Heat shimmers on cobblestone streets where a ramble down a flower-festooned alley takes you past tiny groceterias to the church square where a bridal couple beam under a barrage of confetti.
Italy? The south of France?
Welcome to Altos de Chavon, the Dominican Republic’s artist’s colony.
Not just another pretty town, Altos de Chavon (www.altosdechavon.com) is for working artists from around the world who want to refine their sculpting, painting, music and design talents. There’s even a 5,000-seat amphitheatre where Frank Sinatra and Carlos Santana have appeared.
Created 30 years ago, the nonprofit educational and cultural institution has hosted more than 200 artists from 11 countries for three-month residencies. Although you can’t stay in the village if you’re not part of the program, it’s possible to take part in workshops. Most visitors drop in to soak up some of the creative ambience, whether it’s seeing the permanent collection or purchasing a lasting souvenir from the gallery.
Altos de Chavon is just one offbeat attraction on this huge island. As someone who has been visiting the D.R. for 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of improvements. Gone are the days when a package vacation meant unlimited sticky rum drinks in a secluded compound. The number and variety of day trips now available lets you explore all aspects of the island. The Outback Jungle Safari (www.outbacksafari.com.do) is one of the most popular. Available out of Puerto Plata, Punta Cana and La Romana, it’s a fun day spent touring the countryside while strapped into a safari-type vehicle.
Stops include a visit to a local home, a modest but spotlessly clean bungalow, as well as a one-room rural school house. Here, as long as it’s a school day, the visitors get a peek at the impeccably-uniformed kids, while the students get to learn a bit about the visitors.
Also during the trip, you’ll hear about the miraculous powers of Mamajuana, a drink which looks like twigs marinating in red wine, tastes a bit like Dubonnet and supposedly cures everything from kidney stones to a flagging sex life (“We call it the Dominican Viagara!” crow the guides). A stop at an open-air resturant for a self-serve lunch plus an hour on a gorgeous deserted beach round out the day.
If you go, take school supplies from Canada such as much-needed pencils and exercise books – the company will gladly distribute them to schools that the tours visit.
Another great way to spend a day – though really only practical if you’re staying in the Boca Chica or La Romana areas on the south coast – is a visit to the capital Santo Domingo. It is a feast for the senses: one minute you think you’re in Italy (the crazy drivers) the next, Old Havana (sun-dappled plazas and a bustling malecon, or seafront promenade). With a population of about three million, the city has something for the gourmet, the shopaholic and the shutterbug.
And, if you’re truly adventurous, consider a visit to Higuey (the largest city near Punta Cana). This is the real D.R. — from the chaotic central market to the shoeshine kids and the devout visiting the Basilica.
On a Sunday afternoon, I don’t think there’s a better place to be than the maleconor oceanfront boardwalk in Puerto Plata on the north coast. It’s where the locals go to chill, enjoy a few cool beverages and check everyone else out. Look for the super-loaded motorcycles: I think the most I’ve seen aboard one was six, including a baby!