SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- In Santo Domingo, “all-inclusive” covers more than just sun, sand and drinks. Unlike Punta Cana, its much newer neighbor to the north, Santo Domingo integrates the beachy tourist experience with the culture of a lively capital city and the living history of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The New World’s first church and first castle still stand here, limestone testaments to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492. The city was founded by his brother Bartholomew between 1496 and 1498.
Here are five high notes to hit on a visit to the country, regardless of when you go.
Zona Colonial. The Cathedral of Santa Maria and the Ozama Fortress form two of the pillars of Spanish society — faith and might. The original church had a palm-leaf roof, and the vaulted ceilings of the building built between 1521 and 1544 resemble the graceful branches.
The fort was also constructed of limestone in a medieval style in 1503 and served as a prison until the 1960s. The 54-foot-high tower is accessible by a steep winding staircase and offers views of the Ozama River below and the Caribbean Sea beyond.
The Museo Alczar de Diego Colón displays furniture and clothing similar to that used by Columbus’ son, Diego, who lived in the building until 1522. Information: 809-686-8657, ext. 232.
The Museo de las Casas Reales was built as a palace to represent King Ferdinand of Spain in 1511 and now houses an extensive collection of Spanish and native artifacts. Information: 809-682-4202.
• An English-language website, www.colonialzone-dr.com, offers excellent background on this area.
• Private tour guide Augustin Heredia Maon offers excellent tours of the Zona Colonial in English, Spanish and French starting at $30. His direct phone is 829-713-3164.
Boca Chica. A wide beach opens onto an even wider swath of waist- to neck-deep sea at this laid-back resort strip just 15 minutes or so from the airport. You can grab a table at one of the many restaurants along the beach, or head past Avenida Duarte to Calle Duarte, where two high-end restaurants sit on piers over the water. Both have comfortable, bedlike seating, fresh seafood and stairs down into the water.
• Neptuno’s Club Restaurant, Calle Duarte, 12, Boca Chica, 809-523-4703
• Boca Marina, Calle Duarte 12 A, Boca Chica, 809-688-6810; bocamarina.com.do.
La Vega. In the heart of the agricultural region about an hour inland from Santo Domingo, La Vega claims to have the best carnival celebrations in the country. Although it coincides with the pre-Lenten season, the Dominican version marks the country’s independence each Feb. 27. Crews of elaborately costumed dragon diablos (devils) parade through town, smacking the behinds of unwary bystanders who numb the pain with bright yellow cans of Brahma beer.
Baseball. Truly the national pastime, the professional baseball season runs October through January. With six Dominican pro teams, it’s not hard to catch a game at Estadio Quisqueya, where the exuberant crowds make American baseball look like a Sunday church service. If you’re lucky, you might catch a major-leaguer (Robinson Cano, Andy Dirks, Ubaldo Jimenez) playing with one of the home teams. Information: Estadio Quisqueya, Ave. Tiradentes, Ensanche La F, 809-616-1224.
Cigars, amber and larimar. When you enter La Leyenda del Cigarro, you will be offered a plastic shot glass of pink liquid, as will your 16-year-old son. This cocktail of local rum and red wine with herbs will make you buy more cigars than you need. But you will be glad when you get back home and have a whole box of hand-rolled Dominicans to share on your next special occasion. Information: Calle Hostas No. 402 (at Mercededs), 809-686-5489.
In beach stalls and gift shops, you will see jewelry made from amber and larimar, pale blue pectolite mined only in the Dominican Republic. Do your souvenir shopping at the chaotic Mercado Modelo mall near the colonial zone, and don’t be afraid to ask for a rebaja (discount). Information: Mercado Modelo, Avenida Mella #505, 809-686-6772.