For our third trip since the COVID vaccines, we opted to travel from Denver to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on a quick long-weekend jaunt. Since Antarctica, I’ve visited 95 countries and Brendan has visited 65, so we thought that the DR would be a nice and easy way to get closer to my 20 year goal of 100 countries before turning 40 on Dec 21, 2022. And, in fact, it was! Yay, because we needed a stress-free trip after all the travel stress and COVID uncertainty of Antarctica.
Our travel from Denver to Santo Domingo began late Thursday night to EWR on red eye flight at UA1467 departing at 23:58 and scheduled to arrive at 05:38. Leaving the house at 21:30, our Lyft got us to the airport around 22:15, later than expected due to an accident shutting down two lanes on Pena Road. Nevertheless, we had plenty of time, and did not have to check in since we checked in digitally despite many problems with getting our boarding passes to display through the mobile app. The piece of United’s technology that did work and was relatively painless happened to be the their Travel Ready Center – which we used to upload our passports, vaccines, and the approved Dominican Republic entry form. Note – you have to complete the same Dominican Republic form to exit the country, and we recommend doing that in advance of your flight out of the DR.
Our brief visit at the airport on the way from Denver to Santo Domingo was hassle free despite TSA pre-check being unavailable. After the normal security theater of taking our shoes off and our liquids out, we were on the other side within 10 minutes. After a more crowded than usual train ride, we arrived at our good friend’s house, Terminal C. The United Club was closed so we found some spots near our gate and killed some time stretching our legs before the flight boarded, on time. The flight was smooth and painless despite being a re-eye and sitting in the back of the plane economy. We did keep our masks on also the entire time through our travel process – didn’t want to risk picking anything up on the way, plus the flights were both 100% full.
During our short layover in EWR on our way from Denver to Santo Domingo, we took advantage of my United Club membership, which allowed us to have a nice breakfast, and then boarded the flight on time. For $79 per person I was able to to upgrade to United First on flight UA1984 from EWR to SDQ at 07:57 to 11:47. All in the tickets were about $850 per person, pretty expensive considering the distance, but not surprising given oil prices spiking due to the Russia – Ukraine War and the fact we didn’t buy the tickets until April. The flight departed and landed on time, and the extra space from the upgrade was definitely worth it for the added comfort and some ability to sleep. The waffles turned out to be pretty good as well. We did notice that United First no longer offers alcoholic beverages pre-departure and has cut down the service offering overall. Besides eating, we did continue to mask the entire duration of our travel from Denver to Santo Domingo.
After our perfect flights from Denver to Santo Domingo, we arrived at SDQ and, deplaning first, breezed through immigration and didn’t even have to pay an entrance fee. Most of our conversations with the officials started in Spanish but quickly turned to English, and in most cases it was hard to hear due to either glass barriers or quiet voices. Since we didn’t check our bags, there was nothing to collect at baggage claim, so after quick bathroom break we passed through the customs area and then outside the airport to meet our driver. We had arranged the driver in advance via a company called Santo Domingo Taxi, which we wholeheartedly recommend. The reservation inquiry was very simple via an online form, and Ken reached out to us to confirm the details and pricing which was $45 each way from the airport to the hotel, and the back again. Payment was accepted in credit card, an English speaking driver was arranged (Ken said they were in limited supply, and we mentioned we were OK with Spanish speaking as well since we could manage some Spanish), and a day before travel we were even sent a picture of the driver and the vehicle.
As expected, the driver was waiting for us, holding a sign with my name on it, when we exited the airport. He didn’t say much but greeted us with a smile and swiftly brought us to the vehicle. Once inside, his phone rang, and apparently it was for us! It was Ken. He wanted to let us know that they did a last minute driver change, told us our new driver’s name, that he only spoke Spanish, and that he knew exactly where to take us and ho to handle payment. As promised, the drive was easy and mostly along the beautiful coastline, and we were at our hotel, Casas del XVI, in less than 30 minutes in a nice air conditioned, accessible, minivan. Approaching the old town (Ciudad Colonial) got our travel juices flowing and every tire role closer to the hotel got our hearts going with the excitement of epic experiences ahead. We payed the driver and stepped in to the hotel lobby.
