Dominican Republic is the top tourist draw in the Caribbean

The Plaza España, in the heart of Santo  Domingo's Colonial Zone, is filled with 
cafés patronized by locals and tourists.
The Plaza España, in the heart of Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone, is filled with cafés patronized by locals and tourists. MCT

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — It has the Western Hemisphere's oldest cathedral, its oldest house, its oldest street and its oldest school — all within the 12-block area known as the Colonial Zone.

It was in Santo Domingo in 1496 — four years after Christopher Columbus wrecked his ship, the Santa Maria, on the Atlantic coast of the island — that his brother Bartholomew founded the city that was to become the center of Spanish culture and commerce in the New World. Today, Santo Domingo remains vibrantly Hispanic: fiery, frenetic and pulsating to the beat of merengue 365 nights a year.

Visitors flock to the Colonial Zone to explore its wealth of historic buildings. Start at the Cathedral Santa María la Menor on the south side of Parque Colón. The Spanish began building the cathedral in 1514, abandoned it for nearly a quarter of a century while they searched for gold in Mexico and finally completed it in 1540. The coral limestone façade doesn't prepare you for the splendid interior: an altar of hammered silver and a series of small chapels.

One of these, the Chapel of Our Lady of Antigua, housed the sarcophagus containing the remains of Christopher Columbus for four centuries. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of his exploration, the remains were moved to El Faro, a lighthouse dedicated to the navigator.

You'll want to stroll the cobblestoned Calle de las Damas (Street of the Ladies) just as the elegant senoritas of the Spanish Court did four centuries earlier. At one end of the street is a sundial dating to 1753; at the other is the Fortaleza (fort) standing sentinel at the entrance to the Ozama River. Next to the Fortaleza is the Casa de Bastidas, with its lovely inner courtyard, at one time the residence of the island's governor-general.

Among the Colonial Zone's other historic sites are the Museo de las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Houses) and the Panteón Nacional. The former is composed of two 16th- century palaces housing Dominican treasures, from replicas of Columbus' three ships to Spanish coats of arms.

The latter, once a Jesuit monastery, is now a burial place for heroes of the republic. Former dictator Rafael Trujillo is not buried here as he had planned, but there is a large mural on the ceiling depicting his 1961 assassination in allegorical terms. Of particular note are the chandelier — a gift from Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain — and the altar where an eternal flame burns.

A word of warning: Should someone approach you and ask if you want a guided tour, agree on a price beforehand; otherwise, you might be unpleasantly surprised. My half-hour tour ended up costing $20.

Perhaps the most famous building in the Colonial Zone is the Alcázar. This Renaissance-style structure, with nods to Gothic and Moorish architecture, was the home of Don Diego Colón, son of Christopher Columbus and first viceroy of the island. Dramatically floodlit at night, the Alcázar is beautifully furnished and contains an impressive collection of paintings and tapestries donated by the University of Madrid.

Outside the Zone

The Colonial Zone is Santo Domingo's primary tourist draw, but other parts of the city and its environs are worth a visit. Take a stroll along the Malecón, the seaside promenade that continues for miles along the Caribbean Sea, or a quick, 2-mile drive to the Parque de los Tres Ojos (Park of the Three Eyes.) The "eyes" are clear sapphire pools sunk into deep limestone caves; visitors may access them via a series of steep (and often slippery) stairs, then take a boat from pool to pool.

Speaking of caves, be sure to save one night for dinner at Mesón de la Cava. Located in the exclusive suburb of Mirador, the restaurant is deep within a 50-foot cave and is famous for its prime cuts of beef.

If it's Dominican food you're looking for, the best — and most popular — spot is El Conuco. Under the thatched roof of a typical Dominican house, you can feast on dishes such as la bandera (white rice, red beans and stewed beef arranged to resemble the colors of the Dominican flag). While you eat, waiters and waitresses engage in impromptu dancing, and merengue music tempts everyone to take a spin on the makeshift dance floor.

My favorite restaurant experience came during a drive to Boca Chica, a popular weekend destination for locals. At the seaside Neptune Restaurant, while I waited for my lobster to be cooked, I dove off the restaurant deck — with the encouragement of the staff — for a cooling dip in the Caribbean. The restaurant is pricey (my lunch was $40) but worth the splurge.

Affordable resorts

There's a reason why the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has become a top tourist destination in the Caribbean: the sheer proliferation of luxurious — and in many cases, surprisingly affordable — seaside resort properties. I had a chance to experience two of them.

Punta Cana, on the island's south coast and about a three-hour drive from Santo Domingo, boasts a 20-mile stretch of beach that, with its sugary white sand dotted with swaying coconut palms, is considered one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean.

The area has a number of resorts, but the all-inclusive Meliã Caribe Tropical is one of the best bargains. Actually two resorts in one, it has all the ingredients for a perfect getaway: a 27-hole golf course, 10 swimming pools, lighted tennis courts, a complete array of water sports, two spas, casino, a dozen restaurants and an absolutely gorgeous stretch of private beach.

Midway between Santo Domingo and Punta Cana is the lovely town of La Romana and its incomparable resort, Casa de Campo. Meaning "house in the country," it sprawls across 7,000 acres of lush tropical landscape.

Golfers come from all over the world to play on the three Pete Dye-designed courses. (Even if you're not a golfer, check out Teeth of the Dog, with seven holes skirting a cliff above the sea.) Beachcombers will love Playa Minitas, and the restaurants on property will please even the most demanding palates, from the Pan-Asian flavors of Chinois to the Beach Club by Le Cirque — yes, the Manhattan Le Cirque.

You get what you pay for, and in this case it's a five-star resort, considered by many to be the best in the Caribbean. The good news is that Casa de Campo offers some packages, particularly in the off-season, that won't put an irreparable dent in your bank account.

With its mix of Santo Domingo's history and charm and the peaceful ambiance of the beach resorts, it's easy to see why the Dominican Republic has become the destination of choice in the Caribbean.