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World's Best Diving Vacations
There is a department in each issue of RSD called "Destination Unknown," which is reserved for exotic and obscure places, typically far away, and rarely visited by North American travelers. It's hard to imagine that any Caribbean destination could qualify, but last year that's where we wrote about the Dominican Republic.
Had it been a piece in a German dive magazine, it could have been "Destination Well Known." European tourists flock to the island every winter, while many North American divers have yet to discover the Dominican Republic.
Too bad. The country boasts more than 50,000 hotel rooms, making it the third most developed tourist destination in the Caribbean. Between 1.5 and 2 million tourists visit each year to lounge on the island's beautiful beaches, play tennis, swat golf balls, and generally live the good life in some sweet all-inclusive resorts that are among the Caribbean's best travel values.
Location, Location, Location
And that's part of the problem. Because the big resorts are so focused on the complete vacation picture, diving is often seen as just another activity to squeeze in between lunch and afternoon aerobics.
Complicating things even more: Some of the most developed general tourism areas don't have the best diving. Take Punta Cana, for example. It's the island's most popular region for general tourism, but it's situated on the exposed eastern tip of the island, and swept by Atlantic currents and the occasionally torturous seas of the Mona Passage. Divers who visit Punta Cana when the winter winds are blowing may find days where it is too rough to dive at all, and if they do get out to the reef, they'll typically find marginal visibility and minimal fish life.
Prevailing winds typically blow from north and west, leaving the southeast portion of the island in a consistent lee. The calmest waters are generally found in Bayahibe (La Romana), Juan Dolio and Boca Chica. Choose your destination within the DR carefully, and you can enjoy a relaxing vacation with some easy diving and plenty of nondiving activities to boot.
Located just outside the capital city of Santo Domingo, Boca Chica is one of the traditional vacation getaways for Dominicans. The region offers beaches, shops, restaurants and bars within easy walking distance of the resort hotels. The area also offers the easiest access to the wrecks in the La Caleta Underwater National Park and La Sirena Cave.
There are a variety of excellent all-inclusive resorts in the Juan Dolio region, located about 30 minutes east of the Santo Domingo Airport. Depending on rain and current conditions, a nearby river can diminish water clarity on some of the sites.
The area most likely to emerge as a favorite among North American divers, the Bayahibe area features clear, tranquil Caribbean seas and wide, powdery white beaches. The dive portfolio includes shallow nearshore reefs, two offshore islands and a shipwreck. Divers may also see an occasional manatee here.
The exposed eastern tip of the island has beautiful golf courses, beautiful scenery and is a haven for windsurfers--so the diving is predictably rough, especially in winter.
During the whale-watching season, several Caribbean live-aboards relocate to Samaná to offer whale expeditions to the Silver Banks. Day boats from this region also go in search of humpback whales in the confines of Samaná Bay. Dive operators offer a blend of advanced, deep-water dives and shallow, secluded snorkeling.
Just outside the town of Puerto Plata is Playa Dorada, an oceanside complex of 13 resorts complete with a central shopping plaza and golf course. This is also an excellent staging area for day trips to the interior for whitewater rafting, horseback riding, rappeling down a mountainside, paragliding or simply relaxing with a bottle of cerveza beside a scenic waterfall.
Much of the diving off Puerto Plata is staged from the protected waters of Sosua Bay (divers are bused to the boat each morning), although when the conditions are right, the boats may also depart the Playa Dorada beach.
Dominican Republic Travel Savvy
Getting There/Getting Around
Depending on which airport you fly into, the Dominican Republic is just a two- or three-hour flight from East Coast gateways. Connections are also available via San Juan, Puerto Rico, and numerous European gateways.
There are several international airports in the DR. For the Boca Chica and Juan Dolio regions, fly into Las Americas International Airport located 25 miles east of Santo Domingo. Be aware that this is an older and very busy airport. Everything is pretty efficient and straightforward in terms of customs and baggage claims, but it will probably be congested and confusing once you step outside. Scores of cab drivers, tour operators and resort shuttles will be standing around with placards and waving hands, all trying to get your attention. It can be a little overwhelming for an unseasoned traveler, but trust that the system will get you to your resort hotel. It will. Cab fares are established in advance, so figure on $20 to Boca Chica; $35 to Juan Dolio.
