TRAVEL / Eat, drink and merengue: There is a pleasing rhythm to life in the Dominican Republic, if you can ignore the poolside disco music. Andrew Purvis reports

'WHERE is the Dominican Republic?' the travel agent asked, leafing distractedly through yet another brochure. At first I took this for ignorance, a plea for help, but her expression betrayed a darker purpose. She was trying to catch me out. 'Central America,' I said, with an inflection that made it sound a bit like a question but not quite. I'd confirmed the booking and was signing a cheque, so of course I knew where I was going. 'Wrong,' she said triumphantly. 'Let's look at the map.'

She pointed to an island called Hispaniola, between Cuba and Puerto Rico, an inch or two off the Florida coast. One half, Haiti, was shaded pink. The other was a first-year graphic design project bristling with stencilled palm trees, beach umbrellas and little flags marked 'timeshare'. The Dominican Republic was the Costa de Sol of the Caribbean, with 22,555 hotel rooms, 1,000 miles of beaches (all called Playa something) and more tourists per square foot than a Torremolinos nightclub in high season.

This isn't how most people book a holiday. They think about it months in advance, scrutinise temperature and rainfall charts and know roughly which tropic they'll be in. But this was the first holiday I'd been able to afford for years, and I'd become deskilled as a consumer. Three days before my planned departure I started to panic: Gran Canaria was fully booked, the Greek islands were swathed in rain and the Bahamas were way outside my pounds 600 budget. My choices were narrowing, but I had broadmindedness on my side. All I knew for certain was this: Torremolinos was out of the question because I had some standards left.

Shuffling aboard the air-conditioned coach at Puerto Plata, the Dominican Republic's main tourist airport, I found myself adjusting the geography of my prejudices. We'd already endured 12 hours of The Three Musketeers, Desmond Lynam and vintage recordings of Only Fools and Horses on the excruciating flight via Manchester and Bangor, Maine. Now our Cosmos courier, Marcus, was bombarding us with more jocular commentary: 'Welcome to the Dominican Republic. The temperature here is 110 degrees. That's right, 110 degrees. They don't tell you that in the brochures because nobody would ever want to come here]'

We learnt that, unlike other islands in the West Indies, the Dominican Republic was virtually crime-free (though the hotel management would be more than happy to rent out safe deposit boxes to those who were still nervous). The electricity was sporadic, the roads lethal and the water, when flowing, undrinkable. We'd certainly get ill during our stay, but if we drank Seven-Up we'd get better. Our hotel, Playa Chiquita, was famed for its casino and merengue band. The nearest town, Sosua, boasted an English pub called PJ's and the sleaziest pick-up joint this side of Bangkok.

The only positive thing Marcus said was this: Playa Chiquita was an all-inclusive hotel. This didn't just mean endless free food, but as much free alcohol as your metabolism could cope with. You could order two drinks at virtually any time, knock them back, then go back and order two more. Apart from me, everyone on the coach looked horrified.

Surely there had to be a catch. We were told the hotel food wasn't up to much, but it still seemed too good to be true. When we lumbered into the hotel, the pay-off became clear. Each new guest was being fitted with a plastic bracelet, the kind they attach to newborn babies - or to convicts. From now on we were Playa Chiquita inmates, not guests.

The more we thought about it, the angrier we got. One new arrival, a former Miss Bristol, pointed out that the bracelets would mess up our tans. If we did dare to venture out to the beach bazaar at Sosua, the tags would clearly identify us as package tourists with a lot of unspent money, a victim mentality and not a lot of style.

'We're not going to wear them,' said one refusenik. 'Why can't we just carry them in our bags, and show them at the bar when we want a drink?' It seemed a reasonable question, but Marcus was insistent. These bracelets had been traded on the black market in the past, he explained, and the hotel management had grown wise to the abuse. The system could only work if the tags were rivetted to our wrists.

He told the story of an Australian 'all-inclusive' who had made a few new friends down on the beach. He invited them back to Playa Chiquita and spent the evening conveying dozens of drinks, in pairs, to the table where they were sitting. By 2am they were too drunk to stand and had to be carted off in a minibus. Now guests had to sign for every drink, and the bar staff watched them like hawks.

At the Cosmos briefing next day, we discovered a few more things about the local culture. The latest Bacardi ads were filmed on a palm-fringed island off the Dominican coast, and an excursion called 'Desert Island Dream' (price 300 pesos, around pounds 18) went there every Tuesday and Sunday. There were other outings called 'Rum Runners Safari' (tearing around pissed in a Jeep), 'Bananas, Barracudas and Beaches' (self-explanatory) and 'Four Legged Fun' (we never asked). Friday was Casino Fun Night.

Unswayed by Marcus's enthusiasm, we phoned for a taxi into Sosua instead. A battered black Cadillac lurched into view and crunched to a halt in the gravel. The doors burst open and merengue music blared from antique speakers. The driver inspired less confidence still. When we asked him to take us to Pedro Clissante Street - the main drag in the only town for miles - he looked puzzled. Taking out a map, he perused it for a while before meandering off down the potholed road he must have driven along a hundred times before.

