The Dominican Republic is being reimagined, if you can believe that. There’s a new company called Mint that has taken on a collection of boutique hotels to give gusts a personal experience of the island. Forget Punta Cana and the all inclusive brash collection of excess and indulge yourself in a sensory experience of the island and some of the places you never knew you needed to discover. My journey began in Barahona, located on the south side of the island. I landed in Santo Domingo and was greeted by a VIP arrival host who breezed me through baggage claim, off to a side booth where I was the lone passenger with the immigrations officer and in what felt like thirty seconds, I was off an in the VVIP (yes, two v’s) section of an arrivals lounge. This was the inner sanctum of Before Boarding’s exclusive lounge.
The ladies at Mint have thought of everything, partnering with the cream of the crop to start the experience from the moment of arrival. My awaiting black SUV was another perfect fit and made the three hour drive fly by. I was happy to see the reality of the destination. There were boys selling hats, windshield wipers, and cold water in the streets. Congested traffic with horns blowing throughout the dusty streets. I was an observer. The participants were also content. As the ladies selling fresh fruit on the side of the road made their seniority work in their favor, the younger boys rushed the cars bringing=ng new meaning to the words drive-through. I had to stop and grab some local fruit. It’s one of my absolute favorite things to do on any given day. I am a renowned farmer’s market hound and a sucker for island fruit, any time—any day. On this day, it was a great precursor to what lay ahead of me.
I was on my way to Casa Bonita Tropical Lodge. Upon arrival I was met by the owner who, at once, made me feel at home. Certainly, as I stepped off the gravel driveway up to the thatched roof reception, I could see the hip pool area, blue sky, and the deep blue sea. Before I could even imagine the phrase, ”Oh, this view again.” I was placed in a vehicle and headed a little deeper down the driveway. Stepping out of the car and on to some more gravel, that delineated a clear white path to my River Suit. A canopy of trees shaded my stroll to the front door and the sound of the river rushing by was hypnotic. Now, I said to myself, “Now, this is a new view.” The bedroom was lit by nature, through the massive sliding glass doors and glass panel at the apex of the ceiling. I may as well have been floating on the river. Once I was able to regain my own attention, I turned it to the bathroom which was all out doors. The toilet had its own room and there was a vintage tiled glass-encased shower that looked else on two-week wall made of limestone and river rocks where the outdoor shower sat. The canopy of trees made their way over this entire scene, as small warm pebbles of light shone through the trees, creating a feeling of being nurtured by Mother Nature. This was are unique and then inviting suite.
The resort that I had checked into seemed like a different world from where I was now, yet it was only several yards from away from where I stood. I was in a fairytale, surrounded by tall trees, feeling like Little Red Riding Hood or Robinhood, I was not yet sure. There was little time to decide between the two as it was time to act like Cinderella and swiftly change into my robe and, get this, walk with my masseuse into the river where my massage table was set up and awaiting my presence. I promise you that I almost pinched myself as I lay naked, facedown, staring through to the rushing water below me. One word…unreal. My body scrub and massage was everything. When the hour had come and gone, far too quickly, I was asked to stand, naked in the river as my masseuse poured a freshy brewed concoction over y body, to rinse off the exfoliants she used to renew my body and now my soul. She explained that it was herbs and roots, some tobacco leaves and a few other gems from nature. The warmth of this elixir being poured over my freshly scrubbed skin as I stood ankle deep in the fast-moving cold water of the river was the very best. These are the authentic experiences that indelible memories are made of.
Somehow I transported myself (still in a dream-state) back to my suite in time to get dressed for dinner with the owner, Polivio. I ate while he regaled me with stories from his childhood when this was merely his family’s weekend estate. He and his cousins would hike, swim, and play all around the property. After growing up and taking a look at what a treasure they had, it became obvious that sharing it with more and more friends was inevitable. From this, the hotel was born. Keep in mind that when you arrive, you come as a friend of the family. This is not just lip service, it is a feeling you get when you are here.
After all, a lot of my friends have bikes, not a lot of them have ziplines in their back yard. We then took a hike and saw some of the plentiful acreage and caught up on potential plans to add a few more things to the accommodation roster. All low-impact on the environment. At the moment, if you were to stumble upon the lodge, you’d be hard-pressed to point out the roofline of much of the accommodations. Rounding out the day full of fun and action, we gathered around the brick oven, in its own wide open space. This was when Polivio invited a few more close friends (actually were old friends of his) over for the afternoon. We all got to try our hand at making pizza from scratch. Mine had corn on it and was quite tasty. We laughed, drank beer and then the chef prepared proper lunch for us all before one-by-one we strolled down to the river for a little more of its magic.
