NORTHERN SOUL

Travelling independently is the best way to see the natural beauty of the Dominican Republic, says Elizabeth Mistry
by: 
Elizabeth Mistry

If your first impression on arriving in the Dominican Republic is via the tourist hub of Punta Cana, you could be forgiven for thinking that this 20 mile stretch of glitzy pleasure domes backing on to a palm tree-fringed sandy beach is where the party starts and ends. Yet there's much more to the country than the perfectly manicured all-inclusive resorts that have colonised the country's south eastern flank.

Wanting to explore more of the Caribbean's second largest nation with around 10 days to play with, I chose to start in the capital, Santo Domingo.  It is a beguiling city with a very different vibe from the party-central appeal of Punta Cana, yet if you have a hankering to see both, the journey between them is just a couple of hours along a well maintained and relatively traffic-free highway.  

A road trip - for those armed with a little Spanish is, it turns out, an excellent way to discover the Dominican Republic, known affectionately by its initials RD (DR in English).

The capital, Santo Domingo de Guzman, claims to be the oldest inhabited place in the Americas and was founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1496. Many of the original 16th and 17th century buildings still line the cobbled streets of the Zona Colonial and in 1990 the historic centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Today the remaining mansions, many of which have been carefully restored and look as though they could star in a Golden Age drama, sit cheek by jowl with contemporary buildings - a reminder that we're definitely in a modern metropolis of more than one million people.

The city oozes aspiration, with new shopping malls and ice cream parlours blaring out merengue and reggaetón from almost every speaker.  It is vibrant, busy, humid and instantly captivating.

The Zona Colonial has several attractive boutique hotels, but we made our base at a good value locally-run one on the edge of the business district, with a rooftop pool. It made a great base for exploring the city, which began at the Museo Trampolin, housed in a former colonial residence.  Anyone curious about the turbulent history of the country - which was closely bound to Haiti for several hundred years before independence - will find plenty to absorb on the history, culture and geology of the DR.

Lunches can be long drawn out affairs - if you're in a hurry there are lots of foodstalls dotted around but we plumped for one of the little restaurants across the square from the austere Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor.  It was an opportunity to try a range of local dishes, from the ubiquitous rice and beans to the more elaborate sancocho, a type of soupy stew. It could have lasted even longer had we not been keen to see inside one of the first churches of the 'New World.'

Given the plain exterior, the interior is a revelation - an added attraction being the refreshing contrast to the afternoon heat outside - but we eventually dragged ourselves away to board the ChuChu Colonial, a miniature train that takes visitors on a 45 minute circuit of the surrounding area - a handy way to see a little more without traipsing around during the hottest part of the day.

The following day we would leave the urban jungle to travel northwards through the mountains that run along the middle of the country.  A few hours north of Santo Domingo, tucked away off an unmarked track and up a winding path which our 4WD vehicle handled easily we found an independent travellers's shangri la - the Tubagua Eco village. 

Built by a Canadian who fell in love with the country (and a Dominican lady) Tubagua is a small collection of huts or palapas, perched high on a small escarpment with spectacular views out over the valley below and onwards to the northern coastline around Puerto Plata.

A night or two here may not be for those looking for absolute privacy.  The wooden walls are thin and the bathrooms (with the exception of one cottage) are shared, but the genuine commitment to sustainable tourism, tiny homemade 'dipping' pool, roaming chickens, the friendliness of the owners and the knowledge that everything here is geared towards supporting the local economy - more than makes up for the lack of TV and power points (and the odd mosquito).

I'd swap a cheesy resort floorshow for a sunset at Tubagua any day. If we'd stayed longer, we could have hiked with a local guide to safe, natural swimming holes and waterfalls.  Or done nothing at all except sit back and drink up the view. Or chase chickens. At Tubagua you have the feeling of being very remote from Puerto Plata but it is only a short drive to the coast.  But we weren't destined to stay at sea level for long.  

Before we knew it, we found ourselves transported again, this time upwards, skimming the treetops in a cable car as it made a rapid ascent up the slopes of Pico de Isabela, the mountain which overlooks the city of Puerto Plata which was not unfamiliar to English pirates (or slavetraders) in centuries past.

We came up through the sea mist that blows in off the coast and I was resigned to missing out on the view down to the sea but the fog wafted away almost as soon as we arrived at the peak which is crowned by a giant figure of Christ the Redeemer, not dissimilar to the one in Rio de Janeiro.

For the rest of the morning we roamed the summit in the company of our guide, a sinewy septagenerian who still lives in a hut on the mountain for part of the year and has observed decades of cultural and political cambio (italics).  

As we walked, he told us how he believes climate change has effected the plant life on the slopes - and how he once guided the notorious dictator Trujillo , when he visited the city during the three decades he ruled the DR as president or as the power behind the throne.

Down below in the city, just around the corner from the pretty zocalo where nineteenth century wooden houses have been preserved, along with a traditional Victorian bandstand, we pause for ice creams while another guide recalls how the Spanish constructed the impressive Fortaleza San Felipe  (its walls - three metres thick in places - and cannons proved irresistible to the younger member of our group) and how English pirates brought African slaves to Plata.

As we were to learn, the northern coast of the Dominican Republic has bourne witness to a long history of invasion from the Spanish conquistadors to the wave of arrivals - in very different circumstances - in the 20th century.

Trujillo may have been a cruel leader who visited many hardships on his countrymen and women (not averse to torture, he also made each household display a plaque proclaiming "In this house Trujillo is Chief") but the Jewish refugees - and their descendants - who found sanctuary among the former coconut plantations of Sosua in the 1940s had good reason to be grateful to him.

A couple of miles down the road from the mesmerising antics of the kitesurfers who turn tricks on the beaches at Cabarete, less than an hour along the coast from Plata, I found one of the most moving monuments to Dominican hospitality ; a tiny museum, filled with photographs and records of those who escaped the gas chambers and built a new life - and a synagogue which is remains in use - under a different regime.

Almost 70 years later only a tiny community remains, now outnumbered by new generations of arrivals, some of whom flit in and out having found their own spiritual home under Dominican skies.

GETTING THERE

Elizabeth Mistry travelled as a guest of the Dominican Republic Tourist Board 020 7242 7778 www.godominicanrepublic.com. Air Europa (aireuropa.com) flies London Gatwick to Santo Domingo via Madrid from £627.00. Holiday Inn Santo Domingo rooms from £100.00. Children stay and eat without charge.

Tubagua Eco Plantation (tubagua.com) offers bed and breakfast from £20 per person per night.