Boasting copious sun, crystal-clear water, white beaches and cheerful people, the Dominican Republic is the perfect destination for a beach holiday where relaxation takes centre stage.
As I catch sight of the sea from the airplane window, I know for sure: I am about to land in a heavenly place. I am reminded of my youth, and of a particular poster –with a palm tree hanging over a seascape on it– that adorned almost every teenage den. I am pretty sure that picture was taken in Punta Cana. Because, as far as I can tell, every corner looks just like that.
My first small, by all means positive, culture shock hits me at Punta Cana International Airport: the airport features thatched roofs and wooden buildings. Anyone looking to find an upper floor, escalators or shops will search in vain. A shuttle bus takes us to the “IFA Villas Bavaro Resort & Spa” hotel complex. Like most resorts in Punta Cana, it is situated on the “Playa Bavaro” – and unsurprisingly so: this divine beach stretches for more than thirty miles along the coast. Protected by a coral reef, the water is nice and shallow yet still crystal-clear. Added to that, electricity and running water are available throughout the day, which is a luxury in the Caribbean and not something to be taken for granted.
Fish at the hotel beach
I have decided to lodge in a small bungalow rather than a hotel room. WLAN is “sort of” available in my bungalow. But it does not really work, so I soon give up trying, accepting the involuntary digital detox that this will imply. I guess it’s high time I refrained from using electronic connecting devices for a while anyway. And let’s face it: who needs to be online if there’s a beach waiting for you? The sight of the sea fills me with a deep sense of joy. I wouldn’t call myself an emotional person, but the palm trees, the slight breeze, the fabulous beach and turquoise-blue water are altogether a spectacle to cherish. I am magically drawn to the water. Following the advice of a friendly hotel employee, I take a small banana from the breakfast buffet with me to the beach. Not out of concern for my own potential peckishness, but for the sake of the fish. Indeed, no sooner have I thrown a piece into the water I am surrounded by hundreds of small, long-nosed fish. What better start for a snorkelling fan like me!
Relaxation the Dominican way
The next day starts with a tour of a cigar factory. Cigars are one of the Dominican Republic’s top export products. The workers, seated around a small table rolling cigars for the tourists, have obviously been doing the job for a long time. Their fingers are stained a deep red from the tobacco leaves. The finished products are stored along with thousands of other cigars in a “humidor”, a wooden room with constant high humidity, which is required to store cigars for longer periods of time. The “humidor” in this place is big enough to enter. But the proprietor warns us: “Take a look, but do not stay for more than three minutes.” Once inside, I immediately understand why: after just two breaths, I am already feeling hazy (but also very relaxed). After that, I don’t dare try the cigar offered to us. But the other participants on the tour are impressed by the quality.
After a brief relaxing stint at the beach, I make myself comfortable at the whirlpool and get better acquainted with the Caribbean’s second top export product: rum. The barkeeper serves us the drinks, meaning “Cuba Libres”, at the edge of the pool. He becomes my best friend. Until the next day that is, when I have to drag myself out of bed at 6.30 am – with a terrible hangover!
Discovering the underwater world
As I alight from the bus that has brought me to the harbour and board a catamaran, my hangover is forgotten. The weather is fabulous, the tour guide fun and the next rum and coke not far off. We make our way to Saona Island. Home to 300 people, this island on the south-east tip of the Dominican Republic is also the country’s largest nature reserve. The little houses are makeshift and the furnishings eclectic. Almost everyone on the island lives from tourism. The best thing about Soana is the huge coral reef just off the island coast. The reef is great for snorkelling. The water is very shallow, so caution is required to avoid coral scrapes. But the thousands of fish in every imaginable hue cavorting between the corals are ample compensation for the slight anxiety when moving forward. I am particularly fascinated by a small blowfish. Back at the beach, I treat myself to a “Piña Colada” served in a real pineapple. The price is a disproportionate ten US dollars, which is a complete tourist rip-off. However, sipping the cocktail in this stunning palm tree-beach-sea setting adds so much to the taste that I would pay it again in a second.
A natural bath tub
Saona gives access to the “Piscina Natural” (natural pool), which is a major tourist attraction. Thanks to a five-mile long sandbar, the water in the “pool” is generally no more than waist-high and crystal-clear. The sandbar is first and foremost famous for the large starfish on the seabed. Unfortunately, these days, scarcely any are to be seen at the tourist spot – as they perish if removed from the water for more than three seconds. Given that many visitors take photographs with the starfish, their lifespan is very short. Our group sails to a place where the water is deeper and requires us to swim. Only now am I convinced that starfish actually inhabit the waters here and are not something guides bring along as a photo motif. As I immerse into the water, I am treated to a seabed with at least 500 starfish. They are everywhere I look. An unforgettable experience!
On the way back from Saona Island, I ask to be dropped off at a shopping centre. Although it’s only day five, I have already used up my sunscreen from home. A fatal error as I am about to discover. The cashier liberally converts my US dollars into Dominican pesos in her head and charges me roughly double the price. Later on, I am told that the way to go is to pay in local currency, so that you can go by the prices displayed in the shops. A small consolation: I would have paid three times the price in the shop located within the hotel complex.
Wreckages and cannon barrels
My second snorkelling excursion is to Isla Catalina, a few days later. As we approach the island, it is already clear that this trip will be rather more upmarket than the first one. We are only a small group travelling in a medium-sized catamaran. We sail past very large tourist boats that can easily carry seventy passengers and that provide snorkelling trips on a massive scale. Our first stop is just off the coast. Initially, we see nothing. But once the water calms down, a guide points to a rope he has fastened to the boat. He dives into the water ahead of me, and I follow. Wearing flippers, I can just about keep up. A few metres beneath the water surface, I spot a shipwreck surrounded by thousands of striped fish. I have to go back up for air, but dive back in again immediately. How I wish I had an oxygen tank with me (sadly, I do not know how to dive), as the sight is truly fascinating. The shipwreck was discovered as recently as 2007 and, if US anthropologists are to be believed, once belonged to the infamous pirate Captain Kidd. Nowadays, it is a very popular snorkelling spot. But, somehow, our tour organiser has arranged for our group to spend time there without any other snorkelers present.
A sun-filled life
Our snorkelling excursion also includes spending a few hours on Isla Catalina itself, to bask in the sun, swim or snorkel by the beach. And of course we make the most of it! Throughout the years, a large number of corals have formed underneath the various piers, where fish like to congregate. One particularly long pier stands out: we snorkelers can meander between some of the piles. The further out the pile, the greater the number of fish. By the last pile, we are absolutely encircled by them.
Thanks to very agreeable temperatures of around 28 degrees, coupled with the Caribbean Sea, the beach and the cheerful hotel staff, my last few days spent at the hotel complex simply fly by. As I make my way to the airport to catch my return flight, I notice some holiday houses owned by more permanent holidaymakers. There is a sign that reads “For Sale”. Perhaps it’s time I took out a savings account!