A few weeks ago we traveled to the Dominican Republic, and my oh my, were we blown away! We were very excited about going, and we knew it was going to be beautiful, but the reality WAY surpassed our expectations. The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean’s Pandora’s Box and the whole world needs to discover all its secrets!
The first part of this travel blog will be about our stay in Santo Domingo’s Colonial City, also known as Colonial Zone, and the hotel Casas del XVI. Stay tuned for Part 2, the tropical portion of our trip!
SLEEPING WITH HISTORY IN COLONIAL CITY
The hotel we stayed at the first couple of days in the Dominican Republic was the luxurious Casas del XVI. Please note that we are not taking the “luxurious” term lightly: Casas del XVI is a deserving member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. In general terms, this place is simply magnificent! To be more specific, Casas del XVI is a unique collection of five houses located at the heart of Colonial City in Santo Domingo, the very first European establishment in the New World. History is all you will breathe in at this hotel. Every house has a different theme, but they will all transport you to the colonial era, making you feel like Spanish royalty. If you think I’m taking it too far, you’d like to know that as soon as you arrive, a butler will be welcoming you with a decadent refreshment and from that moment on, he will be at your service for your every need during your stay. So much so that, even if you are on the go, you can use the mobile phone that the hotel provides its guests and call him with your request. This extraordinary quality of service has gathered such international attention to the point that, in 2017, Casas del XVI earned the Mystery Inspectors’ Excellence Award by Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an honor highly coveted by hospitality institutions around the world.
However, Casas del XVI’s exceptional service is equally matched by its distinctive beauty. All five houses are reminiscent of the 16th century (some of them even date back to that time!) and are impeccably decorated by world-known Dominican designer Patricia Reid. Through their architecture and décor style, the houses tell their own story highlighting the special connection of the colonial charm of the “Old World” with the comfort, intimacy and luxury of the modern times. We stayed at Casa del Árbol, which celebrates the nature that surrounds Santo Domingo. We could not get enough of the unexpected yet perfectly-flowing colors of the walls, the majestic doors and windows, and rustic yet utterly stylish furniture. The breakfast al fresco next to the colossal mango tree located at the courtyard of the house, accompanied by the Caribbean breeze and the morning singing birds, is a memory that will stay with you long after your stay has ended.
A STROLL THROUGH THE CITY OF “FIRSTS”
After Christopher Columbus’ arrival on the island in 1492, Santo Domingo became the headquarters for the first Cathedral, Monastery, University and Hospital in the Americas, serving as a model for the development of cities of the Caribbean and the American continent. Today, the Colonial City of Santo Domingo is a declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO and has preserved, almost unaltered, the extension of its territory and most of its architectural monumental structures.
The first stop of our city tour (booked by our amazing butler Ruben) was The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest of its kind in the Americas, built between 1514 and 1542. We entered its doors and took the audio tour while taking in the incredible honor to be standing inside this architectural wonder of almost 500 years. We also visited and learned about the history of other iconic sites such as Parque Colón, anchored by an imposing Christopher Columbus statue dating from the 19th century; Fortaleza Osama, the oldest fortress of the Americas built in 1502; and the National Pantheon, a stately 18th century neoclassical mausoleum for national heroes.
THE COLONIAL CITY OF TODAY
Not everything in Colonial City is about its past. Nowadays, the town is bustling with successful businesses that further emphasize its identity and we are going to tell you about some of our favorites:
First up, the retailers of Larimar, a gorgeous gemstone found only in the Dominican Republic. We even got a behind-the-scenes on the amazing process of how a regular looking rock is polished until it is turned into a stunning pale blue gem! Larimar is sold at all price ranges in a wide variety of jewelry pieces such as earrings, rings, necklaces, pendants, etc.
Another place we loved was the cigar shop La Leyenda del Cigarro (The Cigar’s Legend), a true heaven for cigar aficionados! More than 100 types from around the world are all made by hand, and you can see them being shaped into form right there at the shop. You can buy them by unit or in nice packages, which is very convenient if you want to try several different varieties. You’ll be surprised with the terrific quality of the Dominican cigar! According to experts, it’s just as good, and sometimes even better than Cuban cigars, and the best part? For a considerably lower price.
Last but not least, and as a self-declared chocolate addict, we were very happy to experience it in a way we had never seen before. At Kah Kow Experience, we were hands-on immersed in the transformation of the Dominican world-class cacao bean into a fine and exquisite chocolate bar. Just like Larimar and the cigars, there’s a wide variety to choose from. And in true Dominican fashion, a pleasant surprise: Besides chocolate, Kah Kow has a fantastic assortment of soap bars, which you can also create at the lab choosing the color and fragrance of your preference.
THE FOOD SCOOP
When we asked (again) our fantastic butler Rubén for suggestions on where and what to eat, he took it to another level -of course- and offered two options that we could not pass up.
The first one was the Casas del XVI experience, which DID NOT entail just a great meal at the hotel. It was a fabulous SIX-course (yes, six) meal prepared by ourselves. Sadly, we are fully aware of how lacking our skills in the kitchen are, so the idea of taking a cooking class with people we had never met before was pretty intimidating. However, we went for it, and we’re so glad we did. Chef Juan is not only a gastronomy but also a teaching expert! The whole class went by so fast since it was complimented with great wine and conversations about food and life. Before we knew it, we were enjoying a superb Caprese Salad with a Dominican twist (mango!), a soul-filling Mofongo (a Dominican typical dish made with plantains and pork belly), and a mouthwatering prawns-with-garlic dish, among other delicacies. As for the dessert, we had hands-down the best coconut flan we had ever tasted, and mind you, wherever there’s a flan option in a menu, we take it.
The second option Rubén gave us was the locals experience at Parque Billini, a historic park at the heart of Colonial City, and just steps from the hotel, surrounded by picturesque homes, shops and restaurants, and every evening concurred by locals and visitors alike. Our choice was Lulú Tasting Bar, a trendy Spanish-Dominican fusion restaurant with fun atmosphere that offers a great assortment of tapas, wines and cocktails. We especially loved the goat empanadas, the truffle carpaccio and the pork dumplings. Caribbean food has conquered our heart, and bellies.
And just like that, our too-short stay in beautiful Ciudad Colonial and Casas del XVI had ended. If we had to describe this visit in just one word, it would be Transforming. We were not only impressed by the striking beauty of Casas del XVI, an inspiration that comes at a perfect time since we are in the process of moving into a new house, but also, we got a renewed interest and appreciation for history and the world we live in today. Don’t look any further and make Casas del XVI and Ciudad Colonial your next unforgettable escape.
IN A NUTSHELL
Where we stayed
Hotel Casas del XVI: https://www.casasdelxvi.net/
What we did (All booked through the hotel)
Old City Stroll - A stroll through the City of Firsts: The first cathedral, the first monastery, the first university and the first hospital built in the Americas!
Kah Koh Experience - Create your own chocolate bar (or soap bar) at this beautiful factory!
Cooking class - Prepare a delicious mix of Dominican and Caribbean dishes with the Hotel’s Chef. ¡Buen provecho!
Where we ate
Casas del XVI’s breakfast al fresco is unbeatable!
Lulu Tasting Bar – www.lulu.do
Where we shopped/souvenirs
Larimar (gemstone) – There are several shops in the area!
Cigars - La Leyenda del Cigarro
Chocolate – Kah Kow (https://kahkow.com/)