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Cable car delivers a picture-perfect outing

For impressive views of Puerto Plata, its harbor, sparkling coastline and verdant hillsides, climb aboard the only cable car in the Caribbean and indulge in a panoramic feast.

Puerto Plata cable car. Photo courtesy of Dominican Ministry of Tourism

Puerto Plata cable car. Photo courtesy of Dominican Ministry of Tourism

The Teleférico (Spanish for cable car) shuttles passengers up the 782-meter (2,565-foot) Isabele de Torres Mountain, named after the benefactor-queen of Christopher Columbus. An imposing view from most anywhere in Puerto Plata, the mountain has been declared a nature reserve due to its great variety of flora and fauna.

The pleasant, eight-minute ride eases visitors out of the base station and up and over rooftops, schoolyards and playgrounds. Before long only dense, tropical greenery lies ahead, and, as the ascent progresses, a broad, coastal vista unfolds.

As the 20-passenger car steadily climbs, the weather changes, too, with the temperature dropping pleasantly.

Foggy mist may obscure views on the mountain approach, giving travelers an eerie sensation as the cabin glides through a white-cotton blanket. When the station nears, a 10-meter (33-foot) Christ the Redeemer statue comes into a view from its perch at the summit.

The smaller version of Brazil’s famous 30-meter (99-foot) sculpture stands with outstretched arms atop a white dome, built as a small fortress in the days of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Gift shops now pack the space.

In addition to the stunning views of the shimmering Atlantic coast, a lush tropical garden and lagoon also await at the peak, as do a full restaurant and walk-up refreshment stand (soft drinks, cocktails and snacks). Restrooms are available both at the base and peak. Visitors can spend a few minutes or a few hours enjoying the tranquil setting.

Opened in 1975, the Teleférico operates seven days a week, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $10 (USD) for adults; free or reduced admission for children. Visitors can also take a difficult hike to the summit or arrive by car, but there’s nothing like the round trip aboard the cable car.

Find a little of everything on the Malecón

Looking along the scenic Malecón in Puerto Plata. Photo courtesy of the Dominican Ministry of Tourism

The Malecón hugs the coast in Puerto Plata. Photo courtesy of Dominican Ministry of Tourism

A must-see destination on the North Coast, Puerto Plata’s Malecón is a scenic, three-kilometer (one-mile) promenade hugging the Atlantic Ocean and its golden-sand beaches.

Lined with small, friendly bars, the route begins at La Puntilla park, anchored by the historic San Felipe Fort, a 16th century landmark, and a 24-meter (78-foot) lighthouse, built in 1879. A new amphitheater, which accommodates up to 4,000 patrons, also occupies the site. A sculpture of military hero Gen. Gregorio Luperón on his horse greets arriving visitors.

The Malecón culminates at the stretch of shore known as Long Beach, named by U.S. military occupiers in the early 1900s. A bronze replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David stands at a nearby intersection.

There’s plenty to see along the way. Photo ops include mighty Neptune, Roman god of the sea, who overlooks the city from a rocky perch offshore; colorful fishing boats bobbing in the shallow surf; and the city’s historic fire station, an architectural gem.

Snacks and cold drinks are never out of reach, as small, friendly bars line the wide, breezy walkway. Strolling vendors sell candies, shaved-ice drinks, fresh coconut milk and more.

Under the shade of sea grape and almond trees, locals play spirited games of dominoes while others — Dominicans and expatriates alike — enjoy a peaceful spot to meet and mingle. Joggers and cyclists use a protected lane alongside the malecón.

Soon after sundown, the beachside joints lock their shutters and the activity shifts to the other side of the four-lane highway, where bars, dance clubs and restaurants cater to nighttime crowds.

Planning for the Malecón dates to 1917 but not until 1971 were the broad avenue and ample sidewalk built; the route was remodeled in 2006.

Free music education reaches more than 200 North Coast kids

Previously on the waiting list for free music education, dozens of additional students are taking classes in guitar, drums, piano and violin in FEDUJAZZ’s new center in Cabarete.

FEDUJAZZ, the music education foundation of the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, increased enrollment this year by 73 students for a total of nearly 225 North Coast children.

The programs, divided into five age groups for kids 7-18, aim to educate children with structured music programs that enhance their education and increase their opportunities in life.

Berklee Global Jazz Institute brings kids to their feet. Photo: Matt Bokor

Berklee Global Jazz Institute leads workshop for kids in 2014

The annual Dominican Republic Jazz Festival not only provides five nights of free concerts, many of its performers lead daytime music workshops for children. During the 2015 festival, over 1,500 schoolchildren attended music workshops presented by renowned musicians.

Coming up in November, the 20th anniversary of Dominican Republic Jazz Festival will include a show in Santo Domingo. This will be the first time the event, a North Coast fixture, will be presented in the nation’s capital. Festival dates and cities are:

• Nov. 8, Santo Domingo

• Nov. 9, Santiago

• Nov. 10, Puerto Plata

• Nov. 11 & 12, Cabarete

Since its inception, the festival has presented internationally renowned Latin Grammy and Grammy Award-winning musicians such as Ignacio Berroa, Joe Lovano, Chuck Mangione, Ray Baretto, Nestor Torres, Chucho Valdes, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and Arturo Sandoval among many other talents.

The event, the largest of its type in the Caribbean, is presented by FEDUJAZZ and the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism.

New port welcomes 5,000 visitors a week to Puerto Plata

Since its first ship docked in October 2015, the Amber Cove Cruise Center has been welcoming more than 5,000 passengers per week to Puerto Plata while adding hundreds of workers to the region’s payroll.

When passengers disembark, their first sight is a verdant mountain range, which provides a scenic backdrop as they make their way into the 30-acre port.

Carnival Valor visits Amber Cove Cruise Center

Carnival Valor visits Amber Cove Cruise Center

Carnival Corporation’s $65 million development was designed with architectural elements that blend the bright and breezy Caribbean style with the North Shore’s colonial heritage, such as distinctive turrets similar to those at nearby San Felipe Fort, a 16th century landmark in Puerto Plata.

Named after the fossilized resin that’s common in the area, Amber Cove offers an extensive shore excursion program with dozens of landside experiences for passengers to enjoy during their daylong stop. Choices include beaches, water sports and special culinary, cultural and adventure options. Ocean World, one of the region’s largest marine adventure parks, offers guests many ways to experience and interact with a variety of marine animals.

Cruise passengers also have easy access to historic Puerto Plata, named by none other than Christopher Columbus, who established the nearby La Isabela settlement in 1493 during his second visit to the island. In Puerto Plata, visitors can check out museums and artist studios; view classic Victorian architecture; experience rum and cigar factories; or stroll along the scenic malecón, a three-mile, beach-side boardwalk dotted with bars, restaurants and shops.

Passengers who remain at Amber Cove are hardly high and dry. One of the central attractions is a 300,000-gallon pool, complete with swim-up bar surrounded by 30 submerged barstools. A spiral waterslide and zipline are also popular at the Aqua Zone.

Visitors can rent kayaks, standup paddleboards and canoes to explore the blue-green waters of the Bay of Maimón. They can also travel via speedboat to Paradise Island, one of the Caribbean’s top spots for snorkeling and scuba diving.

Passengers can rent over-water bungalows. Photo by Matt Bokor

Rental bungalows are available. Photo by Matt Bokor

For a luxury experience, private bungalows are available for six to 20 guests, complete with the services of a personal chef, bartender and staff. Seven pastel-colored, thatch-roof cabanas are perched over the water, linked by a wooden walkway; others are nestled poolside and hillside.

There’s shopping, of course, such as a Dominican artisan market with a dozen booths stocked with locally produced crafts, amber and larimar jewelry, cigars and coffee among the usual selection of souvenir caps, T-shirts and trinkets. Another four kiosks with Dominican products are sprinkled throughout the development. Plus there are freestanding jewelry, apparel and travel stores, a pharmacy, and a tempting duty-free emporium.

Amber Cove’s drinking and dining options include two full-service Coco Caña restaurants, bars and shops; the hilltop Sky Bar, which offers a panoramic view of the bay, port and pier; and pool-side and cabana-side bars.

Even before it opened, Amber Cove represented an economic shot in the arm for the North Coast, starting with three years of construction to revive Puerto Plata as a cruise destination after a 30-year hiatus. Today some 600 people work there — 92 in port operations and management, with 500-plus at the shops, restaurants and attractions.

Port encompasses 30 acres

Port encompasses 30 acres

Overseeing it all is Amber Cove General Manager Mouen Al Mawla, better known as Mo, a veteran of the hospitality industry — putting to good use his hospitality degree from Cornell University.

Born in Lebanon, Mo was raised in Aruba and has lived in New York, California and Florida. Before becoming Amber Cove’s first general manager, he was director of operations and food and beverage for the Bristol Hospitality Group in Panama.

His global travels had already taken him to La Romana, Punta Cana and Santo Domingo but not until Mo landed the Amber Cove job had he experienced Puerto Plata.

“I came to work, it was my first visit and I fell in love with the place,” he said.

And that’s how the Dominican tourism industry hopes all Amber Cove visitors will react when they discover the North Coast.

Puerto Plata: The Caribbean’s newest cruise destination

Puerto Plata welcomed its first cruise ship in nearly 30 years on Oct. 6 when the Carnival Victory, carrying nearly 3,000 guests, docked at the new Amber Cove Cruise Center.

Carnival Victory at Amber Cove Cruise Center. Photo courtesy of the Dominican Ministry of Tourism.

Carnival Victory at Amber Cove Cruise Center. Photo courtesy of the Dominican Ministry of Tourism.

Visitors received a colorful welcome as they arrived at the 30-acre cruise center, which features bars, restaurants, retail outlets and an elaborate pool area with water slides that guests can enjoy for free.

Representatives of nearby Ocean World greeted passengers with a sign: “You are the first group of cruise ship clients in our history.”  Dancers in colorful, traditional dress performed as guests strolled through the plaza.

The Victory was the first eight Carnival ships that will call at Amber Cove during the port’s inaugural season. Ships from Holland America, Princess and Costa will also bring guests to Amber Cove. Starting in April, Carnival Corp.’s new fathom brand will bring the first bi-weekly “social impact” cruises to Amber Cove from Miami.

The Caribbean’s newest destination, Amber Cove will be able to accommodate up to 8,000 cruise passengers and 2,000 crew members daily. The two-berth facility on the Bay of Maimon is expected to host more than 250,000 cruise passengers in its first year of operation. A transportation hub allows visitors easy access by land and sea to nearby destinations.

A joint project between Carnival Corp. & plc and the Rannik family of Grupo B&R, the more than $65 million project was designed to re-establish the Dominican Republic’s North Shore as a popular cruise destination.

Ungodly ordeal ends for mighty Neptune

NeptuneWith trident at his side, mighty Neptune rules the sea once again from his rocky perch just off the beach in Puerto Plata.

Installed in 1971 under the administration of longtime President Joaquín Balaguer, the 22-foot-tall bronze sculpture became known as the guardian of the harbor, the mascot of the community. Even so, the Roman god of the sea endured decades of indignities, including two falls and several amputations by metal thieves, before his recent return to grandeur.

Regional Tourism Ministry Director Lorenzo Sancassi and Ministry Architect Acalia Kunhardt provided a chronology:

Around 1979, Neptune fell but was soon righted, thanks to a generous expatriate (known only as Mr. Charlie) who footed the bill. It wasn’t long before he started a gradual tilt and in finally toppled again onto the jagged rocks.

