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)

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