Pigeons don’t normally capture our attention, but the ones scurrying about the Dominican Republic — specifically, Santo Domingo’s Parque Colon — are different. These birds have an elegance to them. You can see it in how they waddle between your legs or even when they fly into a young woman’s cupped hands as she sprinkles bird seeds to the ground.
But a fascinating bird population is but only one feather in the Dominican Republic’s cap. These days, new and improved hotels, a diverse culinary roster and a host of attractions, both cultural and natural, play a role in why so many savvy travelers are flying south for the summer.
Forbes Travel Guide editors recently migrated down to the Caribbean to see what the excitement was all about.
The new hotel
A little birdie must have told InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) that Latin America was on the cusp of a hospitality renaissance because the brand has really started to make its presence felt in the region. While a new Kimpton and several Crowne Plazas are reportedly in the pipeline, in Santo Domingo, IHG is solidly putting its foot down with renovations to Crowne Plaza Santo Domingo, an über-modern makeover to the Holiday Inn Santo Domingo and the recent opening of the gorgeous InterContinental Real Santo Domingo.
The latter is a statement-making, 21-story structure consisting of 227 guest rooms and a rooftop infinity pool dripping in swankiness. Out-of-towners will appreciate the hotel’s elegant design touches — 300-thread-count Egyptian linen sheets, 48-inch flat-screen TVs, glass-enclosed showers — and amenities such as a tantalizing spa and more than 9,000 square feet in meeting space.
“From a technology standpoint, they have really incorporated a lot of features for groups and meetings,” explains Jorge Apaez, IHG’s chief operating officer for Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. “Also, in terms of energy saving, they’ve paid a lot of attention to make sure the hotel really incorporated the latest in energy-conservation [strategies]. The connectivity for wireless is also really nice. We have a program called IHG Connect, so once you’re a guest in a hotel and you register, the next hotel of IHG’s that you stay at will immediately recognize you.”
Locals certainly appreciate those conveniences, too, but they may be even more impressed with all of the hotel’s dining options, ranging from the all-day noshing at The Market to the more sophisticated fare at Factory Steak & Lobster. Nau Lounge is another tasty choice that nails it with the visuals (white leather sofas, pendant lights) and the edibles (an array of sushi, scrumptious desserts). The night we dined there the place echoed with chatty couples and a DJ spinning hip-hop and techno tunes.
The brilliant cuisine
Fortunately for Dominican Republic travelers, the delightful aromas can’t be merely confined to the InterContinental. Not too far from the aforementioned Crowne Plaza Santo Domingo, in fact, you’ll find Pat’e Palo, a national culinary treasure that’s been in operation since the 1500s. With that kind of history, it makes sense that the dining room would have a cavernous feel and the waitstaff would walk around in uniforms you’d find in a buccaneer’s foot locker.
But what really rouses is how much life is in the dishes — the grilled sea bass bursts with notes of cilantro while the airline chicken breast sparkles in Spanish paprika. When you complete your meal with a bottle of Marques de Casa Concha — or any other Chilean chardonnay from the vast cellar, for that matter — you’ll fall into the same trance of so many other patrons over the centuries.
El Conuco is another locally beloved address. The indoor-outdoor restaurant feels like your grandmother’s backyard — there’s thatched roofing and, yes, the occasional bird sighting — and it tastes even better than her kitchen.
Dinnertime is great for pasta del mar and a mushroom-slathered filet, but it’s the all-you-can-manage lunch buffet with chicken, fish, rice, vegetables and other staples that will have you rearranging future dining plans.
Add in the fact that employees and local dancers (and brave Forbes Travel Guide editors) join in for impromptu salsa sessions and you understand how the place truly feels like home.
Christopher Columbus may not have discovered America, but he did stumble upon this island filled with the Tainos people in 1492. That historical moment, and other significant ones from the country’s past, is documented all around Santo Domingo. At the Colonial District’s Parque Colon, for instance, you’ll spot a statue honoring the Spanish explorer right in the middle of the park.
Just a few hundred feet over is The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. Inside the blessed halls that were completed in 1540, you’ll spy ancient relics, tombs and a sanctuary sturdy enough to still be used today.
Five minutes from that landmark is Fortaleza Ozama, a 16th-century castle that once served as the symbolic entrance to Santo Domingo for the Spanish. Today, people visit for the history lessons, of course, but we’re guessing a good share come strictly for the tremendous views of Ozama River from atop the fortress, too.
If you prefer your knowledge served with some bite, organize a day trip to the Ron Barceló rum plant and historical center. Though a 45-minute ride from the heart of town, the trek is a worthwhile one that takes you along the brand’s 88-year journey with a documentary and an informative walking tour offering a glimpse into a factory that produces more than 50,000 liters of rum a day.
Things culminate with samples of Gran Platinum, Añejo, Blanco and other varieties that show why Ron Barceló is considered one of the Caribbean’s finest pours.
But if we’re strictly talking about vistas, they may be most captivating back at Santo Domingo Botanical Gardens. This 200-plus-acre sanctuary for wildlife and flora is a choice spot for school groups and photo sessions.
We even noticed a film crew taping something near the attraction’s entrance. We can only assume that their cameras captured the necessary shots from the Japanese garden before we got there. The tranquil ponds, bamboo forest and flock of rock doves filling the blue sky were just that special.