The fire department hauled the fallen lord to its yard for storage, but metal thieves picked at the languishing sculpture like buzzards on road kill. Trident? Gone. Two fingers, amputated. The tail of the fish on which he rested a foot also vanished. Someone even lopped off Neptune’s manhood.

He found some respite after his transfer from the fire department to the more-secure police department headquarters. As his adoring public grew impatient for his return, Neptune was trucked up to the foot of Mount Isabel de Torres. There, at the base of the scenic Teleférico (cable lift), the long-awaited repairs began.

Neptune stands 22 feet tall atop his craggy islet off Puerto Plata's malecón. Photo by Matt Bokor

Neptune stands 22 feet tall atop his craggy islet off Puerto Plata’s malecón. Photo by Matt Bokor

Metallurgists from nearby Santiago, the country’s second-largest city, worked for five months to replicate Neptune’s missing parts, patch gouges, fix dents and install durable, spine-like supports (namely, three steel pipes filled with concrete). The Teleférico operators, Tourism Ministry and community donations covered the roughly $30,000 repair bill.

Restored and reinforced, Neptune rode down the mountain by truck to the sprawling seaside resort of Playa Dorada for his triumphal return. At five tons, however, Neptune was too heavy for the military helicopter that was enlisted to whisk him home. After being trucked to the city’s port, he traveled by barge to his craggy islet in September 2013.

Secured by four cables and bolted atop a sturdy mount, Neptune underwent another month of adjustments before a festive lighting ceremony formally ended his ungodly ordeal.

Dominican Republic Jazz Festival delights audiences

Pat Pereyra y su Banda, Rafelito Mirabal, Guy Frometa & guest Alex Jacquemin. Photo courtesy of Dominican Republic Jazz Festival

Pat Pereyra y su Banda, Rafelito Mirabal, Guy Frometa & guest Alex Jacquemin. Photo courtesy of Dominican Republic Jazz Festival

By Matt Bokor

Music lovers from around the country and around the world enjoyed four nights of free concerts by internationally acclaimed musicians at the 18th annual Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, which brought performances to Puerto Plata, Sosúa and Cabarete Beach Nov. 6-9.

Known for its legendary performers and seaside venue, the festival came off better than scripted this year.

Rafael Solano performs 'Por Amor.' Photo courtesy of Dominican Republic Jazz Festival

Rafael Solano performs ‘Por Amor.’ Photo courtesy of Dominican Republic Jazz Festival

For starters several days of rain ended just in time, allowing the full moon to bathe the North Shore in its glow. And after the Jazz Festival presented an award to beloved Dominican composer-pianist Rafael Solano, 83, he unexpectedly took a seat at the grand piano and performed his famous love song, “Por Amor,” to the delight of the Saturday night audience at Cabarete Beach.

Throughout the weekend audiences soaked up the sounds of Colin Hunter & Joe Sealy’s Quartet (Canada); Ignacio Berroa Group (USA) with Giovanni Hidalgo (Puerto Rico); Berklee Global Jazz Institute (USA); Ramón Vázquez TríoS (Puerto Rico); Big Band Conservatory of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic); Patricia Pereyra and Band with special guest Alex Jacquemin (France); Edgar Molina (Dominican Republic); the Joe Lovano Quartet (USA); and more.

Krency Garcia, El Prodigio, performs. Photo: Felix Corona

Krency Garcia, El Prodigio, performs. Photo: Felix Corona

Accordionist Krency Garcia, “El Prodigio,” made a special appearance, adding his merengue típico music to the mix. La Familia Andre, the popular Dominican fusion band, closed out the festival Sunday night.

Lorenzo Sancassi, tourism minister for the Puerto Plata province and a driving force behind the event, said the festival’s 18-year history makes it “the oldest of its kind in the country. The festival has endured, and provided immense joy and culture to both Dominicans and tourists who gather in our country to enjoy this magnificent event and the appeal of our island.”

Coinciding with the Dominican Republic’s Constitution Day holiday, the Jazz Festival goes beyond entertainment and into education through its affiliation with FEDUJAZZ, a non-profit organization that conducts musical workshops for youth. Motivating and developing young artistic talent, FEDUJAZZ has partnered with local organizations such as Sosúa City Council to further assist in the education of Dominican children, using jazz as the teaching platform.

Grammy winner Joe Lovano leads a children's workshop. Photo: Felix Corona

Grammy winner Joe Lovano leads a children’s workshop. Photo: Felix Corona

As part of the 2014 festival, hundreds of North Shore schoolchildren attended entertaining, educational sessions where the artists shared their love of music and explained how easy it is for the kids to find music in their lives.

“It was special, being on the beach, in front of 200 to 300 kids,” said Joe Lovano, a Grammy Award-winning saxophonist who led a workshop Saturday morning. “I felt like I was connecting with them. I could see I was reaching them in a certain way.”

Sponsors for the 18th Dominican Republic Jazz Festival included Ron Macorix, JetBlue, the United States Embassy, Berklee Global Jazz Institute, Sea Horse Ranch Luxury Resort, Ultravioleta, Millennium Resort & Spa, Casa Linda, the Municipality of Sosúa and Cibao Recycling.

Mark your calendar for the festival’s 19th edition: Nov. 5-8, 2015. For more visit drjazzfestival.com.

Colin Hunter with saxophonist Alison Young. Photo courtesy of Dominican Republic Jazz Festival

Colin Hunter with saxophonist Alison Young. Photo courtesy of Dominican Republic Jazz Festival

Professional lifeguards from Canada train young Dominicans

In an unprecedented effort, several nonprofit, private and diplomatic organizations joined forces recently to train young men and women from the Puerto Plata region in an intensive life saving and first aid course.

Canadian lifeguards oversee a rescue exercise

Canadian lifeguards oversee a rescue exercise at Cabarete Beach. Photo by Adan de Miguel

Participants were the Canadian Embassy in the Dominican Republic; Asociación de Hoteles, Restaurantes y Empresas Turísticas del Norte (ASHONORTE); the Tourism Ministry; Happy Dolphins Project; Dove Mission; and Mariposa Foundation. The program was coordinated by the Caribbean Lifesaving Society, under Kristian Thomas.

During the four-day program, nearly 20 young men and women, all from the North Shore of the Dominican Republic, were trained extensively by expert instructors Scott Keeling, Andrea Gaudet and Kristian Thomas, all from the Royal Lifesaving Society Canada. The Royal Lifesaving Society Canada works to prevent drowning and water-related injury through its training programs, water smart public education, drowning prevention research, safety management and lifesaving sport. The joint work between the Caribbean and Canadian associations has led to the creation of the Caribbean Lifesaving Society.

The training program took place at the pool and beach of Hotel Viva Wyndham Tangerine Cabarete, which offered its premises for this outstanding initiative.

Out of the original group of students, seven were selected for an advanced training session. Members of the Happy Dolphin team, as they were named, met the required standards and were certified in advanced life saving and first aid. This will allow them later to attend the life saving instructor course, as well as the professional lifeguard programs.

All young students received lifesaving certificates in an award ceremony, where several representatives of the participating organizations were present. These included Lorenzo Sancassani, regional tourism director; Ambra Attus, executive director of ASHONORTE; Tim Hall, Honorary Consul of Canada for the North Shore; José Luis Mejía, Viva Wyndham Tangerine manager; Patricia Hiraldo, director of Happy Dolphins Project; and Thomas, president of the Caribbean Lifesaving Association.

“We have established this organization in order to train Dominican youth to become life savers and first responders. This will give them in turn the opportunity to train others,” Thomas said. “We are seeking the support and sponsorship of the International Life Saving Federation. Once we have reached this goal, our joint efforts will have international recognition. We hope to continue with these training courses so that more young instructors will spread the program and keep our coasts and rivers safe.”

Hiraldo said there are well over 300 drowning deaths reported each year at beaches and rivers (other estimates place the number at closer to 1,000). An estimated 70 percent of Dominicans do not know how to swim, even though the country is mostly surrounded by water. Also, these training programs are a powerful platform to turn these young underprivileged women and men into proud community leaders for future generations.

Finally, the initiative seeks to create new job opportunities in hotels and beaches of this beautiful Caribbean naation, which is already one of the top tourist destinations on the planet, especially when it comes to watersports and beach lovers. It is therefore crucial to maintain high safety levels in accordance with international standards.

Student lifesavers celebrate with their Canadian instructors. Photo by Adan de Miguel

Student lifesavers celebrate with their Canadian instructors. Photo by Adan de Miguel

Columbus’ cursed colony 500+ years later

By Matt Bokor

Located on the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic, remnants of the first European town in the Americas tell the story of how Christopher Columbus and his large entourage lived—or tried to—after the Spaniards’ second arrival in 1493.

Cemetery at La Isabela

Cemetery at La Isabela. Photo by Matt Bokor

The admiral named the settlement La Isabela, after his benefactor, Queen Isabela of Spain. However, the seaside spot about 30 miles west of modern-day Puerto Plata didn’t last long.

Visitors to sun-baked La Española National Park, which encompasses the settlement’s relics, will find excavated foundations of homes, a church, storage buildings and several other structures, including Columbus’ citadel and portions of the wall that surrounded the roughly five-acre outpost overlooking the Bay of Isabela.

Perhaps most striking for tourists today are the many gravesites, including one with the skeleton fully exposed.

The informative La Isabela Museum onsite exhibits numerous artifacts and narratives about the settlement’s turbulent, five-year history, which goes like this:

With goals of establishing a Spanish base in the Americas and finding gold and other precious metals, Columbus arrived with a fleet at 17 ships and some 1,500 men, along with horses, pigs, seeds, tools and other materials for carving out a community.

The explorers also introduced rats and diseases—smallpox, measles and typhus—which with warfare and enslavement doomed the native Taino population.

The Spaniards grew increasingly hungry, sick, disillusioned and even mutinous as their crops failed and their gold expeditions proved fruitless; hurricanes in 1494 and 1495 sunk several ships.

By 1498 the settlement had been abandoned in favor of a new location on the south coast—Santo Domingo.

Historical archaeologists from the Florida Museum of Natural History collaborated with the Dirección Nacional de Parques de la República Dominicana and the Universidad Nacional e Experimental Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela to excavate and study La Isabela between 1989 and 1999.

The results of that work can be seen onsite at the La Isabela museum and online at flmnh.ufl.edu … just type La Isabela in the search field.

National Geographic Television produced the documentary “Columbus’ Cursed Colony” about the debacle at La Isabela in late 2011.

La Española National Park is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; admission is 100 pesos (about $2.50 USD). Guided tours (in Spanish) are available for an additional fee.

Although La Isabela is relatively close to Puerto Plata, the drive takes about 1.5 hours.

Puerto Plata Region at a glance

An overview…

What can you expect on a visit to these shores?


Playa Dorada
Beaches that just don’t quit... Most of the north coast is beach and most of the beaches are unspoiled and undeveloped

View of Puerto Plata coastline from the Panoramic RouteBreathtaking countryside… More than just a strip of sand in the sea, this is the second largest island in the Caribbean with an ever changing terrain and non-stop unspoiled natural beauty.

Friendly
people…
Almost all visitors comment on how Dominicans are the friendliest people they have ever met when
traveling.

Lively
Latin culture…
counterbalanced by the familiar faces and flavors of many Europeans and North Americans who have relocated
here.

Raw nature… but you don’t have to rough it. You can be four-wheeling through jungle roads by day and, at night, be sipping sipping French wine and eating lobster in your cottons beside the beach.

Not expensive … No matter your style of travel, you encounter relatively good value. With few exceptions, dining out costs US$8-$20 and local drinks are about $3 apiece. In other island nations prices are typically 30- to 50% higher than at home; here, virtually all local services and supplies cost the same, or less, than at home.

