Updated on July 30th, 2020
If you thought the Dominican Republic was just about big resort hotels & white sandy beaches, then think again. Here, I share my experiences from a month on the island. The post includes a budget fitness retreat, Spanish language school, a resort without the price tag & a small independent hotel. There is so much more to be explored on this diverse Caribbean island”
Punta Cana, Las Terranas, Cabarete & Santo Domingo in The Dominican Republic
I had generally held the belief that the Dominican Republic was really all about resorts & package holidays from the UK, which isn’t really my style. However, when I was researching where to start my 5-month Caribbean adventure the country really stood out. I read about it being a mini Cuba which was really all I needed to hear. The good thing about the package holiday destination is that flights are a lot cheaper & in terms of what to do for the month while I was there, I went with my gut instinct…there is always another way! It turns out there are plenty, here’s 4 I tried!
What do you need to know?
I chose to fly in & out of Punta Cana. This is the resort centre of the Dominican Republic & if that’s what you are looking for then this is the place for you. For my first 2 nights, I remained here at an independent hotel (Villas Paseo del Sol in Bavaro Beach), then I hired a car (not recommended – see my comments below) & headed for Las Terrenas.
1. The Independent Hotel – El Rincon del Abi, Las Terrenas
I liked the sound of Las Terrenas which is by the beach with a laid-back vibe. It’s also in the province of Samana which is beautiful, with lots of places to see & things to do. I chose the hotel as it sounded great in my Lonely Planet & is run by a lovely French couple who spend 6 months in the offseason redesigning the pop art décor every year. My language was particularly confused during my stay, a kind of English, Spanish & French mashup (I would say hybrid but I think that’s being too complimentary to my skills!).
Las Terrenas turned out to be a great base. I would recommend renting transport (a scooter or ATV) if you plan to stay local. However if, like me, you wanted to go a little further afield in Samana, then get a car. The hotel is about 50m down an untarred track from the beach road & an easy walk into the main town of Las Terrenas. The beach is just at the end of the street. However, if you have transport there are some much prettier ones not too far away.
2. Whale Watching
I spent one day with the car & went whale watching, booked through Whale Samana. Basically, the whales from the whole of North America come to this area once a year (Jan-March). Once here they either mate or give birth, which means you’re pretty much guaranteed to see something. The company actually offers you a return trip if you are unsuccessful when you visit.
We were lucky enough to see a few independent males travelling to find a mate. We ended up following a group of 3 as 2 males vied for the female’s attention. All hosts on board are well qualified naturalists & this makes the tour so informative & entertaining. We were lucky to see the whales but unfortunately none of them decided to show us their tail flick. I headed back satisfied but a little disappointed with natures performance!”
After whale watching, I took a 50-minute detour to see the “most beautiful beach in the Dominican Republic”, Playa Rincon. It was a fairly fraught journey & Playa Rincon is undoubtedly beautiful, but I would struggle to recommend driving in the Dominican Republic to anyone, let alone another woman travelling solo. Negotiating potholes, huge unmarked speedbumps & no signs giving directions meant it wasn’t the pleasant & relaxing drive I’d hoped for. I was very pleased to be back in Las Terrenas when I returned.
I also took the car to a couple of beautiful local beaches recommended by the hotel – Playa Cason & Playa Bonita. Again, well worth the effort as you find yourself (almost) alone on some beautiful palm-fringed Caribbean beaches.
The town of Las Terrenas has plenty of bars & restaurants
Where I ate & drank
Paco Cabana – so good I went back 2 nights – particularly recommend the Fish in ‘Samana’ sauce
- XO – again 2 visits because the Tuna Tataki was so good!
- One Love – nice place for early drinks in Happy Hour
The hotel is not luxury & not a resort. It is basic accommodation but right on the beach & I ended up Spanish enjoying the week. The days started with an 8am smoothie, then a workout at 9am & 5pm (proper breakfast well-earned after the morning workout) & yoga at 6pm. After that as soon as we could get to our dinner was never soon enough! My favourite consisted of fish & vegetables, eaten quickly & with relish!
After the first day I could barely move. By the second I was relying on gravity to get me out of bed in the morning. I fell from the edge of the bed hoping my legs would work again. By day 3, I was amazed by how much my body could take. I felt stronger, lighter, fitter & better already!”
