Image: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Eduardo Munoz  /  Reuters
A man sits near a monument as pigeons fly above in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
By John Frenaye Travel columnist
updated 3/2/2007 3:07:30 PM ET 2007-03-02T20:07:30

Every now and then a new “it” destination comes around. For the past 10 years, I have been keeping my mouth shut, making several purely selfish trips before the word got out. Selfish? You bet. Worth it? Every last penny! So, what’s the secret? The Dominican Republic.

What you notice first about the Dominican Republic is its size. This is not another tiny Caribbean island with a beach and a straw market. Instead, it's a big country with incredibly varied scenery that includes the tallest mountains in the region, stretches of white sand that run unbroken for miles, and one of the Caribbean's most cosmopolitan cities: Santo Domingo.

There are six main areas of the Dominican Republic, and each offers some wonderful hotels and resorts to explore.

Boca Chica
If there is a South Beach of the Caribbean, this is it. Boca Chica is beautiful, with a shallow lagoon surrounded by reefs and ringed by gleaming white sand. When the tide is low, you can walk out to a small, uninhabited island called La Matica. Boca Chica is hugely popular. The beach is usually packed with swimmers and vendors hawking their wares. (Be warned: Prostitutes also frequent the beach.) Those who don't mind the crowds will find plenty of water sports going on in the shallow waters. Sailboats, paddleboats and Jet Skis are available for rent, and water-skiing, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing excursions can be arranged. The town is filled with bars and shops — and blaring merengue music. The tunes add a lot of energy to the environment. Most of the shops sell the requisite T-shirts and souvenirs.

La Romana
La Romana owes its tourist boom to Casa de Campo, an internationally known resort considered by many to be without equal in the Caribbean (and that’s saying something). Casa de Campo and its 7,000-acre grounds were designed by fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, a Dominican native. There is very little you can’t do at Casa de Campo. You can play at water sports, including swimming, snorkeling, Jet Skiing and windsurfing; you can play golf on three courses, including the incomparable Pete Dye-designed “Teeth of the Dog”; you can try tennis, riding, polo (the resort maintains a stable of nearly 100 horses), trap shooting and more — the list goes on and on. Casa de Campo has a variety of accommodations, including hotel rooms and villas; off-season rates can be a real bargain. The town also has scheduled air service — a welcome change from the long transfer that travelers must often endure on Caribbean vacations.

Puerto Plata
Mount Isabel de Torres is the dramatic backdrop for Puerto Plata, on the north coast of the island. A large statue of Jesus, very reminiscent of the one in Rio de Janeiro, stands on the mountain with arms stretched upwards into the clouds. The vacation experience in Puerto Plata has changed a bit recently. In the past, many travelers opted to stay at their all-inclusive resort because side excursions tended to be expensive. Now, the resorts are working with local businesses to provide affordable options for shopping, sightseeing and dining.

Punta Cana
Punta Cana is home to several large all-inclusive resorts. The beaches here are unrivaled in the Caribbean. They extend for nearly 20 miles and have the benefit of a good wind and some wonderful, statuesque palm trees for shade. The largest resort has more than 1,500 rooms, a casino, two discos and an 18-hole golf course. Two drawbacks: the area is fairly isolated and the landscape outside of the resorts holds little interest to vacationers, who usually choose to stay on site. Though development is raging in this area, the resorts of Punta Cana have managed to maintain the relaxed atmosphere most visitors to the island expect.

Santiago is not a typical tourist area, but it is the heart and soul of the Dominican Republic. It is the center of the cigar-producing Cibao Valley, whose cigars are rumored to rival those pesky illegal Cuban ones. While there is not much to the town itself, it is a great place to see the real Dominican Republic. One word of advice: Try to learn a little Spanish for your visit; otherwise the language barrier can be an impediment. But if you have even a marginal vocabulary, you will find that the locals will welcome you with open arms.

Santo Domingo
Slideshow: Around the World Santo Domingo is the capital city, the oldest city on the island — and the oldest city in the Americas, having served as Spain’s first colonial headquarters in the New World. Santo Domingo is rumored to have the remains of Christopher Columbus as well. The city is the country’s economic hub, as well as one of the Caribbean's top business hubs. For nightlife outside your resort, Santo Domingo offers some world-class discos, nightclubs and restaurants. It also attracts residents from other areas of the island, so you will likely be partying with the locals as well.

