By Arvin Steinberg
Whether you prefer an elegant hotel in the large capital city, or an all-inclusive hotel on a far away tropical beach, the Dominican Republic offers both and at very moderate prices.
I recently returned from a real adventure on the tropical island country of the Dominican Republic located in the eastern Caribbean.
Although I have traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean, I have never met as friendly a people as the Dominicans. Whether in my hotel or in a store or while riding in a taxi, the generally happy and friendly personalities of the Dominicans was always present.
I had no problem with the language since English is spoken in most places. And wherever you go you can hear the melodic sound and beat of the Meringue, their national music, which is an essential part of the Dominican lifestyle. The dance is not difficult to learn and many hotels teach introductory Meringue dance lessons to their guests.
I arrived in this island country at the capital city of Santo Domingo on the southern coast of the island. Since I was staying at the Hotel Occidental El Embajador (translated “Ambassador”), I arranged for a driver from the hotel to pick me up at the airport. The tropical beauty of this country was instantly apparent during the 45-minute drive to the hotel along the ocean with the waves pounding against the shore-lined rocks. Tall palm trees and lush green foliage seemed to be everywhere. The taxi driver had the popular Merengue sounds playing on his radio, getting me in the mood for this tropical adventure.
The Occident El Embajador Hotel is a grand hotel surrounded by lush tropical gardens. It is located in a residential area, yet is only five minutes from the commercial and financial districts of this city of more than a million inhabitants.
The hotel has 288 rooms with views of the garden, city and the Caribbean Sea. The top floors offer the Club El Embajador and Club Miguel Angel for guests who desire greater attention and privacy.
The lobby of the hotel is elegant with its crystal chandeliers and lots of marble. An excellent restaurant off the lobby serves traditional foods and also local favorites. I especially enjoyed the daily breakfast buffet that is included with the price of the room. The service is exceptional and the waiters even remembered that I liked decaffeinated expresso. There is also a fine gourmet restaurant with magnificent paintings also located off the lobby.
What amazed me was the dignity and calm of the hotel. While I noticed that some other hotels in Santo Domingo had flashing signs indicating that the hotel had a casino, the Hotel Occidental El Embajador not only had no signs, but the casino wasn’t even noticeable even though it was located adjacent to the lobby.
I worked out at the hotel’s fitness center each day. There are also tennis and basketball courts on the grounds not far from the large outdoor swimming pool. Rates begin at $ 63.96 per person, double occupancy.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has proclaimed Santo Domingo “the cultural heritage of the New World”. A 15-minute taxi ride from the hotel will take you to Santo Domingo’s colonial Zone of approximately 100 square blocks that make up the original walled city. It is a wonderful historic place to stroll and explore.
Here you may visit Alcazar de Colon (Columbus’ Palace), a 22-room stone residence where Christopher Columbus’ son, Don Deigo Colon and his wife, Dona Marie de Toledo, resided. This majestic home contains one of the Latin world’s most prized collections of furniture and household items from the period.
Not far away is the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor. Built in 1523, it is the first cathedral constructed in the Americas. Christopher Columbus was originally buried in the cathedral. But to honor Columbus and his remains, a monument, Faro a Colon (Columbus’ Lighthouse) was completed in 1992 on the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ first arrival in the New World. The remains of Columbus were brought over from the cathedral to the Lighthouse as a permanent resting place. The Lighthouse is situated across the river and outside the Colonial Zone, but it is worth visiting this 758-foot-long concrete edifice built in the shape of a cross. A plaza adjacent to the cathedral known as Parque Colon (Columbus Park) features a statue of Columbus built in 1887. There are always lots of people in this area including children running and enjoying themselves in Columbus Park.
Only a block away from the cathedral are the remains of the first hospital in the New World built in 1509. The hospital was destroyed by a hurricane in the 1880’s, but much of the remains still stand.
There are, or course, lots of other historic museums, churches, parks, monuments and theaters to explore in the Colonial Zone, and you could spend several days walking the old streets and not see all of its riches.
There are also lots of stores in the Colonial Zone. Tourists browse the jewelry stores in search of amber, since the Dominican Republic has the most sought after deposits of amber in the world. In fact, Christopher Columbus became so enamored with amber that he eventually placed more emphasis on discovering the precious stone than the gold and silver for which he originally came.
