Wooden pier to Saona island
You can almost hear the squeaking planks. | ©Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images
You can almost hear the squeaking planks. | ©Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

This Caribbean Destination Has Colonial Towns and the Tallest Island Mountain

Rewards beyond the resorts.

Don’t be fooled by anyone making the “stick to your resort” claim when it comes to this Caribbean gem. Sure, you can opt to solely load up on calm turquoise waters, soft white sand, and gallons of mamajuana (a Dominican staple of rum, red wine, honey, and spices) at your all-inclusive hotel in Punta Cana. There is certainly a well-deserved time and place for that.

But if you have a travel itch that needs to be scratched, the Dominican Republic offers the highest mountain peak in the Caribbean, a world-class kite-surfing utopia, and a capital city with a colonial zone that boasts 500-plus years of history. The glue to each endeavor is the unbeatable kindness of the Dominican people.

It's never been easier to explore the Dominican Republic than now. A brand-new highway connecting the Dominican Republic’s second largest city, Santiago, and the northern port of Puerto Plata opened late last year. And, as easy as it can be to rent a car and plot your own journey through windy, mountainous roads, it’s growingly easier to find a friendly guide to make DR journeys seamless, too.

With visits to coffee farms, whale watching excursions, and hiking or gondola rides to the tops of mountains, the Dominican Republic is a world of adventure—one whose finest qualities are too often shoved to the back burner amid a stationary resort stay. Here are some of the best escapades for those who truly want to experience the Dominican Republic.

Person looking at a river next to a tent
Just a few more hills to go… | GoDominicanRepublic

Hike the Caribbean’s tallest peak

Towering at 10,164 feet and situated in the central and vast Armando Bermúdez National Park, you’ll find the highest peak in the entire Caribbean, Pico Duarte. Let’s reiterate here: The park is massive—296 square miles(!) to be exact—and has many entrances in many towns. Head to the town of Manaboa, approximately 35 minutes west of Jarabacoa, where you’ll find a park entrance with the most seamless route, known as La Ciénaga.

The journey to the top of Pico Duarte is nearly 15 miles (25 kilometers) so, at a minimum, plan on the hike lasting two full days, including an overnight camp. Contrary to the landscape here, it is not “a walk in the park,” and count on a solid sweat during your trek. For extra help, the park office offers guides and even trusty mules to help lug your gear.

Ciudad Colonial hotel on street in Santo Domingo
At least conquistadors left some nice buildings… | GoDominicanRepublic

Walk through centuries of preserved history in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial

The Santo Domingo metropolitan area is as bustling as a capital city gets, with a waterfront boulevard (Malecón) full of parks and walking/biking paths or its Piantini neighborhood lined with skyscrapers and luxury shopping. To experience the capital’s most unique side, head to Zona Colonial, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates to the late 1400s. Baroque-style buildings, stone walls, and pops of tropical color make up the neighborhood. Historical staples include the first cathedral and castle in the Americas (Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor and Alcázar de Colón).

For as much historical elegance that the Zona packs, it knows how to let loose, too. Calle El Conde is a tourist-friendly, pedestrian-only street that includes cafés, souvenir shops, and small bars where locals down Presidente beers on the regular. For a craft cerveza, head to La Cacata, which regularly weaves in Dominican-grown crops—from mango to cacao—into its brews.

Coffee prepared in a chemex
Sweet, sweet grinds of caffeine. | Calcalí Coffee

Tour a coffee plantation and drink a lot of it, too

Fun fact: The Dominican Republic is the 35th largest coffee producing country in the world and it has six coffee growing regions. And while the staple Santo Domingo coffee is advertised everywhere, the country is experiencing a specialty coffee revolution. Leading the charge are a handful of small batch coffee roasters, cafés, and farmers throughout the country. To experience Dominican coffee at its finest, book a farm tour and/or cupping experience with the country’s specialty coffee king, Alfredo Diaz of Café Don Alfredo. He has farms as well as a roasting/tasting room near Jarabacoa in the heart of the country and, best of all, he’ll make you feel like family.

Lovers of pour overs (e.g. Chemex and V60-brewed coffee) and fancy lattes have limited options in the Dominican Republic. The spots that will pass any coffee aficionado’s litmus test include El Rincón Del Café in Puerto Plata, CalCalí Coffee Roasters in Santiago, and Casa Barista & Co. in Santo Domingo.