Easy to get to… Daily flights from Miami (2 hrs), New York (3 hrs), Atlanta (2 1/2 hours) Puerto Rico (1 hr), weekly charters
from dozens of Canadian and European cities.

Backpackers… Lots of pensiones, cheap hotel rooms and inexpensive public transportation. Easy hops from place to place with something different to experience at each one.

Luxury… This destination attracts many very well heeled people who want to get away from all that. You won’t find Marriot or Sheraton but you do find some very exclusive and comfortable owner-operated small hotels and you can also rent million-dollar villas by the week. Most of the large resorts are predominantly filled with economy travelers on all-inclusive vacations; a handful are four-star. Meanwhile, you can get just about anything you want, from private car and driver to helicopters and yachts. Maxim Bungalows in Cofresi, poolside

All-inclusive resorts… There are dozens of all-inclusive beach resorts, where food, drinks, beach equipment and a long list of amenities are all part of a one-price package including airfare conveniently organized out of major European, American and Canadian cities. Lots of great deals available.

Adventure Travel… Dozens of specialty vacations are being offered by people who came as tourists and then moved
back to set up shop because they discovered that this place is great for… horseback riding in the mountains (several
excellent ranches), getting scuba diving certification (one of the least expensive places to get it), windsurfing (excellent schools for learning and all services for pros), white water rafting, whale watching (the largest Atlantic ocean gathering of humpback whales spawning January to March in Samana Bay), hiking trips (the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte, 10,000 ft, with guides and mules available), mountain biking (bikes and guided tours for all levels), motocross and four-wheeling (dirt bikes and jeeps for rent and you’ll find endless, unmapped backroads). There are plenty of guided day trips and excursions that make it easy to have a tropical or third world adventure and get back to the comfort of your hotel by the end of the day.

Relocating and Investing… Each year more people come and don’t leave. As one of our friends says, “my cost of living is equivalent to my tax and utilities budget back home.” People looking for a place to retire, or who simply dream of living in the Caribbean will find that there are a lot of good reasons. price and friendly people being the main ones, to consider this part of the Caribbean.

. This guide will help you find all of this and more.

Have you already booked your trip? Don’t forget to get a free copy of our Puerto Plata Hot! Regional Visitors Guide that you can download to bring with you maps, coupons and local information that you will be glad you have once you get here!

Dominican Republic Video

La Citadelle

La Citadelle
Cap-Haitien, Haiti.- The sun rises slowly over the bay in Cap-Haitien casting a soft golden light over the town as the car trundles laboriously along potholed streets. All around us the city begins to stir, vendors appear on the street corners and groups of schoolchildren, books in hand, shield their eyes against the glare as they walk. Soon we are outside the city and cruising smoothly along empty roads, the mountains looming up ahead enticingly. We are on our way to visit two of Haiti’s most famous sites, the ruined palace of Sans Souci and the fabled Citadelle la Ferriére, both of which are situated in the hills outside Cap-Haitien.

Before long we pull into a small parking lot in the village of Milot and catch our first glimpse of Sans Souci. It sits atop a bluff, halfway up a densely forested valley, an opulent yet anachronistic image of grandeur from another age. The place is nearly empty but for a handful of children doing their homework amongst the ruins. We take our time to explore the intricate series of archways and passages that still stand and marvel at what must once have been a truly spectacular building. Sadly it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1842, only 29 years after it was completed.

After a while it is time to move on and we take the car on up the mountain along a series of sharp switchbacks affording beautiful glimpses of the valley below us. Five minutes later we reach the end of the road – from here we travel by foot.

The cobbled path leads steeply upwards along the flank of the mountain through groves of banana trees and areas of thick jungle. Wild flowers dot the verges and as we gain in altitude we are rewarded with a truly stunning panorama. Endless ranges of mountains stretch away to the horizon, the emerald green of the nearby slopes melts away gradually into the deep indigo of the distant peaks. Small wooden huts are dotted along the sides of the path and their inhabitants wave to us as we pass. Before long we begin to catch glimpses of the fortress through the trees, perched high up above us on the summit. Even after so many years of neglect and disuse it remains a proud structure. Defiance seems to radiate from its towering walls and batteries of rusting canons.

Eventually we make it to the top and after a quick break to catch our breath and admire the view we enter by a large wooden door. Inside the fortress is a labyrinthine maze of tunnels and passages along which we slowly make our way, past vast piles of cannon balls and artillery, installed by King Henri Christophe to repel a French attack that never materialised. He had the Citadelle constructed in the early nineteenth century as a means of defending the regions around Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti. Reputedly when finished in 1820 the fortress held enough supplies to sustain 5,000 defenders for one year. Its walls are 40 metres high and in total it occupies an area of some 10,000 meters square.

From the dark interior chambers of this monstrous construction we ascend several flights of stone steps before emerging onto the outer walls which offer the chance to get some perspective on the layout of the fort. On all sides the views are spectacular. We gaze down over the mountains to the coastal plains, Cap-Haitien and beyond it the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. It is said that on a clear day you can see all the way to Cuba, some 90 miles away. A pair of eagles soar effortlessly on the thermals rising from the valley floor. They float up past us until they are mere specks against the puffy cotton-wool clouds that dot the sky.

Up here an all-pervading silence dominates. Without a breath of wind, and with few if any people for miles around, it is eerily quiet – a sensation of post-apocalyptic serenity greets the visitor as they bathe in the solitude of this once-bustling fortress. The sun is strong, even up here at over 3,000 feet. It warms the great yellow stones of the castle walls and adds to the sense of lethargy that overwhelms us in this beautiful place.

Sadly it is soon time to leave and we retrace our steps down the mountain, every now and then looking back over our shoulders as the Citadelle fades into the distance. It truly is a special place and it is easy to understand why Haitians have described it as the eighth wonder of the world.

But while the lack of tourists visiting the site makes for a wonderfully peaceful visit, it is also reflective of the fragile state of the Haitian tourism industry and the wider state of deprivation in the country. With 70% percent of the population living on less than two dollars per day Haitians are in dire need of foreign assistance as they fight to drag their country out of poverty. And what better way to do your bit than to spend a few dollars visiting this magnificent symbol of Haitian national pride and achievement.

NOTE: Mr. Trenchard toured several areas of Haiti with the assistance of the Mission of the United Nations for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Luperón: a Hurricane Hole And An Adventure Of A Lifetime

Luperon Bay
You step onto the dinghy dock. Luperon village is out of sight, but not out of mind, as you ascend onto a wharf built and maintained (somewhat) by the government of the Dominican Republic. Saint Dominic was surely the patron saint of amplified sound, and Gen. Gregorio Luperon, the liberator of guitar music: You can’t see the settlement yet, but you most certainly hear the boom boxes. So you march on wobbly sealers toward refrains of love lost, past the mangrove swamp, and into this not-so-sleepy village of 8,000 people.

A building boom is under way, and the open-air welders on the edge of town are busy banging out decorative iron security gratings for homes of the prosperous. A wash dries on barbed-wire fencing, and a local fishmonger scrapes the neon pink scales off that morning’s catch; he’s getting old, and his tan face sports two-day-old white stubble. Naked brown toddlers chase chickens as grandmothers sit on miniscule front porches bemoaning the price of beans. Girls–formidable in styled hair, tight jeans and red lipstick–attend to their errands from the backs of motoconchos, the motorcycle taxis endemic here.

(Holy moly! There goes a family of four on one of those little bikes; blue smoke puffs out the stern.)

You had planned to stay a week or two, but you lose the urge for going. Your boat throws down roots like a mangrove, and your anchor rode grows a coral reef. It happens all the time in Luperon’s harbor. It happened to me. Welcome to the flip side of the Americas. Goodbye, rational exuberance. Hello, magical reality.

 

Going Native

 

I arrived in March 1999, and stuck around, fascinated. The place had the transitional feel of Spain in the 1960s, where I’d lived as a child. The D.R. today is transporting itself from the 19th Century directly into the 21st, but it’s a little groggy, having somehow slept through the intervening 10 decades. (There’s a story I love to tell, which says it all: I came across a cane cutter walking to the fields at dawn, machete in his left hand, his right holding a cell phone to his ear, talking to his boss, no doubt.)

By May of ’99, I had a job. For the next year, I lived aboard and commuted to work in a shopworn Opel with three other resident cruisers. My Spanish started coming back, and I traveled the width and breadth of the Dominican Republic, a country about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

During my stay I heard sea stories told by many a skilled mariner as they wet their whistles with fine Dominican pilsners. And I beheld a gaggle of expatriates.

I met a Dutch sea captain who bought a hilltop where he’s building a splendid hacienda. I met a blind British spy, now retired. I met a former anti-Castro saboteur, two English con men and a professional poker player from California (a witty, easygoing, clean-cut fellow without a hint of Damon Runyon in his demeanor).

I met a corpulent Canadian banker charged with money laundering; he beat the rap. I met a woman whose ex-husband was the ex-husband of the sister of a former vice-president of the United States; he was a rake and had absconded with the better part of wife No. 2’s inheritance. I met a South African couple raising two children aboard their 41-foot sailboat, whom I dubbed, despite their nationality, the Swiss Family Robinson.

I met old men seeking young women, and pale women in search of dusky gods of the dance floor. I met a gringo lawyer who refused to sit on seat cushions because he thought doing so would cause germs to enter his body–plastic seats only, please.

Former Fortune 500 execs were a dime a dozen.

The lesser of the con men (I say lesser because of his mitigating streak of generosity) became a friend once he disabused himself of the suspicion that I was CIA. Last time I saw him he had concocted a hat trick of scams to finance his cruising. He was hawking pirated electronic charting CDs, advertising D.R. investment “opportunities” over the Internet, and offering to bring together love-hungry foreigners with Dominican beauties.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You are a copyright-infringing, pyramid-scheming pimp.”

“Exactly,” he said.

Calling All Trawlers

 

I met a few delivery skippers on powerboats, but only one real cruiser under power; only about 35 of the estimated 700 yachts that stop in Luperon annually are power, and most of those are sportfish boats on delivery. The one cruiser I met was French via California. He was solo and on his way back to Florida from Saint Martin on a 26-foot Boston Whaler. He also had spent enough time buzzing around Cuba to be declared persona non grata by the Castro government.

Where were all the trawler jockeys? If a crazy Frenchman in a Whaler–not to mention some kids in sailboats whose engines couldn’t be started since the Exumas–can make it from Florida to Luperon, why can’t you? Your boats are tricked out better than the U.S. Navy of 30 years ago. Regular fuel stops line the route all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Venezuela. Sorry to scold, but why aren’t more of you getting as far as Luperon in particular, and the Caribbean in general? Mom-and-pop retirees are getting there in sailboats by the scores, most of the time using those itsy-bitsy engines–that is, by motorsailing into the contrary trade winds.

Luperon, on the D.R.’s North Coast, is a logical stopover on the “Thorny Path” from Florida to Anguilla, where the Caribbean islands take a turn to the south. Until Anguilla, boats from the United States are eastbound and therefore, dead nuts into the relentless trade winds. Add a few thorns for contrary prevailing currents and seas as well. Northern sailors avoid the Thorny Path to windward by voyaging to the Caribbean via Bermuda, thus making an “easting” in the high latitudes above the trades.

