Isla Catalina – Dominican Republic
Formed from coral and ringed by further coral reefs which sit just beneath turquoise-hued waters, the tiny but idyllic white sand island of Catalina is not surprisingly beloved by snorkelers and divers. Besides its underwater wonderland, Isla Catalina –only a short boat ride from the Dominican mainland -epitomizes in every way the image of tropical perfection. Part of a protected national park, Isla Catalina is uninhabited and besides a scattering of arts and crafts shacks and a tiny bar this small speck in the Caribbean Sea has no other buildings or infrastructure of any kind. It is exactly this and the chance to play at desert island castaway which tempts visitors here.
Whether you decide to arrive at Catalina as partof a sailing and snorkeling tour or make your way here by shuttle or private boat and whether you spend one hour or a whole day here the time you spend on this slice of paradise is all about leaving the world of noise and bustle far behind.
With a rocky coast on its windward side, Isla Catalina’s fringe is 2/3 beach and that on its protected western side is a gorgeous swathe of palm-lined white sand where the waters are always pond-like calm and impossibly blue. While some come here to spend the entire day doing very little except cooling off in aqua-marine waters in between topping up the tan, snorkeling the reefs to meet the local marine creatures or strolling the postcard-perfect beaches others choose to mix and match the Robinson Crusoe experience with activities on the nearby mainland.
Both the bustling city of La Romana and the beautiful beaches of fishing village Bayahibe are within easy reach. Between them they offer an exciting ‘things to see and do’ menu which might have you visiting the former home of a 15thcentury Spanish explorer, lead you into a cave to gaze upon ancient petroglyphs or see you wandering a replica medieval village.
Once the last of the boats leave Isla Catalina’s idyllic shores you can start turning your thoughts to which ofthe many bars and restaurants on the mainland you will choose for sundowner cocktails and dining. Waterfront spots are in great supply so as you sip exotic cocktails straight from coconut or pineapple shells and feast on seafood you can gaze upon waters where once buccaneers and pirates prowled in the days of long ago.
A Morning on Isla Catalina
Sitting less than two miles from the mainland, it takes little effort to arrive at Isla Catalina’s dreamy shores but whether you decide to arrive here independently or as part of an all-inclusive tour is up to you.
Sailing, Snorkeling and Island Time
Arguably the easiest way to make the most of all Catalina has to offer is to sign up for a tour. Such a half day or full day choice first gives you a leisurely sail along Dominica’s beautiful coast with its backdrop of lush greenery followed by snorkeling and then time spent on the Robinson Crusoe-like island itself. There are a variety of tours heading out to Isla Catalina from the mainland –principally from La Romana or Bayahibe -ranging from those in small private boats to others onboard luxury sailing craft which are an experience all in themselves. If you really want a slice of heaven to yourself you can even hire a boat and pilot to take you out to the island outside of the scheduled tour hours so that you won’t have to share the idyllic beach here with another soul.
Although Isla Catalina is nothing short of tropical perfection as most of us would picture it in our minds it is often not the island itself which draws visitors here but rather the opportunity to dive and snorkel at some of the best sites the Caribbean has to offer. Catalina is formed from coral and in its dream-like crystal clear turquoise waters are a wealth of other coral formations, reef walls and submerged gardens almost bursting at the seams with marine life, some of which are easily accessible straight from shore.
The island has three principal snorkel sites, the first two of which -The Wall and The Aquarium -can be accessed directly from the beach. The former is literally a reef wall encrusted for its entire and impressive depth with magnificent corals of all kinds. Both of these thriving eco-systems are incredibly rich in sea creatures such as rays, moray eel and turtles while the abundance of tropical fish species, exotically patterned and colored, is nothing short of breathtaking. Tours will typically give you around one hour at these sites which are suitable for both complete novices and the more experienced snorkeler and with so much to see the time tends to pass very quickly.
The third of the main sites –the Living Museum of the Sea –is the site of a wrecked ship and although such things tend to lend excitement generally this is no common shipwreck. Only discovered in 2007, it is now known that what lies on the seabed here in shallow waters is actually the remains of one of the 17thcentury ships of Captain Kidd –one of the most famous pirates in history. While the site has enormous international historical significance all thatcan really be made out amid these centuries-old rotting timbers –no longer resembling a ship in any way -is a collection of rusting cannon.
The majority of tours which head to Catalina, besides offering plentiful snorkel opportunities, also typically give you time on the postcard-perfect island itself. The coconut palm-lined sugar-white sands of Catalina Beach with its fringe of crystal clear waters epitomizes the kind of place which most people picture in their dreams of tropical perfection. The only things here which could even register as developed –and that is stretching the definition of the word –is a snack bar and a souvenir shop.
Lunch on Isla Catalina and the Dominican Republic Mainland
Besides a small bar serving snacks and drinks Isla Catalina doesn’t have any cafes and restaurants but the majority of tours which head to this idyllic island typically include lunch which, in the majority of cases, is picnic-style on the beach. Such lunches are not all created equal though and will depend on which company you choose with possibilities ranging from light bites and traditional Dominican dishes to lobster feasts and gourmet spreads.
