Dominican Republic: Beyond the All-Inclusive

Did you know that over five million tourists visit the Dominican Republic each year? Out of those five million, I wonder how many actually visit the Dominican Republic. How many of those five million check into their cookie-cutter, mass-produced, fantasy-world all-inclusive resort never to leave the comfort and “safety” contained within their property’s gates? I’ve written about the known and often celebrated conveniences of all-inclusive resorts in my Los Cabos and Bermuda cruise posts, and believe me, I totally get the allure of these types of accommodations/vacations. In fact the first two times we visited the Dominican Republic, we stayed at all-inclusive resorts: one of our own volition, and the second due to our friends’ wedding we were attending. And other than touring condos with our realtor, we didn’t leave those resorts. Neither time. It was just too easy to stay: we had access to unlimited food and drinks, multiple pools and swim-up bars to spend our days, private beaches to lounge on, and countless activities, shops, and other amenities at our disposal.  So sure, we had been to the Dominican Republic twice prior to buying a condo there, but we never actually saw the Dominican Republic until our third visit, when we started visiting places like restaurants, shops, beaches, and markets that locals frequent. We never actually experienced the Dominican Republic until we began meeting its residents and communicated with them, asking them questions, learning about their culture and customs, and exchanging stories and commonalities. We never actually tasted the Dominican Republic until we dined at local eateries, many owned by locals, and savored the country’s delicacies and local ingredients. We never actually immersed ourselves into the Dominican Republic until we decided to ignore (but not completely dismiss) the common misnomer about the island that it’s unsafe and began exploring this gorgeous island and welcoming country.

My two favorite guys enjoying the sunset

This entry merely skims the surface of what the Bavaro/Punta Cana area has to offer. We have now traveled there five times and are constantly discovering new gems and learning more and more about this spirited and kind-hearted land. I hope that this post inspires you to think beyond the all-inclusive model, not solely in the Dominican Republic, but in countless other countries around the globe.


Playa Bavaro

The principal beach in Bavaro that most tourists visit is undoubtedly beautiful. The beach is very long and just begging to be strolled. The public access to the beach is via a clearly marked road that’s located just south of Melia Caribe Tropical Resorts.

El Cortecito

A nice beach in the heart of Bavaro, although this area tends to accumulate more seaweed than other beaches in the area, which can detract from its beauty. There are a number of restaurants, bars, and gift shops here…just walk past the beachfront restaurants and gift shops to get onto the beach.

Playa Matilde

Another wonderful beach in Bavaro that is near a few restaurants. Whenever I’ve been, I have found it to be a bit less crowded and more peaceful than the above beaches, which of course is a sweet advantage to coming here. There is easy public access from the main road.

Macao Beach

Our favorite of the Dominican Republic beaches we’ve visited so far, Macao Beach is an undeveloped, beautiful beach around a 20 to 30 minute drive north of Bavaro. As you reach the crest of the hill you’ll see the impressive view of Macao Beach expand before you.  Another reason to venture out to Macao Beach? It’s popular with local Dominicans, so you won’t see many other tourists.  My one complaint about Macao Beach? There are increasingly more and more vendors trying to sell you things, from hats to jewelry, and some can be pretty persistent. You can rent beach chairs (we can typically get 4 for about $20 USD) and order drinks from the many hustlers, as I like to call them, who work the beach.

Just in case you need yet another reason to visit Macao Beach, the downright delectable fish served at the nearby fish shacks is freaking AMAZING. Choose your daily caught fish (usually red snapper and lobster are among the mix), decide how you want it prepared (we like to get a combination of grilled and fried), order a few bottles of Presidente beer and sit back, relax, and soak in your surroundings.

One thing to note: make sure you ask about the cost upfront. We overpaid by a lot our first time around. We learned quickly…it’s amazing that all of our subsequent lunches were about a third the cost of what we paid the first time! Live and learn 🙂



Dune Buggy Tour

Our favorite DR excursion thus far. We used the company Extreme Buggy and went on a half-day dune buggy adventure where we spent nearly four exhilarating hours exploring the Dominican countryside. During our adventure, we cruised through farmland, traversed palm tree-lined paths and plantain plantations, and saw cow paddies, small colorful homes, and a limestone mine. We stopped at an original Dominican Colmado (local grocery store) for a delicious Dominican coffee and to capture a glimpse of the Dominican lifestyle in the countryside.

Roadside gas station. Yep, you read that correctly. 

La Romana: Casa de Campo

About an hour drive from Bavaro, the coastal city of La Romana is home to a number of resorts, but its most famous one is the world-renowned Casa de Campo. We spent the day at this gorgeous resort and our $25/person entrance fee was worth every penny.

We loved meandering the immaculate grounds and lush greenery

The 16th century replica Mediterranean village, Altos de Chavon, is a cultural center for working artists, including weavers, potters, and painters. 

