Playa San Rafael
Playa San Rafael (Meagan Drillinger)

Less than a year ago, all I knew of the Dominican Republic was Punta Cana. And, admittedly, I knew nothing at all as I had never even been to the country. All I thought I knew was tourist-packed beaches, plot after plot of all-inclusive resorts spilling over with Americans, and Parrotheads on parade.

Turns out I was very, very wrong.

My first experience to the Dominican Republic took me to the southwest coast of the country – an eye-opening experience that quickly changed my false impression of an entire nation into a passion for one of the most ruggedly beautiful spots I’ve ever seen. The southwest coast of the Dominican Republic is where adventure meets untouched luxury. West of Santo Domingo is a whole other world of wild, natural beauty, combined with a near-secret cornucopia of boutique luxury. Small, family-run hotels tuck nicely into jungled mountains, forests and rivers are veined with high-impact hiking trails, and private beaches that are only accessible by private boat are spilling over with epic sunsets. It’s a slice of this otherwise overrun Caribbean island that has yet to be explored.

River near Casa Bonita (Meagan Drillinger)

The journey into the DR’s southwest coast starts in Santo Domingo, a colonial city known for its old world Caribbean charm: pastel-colored buildings, historic cathedrals, elics of its Spanish-influenced past, and a palpable energy and sex-appeal among its warm, and friendly residents. The city has also undergone a modern renaissance, with small cocktail bars, fine dining, and boutique hotels.

Head out of the city westward toward the province of Barahona, which is not for the faint of heart. While the roads are in good condition, the journey is upwards of four hours. But travelers are certainly rewarded for their efforts along the way. The coastal highway is peppered with sun-drenched vistas over perfect slices of Dominican beachscape, often without any other travelers to obstruct the view. Highlights are Playa San Rafael, a crescent-shaped corner of white sand and pale blue water, surrounded by towering cliffs carpeted with jungle; and Playa Paraiso, located in the town for which it’s named with small beachside seafood shacks, waterfall cascades for swimming, and ample pebbled beaches for playing in the water.

Playa San Rafael
Playa San Rafael (Meagan Drillinger)

Here, it is worth a stay at Casa Bonita Tropical Lodge, a luxury boutique hotel and a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Nestled on a hill in between the sea and mountains, the resort was once the family summer home of the now-owner, who transformed the property into a retreat for visitors to enjoy organic cuisine, a jungle spa environment, and views from the infinity pool out to the Caribbean Sea. Simple, but elegant bungalows dot the hillside, with views out over the sea and mountains. An onsite Tanaka Eco Spa, tucked in the woods behind the resort, uses natural elements like coffee, chocolate, coconut, basil, bamboo, noni, mango and pineapple for its menu of treatments. A steam bath, candlelit Jacuzzi, and outdoor treatment areas next to the nearby river complete the natural spa vibe. But the real treasures at this property come from nature. It’s worth an early start to catch the sunrise exploding up from the horizon over the property’s main infinity pool. And after an organic breakfast at the open-air restaurant, set out into the jungle behind the resort to explore the river trail on property. This advanced hiking trail traipses across the river at more than five crossings, winding its way deep into the forest for a hidden secret: a system of caves with private swimming holes, all open to the sky.

Casa Bonita
Casa Bonita (Meagan Drillinger)

Continuing west from Barahona will take travelers to Pedernales province, which touches the border of Haiti. The landscape on the way to Pedernales changes to a beach-meets-desert vibe, a sharp contrast from the jungles of Barahona. But this remote province is one of the country’s most spectacularly beautiful. For a rugged, yet comfortable experience, try glamping at Eco del Mar. This stretch of secluded beach is a private campground, with a luxury twist. The Swiss Family Robinson vibe begins with the small beach bar and restaurant, with top shelf liquor and the freshest seafood. Though visitors do sleep in tents, each one is outfitted with a real bed and the campground has showers and plumbing. A must-do is a boat trip from the campground out to Bahia de las Aguilas, a private beach with pristine views of that Caribbean sunset. As the sky blazes in pink and orange, make your way back to the campground by private boat and watch as the ambiance changes to an ethereal glow, with hanging edison bulbs and candlelight. On Saturdays, Eco del Mar hosts a beach bonfire, as well.

Casa Bonita
Sunset at Casa Bonita (Meagan Drillinger)

On the journey back to Santo Domingo, make time for a visit at Ocoa Bay in the Azua province. This is one of, if not the only winery and vineyard in the Caribbean, as its location is incredibly unique, having the ability to produce grapes fit for the production of wine. Today the Ocoa Bay vineyard and surrounding property is an agro-tourism project that features villas surrounded by private vineyards, a boutique hotel, clubhouse with infinity pool and restaurant. It’s an elegant, refined, and civilized way to spend an afternoon before jolting back to the frenetic reality of urban Santo Domingo.