The secret life of merengue island

There's more to the Dominican Republic than the all-inclusive package-tour enclaves - Frank's Disco Car Wash for a start. Philip Sweeney heads for the interior

I FIRST arrived in the Dominican Republic 500 years after Christopher Columbus - and five hours after Julio Iglesias. Columbus launched his discovery of the Americas on the northern coast of Quisqueya, the island he renamed Hispaniola in 1492. Iglesias, on the other hand, launched his album Calor at the Jaragua Hotel in Santo Domingo, the capital, in 1992.

My transport, unlike that of Columbus (the caravel Nina) or Iglesias (a Learjet), was a Dominicana (the national airline) plane, six hours late out of New York and full of sweating and disgruntled homecomers from Washington Heights, New York's Dominican barrio. I got a lift into the centre of Puerto Plata - the "Bride of the Atlantic" - from a fellow passenger's uncle, and checked into the Hotel Jimmesson, a charming old clapboard house with a narrow veranda almost on the pavement, and basic but cheap rooms with big ceiling fans and restrained cockroach activity.

The 20-mile stretch of golden beaches around Puerto Plata was then, as now, the epicentre of Dominican tourism and the local economy and the tourists seemed to coexist tolerably. A trickle of Americans and Spanish made their way down the long seafront boulevard to the bleak, moated 16th- century fortress of San Felipe, the oldest in the Caribbean, or wandered round the Amber Museum trailed by inoffensive touts.

At night, the Tropimar, a big palm-thatched nightclub, did brisk business with visiting lads come to live it up cheaply on local drink (pounds 3 for a half-bottle of rum and some Cokes) and local girls keen to acquire a big-spending, sun-inflamed foreign lover for a week. Otherwise, the Brugal rum distillery, the port and its workshops, lorry parks and flophouses got on with their business, and the tourists with theirs - mainly lying around the pools in the hotel complexes.

Six years later, Dominicana has gone out of business but tourism has boomed. This time I arrived on a Britannia flight out of Gatwick with a portion of the 2.2 million holidaymakers who visit here each year - many of whom were primed with double Bacardis and Cokes and packets of Doritos. Would Puerto Plata be ruined, with the Jimmesson a Holiday Inn franchise, and the Tropimar a Planet Hollywood? No, as it happens, and the reason was soon obvious.

We boarded a fleet of coaches at Puerto Plata airport, everybody waving away suspiciously the thin brown men who rushed to grab our suitcases (porters trying to make a living, as the Caribbean Handbook reminds us). The Thomson rep delivered a briefing: don't hire cars, don't use local transport, beware of the sun, of the hygiene, of pretty much everything.

The Riu Mambo hotel, or "resort", was brand new and very comfortable. Two-storey blocks of spacious tiled rooms with balconies overlooking lush farmland. Beneath mine a farmer on a chestnut pony appeared at sundown, cracking a whip to summon the cows. At the centre of the complex, a lovely private beach, a huge swimming-pool, a discotheque, a small shopping mall, bars and two restaurants which were Andalusian beerhall meets Trusthouse Forte, but with copious and very good buffets.

During the day, wedding parties accompanied the hotel photographer from the secular chapel to the posing spot on the bridge over the swimming- pool, chatting in accents which could be Birmingham or Brooklyn, or hybrid package-holiday mid-Atlantic. In the background, electric carts circled the room blocks discreetly, as in Westworld, topping up the minibars with limitless free alcohol.

With all this on tap to whomever wears the blue plastic wristband riveted on to new arrivals, it is not surprising that transport into Puerto Plata was one of the least used facilities. In town, everything was as six years ago, only slightly worse. The Fortaleza San Felipe was deserted, a thin donkey dozing outside, the guide snoozing inside. The old Restaurant Central, opposite the Victorian gingerbread bandstand in Parque Central, had been repainted garishly, but was empty. The Tropimar had closed down, and an off-duty tourist guide, next door in Frank's Disco Car Wash, reckoned local tourist businesses had halved in the same period tourist numbers had quadrupled, because of the spread of the all-inclusive price system.

All the more reason to move on: the Dominican Republic is the second biggest country in the Caribbean, a place you can genuinely tour. Cheaply and comfortably, too, using the excellent Metrobus coach network. From an air-conditioned Metrobus, fortified with little shots of dark sweet coffee offered by the uniformed conductor, you watch a Dominican road movie. Stretches of rich grass dotted with brown cows and bright white cattle egrets. Fields of sugarcane with maybe a group of long tin-roofed bateyes - the shed-hovels of the Haitian cane labourers. In the villages, domino-players sit outside the little colmados - general store/bar/cafes - and men carry fighting cocks towards the small round planking cock-pits. And maybe there will be a distant view of the slopes of Pico Duarte, at 3,000m the only real mountain in the Caribbean.

Four hours south of Puerto Plata lies Santo Domingo, the capital. A sprawling city of two million people and many beaten-up 1980s American gas-guzzler taxis. I headed for the Malecon, the long seafront promenade that winds out of the Ozama estuary beneath the walls of the colonial fortress. Half a mile out are the luxury hotels, of which the most characterful and most vulgar is the great pink 1970s Jaragua, its vast lobby-casino constantly a-clatter with one-armed bandits, and the 12-piece merengue bands which play till 5am.