Each workout was different & many included bodyweight exercises which were exactly what I was looking for. I took photos of all the workouts & now have a library of over 10 that I can dip into on the road (with Facebook support from Jeremy, the lovely trainer if I can’t remember what the activities are).
What else can you do?
There are lots of extras you can also do. My partner in crime, Robin from Canada was on the same programme & somehow we got each other through it with a lot of encouragement & a huge dose of sarcasm! He also did a run every morning (pre smoothie) & kite surfing during the day (he really was a machine that week!). The hotel is on Kite Beach in Cabarete, named for the very reason that it is the perfect spot for learning, practising & perfecting your kite surfing.
One afternoon we also got the opportunity to take a tour of the farm which is owned by the hotel & go on the river float. The tour was fascinating. We heard about the recycling techniques, use of a hatchery & the fish water to give the plants all the nutrients they need & chickens to clean & fertilize the soil after harvest. 45% of everything we ate on the programme was produced here which is an impressive proportion of organic, healthy meals. We then went on the river float – on big tyres down the river which was great fun, followed by a huge meal of everything the farm had to offer (& we didn’t hold back, at least we knew where it had all come from!).
In addition, there is a circus skills school at the hotel & on my last day, just when I thought my body couldn’t take any more, I decided to try trapeze!”
- By this time, I had become part of the community at the hotel & it was great to have support from friends I’d made cheering me on with my varyingly successful attempts at getting my legs over the bar & then the ultimate “catch”. The instructors were brilliant, so much so that I would have been happy to just take the first step & swing but on my last attempt after 2 hours, I actually managed the elusive “Catch”. It was exhilarating & a great way to end a fantastic week.
Overall by the time I left the Extreme hotel, I was sad to go. I made some good friends here, felt exhausted but exhilarated & for the week had really felt like part of the community. If you are looking for somewhere a little bit different to get fit & on a budget, I thoroughly enjoyed my time here.
3. The Language School – IIC in Santo Domingo
When I got to Santo Domingo I had booked into a week-long Spanish Course (through Apple Languages) to improve, practice my grasp of the language & help me with my travels through Latin America. I was staying in an apartment on my own in the university district of the city. It was just around the corner from the school which was very convenient.
After completing a short test beforehand, I was placed in the ‘Intermediate’ group with 6 other students from Nigeria, USA, Germany & Switzerland.
The school was really friendly & we were encouraged to speak Spanish for the whole time we were there. This helped me improve my understanding & speaking no end (or at least get more practice!).”
In the afternoons, I then went around the corner for 2 hours of salsa, merengue & bachata classes (I had also booked ahead as part of my package) which was pretty much a private lesson & good fun too.
What to consider
I found the group classes less intense than the 1:1 I had experienced in Cuba before. I also felt that between this method of learning, living alone & only having a week it meant that my Spanish was more practice than progress, but these were all my choices. Many of my fellow students lived with families or took 1:1 lessons as well which I think would all help to enhance the experience & move forward with your language skills. You can read more about my experiences in Santo Domingo (& Cuba) in my post 2 Great Places to Learn Spanish in the Caribbean.I ate most of the time in my apartment but did make it out 1 night & would recommend Adrian Tropical.
4. The Resort… but without the Price Tag with Airbnb
For my final week in the Dominican Republic I felt I needed to head back to the beach again & for completeness I even thought of going the whole hog & trying out an all-inclusive resort.”
I decided on Punta Cana but just couldn’t bring myself to fully indulge in the end. The options were expensive until I searched Airbnb & discovered a beautiful apartment, in the AlSol Luxury Village in Cap Cana for a fraction of the price. I booked!
I was staying at Cap Cana Fishing Lodge in a huge apartment with a kitchen, 2 balconies, overlooking the independent pools & the opportunity to use all the facilities. Perfect! I spent an extra US$10 to use the gym every day I was there, whiled away most days reading & enjoying some pool time & evenings at various very good & very friendly restaurants around the complex.
Being in a resort I did find a little isolating, but this also means they offer a free shuttle service to the local town & beaches if you wanted to take up the offer. There were (just) enough places for me to eat to make it worth me not leaving the complex. Sometimes that’s just what we all need!
Where I ate
Bohemian Tapas & Wine Bar – Delicious tapas & lovely wine
Breakers Café – Tasty sandwiches
La Taberna de Charlo – Excellent breakfast & dinner options with a roof terrace.
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