In September our French friends Cat and Jacques invited us to go on vacation with them. They were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic. Since we are in effect already on vacation in Paris, it didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but they told Brenda and me to think about it and that we would be welcome to join them if we wanted. Brenda liked that we would have hot sunny weather, and we thought what better chance to improve our French than to be able to practice with our fun French friends all day long on vacation.
For many in France, French resorts like Saint Tropez or the Normandy coast are too expensive, so they choose to go outside the country to get more for their money. Our friends take vacation just two weeks a year, and for them the appeal of a destination vacation with a fixed price, including airfare, bus transportation, hotel, all meals, and many amenities is compelling. Travel companies in France offer these types of vacations to many lower cost destinations outside France, including Greece, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, and in our case the Dominican Republic. The innovator of these types of vacations was probably Club Med, but our trip was organized by a French Company called Promovacances. We paid extra to select a smaller (though still big) beach hotel, the Barcelo Dominican Beach, and to travel on an Air France direct flight to Punta Cana instead of a lower cost airline with lower baggage limits and a flight transfer at Santo Domingo. Cost per person for 2 weeks was about 1600€. We figured that we would have spent at least half the cost of our vacation just in typical day-to-day expenses in Paris, so by that measure it was quite affordable.
The Dominican Republic is located on Hispanola Island, a part of the Caribbean island group Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispanola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Cayman Islands), and shares the island with the country of Haiti. Hispanola was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 when his flagship the Santa Maria grounded and sank. He left behind a contingent of men who established a community on the north coast in what is now Haiti. That community was destroyed by the native population, but another contingent from Spain returned the following year and established a community on the south coast that eventually became Santo Domingo, the oldest European settlement in the Americas.
In just a few years, the originally large native population was decimated by European diseases, declining from an estimated 250,000 in 1492 to 14,000 in 1517. In 1574 a census documented 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves. The Spanish moved on to colonize other parts of the Americas, and English, French, and Dutch pirates started to operate along the island coast. To avoid the pirates, the Spanish colony moved closer to Santo Domingo on the south coast, and the pirates established bases on the vacated north and west coasts.
In 1665 France’s Louis XIV officially recognized the French colony of Saint-Dominique (not to be confused with the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo on the eastern 2/3 of the island). In 1697 Spain officially ceded the western third of the island to France (part of the settlement at the conclusion of the 9 Years War in Europe). The population of this western colony grew, and it became an important trade hub supplying sugar to Europe using its slave population to keep prices low. After the French Revolution in the 1790’s, France was at war with Spain, England, Russia, and the Dutch in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Peace of Basel, which produced three treaties during the Revolutionary Wars, included a provision where Spain ceded the eastern two thirds of the island to France. French colonists started to move into what had been the Spanish part of the island.
Meanwhile, the French Revolution abolished slavery in 1794. Unfortunately Napoleon reimposed slavery in 1802, and the previously emancipated slaves staged an upheaval in the French colony of Saint-Dominique. At the same time, more than half of the French army in Saint-Dominique contracted yellow fever. The French decided to remove their devastated army in 1803, and the new independent nation of Haiti was formed in 1804, becoming the second republic in the Americas. The United States and Great Britain refused to recognize the Haitian government for fear of what that would mean for slavery in their countries. The US imposed an embargo, the French imposed demands for compensation for property they had lost. Thus Haiti was saddled with debts that turned it into one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and it remains so today. The former Spanish colony on the eastern two thirds of the island, Santo Domingo, remained in French control. In 1805 Haitian troops invaded Santo Domingo and sacked two towns, killing many citizens and thus fueling animosity between the two countries that still exists today.
In 1808, settlers in Santo Domingo revolted against French rule and with the help of the British, returned the eastern two thirds of the island to Spanish control. In 1821 the colony declared its independence from Spain, only to be invaded again and conquered by the Haitians, who abolished slavery and nationalized private property. The education system collapsed, and the university was shutdown. Farmers were drafted into the Haitian army. The economy faltered and the freed men rebelled against the Haitian rulers. Eventually, after 22 years of Haitian rule, a nationalist army organized and won the Dominican War of Independence in 1844. They established a constitution modeled on that of the United States.