Teleferico in Puerto Plata over lush mountains
For those of us who’d rather not walk. | lemontune.com/Shutterstock

Hop on the Teléferico Puerto Plata for panoramic mountain and water vistas

From the center of the bustling Northern port town of Puerto Plata, you may see a tiny red dot making its way up a green mountain in the distance. It’s the Teléferico Puerto Plata, the Caribbean’s only fully-operational cable car system, which has been running since 1975. The ride takes about 10 minutes up the 2,600-plus foot mountain, where a botanical garden where nearly 600 types of plants, the restaurant, and Christ the Redeemer statue await. From the top, see how many Puerto Plata icons you can spot in the distance, including the Brugal Rum distillery, Ocean World Adventure Park, and Fortress of San Felipe.

Whale watching in the Bay of Samana
Canon-ball! | Judith Lienert/Shutterstock

Watch humpback whales breach in Samaná

If you find yourself in the DR between January and the end of March, head straight to Samaná Bay along the country’s western edge. This is the window to see hundreds upon hundreds of humpback whales hanging out in the heart of their migration season. During this timeframe, the bay is noticeably absent of vessels except for the occasional whale-watching craft. To see them frolic up close, book an excursion with Kim Beddall, a Canadian-born conservationist that has been in the biz for decades.

And even if you don’t catch the legendary beasts, Samaná Bay is a fantastic beach destination with humps of land spread across the ocean and connected by bridges, making for a gorgeous stroll.

Kitesurfing above water
Top speeds of… whatever the wind decides. | Angelita Niedziejko/Moment Open/Getty Images

Kitesurf and then eat some waffles in cozy Cabarete

The beach towns along the DR’s northern coast run the spectrum from Sosúa, with its raucous streets lined with bars, to Cabarete, with its blue, coral reef-clad waters. With kitesurfing signage sprinkled along Cabarete’s Camino Cinco main drag, you’ll quickly pick up that it’s the quintessential thing to do in this Bohemian town. The spot has been the sight of many global kitesurfing competitions through the years, so whether you’re a novice or pro, there are instructors and equipment for you. For a lesson, hit up Kite Club, Pro Kite Cabarete or Progress Kitesurf.

Post-beach, Vagamundo Coffee and Waffles has open-air quarters with live music and waffle-inspired spins on global dishes, such as a Graceland waffle topped with peanut butter, bacon, and maple syrup.

Chicken with plantains
Or chicken with plantains, too. | Adrian Tropical

Eat beef with plantains, fish with plantains, and everything with plantains

The Dominican Republic itself is a colorful hybrid of influences, spanning indigenous Taíno, Spanish, African, and more. Its cuisine is no exception. Adrian Tropical, on Avenida Abraham Lincoln in Santo Domingo, remains an unpretentious must for trying Dominican staples like mofongo and sancocho under one roof. For a more upscale take on Dominican fare in the capital, Don Pepe and Laurel are mainstays as well.

Beyond the capital, culinary experiences often match the vibe of their surroundings. For a panoramic mountain view like no other, head to Jamaca de Dios outside of Jarabacoa, whose carpaccio, croqueta, and paella offerings are as tantalizing as the vistas. In Puerto Plata, take in the town’s buzzing and historic town square (Parque Central Independencia) from the upscale Victorian house-gone-restaurant, Casita Azul. Order the eggplant dip—with plantains, cream, and onions—and prepare to book a trip back to Puerto Plata just to have it again.

Outside at the Hotel Gran Jimenoa
A babbling brook makes for a good lullaby. | Hotel Gran Jimenoa

Unwind at the DR’s finest hotels and resorts

If you are looking for the all-inclusive, carefree vibe, Punta Cana is your destination, with Iberostar Grand Bávaro and Eden Roc at Cap Cana catering to your every need. If you hit the latter, pack your golf clubs as there is a Jack Nicklaus golf course.

For a jumping off point for central DR adventures—spanning Pico Duarte treks to coffee experiences—book the Gran Jimenoa Hotel in Jarabacoa, situated next to a rushing river that you can watch flow from your room. The hotel has its own raised bridge up in the jungle canopy, so you can feel like you’re hanging out in an exclusive treehouse.

In Santo Domingo, the Casas del XVI is an intimate collection of houses-gone-hotels in the Zona Colonial. You can either opt for a single room or rent the entire house. Many of the houses have their own courtyard or private swimming pool, and are perfect for big groups. Some buildings were former convents, monasteries, or 16th century buildings that preserve their history with modern updates. The hotel offers experiences like clay workshops, gallery tours, and cigar classes.

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Jesse Scott is a contributor for Thrillist.