On a countryside drive, we come to an unusual rest stop run by an English heiress, living in a palm-slat palace among princely gardens
By Ron Añejo
Not long ago an Austrian film crew fixed up the old train bridge in the tiny village of Barrabas and in doing so wiped out half the fun of getting to Rancho Nazdrowie. The floor of the steel bridge used to be a bunch of loosely laid, weather beaten wooden planks that would bounce and jump around as your tires rolled over them, very nervous-making considering the rocky gorge far below.
Today it's a smooth ride over tightly welded sheets of steel. And while that little moment of excitement is now a part of history, the trek to Milet Delme-Radcliffe's wilderness ranch still presents enough jungle roads to negotiate and rivers to ford, to provide a sense of delving deeper and deeper into the heart of Africa.
Arriving at the bank of one last river you can spot the gates of Rancho Nazdrowie on the other side, opening directly on to the riverbed. On a bad day, heavy rains turn the river into a murky rage making access impossible. But on most days you can get there quite handily, even in a regular car.
At Rancho Nazdrowie you find yourself within a haven of civility in the middle of nowhere, yet not far from anywhere. The turnoff is at the town of Imbert, a brief 20 minutes west of Puerto Plata along the main highway to Santiago. And after you drive through the town, the ensuing jungle trek, while dramatic, lasts another 15 minutes at most. Thus after a short, fun drive one arrives at the outpost that Milet has carved out of God's garden, a natural oasis of flora and fauna to which has been added the carnal comforts that Adam and Eve never had: a swimming pool, a dining area, a bar. Indeed, Rancho Nazdrowie is a perfect example of what God is capable of creating with a little input from an adept landscape designer, artiste and avid student of the finer ways of living well.
At her outpost Milet welcomes adventurers, jeep safari tours and anyone else who would venture beyond the beach resorts of Puerto Plata, purveying casual hospitality, food and drink in a comfortable garden pool setting. You can sit there for hours. Open daily, people simply show up whenever they want. To use the pool costs 20 pesos, drinks are cheap and cold. A country style lunch might include some roast chicken, rice, beans and salad for $100 pesos or less. Some people show up with their own food. Sometimes there's a gang, sometimes it's empty, you never know. And Milet doesn't mind. "I should run this more like a business but I don't need to really. I'd rather be in the garden", she explains. Something about Milet thrives on the spontaneity of whatever is happening today.
On a bad day, one on which a tropical downpour causes Milet's moat to rise and block the gates, you may find yourself stuck at Rancho Nazdrowie, forced perhaps to spend the night, waiting for the river to subside.
Victim of such a stroke of destiny, circumstances would carry you into the life of an heiress and into a home perched amid lush gardens a little removed from the visitor's facility. At this juncture you embark upon a different kind of safari, one that leads into the thickets of perception and preconceived notion, now presented with the notion of nobility trading its heraldic heritage in Hertfordshire, England, for a palm-slat palace in Imbert, Dominican Republic.
The cynic within begins questioning, did she trade up, or down?. Was she banished her from her lofty levels? After all, when living in the Caribbean one meets many an heir whose family pays for them just to stay away. Why didn't she fit in? Why is she way out here? Most Brits venture to Africa if they want to color themselves as eccentric types. "I've been there," she says, with no specific tone of voice.
Milet is the last of a family that, for the last five centuries or so, carried the name Delme-Radcliffe through the parlors of English nobility. The rambling Hitchin Priory that was her birthplace and birthright, was already a couple of hundred years old when Christopher Columbus was busy discovering the New World. Centuries later, after her father, a stock broker and bon vivant, and her mother passed on, Milet became the sole bearer of this load of baggage.
Alas, what is a young lady in her prime to do, laden with so much stone and mortar, and with so many years ahead of her? "By the time I was 27 I accomplished everything expected of me", she explains. "There was nothing left for me to do there, so I sold everything and took off".
Milet kept just enough Louis XIV furniture to set off the indigenous artesanat that today crowds her home, art and artefacts gleaned from travels that have led Milet around the world to where, for the last half decade, she has paused and taken root.
As a guest invited into Milet's home, the inevitable tour of the premises is accompanied with repeated exhortations that one should act and do just exactly as one so wishes. And inevitably, the first thing that one so wishes is to organize within one's own mind the spaces, the colors and the collections that are causing for the eyes such spectacular confusion.
