punta canaDominican Republic Tourist Board

By Wanda O’Connor

“Pay no attention to the man with the snakes on his head,” says my tour guide, not something I’d expected to hear in the plateau-rich, forested Dominican Republic, a country where tourism has fast become the new livelihood and where a nest of docile snakes can turn over a buck or two from a captivated tourist.

For this, my first time in the Caribbean, I note everything: the proximity of motorbike taxis to the back ends of cars; languid dogs resting half on the curb/half off in the heat of Santo Domingo’s central square, Parque Colon; one-room school houses splitting the teaching day into two to accommodate the numerous children. And, of course, the ocean. Discovering the unfamiliar, aquamarine waters of Punta Cana, several degrees warmer than the Atlantic I swam in as a child, I’m certain to develop a keen nostalgia for years to come.

ambar lobbyWanda O'Connor

After a little airport merengue, shuffling through lines made enjoyable by the bright colour of local musicians, I made my way to resort-rich Punta Cana, an area that has seen much development in recent years. Arriving at the elegant Bahia Ambar resort was an unveiling: much like one holds a coveted photograph of a longed-for destination in front of oneself and slowly lowers it to reveal an even better scene. Greeted with a cocktail du jour and shown the lay of the land by a helpful butler, I was soon in my bikini (pack a swimsuit in your carry-on!) and on my way to first views of the Caribbean blue.

Recognizing the fertile lands of the Dominican is instantaneous. Coconuts, some travelling from ship to shore, land on sandy soils and set up roots, creating a pretty line of greens and browns along the water’s edge. These palms are built to last: flexible in the wildest of storms, they can bend to the ground without snapping, something I was on the lookout for after missing a tropical storm by a mere 24 hours. I woke up one night to a much hotter room with the barometer having dropped and a funnel of hot air entering from underneath my door. I peered out, wondering if the storm had returned, slowly making my way to the balcony’s edge and checking for the bend in the trees. So this is the Caribbean: the diverse terrain of mountains and valleys accounting for the varied changes in climate. I thought, now might be a good time to better acquaint myself with the contents of my mini-fridge.

This vast island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti to the west, has a lot to offer. Its citizens are happy to teach you the dance of love, discuss baseball (until you’re able to change the subject), point the way to the nearest local cigar maker, or explain why the pretty shell blue Larimar gemstone (a stone native only to the island) is a must-buy for any jewelry lover. Stay in that beach chair long enough and Larimar sellers will find you and proudly display their wares, which include a good selection of amber, too.

 cacao 11Dominican Republic Tourist Board

Each day a trail of sand migrates from the beach into my room and onto another item of clothing. I take it as a sign to vacate the beach and head for the mountains. My first adventure takes me on an “Outback Safari” via safari truck and with an unforgettable and informative guide, Angel. This tour promises a discovery of “the ‘real’ Dominican Republic in one day!” and it delivers. Both a cultural and social immersion, the full-day tour visits the lesser seen areas and experiences of the Dominican including a Dominican home and family, a local school, sampling of local drink (the pineapple wine is a must-try) and stunning Macao Beach with boogie-boarding. Cocoa trees are at arms’ length travelling along narrow roads that lead up to a mountain peak and a delicious lunch of grilled meats, sides and salads and a thirst-quenching beverage called “shanty.” Try mangu (mashed plantains with a little butter), the main staple of Dominican meals and ask the locals how they prepare the coffee they proudly harvest.

 

LearnimanguDominican Republic Tourist Boardng about this interesting country from its citizens is essential, despite their tendency toward exaggeration. Where else could I have received important information as to how meats are cured to withstand being hooked to roadside stands in the hot Caribbean sun? Or how cocoa beans and coconut oil are processed, or the benefits of the herbal rum and wine drink, Mama Juana? The tour also provides an opportunity to buy organic direct – from vanilla beans and extract to ground cocoa – and to witness Dominicans at work, with machetes chopping at coconut casings or the cheerful rhythm of coffee beans being pounded to release them from their shells: poke, pound, blow, stir. I can’t recommend this tour enough, and a portion of funds raised from the excursion and from memorabilia sold on the trip are put back into local schools to help pay for uniforms and supplies.

Next, I made my way across the country on the three-hour trip to Santo Domingo, with a stop for souvenirs, to take in the oldest city in all of the Americas. Visiting the Zona Colonial, the old part of the capital, was exhilarating, and I sat back to enjoy the simple pleasures, relaxing in a local café overlooking the main square. Musicians encouraged tourists to dance, dogs lounged in the shade of parked cars, hand-painted and colourful canvases were rolled in gift shop bags and packaged for long trips home. This place is steeped in history. If heading to Santo Domingo, take a day to explore its winding streets, ruins and historical houses and adopt that discovery spirit of Columbus.

alcazar de colonDominican Republic Tourist Board

Back in Punta Cana, I detour to the cozy night-lit lobby and an evening cocktail and reflect on these Caribbean hours. As Shakespeare writes in Romeo and Juliet, “in a minute there are many days.” And I have just enough minutes to feel the romance of this place and get a little more of that salt-sea air in my hair.

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