Casas del XVI was part of the small, luxury hotel group, and was a boutique property within Santo Domingo, whose concept revolved around separate “houses” with a courtyard style shared by guests. The main house, Casa del Arbol, contained reception as well as a few rooms, with a lush courtyard interior, but no pool.
Prior to the trip, we called to confirm our reservation which was made through Priceline (I never trust indirect bookings since the hotels typically hate them) and that COVID tests could be arranged for our re-entry. As per plan, we encountered no problems with our reservation upon arrival, and after a 10 minute wait were checked in by the manager, who took our credit card to collect a deposit, and were then given our keys. Unfortunately he failed to explain really any of the details of how the hotel worked or the “house” concept, or breakfast, or where we were located, or what there was to do around us – other than introducing us to our butler Santos, it was a sterile welcome. Santos whisked us our bags and us to the next house over (Casa del Pozo), across the street, and into another beautiful, hidden entryway leading to a small courtyard and a pool, with our room directly next to the pool.
We decided we’d tip Santos at the end using the $250 in mostly dollar bills we each brought with us. Santos gave us his phone number via What’s App, which apparently was the way to communicate with people on the island. After he left, we enjoyed getting acquainted with the lovely room, and were happy to see that the bathroom came with a shower and not just a clawfoot tub as advertised on the website.
The next thing afwe did was shower and take a long nap after kicking the AC into high gear. It was about 3PM by the time we settled in and we were exhausted from the long night and morning of travel. For me, the sleep was restless due to sounds from other guests (in particular a child running around) and staff members in the courtyard performing maintenance outside out room, but Brendan at least conked out. Given that the windows in the room were shutters with very little insulation from the outside, we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to get good sleep at night, especially if our “house” mates decided to sit outside or use the pool late into the evening. But, the common theme for this trip was hakuna matata, and it turned out to not be a problem as soon as the family with the kid left and we busted out our travel sound machine. Thank goodness for that.
Upon waking up around 18:00, we What’s App’d Santos to ask about arranging a tour and about breakfast, but were having some language barriers so we decided to go visit the front-desk. We met Carla there, who was very helpful in finally explaining to us all the missing pieces about the hotel and how things worked. Apparently, there were breakfast and food menus and we could place orders throughout the day with Santos. Carla What’s App’d those to us. Then, we talked to her about the walking tour we were thinking of booking through Trip Advisor, but we all agreed it looked sketchy since it had no meeting location and required payment in advance. Instead, Carla helped us book a walking tour through a guide the hotel had a relationship with for $50 per person – a little pricey but at least we knew it wasn’t a scam. We had read earlier that scams like this were pretty prevalent in the Dominican Republic. The best part was that we could charge it to the hotel and therefore preserve our cash.
Next, we talked to Carla about dinner and whether we needed reservations. She suggested that we did since it was Friday night, but only had one recommendation – Maraca (Carla obviously hadn’t been trained in the concierge part of the role and the hotel guest facing services still needed some polishing). It had been one of the places we were eyeing, so we asked her if she could help us make a reservation – she tried, but they were booked up, so we pivoted to a Saturday night reservation instead. We had read about a place nearby called Jalao, so Karla was able to book that instead for us at 20:30, and informed us of an entrance fee to cover the live music. Fine by us. With some plans established, we asked Carla if we could see other houses in the hotel, and she graciously allowed us to tour the Casa de los Mapos and the interior of the reception area in Casa del Arbol.
With a light plan in place, and very easy travel from Denver to Santo Domingo behind us, we were off to the races to explore this marvelous and historic colonial city for another 3 days!