When we say Saona Island is like something out of a Bounty advert, we really do mean it. Those famously dreamy images of tropical paradise were filmed on this very island, just off the Dominican Republic's south-east coast. We love cruising to Isla Saona for our own taste of paradise, discovering pristine white shores and magical sea life from plump starfish to playful dolphins. Who needs chocolate when you have pure island heaven?
Vibrant and cosmopolitan, the capital is its cultural and economic heart. Filled with city buzz, architecture and museums, Santo Domingo combines the new world with the old. Here you will find horse-drawn carriages side-by-side with luxury cars, and modern office blocks next to 15th century churches. As well as the history of the Zona Colonial, you will find an array of restaurants, bars, shops, and parks.
The east coast is a daydream of sugar-white sands and tranquil blue waters, with Punta Cana and Bavaro showing off secluded sands exclusively for hotel guests, as well as gorgeous public beaches with a laidback holiday feel. The steady winds of Cabarete are perfect conditions for kite and wind surfing, with experienced instructors and equipment rental shops lining the shores otherwise known as Kite Beach.
Dominicans will use any excuse for a good party. Get into the spirit of things with a cuba libre servicio: a small bottle of rum, a coke, and a cup of ice; dance the merengue in the nightclubs along Santo Domingo's boardwalk and Avenida Venezuela, and in February, join the carnival in La Vega, where more than 100,000 people fill the streets with a riot of colour and costumes.
For the best views of the island, take the cable car to join the huge statue of Christ at the top of Mount Isabela de Torres, soaring 2,600 feet above sea level. Also worth a visit is the Cave of Wonders, a dazzling underground cavern located between the Soco and Cumayasa rivers. The craggy underground caves are peppered with stalactites, ancient drawings and engravings.
The waters of the Dominican Republic are a scuba diver's delight with coral reefs, shipwrecks, tropical fish and underwater gardens all waiting to be explored. Along the South Coast, the 600 mile wide, 600 feet deep La Caleta Underwater National Park comprises numerous reefs and shipwrecks as well as nearby underwater caves.
There are four main carriers we use offering flights to the Dominican Republic from the UK all of which fly into Punta Cana.
Direct Carriers: There is one direct carrier we use which is Thomson seasonally from both London Gatwick and Manchester
Indirect Carriers: British Airways offer a flight to the Dominican Republic with a touchdown in Antigua from London Gatwick however you will not have to change planes. American Airlines and Air France offer flights from both London Heathrow and Manchester. Air France will go via Paris and American Airlines via the states, you will have to change planes.
No special vaccines required but Hepatitis A, Polio and Typhoid recommended
The Dominican Republic is lucky enough to be warmed by tropical temperatures all year round, so bring cool, lightweight clothing. You will need your waterproofs for the two rainy seasons: May to August, and November to December. Coastal areas are warmer than central regions, so pack a jumper and jacket if you are heading into the mountains. If you're planning to scuba dive, don't forget your PADI credentials, and a medical certificate if you need one.
Cool, lightweight clothing in natural fabrics like cotton or linen;
A wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face;
High factor sunscreen;
Comfortable walking shoes or sandals for exploring;
Warmer clothing for visiting central areas;
An electrical adapter (the power supply in the Dominican Republic is 110 volts at 60 hertz);
PADI and medical certificates if you plan to scuba dive.
The official currency is the Dominican Peso. You can buy them in the UK but the import and export of local currency is limited to 20,000 Dominican Pesos in notes, and 100 Dominican Pesos in coins. This means you will probably need to buy local currency when you arrive. You should only do this at banks and official currency exchanges. At the end of your holiday, you can change back up to 30 percent of the Dominican Pesos bought (as long as you produce the original receipts), so it is best not to buy more than you are likely to need.
Major credit cards, such as American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa, are accepted at most tourist establishments, restaurants and shops. Credit card cloning and identity theft are unfortunately common, so it is safer to use cash. Traveller's cheques are easily exchanged and most cash machines accept international bank cards. If you plan to use your debit card in the Dominican Republic, it is best to inform your bank before you go.
Most hotels and restaurants add a 10 percent service charge to the bill, although you are still expected to tip an extra five to 10 percent if you are happy the service. Taxi drivers expect 10 percent of the total fare, and toilet attendants will appreciate 10 Dominican Pesos or more. In your hotel, tip porters around 40 Dominican Pesos per bag.
May, June, September and October
Tuck into the Dominican Republic's hearty cuisine to taste Spanish influences and local produce. Dishes have a Latin American-Caribbean flavour, with meat and carbs as the main ingredients. Fresh fish, rice, bulgar wheat, plantains and beans usually make an appearance, and island-grown tomatoes, mangoes, passion fruit and papaya are juicy options for your five-a-day. Many meat dishes are flavoured with sofrito, a wet rub of peppers, onions, garlic, oregano, vinegar, tomato, and cilantro. Whatever you choose from the menu, remember to order the local beer, Presidente.
