The nautical grapevine has not been kind to the Dominican Republic. Stories of theft and difficult officialdom have proved more enduring than fond memories. But recent anecdotal evidence cannot argue with five hundred years of history. Santo Domingo was where the New World started and where the Spanish Caribbean still has its soul.
The capital, Santo Domingo has a population of over two million and moves and breathes with the rhythm of a real Latin American metropolis. The city was founded by Bartholomew Columbus in 1496, four years after his brother Christopher had declared ‘ Hispaniola’ “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen”. The ‘Ciudad Colonial’ or Old City is a stunning walled quarter on the banks of the River Ozama. In a short walk, it is possible to visit the Ozama Fortress, the first in the Americas and stroll down the Calle de las Damas, the first street in the New World, where Conquistadores Cortes, Balboa and Ponce de Leon all once lived. On the Parque Colon, dominated by a statue of Columbus, is the Museo Alcazar de Colon, built between 1510 and 1514. This is where Columbus’s son, Diego, lived with his wife. His bed and books are still here, along with an impressive amount of colonial artifacts.
The Museo de las Casas Reales, on the Calle de las Damas is another jaw-dropping museum whose collection starts with the indigenous Taino Indians, through the Spanish, up to dictator Trujillo in the 1950s. Nearby is the Cathedral Basilica Santa Maria la Menor, which was— you guessed it—the first cathedral in the New World. The market, opposite that Parque Colon, is a bazaar in which to do battle. Paintings, cigars, rum… they’re all here.
Away from the city centre
A short taxi ride out of the Old City, on the Avenue Las Americas which leads towards the airport and the resort of Boca Chica, is Los Tres Ojos National Park. Here, visitors usually hook up with a guide and head down a flight of steps into a series of incredible natural limestone caves. The ‘three eyes’ are, in fact, four clear fresh water pools, one of them in a volcanic crater. Huge stalactites and stalagmites, giant ferns and creepers that tumble down from above into the emerald water below give this spot an enchanted feel.
Santo Domingo also boasts a number of parks, where you can get away from the choking traffic and relax. The Jardin Botanico can be reached by taxi. It feels bigger than many Caribbean islands; you could spend a day here wandering among the palms and tropical trees. For those who need their fix of brine in the air, the Malecon is a seafront promenade that runs along the length of the city. The city’s most recent highlight is the Faro o Colon, a lighthouse built in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival. It is the resting place of the explorer’s bones.
Two hours from the capital
The resort of Casa de Campo is itself an entry point for yachts, thanks to the Marina de Casa de Campo. The complex, which boasts one of the best golf courses in the Caribbean, is huge. The local gem is the Altos de Chavon, which looks like a 16th century Italian monastery on the top of a cliff, but was in fact built in 1976. Altos de Chavon is a compact, cobbled terra cotta village; home to a church, restaurants and cafes, as well as museum’s preserving the local heritage. In the evening, the village’s 5,000-seater amphitheatre often hosts open-air concerts. Sinatra, Santana, Sting – they’ve all played here.
Below the village, as in down the cliff face, is the Rio Chavon, which carves its way through a valley. If it looks familiar, it’s because scenes from Apocalypse Now were filmed here.
Where to dock:
Casa de Campo Marina
Tel:(809) 523 2111/2112, Fax:(809) 523 2065, VHF Channel 16, 68
350 slips with water, electricity, fuel, a 420 travel lift and a Port Authority office for clearing in.
Club Nautico de Santo Domingo
San Andres 6, Santo Domingo
Tel:(+1-809) 685-4940 , Fax:(+1-809) 549-6137
Actually situated in Boca Chica, a resort town near the capital that is popular at weekends with locals. Docking and boatyard, travelift.