For many of us short-legged diesel-sippers, however, Bermuda is less an option. Besides, cruising the length of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos is great adventure and a fine prelude to a completely different adventure–the Dominican Republic. It is a stunningly beautiful and varied nation; her people are among the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet. Farther down, Caribbean islanders resent your material wealth outwardly, but not in Luperon. In fact, Americans are preferred to Europeans because we tip and because so many Dominicans have family in the U.S.–some of them with well-known names like baseball stars Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez.

In the Dominican Republic, I like to say, there’s a surprise around every corner. Sometimes it’s a spectacular vista; sometimes it’s a cattle drive coming right at your car. The earliest promoter of the D.R. was Christopher Columbus, who stopped in Hispaniola on his first voyage. His words, written to Queen Isabella of Spain, are as true today as they were on Jan. 10, 1493, when the Great Navigator himself sailed into Luperon:

“May Your Highness believe that these lands are so greatly good and fertile, and especially those on this island, that there is no one who can tell it; and no one could believe it, had he not seen it.”

 

Hurricane Hole

 

Luperon, sometimes referred to as Puerto Blanco, is an extraordinary hurricane hole, made secure by surrounding hills and holding ground of anchor-swallowing gelatinous muck. Thievery happens, but is rare. Many cruisers wait out hurricane season in Luperon because of its shelter, but also because hurricanes avoid this part of the North Coast, tending instead to track through the Bahamas or, like Georges in 1998, pass to the south on the other side of the Septentrional Mountains.

Unlike the Bahamas, the D.R. is a country best seen by land–a truism that affirms and enhances Luperon’s status as a great cruising destination. That’s because Luperon is the best staging area from which mariners can explore the entire D.R.–Santo Domingo included–whether by rental car or guided tour. Leave your prejudices behind, and the Dominican Republic will prove to be immensely amusing, filled with curious contradictions.

On the practical level, everything you need to continue your voyage is either readily available or, with patient investigation, obtainable. This is crucial to cruisers heading west to Cuba, where supplies are short. For eastbound cruisers, Luperon is the place to hunker down and await a weather window. In these waters, that means a period of diminished trade winds and seas; otherwise you face a head-on bash to Puerto Rico with only one port to break up the trip–Samana, a nest of outboard motor thieves.

Approaches

(19°57.0N, 70°56.5W is a point two nautical miles north of the harbor entrance.)

 

Even in the pre-dawn darkness you can see the bold shores of Hispaniola from far at sea, one black mountain ridge dwarfed by a bigger, blacker one behind. After weeks in the salt-scrubbed Bahamas, your noses and tongues will re-acquire a familiar odor. It is the cumulative of soil, grass, trees, manure, cars and charcoal fires, but mainly just damp soil like your garden’s.

As you near the waypoint above, the Hotel Tropical Luperon Beach Resort will stand out as white forms against the terrain. The harbor entrance is just to the east.

Your next waypoint is 19°55.0N, 70°56.5 W, at 1/4 of a mile from the harbor mouth. Inside the mouth, a small headland extends from the eastern shore; from the waypoint, come in toward the tip of that headland on a bearing of 190 degrees magnetic. This will take you between occasionally breaking reefs on either side, which are marked (usually) by red and green balls.

As you enter, the depth should level off at 12 feet then deepen. Before the headland, come right gradually, keeping between green and red stake buoys leading to the westernmost of the harbor’s two pools. Mangroves divide this pool in two parts with Marina Puerto Blanco’s docks to starboard and the government wharf to port. Mind the marks, motor slowly and watch for sandbars.

For local knowledge, put out a call on Channel 68, which is monitored by every cruiser in the harbor. Channel 16, while not restricted to Dominican military use, is nearly useless because no one but the Navy listens to it.

Entry procedures: Anchor anywhere with Q flag hoisted and wait for Dominican entry officials in a skiff; it is customary to offer them a cold soft drink. If they don’t show, dinghy to the government dock and walk into town. At the outskirts, to the left is a path leading to a small bridge and the hilltop naval outpost. The commandante will record your presence, giving you legal permission to wander about on land. The immigration officer will catch up with you later.

Fees are $10 U.S. for the boat, $10 for each passport, a $5 harbor fee and $5 garbage and water fee at the government dock. The passport fee buys you the equivalent of a 90-day (renewable) tourist visa.

As in Mexico, Dominican officialdom enforces an antiquated system of “despachos,” requiring cruisers to check in with the Navy and fill out paperwork at every port. In fact, cruisers are technically forbidden from visiting places that are not ports of entry.

That may change by the time you arrive. As new marinas are developed, the Navy’s top admiral is pushing to establish a system of three-month cruising permits similar to what is done in the Bahamas. Go Navy. Beat bureaucracy.

Charts: Incredible as it may seem, no large-scale government chart of Luperon exsts. Hispaniona 017 by Wavey Line Publishing, available at major chart providers, depicts a small-scale view of the Turks and Caicos, the north coast of the Dominican Republic and western Puerto Rico with several harbor charts on the backside. It’s an excellent chart, which includes waypoints, but again, Luperon is inexplicably omitted. Your solution is in the next paragraph.

Cruising Guides: All the chartlets and waypoints for landfalls between the Turks and Caicos and Puerto Rico are included in “The Gentleman’s Guide To Passages South” by Bruce Van Sant. This excellent resource is not a cruising guide per se, but a discussion of passage-making techniques intended to exorcize some of those thorns from the “thorny path to windward.” But because there is no cruising guide to the Dominican Republic–or Puerto Rico, for that matter–Van Sant has devoted substantial portions of his book to shoreside information about these places, including provisioning tips and an amusing section on how to master “Spanglish.”

Van Sant, himself a denizen of Luperon, keeps his Schucker 440 trawler Tidak Apa in the harbor, while he and wife, Rosa, make their home a dozen steps up the hill from Puerto Blanco Marina. Van Sant long ago traded the real world, where he was an aerospace engineer, for the peripatetic life he has led since.

Whenever he’s not cruising the Bahamas or Spanish Virgin Islands to update his books, Van Sant holds court–he would hate the phrase–at the marina restaurant, dispensing advice and debating politics. Easy to identify, Don Bruce likes to wear a white Panama hat, white shirt with French cuffs and cargo shorts.

The “Gentleman’s Guide” is available at stateside marine stores or through Cruising Guide Publications at 727.733.5322; www.cruisingguides.com.

For the Boat

 

British expatriate Julia Bartlett founded Flutterby Boater Services in association with Puerto Blanco Marina and it’s a clearinghouse of valuable information. She’s a bit of a legend, too, having single-handed across the Atlantic and cruised the Caribbean for years. Don’t worry about having to look for her or her associates; they’ll find you. If Julia’s not off cruising, she’ll be the blonde putt-putting up to your boat wearing butterfly wings, hence Flutterby.

The Flutterbys will boat-sit while you explore the interior, as well as care for your pets. They will deliver your boat to Puerto Rico or provide crew for the sometimes difficult Mona Passage crossing. They will also deliver fresh baked bread to your boat, a small loaf for 25 pesos, larger for 50 (at this writing the exchange rate was 16.5 pesos per U.S. dollar.)

Fuel and water: While there are no gas docks anywhere on the North Coast, quality diesel fuel is available in Luperon. Ask Flutterby to help you arrange a delivery; small amounts will be jugged out to your boat; otherwise you can make an appointment for a fuel truck to meet you at Puerto Blanco Marina or the government dock. Fuel in the D.R. likely will be substantially cheaper than in the Turks and Caicos, your other refueling option thereabouts. Water is available at the government dock and Puerto Blanco marina, but it’s for washing, not drinking. Bottled water in 6-gallon jugs is sold at the marina.

Marinas: Marina Puerto Blanco (809-571-8644) is more than a marina; it is headquarters for the cruising community. Owned by the Fernandez family and managed by Lenin Fernandez, it is a one-stop shop with bar and restaurant, drop-off laundry, garbage facilities, showers, water and car and truck rentals.

The restaurant menu is a balance of Dominican and gringo dishes–cheeseburgers being a favorite. The restaurant/bar puts on film nights, trivia contests, dance nights and, on Sundays, a boater’s flea market in the morning segues into an afternoon barbecue.

Moorings: A couple of years ago the government placed moorings in the harbor, but my correspondents now report that many have broken loose and any remaining are best avoided.

Provisioning: Luperon has three small grocery stores with basic provisions, one of which, Supermecardo El Sol, caters to cruisers by providing free delivery to the dock. A fresh vegetable truck visits the marina regularly, its arrival announced on Channel 68.

Puerto Plata, the North Coast’s biggest city, has three large American-style supermarkets that offer most of the foods you’re used to, including high-quality cuts of frozen meats from the U.S. The inland city of Santiago has a supermarket bigger than I’ve ever seen in the states, but maybe I don’t get around much.

If your vessel runs on beer, this is the place to get it. Presidente and Bohemia are the best in terms of quality and price for a thousand miles in any direction. Aged sipping rums by Brugal and Macorix are as smooth as fine brandy.

A cruising couple, Brian and Margie, have opened a marine store on 27 de Febrero in town, advertising charts, filters, canvas repairs and courtesy flags.

As in Mexico, many drugs sold by prescription in the U.S. are available over-the-counter in the D.R., including Viagra. Luperon’s Danessa pharmacy overlooking the village’s central square is a good place to stock up on antibiotics, seasickness preventatives and painkillers if you are continuing on .

Crew changes: Puerto Plata International Airport is just more than an hour away, with several daily flights to New York, Miami and San Juan. A steady stream of European flights arrive carrying fodder for the area’s all-inclusive resorts. A cab ride from Luperon to the airport costs about $40.

Communications: Codetel on Calle Duarte is the telephone office with direct-dial booths, fax and Internet service. Punto Internet on Independencia also offers email and Internet services as well as a host of computer services and photo developing.

Things To Do

 

Music and dance: Dominican grandmothers bounce babies on their laps to the rhythm of meringue. Dominican teens dance as if their bones were made of rubber, but the moves are quite elegant compared to the “dirty dancing” you may have witnessed in the Bahamas or Miami.

Mario Vargas Llosa, quoted at the beginning of this article, summarizes the relationship Dominicans have with music, but in his list of musical styles, he makes an all-too-common omission. Vargas Llosa fails to mention Bachata, a musical style enormously popular on the North Coast, though it is looked down upon by urban sophisticates who prefer the relentless dance rhythms of today’s techno-meringue.

Bachata, characterized by plinkity-plink guitars and simple drums, is called the “music of bitterness” and is sometimes compared to North American Country Western. The lyrics bewail love lost, and the Dominican people seem to know every word to every song; they sing along with the boom boxes. It seems so romantic–and so unlike Dominican reality. To me, Dominican courtship is highly adversarial, like watching cats mate. Despite or because of that contradiction, I am a Bachata fan, and my favorite practitioner is Antony Santos, who reminds me of a young Frank Sinatra.

Bachata and meringue can be heard at Luperon’s discos, including one next to the Luperon Beach Resort Hotel, which often features live performers. For a night out in the big city, have dinner at Café Cito (see restaurants), then check out Orion Discoteque, a world-class dance venue. Bring earplugs. And beware: Any establishment calling itself “nightclub” is probably also a whorehouse.

Sights And Tours: Once again Flutterby is a good source of information, and Julia herself organizes regular horseback riding tours from Mario’s Ranch in Luperon. Horses are best for touring the area’s lush and otherwise inaccessible countryside. Mario will find a beast to match your skills as a rider because if you’re up to it, the sand flats are good for galloping.

About 45 minutes down the road to Puerto Plata is the crossroads city of Imbert (which has the nearest ATM). Just outside of town and set back in the forest are falls that will remind you of God’s own waterslide. A hired guide will help you alternately climb and swim up successive levels until you’ve reached your limit (four is usual, seven for the boldest souls). You then slide down granite half-pipes worn as smooth as polished marble by eons of rushing water, and leap into a deep pool at the base of the cliffs. Climb and slide take about a half hour.