This hearty, patriotic dish translates as ‘the flag’. A perfect example of Dominican home cooking, it is made up of meat, beans, white rice and fried plantains. Variations on the dish are endless; beans can be black, red, white or green; the rice can contain noodles or vegetables; the meat can be pork, chicken, beef or goat, and stewed, fried or roasted. Whatever the combination, you will find this dish everywhere.
Chicharrones de Pollo
Also known as pica-pollo, these are small pieces of chicken, seasoned with lemon juice, soy sauce and salt, and deep fried in a batter of flour, paprika, salt and pepper. The crisp, golden chicken pieces are usually eaten with tostones, twice-fried slices of plantain a bit like potato crisps.
Like a Dominican shepherds pie, this casserole dish is pure comfort food. It is usually made with yellow plantain (pastelon de platano maduro) or cassava (pastelon de yuca), which is mashed and layered lasagne-style with cheese and ground meat cooked with tomato, onion, peppers, and garlic.
From hot dogs and hamburgers to corn on the cob, you can get all the fast food classics on Dominican Republic holidays. But make sure you try the local goodies too. Street carts, stands, trikes, and tray-clutching vendors sell quick eats like plantain fritters, fried salami, and tostones, as well as sweet treats like candied coconut and dulce de leche. Be careful to only order street food from vendors whose food is clean, fresh, and cooked right in front of you.
The Dominican hamburger, every vendor has their own recipe for this meaty fast food dish. A chimichurri, or ‘chimi’ consists of a ground pork or beef patty, grilled and served in a pan de agua (water bread) bun, garnished with chopped cabbage and salsa rosa, a creamy pink sauce of mayonnaise, Tabasco and lemon juice.
Also known as pastelitos (little pies), this Spanish-influenced snack is a folded fried pastry stuffed with savoury fillings like cheese, beef, chicken or pork, and garnished with chopped olives, onions or egg. Empanadas made from cassava flour, called catibias, are also popular.
A popular beach snack, these crunchy, flaky, fried rounds are a simple mix of flour, baking soda, water, oil, and salt. Ranging from the size and shape of LPs to smaller, easier to handle discs, yaniqueques are usually eaten with salt and/or ketchup.
Costs on holidays in the Dominican Republic vary from five-star luxury to inexpensive street food and free days on the beach. On average, a meal for two in a mid-range restaurant might set you back 1,000 Dominican Pesos, with a bottled beer at 100 Dominican Pesos. To stay hydrated in the heat, a 1.5 litre bottle of water is around 30 Dominican Pesos.
Dressing smartly is important to Dominicans, especially for church, work and dinner. Men wear trousers and shirts like the traditional guayabera, with its vertical pleated details (known as alforzas) on either side of the buttons. Women wear long, Spanish-influenced dresses in bright oranges, yellows and reds on occasion, but most of the time you will see them in typical western-style summer clothes.
With its colonial history, the Dominican Republic's culture blends Spanish and African influences that show through in the food, religion, music, and fashion. Almost all Dominicans are Roman Catholic, although they also worship baseball, the national sport. The Dominican Republic is also famous for the sensual rhythms of merengue music and dance.
When it comes to etiquette, keep the following in mind:
• A handshake with friendly, direct eye contact is the usual form of greeting.
• Dominicans are quite open people, and may ask personal questions like ‘how old are you?’ or ‘how many children do you have?’ when you first meet.
• People tend to talk quickly, loudly and gesture with their hands a lot.
• It is normal to stand close to one another while talking. It can be seen as rude to back away from someone while they are speaking.
• Dominicans beckon one another by extending an arm and making a scratching motion with their fingers.
• Many people point by puckering their lips in the direction they are referring to.
• Beachwear and shorts are only acceptable by the pool or on the beach.
• You will be expected to dress smartly to visit restaurants, bars, and social functions.
The Dominican Republic's warm tropical climate, lush forests, delicate coral reefs and beautiful beaches attract more than just holidaymakers. Birds, both indigenous and migratory, include parrots, parakeets, hummingbirds, pelicans, flamingos, and hundreds more besides. Reptiles include the endangered rhinoceros iguana and the American crocodile, which can grow up to four metres long. Off the Dominican coast, hundreds of species of fish dart about the coral reefs; leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles swim gracefully, and the endangered West Indian manatee can sometimes be seen grazing on aquatic plants. Last but by no means least, the north coast is one of the world's principal breeding grounds for humpback whales.
Every year, thousands of humpback whales migrate from the North Atlantic to the waters off the Samana headland to breed. When the calves are born, they will drink 50 gallons of their mother’s milk a day, helping them grow big and strong to survive the journey back to the feeding grounds in the north. The whale watching season stretches from mid-January to mid-March.
A swim with these friendly, playful creatures is on many people’s once-in-a-lifetime wish list. Head to Punta Cana and sail out to Dolphin Island, a platform in the open ocean, to share the warm water with dolphins in their natural environment. You can also swim with sea lions, sting rays, and nurse sharks.