In my opinion, no where is better for sun and sand vacations than the Caribbean. My kids have been lobbying for Turks & Caicos for their October half-term vacation. Turks & Caicos is downright beautiful with stunning white sand beaches and turquoise blue water. I am worried, however, that my husband will get bored with one week on the beach. When we visited Beaches in Jamaica, we took a handful of excursions to explore Jamaica’s colonial history to explore to keep him happy. I’m now trying to steer the family conversation towards a dual center holiday involving the upscale beach resort of Punta Cana and Parque Nacional Los Haitises (Los Haitises National Park) in the Dominican Republic. Los Haitises is a tropical rainforest which has become popular for eco-tourism.
The Dominican Republic is more than beautiful beaches. It’s got great opportunities for ecotourism as well.
The Dominican Republic is located on the Eastern half the Caribbean island of La Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic shares La Hispaniola with neighbouring Haiti.
Samana Peninsula is in the northeast corner of the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic has got more than 650 km (about 404 miles) of white sand beach coastline, some of which are considered to be the most beautiful in the world. Some of its historical and cultural attractions:
The Carnival of La Vega, celebrated every February since the 16th century, is famously the first Carnival celebrated in the new world.
Santo Domingo, the capitol of the Dominican Republic, is one of the oldest towns in the New World. The historic colonial centre of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Eco-tourism in the Los Haitises is on the upswing.
Things to Do in Los Haitises
Although many people visit Los Haitises as a day trip, there’s so much to do that you could easily spend a few days here.
Whales and Dolphin Spotting
There are often dolphins spotted in the Bay. Approximately 10,000 humpback whales visit the bay for mating season from January to March. In fact, Samana Bay is widely-regarded as one of the best whale-watching spots in the world and has been featured in a David Attenborough nature series.
Sad Fact: The pelicans dive into the sea with their eyes open so eventually the salt water blinds them. When the pelicans go blind, they die of starvation.
Ancient Cave Art
You can visit two caves which have pictographs from the original Taino population who used the caves in religious rituals. The Cueva de la Linea is a short hike and covered in artwork. The Cueva de la Arena is close to the beach and has artwork that is over 1000 years old. Both caves are easily accessible with walkways. Keep an eye out for bats!
Hiking Los Haitises will get you closer to the flora and fauna. You need to bring a licensed tour guide.
You can rent kayaks and explore the mangrove forests along the bay.
There are also waterfalls, natural springs and rivers to explore. For example there is the Cano Hondo waterfall which is near Sabana de la Mar or the Eye of Heaven (a hike through a cavern that leads to a freshwater river) . The mile-long hike that is the Trail of the Rain Forest conveniently has one end point at the Paraiso Cano Hondo with its natural waterfall pool (see below under Los Haitises National Park Hotels).
Escape to an Island Paradise
Cayo Leventado is a beautiful private island also known as Bacardi Island (thanks to some famous commercials shot there). This beautiful island is home to the Bahia Principe Cayo Leventado a five star hotel which is adults only (sadly for us!!).
Diving in the bay will take you to see beautiful coral and shipwrecks. Thanks to the caves, Los Haitises was popular with pirates who would wait for the gold-filled Spanish ships sailing from Santo Domingo back to fill Spain’s coffers.
Getting To Los Haitises National Park
There are two towns that act as gateways to Los Haitises National Park – Samana (15 km (about 11 miles) away) and Sabana de la Mar (9 km (about 6 miles away). There is a highway that connects Sabana de la Mar to Punta Cana on the East coast.
A rocky outcrop of an island in the Bay of Semana
You reach Los Haitises mostly by water because there are few roads. Luckily, entering Los Haitisis by boat gives you a spectacular view of Samana Bay.
NB: You will need to plan in advance if you want to visit Los Haitises while you are in the Dominican Republic because entry to the park is in limited numbers.
Los Haitises National Park Tours
All of these tours involve a boat entry into Los Haitises across Semana Bay.
The Paraiso Los Haitises is an 8 hour tour departing from Sabana de la Mar that includes a visit Los Haitises and lunch at Paraiso Cano Hondo.