About 10 miles west is the seaside village of La Isabella, site of the first European settlement in the New World, founded by Columbus. Himself. There is a museum and ruins of the old Spanish fortress, which was bulldozed by mistake in the 1950s.

(That’s a good story. Dictator Rafael Trujillo, villain of the previously mentioned novel “The Feast of the Goat,” wanted to impress visitors with a tour of the old fort so he phoned ahead to local authorities. “Clean the place up,” he ordered, and when Trujillo wanted clean, by God, you cleaned. They revved up the bulldozers and flattened the place. Trujillo, responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people during his three-decade rule, was ambushed and shot to death by a group of brave young men in 1961.)

There are several good tour guides in the Luperon area that can help you hire a late-model minivan and driver for an overnight trip to the capital or a visit to the mountains. In a day you can traverse lush lowlands, cross a desert and finish the day with mountain views, including Pico Duarte, the highest point in the Caribbean at 10,094 feet. Duarte is one of 20 peaks in the “Dominican Alps” higher than Mount Washington in New Hampshire (6,288 feet) or Mount Mitchell in North Carolina (6,684 feet).

On one of those Dominican mountains, is the village of Arrastrando Tu Pierna, where there is said to exist a gravitational anomaly that allows the villagers to bounce around like squirrels and chickens to roost in treetops.

Shopping: Bruce Van Sant’s wife, Rosa, operates a nifty little gift shop at the marina. Called the Dominican Treasure Shop, it sells high-quality jewelry and clothing. Rosa, who is Dominican, is a reliable source of local knowledge, and her shop has a boater’s directory of local suppliers and services compiled by boaters. The Dominican Republic is a mother lode of amber, some of it complete with an ancient insect inside. Larimar, another semi-precious gem, is found only in the D.R. It comes in colors ranging from sky blue to blue-green. This is nice stuff and looks great set in gold and silver.

Cigars: Tim Hall is an expatriate Montrealer, a long-time refugee from the frozen north who wears several hats. By day, he operates a Canadian consulate from a sidestreet in Puerto Plata. By night, he moves to the second floor where he runs Café Cito (a restaurant to be discussed later). Behind the consulate he maintains a well-humidified room filled with Cuevas Hermanos cigars.

Hall took me on a tour of the Cuevas Hermanos factory on my last trip to the D.R., explaining in his gravelly voice that most Cuevas production is bought by famous brands and resold under their labels. As dozens of workers rolled the aromatic brown leaf, light skinned, well-dressed caballeros walked the floor puffing puros. I was warned not to take their pictures lest some reader make the connection between this factory and whichever name-brand these gentlemen represented. Secretive bunch, these stogie-mongers.

Hall led me through the stages of cigarmaking, culminating with a puffing machine, which sends a measured blast of air through each cigar to ensure a good draw. Cigar Aficionado in its April 2001 issue called the factory “one of the best examples of the boutique manufacturer’s art.”

The D.R. is one of the biggest cigar producers in the world, so you can expect to find cigars for sale around every corner–the good, the bad, the indifferent–often at disproportionate prices. Hall, in his effort to create a “cigar culture” for his restaurant, has honed in on the Cuevas house brands to ensure consistent quality.

Because I don’t smoke, I’ve relied on correspondents to whom I provided a Christmas supply of Cuevas smokes for testing.

“The Cuevas Habanos was a surprisingly good cigar, well-rolled with an even cool draw. Mild to medium bodied in flavor, it was an unexpected pleasure. The 1492 with its slightly darker wrapper turned out to be a top-notch smoke with perfect draw, great white ash and again, a mild to medium bodied punch,” wrote Wayne Chick, a New Hampshire newspaperman. “Good and smooth,” commented Ray Kucklinka, a New Jersey high school teacher.

Hall wears a fourth hat. He operates an excellent website providing information on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic: www.popreport.com.

Restaurants: Unlike Mexico, the D.R. is no dining destination. Dominicans eat a healthy, if monotonous diet of beans and rice, salad and small portions of fried chicken, pork chops, stewed beef or occasional fish. So popular is chicken with beans and rice, in fact, that it’s called La Bandera Dominicana, the Dominican Flag.

Dominican food is OK as far as it goes, but what saves the cruising palate from certain boredom is the institution of mixed marriages. Several restaurants in the Luperon area are Belgian-Dominican or German-Dominican husband-and-wife teams. This includes El Belga, Pequeno Mundo and La Casa Del Sol.

Just Go

Conversations with boatbuilders suggest that most power cruisers, at least on the East Coast, aspire not so much to bluewater passages as those comfortable slides down the archipelagoes that lead step-by-step from the Florida peninsula to shores of South America. Island hoppers take a left at Luperon for the Lesser Antilles; a right for Cuba and the Yucatan.

Luperon’s strategic position opposite the Turks and Caicos on the D.R.’s North Coast makes it an obvious component of any southbound cruising plans. The bonuses of such a layover are manifold, not the least of which is the potential for a rich cargo of memories, which in the end are all we have left worth a damn.

Two paragraphs above I used the word “aspire” because as a community our potential for great adventure is largely unrealized. You’ve got the dream. You’ve got the boats. The path lies before you. Luperon awaits

by Peter Swanson
photography by the author

Retired teacher organizes “Helping Hand Vacations” for youth

There’s something about the Dominican Republic that’s hooked Judy Warrington.

In April, Warrington returned from her 18th trip to the impoverished Caribbean nation, which shares its island landmass with Haiti.

Dominican Republic may be a great spot for a vacation, but that hasn’t been its draw for Warrington.

“Despite the challenges of the rains, roads, lack of infrastructure, lack of hydro, running water, access to medical care, high costs, devaluing peso, they [the people there] still have a joy about them, a spirit about them, and a love of life. A happiness that really extends the warmest welcome to visitors,” she said glowingly.

“We teach our children not to speak to strangers. In the Dominican Republic, it’s the opposite.”

Warrington has always been interested in the service of others, which is why she founded Power Trips, a volunteer-run organization devoted to Dominican Republic’s development. She left her home in Oakville on Good Friday and stayed in the Dominican Republic for more than a month to lead two 14-day trips. The first one consisted of 80 people – 63 of which were students, and the rest, mostly teachers. The second trip attracted 30 participants from Strathscona-Tweedsmuir School in Calgary and Collingwood School in Vancouver.

It was the way the students preferred to spend their March Break.

“I considered coming on this project because I wanted to experience a challenge and make a change. I also felt like it was time to do something useful during my March Break instead of being a tourist in some country,” wrote student Andy Doyle in his assessment of the trip.

It’s a win-win situation.

When Warrington isn’t on the island, she is sending as much as she can in the way of school supplies and medical equipment. With the help of local schools, she’s sent two 40-foot containers. Nothing is too big (or too small)- Warrington will even accept teacher’s desks.

Warrington was introduced to international service opportunities at Appleby College, a member school of the Round Square. Round Square is an organization that leads students on the path to self discovery in ways that extend beyond the walls of the classroom. Warrington went on to lead students on trips to Hungary, Kenya, South Africa and Costa Rica.

In 2004, she created Power Trips as a legal entity. She says she chose Dominican Republic because of its closeness, and “the fact that it has as much poverty in some areas as I know there is in Africa.”

“What differentiates us from many other organizations is our interest in empowerment. We don’t want to create dependency on us,” she said.

“We do service that is smart, sensible, and sensible to the local community and its needs, that is going to lead to self-sustainability.”

Warrington is partnered with the Rotary Club of Oakville, as well as local organizations.

“They act as our guides, friends, direct line.”

During her last visit, the teams worked on four extreme school makeovers, including a women’s training centre, which entailed purchasing material locally, renovations, installing security bars and roofs, fixing “banyos” (bathrooms), making blackboards, shelving, painting, decorating, and hiring people to pour concrete floors. Sounds tiring, yes, but for Warrington, a retired teacher, it’s a typical day in the life.

With classes still running in March in the Dominican Republic, she and her volunteers ran tutorials for the children, and created safe children’s play areas – mud playgrounds was all they had.

She also partnered with two leading childcare health providers – The Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI) and The National Council for Children and Adolescents (CONANI) – to run health clinics. Dominicans were given free medicine, and thousands of toothbrushes and toothpaste were handed out. There was HIV testing, and workshops on the environment, garbage (a problem there) and sexual disease. An eye clinic was set up to identify children with clinical needs, and eyeglasses were distributed.

Dominicans were also given thousands of used soccer balls and uniforms.

Warrington was a teacher for 35 years, mostly in Halton and Peel. She’s taught at elementary school, secondary school, and a commercial re-training program at Sheridan College.

She’s been married for 43 years, and says she’s always been comfortable and privileged.

Her husband, an accountant with his own business, is also involved in her pursuits. He participated in the August project. Her daughter-in-law teaches at the University of Calgary and is hoping to develop a professional education program in the Dominican Republic, in conjunction with the University of Calgary.

Her projects have been a success with students, who accompany her on the trips. They visited a cigar factory, hospital, seniors’ centre, deaf children’s school, clinic and Mirabal Museum, and walked with a refreshed outlook on life.

Warrington no longer stays in hotels with her volunteers. The students weren’t comfortable in the kind of accommodation hotels provide.

“It didn’t fit,” said Warrington. Instead, they stayed at a retreat centre with basic and rustic lodgings. The views, however, were incredible – it’s located on the top of a mountain between Puerto Plata and Sosua.

Local cooks prepared Dominican cuisine during the trip.

“We are very careful about what we eat,” said Warrington.

Perhaps the only complaint the students really had in their evaluations was there weren’t enough vegetables.

Besides that, they walked away with a refreshed outlook on life.

“After this trip, I have a much greater appreciation for how much a small action can affect someone so much. I will also be much more willing to live in the moment and “go with the flow.” I have a feeling that these lessons will stay with me forever,” wrote Elizabeth Watt from St. Clement’s School.

Visit Judy’s PowerTripsInc. web site

Visit the Tubagua retreat centre web site

From The Oakville Beaver, Ontario, Canada
By Joanna Phillips
May 14, 2008

People Making a Difference: Bob Hildreth and Lisa Ballantine

In 1991, Bob Hildreth drilled a well for his new home here. Not long after, people lined up at the spigot alongside his house.
Potable water, he’d discovered, was in short supply.

Eighteen years later – the longest time this former US Army aviator has spent in any one place – Mr. Hildreth devotes half his time to his jewelry business, Joyería las Americas, and the other half getting durable, low-tech water filters into the island’s barrios.

(Photograph)
Worldwide, at least 1.1 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization, and 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation. Some 1.8 million people die each year from diarrhea, which has been tied to unsafe drinking water – the majority of them children in developing countries.

Given that these losses are preventable, potable water doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves, says Mark Sobsey, professor of environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Priorities are higher for other development activities than this,” he says. “Sanitation, especially, is not very sexy.”

Even piped-in water isn’t necessarily safe, Hildreth says. In the developed world, constant water pressure keeps whatever’s lurking outside the pipes at bay. In the developing world, however, where power outages are common, water pressure drops and at times even reverses, sucking in raw sewage that’s often outside. When the system begins pumping again, it’s delivering contaminated water.

“Point-of-use water treatment needs to be adopted by all the developing countries in the world,” Hildreth says.