Across from Columbus Park and the cathedral is the Boutique del Fumidor, SA., a cigar store/factory, where you can watch cigars being rolled and then stored in a humidor under the right light, temperature and humidity conditions before they are sold. The quality of the best Dominican cigars has achieved a level of prestige on a par with the best in the world. Many Cuban cigar manufacturers now have operations based in the Dominican Republic. If you enjoy an occasional cigar, it’s fun to puff on one while exploring the Colonial Zone, or to buy a few of these quality Dominican cigars to take home as a gift for a friend.
There are many great restaurants in the Colonial Zone and several are in the Plaza Espana area (where Columbus’ Palace is located). I enjoyed a delightful late night snack of Tapas at Pat’e Palo European Brasserie. I ate outside where there was a full moon and a gentle breeze from the sea. Two strolling guitarists played beautiful Latin songs.
I would have been completely satisfied if I had spent my entire visit to the Dominican Republic in the capital city of Santo Domingo, but I heard and read so much about the palm fringed beaches of white sand the texture of silk at the all-inclusive hotels on the eastern coast of the island, that I felt I must travel there. Although there is an airport in Punta Cana near the seaside resort areas, I decided to travel by automobile.
The three-hour drive took me into areas of the countryside that have changed very little from the time Christopher Columbus first arrived on these shores. There are miles and miles of sugarcane fields on each side of the road as far as the eye can see. In this rich, fertile agricultural region, I came to some very poor rural villages and to some small towns. Of course, there was nothing that resembled life as we know it in the U.S. – not the stores, nor shopping malls, nor the kind of hotels to which we are accustomed. But when I reached the town of San Pedro de Macoris, I saw a place that has something in common with the U.S. – BASEBALL!
Baseball is the national sport of the Dominican Republic and the town of San Pedro de Macoris is the undisputed Caribbean cradle of baseball players who make it to the major leagues in the U.S. The list of baseball players who grew up playing baseball in the fields around this town and became superstars in the U.S. is awesome. Players such as Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Joaquin Andujar, Tony Pena, Hall of Famer, Juan Marichal, and Felipe Alou, just to name a few. Baseball historians have written that it was the American sugar mill and plantation owners who introduced baseball here and encouraged their workers to play. But however it began, many U.S. major league baseball teams maintain year-round training camps here in hopes of discovering the next teenager who will become a superstar.
As I approached the east-coast seaside resort area, I saw something very unusual, forests of tall, stately palm trees. I live in Florida and am accustomed to seeing palm trees, but here were forests consisting solely of palm trees. These forests were so beautiful, pristine, and tropical, they are difficult to describe. I’ve never seen anything like them.
I stayed at the Hotel Occidental Flamenco Bavaro, a magnificent new 4-Star resort in the center of the well-known beach “Playa Bavaro”. The beach itself is worth the visit. The unusually wide beach with its white soft silky sand touches the clear turquoise Caribbean water and is backed up by hundreds of tall palm trees.
The hotel consists of 877 spacious rooms with terraces. All of the rooms are within a two or three minute walk to the beach. For those who prefer a pool rather than the beach, there are three large lake-shaped pools. For those who prefer a restricted area with more personalized services, there is the Club Miguel Angel consisting of 51 rooms designed to be a small hotel inside the Flamenco Bavaro Resort.
This is an all-inclusive resort. This means that one price includes your room, all meals, unlimited alcoholic drinks, juices and soft drinks, and all day long snacks and appetizers. There are nine restaurants, seven bars, and a private restaurant and bar at Club Miguel Angel. The largest swimming pool has a swim-up bar.
Among the other amenities and services offered at Hotel Occidental Flamenco Bavaro are: the spa, Kids Fun Club with children’s activities, snorkeling, diving clinics, aerobics, volleyball in the pool, rifle and target shooting, fitness room, jogging track, tennis, windsurfing, kayaking, horseback riding, Merengue lessons, baby-sitting service, and golf at a nearby course.
After dinner each evening the hotel presented a highly entertaining live stage show featuring talented singers and dancers with a great Latin beat. In order not to bore any guests who are staying at the hotel for two weeks and seeing the same show twice, the hotel has 14 shows so a different show can be presented each night. Before and after each show, all guests are invited to dance to live music by the hotel’s “Occidental Fun Club Band”. I even had the opportunity of dancing the Meringue with one of the beautiful and talented dancers who appeared in the show that night.
If you like to party into the late night, there is a disco playing Latin and American music beginning at 11 P.M. and continuing non-stop until 3 A.M. The crowd at the disco keeps growing throughout the night.
Rates were surprisingly low from $91 per person per night. For more information about the hotel, call 1-800-858-2258.