The Caribbean island that's reinvented itself as a luxury paradise
It is the sneaked views through briefly open doors that I love in old Latin American cities, revealing a run of patterned tiles on a stairway, perhaps, or a family watching television, or best of all, a mysterious inner courtyard exploding with greenery. A three-day stay in Santo Domingo, the oldest city in the New World, was full of enticing moments like these.
The capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo is true to Latin form. It is lively, loud, demonstrative, full of flounce and macho swagger, a chaotic metropolis with insistent traffic. But within the old city walls, at the heart of Santo Domingo’s sprawl of glass-fronted skyscrapers, shanty towns, leafy villas and concrete tower blocks, lies the atmospheric colonial centre that is being restored and made more visitor friendly.
There are actually two sections within the walls: first the four or five original streets dating from the early 1500s, before the city was bypassed by explorers and settlers headed for Mexico and South America. Their monumental coral stone buildings, restored in the Eighties, look magnificent, if a little marooned, and in quiet moments you can almost imagine a conquistador coming around the corner.
Then come narrow streets of 19th-century façades, generally rendered white with terracotta tiles and brick trim, and “French”-style houses with overhanging balconies. These seven blocks are dotted with faded art deco buildings and pocked with modern concrete monstrosities.
Life can be intense in the heat and noise, so it was a relief to arrive at my accommodation, Casa Macoris. Suddenly I found myself inside one of the city’s elusive houses, with a cool vestibule and a tiny interior courtyard and plunge pool. All was instantly cool and calm.
Casa Macoris is one of five houses making up the hotel Casas del XVI. The name may recall the 16th century, but in fact the décor is mostly in keeping with the 19th, featuring antique and reproduction mahogany furniture, period prints, old ornaments and ecclesiastical pieces. The rooms are splashed with modern art and elegant frills, giving them a contemporary air.
I spoke to Patricia Reid, the interior designer. She is Dominican but, as her surname suggests, her grandfather came from Scotland.
“We keep what we can,” she said. “The brick columns and arches, and the high ceilings with their original beams, but then we give each house its own spirit and a distinctive style.”
With instructions from Casa Macoris’s concierge, I ventured out again. It is fun simply wandering here (if slightly embarrassing when caught trying to peer into someone’s home). The details say it all – ancient stone doorways and pillars exposed in the render, wrought-iron window grilles and sprays of purple bougainvillea. A snatched glance into a home revealed local Aguayo floor tiles and a run of baroque columns. Then, peering into another attractive-looking gateway, full of expectation, I found myself looking up the ramp into a car park.
It all feels very authentic for the visitor, though. Phase one of the restoration, which is coming to a close, cost $30 million (around £21.6 million) over four years. The biggest change is the removal of the aerial spaghetti of telephone and electricity cables that characterises the Caribbean; they have been laid underground. In addition, pavements have been made accessible and antique-looking street lamps have been installed.
In addition to the government money, the private sector has invested $500 million repurposing the city’s beautiful old buildings as hotels, bars and restaurants. It is all a sign of a country in flux. The Dominican Republic, so long known for its cheap and cheerful all-inclusive resorts, is now chasing the luxury dollar.
There is spin-off in other areas, too. I dropped into a shop called Ka Kao, on Calle de las Damas in the colonial zone, which sells Dominican chocolate. Although set inside an ancient stone building, it feels incredibly modern. In the courtyard sits a glass box containing a miniature chocolate factory, where visitors can make their own chocolates or soap fragranced with cocoa butter.
There are so many bars and restaurants in the Dominican Republic, I have always assumed evening entertainment to be the country’s biggest money-spinner. One example is Lulu Tasting Bar, set in a covered courtyard with its tables arranged under a run of Romanesque arches. It has a tapas menu, easy merengue (the country’s musical genre) and a long wine list. At nearby Callao, a live band was playing loud, up-tempo merengue. Mid-course, people left their tables to dance.
As I wandered home, I wasn’t surprised to stumble across Sarten – a gun barrel of a bar where a guitarist was playing melancholy music to just 15 people. There is also a lively gay scene in the city, something that’s unusual in the Caribbean.
Phase one of Santo Domingo’s restoration programme has already received plaudits from Unesco. Spanish architect Rafael Moneo has won the design competition for phase two, with a plan to reopen the city walls for walkers, restore yet more buildings and rework some public spaces – and, of course, to remove the rest of the aerial spaghetti. While the buildings are key, the plan will also have a strong focus on community.
“Success in phase two will mean doubling the number of people living in the colonial zone,” said Maribel Villalona, chief architect of the project at the ministry of tourism. “Our aim is to bring it back to life. We want to persuade everyone who comes here on holiday to visit the colonial zone.”
However, if you’re here for a whole week, you might not want to spend it all in Santo Domingo. The beach is what Caribbean holidays are all about. Most direct flights from Britain arrive at Punta Cana, in the island’s south-east corner – so that is the most logical place to stay. Punta Cana resort boasts villas clustered around a golf course, a marina and numerous hotels, among them Eden Roc, a Relais & Chateaux property which opened in 2013. Its main complex has 34 villas set around a lagoon, but recently there has been an excellent change at its beach club.
The Relais & Chateaux brand is known for its cuisine, and I was fortunate that my stay coincided with a visit by Thomas Keller, the chef behind the French Laundry and other acclaimed restaurants in the US. I enjoyed a weekend of true gastronomy (unusual in the Caribbean, though Eden Roc’s main restaurant, Mediterraneo, has always been excellent).
Another culinary highlight – and a first for me – was Nikkei cuisine, a hybrid of South American and Japanese influences that is common in Peru. Eden Roc has brought in Koji Tanabe, a third-generation Japanese chef, to oversee its Peruvian-Japanese restaurant, Blue.
Tanabe has kept the cooking style as close to authentic Nikkei as he can, given the difficulty of sourcing some ingredients, in dishes such as tiradito – a Peruvian raw fish salad typically flavoured with lime juice, chilli and coriander. His “New Style” tiradito, made with slick-smooth tablets of tuna, comes with a crunch of vegetables and the click of sesame seeds fried in oil.
“I put as many textures as I can into the dishes,” he said. When I tasted his tiradito, there was sweetness, sharpness and a citrus tang like fairies dancing on my tongue.
However, Tanabe is happy to experiment because the Dominican Republic has so many good ingredients. His classic ceviche, served with squid chicharrón and roast chulpe corn, is made with local red snapper. Again, it’s a beautifully choreographed fusion of comforting fried crunch and the tang of soft, lime-cured fish, with a snap of corn.
But the best reason to visit Eden Roc right now is that 52 suites have just been added down by the beach, located in two and three-storey thatched buildings on either side of the beach club. The suites are large, well equipped and come with full kitchens – ideal for families. The decor is bright, in blues and greens with lavish gold trim, nautical-themed illustrations and rope-framed mirrors. Full-height windows are deliberately angled to get the best views of the lovely cove.
From your balcony, you look out over the large swimming pool and through a screen of mature palms to the turquoise sea. I was happy to enjoy it an hour at a time – not exactly a stolen view, as in old Santo Domingo, but equally enticing in its way.
How to get there
James Henderson travelled with Elegant Resorts (01244 897515; elegantresorts.co.uk), which offers four nights in a Luxury Pool Junior Suite at Eden Roc Cap Cana followed by three nights in a Luxury Queen Room at Casas del XVI from £2,715 per person, including breakfast, economy flights from London Gatwick with British Airways, private transfers and UK airport lounge passes. Price based on two people sharing a room, valid until Dec 22 2018.