To See the Real D.R., It Takes a Villa
Sunday, December 18, 2005
On my first night in Cofresi, a small beach community on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, the town's temperamental electricity took an extended leave of absence. The window air-conditioning unit in my bedroom was just a formality, it seemed, and as the heat crept steadily through the shutter blinds, along with what was surely the majority of the town's mosquito population, I resolved to stand firm in my quest for authenticity.
Even so, a nice beachside resort with central air -- or even a semi-functional fan -- was looking pretty good right then.
And the Dominican Republic certainly has enough of them to choose from. The island's coastline is full of all-inclusive resorts, many budget-friendly and almost all of them resting on immaculate palm-lined beaches. But choosing to stay at one of these comfortable but insular havens would mean I'd miss out on what I had heard were the country's greatest attractions -- a rich culture and truly generous, hospitable people.
Though the country is home to the Caribbean's only white-water rafting river and the birthplace of that passionate Latin pastime, the meringue, if asked to name something typically Dominican, many of us would flounder helplessly for a few seconds before settling on Sammy Sosa.
I had a feeling that on this laid-back island, an authentic Dominican experience couldn't be too hard to find, so I set out in search of one with high expectations -- and a limited budget. It didn't take me long to discover that a friendly word and a little flexibility are all you really need to unlock the real Dominican Republic.
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A four-hour, $7 bus ride from Santo Domingo landed me in Puerto Plata, a major northern city popular with travelers. But I was destined for the sleepy beach town of Cofresi only a few miles away, where I'd discovered an inexpensive, privately owned villa just off the tourist radar.
That meant there was no hotel shuttle to pick up me, my boyfriend, Chris, and our friends Adam and Caroline from the bus station. Luckily, there was Gabino, a lovable, bear-size man who manages Villa del Sol.
Gabino welcomed us heartily, carried our bags to his car and explained in broken English that he'd stocked our fridge with enough fruit, eggs and bacon to get us through breakfast the following morning. "But I did not get rum for tonight!" he lamented.
"We must stop and get some," he said, veering the car sharply toward a corner market. We told him not to worry -- we'd taken care of that at the duty-free shop.
We pulled up to a narrow, two-story villa painted white with blue trim and surrounded by a smattering of elegantly drooping mango trees. An ocean-view balcony held four wooden rocking chairs, and a covered roof deck overlooked thick treetops. Inside was a large binder filled with practical information and tidbits about local culture and attractions; we affectionately dubbed it the Cofresi Files. The three-bedroom place was ours for five days, and incredibly, the nightly rate of $95 included maid and cook services.
The town was not completely untouched by tourism. A high-end, all-inclusive resort named Sun Village lay at one end, though the guests seemed to leave the grounds only rarely. On the opposite end, the newly built Ocean World offered a chance to swim with dolphins for a bank-breaking $145 per person.