Over the years, my vacation prep habits have changed. In the past, I allowed myself WEEKS to completely digest the expected adventuring: mode of travel, facilities and accommodations, spa offerings and availability, varied excursions, dining options, wardrobe (always extensive and complex!). I allowed myself to pack and repack…opting for the best change in clothing and footwear throughout each day. I may have even planned a few extra gym days to prepare for the glutinous eating that vacation tends to dictate. It always seemed like a detailed ritual and always built excitement to finally take-off on the adventure at hand!
But, recently, with children on-board, work schedules to balance, social agendas for all family members, I have found that the vacation prep time has dwindled. My weeks have become hours – at the extreme – and my packing and planning has been challenged. The excitement, however, remains! When I had the opportunity to say “YES!” to the invite to visit the Dominican Republic (thanks, hubby!) on a girl’s-getaway, my heart leapt. Ever since I was a young girl traveling to Club Med destinations with my family, I had asked to visit Punta Cana. Why? Not sure…but, what appealed to me, then, had my attention whole-heartedly and got my heart racing for an adventure years in the making.
My business partner in Journey Beyond Aspen and I were on our way to the island to visit the historic city of Santo Domingo and enjoy the beach paradise of Las Terrenas, located on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. We had almost touched down in Punta Cana when we realized that neither one of us had done ANY research on our destination except that we were headed to two vastly different areas of the country and staying in beautiful accommodations managed by Prohotel International Inc. Beyond that knowledge, we were clueless.
The taxi ride was a long one; we had originally planned on flying into Santo Domingo, but our late booking didn’t allow for it. Hotel Casas del XVI had arranged for transportation from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo (approximately 2.5 hours). We were so thankful to have a representative awaiting our arrival; we dragged our bags through a sea of vacationers and, with broken Spanish, got to our vehicle and thanked our driver for the cool, air-conditioned atmosphere and peaceful space. And, we were off!
Fortunately, Risa speaks enough Spanish to “get by” and travel respectfully. On our drive to the property, we were able to ask a few questions about the development and vitality of Punta Cana, the change in landscape once out of the hotel district and what we might expect in Santo Domingo (people, food, history). The language barrier was a bit more than we had expected…but, also appreciated. We couldn’t understand our driver speaking Dominican Spanish (a language with African influences); why should he be expected to know English? Despite our limited Spanish, we were able to grab dos cervezas and snacks for the ride.
After a fairly sparse drive, we arrived at the border of Santo Domingo. The azure sea has been approaching on our left; the historical city covers a landscape on our right. Santo Domingo was founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher Columbus, as the capital of the first Spanish colony in the New World…and is the oldest European settlement in the Americas. Santo Domingo is the industrial, commercial, and financial centre of the country. Its industrial development has been greatly influenced by the construction of hydroelectric dams, which furnish its industries with inexpensive electrical power. – www.britannica.com
The city has been a shipping port for years and traces of watch towers and security walls can still be seen. Santo Domingo is the chief seaport of the Dominican Republic. Its harbour, at the mouth of the Ozama River, was greatly improved in the 1930s to accommodate the largest vessels, and the port handles both heavy passenger and freight traffic. – www.britannica.com
It becomes more apparent that we’ve reached somewhere special after turning into the Colonial zone: Ciudad Colonial is the historic central neighborhood of Santo Domingo. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is also known as Zona Colonial or more colloquially as “La Zona”. – wikipedia.com
White-washed buildings line the central district’s brick-layered streets; these historical, many newly renovated, homes marry the old and the new in delicate and thoughtful design elements: stonework, brick columns and archways, accompanying sunken curbs. Flowering plants push their way thru tight crevices and corridors that speak of hundreds of years gone by. It’s breathtaking!
We pull up to an unassuming, single story whitewashed corner: home to Casas del XVI. Dark heavy wood doors and wrought-iron window coverings contrast with the bright exterior walls. It’s like entering a secret garden in a weathered, yet romantic city of old. The heat has started to permeate our brains; upon a brisk welcome, we leave the outside buzz quiet, and enter the inside serenity of Casas which is bursting with color and coolness! We are warmly greeted by the staff and introduced to our personal butler. Without completely understanding the layout of the 6 houses that make up the whole of the hotel, we enter into the dining room of our Santo Domingo home…Casa del Diseñador. It’s a tribute to the great fashion designers of this beautiful Caribbean island (namely, Oscar de la Renta). Upon opening its doors you are transported to the 16th century, where elegance, comfort and privacy converge. This casa houses 2 bedrooms with accompanying baths (quite sizable for a historic abode), a living room/library and an outdoor patio complete with a lounge area, a perfect breakfast spot and a small dipping pool. Outstanding.
Our concierge offered suggestions on external dining options and popular shopping areas; we were given a detailed map of the Colonial district which is designated as the safest place to explore…and offers the most historical representation of Santo Domingo, as a whole. We are also given a cell phone to specifically connect with our butler for any reason. He is available to walk us around town, take suggestions for dinner at the Casas, anything. It feels reassuring that our safety and care is of the utmost importance.