On my final morning, I attended a yoga class. Here again, the main character was the river. We were all on a yoga deck, built about 50 feet above the flow, but the sound and the energy was there. In Vinyasa, movement is fluid and with the river as our companion, everything flowed from one asana to the next. I hated to say goodbye but the next Mint resort awaited. We had a private plane ready to breeze us back over to Santo Domingo, but that plan had to be scrapped due to a faulty battery. We took no chances and drove back.
Santo Domingo — the capital and the largest city in the Dominican Republic is home to the historic colonial city a UNESCO World heritage site. Here I could wander the streets of the first city of the New World, visit the Cathedral of the Americas and dying in the Alcazar de Colón, also known as Columbus Alcazar with its wide range of bars and restaurants where I was able to discover true Dominican cuisine. I was excited to explore, even though the journey was longer than anticipated. I met with the team behind Mint and after taking a quick spin around the old city on tuk-tuk, owned and operated by the Billini hotel in the Colonial City. The fresh night air brought me right back to where I needed to be. I had now worked up an appetite and was ready to have dinner on the cobblestone streets of this ancient city. My stay here was rather brief as we had miss most of the day driving back versus flying. I took an is much of a could go and it left me knowing that I will be back for more. I hooks so has history but is brought current what’s all the modern amenities that today’s traveler requires. Early the next morning, the ladies and I we’re making our way to Samaná for a stay at the Bannister Hotel & Yacht Club. This part of the Island was also very different from the rest. It had its own charm and as soon as we got on the water and headed over to Los Haitises National Park, the difference was made even greater. This was a set of islands that were nothing short of those you see in Thailand. I had again been transported to a place in the Dominican Republic I never imagined. The seas around these islands were calm as I believe they were protected from the wind and the waters were far more shallow than the crossing from the yacht club. We could’ve spent the entire day zipping around these stone monoliths I have been hard by the wind and sea. Here again, we had other things in mind. We returned to the yacht club and had a very late lunch and cocktails while bobbing in the infinity-edge pool watching the sun go down. Remarkable days in the Dominican Republic had been had by me in the past, but none quite as authentic as my week spend bopping to these three points.
If you’re at that point in your life where you have that been there done that attitude, feel jaded by seeing one too many large Caribbean resorts, I recommend seeing the Dominican Republic from a very different angle. Mint has curated a collection of properties designed to give you a true sense of place. The difference between the three place we visited was vast, yet each held its own special place on the island. I had no idea that the Dominican Republic grew its own rice. As we drove from Santo Domingo to Samaná, again I felt like I was somewhere in Southeast Asia. Rice fields as far as the eye could see. The very last stop on my trip was even more varied from all the rest. We took a helicopter from Samaná to Punta Rucia. Here we were in a bohemian-vibe setting. Each bungalow had a simple A-frame made of smooth rounded white walls, strung like puka beads on a necklace of white sand. This was a place for families and couples to come and relax. We took to ATV’s and went hunting for the elusive manatee that used the mangroves as homes and breeding grounds. That trip was fun and guests can partake in the fun during their stay. It’s great for laughs and the manatee center is a fantastic resource for learning a little more about the Caribbean Manatee. Super fun fact is that they have Taino artifacts that they discovered around the area and a real, out-in-the-open, skeletal skull of a pirate, mostly intact. Now that is not something you see every day, or even every other day. It’s also something you wouldn’t expect to see at a manatee conservation center, but here it is and here we are. Remember to look for it on your visit. They don’t make a big deal about it, so look for it on the second shelf of the one and only case in the room where you get the overview about these manatees. I dare you to try and focus after that!
After our ride came to an end, we were back in time for dinner by the pool and already dreaming about the following day when we would take a boat to Cayo Arena. This is a sandbar in the middle of the sea with four straw huts on it. The area is protected and since its existence is tenuous (being a sandbar in the middle of the sea) visitors cannot even lay a towel on the sand. I had to think twice about this rule but then it made perfect sense. When the towel is lifted, sand comes with it. That how fragile this slice of heaven is. It’s a thrill to be on it. The very deep and rushing sea surrounds you as you stand on these grains of sand. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there that day. I could see it getting crowded with only ten people on it, but thankfully we did not have to concern ourselves with that.
Here again, I felt like I spent far too short a time and made another mental note that I will be back here as well. This is the Dominican Republic I prefer. No crowds, amazing food, personalized attention and unique experiences. Say hola to Mint the next time you think DR as a vacation option.