by Charles Conway
How many islands are there in the Caribbeans? A difficult question to which the globetrotter might retort: how many of them matter? It was the latter question that motivated the first explorers of the region, the southern Amerindians. Contrary to popular belief they came across not in migrationary waves set to cover the Caribbean in its totality, but in small groups that moved selectively from one island to another. In essence they were proto-island hoppers, cruising in canoes instead of yachts, taking the leisurely pace of generations to become isle-connoisseurs. Yet in the 20th and 21st centuries Anglo-American literature, films, music and general culture have vacillated between painting ‘the Caribbean’ as a tropical Arcadia, or tarring it as a gaudy mockery of the western paradisiacal dream. The irony is that, while both are merely two extremes on the range of the traveller’s experiences, it is taken for granted that this entire region can be described as a single entity – or in a single sentence.
The average person, anticipating their long-dreamt-of vacation imagines white beaches, subservient locals, friendly floral-shirted tourists and the ubiquitous waiter approaching with sir and madam’s rum punch. To those who crave excitement and variety I pose another question: have you ever considered the rugged mountains and plains of Puerto Plata, the primordial jungles of the Morne Trois Pitons, the tranquil getaway at Anse Marcel, the effervescent life of Oranjestad, or the opulent chic of St Barth’s? Well, perhaps the latter is one already familiar to our readers.
Having spent seventy days exploring different islands, I inform my editor-in-chief with a degree of hopeful anticipation that it would take innumerable such trips to truly experience the Caribbeans. I can sympathise with my late ‘colleague’ Christopher who, expecting the illusionary Cathay instead revealed an unknown universe of islands full of myriad surprises which he spent an entire lifetime exploring.
Nevertheless, if one of our readers finds themselves in Las Americas airport, Dominican Republic, on a July morning with a return flight via Barbados in late September, this travelogue might have a lot of helpful tips. From the most rough-cut of road trips and eco-lodge lifestyles to the dazzling sparkle of five-star resorts, and all the other facets of luxury travel in between, this writer has experienced it all in the Caribbean chain.
It only takes a willingness to follow the inviting eddy of the currents and the soft nudging of the trade winds; after all, if one has never been there, who knows what lies on the next island over?
Dominican Republic – Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo is the oldest inhabited settlement in the Caribbeans and provides an interesting contrast to Old San Juan – while both are important Spanish colonial sites, Old San Juan has had more investment and tourist attraction over the years than Santo Domingo. The latter is a boiling pot of different architectures and cultures, past and present, ranging from the late Spanish colonial to the modern Spanish-influenced Caribbean style of buildings shared with the other islands.
The main reason to see this city is the colonial quarter. This area is a marvel for its Mediterranean character and tranquillity during the day – have a coffee liqueur at a cafe under the fruit trees or overlooking the river and you will see what I mean. At night, the entire district lights up with bars, restaurants and people dancing to a blast of Latin music.
Exploring buildings and streets, such as the first New World Cathedral or the Calle Las Damas (named for the wives and ladies of the conquistadors), where the early decisions and actions that shaped world history were made, is a thrill for anyone with a sense of the past.
Santo Domingo is definitely not a traditional tourist destination – it lacks beaches (over massive boulders and high sea walls), it can lack luxuries even by the standards of the average westerner, and it isn’t always pretty – but it is one of the most colourful places I have visited and highly recommended as a starting point for any Caribbeans adventurer.
Dominican Republic – Punta Cana
From Santo Domingo I take a coach with Caribe Tours SA, the main operator on the island, to the Puerto Plata Province. Driving along the highway itself is a panoramic feast for the eyes and you can see even in the Dominicans themselves a continued sense of wonder at the dramatic landscape.
Just past Santo Domingo the mountains surge out from the earth without any warning. The huge rice paddies stretch outwards from the roadside in a vast plain that shimmers under the strong sunlight, counterpoised to the misty and cloud-covered crags jutting out of the horizon. The highway drives onwards into the highlands, rapidly rising (although never to an altitude that might cause discomfort) and becoming increasingly cramped between high walls of rock and forest. Occasionally there is a break in the rock, massive scars that can only be the result of glaciations and all the eroding influences of time.
I get off the coach at Imbert, a large town scrambling up the hills that serves as one of the urban centres for the province. The relatively high proportion of people here who can communicate in English is due to the presence of a Manchester Unity Oddfellows outpost. If, however, one continues into the rural areas, the percentage of Anglophones (or multilinguals, for that matter) immediately drops to an effective zero percent. One of the attractions of Puerto Plata is precisely that it is still underdeveloped and only accessible to the Dominicans themselves. The dirt roads that cut through the highlands are pockmarked and uneven, and travellers must be prepared for a few knocks and bumps.
Behind the hills surrounding Imbert I find myself in Punta Rucia, the name for both the bay and the fishing village lying alongside it. If one can brave the bad roads and Spartan living conditions, Puerto Plata offers an uncommon glimpse of the Caribbean largely uninfluenced by recent Anglo-American culture. The local people have a measure of that stereotypical Spanish warmth, friendliness but cultural pride above all. They enjoy good music (an Afro-Caribbean fusion called merengue, lively and well suited to the similarly popular activity of dancing), a wholesome if uncomplicated cuisine and the enjoyment of a good conversation, interspersed with plenty of jokes and humour.
Punta Rucia, just before the mountains on the western border with Haiti, has some of the most spectacular sunsets) and nightscapes I have seen across the Caribbean so far: such as the thunderstorms, over the mountains in the far distance, sparking down through the night sky in bursts of deep purple and conch-shell pink. The beauty of the Puerto Plata region is in an insularity which is fading, both here and elsewhere in the world. The best English you will hear, a spontaneous stock phrase, are the words ‘do you like rice and beans?’
Puerto Rico – Old San Juan
On a high spur of rock that stands out from the island, extending forth into the sea, this colonial sea fort continues to thrive as an up market district called Old San Juan. During the day buses and coaches shuttle in American and European tourists, mainly here on what must be one of the more pleasant pilgrimages that you could imagine.
The Castillo de San Cristobal, an imposing complex of walls and ramparts winding upwards, stands sentinel over Old San Juan’s land bridge. Bridging this with the northwest is a long trail of sea walls with turrets jutting out onto the sea below; strolling along this route provides a fantastic set of visual contrasts.
At sunset, the affluent Puerto Ricans descend on the restaurants, bars and nightclubs for an evening of pleasure. Walking down from the crest of the north side, Old San Juan’s nightlife has awakened along the southern waterfront.
Cafe La Princesa, a bar-restaurant with a garden setting, is a definite recommend for its relative seclusion on the busy waterfront and the live jazz to accompany your meal. With a commanding view of San Juan’s skyline glittering upon the bay, one can wine and dine with a pretty panorama, a cool breeze and a cheerful atmosphere – what else does one need?
Inevitably, a comparison between Old San Juan and Santo Domingo – in particular the colonial quarter – needs to be made; both were, and retain an essence of Spanish colonial settlements. The atmosphere here, both during the day and at night, is more suited to middle class family groups or to youths affirming their adulthood at bars and nightclubs than to the lone traveller. Food is adequate but not spectacular, and lacks any especial character of its own. Old San Juan offers a much cleaner, if somewhat bleached, fabric of the Spanish Caribbean.