Funded principally by Rotary clubs, his organization – Project las Americas – has delivered 19,000 BioSand filters. One $50 filter cleans 120 gallons of water daily and lasts for decades. In studies, Dr. Sobsey has found that BioSand filters can reduce diarrhea by 47 percent.

“You’re almost certainly reducing mortality,” he says.

Developed in the 1990s by Dr. David Manz, then at the University of Calgary in Alberta, BioSand filters use sand and the bacteria that grow on it to filter water. Users pour water through a diffuser into a gently tapering, belly-high container. (A traditional container made from cement weighs 250 lbs., but a new plastic container weighs just 10 lbs.)

Water passes through 20 inches of sand that comes directly from a quarry. The sand’s tiny cracks and chambers filter out microbes. A layer of “good” bacteria forms at the sand’s surface. This living film feeds on and removes viruses, bacteria, and parasites. “The technology is so robust that you can screw it up, and it will still keep functioning,” Hildreth says.

Two hours inland, in the town of Jarabacoa (pop. 70,000), Lisa Ballantine works on the same problem using a slightly different tool: a ceramic pot filter. Smaller and lighter than the BioSand filter, hers fits into a five-gallon bucket. Pour water into the U-shaped receptacle, and it percolates through porous clay at a rate of two to three quarts per hour. Filters cost $30 to sponsor; Dominicans can buy them directly for $25. “The thing I like about [the] water [problem] is that we can solve it,” she says.

Originally from the Chicago area, Ms. Ballantine came to Jarabacoa as a missionary in 2000. After seeing the poverty surrounding her, she wanted to provide practical help. So after her mission was over, she studied ceramics at Northern Illinois University and, in 2006, she returned with her ceramic pot filter idea.

The basic design is nearly two centuries old. Some 170 years ago, amid concerns about cholera, Queen Victoria asked London’s Royal Doulton china company to design a water filter. Versions of its design are now used in places such as Cambodia and Honduras.

With help from Manny Hernandez, her ceramics mentor at Northern Illinois, Ballantine has improved on the design, she says. Ceramic filters typically are coated with silver particles. The silver’s ionic charge kills microbes on contact. But rather than painting the silver onto the pot, Ballantine mixes it – along with fine sawdust no greater than 1/50th of a human hair in diameter – directly into the clay. The sawdust burns off, leaving minuscule silver-coated chambers. Microbes passing through come into more contact with the silver, and the filter has a much longer life – about five years, she says.

With her partner, Tracy Hawkins, who works in Tanzania, she’s founded Filter Pure. Lifelong potter Radhamés Carela from nearby Moca runs her factory. Their goal: Create a model for making high-quality filters with low-tech equipment that’s exportable anywhere. At full capacity, the factory can produce 1,000 filter per month. So far, she’s given out more than 11,000 filters in the Dominican Republic.

On a sunny March day, Ballantine drives her pickup truck into a muddy, flood-prone neighborhood called “la joya de Jarabacoa.” Today, she’s giving out filters donated by a church in Streamwood, Ill. A jostling crowd of children forms around the truck. Adults emerge from hammered-together shacks to ask for them.

Typically, residents here buy water from passing trucks that sell it in large plastic jugs. The quality of that water can vary greatly.

But with monthly incomes here averaging about $200, buying a $25 filter can still seem too expensive. Resident Estamilado Durán estimates that of the 300 families in the neighborhood, perhaps five or 10 could afford it.

Ballantine is undeterred. The filter may seem expensive, she tells them in Spanish, but if they account for what they spend on bottled water now – $171 per year per family, she estimates – the savings are readily apparent.

By comparison, using a filter would cost a family less than 2 cents per day, she says.

Local hotel & restaurant association publishes guide book


Our quest for the ‘right’ cigar

After a year of legwork we discovered an ideal combination of quality, price and consistency from a small, Cuban family-run factory hidden away in the Cibao Valley

At Cafe Cito, we have always enjoyed introducing customers to such discoveries as the Dominican Republic’s premium sipping rums, some of which are close to cognac in their smoothness and flavor. Likewise, we have always wanted to be able to offer a good ‘discovery cigar’; one we could recommend with confidence and sell for a reasonable price. But for the longest time we were reluctant to recommend any particular brand, aware that:

  • Almost all of the famous brand name cigars sold in tourist shops – Cohiba, Davidoff, etc. – are knockoffs or counterfeits: you pay for the name but you don’t get the real thing.
  • Much of the product available is simply unknown to the buyer and sold at prices that don’t necessarily speak for the quality, and with no way to try before you buy.
  • There is nothing worse than buying for a cigar-loving friend back home, only to find out too late that you have bought him a box of junk.

We concluded that there must exist in the Dominican Republic a cottage industry of highly talented cigar makers who can make an excellent cigar and whose prices reflect the fact that they are not well known. After all, there are dozens of cigar manufacturers in the Dominican Republic. Many have come from Cuba, others have been professionally trained in factories located near Puerto Plata that produce some of the world’s most famous cigars. So we set out to try to find one of these unknown talents.

As for the quality of the ‘smoke,’ our criteria was simple: the cigar would have to be a comfortable smoke, meaning an easy draw, a good burn and a flavor that wouldn’t knock the bejeezus out of your taste buds. In short, we were looking for a decent cigar at a decent price that would be both satisfying for the beginner and respectable to the connaisseur – something you take home to father-in-law and he actually thanks you for it.

The final criterion for us was consistency in product. One problem with cottage industries is that a well-meaning beginner might put out a good product one day, yet prove unable to keep up with his own success. We wanted a source that could provide reasonable assurance that next month, next year, we could buy the same cigar we enjoyed before.

As it turns out we didn’t have to go out looking for this because it ended up coming to us. One Sunday a regular client of Café Cito, Robert Daoust, showed up for a leisurely afternoon lunch with an associate of his, Don Luis Cuevas.

Robert is a Canadian businessman who over the last few years has developed his own brand name, ‘Don Roberto,’ and started a distributorship out of Montreal that today spans the country. While operating on a much larger scale than us, he had the same objectives; a good smoke, a good price, consistent quality. Several years ago and after a few false starts, he found what he was looking for in Don Luis, a virtual walking cigar encyclopedia who heralds from the famed tobacco region of Pinar Del Rio, in Cuba, where his family’s tobacco plantation traditions go back three generations.

“The first thing I remember as a kid is tobacco,” says Don Luis. “I don’t know anything else. When we were kids my mother used to roll us little baby cigars before anybody even knew about cancer and all that.”

Don Luis has been producing cigars in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic for the last twenty years. He found his niche in the anonymous side of the business, that of running a factory and making cigars for other people who have their own brand names and distributorships in different parts the world. Along the way he also developed his own line under the name Cuevas Hermanos.

Some very respectable brand names come out of the Cuevas Hermanos cigar factory, brands that are well known throughout Europe, North America and The United Kingdom. During a visit to Luis’ factory, we leafed through a couple of issues of Cigar Aficionado Magazine. In each issue, they publish a rating of different cigar brands in a single category or size. In this rating system, anything from 90 to 100 is considered outstanding, 80 to 89 is considered very good to excellent. Below seventy means not recommended. In the issues we looked at, we found at least a half dozen of the brands produced at the Cuevas factory; many scored in the high 80’s – excellent.

“We have been coming out on those lists ever since 1994,” he says.

Considering that cigars that rate in the 90’s are either impossible to find or tremendously expensive, Don Luis’ high-eighties ratings convinced us that indeed he had a product that promises consistently high quality.

All this of course was merely confirmation of what our own experience had told us when smoking his cigars. Over a year of Don Luis’ occasional visits to Café Cito, we had tried a variety of his cigars and also gave several dozen away to our cigar-smoking clients. Everyone agreed that Don Luis’ cigars were very well made, burn evenly and draw nicely. Even people who weren’t veteran cigar smokers found themselves, not with a half-smoked cigar in the ashtray, but puffing away right to the very end.

Click here to purchase Cuevas cigars online

Timeline: Dominican Republic

A chronology of key events:

1492 – Christopher Columbus visits the island, which he names Hispaniola, or “Little Spain”.

1496 – Spaniards set up first Spanish colony in Western hemisphere at Santo Domingo, which subsequently serves as capital of all Spanish colonies in America.

1697 – Treaty of Ryswick gives western part of Hispaniola island (Haiti) to France and eastern part (Santo Domingo – the present Dominican Republic) to Spain.

1795 – Spain cedes its portion of Hispaniola island to France.

1808 – Spain retakes Santo Domingo following revolt by Spanish Creoles.

1821 – Uprising against Spanish rules is followed by brief period of independence.

1822 – Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer marches his troops into Santo Domingo and annexes it.

Republic is born

1844 – Boyer overthrown; Santo Domingo declares its independence and becomes the Dominican Republic.

1861-63 – President Pedro Santana returns the Dominican Republic to Spanish rule.

1863-64 – Spain withdraws from, and annuls its annexation of, the Dominican Republic following a popular revolt.

1865 – The second Dominican Republic proclaimed.

1906 – Dominican Republic and US sign 50-year treaty according to which the US takes over the republic’s customs department in return for buying its debts.

1916-24 – US forces occupy the Dominican Republic following internal disorder.

1924 – Constitutional government assumes control; US forces withdraw.

Trujillo dictatorship

1930 – General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina establishes personal dictatorship following the overthrow of President Horacio Vazquez.

1937 – Army massacres 19,000-20,000 Haitians living in areas of the Dominican Republic adjacent to Haiti.

1960 – Organisation of American States adopts resolution calling for severance of diplomatic ties with the Dominican Republic.

1961 – Trujillo assassinated.

US invades

1962 – Juan Bosch, founder of the leftist Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) elected president in the first democratic elections for nearly four decades.

1963 – Bosch deposed in military coup and replaced by a three-man civilian junta.

1965 – Some 30,000 US troops invade the Dominican Republic following a pro-Bosch uprising.

Return to democracy

1966 – Joaquin Balaguer, a Trujillo protege and former leader of the Reformist Party (later to become the centre-right Christian Social Reform Party (PRSC)), is elected president.

1978 – Silvestre Antonio Guzman (PRD) is elected president and proceeds to release some 200 political prisoners, ease media censorship and purge the armed forces of Balaguer supporters.

1979 – Two hurricanes leave more than 200,0000 people homeless and cause damage worth 1 billion dollars as the economy continues to deteriorate due to high fuel prices and low sugar prices.

1982 – Another PRD candidate, Jorge Blanco, elected president.

Austerity, unrest

1985 – IMF-prescribed austerity measures, including price rises for basic foods and petrol, lead to widespread riots.

1986 – Balaguer (PRSC) re-elected president.

1988 – Jorge Blanco tried in absentia and found guilty of corruption during his presidential tenure.

1990 – Balaguer re-elected, defeating Bosch by a small majority.

1994 – Balaguer re-elected, but agrees to serve only a two-year term after being accused of fraud.

1996 – Leonel Fernandez Reyna of the leftist Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) elected president.

1998 – Hurricane George causes widespread devastation.

2000 – PRD returned to power with Hipolito Mejia as president.

2001 May – Appeals court quashes a conviction against former president, Salvador Jorge Blanco, on charges of corruption.

2001 November – US jet bound for Santo Domingo crashes in New York killing all 255 people on board. Three days of national mourning declared.

2002 July – Former president Joaquin Balaguer dies aged 95; thousands pay their last respects to a man who dominated politics for more than 50 years.

2003 November – Deadly clashes between police and protesters during demonstrations against high prices, power cuts. Two months later, demonstrations about economic policies leave at least five dead.

Fernandez electedA chronology of key events:

1492 – Christopher Columbus visits the island, which he names Hispaniola, or “Little Spain”.