Merengue, the national music, is fast, catchy and hugely popular throughout the Latin world. It is also easy to dance to, unlike salsa. A New York salsa bandleader commented famously that if you can walk, you can dance merengue; Dominicans say the dance is like trying to knead a piece of chewing gum in the rectum.

The Malecon is the place to listen to merengue records - especially on Sunday, when Dominicans of all ages stroll, drink, eat pork-leg sandwiches, dance and listen to the enjoyable cacophony from the competing sound systems, open-doored car stereos and portables. By the floating power station under the ramparts of the colonial city, it is a younger, louder scene. Here you get the serious show-offs, cruising by in a log-jam of customised compact cars, the surrounding airspace pulsating with the amplified hiss of guiro cheese-grater and thump of bass, mauve neon glowing in the wheel arches. Further west, behind the lines of almond trees and palms along the beach, it is less frenetic, with more families.

Sunday is also a good day to stroll through the old city, past the wonderful 16th-century buildings - the first cathedral in the Americas, the great houses of Cortes, Ovande and the brothers and sons of Columbus - and along the narrow side streets, which still have an Andalusian feel, like a tropical Cadiz, with old couples looking into the street through grille windows, and people in their Sunday best pouring out of the churches after Mass.

A steady stream of tourists, often from cruise ships, visits Santo Domingo, but hardly any get to the Dominican Republic's second city, Santiago de los Caballeros, the capital of the fertile Cibao Valley, where the country's ruling dynasties grew rich on tobacco, sugar and cattle. The first Santiago in the New World, founded in 1494, the town is now half- mouldering 19th century, half-flash and new, the product, it is said, of cocaine transit profits. You half expect the laundry lists on the bedside tables in the Gran Almirante Hotel to include "money".

At midnight, queues of gleaming 4WD vehicles park outside the buzzing casino of the Gran Almirante, while the old centre is unlit and deserted. By day, it is the reverse, with juice-sellers, bootblacks, and trainers- bootleggers pitched in quantities around the small Victorian cathedral, the battered metal warehouse doors of the market, and the elegant Mudejar- style Centro de Recreo with its mahogany-floored billiard rooms. This is, in theory, the most exclusive private club in the country, but is in fact open to whomever wants to stroll in.

The same goes for the local jail in the rambling old fortress on the edge of the tall river escarpment, where I wandered around among the curious stares of lounging miscreants behind barred cell doors, and had a beer with shotgun-toting guards in a dark little cafeteria. This is typical of a lot of the Dominican Republic: open, loads to discover, and no competition from the 2.2 million slumped on the beaches.

Let us not be too po-faced about the package resorts, however. I spent a fascinating last night in Casa de Campo, a hotel complex so all-inclusive it has its own airfield, a shooting terrain with mock grouse and live pigeons purchasable by the dozen, and a fake Italian renaissance village full of restaurants and gift shops, the island's nec plus ultra of luxury (though Julio Iglesias, now a big Dominican Republic landowner, is supposed to be opening something even flashier shortly).

And apropos of Julio, the Dominican Republic happens to be home to the world's top Iglesias impersonator - just in case you get sick of merengue, which, it has to be said, you just might.

FACT FILE

dominican republic

Getting there

Philip Sweeney travelled as a guest of Thomson Holidays (tel 0990 502 399), which offers holidays to the Dominican Republic featuring a choice of hotels and resorts, including the Riu Mambo and Casa de Campo. One week in Riu Mambu costs between pounds 705 and pounds 749 until the end of April, and pounds 565 and pounds 685 from May to July, including return flights. The equivalent in Casa de Campo costs pounds 1,205 and pounds 1,239 until the end of April, and pounds 969 to pounds 1,145 from May to July. Many of the 400-plus tourist hotels around the coast also offer rooms by the night. Santo Domingo has a range of places, including rooms in good medium-priced hotels from about pounds 30 per night. Most small towns have acceptable if basic hotels which rent rooms from pounds 15 per night.

Getting around

A Metrobus single ticket from Santo Domingo to Santiago costs pounds 4.50. There are bus stations in all towns. Internal flight and car hire facilities are good but fairly expensive.

When to go

There is relatively little variation in weather, but the tourist high season, when prices are higher, is the European winter. Interesting cultural events include Carnival in February, Holy Week in April and the Merengue Festivals of Santo Domingo, at the end of July, and Puerto Plata at the beginning of October.

Further information

The Dominican Republic Tourist Board, 18-22 Hand Court, High Holborn, London WC1V 6JF (tel: 0171-242 7778). The best guide book to the country is the Caribbean Islands Handbook, published by Footprint Publications, followed by the Cadogan Guide to the Caribbean (both pounds 14.99). For indispensable background information, read the Dominican Republic In Focus by David Howard (pounds 5.99), published on Monday 11 January, by the Latin America Bureau.

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