Back on the mainland your lunch choices are somewhat more diverse and as La Romana and Bayahibe are usually the departure and arrival points for boats heading to Isla Catalina they make for your most convenient options.
Pretty coastal Bayahibe offers an authentic glimpse into life in a Dominican fishing town and has a string of lunch eatery choices along its lovely waterfront serving mainly French, Italian and other international-themed fare. One of these is the Saona Cafe which is on the main street and as centrally-located as it gets in this picturesque little village. Perhaps most importantly of all its location gives you a prime spot for gazing at the Caribbean Sea while watching the departure and arrival of the fishermen who supply the local restaurants with seafood and the catamarans ferrying tourists to and fro on boat trips.
Select one of the sail-shaded tables on Saona’s spacious deck terrace and give yourself time to work through the long menu of this French Canadian-owned bistro which has a reputation for excellent quality. Part of the menu is an extensive tapas choice which can serve just as entrees for those who have worked up an appetite or as sharing plates for those who want something lighter. For main dishes there is a big burger choice along with a bistro selection that includes such things as chicken skewers and stir fries. Seafood fans can opt for something from the fish section which includes succulent fresh treats like rock lobster, lime and pepper shrimp and the house specialty which is lionfish, served in a variety of creative ways.
For something a little more locally-flavored Bayahibe has a wonderful collection of colmados – simple restaurants serving large portion Dominican plates of principally chicken and fish which are excellent value for money. Just a stone’s throw from Saona Cafe can be found Perlita Morena which is a little upscale from the typical colmado but is a great option for those who want to try dishes which are traditionally Dominican. Being so close to Saona it also has the same magnificent views and a lovely alfresco terrace with tables shaded by umbrellas.
An Afternoon Around Isla Catalina and the Dominican Mainland
For those who have little more than immersing themselves in paradise as their objective it is easy to spend a whole day on Isla Catalina. Sunbathing, snorkeling and swimming in crystal clear waters, strolling sugary sands or snoozing beneath the shade of a sun lounger – for some this will take care of both morning and afternoon hours. If this sounds like your idea of heaven and you want to do things independently the Casa Campo Resort on the mainland at La Romana has a daily shuttle schedule with the first and last departures from the island at 9 am and 3.45 pm respectively and private boat hire is also possible too.
However, there is also a full menu of things to see and do on the Dominican mainland closest to Isla Catalina if you’d like to explore a little more fully.
The Bayahibe Rose Garden
To one side of the Church of the Divine Shepherd in Bayahibe you will find a lovely little waterfront garden to stroll in which isn’t just a pretty place but of great significance from an island flora point of view. The Bayahibe rose is Dominica’s national flower which adorns its paper currency and is both exceptionally rare and highly endangered. This small little coastal village is the only place in the entire world where it grows naturally and that can be up to six meters high.
Actually a member of the cactus family, this plant produces beautiful pink flowers which are found in great abundance here and are free for all to enjoy.
The Juan Ponce de Leon Museum and the Berna Cave
A short journey east of Bayahibe brings you to the charming fishing village of Boca de Yuma which, away from the beaten tourist path, offers an authentic glimpse into Dominican life. Quaint bars and shacks are strung along the egret-colonized cliffs above waters where pirate ships once prowled around the little green-cloaked islets.
This untouched settlement which sits at the mouth of the Yuma River used to be the home of one of the Spanish Empire’s most historically important figures – Juan Ponce de Leon. Initially arriving in the Americas in 1493 as part of an expedition led by Columbus, Ponce de Leon was to gradually rise to an elevated status as a military official. Later still he became Puerto Rico’s first governor and the man who led the first of the official colonial expeditions to Florida. The stone house where once he lived is today a small but interesting museum filled with furniture and artifacts from 500 years ago. Its setting, surrounded as it is by unspoiled countryside, adds considerably to the atmosphere so it takes little imagination to truly step back in time to the very early colonial era during your visit here.
Just one kilometer from the former Ponce de Leon home can be found the Berna Cave which besides being a beautiful grotto is also of enormous significance due to the large number of ancient rock carvings found there. Part of the Cotubanama National Park, this large cave displays a variety of 800 to 1000 year old petroglyphs, the work of the native Taino people. This race of people were in fact the very same that Ponce de Leon was to find himself fighting against in the early 1500s from his base at Boca de Yuma.
Altos de Chavon
Although this stone-built La Romana-located village may easily convince you that you are exploring medieval history this entire area was in fact constructed in the 1970s, the brainchild of Charles Bluhdorn, a millionaire Austrian/American industrialist.
While the history is not genuine it is still an impressive place to visit, akin to touring a high standard movie set with incredible attention to authentic detailing and replete with historical accuracy. Some of its highlights are the beautiful replica church and Ancient Greek-styled 5000-seat amphitheater while the views of the Chavon River valley from here are nothing short of fantastic.
