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Dominican Republic

Active adventurers might seek out canyoning and windsurfing opportunities. Hikers can scale Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s highest mountain at 10,000 feet, while strollers can shuffle along 1,000 miles of sublime coastline. For cultural immersion, history buffs can take a step back in time in the centuries-old capital, Santo Domingo. Wherever you go, you’ll hear the infectious sounds of merengue, the national music and dance.

The tropical wildlife astounds nature lovers. Within 19 national parks, six scientific reserves, 32 natural monuments, 15 natural reserves, two marine sanctuaries and nine protected parcels of islands, there exist 5,600 plant species (including 300 endemic orchids), 303 bird species (27 endemic), and a rich underwater world.

Resorts tend to be priced fairly, and many are all-inclusive, meaning most meals, beverages and activities are covered by the room rate.  

The East Feast

Long the center of Dominican tourism, the east coast is undergoing a building boom. More than 30 resorts line 21 miles of picturesque coastline in the Punta Cana/Bávaro area, where a sizeable coral reef draws scuba divers.

The tourist hub is getting even better. New hotels and mega-resorts have opened recently – one with a Nick Faldo golf course, a water-sports center, a spa and a full-service marina, the second with the largest marina in the Caribbean and three Jack Nicklaus golf courses. Restaurants, boutiques, a casino and polo grounds are part of the long-term plans.

A 24-mile boulevard now being built will ensure that traffic isn’t a problem.

A short drive away, La Romana has the quaint Altos de Chavon artist enclave and a walled resort compound known for its three challenging golf courses, a polo field, horseback riding, sport shooting, tennis and a marina accommodating 250-foot yachts.

Isla Saona, off the southern shore near Bayahibe, is a 45-square-mile island with pristine beaches and mangrove-lined lagoons. The tiny 6-square-mile piece of paradise called Isla Catalina is a popular diving spot. 

Nature’s Garden

On the northeast coast, the Samaná Peninsula is a restful haven, as simple and beautiful a place as can be found anywhere. Untouched beaches lead to brilliant coral reefs, while gushing inland waterfalls and thick rainforests add tropical zest. Samaná is the ideal locale for spotting some of the 5,000 humpback whales that swim by from January through March.

The town of Samaná is the jumping-off point for eco-tourism activities. Ride through old coffee plantations by horse or mule to Salto de Limón, an impressive 150-foot waterfall that cascades into a swimming hole at the bottom. During your stay, you may spot locals carving calabash wood into decorative accessories. 

Jungle Gym

The north coast is known as the Amber Coast because the gem of the same name is mined there. Mountain ranges beckon while blue water and golden beaches yearn to be explored.

Lively waves and winds are the region’s second calling card, as the beach at Cabarete is perfect for kiteboarding and windsurfing. At nearby El Encuentro, waves can get up to 14-feet high. 

In this jungle-rich region, adventure seekers spend time whitewater rafting, rock climbing and mountain biking. Two golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones are among the country’s 21 exceptional golf courses.

To the west of Cabarete lies Puerto Plata, where lively beaches host the guests of attractively priced resorts. San Filepe Fort, used by the Spanish to fight off pirates in the 16th century, is a tribute to colonial days. Ocean World Adventure Park in Cofresi boasts a dolphin lagoon plus a swimmable aquarium and an interactive shark pool.  

Park It Here

Birders enjoy the Dominican Republic’s southwest region, since a number of exotic avian friends are found in the lush rainforest, pine forest and arid desert of this region, which contains eight national parks. Pedernales, a small fishing village, is a good jumping off point for two of the major national parks – Parque Nacional Jaragua, home to a large flamingo population as well as egrets, green-tailed warblers and little green herons, and Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco, a semi-desert environment with Larimer mines. 

Baní and Las Salinas offer some of the best windsurfing options outside Cabarete, and don’t have the crowds. The Baní Dunes Ecological Reserve is 10 square miles of iron-rich yellow sand that naturally formed into three-foot hills, some close to two miles wide. Sand-boarding is quite popular in this moonscape-esque locale. 

Mule Train

The fertile lands of Santiago, La Vega and the Cordillera Central Mountain Range in the central region help keep this swath of the Dominican Republic lush and green. An area known as the Dominican Alps is prime for hiking, cycling and river rafting. The island’s highest mountain, Pico Duarte, calls to expert hikers; it takes three days to reach the summit. Cabins situated along the way provide overnight shelter, and mules carry gear.  