Wrapping up
To round out your vacation, you need to go off your resort property and explore the island. It’s best to rent a car, since cabs are expensive and the country is big, but be careful, because the roads can be rough. Catch a ballgame, if you can. The Dominican Republic is a factory for professional baseball players in the United States; their season runs from late October through February, and there is some terrific talent to be seen. Dancing is huge in the Dominican, too, and the locals will be more than happy to show you, or teach you if you ask nicely. Again, a little Spanish will go a long way and it’s easy to learn enough to get by.

Kick back, smoke a cigar and, as with most Caribbean places, don’t ever be in a hurry — tomorrow will come soon enough!

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With nearly ten years as a senior executive in the retail travel industry and a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site . Read more of his columns here, or visit Frenaye's forum to sound off.

Photos: Caribbean way of life

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  1. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of the Barbados Tourism Authority shows Harrismith Beach, Barbados. Sun, surf and sand are the main draws on this tropical Caribbean island. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Authority shows The Watering Hole rum shop in Barbados. The rum shops on the island are good places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominos, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. St. Lucia

    Developed, beautiful and situated in the Eastern Caribbean, St. Lucia is accessible from Europe and Canada, and reachable -- albeit not as easily -- from the United States. St. Lucia is known as a romantic destination. The island gets plenty of visitors, including wedding parties. (Holger Leue  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. St. Lucia

    Cocoa pods lie on the ground ready to be processed at Fondoux Plantation in Soufriere, St. Lucia. Cocoa is one St. Lucia's main produce alongside the more obvious banana crop. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. St. George's

    The capital of Grenada, St. George's is considered one of the prettiest harbor towns in the Caribbean. Grenada's unique layout includes many finger-like coves, making the island a popular sailing destination. (Richard Cummins  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Cayman Islands

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Stingray City

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. St John's

    In high season, up to five cruise ships visit St John's, Antigua, each day. The boats unload mostly American and European passengers who fan out across the island visiting the casinos and beaches. Antigua is easily accessible, and can offer good values for tourists. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Antigua

    Antigua, located in the Northeastern Caribbean, is a popular tourist spot. While there are high-end, stylish hotels, the island also features a large number of mid-priced options. Visitors will find beach bars, restaurants, casinos and shopping. (Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Antigua

    People walk along an area known as Devils Bridge in Indian Town Point, Antigua. Antigua is a wintertime destination for many visitors from the north. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dominica

    Not as well known as other Caribbean islands, Dominica is green, fertile and mountainous. Visitors will find some opportunites to scuba dive, but watersports are not its main draw. The island does, however, offer a slew of rainforest trails -- great for hiking and sightseeing. (Greg Johnston  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dominican Republic

    An old church building is seen in La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic. (Wayne Walton / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Belize

    Belize gets more than 850,000 visitors each year. The hot spot allows watersports such as kayaking and snorkeling, as well as inland activities like hiking and birding. The Mayan ruins of Altan Ha, pictured, are easily accessible from Caye Caulker. (Andrew Marshall / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. La Tortuga

    A fisherman repairs his nets on Cayo Herradura, off the island of La Tortuga in Venezuela. The country offers visitors a variety of activities to choose from, but remains undervisited -- especially compared to its South American neighbors. (Lynne Sladky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Cuba

    Cuba blends the fantastic attractions associated with other Caribbean destinations with an amazing history. Tourists can stroll white sand beaches, take in the incredible architecture and party into the early-morning hours. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. St. Barthelemy

    St. Barthelemy is a vacation spot of stars and millionaires. Trendy, chic and sexy, St. Baarths is safe for tourists, but expensive to visit. About 8,700 people reside on the island. (Mark Mainz / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Puerto Rico

    A man climbs to a 40-foot waterfall at the south side of the Caribbean National Rain Forest, commonly called El Yunque, near Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Most visitors hike the well-marked paths in the northern half of the park's rain forest but the trails in the south allow hikers and nature lovers to explore the only tropical forest in the U.S. national forest system. (Herminio Rodriguez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Puerto Rico

    The cupola of San Juan Cemetary as well as colorful homes sit next to the ocean in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Puerto Rico

    Men play dominos in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a well-preserved colonial city that allows tourists a peek into the past. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Guadeloupe

    Guadeloupe isn't as developed as some other Caribbean islands, but it offers a variety of beaches -- some active with watersports, some secluded. The island also offers beach bars, restaurants, mid-range hotels and other tourist amenities. (Marcel Mochet / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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