The four bedrooms in the Casa de Arbol building open out to an airy courtyard. // © 2014 Casas del XVI
The Colonial Zone includes several hotels located in restored period structures. The newest of these is Casas del XVI, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which opened in February. When Casas del XVI was built in the 16th century, it was the home of Alonso Perez Roldan, one of Christopher Columbus’ pilots.
Casas del XVI is a mansion composed of three separate villas, which sets it apart from other historic hotels in the Colonial Zone. Casa de los Barcos, which is a single two-bedroom suite, is the most deluxe of the three villas; Casa de Mapas has three rooms, a courtyard and a pool; and Casa del Arbol has four rooms looking out on a courtyard.
“We sell a house experience, not a hotel experience,” said Marc Balot, general manager, Casas del XVI. “The ambience is that of a sophisticated Caribbean B&B.” He added that while the property is kid-friendly, it is not geared toward children.
Balot plans to open more properties in the Colonial Zone, reaching as many as 65 rooms total by 2016.
I found the service attentive during my stay. A butler is always on call to assist with restaurant reservations and sightseeing; they can also make arrangements for a private cook or private dinner at the property. Breakfast is included and served al fresco in the courtyard. I opted for the Dominican-style breakfast, which was a delicious mix of the familiar and strange; eggs over easy, fried cheese, fried salami and a side dish called mangu, composed of cooked plantains with sauteed onions.
Casas del XVI is right in the middle of the Colonial Zone, a few blocks away from the Basilica Catedral Santa Maria de la Encarnacion. The basilica is the first and oldest cathedral in the America’s and is one of Santo Domingo’s premier sights.
I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon in the small park in front of the cathedral, soaking up the local color. Local Dominicans and the occasional tourist delighted in feeding flocks of pigeons, which would alight on outstretched arms. A few musicians set up under a shade tree and began an impromptu merengue concert that led to spontaneous dancing. There are plenty of al fresco restaurants across from the cathedral, as well as a variety of shops selling everything from souvenirs to cigars.
Restaurants in restored buildings are also within walking distance of Casas del XVI. Guests are provided a complimentary iPhone that is programmed to keep them in touch with their butler and the hotel staff. If guests lose their way wandering through the Colonial Zone they have the option of calling and having their butler come find them and guide them back to the hotel.
During my walks around the Colonial Zone, I saw a lot of work in progress, including whole streets being dug up to hide electric wires. Combined with renovation efforts underway at many more historic buildings, it’s easy to imagine that Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone will become an important part of the country’s tourism industry and a must-see for visitors.
New Coral Highway
On previous trips to Santo Domingo, I flew directly into the capital’s international airport. For this trip, I drove on the new Coral Highway from Punta Cana to Santo Domingo. Before the inauguration of the highway, vacationers in Punta Cana interested in seeing Santo Domingo had to endure an eight-hour round-trip journey over poorly maintained roads.
The new 43.5-mile Coral Highway is a well-maintained, multi-lane road that allows visitors from Punta Cana to reach Santo Domingo in two hours. There are very few roadside shops and restaurants along the new highway, although this may change as traffic increases. Right now the drive mainly passes through flatland punctuated with an occasional stately tree, banana grove or field of sugarcane.
Combining a Punta Cana beach vacation with a couple of nights in the Colonial Zone in a historic hotel such as Casas del XVI is an intriguing option. It’s a safe bet that the dual-destination experience will become a popular one in the Dominican Republic, especially for repeat visitors.