Travel: Fantasy flight to merengue land

A holiday in the Caribbean for the same price as crossing the channel? Claire Gervat jumps on a last-minute flight to the Dominican Republic and discovers a winning destination

IT DIDN'T seem possible: "Dominican Republic, pounds 99". Someone's finger had obviously slipped when they typed the information on to the web page. But the next day, and the next, it was still there: a return flight to the Caribbean for six nights, leaving that weekend, for little more than a round trip to Paris. The only catch seemed to be that you flew out of Gatwick and returned to Birmingham, but as far as I was concerned, that wasn't a problem. A quick check in the guidebook showed that there were plenty of reasonably priced hotels in the republic. I rang the agent back and bought a ticket.

To some people, the idea of leaving a holiday booking to the last minute is unthinkable. If you have children at school, it's almost impossible. But, if you're able to travel outside the peak months of July and August and are flexible about where you go, there are some superb bargains to be had. And with the World Cup taking over daily life for the next few weeks, you may already feel that if football really is coming home, you're getting on the first plane away. Cynical friends of mine have suggested that if a holiday or flight hasn't sold, it's because there's something wrong with it. That hasn't been my experience in the past, and it wasn't the case this time, either. The plane took off on time; I had three seats to myself; the Airtours cabin staff were charming and efficient and the food was bearable.

There were more surprises in store. When we landed at Puerto Plata nearly 10 hours later, one of the reps marched up with her clipboard to ask where I was staying. "I'm flight only," I said. Yes, she replied, but that included the first night's accommodation in an all-inclusive resort in nearby Playa Dorada, and I was on coach A2.

The bus journey gave another rep the chance to introduce us to a few facts about our destination, but in my jet-lagged haze the only thing I picked up was that the Dominican Republic wasn't England. This should have been obvious, as the sun was shining and it was early summer.

The resort hotel, in a resort of resort hotels, was everything I'd expected: plastic wristbands, buffet meals, rows of sunbeds by the pool and too much to drink. It was fun, but it could have been anywhere. By next morning I was longing to escape.

The first place to check out had to be the capital, Santo Domingo. Its claim to fame is that it's the oldest city in the New World, founded more than 500 years ago, not long after Columbus first sailed here. Astonishingly, a large section of the old colonial quarter is still intact, the graceful stone houses and churches preserved as schools, art galleries and museums, and it richly deserves its Unesco designation as a World Cultural Heritage site. My own favourite haunt was Columbus's house (son Diego, rather than Christopher himself), stuffed with old furniture and ceramics, whose doors and windows are so well arranged that there's always a cooling breeze blowing through it.

After Santo Domingo, I headed north to Santiago, the republic's second city. It's not a tourist spot, just a pleasant Dominican city in the mountains with a cathedral that's been destroyed and rebuilt so often that they've almost lost count. It's one of those places you just want to wander round, admiring the little brightly painted wooden houses and stopping off for a glass of passion-fruit juice from time to time.

The Hotel Mercedes would, in estate agent talk, have suited a DIY enthusiast, but it was clean and cheap, and it had a delicious, crumbling charm. In the street outside, men sat around smoking locally made cigars and half- heartedly selling LPs with faded covers by dimly remembered American singers.

Back in Puerto Plata, I checked into the Atlantico, a small pink guest house, and went off to explore. Amber is mined in nearby Los Haitises, and the museum devoted to the subject in Puerto Plata is tiny but beautifully arranged, each piece backlit to show off its captive insect or plant. It's also the town's only real "tourist attraction", but there are ice- cream parlours and cafes where time slides away pleasantly, and if you go to the green-and-white bar by the bus station, they run a useful side business mending phones.

From Puerto Plata, I made a day trip east by bus along the north coast to Rio San Juan and its Gri-Gri lagoon. It was early when I arrived, about 8am, so I hired a boat and driver to myself and we headed out through the mangroves. Above our heads there were vultures and ibises squawking and flapping in their nests, almost drowning out the sound of the boat's motor. The smell of damp greenery filled my nostrils.

Then suddenly we were at the mouth of the river, and chugging gently past tiny, sandy bays, along a coastline that can hardly have changed since Columbus's day.

Afterwards I stopped for a papaya milkshake in the bar by the boat stand. Outside, two car stereos were competing, with Bob Marley just about winning through. Strangely, it was the only time I heard non-Latin music in a public place. Maybe there's an unwritten rule that everyone has to hear "Jamming in the Name of the Lord" at least once on any holiday.

Back in Puerto Plata, the guest-house owners were determined to give me a send-off to remember. Out came the beers, on went the music. I learnt to dance the merengue, the national dance, and when I started to look weak with hunger, they sent to the takeaway for grilled chicken with pineapple vinegar sauce.

Back in the resort hotels, people would have been watching some slick entertainment and eating their buffet dinner.

I think I know who had the better deal.

Travel

Facts

Getting there: The best way to travel to the Dominican Republic from the UK is on a charter flight; scheduled services are indirect and expensive. Numerous tour operators offer charters, either as seat only or as part of a package holiday. These include Airtours (0541 500479); First Choice (0161-745 7000); Thomson (0990 502580).

Getting in: British visitors must pay $10 to Immigration on arrival.

More information: Dominican Republic Tourist Board, 40 Crawford Street, London W1H 2BB (0171-723 0097)

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?