The Los Haitises National Park and Paraiso Cano Hondo is a 10 hour tour that starts from other parts of the Dominican Republic, including Punta Cana. It’s similar to the Paraiso Los Haitises tour but the extra 2 hour allowance is for the drive into Sabana de la Mar.
Hotel Atlantis is located at Playa Bonita near Samana. It’s a small 18 room hotel with a private beach. This hotel has a French Creole restaurant owned by the former chef to former French President Mitterand.
A palm fringed beach coastline in the Dominican Republic
Tips for Visiting Los Haitises National Park
Who better to ask for advice on visiting Los Haitisis National Park than a travel blogger who have been there? Below are the recommendations and travel tips for from a fellow travel blogger, Viktor Vincej.
The Dominican Republic is a paradise of its own with so many beautiful beaches and forests, but the most beautiful of them all must be the Los Haitises National Park. It is magnificent and will leave you awestruck for days.
Full of history and even the most famous scenes of Jurassic Park were filmed there. In a forest full mangroves, you can see and endemic birds nesting in the trees while pelicans and vultures fly over you. The caves are a delightful experience on its own with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites while you can see Pictographs on the walls that were left behind by the Taino Indians.
Haitises means “mountainous land” in Taino, and the park is one of the rare remaining tropical forests of the island. The uniqueness of the park is in its mogotes or ‘lomitas’, that reach up to 40 meters in height and are all around the park. When the clouds hit mogotes that results in rain which happens here almost every day of the year.
You can take an excursion to the Haitises from almost all the hotels in the Dominican Republic, and while you are there be sure to also visit the island of Cayo Levantado.
Los Haitises National Park (Photo credit: Viktor Vincej)
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Although my children have travelled a fair bit, they have a firm favourite when it comes to vacations. They absolutely adored Beaches, the all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, with a love that defies explanation. We went to Beaches Ochos Rios for a one week vacation two years ago and the children have been begging to return ever since that trip.
The weather was perfect and the resort was small enough that we could let the children run around without worrying too much. We met another North London mother who said she picks Ochos Rios because it is the smallest and easiest to manage of the Beaches resorts when she is on her own with her kids.
The hotel is right on a white sand beach. The water is calm which makes it perfect for children. There are numerous activities available on the beach such as ride-on cycles, canoeing etc. Mostly though we hung out in the pool.
My children loved hanging out on one of the floaties and going up to swim-up bar to get (non-alcoholic) drinks. The pool staff arranged volleyball, water aerobics etc. every day but they were very good about leaving you alone if you didn’t want to join.
Be forewarned, getting a place by the pool was a bit of a scrap. I don’t know when these people got up because the seats were already covered with towels early in the morning. We spared ourselves the hassle and rented a cabana for the week. Cabanas come with waiter-service and are more sheltered than the rest of the deck chairs.
My son loved the water park. He could spend hours on the water slides. The Jamaican life guards were very sweet and got to know him pretty well because he was constantly there.
My daughter love the arts & crafts room. We were there pretty much every afternoon when the sun was at its height. For a small fee to cover the charge of materials, you can pick out a craft activity which then gets supervised by Auntie Pat, the lady in charge of activities. My daughter and I created a scrapbook together of our holiday. She also painted and decorated a box to hold her assorted trinkets.
My husband and I thought the food was pretty good. The children loved the buffet options and the endless ice-cream on tap. We insisted on having dinner at the Jamaican restaurant most nights. In terms of upscale food options, this restaurant was the best on offer. The Jamaican dishes were excellent. They even made pasta for my fussy-eater daughter even though it wasn’t on the menu.
Every evening there was some sort of entertainment on the stage. Some of the entertainment was better than others. I liked the Jamaican music night. The talent show where guests (mostly children) got on stage to show off their “talent” was somewhat painful.
We had two interconnecting rooms which was perfect. The rooms were spacious and comfortable. They were decorated in the usual Caribbean manner (lots of wicker furniture and pastel colours). The resort was nicely landscaped.
Our children and the nanny did not leave the resort at all. They were perfectly happy playing in the pools and eating ice-cream.
