Dominican Republic Feature

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History You Can See

Colonial Times Are Mirrored in the Present

Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain on his first New World voyage in 1492, when he came looking for riches for his Spanish patrons; Columbus's brother Bartolomeo founded Santo Domingo in 1496, and it became the cradle of Western civilization in the Americas. Columbus's son Don Diego, resided here grandly before returning to Spain in 1532. Nicolas Ovando, the first governor, was an able ruler, but his mistreatment of the indigenous people was his black mark.

What to See: You can see some 300 surviving structures from the period in Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Although key buildings, such as the hospital and monastery, are now artistic ruins, some buildings have been beautifully restored. The Plaza de España, formerly the colony's warehouse row, now houses trendy restaurants with popular outdoor cafés. The urban mansion of the Governor of the Americas is now a luxury hotel, the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando. The focal point of Parque Colón, Basílica Catedral Metropolitana Santa María de la Encarnación, was the first cathedral in the Americas. El Museo de las Casas Reales is one of the Zone's most handsome colonial edifices; built in the Renaissance style, it was the seat of Spanish government and now functions as an art gallery and museum. The Casa del Cordón is the oldest surviving stone house from the early colonial period in the Western Hemisphere.

The Victorian Era Was a Golden Age

The 19th-century was a golden age for the island's tobacco-growing regions, when world prices reached their heights in the 1870s. While tobacco was grown in the fertile Cibao Valley around Santiago, it was shipped from such ports as Puerto Plata, bringing great wealth to that city, too. The trade made tobacco traders and merchants rich, and several Germans built impressive dwellings in the region. Although many such mansions are in disrepair, some have been restored; others are in the works.

What to See: The tobacco trade spawned opulent homes and handsome wooden buildings decorated with gingerbread fretwork and painted in eye-stopping Caribbean colors, which is notably present in all their faded glory in Puerto Plata. You can get a feeling for this bygone era in the magnificent Victorian-style gazebo in the central Parque Independencia, the Museo del Ambar Dominicano (originally the home of a German tobacco entrepreneur), and Casa de La Cultura (now a Dominican art gallery and performance space). The old Victorian neighborhoods continue northeast about eight blocks and also east toward the ocean. Many of the millionaire families in the charming, provincial city of Santiago still owe their fortunes to tobacco. Santiago's Old Town is also centered around its central park, Parque Duarte. Santiago's colorful past is seen in the facades of its 19th-century gingerbread houses that are scattered through the streets surrounding the park all the way to the Fortaleza de San Luis.

Reminders of the Trujillo Era

Generalissimo Rafael L. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961. His reign was one of the bloodiest in the 20th century. After gaining power, he entered into several pushes to "whiten" the mixed-race nation. He was particularly against the immigration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic, and his policies caused the deaths of thousands. At the same time, he had an open-door policy for Europeans, welcoming Jewish refugees during World War II and Japanese colonists afterward. He had a flamboyant style, drove yellow, big-finned Cadillacs, and was intent on leaving an architectural legacy behind. Indeed, he left a vast infrastructure in the country, including highways and other public works and monuments.

What to See: The most notable of Trujillo-commissioned structure is Santiago's massive Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración de la Republica, a 230-foot monument topped by an allegorical figure of Victory. The excellent, modern Autopista del Este (Highway 3) that connects Santo Domingo with Juan Dolio and La Romana was built in the late 1950s, in part so that Trujillo's son Rafael would have a place to drive his race cars. The impressive Palacio Nacional, the white, neoclassical seat of government in Santo Domingo, which was completed in 1947, is emblematic of Trujillo's love of grandeur. It's not open to the public.

The New Millennium Awakens Architects' Creativity

It was as if the year 2000 signaled an awakening in the artistic sensibilities of Dominican architects, as their talent burst forth in compelling ways. The island nation was emerging as a tourist destination, and the revenue from tourism began to seep into the economy at every level. Neither architects nor developers were satisfied with the bland, concrete buildings and cookie-cutter mentality that predominated across the island. And upscale second-home buyers demanded something more interesting. The millennial revival has positively affected both the resort and residential categories, and can be seen in important public works projects as well. In some cases, Dominican design has taken inspiration from its historic past, beginning with the 16th-century Spanish architecture.

What to See: The Centro León is the most impressive, new, architectural landmark in Santiago, a world-class museum and art gallery that was also designed to promote sensorial emotions. Secrets Sanctuary Cap Cana Golf & Spa, with its palatial main lobby and gorgeous stone facade, was inspired by 16th-century colonial styles. Casa Colonial Beach & Spa Resort in Playa Dorada may look like a restored colonial mansion, but as you can see on the inside, it's also a contemporary marvel. After many a renovation, Casa de Campo now has a minimalist design in its public areas. Three of the top design professionals in the country participated in the transformation that included the reception, the pool area, fitness center, main restaurant and lounge, and 80 of its rooms, which are designated "Elite." The complete renovation of another 75 rooms and 10 suites is underway.

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