The Dominican Republic has more Blue Flag beaches than any other island in the Caribbean so there's no shortage of alluring spots to soak up the sun and take a cooling dip. A serene stretch of coastline fronting the Atlantic, Punta Cana encompasses no less than 10 curves of super soft sand that include Playa Juanillo, which is widely regarded as one of the area's best slices of paradise. Picture-postcard perfect Macao Beach - all crystalline waters and palm-shaded white sand - has been named by UNESCO as one of the world's most beautiful beaches.
A little further afield, Samana, on the north-east coast, is blessed with secluded beaches backed by seemingly-untouched tropical woodland and wild coconut groves. In Samana Bay, Cayo Levantado island is the very definition of a tropical island paradise. Elsewhere on the coast, the area around Puerto Plata has some wonderful golden beaches washed by the cool Atlantic. Playa Sosua, lined with snack stalls and souvenir stands, is close to the town, while Playa Grande, with its 1.6km of shimmering sand pounded by high surf, is perfect for a long stroll.
The Dominican Republic's interior is draped in lush greenery and dotted with rushing waterfalls and cascades that really deserve to be explored during a trip to the country. One of its most majestic waterfall is Cascada El Limon, near Samana, which tumbles 52 metres into a deep blue pool and often makes an idyllic spot for a cooling dip. If you only have the chance to visit one set of waterfalls during your holiday, Damajagua in Puerto Plata has to be top of the list. A beautiful natural water park of 27 waterfalls, countless fresh pools and channels, you can ascend one side of a mini mountain and then swim, slide, jump and float your way back down.
As well as some stunning natural features, the country's landscape also harbours some fantastic exotic wildlife including rare or threatened species such as the rhinoceros rock iguana. Bright green Hispaniolan parrots, the heralds of paradise, inhabit rocky crevices and treetops, and are a common sight on the island.
Exciting activities abound in the Dominican Republic, whether you prefer aquatic sports or land-based pursuits. With a number of world-class golf courses, the country is a great destination for golfing enthusiasts. The scenic ocean-side course of Punta Espada, on the south-east coast, is considered the best in the Caribbean. If you are looking for an easy-going way to explore, horse riding and trekking is common on the island and scenic safaris of the forested foothills and waterfalls can be easily arranged.
Whale watching is also a popular pastime on the island, with schools of humpbacks visiting the Silver Bank between December and April each year, giving tourists a good chance of spying one as it carves the water. Below the waves, divers are spoilt for choice when it comes to scuba diving sites. The coast is dotted with wrecks, reefs, coral gardens and underwater caverns, rich with marine life including stingrays and nurse sharks.
There are plenty of aquatic adventures to be had above the ocean too. Jarabacoa offers adrenalin-fuelled white-water rafting to get your pulse racing, while the winds in Cabarete make for excellent kite surfing conditions. For a gentler activity, try the expert fishing in Boca Chica.
Carnivals and colour
Like most Caribbean islands, the Dominican's revel in a rich natural bounty of exotic fruits and spices, and celebrate their colourful culture with lively music and festivals. A visit to a street market reveals the sheer diversity of flavours on offer and is a great place to pick up some locally-rolled cigars. Indigenous Tainos had been making use of the island's naturally-growing tobacco plants long before the Europeans first arrived.
To really get a feel for the Dominican spirit, going to one of the country's carnivals is a must. Very popular among Dominicans, the carnivals are a joyous expression of local culture incorporating bright outfits, lively parades and street parties. Throughout February, every region in the island holds its own carnival, including a children's carnival in Bonao and the island's largest carnival in Santo Domingo. The carnivals often feature the national Dominican dance and music known as Merengue.
Often overlooked as a cultural destination, the Dominican Republic was the first place where Columbus landed during his voyage to the Americas, and Santo Domingo is the oldest capital of the New World. As you would expect, this has given rise to countless cultural attractions, including Catedral Primada de America, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, completed in 1540, and Alcazar de Colon, the first viceregal mansion to be built in the Americas. The building now houses the Museo Alcazar de Diego Colon, which contains the Caribbean's most important collection of medieval and renaissance art. Further curiosities can be found throughout the island and one of the best attractions for a family day out is Altos de Chavon in La Romana, a chocolate-box reconstruction of a European medieval village complete with cobblestone alleys and gas lanterns.
In the northern city of Puerto Plata, travellers can find a host of other cultural gems. In the city's heart, Independence Square (Plaza Independencia) also known as Central Park is more like a square surrounded by several important buildings - the City Hall and the Cathedral of San Felipe - and centred on an octagonal Victorian-style gazebo. The city is also the capital of the Amber Coast, named for its rich amber deposits, and features a great Amber Museum, with some fantastic specimens - some containing ancient fossilised insects.