Caribbean cruising began with Christopher Columbus. He was, after all, the first person to take a cruise here. And his motivations and observations span the centuries and are relatable for modern travellers. Columbus said, “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” Most Canadians would alter that slightly to say, “We left the cold world…”
Columbus who began his Caribbean love affair on Hispanola, better know to us as the Dominican Republic, described the place as having “air soft as that of Seville in April, and so fragrant that it was delicious to breathe it.”
While the Dominican Republic offers the expected sun, sand and sea, where it out shines its Caribbean neighbours is in history and culture. And while the northern shore is best known for all-inclusive resorts, the south where Columbus lived is drawing more and more cruise ships, whose passengers are digging into a place full of “firsts” and “onlys”.
My recent introduction to the Dominican Republic was via the chaotic capital, Santo Domingo. I say chaotic because of the traffic. I have been in Paris, Rome and Istanbul and not seen anything like Santo Domingo’s traffic patterns. I’m sure there’s an order to it, but for someone who didn’t grow up here traffic seems like an endless game of chicken, with vehicles advancing on little more than the bravery of the driver. And yet, I didn’t see any accidents. So my advice in and around the capital: hire a car and driver or book a tour.
Santo Domingo is fascinating because at times the architecture and streetscapes seem more like rural Spain than the Caribbean. And like Europe, many historic sites are located in a compact area.
My exploration began at the Amber World Museum. Amber is a local treasure. However, because of its look, it’s easily counterfeited, so it’s important to go to reliable places and this is one. Upstairs is a museum, while downstairs is a large gift shop and courtyard where you stumble across amber miners selling their latest stones to the owner.
Lunch was a few blocks away at Meson D’Bari on Calle Hostos. This is an old Dominican house painted an electric blue and converted to a fine dining experience. The ground floor has a bar and two small rooms where locals meet to eat, drink and gossip. Upstairs are two more casually formal rooms with soaring ceilings, walls coated in local art, and French doors that open to plant-laden Juliette balconies. The menu is based on the owner’s grandmother’s recipes. As someone who lives by the sea, I like to see how others handle seafood. I lunched on a spicy stewed crab and crab-stuffed eggplant washed down with Presidente, the local beer. I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I liked this because it lacked the bitter aftertaste I associate with beer.
From here we strolled past the stone ruins of the first hospital in the western hemisphere, which is next to a white-washed building that is the oldest convent in the new world. On the corner is a coral-coloured cigar store, La Leyenda del Cigarro. Inside a man grabs a handful of tobacco leaves and with flying fingers miraculously rolls them into a beautiful cigar. You can’t get much more bespoke smokes than this. It almost made me wish I smoked. Cigars are a major export. The cigar industry grew partly out of the American embargo on Cuban products. Cubans immigrated to the country and turned their skills to what they knew best. The world’s largest cigar factory is here, producing 120,000 cigars a day and maintaining a 10-million cigar stockpile in the walk-in humidor.
Outside of the cigar shop I mentioned that the street looked familiar, Carlos, my
guide, suggested it was one more example of the effects of the embargo. Film companies can’t go to Cuba, so this area is often used as its stand-in. Robert Redford shot Havana here and Francis Ford Coppola used this for scenes from Godfather II.
Our walk of discovery took us to a square where we found a ficus tree that was four stories high and possessed a trunk with the thickness of a car. I wondered – and feared – if the tree in my office would ever achieve such scale? On one side of the square is the Calle de Conde which is a reputable pedestrian shopping street. In the middle of the square is a statue of Columbus pointing to the Hard Rock Café, beside another amber shop. Behind him is the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor (cira 1542), which is the first cathedral in the new world.
Around the corner from the cathedral is the Cardinal’s residence – this is a very Catholic country – which leads to the Calle Las Damas, the oldest street in the new world. It’s lined with museums, including the oldest and first fortress in the new world, the Ozama Fortress. Across from the children’s museum is Christopher Columbus’ last home. Not surprisingly, it’s now a gift shop. A little further on are two Spanish-style palaces separated by a large square. The first is the Museo Casa Reales, which was the seat of Spanish rule and the other the Alcazar de Colon built by Columbus’ son Diego, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become the second Viceroy of the Indies.
Across the river is the Columbus Lighthouse. From the ground it looks
something like a Mayan Temple. From the air or on those nights when all the lights are projected into the sky, you see it is in the shape of a cross. At the centre of the structure is the ornate, confection-like soaring mausoleum of Columbus. In the rooms lining the lighthouse’s walls are a collection of exhibitions from the 48 countries Columbus added to the map. (Dominicans reject the concept of discovery since they were never lost.)
It seems so out of character to come across so much history in the Caribbean. Typically the region’s history focuses on plantations or pirates. The Dominican Republic is the connecting piece to the history of the old world, Europe, and the new, the Americas.
Another day tip took us two hours down the coast to La Romana. The big attraction here is the Casa de Campo, a 7,000-acre resort that even has its own airport. For beach goers there’s Catalina Island, six square miles of white sand beaches. Catalina provides the luxury of soaking up the sun without having to share your downtime with hordes of strangers or be accosted by people trying to sell you trinkets. The only interruption is from staff offering drinks or a foot or back massage at your lounger.
The 165-room resort, which recently underwent a $40 million renovation of its 165 rooms, suites and villas, also provides horse-backing riding, polo, deep-sea and river fishing, tennis, shooting, and four golf courses. Casa de Campo rightly claims to be the Caribbean’s most complete resort. It’s also a member of the Leading Hotels of the World and repeatedly voted the world leading golf resort.
Continuing on the theme of surprises, we were taken to the Casa de Campo’s “artist village”. I assumed it would be a ramshackle collection of rainbow-coloured beach-side shacks selling garish paintings and seashell jewellery. Instead we discovered a 16th-century Tuscan-style village filled with high end shops, cafes, restaurants, a small museum, chapel and a 5,000-seat Roman-styled amphitheatre. Casa de Campo was the vision of a former owner who also owned Gulf Oil and Paramount Pictures. He wanted a village, so he called the movie studio, the studio called Italian director Frederico Fellini, and Fellini called his set decorator, who designed this artists’ village, Altos de Chavon. A little bit of Tuscany in the Caribbean.
One of the interesting amenities the Casa is developing is an agreement with some cruise lines that would allow passengers to use their ship’s cabin key as a form of payment in the village! So any purchases, from drinks to jewellery could go on the shipboard account to be settled at the end of the cruise.
What is impressive about the Dominican Republic is that beyond the usual Caribbean amenities, there are so many substantive surprises, coupled with quality products, experiences and service.
It’s been said, “Columbus dreamed of an unknown shore at the rim of a far-flung sky”. Happily for us, he found it.
For information about the Dominican Republic, check with your travel agent or log on to http://www.godominicanrepublic.com.