1496 – Spaniards set up first Spanish colony in Western hemisphere at Santo Domingo, which subsequently serves as capital of all Spanish colonies in America.

1697 – Treaty of Ryswick gives western part of Hispaniola island (Haiti) to France and eastern part (Santo Domingo – the present Dominican Republic) to Spain.

1795 – Spain cedes its portion of Hispaniola island to France.

1808 – Spain retakes Santo Domingo following revolt by Spanish Creoles.

1821 – Uprising against Spanish rules is followed by brief period of independence.

1822 – Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer marches his troops into Santo Domingo and annexes it.

Republic is born

1844 – Boyer overthrown; Santo Domingo declares its independence and becomes the Dominican Republic.

1861-63 – President Pedro Santana returns the Dominican Republic to Spanish rule.

1863-64 – Spain withdraws from, and annuls its annexation of, the Dominican Republic following a popular revolt.

1865 – The second Dominican Republic proclaimed.

1906 – Dominican Republic and US sign 50-year treaty according to which the US takes over the republic’s customs department in return for buying its debts.

1916-24 – US forces occupy the Dominican Republic following internal disorder.

1924 – Constitutional government assumes control; US forces withdraw.

Trujillo dictatorship

1930 – General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina establishes personal dictatorship following the overthrow of President Horacio Vazquez.

1937 – Army massacres 19,000-20,000 Haitians living in areas of the Dominican Republic adjacent to Haiti.

1960 – Organisation of American States adopts resolution calling for severance of diplomatic ties with the Dominican Republic.

1961 – Trujillo assassinated.

US invades

1962 – Juan Bosch, founder of the leftist Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) elected president in the first democratic elections for nearly four decades.

1963 – Bosch deposed in military coup and replaced by a three-man civilian junta.

1965 – Some 30,000 US troops invade the Dominican Republic following a pro-Bosch uprising.

Return to democracy

1966 – Joaquin Balaguer, a Trujillo protege and former leader of the Reformist Party (later to become the centre-right Christian Social Reform Party (PRSC)), is elected president.

1978 – Silvestre Antonio Guzman (PRD) is elected president and proceeds to release some 200 political prisoners, ease media censorship and purge the armed forces of Balaguer supporters.

1979 – Two hurricanes leave more than 200,0000 people homeless and cause damage worth 1 billion dollars as the economy continues to deteriorate due to high fuel prices and low sugar prices.

1982 – Another PRD candidate, Jorge Blanco, elected president.

Austerity, unrest

1985 – IMF-prescribed austerity measures, including price rises for basic foods and petrol, lead to widespread riots.

1986 – Balaguer (PRSC) re-elected president.

1988 – Jorge Blanco tried in absentia and found guilty of corruption during his presidential tenure.

1990 – Balaguer re-elected, defeating Bosch by a small majority.

1994 – Balaguer re-elected, but agrees to serve only a two-year term after being accused of fraud.

1996 – Leonel Fernandez Reyna of the leftist Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) elected president.

1998 – Hurricane George causes widespread devastation.

2000 – PRD returned to power with Hipolito Mejia as president.

2001 May – Appeals court quashes a conviction against former president, Salvador Jorge Blanco, on charges of corruption.

2001 November – US jet bound for Santo Domingo crashes in New York killing all 255 people on board. Three days of national mourning declared.

2002 July – Former president Joaquin Balaguer dies aged 95; thousands pay their last respects to a man who dominated politics for more than 50 years.

2003 November – Deadly clashes between police and protesters during demonstrations against high prices, power cuts. Two months later, demonstrations about economic policies leave at least five dead.

Fernandez elected

2004 May – Elections: Former head of state Leonel Fernandez defeats incumbent president, Hipolito Mejia.

Severe floods in the south-west, and in parts of neighbouring Haiti, leave more than 2,000 dead or disappeared.

2005 March – More than 130 inmates die in a prison fire. The blaze followed a riot at the jail, in the eastern town of Higuey.

2005 September – Congress approves a proposed free trade agreement with the US and Central American nations. The DR enters the accord in March 2007.

2008 May – President Leonel Fernandez is re-elected.

2010 May – Congressional elections. Ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) retains firm grip on power.

2010 October – Dominican Republic tightens border restrictions to prevent cholera spreading from Haiti.

Source: BBC News

Lifestyles: a visit to Rancho Nazdrovie

A family trip to Cabrera

My family and I started going to Cabrera, a quiet surfing area in the Dominican Republic, when friends took us there four years ago—right before my second daughter, Gigi, was born. We’ve been back 10 times since. Cabrera has always felt like our own secret spot, and part of me wants it to stay that way—even now, I’m not sure why I’m writing about it in a national magazine. On the other hand, it’s one of those places that’s so uncommonly special, you want other people to enjoy it, too.

Located in the northern part of the country, Cabrera is paradise—but you have to appreciate that it’s not swanky St. Barths. It’s a more rustic, wild kind of paradise, and for me; my husband, Bill; and my daughters, Kit, 10, and Gigi, 4, that’s exactly the appeal. In New York City, we have a polished urban lifestyle, so a real getaway for us means something completely different.

Generally we spend just four days on the island, Thursday through Sunday, but those days are action-packed—as in dawn-to-dusk action-packed. As nice as Cabrera’s Hotel La Catalina is (it’s a bargain, too, by the way, starting at $82 a night), we don’t spend much time there. Maybe we’ll take a dip in the pool or walk around the garden, but hanging out at a hotel all day feels too quiet, too normal for us. We’ve never been the relax-by-the-pool type of family anyway.

Instead, we explore. On a typical trip, after arriving in the early evening on the four-hour flight from New York, we drop off our stuff at the hotel and head right to Playa Diamante. There, the girls and I cover ourselves head-to-toe in the claylike volcanic sand, which I swear has special beautifying minerals. (Bill thinks the whole thing is ridiculous.) Then we wade out into the shallow water to rinse off before heading to our favorite roadside stand for pineapple yogurt.

Since Bill and I are avid surfers, we tend to spend at least one afternoon at Playa Grande, known for its waves. The water is usually too rough for the kids, so he and I take turns on the shore with Kit and Gigi doing, basically, circus tricks: cartwheels, human pyramids, swinging someone around in a towel. Maybe we’ll dig a hole.

Beyond that, the activities vary. We’ve visited a fresh­water lake known as Lake Dudu (you can imagine the joke mileage the kids get out of that name), where we rope-swing out and splash into the water. We’ve hiked through a jungle, following a guide who hacks through it with a machete, to reach a fairy-tale cave with stalagmites inside and a banyan tree growing atop it. And on our most recent trip, we ended up at a restaurant called Babunuco, which an eccentric artist runs out of his house. You eat whatever he’s cooking that day and sit among the strange, beautiful objects he’s made—a whale-vertebrae stool, a bar made out of a surfboard.

The restaurant is raw and magical—just like Cabrera itself. Lately we’ve started inviting friends and other families along, and everyone falls in love with the place. In fact, one friend who came with us last year loved it so much, she still hasn’t left.

What to Eat

Babunuco

Run by artist (and cigar maker) Juan Alberto Garcia in a building next door to his home, this restaurant has unpredictable hours, so call ahead to make sure he’s cooking that night. The menu typically consists of delicious, simply prepared fish or meat, and there’s usually jazz playing on an old jukebox in the background. Camino de Saltadero, (829) 338-8707.

Playa Grande Casitas

At the 15 food shacks on the beach, you can order a fresh pineapple or coconut with a straw in it any time of day. At lunch, they’ll let you choose your fish or lobster, then serve it with a salad and rice and beans. (Kids—my kids, at least—will eat anything mixed with rice and beans.) The casitas are set among palm trees about 50 yards from the beach, but if you want to have a picnic lunch even closer to the water, they’ll bring your food and table setup there, too.

Don Bululu

A big part of a great food experience is the setting. I would never think to get pineapple yogurt at the grocery store back home, but at this roadside stand a short drive from Playa Diamante, it is just about the purest, most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted. Highway 5, La Entrada, (809) 669-2942.

Getting Around

Fly into Puerta Plata (nonstops are available from New York, Miami, and Atlanta). Arrange through Hotel La Catalina for a taxi from the airport ($96 round-trip)—you won’t want to navigate the 90-minute winding drive yourself. To get around during your stay, book a rental car through the hotel—the car will be waiting for you there—or take its shuttle service to most major sites. (Car seats are rare, so bring your own.)

When to Stay

Hotel la Catalina

This well-run family-owned hotel consists of 36 rooms and condominiums. We usually stay in a one-bedroom condo, which is basic but comfortable: a simple kitchen and charming painted rattan furniture that reminds me of my ’70s childhood. The hotel is less than 10 minutes’ drive from the nearest beach and has beautiful gardens, two pools, a pond with turtles, and fantastic food—we always fuel up on the fresh juices and crepes for breakfast before setting out. From $82 a night for two adults and a child in a double in low season (June through October) to $168 a night for a two-bedroom condo in high season (November through May).

Beaches

Head to Diamante or Caleton for calm, shallow water; for surfing, try Playa Grande. (You can rent boards on the beach.) All the beaches are a drive of 20 minutes or less from the hotel, but be warned: Only Caleton has public restrooms.

Lake Dudu

At the larger of the two swimming holes here, local teens dive from great heights (while we all scream, “Don’t do it, don’t do it!”). Our family often has the smaller one, sheltered by a cave, to ourselves. $2 admission fee; off Highway 5, La Entrada.

Horseback Riding

A guide named Junior will bring horses right to the hotel and lead you on different paths. It’s very informal: Helmets are available, but there are no waivers or age requirements, so you ride at your own risk; Bill and I each double up with one of the kids. $20 a person for a one-hour ride; book through Hotel La Catalina.

Laguna Gri Gri Rides

You can book an official tour at the dock, which is about a 30-minute drive from the hotel, but we just hired one of the fishermen by the water to take us on a ride. The lagoon is amazing, full of wild tangles of mangroves and the biggest vultures you’ve ever seen. Calle Duarte, Rio San Juan.

Rowley’s trip tips

The designer’s strategies for making any family vacation smooth sailing.

1. Start with the flight. When we were trying to find a warm-weather place for a long-weekend getaway, we first narrowed down our options by looking at flight schedules: Where could we fly directly and arrive by the afternoon? That’s how we initially homed in on the Dominican Republic.

2. Stay in the zone. We’ve taken big family trips to Japan and China, and I have to say, it’s always better to travel as close to your own time zone as possible. Otherwise the kids are up all night and sleep all day—which, of course, means the same goes for the parents.

3. Pack lightly (and creatively). To save time and avoid baggage claim, no one is allowed to check luggage, and everyone, even 4-year-old Gigi, has to carry his or her own stuff. We make a game out of trying to pack things that can be used several ways—I bring a top that Kit can wear as a dress; Kit brings a shirt that Gigi can wear as a dress; we all share sun hats … that kind of thing.

4. BYO fun. I always bring little notebooks and crayons, which keep Kit and Gigi entertained the whole time we’re away. It’s also a ritual that we let the girls pick out something special at an airport gift shop before each flight. It keeps them excited both as we wait to board and once we’re on the plane.

5. Let everyone call the shots. On the first morning of each trip to Cabrera, we sit down at breakfast and make a big plan—some activity, like fishing or horseback riding, that’s been on our wish list. Then we make the smaller plans: Gigi picks an activity, Kit picks an activity, and the grown-ups pick an activity.

