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ON A BUDGET

A Caribbean Capital That's Off the Tourist Track

May 21, 2000|ARTHUR FROMMER

When vacationers travel to the Dominican Republic, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean country of 8 million known for its gorgeous beaches, friendly people and low prices, they head mostly for the coasts, which have their own international airports and plenty of resorts (many all-inclusive).

But if you're considering the country for your next holiday, consider at least a couple of days in its capital and largest city (2 million), Santo Domingo. It has its gritty side, certainly, but also quite a bit of charm (especially in the colonial quarter, with atmospheric cobbled lanes) and elegance (check out the extravagant new downtown digs of Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa on Avenida George Washington). From here you can take plenty of day trips to places like the beaches of Boca Chica and the historic re-creation at Altos de Chavon.

The seafront Malecon makes a pretty and interesting stroll, but downtown's main drag is a couple of blocks inland: Calle el Conde, a once-elegant shopping street that runs the length of the old town from Plaza Colon, with its imposing 16th century cathedral, to the ancient fortifications at Parque Independencia. Nowadays, this pedestrian thoroughfare serves up downscale shops (remember that average monthly salaries hover around $100), fast-food joints and street vendors hawking trinkets and Haitian paintings.

Nearby Avenida Mella offers artsy-craftsy shopping at the Mercado Modelo bazaar. Other good island buys include knockoffs of Cuban cigars like the respectable "Cohiba robusto" (a much better deal, at $5 a smoke, than the ones from Cuba), or amber, a national specialty sold reasonably at the Mundo de Ambar museum and shop (Calle Merin~o 452), where a small stone with an embedded insect fossil costs as little as $14.

Finally, baseball is another great deal in a country that has produced more than a few household names (not just Sosa, but recently the Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians). Seats run $4.50 to $12 at the Quisqueya stadium (Avenida Tiradentes, San Cristobal) during the October-to-February season, a prime opportunity to catch tomorrow's major-league stars.

The music, not just merengue but also bachata and other Latin rhythms, is another local treat, and it can be enjoyed at clubs such as Guacara Taina (actually built inside a natural cave; cover $10) on Paseo de los Indios, Club 60 (Avenida Maximo Gomez 60), Sentimiento (Calle Hostos 99) and Secretos Musical Bar (Calle Baltazar de los Reyes at Calle Pimental).

Meanwhile, during the last week of July and the first week of August (admittedly a hot, sticky time of year), the annual merengue festival is a wild experience (and free of charge) that takes over the Malecon.

The best lodging deals include the Hotel Aida (Calle Conde at Espaillat 167, [809] 685-7692, fax [809] 221-9393), doubles $24-$26, a charming if plain pension; the pool-equipped Hotel San Geronimo (Avenida Independencia 1067, [809] 221-6600, fax [809] 221-9106), doubles $42; and Apart-Hotel Plaza Colonial (Calle Luisa Pellerano at Julio Verne, [809] 687-9111, fax [809] 686-2877), studios $50, in the middle-class Gazcue district west of Calle el Conde.

American Airlines has connecting service from LAX to Santo Domingo. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $817.

For more information, contact the Dominican Republic Tourism Office, 561 W. Diversey Parkway, Suite 214, Chicago, IL 60614; tel. (888) 303-1336 or (773) 529-1336, fax (773) 529-1338, Internet http://www.dominicana.com.do, or log on to such helpful Web sites as http://dominicanresorts.com, http://www.debbiesdominicantravel.com and http://www.hispaniola.com/DR.

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