It's mid-afternoon in Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial, an 11-square-block district of peeling, cheerfully painted town houses and whitewashed churches built in the aftermath of Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492. Five hundred–plus years later, some might say that the Dominican Republic's UNESCO World Heritage Site could do with a bit of a hose-down. The ornate scrollwork that trims so many of the Zona's restaurants, bars, and government buildings comes into pretty strong relief with a buildup of soot. But as the blazing sun erases the effects of this morning's short rainstorm, the birds are chirping, a breeze is rustling the leaves of the shade trees, and it's hard to find a real complaint about this exuberant, scruffy city-within-a-city. Not so about yours truly: at the doorway to the Fortaleza Ozama, a 16th-century embankment looking out onto the city's marina, I'm getting a good-natured scolding from a freelance tour guide. The reason for his pique?I've just told him that of my 10 days in the country, I've allotted only two to Santo Domingo. "This is where Columbus first landed!" he tells me in the consonant-free accent typical of Caribbean Spanish, with a wink and a smile that belie his scorn. "We're the first city in the New World! Did you see the Museo de las Casas Reales two blocks away? We have the Alcázar de Colón, where Christopher Columbus's son once lived. Two days! What are you thinking?"
I'm thinking I've got a lot of country to cover. After seeing Santo Domingo, an affordable, bohemian paradise for history-lovers, I'll drive about 150 miles northwest to Puerto Plata, one of the first areas to develop the all-inclusive tourism that has become synonymous with the Dominican Republic. It has just welcomed a five-star boutique hotel that has the country's burgeoning hotel industry is buzzing. From there, I'll head southeast to the Caribbean coast's Punta Cana, now the fifth most popular warm-weather destination in the world, according to a recent study by the American Society of Travel Agents. En route, I'll make a brief detour about 1 1/2 hours to the west, to Casa de Campo, the mega-resort and estate complex that, in the 1970's, first attracted the monied leisure class to a little-known Caribbean island sitting prettily between its more famous neighbors, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Those other two Spanish-speaking island nations might have a larger place in our national consciousness, but they're not interchangeable with this one, and Dominicans are the first to tell you so. "Obviously, I'm extremely biased," says one of the nation's famous sons, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. "But we are very different from most of the other islands in the Caribbean. We're very proud of our history and culture. We know who we are."
Dominicans seem to be enjoying a special boost of self-esteem lately, and they're luring fresh admirers. (Not all of these are baseball fans, either, though the contributions of Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colón and All-Star Moisés Alou to the Dominicans' strong showing in the World Baseball Classic 2006 haven't hurt.) The combined forces of a currency now stabilized after a 2001 embezzlement scandal; Hurricane Wilma's crippling blow to competing getaway Cancún; $1.6 billion in government and private investments last year; the construction of badly needed new roads; a truly genial national culture; and a smorgasbord of new resorts and hotels have led tourism to surpass sugarcane as the Dominican Republic's leading economic sector. In a country the size of New Hampshire, there are eight international airports to fly in the growing crowd of yearly visitors—2005 saw 3.7 million, the largest number yet. Amid a swirl of espresso steam and cigar smoke at the homey Zona Colonial diner Mesón de Luis, local real estate broker Luis Fontánez tells me that property values in the neighborhood have increased 70 percent over the past 10 years thanks to all the Europeans who want to buy town houses. Visitors are so important to the country that President Leonel Fernández regularly travels through its 32 provinces to attend hotel groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings, many of which are broadcast (with endearingly low production values) on government-run Channel 4. At one such event, the inauguration of a newly expanded 350-slip marina belonging to Casa de Campo, Fernández confesses to me that he hopes the Dominican Republic will strengthen its push toward upscale tourism. "We should be moving into a higher-quality, more sophisticated niche," he says. (One needn't be on assignment for an American magazine to get a word with Fernández, by the way. At the marina, whose posh shops and pristine design make it a sort of Rodeo Drive by the sea, the popular head of state stopped to chat and pose for pictures with dozens of locals and tourists too.)