City Slickers

The south central part of the country includes Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s historical and vibrant capital. In the New World’s oldest city, modern hotels sit on antiquated cobblestone streets and the malecón (boardwalk) wraps around the coast. The likes of conquistador Juan Ponce de León once strolled the walkways of the Colonial Zone, the original city.

The towns of Boca Chica and Juan Dolio are popular for their busy beaches. Divers in this area often head to La Caleta National Underwater Park for the wrecks Hickory, a 130-foot transport freighter, and El Limón, a 69-foot tugboat; both attract soldier fish, moray eels and sergeant majors. On cave dives leaving from Juan Dolio, scuba enthusiasts can also encounter black coral, blacktip reef sharks, hammerheads and big rays. 

Some of the best dining in the Dominican Republic can be found in Santo Domingo, where hip contemporary restaurants sit next to old-time street vendors who dish out traditional island fare.

CAYMAN ISLANDS

This trio of islands offers a pleasingly relaxing pace, and undersea beauty that charms both novice and expert divers.

Like three brilliant siblings, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman each has its own character while sharing familial traits. A British Dependent Territory, the islands derive their names from Caiman, a genus of crocodile that used to roam this part of the Caribbean. Today, the trio is a hot vacation spot where you can land in the middle of the action on Grand Cayman or head to smaller, less-traveled islands for diving and bird-watching. 

About 480 miles south of Miami, Grand Cayman is the largest island at 76 square miles, and a noted banking center with more than 500 international banks represented, including nearly every one of the top 50 in the world. But most vacationers are here for the famous Seven Mile Beach (really only 5 1/2 miles long), with George Town, the capital and commercial center, at one end. Though luxurious hotels, condos and high-rises fill the oceanfront, the gorgeous wide beach has plenty of room to spread out. 

The rest of Grand Cayman can be toured easily. You can rent a scooter and cruise through George Town, or head to East End for more natural beauty and a glimpse of the island's original settlement. At the Pedro St. James Historic Site, you can tour a restored three-storey early 19th-century great house and outbuildings, with traditional 'grounds' planted with pineapple and banana. Grand Cayman's Q. E. II Botanic Park features areas like the  Floral Colour Garden (flowering plants and shrubs, succulents and cacti arranged by color) and orchid and butterfly sections.

If you want more waterfront seclusion than Seven Mile Beach, try the beaches at Smith Cove in the southwest or Old Man Bay in the north.  

Peace and Parrots 

For a little more peace and quiet, take a 45-minute flight to Cayman Brac ('Brac' is the Gaelic word for 'bluff'), about 90 miles northeast of Grand Cayman. Only about 1,000 residents live on the island, which is just 12 miles long and a mile wide with a distinctive limestone cliff rising to 140 feet on the eastern end. Divers find plenty to keep them busy, including the only dive-accessible Russian warship in the Western Hemisphere. Cayman Brac also is home to nearly 200 species of birds, including the endangered Cayman Brac parrot. 

For even more seclusion, take a launch to Little Cayman, just five miles from Cayman Brac. Fewer than 100 people live there year-round, and the bonefishing and diving are spectacular. There's little to do but curl up in a hammock or explore under the water, where more than 50 walls, wrecks and other dive sites teem with tropical fish and coral.

Scuba, Scuba and More Scuba 

With underwater visibility up to 100 feet, the No. 1 sport in the Caymans is scuba diving, and Grand Cayman is an ideal place to take a lesson. With as many as 40 scuba outfitters, the island has plenty of experts available to share the delights of underwater exploration with adventurous students. Spectacular shipwrecks, vast coral reefs, dramatic walls and stunning drop-offs offer countless options to get wet. 

Veterans have their favorite spots, but nearly everyone is jazzed at the Great Wall just off North Cayman and the Bloody Bay Wall on Little Cayman. Novice divers can get certified or just take a day course at many of the resorts to certify them for shallow dives. For beginners, some resorts offer Snuba, a cross between scuba diving and snorkeling: You're tied to an inflatable raft that holds your oxygen tank so you can experience shallow scuba diving without certification. 

For easy snorkeling, try the famous Stingray City in North Sound, where you usually can find from 30 to 50 rays in just 12 feet of water. You can hold and feed the rays in water as shallow as 3 feet on a sandbar just a half-mile from the shore. Eden Rock and Devils Grotto are two other popular snorkeling sites. 

