There was a warm wash of relief when I read that even Pilar Guzman, Editor in Chief of Conde Nast Traveler spends “an unapologetically culture-free month on Fire Island every summer.” Defensively, the next line of her Editor’s Letter was, “we are rigorous about taking trips that teach,” and choosing destinations that mirror her kids school curriculum (hello Egypt and the Mesopotamia unit!). She also revealed that she and her husband “reserve the right to an adults-only, do-nothing-but-read-booze-sun-and-swim beach getaway once a year.”
Well, that’s what Kim and I did too. There was a surprisingly amount of flak from friends and family though (once we mapped out where the Samana peninsula was). “Dominican Republic? Really? Everyone goes there.”
Everyone goes everywhere. Unless you go all Tom Hanks Castaway and accidentally bob yourself by raft into an atoll that no human has tread upon. (And I do have a delicious book all about that: Judith Schalansky’s Pocket Atlas of Remote Island: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. It’s as dreamy as it gets. Most of the islands she spotlights are former leper colonies or suffered smallpox epidemics that wiped out the entire population. You can go to Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island (pop: 633) or keep company with 120 million crabs during the rainy season on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. That sounds about our speed.
You see, we ruined ourselves with Zanzibar. The beaches were apocalyptically empty. The sun was searing and the ocean was a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of blues and greens. Finding a reasonable facsimile is challenging—and might not ever happen (though I just scribbled down the “Galapagos of Japan—Iromote and the Yaeyama Islands, after seeing just three glossy photos). However, sometimes you just want a four hour flight versus nineteen. You want a long beach without spiky urchins underfoot. You want sunsets and rum shacks and no greater purpose than to just be. You don’t want to swallow anti-malarial pills that give you near-psychotic dreams every night. You want flights for two for a thousand bucks return and rooms for $65 a night.
We looked at Tobago (crappy flight connections through Trinidad and steep prices for lackluster seaside rentals). We looked at Turks. And then I looked at the Seychelles and Andaman Island (as I always do, by default). We considered the Azores and decided we couldn’t brave highs of 13 degrees in January, despite the killer deal. We wanted egg-frying-on-the-sidewalk hot.
Kim found Samana online one still Sunday morning and knew what the Dominican offered, having been to Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and Sosua years ago. In fact, she even won a bottle of rum at the hotel she was staying at for having the best tan.
What we wanted, we got. Samana is a direct (4h 20min) flight from Toronto. A cruise ship sounds its horn at this port every few days—sounding our own internal horns to go further from the bloated crowds. A $100 taxi ride further. Unfortunately, the transit system is still operating on 1950’s banana farm ideals. Locals actively pack into the backs of the gua-gua’s (old Nissan and Mitsubishi pick-up beaters with wood plank seating) that stop every 100 m or so. We’ve subjected ourselves to the local way before—and decided our public transit experiences in Uganda alone, justified ponying up for a proper taxi to Las Galeras in the north.
Lonely Planet described Las Galeras as an expat haven and a solid base camp for indie travellers. French women burned along the downtown strip on ATVs with baguettes (they did!). Here, we could find “morir sonado”—a smoothie of OJ, milk, sugar and crushed ice that translates heavenly as “to die dreaming.”
Dreaming started early when we asked our driver about stopping for beer. We were sticky and parched in our just-left-winter-in-Canada jeans and fleece. He nodded and in less than five minutes he slowed in front of a house with a thatched roof with a girl skipping rope and dizzy chickens pecking out front. He honked his horn in a special pattern and a sinewy teen emerged. Our driver bellowed in Spanish and we suddenly found ourselves holding glacier cold one liter bottles of Presidente.
The ride was stomach-lurching hilly, through a surprisingly verdant swath of palms, jungle tangles and rice paddy fields. I knew that this trip would not be the safari thrill of Uganda. The Dominican has two mammals—rats and bats, though I kept my eyes trained on the canopies, fully expecting monkeys and sloths.
At Costa Las Ballenas we were quickly charmed by new expat Italian owners, Vincenzo and chef Gilda. They had taken possession of the semi-tired sea front property in December and had a long list of to-do’s. Luckily, Kim and I have stayed in rooms with no toilet seats, Donald Duck shower curtains and taxidermied rabbits wearing clothes. We’re forgiving, even when the room is strawberry yogurt pink and the toilet is as private as Facebook. We were shocked to find a flat screen TV (espanol-only, though I was hoping Kim would be able to find the world junior hockey coverage), SCENTED toilet paper and beach bar pizza slabs for 100 pesos (2 bucks).
