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Life's a beach – and more – in the Dominican Republic

Twenty years ago, an Italian ex-pat brought a jazz festival to the D.R.

A scene from the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival.
A scene from the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival.Read moreGabriel Rodes

Mention that you've just returned from the Dominican Republic, and two words inevitably come back in reply: Punta Cana? The resort town, with its sun-and-sand all-inclusives stretching out along 20 miles of beaches, is undoubtedly the Caribbean island's most popular tourist destination.

It's far from the only place in the D.R. where one can find white sandy beaches and lustrous blue waters, however. While Punta Cana's resorts cater to those simply looking for an escape from winter weather with a healthy dose of pampering on the side, the island's North Coast offers many of the same attractions while also providing the opportunity to explore the country itself – not block it out beyond heavily patrolled gates.

That explains the common story I heard from expats I met in the North Coast: people who came for a vacation and never left. Punta Cana and its resorts offer an oasis; for many, the cities along the North Coast feel like home.

Lorenzo Sancassani is one such story. Originally from a small town near Venice, Italy, Sancassani traveled to Sosúa for a brief holiday after finishing his accounting degree. "It was the best beach I ever saw in my life," Sancassani recalled. "It was paradise. I told my father I was going to take three months of vacation. That was 35 years ago, and I'm still here."

The one thing Sancassani found missing from his new paradise was one of his life's passions – jazz. So 20 years ago he founded the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, which has grown in the intervening decades from a loose affair at Pomodoro's, Sancassani's beachfront pizza place on Cabarete Beach, to a world-class event that draws thousands to concerts in four North Coast towns and, in the last two years, to the capital city of Santo Domingo on the island's southern end.

My recent visit, in early November, traced the path of the jazz festival. Opening night in Santo Domingo took place in a plaza abutting the historic Colonial Zone, steps away from the Alcázar de Colón, a gothic palace built by Christopher Columbus' son, former governor Diego Colón. The site is now a museum housing a collection of European medieval and Renaissance art.

On a late Sunday afternoon the Colonial Zone was bustling, with wandering street musicians accompanying impromptu dance steps in public squares and men playing dominoes along the sidewalks. A statue of Christopher Columbus stands outside the Catedral Primada de America – the oldest cathedral in the Americas – constructed in the early 1540s. A celebration of the Virgin Mary was underway on the day I visited, filling the Gothic arches with joyous music and singing.

Historic buildings share blocks with gift shops aggressively hawking jewelry in amber and larimar, a blue-green stone found only in the D.R., and a pair of ancient-looking wooden doors may sport a freshly-painted Denny's logo, but the Zone is only lightly touched by touristy intrusions.

A four-hour drive north brought us to the more commercial city of Santiago, where the evening's concert took place on an open-air stage next to the Centro León, a cultural center and museum that brings together anthropological exhibits with displays of modern art – at times, as in a temporary show exploring art and artifacts related to the nearly extinct indigenous Taíno people – in a single exhibition.

Santiago is also a center for one of the industries most associated with the D.R., cigars. Founded in 1903, La Aurora is the oldest cigar factory in the country and one of its largest, with more than a thousand employees. Only six of them, however, are entrusted to hand-roll the company's most premium cigars, one of several interesting facts revealed on an enlightening factory tour, where sample stogies are handed out on the factory floor and visitors are encouraged to mingle with employees making cigars in traditional fashion in the heart of a modern industrial operation.

It was another hour's drive over treacherous mountain roads to the North Coast, where the remainder of the festival would take place. For those outdoor enthusiasts who believe that those pleasures are only to be found behind the resort walls on the island's eastern end, the bold colors of kite-surfers dotting the skies above proved otherwise. The changing wind conditions and varied geography of the North Coast beaches mean that a truly dedicated ocean-lover could spend their day chasing different pursuits along the coast: surfing in the morning at Playa Encuentro, kitesurfing in the afternoon as trade winds buffet Kite Beach, snorkeling in the sheltered, reef-speckled waters of Sosúa Bay, then stand-up paddle-boarding in the evening as the waves calm down in Cabarete.

Villa Taina, opened in 1988 by German expats Frank and Claudia Schwarz – more vacationers-turned-residents – is just one of many hotels lining the beach in Cabarete. Like many of its neighbors, the hotel features a spa, restaurant, bar and kitesurfing lessons. Alternating along the city's main stretch with restaurants and bars whose beach-facing sides are far more traveled than their roadside "front doors," the accommodations make it possible to spend full days without ever leaving the sand.

With arrivals from so many countries taking up residence in the area, those restaurants offer cuisines for virtually any taste – plenty of Italian, Mexican, coffeehouses, even a Belgian bakery if the craving for waffles should arise. Restaurant Tuvá offers particularly spectacular views on its back deck to accompany its elegant Italian dishes. For more traditional fare, however, stop into a small place like Casa Mami in Cabarete and sample sancocho – the national dish, a hearty stew loaded with meat and vegetables – or mofongo, made with mashed green plantains.

Perhaps the one vice more indelibly associated with the D.R. than even cigars is rum, and it's not hard to find a delectable taste of the drink, usually mixed with Coke and ice – or blended with red wine, honey and herbs in the local concoction known as Mama Juana. To trace your cocktail back to its source, the Brugal Rum Factory offers an informative tour, complete with tastings of two of its most popular rums. A brief visit introduces guests to the Brugal family, its journey from Spain through Cuba to the Dominican Republic, as well as the alcohol's own trek from sugarcane to bottle.

Not all of the coast's natural glories are to be found along the oceanfront. Head inland to Puerto Plata, the capital of the province, where the landscape is dominated by Pico Isabel de Torres, a 2,600-foot mountain that offers spectacular views. The teleférico, or cable car, transports visitors to the top via a 15-minute ride over a lush green landscape. At the top you're greeted by a familiar sight, the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer, a much smaller replica of the famous monument in Rio de Janeiro.

Follow the path around the statue and you find yourself strolling through a gorgeous tropical botanical garden, featuring vibrant endemic plant species and a calming atmosphere, peaceful and quiet aside from the occasional birdcall or insect chirp (at least while I was there; a rowdy elementary school field trip was heading up when I disembarked, which would change the mood considerably). It is, in a sense, a paradise within a paradise, and worth the visit for a change of pace from relaxing under palm trees.

Back down at sea level, the newly-opened park La Puntilla is centered around a 4,000-seat amphitheater that will offer music year-round against the backdrop of the ocean – and, on a rocky islet in its midst, a 22-foot statue of Neptune gripping his trident. Across the park's green expanse, where vendors can be found offering trinkets, souvenirs, and donkey rides, is the imposing Fortaleza San Felipe. The 16th-century Spanish fortress now houses a small museum that can be toured with an informative audio guide, relating a history of the province and the fort, including its time as a prison where D.R. founding father Juan Pablo Duarte was once held.

Aside from the idyllic beaches that drew Sancassani in all those years ago, Sosúa boasts a fascinating history. In the lead-up to World War II, as many countries were turning away Jewish refugees from Europe, Sosúa offered to welcome up to 100,000; less than a thousand actually accepted, but they formed the core of a Jewish community that remains in the city to this day. Now, side by side with Sosúa's raucous and somewhat troubled nightlife, there can be found a small museum and synagogue that relates that unique story.

The North Coast does offer a few all-inclusive resorts for those looking for a rest-and-relaxation package. Most are centered in Playa Dorada, the Dominican Republic's earliest tourist mecca before it was eclipsed by Punta Cana. Even for visitors staying in those more exclusive confines, however, it's worth venturing outside the gates.

The country has more to offer than a lounge chair by the shore.