The four Canadians sitting at a nearby table in La Bahia restaurant had a confession to make. "We've escaped," they said. Not from prison, it turned out, but from their hotel. And it was no ordinary hotel they'd fled, but the Casa del Mar, one of the best-known resorts in the Dominican Republic.
"We've had enough," they moaned. After two weeks, they were tired of the good food, tired of seeing the same suntanned faces, tired of lying on the same stretch of beach--no matter how pretty it was. Most of all, they were tired of not being able to get out. When I asked what had stopped them, they said their travel agent. She had told them not to go to La Romana, the nearest big town, and Bayahibe, the village where we now sat, a mere five-minute walk down the beach from their five-star digs.
"But why?" I asked.
"She said they're unsafe."
Bayahibe unsafe? There were plenty of descriptions I could think of for this fishing village at the end of the road in southeastern Dominican Republic--sleepy, rooster-filled, great for inexpensive grilled lobster--but unsafe wasn't one of them. The quartet was crestfallen at the news that Bayahibe isn't a hotbed of cutthroats and thieves. "We planned our Caribbean holiday for an entire year so it would be perfect," said one. Like me, they had heard that the Dominican Republic was an island on the rise, cheap and still little-known. They had hoped to get the most out of it by leaving gray, wind-swept Saskatchewan when it was coldest. "But look what we missed. Our first night out is also our last night out."
Plenty of travelers to the Dominican Republic don't even get that far. As in Jamaica to the west, the tourist industry here has structured itself in such a way that it's easy to visit the country without actually visiting the country. If this is the Third World, you'd never guess it by looking at the production-line slickness of the average package tour: fly in, catch an air-conditioned bus to the resort, suntan and eat seafood, catch a bus to the airport, fly out. With large planes able to land near the popular beach spots--La Romana, Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and Santo Domingo--the road from the airport is about as much sightseeing as you're going to get.
MY TOUR OF THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC COULDN'T HAVE BEEN MORE DIFFERENT FROM THE SASKATOON foursome's. I caught mopeds, taxis and buses (from the luxury kind with TVs to the gua-gua minibuses that blare merengue 24/7), ate at sidewalk rice-and-beaneries and plush restaurants where the clientele was as rich as the menus, and stayed in hotels that ranged in price from $20 to $150 a night. I landed in Santo Domingo, the underrated capital, headed directly to Bayahibe, returned to Santo Domingo for several days of exploring, and then ventured north, via the mountains, to the seaside town of Sosua. En route I discovered some of the best coffee I've ever had (always a good start in my book); motorcyclists adept at transporting absolutely anything on the smallest bike; some obscure history of the land's unheralded role in World War II; mere tots able to straddle moped handlebars with ease; lots of wealth, but still too much poverty; an economy thriving because of money flooding in from Dominicans who have immigrated to the U.S., mostly to New York; a country, in short, that I'd all too hastily lumped together with impoverished Haiti, which takes up 30% of this 350-mile-long island, the second largest in the Caribbean.
In Bayahibe, my routine was simple. It began every morning with a mound of fresh fruit and recklessly strong coffee at the Cafeter'a Julissa, and ended every night across the street at La Bahia restaurant, where the effusive manager told anyone who cared to listen that Oscar de la Renta and Julio Iglesias are regulars. In between, I snorkeled and lazed on the beach, the most beautiful of which is right next to the Parque Nacional del Este. The park runs south of a line stretching from Bayahibe in the west to Boca de Yuma in the east and continues onto a virtually uninhabited island off its southern tip. A day trip to the Isla Saona is, in fact, one of the few outings guests at nearby resorts can take.
The mainland national park, meanwhile, receives little attention from travelers. Or from Santo Domingo. Evidence? 1) The guard at the entrance was so poorly paid that he forced visitors to cough up a fee even though entry was supposed to be free and 2) Most indigenous wildlife, from the hawksbill turtle to the rhinoceros iguana, is endangered.