Unfortunately the government proved to be very unstable and endured many years of power struggle between competing factions, resulting in civil war, assassinations, and many changes of government. The US invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916 and finally departed in 1922. In 1924, elections were held that for the first time produced 6 years of stable government. The economy grew rapidly, even when Rafael Trujillo established in 1930 an iron fisted dictatorship that continued for 30 years. In the 1960s the country returned to democratic government, and though there are still ups and downs, it has grown into the 2nd largest economy of Central America and the Caribbean. While agriculture remains the largest sector, tourism is a rapidly rising area of growth in the service economy.
Our hotel was the Barcelo Dominican Beach at Punta Cana, on the far eastern tip of the island. It was along the north shore facing the Atlantic Ocean, but we were close enough to the point so that we could also visit the south shore, facing the Caribbean. In this part of the Dominican Republic, as well as other areas along the coast, there (based on looking at the Google map) must be hundreds of huge hotels, each walled off from the general public and having guards stationed along the beach to keep the wandering purveyors of paragliding, island tours, sunglass sales, massages, etc. from harassing the tourists as they sit in their beach chairs watching the waves come in.
A typical day at our resort looked like this: Breakfast was served buffet style at a large open air space with both inside and outside seating. It was wonderful and included everything an American or European might expect – breads, cold cuts, fresh fruits and juices, eggs and different meats on the grill, platters of scrambled eggs, potatoes, rice, beans, pancakes, waffles, toasts, cereals, butter and cheeses. Waiters circulated serving hot coffee and tea. After breakfast every day we would go to the hotel lobby to have a café latté and check in on the hotel’s WIFI, which did not extend to the rooms and was reliably slow. Lunch was a similar feast of great variety, served with a glass of wine or beer if you wanted. Before dinner we would always meet at the lounge for a cocktail, our favorite being a mojito. For dinner there was the buffet, but also Brazilian, Mexican, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian full service restaurants. We alternated between the specialty restaurants for dinner. There was also a beach grill and a seafood restaurant that served meals under the stars. We would go to the beach every day and swim in the ocean or in one of the 3 large hotel pools. After dinner every night we would go to a show called “The Spectacle”, which would feature singing, dancing, and frequently skits with audience participation. Although there were featured singers and dancers who we understood performed at a number of the local hotels, the masters of ceremonies and most of the entertainers also worked by day at our hotel. After a week or so all of them looked like family to us. The entertainment was at a very high level and always kept us interested. A couple days it rained and we spent the afternoon at the Starbucks-like coffee shop drinking lattés. Every other day or so we would work out at the health club. None of these amenities cost us anything additional to our up front trip fee.
The waiters and waitresses were always cheerful and many spoke some French or English. A number of them quickly got to know who we were. There was a contest with voting each day on Trip Advisor to see who was the best waiter or entertainer at the hotel. Unfortunately the Internet service made it difficult to vote.
We did opt for some extras – we paid extra for a fantastic lobster dinner under the stars for Brenda’s birthday. Dinner was great and the atmosphere not to be found anywhere else. Brenda had a massage at the Spa one day. Also we could add the cost of trips or tours booked through the hotel to our room bill.
Cat and Jacques quickly made friends during their beach walks with a young man who represented a shop along the beach. The way the system worked, every purchase could be negotiated, and the store you negotiated with didn’t have to carry the item. Tell them what you wanted and they would go find it. Everyone would make a percentage. Everyone was in the customer referral business. Everyone in our group purchased something from the stores along the beach.
One afternoon we took a taxi to a local mall at nearby San Juan. Everything was priced in dollars rather than the local currency of Dominican Pesos (about 40 pesos to the dollar). The mall was pretty much like being in America.