My husband and I took a couple of day trips organised by the concierge at Beaches Ochos Rios to visit some of Jamaica. We find it difficult to laze around on vacation for more than a couple of days but it suited the kids just fine. We couldn’t even convince them to venture out into Ochos Rios itself to play in the waterfalls at the Blue Hole. We are also foodies who like exploring the local culinary options. Although not our ideal holiday, Beaches was a great compromise with the children.
If you are looking for a hassle-free, easy holiday with kids, I think Beaches Resorts have got the mix right. There are plenty of children’s activities and just enough to keep the parents happy. We have promised our children that we will return to a Beaches Resort in the near future.
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Shrove Tuesday os also known as Pancake Day or Fat Tuesday. Traditionally it was the day you used up all your rich food ingredients (butter, eggs etc.) before you started fasting for the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. We were in France so in lieu of pancakes we had crepes. The crepes were delicious and I wolfed mine down before I took any photos. Sorry, needs must.
All the different carnival festivities in the world are a pre-Lenten tradition, too. The most famous of these festivals are the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the Carnival in Venice and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. At a travel show last month, I met representatives from the Dominican Republic who told us about the Carnavale de La Vega which is the most popular Dominican carnival.
Some say that the mask’s features represent the Spaniards (big mouths, long noses) who were considered devil-like because they enslaved the natives and the Africans. The masks are typically oversized and have huge horns. They were originally brought over from Spain and then customised by the African slaves.
The Limping Devil also carries a vejiga or “bladder” (nowadays made out of synthetics) filled with air which he would hit people with in order to strike out the bad in them. The enthusiastic whipping has got so bad that the authorities have put down rules. You can get hit only on the backside and if you are in the parade, not watching from the sidewalk. I wonder how much the rules get obeyed in the chaos of a carnival!
This little devil’s vejiga is almost as big as him! Image: Karen
The first Dominican Carnival goes back to the 16th century. The Spanish would let their slaves have some fun for a day. The Spanish, however, were very religious and needed the festival to have some sort of religious significance so it became a battle of good versus evil (the devil). There is also a story that the early carnivals depicted the battle between the Moors and the Spanish.
The Carnavale de la Vega occurs every weekend in February in the town. It also coincides with the festivities for the Dominican Republic’s independence from Haiti which is celebrated on February 27 each year. The Dominican carnivals are supposed to be the first ones celebrated in the New World (even predating the more famous ones in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro).
La Vega is the third biggest city in the Dominican Republic with a long history dating back to the time of Christopher Columbus who built a fort nearby. The fort was needed to protect the gold being mined nearby and taken from the island to Spain. Eventually a settlement developed around the fort.
I would love to visit the Dominican Republic and especially check out the amazing Carnival de La Vega. I’m pretty sure my kids would be pretty dangerous with a vejiga as well!
When we were in Jamaica last year, Mr. N and I left our resort and did some side trips around the local area. Our children refused to budge from the resort and so we had some lovely grown-up time on our own. Our favourite expedition was to the Good Hope Plantation near Falmouth.
The Good Hope Plantation was established in 1774 as a sugar estate. In its heyday, the estate belonged to John Tharpe, the largest land and slave owner in Jamaica. Responsible for about 3000 slaves, he was reputed to be one of the better slave owners. He established a church, hospital and school for his slaves. Even after the slaves were emancipated, they continued as workers on the estate. Of course, there probably were limited in their options.
The gatehouse was made with balance stones. Balance stones were the flagstones used on the ships to provide ballast when they came empty from England to Jamaica to pick up the sugar and rum.
The gardens were a riot of lush colour. The current owner has an orchid garden. Amazingly bamboo also runs riot through the estate. Apparently the Jamaican government encouraged the growth of bamboo for reasons no one could remember.
From the Great House set up high on a hill, you could see over the surrounding countryside. By the end of the 18th century, there were over 600 estates in Jamaica each with their own Great House. Nowadays only a few have survived.
In the 18th century, Good Hope epitomised elegant living. The Georgian features of the house were modelled on fashionable houses back in England. The house’s palladian windows were much admired.