(*Of all the pictures we would later show friends, the door-less toilet (where you could see the stars at night and sun tan at certain points in the day) was the shocker.)
We investigated our surrounds, making our way into ‘town’ which was the usual source of Carib comedy with a motoconcho (motorbike) and a cantering horse being pulled behind. Diesel-burping vehicles that looked homemade overtaking shiny Land Rovers. We quickly found $3 bottles of rum, corn flakes (gluten-free even, though we weren’t being picky), plantain chips and yogurt. The veg section was a sorry site of wilting broccoli, depressed tomatoes and scrubby onions. We had missed the mango and avo season, but there was no fruit. Not a banana. Not a pina. The shelves of the four supermercados we went into were full of squeeze dressings, sardines, wieners in a can, baseball-bat baguettes and rock candies that guaranteed dental work.
But, back to the beach (we could survive on rum and corn flakes and pizza slabs). It was a Simpsons blue sky, every day. There were the token geckos, electric tree frogs at night and forty annoying Russians threatening to break the sound barrier with their music. They started drinking beer at breakfast…at 8am. Or, maybe they never stopped.
Playa Bonita reminded us of The Beach. We schlepped to a pool-like part of the sea where few bothered to walk to. Locals fried up langostina and pescado at $1000 pesos ($20US) for a feed for two. Beers included.
We had drowsy days of reading, napping and ambling along the boardwalk, gushing the manicured AND pedicured lawns and sweet real estate. At night, we practiced amateur mixology with mango nectar, limon frappe and island punch sodas that we had bought in town.
The beachy perks of Las Galeras are found in the skyline. There are no high rises. There are no chain hotels. There are no jet skis or pesky beach vendors hounding to braid your hair or to buy necklaces made out of shells and fake shark teeth. There was a solo guitarist and someone selling braided palm frond hats but that was it.
I loved watching the spear fisherman bring their bounty to shore. Around four o’clock they’d come in, a rainbow of scales suspended on rope, rays, jelly octopi and rock lobsters by the bucket. Kim loved that she could order spag bol at the nearby slick Atlantis Hotel. She’s ordered it everywhere in the world, and every day in Italy—but it was here, in Las Galeras that she found the best spaghetti Bolognese, ever.
Onward: Las Terrenas
The sleepy fishing village an hour and a half from Las Galeras (another $100US ear-popper, barf-bag inducing cab ride. Don’t remind us of the crappy Canadian dollar exchange) slipped us through new terrain. Men were clustered around tables playing dominos, women sat fanning themselves, bouncing coffee-skinned babies. Loudspeakers rigged on the back of trucks blared that wormy cabbages and bruised papayas were for sale. Everywhere, music thumped. Out of houses, makeshift bars, parked vehicles. Phones. Keeping up with the Joneses in the Dominican means funneling all your money into speakers.
At El Sol Azul, a Swiss-owned B&B (“Zimmer und Fruhstuck”), we found a good dose of hospitality, banana rum jam, the freshest smelling towels and a property that was like waking up inside a botanical garden magazine spread. We had a jackfruit tree outside our door, crown of thorns, lime trees, jasmine—so many fragrant blooms. The owners, Esther and Pierre, have been in the business for 10 years and it’s evident. It was $65 CAD a night here too—which included breakfast. Cocoa puffs, pina colada yogurt, fresh cheese, dulce de leche, passionfruit juice, eggs any style with avo, tomato and a pinwheel of her homemade jams: guava, starfruit, kumquat, mango and the banana rum version which was like liquid banana bread in a jar. Divine.
The bed was so firm we could have played ping pong off the surface, but, the rooms were kitted out with everything from mosquito coils to a cool loft space and bean bag zen zone. Better yet? Two nonchalant cats and an affectionate lab make their rounds.
The guests were all European—Germans, French, Czech. It was rare to hear English being spoken in Las Galeras. Ironically, early in the trip I had been asked if I knew Spanish. I had taken a college course back in 1993, and really, could only remember “el gato es negro.” The cat is black. As long as I saw black cats, I was fine. And we did. Many gato negros and, Gato Negro wine. In a tiny store with a face-punch assault of scented toilet paper for sale, we actually haggled over wine prices. Certain it was going to be effervescent, we walked away with a $10 US bottle of Gato Negro from the “humidor” as Kim called it. The wine ‘cellar’ was hotter than most saunas that I’ve been in.