One day we took a taxi ride to Higuey (eegway), a city of about 300,000 and the capital of our province of La Altagracia. The city is named after a native chiefdom that was there when Columbus arrived. We first visited the most prominent monument, the large Basilica of Altagracia. Afterwards we had our driver take us into the heart of town to see what it was like to shop on the streets. He first delivered us to a shop where he must have had some arrangement. We looked at merchandise but didn’t purchase anything and then asked if our driver would take us into a shopping district in the center of town. This was an exciting experience that left us far from other tourists, but we were followed at every step by people asking what we needed so they could help us find it and thus earn a commission. One woman who spoke French had some success. Cat and Brenda bought bracelets of Larimar, the green blue stone that is only found in the Dominican Republic. There were lots of clothes and local artwork for sale at these stores, as well as chickens and lots of other things from the farm that don’t turn up at your local butcher shop.
Another day we took a bus ride and catamaran cruise including dance lessons and music, snorkeling, swimming at the pristine island beach at Catalina Island, and a lobster lunch aboard a paddlewheel riverboat on the Chavón River. The bus trip took us through the Casa de Campo resort complex, the flagship of the La Romana All Inclusive Resorts area. It was my understanding listening to our French tour guide that the main customers for the large homes in this resort were American, though we also know that there was a large amount of investment in island real estate by other foreigners. We visited Altos de Chavón, a replica of a 16th-century Mediterranean village located just minutes from La Romana. None of us knew at the time that it wasn’t part of the original Spanish settlement of the island. It was built by craftsmen from the Dominican Republic in 1976. It has a large 5000 seat amphitheater, which featured an opening concert in 1982 by Frank Sinatra. Everything looks as old as advertised, and it has great shops and restaurants to add atmosphere to the appearance of antiquity. The cruise and lunch were fun. There was heavy rain in the afternoon but we were swimming so it wasn’t too discouraging. The cruise took place near the town of La Romana along the south facing coast, so we had a chance to swim in the Caribbean as well as the Atlantic.
Our last great adventure outside of the resort was to take the bus to Bayahibe (byaeebay), a town also along the south shore 10 miles east of La Romana. Cat had learned from one of guys along the local beach that there was a direct bus there from the small town just down the street from the gated entry to our resort. We headed off searching for the bus stop, which we eventually found when a bus pulled up to a corner. We quickly learned that there was no direct bus. Instead we went on the hour long trip to Higuey, and then at at that bus station caught another bus that took us to a place on the highway somewhere, and from there we caught a ride with a hotel bus whose enterprising driver picked us up. An enterprising girl waiting at the drop off with us negotiated a commission from the bus driver by getting us to come aboard and telling us his price. Bayahibe didn’t have much of a town, but it did have a beautiful harbor and beach, where we spent a wonderful afternoon. Afterwords we dined at the Captain Kidd Restaurante and Pizzeria, which was très bon!
Naturally there was no easy bus trip back to the hotel. First we rode in a jam packed van into the town of La Romana, the third largest city in the Dominican Republic with a metropolitan population of about 250,000. We learned from a girl on our bus that there was a bus leaving promptly for Higuey, so we literally jumped off our bus, paying the driver and yelling at the little boys grabbing for our bags and money, and wound through a crowd to another bus, which we hopped on in total faith that it would go to Higuey. We sat in the back of the bus and became acquainted with a boy sitting just ahead of us who was obviously curious about the foreigners who didn’t speak Spanish. Eventually I also met his father, who sat next to me and gave his son stern glances and instructions to behave. He also helped me figure out bus fare and, between each of our non existent knowledge of the other’s language, we discussed that it was good that his son had a father (he didn’t have a mother anymore), that the Dominican Republic had produced some great baseball players, and that there were lots of other parts of the country that we should see and visit. He warned us to take a taxi to our hotel from Higuey and that we should be wary of people at the bus station. Still, once we arrived in Higuey we accompanied a women who had been on our La Romana bus and was kind enough to steer us to a bus that took us back to our hotel.
There were many other fun times on this vacation. One significant achievement – we learned to play Scrabble in French, not well mind you. Jacques and I have lost every time so far to those heartless language mavens Cat and Brenda. We monitored the tropical storm Edouard, which passed north of us in the Atlantic during our stay. It caused some rain but had little other effect. We also got to participate in the Air France pilot’s strike, which delayed our return trip by several hours and forced us to fly home on Air Caraïbes instead of Air France. Here we were pretty lucky. Other than cramped economy class seating, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.
Here is a photo tour showing some of what we saw on our trip.