Be adventuresome in Dominican Republic

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Victor Block

“You expect me to climb up that?” I inquired of Carlos, who was guiding my wife Fyllis and me on our morning outing in the Dominican Republic. “And then to slide back down?” I added with growing trepidation in my voice.

We were about to scale the first of what’s billed as “27 waterfalls,” a series of cascades and pools created by a rushing river whose arctic-like water contrasted with the heat of the surrounding rain forest.

Only slightly reassured by our guide’s words of encouragement, I donned the required life jacket and helmet, swam to the bottom of the first fall, and climbed a rickety wood ladder to its summit.

Only the devil-may-care attitude that Fyllis displayed as she plummeted down the chute prompted me to follow, rather than thinking of some excuse to descend the same way I had gone up.

After returning safely, if slightly bruised, Fyllis and I stopped for a lunch of pit-roasted pig washed down by a cold local brew. That was followed the next day by hiking in a rainforest, pausing to explore caves that have been carved out over eons.

More than beaches and resorts

Many people who think of the Dominican Republic, if they think of it at all, picture broad, golden sand beaches and a wide choice of all-inclusive resorts. There are many such settings, most located around Punta Cana at the eastern end of the island, and they have much to offer.

But we set our sights elsewhere. Fyllis and I opted to spend our time at less-visited Puerto Plata on the northern coastline. It also boasts lovely beaches that are bathed by the Atlantic Ocean, and an inviting if more limited choice of resorts, some particularly affordable.

An added bonus is a long list of activities beyond those available at most other places in the DR, as we learned to call our temporary home away from home.

Visitors who are so disposed may spend their time basking in the sun at the resorts and on the beaches. If they do, they’ll miss opportunities to explore largely unspoiled countryside, interact with local residents, visit towns and villages little touched by tourism, and enjoy encounters with Mother Nature, ranging from tranquil to tough.

First, a little history

It doesn’t take long for today’s visitors to understand why, after spotting the verdant, mountainous land mass in 1492, Christopher Columbus wanted to establish a colony on the island that the Dominican Republic now shares with Haiti. As it turned out, it was another explorer who founded a city there 10 years later and named it Puerto Plata (“port of silver”).

Among reminders of Spanish colonial days is a small but interesting stone fort, Fuerte de San Filipe (“Fort of Saint Phillip”), which still gazes out over the north shore. The oldest military fortification in the Americas, its massive walls enclose a little historical museum and a tiny cell in which Juan Pablo Duarte, a hero of the Dominican Republic’s fight for independence, was once detained.

A later colonial period from the late 19th and early 20th centuries is brought to life by a cluster of wooden Victorian houses around Central Park. Their gingerbread motifs and wooden filigree are set off by a kaleidoscope of pastel colors.

Another worthwhile stop in Puerto Plata is the Museo de Ambar Dominicano (Amber Museum). The northern shoreline of the country is known as the Amber Coast because the area contains the largest deposits of that semiprecious stone in the world, including rare blue, red and black varieties.

Amber is fossilized pine resin that was formed some 50 million years ago. Specimens that contain preserved fossils are favored by many collectors. For anyone interested in buying amber who is not an expert, the museum’s shop is the safest bet. That offered by street vendors or at some stores may not be the real thing.

The town of Puerto Plata is well located for visits to nearby villages, tourist complexes and beaches. Playa Cabarete (Cabarete Beach) is popular among both locals and visitors, especially those who like to wind surf. Prevailing breezes blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean make this one of the best locations in the world for that sport.

Once a tranquil fishing village, Sosua evolved into a bustling (read that “touristy”) community known for an enclave of Jewish residents whose relatives fled Europe just before World War II. Many are descendants of German and Austrian Jews who took advantage of the policy adopted by the Dominican Republic to help alleviate the suffering caused by the Holocaust.

The townspeople were entirely Jewish until the opening of the Puerto Plata airport in 1980 led to the transformation of Sosua into a beach resort. The village is home to the first synagogue that was established in the country and a small museum that preserves the history of the original Jewish immigrants.

The Sosua beach is one of the best in the Dominican Republic, a strip of soft white sand tucked into a cove sheltered by coral cliffs. Along with a collection of tourist shops selling the usual resort clothing and knickknacks, the beach is lined by little restaurants that serve good, simple food at reasonable prices.

Outdoor adventures with “Mama”

When Fyllis and I sought a change from checking out beaches and sightseeing attractions, the challenge became which of an inviting choice of activities to select. As non-golfers, we couldn’t take advantage of well-known courses designed by the likes of Robert Trent Jones and Jack Nicklaus.

