10 Unexpected Excursions in the Dominican Republic

It's tempting to curl up at an all-inclusive resort and sun the days away. It's also well worth your time to venture a bit (or a lot) further afield.

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Photo By: ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images

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Safari at Sea

Between January and March, more than 2,000 humpback whales calve, court and mate in the balmy waters off the northern coast of Hispaniola. "Our humpbacks are born here, that makes them Dominican citizens," the naturalists at Whale Samaná say. "[T]hey migrate north to feed but always return to their beautiful homeland in the sun." Humpbacks are the most active species of whale in the Atlantic, and they put on a show for their human fans as they interact with each other: Expect tail flipping, fin flapping and spectacular breaches. For a few dollars extra, Whale Samaná’s Pura Mia will set you aground offshore to explore Cayo Levantado, an idyllic islet so gorgeous that it's featured prominently in rum advertisements for years (earning it its English name, "Bacardi Island").

The Best Seat on the Beach

It's hard to find a bad spot to watch the sun go down over the Caribbean. Crepuscular connoisseurs would argue that one of the very best spots is tucked at the foot of a diminutive lighthouse 10 miles from La Romana on the southeastern coast. An adorably black-and-white-striped Instagram win by day, the little tower is also a popular local bar and the perfect place to clink Presidentes as the sky catches fire.

Take a Dive

After two decades carrying trans-Atlantic cargo, the 240-foot MV Norbrae was sunk half a mile from Viva Dominicus, a Bayahibe beach, and rechristened the St. George Wreck (after the hurricane that hit the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean in 1998). Since 1999, it's been growing into one of the most spectacular artificial reefs in the area, and experienced divers go deep to explore its kaleidoscopic coral formations and pass through billowing schools of fish. Go Dive Bayahibe offers Advanced Open Water Diver courses to prep adventurers for that particular plunge, as well as introductory instruction for beginners. Their intimate trips develop around their guests' interests and levels of expertise: The crew works with you to plan dives and select specific sites, then lets you spend your time in the water as you like. They'll also serve you snacks and fresh piña coladas when you come back to the surface.

Caribbean History

A day with Runners Adventures offers a crash course in Dominican culture: Its Punta-Cana-based Caribbean VIP Safari begins at a house in the countryside with a Caribbean fruit, coffee and cacao tasting, then proceeds to Higüey for a visit to the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, one of the most famous cathedrals in the country (and home to a 16th-century image of the Virgin that has been venerated there since the '50s). After a grilled-lobster lunch that doubles as a barge ride down the Chavón River, the tour makes its way through the largest sugar cane plantation in the country, then concludes with a cigar museum visit (and a cigar-rolling tutorial, of course).

Scenic Ride

It's possible to reach Samaná's 170-foot Cascada de Limón by foot, but it's a lot more fun to get there by horseback. Paradas like Santi offers guided half-day rides to the falls, where the water cascades into a deep, cold swimming hole — an excellent place to refresh yourself after an hour in the saddle. If you prefer to walk, prepare yourself (and your hiking boots) for river crossings and rocky terrain, and budget in a bit of extra downtime for washing up (and patting yourself on the back) at trail's end.

Early Risers

There is precisely one professional hot air balloon company in the Caribbean, and it's a doozy: Since 2002, Dominican Balloons owner and head pilot Luis Leonardo has been treating passengers to what he calls "the truest form of sailing" high above Hispaniola. For the Caribbean Sunrise ride over Punta Cana and Bavaro, guests greet the day with a bird's-eye view of the island that stretches from the Caribbean to the Atlantic. They might get a bird's-nest view of local flora, too, depending on the gondola's path: "A leaf picked from a treetop is a very worthwhile souvenir of the flight!" Luis says. A fresh breakfast and champagne toast conclude the morning.

Mountain High

Nearly 2,000 feet above sea level and about two and a half hours from the capital city of Santo Domingo, Jarabacoa is also base camp for Iguana Mama's three-day, two-night Pico Duarte trek (which takes its name from the Caribbean's highest peak, a 10,164-foot giant in the Cordillera Central range). The hike winds its way along rivers, climbs through broad valley views and pine-forest switchbacks en route to picturesque peaks, and culminates each evening in a starlit campfire under the "Roof of the Caribbean" and well-earned rest in cabins and tents. Equipment, accommodation, guides and mules are all part of the package. Strategies for recapping the trip without bragging about how superior it was to a day at the pool, in turn, are up to you.

A World of Worlds

Los Haitises National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the Dominican Republic. Its visitors (who tend to arrive by boat via Samaná and Sabana de la Mar on Samaná Bay) experience it as dozens of protected areas, thanks to its wild profusion of microenvironments: More than 200 species of bird wheel above its gigantic rock formations, and the labyrinthine root systems in its mangrove forests teem with amphibious and aquatic life. Its onetime human inhabitants — the Taíno people — sought shelter and conducted rituals in its network of caves, where their petroglyphs and petrographs climb the limestone walls. Fair warning: A single day trip to Los Haitises will both awe and leave you with an aching sense of how much more you need to see.

Home Abroad

If the expat itch seizes you, make your way to Las Terrenas, a town on the Samana Peninsula where conversations in Spanish are peppered with French, Italian, German, English...you get the idea. Globetrotters have been settling there since the '70s, and the now-locals welcome guests (and potential neighbors) with open arms. In the hills above the beach, Villa Pina's proprietors, Sylvie Normandeau and Francois Charuau, pronounce their visitors "roommates" and urge them on an ATV tour along the Coffee Trail (a wild ride through local agricultural terrain) and past the multilingual beaches and bars downtown (where scooters and quads just might outnumber cars).

Private Party

Travelers in search of solitude, in turn, can charter a boat from Las Terrenas to Playa Jackson, a hidden beach which can only be reached from the water. A local team of three will bring your group ashore, coax coconuts down from the nearest palm for rum cocktails and prepare a grilled feast...then leave you to pretend you've got the island all to yourself. A beach bash minus shopping, packing, cooking, cleanup or signs of civilization at all, really: Priceless.

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