Above the water, visitors enjoy the Cayman Turtle Farm on West Bay Road, home to more than 16,000 endangered green sea turtles that are raised both for their edible turtle meat and to be released into the Caribbean. 

A Dash of Sophistication

Both residents and visitors enjoy the niceties in life, and the Cultural foundation provides many outlets. The Harquail Theatre is home to many theatrical productions. Every April, Cayfest, the Cayman Islands Arts Festival, showcases dance, theatrical performances, crafts, art exhibitions, photography, song-writing and short story competitions on Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac.

Grand Cayman is a busy cruise port, so there's plenty of duty-free shopping. Boutiques offer a range of items, from fine European fashions to artisan crafts such as the renowned Caymanite jewelry. You'll also find wood carvings, Caymanian-style birdhouses, pepper sauces, tropical fruit jams, honey and an interesting selection of antique and treasure coin jewelry.

Dining can be a grand affair, you'll find everything from five-star dining to fried fish. Look for local restaurants serving conch, lobster, grouper and jerk chicken - it's often inexpensive and delicious, and served with plantains, breadfruit, yams, cassava, peas 'n' rice and other West Indian side dishes.

BELIZE

With manatees and Maya sites, tarpons and toucans, reefs and rain forests, Belize is a dream destination for nature lovers and adventure travelers.

Blessed with the second-largest, thriving, barrier reef in the world, running the entire 185-mile length of the country, Belize is revered among seasoned scuba divers and fishermen who have plied its waters. A awellsprung adventure and discoveries, this eco-sensitive destination, where 60 percent of its land is preserved, makes it a haven for even the most complex traveler. Boasting 3,000-feet mountains, cascading waterfalls, and dense jungles, Belize is refuge for teeming wildlife, exotic plants and endangered species populations. Magnificent Ancient Mayan sites and diverse cultures add a finishing touch to the allurement of this English-speaking destination that only recently celebrated its Independence in 1981.The unspoiled nature of Belize makes for a great Tourism product, as visitors can be one with Mother Nature, in the capacity of fishermen, scuba divers, birders, hikers, honeymooners, nature lovers, history buffs and adventure travelers.

Wildlife sightings are par for the course in Belize, with manatees, monkeys, keel-billed toucans, green iguanas and Blue Morpho butterflies. Jaguars freely roam the forest underthe blanket of night, as over 570 bird species showcase their airborne, acrobatic tricks, and trophy-sized sport fish cruise along their own colorful underwater paradise. Kayak and canoe along the river banks, dotted with mangroves. Fishermen aiming for a grand slam, land a bonefish, tarpon and permit fish in the same day. Belize is host to the famed Blue Hole and three of the four coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere: Lighthouse Reef, Glover's Reef and Turneffe Islands.

The Maya Legacy

Partially excavated Mayan sites are scattered throughout the country, and includes stepped pyramids, ball courts and carved temples. Archaeologists are to-date making major discoveries. The more spectacular of the sites include Caracol, Xunantunich, Altun Ha and Lamanai. Exploration is key, and the caving system provides a glimpse into the Mayan underworld. You can float inches away from ancient fire pits, artifacts and human skeleton remains, while tubing or canoeing in the pitch dark, with headlamps.

Popular Destinations:

While countless discoveries await, each district has a refreshing distinction and appeal to travelers. Popular destinations in Belize are mostly centered around three attractions: underwater, beach life and Mayan heritage.

Ambergris Caye sits off the north coast and is frequented by divers and snorkelers. Tours such as the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, allow for snorkeling among sting rays, nurse sharks and huge colorful corals. The main town of Ambergris Caye, San Pedro, features cobble stone streets, art galleries and a few beach bars over the water. Golf carts serve as the main transportation.

The inland Cayo District, is located along the western border with Guatemala, and is the location for a tropical rain forest and the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. The town area of San Ignacio, Cayo District, is the base for many inland adventure tours like cavetubing.

The Placencia Peninsula, along the southern coast, has the most pristine stretch of beaches throughout the country and is a gateway to the offshore cayes and atolls. City slickers can enjoy Old Belize, located 5 milles up the George Price Highway, a cultural and historical center opened in 2005. The 45-minute tour is an interactive exhibition highlighting the country's multicultural heritage, its industry and its landscapes.

 

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