The un-tarnished coastal beauty of Las Terrenas

All my life, it seems, I’ve been blind to my true identity as a ’50s-era Hollywood starlet shooting on location in a foreign land. What other explanation is there for the suite I’ve just entered, with its impossibly high ceilings and thick wooden shutters to throw open and greet the day? How else to account for the soft jazz that fills the room, the 24-hour on-call butler service, the way my skirt twirls in the courtyard breeze, the feel of my bare feet against the mosaic tile floor? For the glass of mango puree I’m holding, the tree outside my bedroom that grew the very fruit, the exotic birds perched there, chirping?

I’m in the heart of the Dominican Republic’s capital city, Santo Domingo, at Casas del XVI, a boutique luxury hotel that couldn’t feel less like a hotel if it tried—rather, it consists of five lovingly restored houses tucked away in the historic district of Ciudad Colonial, including one rented for years by Oscar de la Renta, a native son. Each is named for a defining characteristic—mine, Casa del Árbol, for that mango tree—and is impeccably adorned, no detail overlooked.

An hour ago, I landed at the Santo Domingo airport, only to be whisked away by a uniformed guide who spoke little English. I followed him past throngs of weary travelers, to some secret vestibule where a customs agent scanned my fingerprints, stamped my passport, and welcomed me to the country before I could even say gracias. I sat in an adjacent private lounge, sipping a syrupy-sweet strawberry soda, while my guide fetched my belongings from baggage claim. Who am I? I thought, just as he returned and ushered me onto an air-conditioned minibus idling outside. Just like that, we were off.

This is the “VIP” service Casas offers its guests, one that I especially appreciated after flying through Miami, where thunderstorms trapped my taxiing plane for more than an hour, delaying my flight to Santo Domingo and reducing my first day in the country to a late dinner on the terrace.

But what a meal it turns out to be. The three courses include pea soup with crunchy bits of jamón Ibérico, local mahi mahi in a decadent cream sauce, and crème brûlée with fresh berries, perfectly paired with a glass of Spanish white wine. Finally I retreat to my room, and—starlet that I apparently am—spend the rest of the evening luxuriating in a massive soaking tub.

A bustling marketplace today, Santo Domingo’s Calle el Conde was one of the first streets built by Europeans in North America.

Jesús arrives the next morning, my guide for today’s excursion through the Colonial City. Founded along the bank of the Ozama River in 1498 by Christopher Columbus’s younger brother, Bartholomew, this was the first permanent European settlement in North America. Today it fairly bursts with romance and charm. If not for modern trappings like wi-fi and gas stations, you’d be hard-pressed to know which century it is.

I marvel at the 52-foot vaulted ceilings inside the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the gothic masterpiece commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1504 that once housed Columbus’s remains. With reverence, I take in the National Pantheon, a former Jesuit church that’s now a mausoleum for Dominican heroes. I traverse the cobblestones of Calle Las Damas and Calle El Conde; I follow ancient footsteps to the homes of names I remember from textbooks: Columbus, Cortés, de Ovando. When it rains, I seek shelter beneath Puerta del Conde, where, in 1844, the first Dominican flag was raised to claim the country’s independence from Spain, a hard-fought battle after centuries of colonial occupation.

In the back room of a gift shop, men polish hunks of rock till they turn a vibrant shade of light-blue. Larimar—the national stone, named for the daughter of the man who discovered it, Larissa, and the Spanish word for sea—is rare, found only in the D.R., and said to bring love to those who wear it.

Hand-rolling cigars in a Santo Domingo shop

Image: Abby Ledoux

I sip Mama Juana, a super-saccharine sort of sangria made from soaking rum, red wine, and honey in a glass bottle with herbs and bark. I smoke a chocolate-flavored cigar, hand-rolled in front of me with a circular blade called a chaveta. It was Columbus, by the way, who supposedly introduced tobacco to Europe.

Jesús speaks lovingly and knowledgeably of his island and its proudest exports—cigars, cacao, and baseball players. He recounts its history, how the peaceful indigenous Taíno of Hispaniola were decimated by the Spanish colonists. Dominicans, Jesús says, descend from Taínos, Europeans, and Haitians.

“That’s us,” he says, pointing to dolls in the gift shop. They carry flowers or parasols and wear brightly colored gowns, their hair braided or tucked beneath bonnets. Their skin tones range from creamy cappuccino to dark chocolate. “We’re mixed,” Jesús says. The dolls, their multiple identities melding together, have no faces.

Later that day, on the walk back from dinner at a tapas bar, I stop at Duarte Park, which is swelling with people. There’s no band for a concert, no bar or club they’re lining up to get into, no food they’re sharing for some special celebration. No playground, fireworks, or show to be had. This is just a Friday night in Santo Domingo. The realization stops me in my tracks. I try and fail to imagine this ever happening back home—people from all walks of life, with no technology to hide behind, gathered in a park, just because. They’re strangers, I think to myself. Then again, I guess they’re not strangers anymore.

A building in Ciudad Colonial

Image: Abby Ledoux

The next day, after a two-hour drive through the verdant countryside, I land at my next destination: Las Terrenas, the coastal resort town on the northeast peninsula of the country. I sip a tart passionfruit through a straw and take in my new digs, Sublime Samana, a tranquil resort nestled between coconut palms and the lapping waves of the Atlantic. This, I guess, is where the ’50s starlet might end up after a Hollywood scandal and a stint in rehab.

