Five star Resorts in Dominican Republic

Certainly, there are glimmers of a new identity when I arrive at Eden Roc. The country's first recognisably five-star resort waits discreetly within Cap Cana, its 34 suites arranged in unshowy fashion, their sturdy exteriors giving away few secrets.

But their doors open on to gentle elegance and careful colour schemes – walls, furniture, cushions and artworks all dedicated to a single light shade of blue, purple, yellow, pink or green. Private pools glint on rear terraces. Al fresco showers (in addition to huge bathrooms) are cocooned by high flanks of coralstone, every brick telling a different story of former life in ocean shallows.

Santo Domingo's colonial town

The hotel opened in December 2012, quickly positioning itself as a refined breed of retreat on an island not known for high-end accommodation. In the main building, the Riva Bar repeats this message, pretending to exist on some gilded curve of the European Riviera, with photos of Venice on a bright summer day in the Sixties pinned here and there – all floral dresses, grinning gondoliers and la dolce vita.

But the cocktail list reflects a culture closer to home, the cigar caramel martini splicing smoky vodka with the tang of burnt sugar cane. And when I move to a table above the outdoor swimming pool complex, the Caribbean reasserts itself, a thousand insects clicking and murmuring in the soupy evening warmth.

There are other inducements to stillness – the little Solaya Spa, with its long menu of gentle massages; Caleton Beach, a short stroll away, where loungers hide under palm fronds on manicured sand; and the adjacent restaurant La Palapa, with its chilled plates of sushi and sashimi.

It would be easy to doze away a week in this comfy context. Less taxing, too. Five centuries after Columbus encountered Hispaniola in 1492, this vast island is still tricky to explore. The "Coral Highway" (Highway 3), which connects Punta Cana to Santo Domingo via 120 miles of the south coast, was finished as recently as 2012, part of a road network of limited scope.

Yet what is now a drive of two hours (rather than five) is entirely worth making. Rolling west, I notice that what seemed, from the aircraft, to be a barren realm is raw and beautiful, with bursts of sugar cane – the prime crop in the agricultural south east – sighing in the wind. There is geographical drama, too. Forty miles from Punta Cana, the highway forges over the top of the Rio Chavon – its flow here, on the cusp of the sea, steered by a steep gorge. Here you will also find Altos de Chavon with its Roman-style amphitheatre.

Beyond, Santo Domingo perches at the mouth of the Rio Ozama – as it has since it was founded in 1496, Spain's first urban footprint in the New World. Echoes of this era linger above the west bank, where the city's "Colonial Zone" revels in Unesco World Heritage status.

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