By Cynthia Rowley http://www.cookiemag.com

Cigar factory photos: “Made by Hands” in Dominican Republic

Post card collection depicts the hands of people at work rolling fine cigars in the Dominican Republic. Photographed by Owen Franken at Luis Cuevas factory, a duotone treatment of these recent pictures emphasizes how this caring, handmade process is a tradition that has gone unchanged since its very beginnings.

Courtesy ArtisanCigars.com



Adventure travel in the Dominican Republic

Two hours into the mountains, Maxima Aventura is a wilderness dude ranch for adventure travelers and extreme sports enthusiasts

By Ron Añejo

There’s something wrong with the picture when you find yourself in the tropics kicking pine cones across the lawn. There’s something wrong with the picture when your feet are on solid rock, but the view over your shoulder is 200 feet straight down. And there’s something wrong with the picture when a pleasant bus ride through tobacco fields and sugar cane plantations suddenly turns into a rum-soaked, wet T-shirt contest.

Call it extreme adventure mixed with extreme partying in an extremely unusual part of the Caribbean. Call it extreme brainwork at the end of the day when you have to accept that it all actually happened, and here you are.

Of course, not all of it is for everybody.

Rappeling in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic: the Jimenoa River gorges down over 200-foot vertical dropsMany people who come to the Dominican Republic for a Caribbean holiday would prefer to just sit around their all-inclusive resort, couch potatoes cum beach potatoes, waiting for the next buffet to open, knocking back their thimbles of beer at the open bar, grateful for the advice that it’s safer to stay on the resort property, thrilled with the city coach tour that goes past the rich people’s houses and the poor people’s veggie market.

Not everybody gets off on the idea that, being on the second largest island in the Caribbean, you can hire a van and driver and head off into the mountains, and just a couple of hours away from the sun drenched beaches, discover a place like Jarabacoa (Hara-ba-cóa), where the fertile hills and valleys and see-your-breath-at-night temperatures make it feel like spring time in New England.

And of course, not everybody wants to party the way we did that day. Bird watchers and nature nuts also love to discover Jarabacoa, where strawberries and snow peas grow, where you can take mountain hikes and drink fresh fruit juices. It’s just that the group I happened to be with can pretty much be described as The Party of Puerto Plata. These are the people who in their daily course of work are called upon to create the fun that the tourists take home as lasting memories. They take them sailing, they take them diving, they run local bars; all the while having to maintain the safety and security standards required by the big corporations that send the tourists to town and who don’t want to get sued over anybody getting into trouble over having too much fun. So, for the people I went to Jarabacoa with, their workaday life is like spurring the hell out of a party horse while constantly hauling back on the reins.

Travel tip: too many pitstops and you'll miss dinnerUnderstandable then, with a weekend opportunity to let go of them there reins and blow off some adrenaline, meditation and tai-chi were not high up in the order of priorities.

Our destination was Rancho Baiguate (Buy guát-eh) in Jarabacoa. We were going to try out a part of their program that they call Maxima Aventura. Maximum Adventure.  We, the people who do the beach and ocean thing for the tourists, were going to visit the people who do the mountain and wilderness thing.

Rancho Baiguate is like a dude ranch for adventure travel. Some thirty simple but very comfortable rooms are housed in small buildings set among manicured gardens. The country-style dining room serves hearty, country-style Dominican food. There is a sitting around area, a bar and a gift shop selling cheap t-shirts alongside hand rolled Dominican cigars. Across the lawn and over a walking bridge they have an Olympic size pool. The air is fresh and cool. With nighttime temperatures around forty degrees Farenheit, you sleep comfortably, cuddled up under a thick blanket.  Here, the sound of the river to lulls you to sleep, instead of the hum of an air conditioner.

***

True to the Caribbean concept of time, we spent two hours at our designated meeting place, Pat’s Rum Runners Bar, where everybody knocked back cuba libres and Presidente beers while waiting for everybody else to show Jenny was often the brunt of our caring attentionsup. We finally left, with hoots and hollers and a full cooler and large cups very unlike the thimbles you get in the hotels, and it was only a matter of time, with La Vida Loca blaring from the boombox, that somebody would get the type of urge that could start the type of wet t-shirt contest that only subsides when all the rum splattered on the ceiling of the van finishes dripping down on your head. Accounting for the pit stops, by the time we got to Santiago – half way – we were already four hours late for the nice dinner that Rancho Baiguate had prepared for us.

Burger King in Santiago was not prepared for our fifth pit stop. When all twelve of us fell through the front door and somebody jumped on a The Burger King staff just ducked their heads and let the storm blow throughtable and blew a blues number on his harmonica while we took pictures of ourselves behind the counter with the Burger King staff, we had to wonder whether the  personnel’s absolutely cool and collected reaction was due to advanced assault training, or pure shock.

Travel tip: visitors are well advised to arrive at Rancho Baiguate by sundown, and not wake up the manager at one-thirty in the morning and register at the front desk smelling like a rum factory; there are better ways to elicit a warm welcome. This poor guy, his lack of assault training notwithstanding, became much more congenial as soon as we realized, after his very patient explanation made the next morning through gritted teeth, that if we were going to go cliff climbing perhaps we shouldn’t be drinking the leftover Presidentes from the cooler in the back of the van, before breakfast. Empathy set in after we got to thinking about the things we say to – and about – those beach and ocean tourists who, on a rage of 151-proof rum, propose to go sailing and diving or otherwise take on Mother Nature. More than one corpse has been pulled out of the sea over this. Thus, everybody made the switch from extreme party mode to a more reasoned, extreme adventure mode.

On the wall of the sitting area at Rancho Baiguate there are maps and posters of all the things you can do there. Wilderness horseback riding. Trail hiking, in the vicinity of the ranch and even up Pico Duarte, which at 10,000 feet is the highest mountain in the Caribbean. They have all-terrain four wheel vehicles to blast around the countryside. You can do white water rafting and go river tubing. There is cave exploring and cliff climbing. There is hang gliding, and a picture that announces the imminent arrival of hot air balloons. Rancho Baiguate caters to both overnighters and to day trippers from the beach resorts, from amateurs like us to extreme adventure enthusiasts who can pack as much into their sojourn as their stamina will allow.

You don’t have to think extreme to enjoy Jarabacoa. Lots of people go up on one-day bus tours to visit the region. The drive over the mountains into the fertile Cibao valley, through the bustling city of Santiago and then up into the pine forests behind La Vega, makes for a pleasant ride, a veritable eyeful of things to see, to photograph, to contemplate. Many such tours make a stop at the Jimenoa (Him‘n’Noah) Falls, where you park and walk up a series of stairs and over wooden hanging bridges until you get to some picturesque, scenic pools fed by a waterfall that gorges out over a 200-foot precipice. You find yourself standing in the bottom of a huge gorge, where an electrical generating plant some three stories high was taken out by Hurricane George. And as you stand there, there’s something wrong with the picture of how important you think you are when you realize that not long ago, the water, blasting with unbelievable force, had completely filled up this gorge and engulfed that entire generating plant, leaving huge pieces of it strewn down the river like so many cast iron and prefab concrete matchsticks.

It’s a little more dramatic, though, when you stand directly below that straight-down, 200-foot rock cliff and think about the fact that you arrived at those lovely freshwater pools by way of the cliff itself. That is, by hanging on a rope running through a clip in a waist harness and literally walking down that 90-degree incline. It’s extreme, to look up, and contemplate that you just did that.

Okay, we all swim, dive, and we’re good at bending elbows. But not of us are particularly fit. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough for us to take the bus, saunter up suspension bridges and splash around in pretty pools.

That morning at Rancho Baiguate, after realizing we shouldn’t be drinking beer for breakfast, we ate eggs and toast and fruit and dawned wetsuits and jumped on to the back of a safari jeep that took us high up the mountain. We all got a little nervous when the jeep almost tipped as the driver hooked a left on to a steep dirt trail and parked.  Then we walked, for about twenty minutes, down a narrow path that challenged our rubber legs, to where we came out of the woods into an incredible basin fed by yet another 200-foot waterfall, of crystal clear water falling out of the sky and rushing around massive boulders that once upon a time had come crashing down from where they had been part of the cliffs that towered above us. Splat.

So there we  were, the beach and ocean guys, without a clue as to what awaited us. At this point Kelvin, our guide, and his two assistants, who we planned to give a rough time to but later became very dependent upon, started fixing ropes to a tree and throwing them over a 40-foot, 45-degree rock face. Kelvin showed us how we should try to keep our feet above our shoulders as we fed the line through our harness. All was well and good as each of us made our first attempt at walking backwards over a cliff while hanging on to a rope, this one being a perfect beginners experience that gave us confidence to tackle the next one, which we all knew would be harder, but not how much harder.

Despite the cool nights, daytime is warm and sunny in Jarabacoa and this was a perfect weather day. As we hiked over rocks and swam along the river, the water was refreshingly cool. We were surrounded by nature, nothing was too strenuous, everything felt good.

Until I found myself hooked up again, looking over the next cliff.

My feet were planted firmly on the edge of the precipice. My hands gripped the soft rope that hung over the cliff. Kelvin was beside me, and I was ready. And then, ass out over the abyss, I made the mistake of looking down. My eyes bulged, my sphincter shrank and my heart went into serious conflict with my mind. All I could see, directly below me, were very large expanses of rock and the very tiny people who had gone down before me, now lying back and watching the show. There was definitely something wrong with the picture, but they were all down there and several more were waiting their turn. There was nowhere for me to go, but down.

Eyes back to the rock, feet in front of me, let the rope out slowly, down I go. And then the rock face juts back in and now I’m in mid air, hanging, my hands around the rope being all that’s keeping me from plummeting to the rocks below. Don’t look down. Slowly, easy does it. And then my feet are on the ground. Easy did it! And I sit back, rest on the rocks, water gushing around me, watching the others confront their fear, feeling the exhuberation on their faces when they too hit horizontal ground.

Finally everybody is safely down, waiting for Kelvin, our guide, to follow. With all eyes  looking upward he makes his appearance, hanging face down over the abyss, waving hello. And then, in what took most of us an arduous two minutes to negotiate, Kelvin simply strode down the cliff like it was a walk in the park, and in about three seconds he was standing among us, smiling. Sheeiiit.

We had just impressed ourselves with our courage, and were recovering from our fear, of negotiating a 75-foot verticle drop. Phew! At that point it would have been nice to swim through a few more channels, maybe do a couple more jumps into calm pools of fresh water, before taking on the next cliff. But after this last extreme attack on our brainwaves we discovered that our next challenge lay only 100 meters away. Within no time the smooth rocks we were walking on came to a precipitous end, and, far, far below we could see the park-like setting of pretty pools and snack bar and wooden suspension bridges that bring everybody else to Jimenoa Falls. And down there we could see the people, very small indeed, that we would be among, hopefully, after one more, wrong-picture experience, this one three times higher than the last.

More intense than actually doing it is the thinking about it beforehand. The science behind rappelling is quite basic. What they don’t tell you is that the guy down below who is holding your rope can actually stop you by pulling it taut, and that he controls your descent simply by adjusting the tension on the rope. You can’t fall, but tell your brain this when your only foothold is a smooth, straight up-and-down surface and your ass is 200 feet above the grass and your arms, much more adept at elbow bending, are the only thing between you and the grass. It’s hard to act cool upon arrival. But we all did our very best.

There was something very different about the picture, of twelve party animals out for a blast, returning to Rancho Baiguate, sobered by the extremeness of nature and by the challenge to our respective heads. We got back to the ranch, truly subdued, truly rewarded, respectful of what the what the guys who do the mountain and wilderness stuff do, adrenaline spent, ready to take on the next wave of beach and ocean tourists.

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