Altos de Chavon is also the location of an archaeological museum which houses one of the country’s largest collection of indigenous artifacts, some of them thousands of years old.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner
The Dominican Republic’s south-east coast – that nearest to Catalina – is liberally sprinkled with bar and restaurant choices ranging from pocket-friendly local spots to sophisticated fine-dining options found within luxurious resorts.
The bustling hub of La Romana, as a decent-sized city by island standards, clusters together the greatest variety but Bayahibe, just along the coast, also has a surprising number of bars and restaurants considering its sleepy fishing village size.
For that Caribbean beach bar vibe your best bet is Bayahibe where a string of venues set along two bays let you sip sundowner cocktails right at the sea edge with your feet in the sand. One of these is the gorgeous coconut-palm thatched El Barco Bar which doubles as an Italian restaurant and which, with its wonderfully eclectic collection of furniture and details, manages to encapsulate the castaway beach bar feel perfectly.
Decorated with the quintessential seaside-shack shades of blue and white, this serene watering hole actually has a boat serving as its bar and a lovely upper terrace from which to take in the sunset.
Alternatively you can take a table right on the sand with nothing but beach, turquoise waters and boats in the bay to look at as you sip your mojito or order up some other favorite from an extensive bar menu. In true Italian aperitivo style your drinks are served with complimentary finger foods and snacks to keep you going until the main event of dinner.
A La Romana-located alternative for sundowner cocktails with a touch of class is the Coco Mar Bar, part of the Casa de Campo resort. This chic open-sided deck which lets you step directly onto the beach also has a sprinkling of tables and cushioned sofas set directly on the white sands so you can expect heavenly Caribbean views and a dash of comfort at the same time. The expertly mixed cocktails are the focus here with the signature piña coladas served from island-grown pineapples so there is no forgetting your exotic location for even one minute.
While understandably the waterfront venues of La Romana and Bayahibe tend to get most of the attention for drinking and dining there are also some more tucked away choices for lovers of hidden gems. One such is the lovely Lucas in La Romana which because of its residential area location tends to remain something of a local’s secret.
Dining here is on an alfresco patio beneath the sprawling arms of a fig tree and the lighting at night creates a decidedly romantic ambiance for those looking for an intimate meal. Charmingly free of all tourist trappings, this homely but excellent standard restaurant also offers great value for money and will especially appeal to Italian cuisine fans. The warm and welcoming owner is himself a native of Italy so you can expect authentic hand-made pasta dishes of the classic kind and some wonderful inclusions such as the black tagliatelle with lobster.
If you’d prefer to dine beach-side at Bayahibe you can simply wander up the sand until you find something which exactly matches your image of perfection. If charming and picturesque feature in your must-haves for evening dining you might like to head to the stone-wall surrounded terrace of Bamboo Beach. Here, surrounded by banana trees and tropical blooms, you will look out on a sea of small boats, all moored up for the night before their business of ferrying tourists to and from the offshore islands begins again once the sun rises. Alternatively, there are also some cozy tables in the thatch roof interior which takes on an air of romance once the sun has set.
Offering a mix of cuisines which include Mediterranean and Caribbean, this small and relaxed venue offers some wonderful seafood choices with the lobster and French dishes their specialties. Being French-owned you can expect some excellent wines and for those with a sweet tooth there are incredible crepes as part of the dessert choices.
An Evening on the Dominican Mainland
La Romana has a lively after-dark scene which includes a handful of offerings which you might not expect on a Caribbean island. One definitely in this category is having the chance to watch some kind of under-the-stars performance from a 5,000 seat Greek amphitheater. In reality, this ancient-looking open-air theater is only a few decades old and part of the medieval replica village of Altos de Chavon but it makes for a special night out nevertheless. Hosting international artists on a regular basis the list of the theater’s past performers is impressive and includes names such as Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Julio Iglesias and Placido Domingo.
While music concerts tend to be the most often-found form of entertainment here there are also other events included on the year-round calendar which not only hosts big names but includes local talent too.
Otherwise, where laid-on entertainment is concerned, you can find live music in a diverse variety of genres at many of La Romana’s bars but your best bet is some of the larger hotels and resorts strung along the coast and which often open their doors to non-guests. One such is the Showtime Bar, part of the Dreams La Romana Resort in Bayahibe, offering a beach-front spot for cocktails and theater performances. Other options of this kind include Viva Wyndham on Dominicas Beach and La Romana’s Casa de Campo.
If you’d prefer to make your own entertainment trying your luck at the slots and tables both La Romana and Bayahibe have several casino choices ranging from the more locally-vibed venues to slick affairs located within resorts. Perhaps the best known is that of the Santana Beach Resort and Casino but Dreams La Romana, Hilton La Romana and Kviar Casino all have further offerings with free drinks often part of the gaming experience. Quite what is on offer will depend where you head but typically you can expect all of the classics such as roulette, blackjack, poker and slot machines.
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