Having received pattern books of what was in style in England, the owners would adapt them for the Jamaican climate. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Jamaican Georgian architecture. Here are the the hallmarks of Jamaican Georgian style:
hip roofs to withstand hurricanes
sash windows and louvred shutters to let the breeze in
decorative plaster on the walls
Jamaican houses were usually sold with their furnishings. This house is lucky to have many original furnishings.
The floor is a beautiful original wild orangewood burnished with years of use. The orange wood was native to Jamaica but extinct now. Each plantation owner had a planter’s chair made to his specification and build. As the house has had several owners, these beautiful old chairs are scattered throughout the house.
The copper bathtub in the master suite was remarkable at the time for having hot water piped in to soothe John Tharpe’s arthritis. Unfortunately the bathtub was lined in lead and Mr. Tharpe died of lead poisoning anyway.
The original counting house to the rear of the Big House was where the planters did business. The counting house has been converted into the honeymoon suite for when the house is rented for weddings and located above the old dungeon. I’m sure there is irony there somewhere.
The kitchen is fairly massive and has been used for filming. The Two Fat Ladies set an entire episode in these kitchens in which they demonstrated how to prepare food for a Caribbean Christmas. Martha Stewart prepared the Jamaican national dish, ackee and salt fish, in this video for Martha Stewart Living Magazine.
We had a charming romp in the Jamaican countryside. Our guide was terrific. She made a point of telling us that she had been the guide chosen to accompany Prince Harry around the plantation when he visited. I’m sure she didn’t hit up Prince Harry for tips though.
The estate remained a sugar plantation until the early 20th century. Nowadays, only part of the estate is a working plantation. The rest is utilised in various ways. The estate served as the location for the movie, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Currently, Chukka run tours on the estate. Other than the Great House tour we we took, there are more active tours like zip lining, river tubing and 4×4 excursions into the forest. There is also a villa to rent on the estate if you wanted to stay on site.
We really enjoyed our visit to Good Hope Plantation. The house and grounds were beautiful. We were lucky that we went on a day that wasn’t over run with people on excursions from cruise ships. We would definitely recommend visiting this plantation if you want to have a peak into life in a bygone era.
I’m so over the rain in London. So over it, I tell you. For this week’s ‘how does your garden grow’ post, I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to photograph yet more raindrops on roses (or raindrops on grasses, leaves or anything else). Let’s escape to a happier time and a sunnier clime!
In April, on our trip to Jamaica, Mr. and N and I visited some of the plantations near our resort. The children did not accompany us because they could not be parted from the pool at the hotel.
Although Prospect Plantation was established in 1721 as a working plantation, nowadays, the main crop is tourism. Sir Harold Mitchell, a Scottish businessman, bought the plantation in the 1930’s and his descendants still own it. In the past, the 1000 acre plantation grew a variety of spices and fruits, such as allspice, bananas and cocoa. On the grounds, there are still some exhibits of crops that used to be grown for profit, such as these pineapples.
After seeing the grounds, visitors can take a tour of the Great House. This photo shows the pillared drive to the front of the house.
The back of the house has a beautiful veranda. I could sit here for hours sipping Pimms. After enough Pimms, I wouldn’t even notice the mosquito bites. Supposedly on a clear day, you can see all the way to Cuba which is 90 miles away.
Most of the rooms are not open to the public which is kind of lame in my humble opinion.
The most interesting tidbit of information was that people would send their broken china back to England to get stapled together. The cost of shipping and stapling was still cheaper than buying new china. It was so very different from the throw-away culture of today.
The best part of the house is the spectacular view from the porch.
The gardens are something special. Lady Mitchell was big on gardening and she succeeded in recreating a traditional English garden in the tropics.
There are statues, meandering paths, fountains and tropical plants galore.
The British owners of the house entertained many famous people, some of which planted trees in commemoration of their visit. The great and the good varied from Henry Kissinger to Charlie Chaplin. This giant mahogany tree in the front yard was planted by Winston Churchill in 1953.
FYI, we toured the plantation by jitney. Mr. N and I opted not to ride on the camels or take a Segway tour. I’m sure the children would have enjoyed both alternatives. The tour also includes a demonstration of coconut tree climbing and sampling local fruits. The highlight for me, though, was definitely the gardens.