The supermercados of Las Galeras were of the same state—finding things to eat and picnic with was a struggle. We had packed tins of tuna and a cartel of trail mix from Canada, but, it was getting difficult to find substance beyond hunks of tasteless or too-briny cheese, “salami” (that was more of the bologna persuasion), drinking boxes of chocolate milk (dreamy—it tasted exactly like melted chocolate ice cream) and white buns that crumbled when you looked at them. God bless preservatives. Some stores had freezers stocked with chicken feet, and there was always a side of beef hanging somewhere.
We tried a German sandwich shop which ended up being a flat Wonderbread assembly of red onion, the bologna meat, murder-scene amounts of ketchup and mayo. To-go paninis at the French-owned Las Marseillaise became our beach staple.
Our days were all about finding the next great pocket of beach. This sometimes led to thorny, scratchy scrambles over coral, barbed wire, garbage dumps and cow patties but (thank god love conquers all)…a Brit told us about a “donkey path” to Colorado beach, a secret spot that only the ambitious found. Her donkey path was akin to a drug mule path. When we arrived at the beach, thrashed and wobbly from the terrain, it was in shade and covered in a Stephen King amount of red aphids. Back to our base camp: el Playita.
Despite the pep talks about Rincon being one of the best beaches in Dominican, we skipped it. The $20US (each) boat ride over Perfect Storm ocean swells was not enticing. We could see Rincon from our Playita, and we predicted the same. Unfortunately, El Nino and company have eroded the beaches on the northern peninsula at a startling rate. Leaning palms and a short shore are becoming the norm.
We found bizarre pizza combos at Bar Roma, the Italian-owned joint ‘downtown.’ The open seating allowed for unobstructed viewing of the motoconchos pulling wheelies up and down the main road. A pizza with a one litre beer was $20US and came loaded with ham laid like sod, fried egg, a slice of radish and one anchovy. On our last night we found the better joint—El Pescador. Their Toscane pizza with generous amounts of chicken, tomato and onion with hell-hot sauce made our coveted best-pizzas-we’ve-eaten-in-the-world list.
Most nights involved an eye-rolling amount of Adele, meringue and Menudo-esque music. A pool hall, supermarket, hair salon and bar ALL competed for air time with music at a level that actually made me wince. You need to inoculate yourself with serious amounts of rum or hot black cat red wine to sleep here. You know that expression? Sound asleep? Kim was sound awake every night. I think I have to take her to Fogo Island in Newfoundland next. Hotel rooms here come with a switch for white noise because it’s uncomfortably too quiet for some.
If you are seriously sketching out plans to visit Las Terrenas, this is what you need to do:
Spend a poolside afternoon at Villas Serena. The beers are the most expensive on the island, but they come with an addictive bar snack: red-skinned peanuts and baked coconut inundated with garlic salt, bbq spice and coarse pepper.
Learn German. Or, bring a lot of English books. Kim and I went on a scavenger hunt to a half dozen hotels after we ripped through our paperback supply (we thought six would cover us for two weeks). All the shelves of traders are German or Dutch, so pack your Rosetta Stone. Special thanks to that generous woman from the Muskokas who handed me her copy of ex-skateboarder Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die. “If you have kids you never have to worry about running out of books on vacation,” she suggested.
Beware of the Dominican tattoo. We counted nine raw and bandaged raspberries. The ‘tattoo’ is the characteristic right leg burn mark from the exhaust of the motorbike taxis.
Ear Plugs. Though I find falling asleep to the sound of waves poetry, Kim described the waves like a “freight train” that ran all night.
Don’t buy duty free rum en route. It’s so cheap once you arrive. Instead, grab a bunch of golf-ball sized limes and find your favourite combo—Cuba Libre (with Coke) or Santo Libre (crushed limes with rum and ice).
Buy those homemade coconut cookies that look potentially good. They are softer than muffin tops.
GO to El Maguey on the beach. It’s a haphazard open sky art gallery/bar/resto. For $1,400 pesos ($30 US) we had four paralyzing Santo Libres, a mamajuana shot (the mysterious aphrodisiac blend of red wine, honey, rum, herbs, twigs), papagayo (neon blue fish), 80s style salad (iceberg, tomato, white vinegar) and thick 100% veg oil fries. Under a fingernail moon and a tablecloth of stars with a beach dog at our feet, non-descript Spanish rock at a purr and the ‘freight train’ waves, this was a perfect night.