5,000 seat amphitheater & obligatory yoga pose

Your day pass includes access to the resort’s private beach

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at the marina

Catalina Island

A nice day trip that includes sailing on a catamaran, snorkeling, and three hours on Catalina Island. While the snorkeling was good and we saw plenty of fish, it wasn’t at the level of places like Bora Bora, Belize, or Honduras, which currently rank as our all-time three top snorkeling locations (future snorkeling blog post is a-coming!). The water at Catalina Island is absolutely lovely and the clearest of all the beaches we’ve been to so far in the Dominican Republic. A tasty buffet lunch and unlimited beer, Cuba Libres, water, and soft drinks are included in the tour.
A few things to note: the catamaran disembarks from near La Romana, which, as I mentioned above, is an easy one hour drive on Route 3 from Bavaro (this is the major highway and signs are clear and prevalent). If you have a car, I highly recommend driving to and grabbing the boat there. With numerous passenger pick-ups, and a twenty minute stop at a not-so-great market, it took us nearly THREE HOURS to get there, when it should’ve only taken a little over ONE. The ride back was much quicker, only about one hour and fifteen minutes. Learn from our mistake and avoid the annoying large group bus ride. Over the last few years, we have been turning more frequently to private and small-group tours, often for this very reason. It’s usually worth the extra cost and will help maximize your time (although not the most environmental friendly–this topic and other sustainable travel issues will be addressed in my next post).

Aboard the catamaran: post-snorkeling


Canoa: A new spot for us during our most recent trip. We absolutely loved the laid-back vibe of this beachfront restaurant. Anywhere I can dine with my feet in the sand is more than alright in my book. Their menu primarily focuses on Asian cuisine, and is by no means amazing, but the delightful atmosphere more than makes up for it.


Captain Cook Restaurant:  Hands-down our favorite restaurant in the area, not necessarily because it’s the nicest or even has the best food (although the food is consistently delicious). We have dined here the most out of all the restaurants on the list partly because it’s less than a 10 minute walk from our condo, but mostly because of how much we love it. Their mixed seafood platter is incredible and their paella is the best paella we’ve ever had (and this includes the paella we’ve had in Barcelona). The service is warm and attentive and the kitchen typically sends out complimentary sides, dessert(s) and digestifs (the food and alcohol just keep coming out–my kinda place!) Seating is available both on the beach, as well as indoors.

Citrus: This no frills, but consistently great restaurant never disappoints. The quality of both the food and service are excellent while the costs are very reasonable. This charming spot is located in Plaza Turqueza.

Dalia’s Cafe & Bakery: A few doors down from Citrus, this quaint cafe is perfect for breakfast and/or a light lunch. Their pastries are decadent and delicious.

Drink Point: Deemed as one of the most happening local spots in Punta Cana, Drink Point is where locals and tourists alike go to drink and dance the night away. Great music and even better people watching!

Don Pio Restorante Cubano: Located in the same plaza as Citrus and Dalia’s, this eatery offers authentic Cuban fare in a lively and casual setting.

Jellyfish: In terms of aesthetics and location, this seafood restaurant puts all of the others on this list to shame. Jellyfish is a gorgeous upscale restaurant right on the sands of the Bavaro Beach. They have an extensive wine list, people! That’s something you just don’t see everyday in the good ol’ Bavaro region. The food was fine, but given the establishment, we definitely expected better. But even with its average food, we will undoubtedly still return. The setting is just too spectacular for us to stay away!

Mathilda: A lovely restaurant somewhat tucked away in Punta Cana’s San Juan Center. We had a delicious lunch here and enjoyed some fantastic cocktails.

Noah: This is the most upscale restaurant we’ve been to thus far in the Dominican Republic. Service, ambience, and cuisine are all outstanding. Innovated Latin fusion cuisine with a touch of Caribbean is the focus here. Noah is probably the closest to “high-end” we’ve dine at here in terms of what we’re accustomed to in the States.

Onno’s: Next door to Captain Cook’s, this funky beachfront joint is another one of our go-to spots. We love the lively and eclectic atmosphere and their killer cocktails are certainly a nice bonus. The food here is always good (not great) and some of my favorites include their tacos, ceviche, and nachos.


Where do I begin? There are so many places on this island that we haven’t been to yet. We vowed during our last trip that each time we return, we want to explore at least one new beach, eat at least at one new restaurant, and go on a new excursion/day trip. So stay tuned for a Part II  post in the distant future. We can’t wait to become more acquainted with this spectacular country.



What’s that you ask? How can YOU rent our wonderful condo? We’re so glad you asked! Here’s the link! We’d love to host you and share our home-away-from-home with you! And of course make some good ol’ fashioned money in the process 🙂



Related Reads: Belize, Cuba, Panama City

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