So we decided to focus on new experiences. While options included dirt-biking, wind surfing and deep sea diving, we immediately added those to our “not in this life” list. Whitewater rafting, kayaking, river tubing and horseback riding had appeal, but we have enjoyed them in other places at other times.

Then we found the perfect solution. We were directed to Iguana Mama, an outdoor tour operator that lives up to its slogan, “Mama knows best.”

That heart-pounding climb up, and plummet down, waterfalls described earlier is but one choice among its long menu of offerings. Along with the usual selection of recreational pastimes available at many vacation spots, Mama throws in a few that catch your attention and, if you participate, your breath.

Canyoning and zip lining provide trips over and down into the landscape. Sailing on a catamaran, ocean fishing and whale watching cruises get salts and landlubbers alike out on the sea.

After a detailed discussion of the alternatives with Michael Scates, who owns the operation, we selected two options that we thought would provide challenge enough but not too much.

Michael described the six available mountain bike adventures in descending order of difficulty. He began with a 45-mile “Maximum Endurance” ride that even he admitted involves “hideousness and pain.” Not for us, we replied in unison.

Instead, we opted for a gentle pedal over dirt roads that passed through neighborhoods of modest homes, waving to children playing in the streets as we steered to avoid what appeared to be bicycle-eating potholes and chickens scratching in the dust. No hideousness, no pain.

After riding past coconut, mango, grapefruit and other trees that our guide, Carlos Rios, identified, we paused at a tiny collection of animals too small to deserve the name “zoo.” A few pink flamingoes, turtles, iguanas and a sassy parrot had the run of the place, while a pair of crocodiles lay dormant, as crocs do, in small enclosures.

Next on the itinerary was a ride in a rundown outboard motor boat on the slow-flowing Yessica River, past cows grazing in fields near the water and fishermen throwing their nets. Back on land, we enjoyed a cool drink of coconut milk sipped from the shell, and then pedaled back to our starting point.

Another day, another outing. This time, it was a hike in the Choco National Park, named for the chocolate color of the earth. As with everything else Iguana Mama, this was not just a hike. It also involved exploration of several of the more than 100 limestone caves, many connected by underground rivers, which added a whole new dimension to the usual walk in the woods.

Even more interesting to me was an encounter with an elderly man who invited us into his tiny, primitive hut, made of palm tree wood and fronds, and offered us a snack of warm yucca. This epitomized every experience with the Dominicans we met, who invariably were friendly and courteous.

The people I meet when traveling have much to do with how much I enjoy a destination. Add beautiful beaches, magnificent scenery and tiny towns, then throw in the long list of activities both familiar and less so, and the Dominican Republic has much to offer those seeking active days, hours lolling on the sand, or a combination of both.

If you go

All-inclusive resorts are the choice of many travelers to the Dominican Republic.

The Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Resort in Puerto Plata lives up to its name, offering every comfort in accommodations, along with opportunities to book virtually any recreation outside the sprawling property you might wish to pursue. There are several levels of lodging and lavish opulence, depending upon price.

The usual “all inclusive” endless supply of food and beverages is available, along with swimming pools, spas and tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, plus other amenities. Daily activities range from golf and tennis lessons to classes in Spanish, aerobics and preparing a Dominican cocktail.

For just one idea of what makes this resort special, picture the typical chaise lounges lined up on beaches, then think again. Guests luxuriate on queen-size platform beds, some double-decker, some slung hammock-like from palm trees.

All-inclusive nightly rates for lying in the lap of luxury here start at $82 per person a night for a limited time, with your seventh night free after a six-night stay. Other seasons (and fancier accommodations and suites) can be considerably higher. For details, log onto www.lhvcresorts.com or call (809) 970-7777, ext. 70083.

Dining at the Lifestyle resort means selecting from four or more restaurants, ranging from white tablecloth to casual buffet. Fresh-caught seafood, beans and rice and fried plantain are among popular Dominican dishes, often prepared with a Spanish flair along with local touches.

We also enjoyed lunch at the modestly priced Jorge Restaurant on Coco Beach, which consists of a few plastic tables and chairs on the sand. It offers excellent fish soup ($6), shrimp salad and curried chicken (both $8).

We had dinner one night at Le Pappillon, just outside the entrance to the Lifestyle resort. Jovial, German-born Tomas Ackerman prepared his special onion pie appetizer ($8), along with goulash soup ($7) and chicken stroganoff ($13). For more information, call (809) 970-7640 or email the owner-chef at lepappilliontomas@hotmail.com.

Flights from the Washington area start at $422 roundtrip on Spirit Airlines from Reagan National Airport to Santo Domingo Las Americas International Airport.

For more information about the Dominican Republic, call 1-888-374-6361 or log onto www.godominicanrepublic.com.