balconies. Lofts and suites are nicer at all properties, with better art, room safes and decoratively tiled floors.

On the beach there is an activities center for lessons in every imaginable aquatic sport, most of which take place in the relatively shallow, reef-protected area which extends about two-thirds of a mile north of the hotel property.

There are also lessons in golf, tennis, shooting and riding, as well as polo.

The casino is a bit of a disappointment. More like a conference room than a space for gambling, the slots, roulette, black jack, and baccarat tables seem to be the least active spots at the resort. But then, with a beach like this, it's not hard to see what keeps people outside (or on the dance floor), even at night.

Visiting Santiago

When cigar makers begin to get phone calls from American tourists who want to come and see their factories, they pinch themselves and grin. Business is good. So good, in fact, that they don't have much time or space (Dominican cigar factories, with few exceptions, are very crowded with every bit of space utilized for tobacco bales, rollers or box makers) to show people around. However, with more and more phone calls, and more tourists pouring into the country daily, the Cigar Producers of the Dominican Republic (Association de Productores de Cigarro) are attempting to meet tourists halfway. The last Wednesday of every month is reserved for tours (most factories are located in tax-free zones, both in Santiago andin La Romana, so prior contact is required for tourist entrance). If you plan on visiting, call before you travel. Contact: Nuris Duran (809) 575-4112. Fax: (809) 575-4860.

If you plan on visiting Casa de Campo, it makes sense to stop by the Consolidated factory, because it's a short golf-cart ride away.

If your travel takes you to Puerto Plata, Santiago is a 90-minute ride inland. It is possible to visit a factory and get back to the beach in one long day. But Santiago is the second capital of the country, and the booming economy and accessible history make this a perfect spot for an overnight trip.

However, be forewarned. There are few hotels in Santiago, and only one is worth patronizing. The hotel Gran Almirante (Avenida Estrella Sadhala, 580-1992), about 10 minutes from the free zone (zona franca), has spacious, tidy rooms, modern facilities, good restaurants, a lobby bar and 121 rooms. There are also a few restaurants where bilingual service and excellent food are standard: Camp David Ranch, 583-5230; Le Café, 587-4247; Osteria, 582-4165; Mezzaluna, 587-6303. All restaurants are in area code (809).

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