Dominican Republic: Hidden Gem of The Caribbean
by Jim Raycroft
Jim Raycroft takes us on a journey around the Dominican Republic to illustrate just what a delightful and unspoiled corner of the Caribbean this country is.
Charter yachts on a transit from South Florida to the Caribbean’s Leewards often pass the Dominican Republic without so much as a second glance as they head for the more obvious delights of the BVIs and Antigua. And that’s a shame, because the Dominican Republic is a bit of a hidden jewel.
Occupying the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is the second largest Caribbean island after Cuba. Nature has been very kind to the eastern portion of Hispaniola, distributing a wealth of natural beauty with abundant flora, fauna, scenic coastlines and dramatic landscapes.
The Dominican government is doing what it can to preserve the ecosystems with a conservation plan comprising 83 areas with 19 national parks, 15 natural reserves, six scientific reserves, 32 natural monuments, two marine sanctuaries and nine areas of protected islands.
Within this tropical beauty, is ‘an island within the island’, as Captain Gui Garcia of the motor yacht Ocean Paradise, describes it. Lying just around the eastern tip of the island on the Caribbean southern shore is the luxury resort and marina Casa de Campo. The resort’s name translates to ‘country house or cottage’, however the 7,000-acre resort is, in reality, anything but. Following its multimillion-dollar refit, the all-new Casa de Campo is a rising star in the Caribbean.
With 40 years of experience and hospitality under its belt, Casa de Campo has had plenty of time to work things out and get it right. ‘Teeth of the Dog’ is the first of three Casa de Campo golf courses created by Peter Dye, considered by many to be one of the most authoritative golf course architects of all time. It includes seven holes along the edge of the Caribbean Sea, transforming a rugged coral rock coastline into a challenging world-class 6,888-yard, par 72 course, which has been ranked number one in the Caribbean.
Italian architect Gianfranco Fini was commissioned to design a villa for a friend at Casa de Campo in 1988. He fell in love with the place and together with Piero Giacosa envisioned building a sea-side community where the Chavón River meets the Caribbean. After five years of research and planning, construction began in 1998 with the first boat tying up to the dock in 2001.
The village contains 105 villas and townhouse residences, many with spectacular marina views, balconies and private docks, while numerous trendy shops line the Calle Barlovento and all paths lead to The Piazza Portofino. An airy open arching shape with beautiful restaurants and cafes, the Piazza is the centerpiece of the Casa de Campo Marina and the backdrop for nightlife, shows and cultural events, all with a casual elegant Mediterranean atmosphere.
Nearby is the Casa de Campo Yacht Club, an architectural beauty harking back to an earlier time with its Club bar and winding staircase leading up to a surrounding inner balcony and open ocean view terraces. The 350-slip marina can handle yachts of up to 250 feet with drafts to 16 feet.
Logistically, Casa de Campo makes a convenient base. Captain Cumming of the 295-foot sailing yacht Athena, which recently visited, points out that several flights a week to the complex’s onsite airport bring in exotic items like fresh berries from the U.S. While Athena’s 19-foot draft prohibited her from entering the marina, the yacht’s guests and crew were made welcome by the marina staff while the yacht, anchored offshore, nicely framed the 17th hole at The Teeth of the Dog.
Adjacent to the resort, guests can tender up the Rio Chavón, a river emptying into the Caribbean whose primordial charm made it an ideal backdrop for Jurassic Park as well as one of the filming locations for Apocalypse Now. Four hundred steps up is what looks to be another movie set, and for good reason: The medieval-lookalike town of Altos de Chavón was conceived by the chairman and set designer of Paramount Pictures. Cobbled together in the late 1970s using the stone remnants of a nearby road and bridge-building project, the charming European cobblestone streets sport tourist-friendly restaurants, cigar shops and art galleries, as well as a 5,000-seat Roman-style amphitheater.
In addition to the golf, Athena’s owners and guests enjoyed the shooting range and the Playa Minitas Beach Club, and also made use of the resort’s spas. For horse lovers, horseback riding and polo are other Casa de Campo attractions.
Leaving Casa de Campo by water, a popular yacht destination is Palmilla, what the locals call ‘the natural pool’, an offshore sandbar with clear waist-deep waters teeming with starfish. About five miles offshore from Casa de Campo is the protected island of Catalina, offering a unique underwater museum. The Captain Kidd Living Museum Under the Sea encompasses the remains of the last ship Captain Kidd reportedly captured, the Quedagh Merchant. Wrecked in just 10 feet of water, 70 feet offshore, it is accessible to anyone willing to get their hair wet, not just experienced divers. Considering its very accessible position, it’s remarkable that it was only discovered five years ago.
Further to the east lies one of the country’s largest offshore islands, Saona, which features pristine, white-sand beaches of a movie-ready desert island. It is offshore of the country’s largest national park, Parque Nacional del Este, which sports renowned beaches among a coastline of mangroves and protected reefs. And for those wanting to stretch their legs, a mile-long guided trail called the Padre Nuestro Ecotouristic and Archaeological Trail leads into the park from close to Bayahibe town, showing off 294 species of plants along the way. The Archeological part is found among the park’s many caves preserving cave art from the time of the Taino, the original inhabitants of the island pre-Columbus time.
Farther afield from this southern base in the Dominican Republic, Captain Maurizio Capitani of the 140-foot motor yacht My Johanna suggests cruising north along the eastern coast to the endless beaches of Punta Cana, which he describes as ‘classic Caribbean’. Continuing northwest brings yachts to the remote Samana Peninsula, a must-do on the return trip north following the humpback whale’s winter mating season.
Whale-watching season runs from mid-January to mid-March when thousands of humpback whales gather at a reef known as Silver Bank, located 70 miles northeast of Puerto Plata. From here many of the whales will move on to Samana Bay, which has been identified by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the world’s best places to watch hundreds of humpbacks on any given day during the mating season.
Bordering the bay is Los Haitises National Park, a picture-perfect place, says Captain Capitani, and a popular protected eco-tourism destination consisting of approximately 1,600 square miles. Accessible by boat, with only a portion open to the public, the park offers great experiences for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and 4×4 driving. A short ride across the San Lorenzo Bay is the Paraíso Caño Hondo eco-tourism project, which offers incredible inland streams waiting to be explored.
All of this natural beauty alongside the facilities and attractions of marina resorts such as Casa de Campo have been building up a good reputation among superyacht captains, making the Dominican Republic more attractive than ever to visiting yachts.
‘Speaking personally it’s refreshing to find a corner of the Caribbean that isn’t like a bus station!’ says Athena’s Captain Cumming.