Does this work, or not, asks the cynic within. Is she maybe just another gringa loca?
For in the kitchen, we find the jacuzzi. Beside the bar, the saddle stand. A modern fridge and bright white gas stove stand out among the electric-pink, rough hewn shelves and kitchen counters. On the shelves, erected by a campesino carpenter with hammer and handsaw, stand pots of fine imported condiments alongside tins of local stuff, all awaiting to make their contribution to a gourmet dinner at Rancho Nazdrowie, fine cuisine served on local pottery.
No proper home could be without a library, and here we find, in the center of this tin-roofed home, a collection of books that reflect the voracious argument between Milet's past and present. Selecting one of the hardbound volumes that look very old indeed, we find ourselves leafing through pages that were printed in the 1700's.
Written by a chap after a sojourn in Santo Domingo, we reflect upon his general observation that if they don't ftop the corruption foon, things will furely never improve, and conclude that while some things never change, we at least can take comfort in knowing that somebody had the presence to change the rules about when to use f's and when to use s's when attempting to communicate in written English.
Across the library from the books that reflect Milet's heritage of things long defunct, we discover the books that reflect her passion for all which is alive and present. Gardening mostly, and Milet produces a book that explains how to design a garden in such a way that is not only appealing, but also how to select flowers and herbs and trees that will thrive off each other, all the while flourishing from the recycling of one's own waste water and trash.
A fully balanced environment.
Milet's flair for design, her fundamental good taste and passion for gardening grace the landscapes of a number of sumptuous private villas and hideaways of the well heeled that dot the north coast. Her gardens are not sculpted nor seem imposed rather they look as everything just knew where to put itself.
The living room, much like the kitchen, sacrifices two walls for murals of natural green, and is only slightly more enclosed with loose latticework.
"The luxury of this place comes from being able to live in a garden all year round and with doors that you don't have to lock. I guess it's the freedom " she pauses, thinking. Questioning herself, remarks the cynic within.
A 1925 article published in an English society magazine called Country Life, shows photographs of the imposing architecture at the historic Hitchin Priory where Milet was born. The distance from the parlor to the dining room looks to be a fifty foot stroll through imposing stone archways and hallways. Here at Rancho Nazdrowie the distance is about the same, yet the floor is of fieldstone and the walls are tropical trees that join in green arches just overhead.
And with the cynic within pressing to impose his point of view, another someone within retorts: well, I too would rather live surrounded by a garden than a stone wall. I too wouldn't mind having only two keys on my keychain.
The dining room has no walls at all. It is a simple bohio, one of those round, grass roofed structures so common here for creating shelter from the hot sun. Filling this space is a wide, round table surrounded by simple farmers chairs, a space that works as well for an intimate dinner for two as it does for a roaring feast for 10.
In addition to her own boudoir, complete with fireplace and office and private balcony, Milet maintains two guestrooms, which she does not commercialize per se, but does enjoy having occupied when the right kind of people happen along.
These are cosy rooms, each with a centerpiece which is a large bed draped in sheets of mosquito netting. Other than the library, the bedrooms at Rancho Nazdrowie are the only rooms in which the tradition of using four walls has been adhered to, albeit reluctantly we sense, given the generous use of wide opening windows. Tucked in under a tent of netting, one is lulled into fitful sleep on a comfortable mattress by the sound of rustling leaves, and awakens to the surreal richness of the colors the soft morning light casts upon the gardens just outside.
After we finish breakfast we laze around, waiting for noontime when it is expected we'll be finally able to ford Milet's moat. Sitting in the gardens we reflect upon our short safari through preconceived notions and realize that the questions have simply gone away. They no longer really matter, having as they have been replaced by a simple sense of feeling good, perhaps the expression is feeling "just right." The cynic within defers.
Indeed, it feels rather exhilarating the moment you recognize that you feel "just right". It's what you go on vacation for, it's a moment to cherish, an armament with which to go back to battle.
And perhaps it's just the thing that Rancho Nazdrowie is all about. The essential product of Milet Delmé-Radcliffe, purveyed through her colors, collections and character, amid the gardens that grow around a truly dignified palm-slat palace.
- 2006The POP Report www.popreport.com
Puerto Plata's internet magazine featuring news and travel information from Puerto Plata and the north coast of the Dominican Republic
Puerto Plata, República Dominicana