Sosua beach is an adman's dream of soft white sand and palm trees, a mecca for beach bums and sun-worshippers. Jet-skis bounce through the Atlantic chop (this is the north coast; the south coast is on the Caribbean). Shady beach bars offer numbingly cold Presidente beer, the island's premier brew. But all along the walkways that fringe the beach, a thousand souvenir stalls conspire to break the resolve of even the most hardened non-consumer. Hustlers and hasslers offer everything from 'traditional' straw hats and amber jewellery to grim ceramic replicas of Dominican Republic buses. It's not as easy to resist as you'd think, especially if you're wearing an orange plastic bracelet.

A more acceptable fashion item on Sosua beach is the 'stab jacket', the buoyancy aid worn by scuba divers. Brad Gorden's Northern Coast Dive School is based in Sosua, and its instructors spend more time on the walkways than they do in the water. Learning to dive in the Dominican Republic is suspiciously easy. Though I'd trained the British way, ie every weekend for years, the American 'dive masters' at Sosua have a different philosphy: beginners in my group took an hour's course in a pool and were diving the reefs two days later.

Back in the Playa Chiquita compound, inmates were being organised into having a nice day. 'Don't worry, be happy,' urged a painted sign, but it was hard to unwind when there were so many supervised activities going on.

The poolside throbbed to the sound of Madonna and Culture Beat, and the Dominican youths employed as redcoats weren't going to let holiday lethargy spoil the fun. 'Water polo, volleyball?' one asked as I tried to sink into a sun-lounger. 'Why are you so tired? You're on holiday, not working.' Reluctantly I joined in a game which involved filling a balloon with water and hurling it at a bikini-clad woman. I won a bottle of champagne. It wasn't my idea of enjoyment, but it was better than Spanish lessons.

Just a balloon-throw away from all this tomfoolery was one of the most idyllic spots I have ever seen. The hotel garden, shaded from the searing heat by lush palms and banana trees, sloped gently down to a private beach with nobody on it. Peacocks strutted across the lawn; a wooden terrace studded with sun-loungers jutted into a cobalt blue sea. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, or a ripple on the water.

It was then that I remembered my bracelet; I wasn't really making the most of my all-inclusive status. The day passed in a haze of rum punches and ice-cold beers, with the sound of the merengue band tuning up in the restaurant. Eat, drink, sleep, merengue. Eat, drink, sleep, merengue. It was a rhythm I could get into.

As the holiday drew to a close, I thought a lot about the bracelet and how it might be surgically removed. In the end it was an anticlimax. As we checked out, a man in reception hacked it off with a door key. We were free, even if our drinks weren't. Then we heard that the airport coach had left early without us, because 'nearly everyone was there, only three missing'. We took a taxi to the airport.

The plane left two hours early because the authorities felt like it. Most of the passengers were there. After reading the English football results to us to kill time, the co-pilot languidly announced: 'I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen, but we're still waiting for the last remaining passenger. Well, tough. The rest of you managed to be here on time, so we'll take off.'

The stewardesses then began the ritual of spraying the cabin with insecticide. I'm not saying the two things are connected, but I was very ill when I got back. It was the worst 'flu I'd ever had and I couldn't shake it off. What I needed, I suppose, was a holiday.-

TRAVEL NOTES

TOUR OPERATORS: The simplest and usually the cheapest way to visit the Dominican Republic is to buy a package holiday. Cosmos (061-480 5799) has 14-night packages to Puerto Plata, staying at Playa Chiquita, from pounds 619 (based on B & B for two sharing a double room). Thomson (081-200 8733) features resorts in the north and south: current 14-night deals include a 2T (roughly equivalent to two-star) fully inclusive holiday for pounds 529 (6 July from Gatwick); or a 2T B & B holiday at pounds 299 (23 June from Manchester). Other operators include Harlequin Worldwide Travel (0708 852780) and Caribbean Connection (0244 341131).

INDEPENDENT TRAVEL: Comet Travel (071-637 0427) can arrange flights to Puerto Plata (via New York) with American Airlines from around pounds 743 flying out of Heathrow. Cosmos (061-480 5799) has a special offer from Birmingham to Puerto Plata on 21 June at pounds 289. Thomson (081-200 8733) has a fare of pounds 169 to Puerto Plata on 6 July from Gatwick, or pounds 179 to Santo Domingo, the capital, from Manchester on 23 June. A budget hotel in Puerto Plata will cost pounds 15 a night, a double room at Playa Chiquita (809 689 6191) pounds 30-pounds 50 per night. The most exclusive hotel is the 7,000-acre Casa de Campo resort in La Romana, which offers polo, two golf courses and watersports. Prices range from pounds 48 per night for a twin villa room, to pounds 144 for a three-bedroom villa sleeping six. Book through Elegant Resorts on 0244 329671.

HEALTH AND VISAS: There are no compulsory health requirements, but it is wise to be up-to-date with hepatitis A, polio, tetanus and typhoid immunisations. Malaria is a risk throughout the year. Contact the Masta advice line, which gives the most up-to-date information on health (0891 224100 - premium rate). Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa. The currency is the Dominican peso (RDdollars 17 = pounds 1), but US dollars are widely accepted.

INFORMATION: There is no tourist office in Britain. Once there, contact the

Secretary of Tourism, Oficinas Guberbamentales Building D, 30 de Maizo, Santo Domingo (809 689 3655), or the tourist office in Puerto Plata (809 586 3676).

(Photograph and map omitted)

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