A FANTASTIC VISIT TO THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
01 March 2011
We said goodbye to the Dominican Republic on Tuesday having really enjoyed our time there. After reading so much about a preponderance of all-inclusive hotels we expected a country overrun with tacky tourism and found quite the opposite. The very strong Spanish feel is very different to the eastern Caribbean islands and gives the DR a fantastic energy and warmth.
The campo is unexpectedly beautiful - green rolling fields, rice paddies, extensive sugarcane and coconut plantations. It is the first island in the Caribbean where we have seen so much agriculture and definitely the best place for fruit and vegetables we've found. Added to this are the miles of unspoiled coastline with classic palm-fringed beaches and turquoise water, vast nature reserves of mangroves and rocky little islands which are home to a multitude of bird species and huge caves decorated with carvings and paintings.
The big resorts are there but they are confined to specific areas and provide a stark contrast to the rather scabby towns (lined with endless open-air carnicerias displaying very unappealing pieces of meat, pigs heads and trotters!) and tiny wooden shacks most of the population are living in. Some of the poorest houses are smaller than an average garden shed in England. It is hard to imagine the reality of life for those who live in them. It makes one very humble and grateful to have had the privilege of being born into first world luxury.
Our friends, who joined us for two weeks, hired a car which they picked up at Punta Cana airport, an extraordinary thatched complex that has to be the most attractive airport we've ever seen. The Dominicans rate fairly high on the scale of third world drivers, the roads were generally in pretty good condition but could be very slow going, signage is almost non-existent. Our worst experience was crunching into a 2 hour+ traffic jam which was made so severe by the impatience of the drivers who pushed in blocking the road in all directions. At one point I had to leap out and stand in front of one of these cars so that we could move forward! Horses also seem to be a favoured method of transport and are seen everywhere.
The Dominican people could not have been more friendly or charming. In contrast to the warm welcome we received there was still a lingering concern about crime. Even the smallest houses have bars across their windows, terraces and balconies; it must be a very successful business to be in. On top of that there is a strong military presence everywhere and no shortage of guns on show.
We arrived into Cap Cana Marina on the east coast which makes a good secure base from which to explore. It is part of a yet unfinished development, a bit soulless and isolated but they made our check in relatively painless, despite 7 officials coming onboard. The marina berths rank as the worst-designed we have ever come across. In an effort to create a "Venetian" look the architect (who has clearly never driven a boat, certainly not one without a bow-thruster) has installed wooden pilings off the end of high but too-short concrete finger pontoons. It is necessary to go dead straight in and out of the berth to avoid the pilings which is totally impossible in a boat such as Irony especially with crosswinds gusting 20 knots or more and no help from a marina dinghy. The consequence was unavoidably damaged paintwork.
Our check out was another matter. In Bayahibe we had talked to the "Commandante" of the Marina de Guerra who assured us we could do our full check out there; we would only have to take the officials out to Irony in our dinghy. Nic duly arrived at 8am as arranged to be told we would have to go 8 miles up the coast (in the wrong direction for us) to La Romana. He also had to wait an hour to get a despacho (permission to go to La Romana). We arrived there and had to anchor in a very narrow river mouth which became extremely rolly with a change of tide. On shore the immigration official asked on a $20/payment per person (not legal), grabbed the money and dashed off before Nic could insist on a receipt. We then had to wait over 2 hours for two further officials to come on the boat and they also asked for something "extra". Not a good final impression to take away with us. We finally cleared out at 3pm in the afternoon completely stuffing up our passage plan to Puerto Rico.
Our road trip took us to Santo Domingo, the capital. The restored colonial district is full of beautiful buildings including the fortified palace of the Columbus family and some interesting museums. The town has a great lively atmosphere and lots of excellent, affordable restaurants and bars. The DR is famous for amber and also a lovely blue stone called larimar, only found there, so there is no shortage of shops selling a range of jewellery.
Next stop was the Samana peninsula on the northwest coast. We made our way to Las Terrenas but found it too developed and ended up in a fabulous hotel at Playa Bonita for three nights. Located right on the beach, Bahia Las Ballenas has thatched cabanas with open air bathrooms set in stunning landscaped grounds. From there we did a boat trip into the Parque Nacional Los Haitises where we swam in a big cave where the currents made the water cold on top and warm underneath, saw frigate birds blowing out their red necks on rocky outcrops and explored enormous caves decorated by the Taino Indians. Another day we went to see the humpback whales in their nursery and breeding ground. There were quite a few mothers and calves surfacing but only one breeching male who put on an incredible display (sadly too far from our boat for decent photographs).
On the whale watch we met a group of fun Italians, one of which lives in the DR renting out holiday apartments. We went there for a lobster dinner (not a proper restaurant, just a couple of tables in the garden) which ended with a night of guitar playing and merenge dancing.
From Cap Cana we sailed south to Saona Island, another nature reserve. The passage was rough and uncomfortable in high winds and waves - the notorious Mona Passage got us again! All memories of sea sickness faded as we anchored in crystal-clear turquoise water and mile upon mile of white sand fringed with graceful palm trees. Be warned, it is a very shallow area to navigate and our charts were not accurate. We were very thankful for our lifting keel. Sadly the some of the beaches fill up with day trippers from nearby Bayahibe but thankfully they all disappeared in time for us to enjoy some spectacular sunsets, we even saw the elusive green flash as the last of the sun melted into the sea.
And you already know about our check out!