Modern, spacious accommodations look out on a seemingly endless pool dotted with canopied cabanas and a stone walkway that leads to a beachfront restaurant and, of course, the ocean. Another path leads to Coconut Whispers Spa, where I indulge in an exfoliating scrub, massage, and coconut milk bath.

Later I catch a ride into town to view the sunset, a magnificent display of pink and orange against the glittering water and the dark shadows of sloping palms. Locals dot the shoreline, emerging from an evening swim or else just watching the show.

This may be a beach town, but it’s no Punta Cana, four hours southeast, where spring-breakers guzzle daiquiris and college friends hold destination weddings at the Hard Rock Cafe. Punta Cana has white sand and turquoise water—it’s the stuff of preloaded desktop backgrounds—and as soon as tourists figured that out, it was game over. (In 1999 the American Society of Travel Agents named it the year’s “top emerging international destination.”) I learn from Sublime’s GM that while Dominican beaches are considered public, access to said beaches is not, a loophole that’s allowed big-name, all-inclusive resorts to snatch up property. Now Dominicans in Punta Cana who want to enjoy their own ocean but can’t afford to stay at, say, Excellence el Carmen, are just out of luck.

Las Terrenas, meanwhile, is more remote and less developed, and therefore has retained its local flavor—one that’s surprisingly French-influenced, thanks to the sizable community of expats who live here. After passionfruit mojitos in town at beachfront Mosquito Bar, we traverse the narrow streets, which are lined with storefronts and tightly packed with teenagers intent on testing God with death-defying ATV stunts, only to find our dinner destination closed for the low season. We end up next door at an Italian spot where there’s fresh seafood pasta and the Astros game on TV. I realize I’m not so far from home after all.

The sunset on a Saturday evening in Las Terrenas, no filter required

Image: Abby Ledoux

I’m up early on my last full day in paradise, en route to Rancho Playa, an equestrian center owned by a Swiss expat, who drives me there from the hotel. On the way, a Dominican police officer approaches her car. She hands him money, and then we’re moving again. “This is corruption,” she says. “It is easier to just give them something.”

At the ranch, I saddle up on Gringo, my aptly named white horse, and we head for the beach, following a well-trodden path through the lush forest, past trees of plantains, mangos, cacao, coconuts, and coffee. Gringo wants to eat them all. This turns out to be the horse’s defining characteristic, as at least a third of my journey is spent tugging the reins to steer him away from the branches and vines lining the road.

I indulge Gringo halfway through the ride, letting him slurp from the river we’re crossing. We ride along white-sand beaches, waves lapping at his hooves, with miles and miles of unsullied views in every direction. Local fishermen, assessing their morning catch, nod as we pass. Salsa blares from nearby dwellings, the soundtrack for our ride back to the ranch. It’s Sunday, my guide explains, a day for revelry.

Back at Sublime, already sunburnt, I head for the beach, where I claim my lounge chair for the day. It’s quiet—all the locals have headed home, back to their lives and their jobs, just as I will do tomorrow morning.

Leaving this paradise will feel wrong—as if I learned the secret to happiness only to reject it. I fantasize about how different my life would be here should I miss the plane. I’d live simply, forgo my material possessions, wear light linen dresses, and take all my meals on the beach. My rusty high school Spanish would come back with perfect fluency. I’d swim in the ocean and ride a horse named Gringo into town, just for the bare necessities. I’d drink Mama Juana and salsa-dance on Sundays. I’d eat fresh fruit every morning and sleep soundly every night. I’d drink more water. I’d get more sun.

Alas, everything has an end. Production wraps; the starlet finds her way back to the hills. But right now, I’m still on vacation. And as I sip a piña colada steps away from the clear blue ocean, on an empty beach, I truly understand where this hotel’s name comes from.

The flag sunk in the sand today is green; yesterday’s was red, indicating danger. There was a shark scare, I heard, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Even so, nothing could stop me from getting in the water today. I paddle out until my toes just kiss the ocean floor and position myself for the incoming waves, which gain momentum and crash, white-capped, against the shore.

On my childhood beach trips, I called this wave-jumping, an easy way to exhaust myself and inevitably inhale some salt water. Both happen, again, and it’s just as good as I remembered.

Sublime Samana’s heavenly outdoor space includes poolside cabanas that lead to a private beach.

Traveler's Tips

Getting There

You won’t find direct flights to Santo Domingo, but most major airlines offer flights out of IAH with one connection for around $700, depending on when you go. We took American, which stops in Miami.

Both hotels where we stayed offer shuttle services to and from Santo Domingo Airport.

The casitas at Casas del XVI, each unique, burst with old world charm.

Where to Stay

Santo Domingo: Casas del XVI, rooms from $285

Las Terrenas: Sublime Samana, rooms from $205

Where to Eat & Drink

  • Santo Domingo: Lulú Tasting Bar. Dine al fresco in Parque Billini, and try the empanaditas de chivo criollo (mini goat empanadas) and the giant, crispy, parmesan-encrusted pork dumpling.
  • Las Terrenas: El Mosquito Beach Bar (+1-809-877-2844). Sip the best passionfruit mojito of your life steps from the ocean at this dreamy open-air bar festooned with twinkling fairy lights, opened by a group of girlfriends who wanted a place to socialize.

What to Do

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