Caribbean destinations can make your head spin. There are so any islands, so many pretty little towns, so many “white sand beaches,” it can just be hard to pick one destination over another. Almost any one of them can be extraordinary for its own reasons. Below I want to focus on a lovely corner of the Dominican Republic, however.

A few years ago, the Dominican Republic was named as an underrated Caribbean island by the online publication Thrillist, and since then its reputation seems to have improved significantly. That’s not to say it was ever obscure (or even close to it). But it’s certainly become trendy of late, and with good reason. Among the more specific destinations on the island, Punta Cana has become probably the most popular. Here’s a look at some of the places you may want to check out if you get the opportunity to visit.

La Yola

This is commonly regarded as one of the best restaurants on the island, and it happens to be ideally situated as a first stop in Punta Cana. Provided you’re able to fly into the International Airport Punta Cana, La Yola will be only a handful of miles away from where you touch down! You’ll be able to catch a conventional taxi from the airport (though keep in mind that all international visitors to the Dominican Republic need to purchase $10 “tourist cards,” which should be your first order of business at the airport).

The drive to La Yola should cost you less than $20 and take only 10-12 minutes. Once there, you’ll be able to enjoy an incredibly beautiful setting. The restaurant is built in a decidedly “island-y” fashion, with open air venues jutting out over the water and, in some cases, providing panoramic coastal views. The menu itself is primarily Mediterranean in terms of preparation, but it’s also based on the fresh local seafood, which must be sampled. An entrée will be about $25 here, but you can also sample a few appetizers in the $10-$15 range if you’re there for lunch.

Hoyo Azul

Hoyo Azul

 

Punta Cana is a fairly resort-driven area, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you won’t be experiencing the natural beauty of the island. Just a short distance south (and slightly inland) from Punta Cana is Hoyo Azul, one of the most incredible pieces of natural wonder on the island. Technically a sinkhole, it’s become a sort of crystal clear lagoon set into the middle of the surrounding wilderness.

You can reach Hoyo Azul easiest via the Hoyo Azul eco-tour, which costs about $70 for adults and $40 for children. It departs from Scape Park (within which Hoyo Azul resides), and is essentially an authentic hiking tour. Cameras and mobile phones are not allowed on the tour, which can be a little aggravating for some, but also enhances the purity of the excursion, in a way. And yes, you will be able to take a dip in the Hoyo Azul’s alluring waters!

Hard Rock Hotel

Hard Rock Hotel

 

If you get the opportunity, you might want to spend a night or two at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino – perhaps the most famous (and glamorous) resort in Punta Cana. Located just southeast of Playa Macao along route 105, it’s a hotel renowned for its luxuries and amenities. While it will certainly cost you (rooms can cost a little upwards of $300 a night), it’s not out of the range of most nicer Caribbean accommodations. And in this case, the price is rather justified.

An article online noted the Hard Rock as an ideal casino resort for a destination wedding, and did a nice job of listing some of the attractions: a casino packed with 40 tables and 450 slots, 13 swimming pools, nine restaurants, a golf course and a spa. In other words, while it is a casino resort, there are plenty of other things to do, and that’s to say nothing of the resort’s easy access to pristine beaches. Ultimately, a trip to Punta Cana should be about more than a single resort, but this one is a worthy stop for a night or two.

Isla Saona

Isla Saona

 

This is the last specific destination I’ll point out, and possibly the most important one for international tourists to know about. The mainland beaches of the Dominican Republic justifiably soak up a great deal of attention. But Isla Saona, an island off the coast of Punta Cana, beats them all for pure beauty and tranquility. It’s protected by the government such that it isn’t overly polluted or commercialized – just unspeakably beautiful.

You’ll probably be able to find information on getting to Isla Saona from whatever hotel you stay at. But generally speaking, boats depart from Bayahibe for daily excursions. You may head over on a catamaran (which is a great experience in and of itself) or on a smaller boat, and the whole excursion can cost only about $50-$60 – not cheap, but not at all bad for a full day’s worth of activity. You’ll mostly just want to relax on the island, though you will want to eat at some point. Local restaurants like Las Palmas and Playa Tao focus primarily on local seafood and barbecue preparations.

That about says it for specific highlights to seek out. It’s a fun-filled area that wonderfully combines natural beauty with tourist amenities. Just remember, as is often the case with Caribbean islands, some of the most fun you’ll have will be ducking into local establishments and getting to know the people.

The Dominican Republic has a fascinating cultural history that many say makes its people particularly unique. Writers as renowned as Junot Diaz have alluded to this aspect of the culture, with “Stay With Me” writer Sandra Rodriguez Barron perhaps putting it best speaking on a history of international trade, colonization, conquest, and slavery, she wrote, “the facelessness means that there is no ‘typical’ Dominican woman.” This can be viewed as a good thing resulting from a somewhat sad history – but use it as a suggestion to make sure you mingle with the locals, in addition to checking out the main attractions!

This is a guest post by Stacey Fraizer

 

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