There is simply nothing like a stroll through the Colonial City! In the midst of fast-paced, 21st century Santo Domingo, you will find that the Colonial City moves at its own pace. It is a very walkable grid of 16 short streets with jewels of 16th to early 20th century architecture. Cobblestone lanes and iron street lamps lead to the many small museums, shops, restaurants and bars that are tucked away on every street. You can walk thru the oldest cathedral in the Americas and experience some antique shopping by day, then enjoy the local and contemporary nightlife, with fine food and drink, as well as exciting entertainment.
So as the afternoon brings a different, more romantic flair, we decide to head out on the town in search of a little culture and fantastic food…and, perhaps a splash of wine. Sauntering down the cobblestone streets, we see locals crafting the art of relaxation; the community notably lacks tourists, perhaps due to the peaceful setting following the Holy Week craze. Holy Week is very felt throughout the country. Streets of the city are packed with parties, where the Dominican citizens gather to eat and drink together.
We also notice the abundance of wild animals, mostly dogs, that roam both the exterior and interior of the city. The poverty that lies just outside of the Colonial district consumes the animals as well. They quietly wander the streets looking for some food and shade. For the most part, they are quiet and peaceful. We had a little guy start to follow us into the courtyard of a church and stopped to enjoy some water that had pooled between some road bricks. We left him with a little extra water and a few love pats. Both of us wish we could have taken them all home with us. But, they’re part of the story of Santo Domingo and add to the special touch that you experience while there.
After some local shopping and food sampling (fabulous linen attire, tasty meat/cheese/wine locale called Lulus, jewelry stores filled with the local stone, Larimar), we made our way back to our casa. It’s 7:45pm and we are completely wiped out. We inquire about a small snack versus an extensive dinner and a few delicacies are delivered, immediately. And, then, we collapse. As the city slows down, we follow.
In the morning, we wake for breakfast. A typical Dominican option is suggested: fried eggs, fried salami, fried/mashed plantain. We chose to sample the heavier breakfast and pair it with a warmed coconut quinoa bowl with dried fruit. And, delicious coffee. Perfection. This is the start of a GIANT day. We are scheduled to tour the city with one of Casas del XVI’s tour representatives…a local by the name of Rudy who knows the history of the DR like the back of his hand. With tummies full, we venture out for HOURS and learn about the past and the present, the seasonality*, the current revitalization of the Colonial Center and the people that make the DR so very unique.
*Note: Off-season has set-in for Santo Domingo (post-Easter thru October) and we feel so very fortunate to be a part of the local vibe. The temps through the summer are extreme; the heat is coupled with the occurrence of hurricanes making the island challenging for most tourists.
After the heat starts to hit, again, we venture home to Casas for a late lunch and a rest. We are welcomed with a beautiful shrimp appetizer and a decadent lobster risotto and a sweet glass of white wine…and some lovely air condition. Following lunch, we are treated to a tour of the five other Casas homes and the newest project for the development group: HOTEL DEL XVI, a perfectly positioned, stand-alone, traditional hotel that will house room for significant entertaining, a spa and a sizable interior courtyard…transforming a former residence into a majestic piece of, livable, art. It will be an expansion of what Casas has come to embody in service and style, but on a larger scale.
Patricia Reid is the MASTER behind the interior design and artwork; she creates large-scale collages out of fine, detailed pieces of colorful papers and printed images. It’s absolutely incredible. The interiors are each completely unique and dance with color. The magic that is Casas del XVI is really attributed to Reid’s touch. As a close friend of the former fashion designer, Oscar de la Renta, she brings a sophisticated touch to island flare and makes it work, beautifully. The Colonial zone is certainly seeing a renewal as money is starting to pour in to fund projects such as Casas del XVI, more today than years past. It will be fantastic to follow the development of the city center and see more local artists thrive in their home.
For our last evening at Casas, we embark on a special gastronomic experience. Gastronomic events at Casas del XVI are usually exclusive to hotel guests, but for special occasions throughout the year external visitors may come and enjoy flawless themed gastronomic experiences in an elegant and intimate atmosphere. We meet the chef and his team at the Casa de los Mapas. Located on the grounds of the former Dominican Monastery, successive uses and restorations have transformed this house, surpassing its original state. Vintage maps, plantation-style furniture and richly patterned floor tiles create a colonial-tropical ambience. And, this home serves as the backdrop for our “dinner show”: a private cooking class with Chef Jose Miguel. We prepare a tomato bruschetta, create a tower of a tomato stack (featuring soft cheese and mango), toss and cook garlic shrimp, fry plantain and crab nuggets and delight in sampling chocolate cake and ice cream.
Too much fun (i.e. too much wine) force the newly minted “chefs” to bed a bit too early. But, it’s necessary as our plans to wake, early, for another beautiful Dominican day are set in stone and include a lengthy trek to the northern region of the island: the beach community of Las Terrenas. We sleep soundly and dream of pairing the warm air with the blue Caribbean waters. We’ve experienced more than we had anticipated in Santo Domingo; we were stunned by the beauty of the Colonial zone and the warmth of the people. We valued each story told, each piece of art presented and every morsel devoured. Santo Domingo – you beautiful beast – we’ll return!
Hospitality by Casas del XVI
ADDITIONAL NOTES: Prohotel is a three-dimensional hospitality company that conceptualizes, develops, and markets hotels across the globe. With headquarters in Houston and a global network of industry experts, Prohotel has achieved a strong international presence with a portfolio of premium properties that are now ultimately unique and highly in demand.