I had never planned on going to The Dominican Republic. It was not on my bucket list, by any means. But when a wedding invitation arrived to join our dear friends Julie and David, who were tying the knot after 19 year together, we could hardly say no.
For the other 15 guests all flying from Northern England, they simply had to book an all inclusive package through Thompson Holidays flying direct from Manchester. For us it was not so simple. There are no direct flights from LAX to The Dominican Republic, so we were on our own to try to figure out how to get there. The best bet was with Copa Airlines out of Panama City. It was a six hour flight to Panama, and then a quick change for the last two hour leg into Punta Cana, the eastern most part of the island famous for its lush, all inclusive beach resorts.
We were all staying at the same massive resort with the excessively long name “The Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar Blue”. This sprawling collection of buildings, pools, restaurants and gardens can accommodate 10,000 guests all doing their best to remember where the hell their room was. Our room was very large with a nice terrace and huge bathroom, but it was showing its age and was in need of a little lipstick. That said, when we chilled out on the terrace with the warm breezes rustling the palm trees and parrots chattering away, it was pretty idyllic. We sauntered down to the pool to meet up with our English friends, who were all hanging out at the swim-up bar. The massive amoeba shaped pool was always a hive of activity. Along with the bar, there was always someone teaching water aerobics, and a local boy playing DJ to a bored audience. For some unknown reason, the biggest musical hit of The Dominican Republic is “Axel’s Theme” from the Beverly Hills Cop movies. We suffered though it two dozen times in five days.
When the pool scene gets to be too much, the most magnificent beach is just beyond the noise, though a thicket of swaying coconut trees. This is the reason to come to Punta Cana! 37 miles of reef protected turquoise waters lapping gently on the powder white sand. Obviously with the amount of tourists around the beaches can get crowded, but you can always find an empty lounge chair and a friendly bar back keeping you supplied with cold beers. Towards the end of the day, it is possible to have a quiet moment and stroll down those beaches almost to yourself.
All meals (and all booze) is included at the Ambar Blue, so we took advantage of that pretty much every evening with endless Absolute vodkas with a splash of passion fruit juice. By the time we made it to dinner, we were not too concerned with the iffy service and the blandness of some of the dishes. There was certainly enough choice at the enormous buffets to keep everyone happy. Customer service is a fairly new concept to the Dominicans, so we had to keep our expectations in check. And a dollar tip goes a long way with these sweet, undertrained kids doing the best they can. Whatever shortcomings the hotel had, was made up for by that gorgeous beach. We spent as much time there as we could.
By day three we were itching for a change of scenery so we booked a tour of the main city, Santo Domingo. A 12 seater bus picked us up at the hotel for the 2 1/2 hour drive into the capitol. Our tour guide was a round, middle age local man who insisted he was that was “Board Certified” to point out all the attractions. I knew much of what he was telling us about the history and culture of the island already, but I enjoyed questioning him about his opinion on local matters. The island is divided down the middle with Haiti to the west and Dominican to the east. They are not known to like each other, and with the influx of tourist dollars into the Dominican side, there has been an unwanted exodus from Haiti. The Haitians will work harder for less money creating tension with the locals. Hardly a new story, but interesting to note that it happens in third world countries as well.
Our first stop on the tour was an underground cave system called Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes). The three deep blue pools are ensconced with stalactites and ferns and offer a cool break from the hot sun above. There was a very odd, scantily clad man in the cave. Our tour guide told us that this 67 year old man would jump into the cold waters for a fee, and he would be happy to negotiate this fee for us. We politely declined, although Kenny in our group mentioned that for all we know he could be the Tom Daily of the Dominican Republic, and perhaps we should have had our picture taken with him. Good point.
Next was the Faro a Colon, a brutalist marble-clad monument to Christopher Columbus who landed here in 1492 and proclaimed the island Hispaniola. I asked our tour guide when it was built and he said “at the turn of the century”. It was in fact built in 1992 to celebrate the 500 year anniversary. He then went on to tell us that Columbus’s remains were interred in the walls of this hulking structure. When I pointed out to him that Columbus is laid to rest in the Seville Cathedral in Southern Spain under 2 1/2 tons of gold, he said “that’s what the Spanish want you to believe”. Apparently, “Alternative Facts” are a part of the way of life in the Dominican as well.
This theme progressed as we drove past a large, green coliseum-like structure. Our Board Certified tour guide told us that The Olympic Games were held here in 2003 to the great admiration of the world. Who knew? Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, and apparently another one sneaked by us in 2003 in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps Kenny was right. The old man in the cave was their Tom Daily!
When we finally arrived in the Zona Colonial, I suggested we toured the old part of the city on our own. Our belittled tour guide happily agreed. The old city is only about a square mile, and is easy to walk around in an afternoon. There are some pretty streets and shady squares that are worth a visit, as well as some unmissable historic sites. The first of those is the Alcazar de Colon. This stately two story palace was built by Columbus’s son Diego and overlooks the river to one side and the Plaza Espana to the other. We all enjoyed the tour through this 470 year old stone building considered to be the first palace built in the Americas. Then it was down the Calle de las Damas, a medieval thoroughfare lined with the cities most tastefully restored buildings. Our final stop was the oldest Cathedral in the Americas, an oddly beautiful mix of Gothic and Classical architecture that opened its doors to the masses in 1540. The cool, dark interior has a wealth of interesting monuments and the plaza outside is a great spot for people watching. Our trusty tour guide was waiting for us at our pick up spot, and cleared the air by offering us a nice bottle of rum and some local sweets for the ride back.
Our final day was the wedding! And it was a perfect sunny day with very little wind, just right for a sunset cruise on a catamaran. We all boarded the sleek boat stocked with very little food and huge amounts of liquor for a five hour cruise around the eastern points of the island. We had a great DJ playing hits from the 80’s (but not Axel’s Theme, thank God), and we danced and partied the night away. When it was finally time to head back in, there were 17 drunks trying to get into the small boat to take us to shore. What could go wrong? When Kenny fell overboard in a rather magnificent no-hands, head-first tumble, I told him that Tom Daily and the Old Man in The Cave would both be proud.