If you plan to visit Puerto Plata, fly into International Gregorio Luperon Airport just 15 miles outside the city. Staying in Punta Cana or Samaná? Fly into Punta Cana International Airport. Staying in the Bayahibe region? Try the brand-new $800 million La Romana International Airport. This is far quicker, easier and closer than flying into either Santo Domingo or Punta Cana, and far less hassle as well.
American Airlines is flying 737s into La Romana from Miami (flight time: 1 hour, 50 minutes), and also via American Eagle flights from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The cab transfer to most of the resorts on Bayahibe takes less than 20 minutes and costs $35. (It doesn't matter whether there is one passenger or four--still $35.)
The Dive Report
DR dive services tend to be safe and professional, yet clearly operate on a different standard than you might have experienced in Bonaire or Cayman.
While larger dive operators will have traditional dive boats in the 24- to 35-foot range, smaller dive operators use 20- to 24-foot outboard skiffs that can bounce on rough seas, are open to the sun and have limited dry storage—if any at all. Most of the dive sites are short boat rides, usually less than 15 minutes, but special sites may be 30 minutes to an hour from the beach. There are few docks or marinas to accommodate larger boats, so generally the boats are brought up to the beach and the divers wade into shallow mid-calf water to step aboard.
Not every boat will be photo-friendly either, and you may have to request fresh water for a camera rinse. Most dive shops will have an Igloo cooler that they will fill with fresh water to accommodate your cameras, but they may not think to bring it along unless you ask.
The better resorts are beginning to install guest gear storage areas, but in some cases you may still have to schlepp your dive gear back to your room each night, so pack a light mesh bag to facilitate ease of rinse and transport. Even though the resorts are state-of-the-art, in many respects the DR dive infrastructure is like much of the Caribbean 15 years ago.
The water temperature ranges from a low of 77 to a high in the mid-80s. The Caribbean Sea, especially off Boca Chica and Bayahibe, is generally significantly calmer than the conditions found in the Atlantic off the northeast shore, and consequently better visibility is the norm. Rivers are a significant factor affecting water clarity for some regions, but the dive operators typically visit sites least affected by runoff. Along the Caribbean leeward coast, expect 60- to 100-foot visibility, while the Atlantic sites can typically offer 50 to 90 feet of visibility.
Destination Snapshot: The Dominican Republic
Geography: The DR occupies roughly half of the island of Hispaniola, sharing a central border with Haiti. This is a country of geographic extremes. The highest mountain in the Caribbean is located in the DR (Pico Duarte at over 10,382 feet), yet just over 100 miles to the southwest is Lake Enriquillo, a saltwater crocodile habitat 144 feet below sea level. The island is washed by the Atlantic Ocean along the northern shore, and by the Caribbean Sea to the south.
As another example of the geographic contrasts in the DR, the northern coast seems to receive more precipitation October through May, while the south gets most of its rain May through October, although in general it rains more in the north than in the south.
Climate: Temperatures range from the mid-80s to low 90s in summer and from the mid-70s to mid-80s in winter. Some evenings in winter are cool enough for a sweater, particularly when dining outside.
Dive In: Dominican Republic
Documents: For U.S. citizens, a valid passport or original birth certificate and picture ID are required. A tourist card (US$10) must be purchased at the airport or U.S. gateway and a US$10 departure tax is collected by your airline.
Money Matters: The value of the Dominican peso fluctuates but is generally valued at 16 pesos to one U.S. dollar. Credit cards are widely accepted at resorts, restaurants and shops, and you can generally use the dollars if that's all you have with you. But it's a good idea to change money at the airport or hotel as it is typically easier to pay for things in pesos. If you use dollars on the street you'll get pesos for change.
Language: The official language is Spanish, but English is widely spoken in the resorts and tourist areas. The dive staff is very likely to be multilingual thanks to the heavy European visitation the DR enjoys.
Electricity: 110 volts/60 cycles, just like the U.S.
Telephone: The DR area code is 809.
Time: Atlantic Standard Time, one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The island does not observe daylight saving time.
Health: No immunizations are required to travel to the DR. Tap water is not safe to drink, but most hotels will provide bottled water in your room.
Just in case: There are recompression chambers in Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata.
For More Information: Call the Ministry of Tourism at (800) 752-1151.