Sara Macefield, The Daily Telegraph, April 16, 2012
"Holy Mother," shrieked my normally unflappable guide as a truck laden with cabbages careered towards us on the wrong side of the winding Caribbean road. I held my breath as we swerved; trying to ignore the precipitous drop just inches away and steeled myself for the collision that, thankfully, never came as the truck managed to squeeze, Houdini-like, through a tiny gap.
In that split second, I realised why the tiny roadside chaplagoel we had visited earlier was such an essential stop for motorists: they wanted to light a candle and pray for a safe onward journey.
It seems drivers in the Dominican Republic are not noted for caution, and I reflected that this trip to the mountains could well become far more of an experience than I had anticipated.
Yet I was also determined to discover the "real" Dominican Republic, away from sprawling resorts of identikit hotels with their gargantuan swimming pools and innumerable buffet restaurants. For while it's true that this image of a cheap and cheerful Caribbean playground is the one that most holidaymakers associate with the Dominican Republic, this is also a country that contains the highest mountain in the Caribbean, the 10,164ft Pico Duarte, and the lowest lake, Lago Enriquillo. It is a place of rugged mountainous terrain, untamed rivers and mile after mile of virgin coastline along the Samana Peninsula.
The Dominican Republic accounts for two thirds of the island of Hispaniola, with Haiti occupying the remainder. The European historical roots run deep, emanating from the island's "discovery" in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who is reputedly buried in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic's capital.
In the 16th century, Hispaniola became the hub of Spanish colonial ambitions throughout the Caribbean and beyond. Santo Domingo was founded in 1496 and strolling the beautifully preserved streets of the old Colonial City or "Zona Colonial" brings a real sense of history. There are numerous clues to its status as the first city of the New World, with crumbling remains of the first hospital along with the first monastery, both dating from the 16th century. Everywhere I turned in the maze of tiny streets, there were stone haciendas, hundreds of years old, many converted into characterful restaurants.
Casa de Cordón, for example, dating from 1502 and the oldest house in the Americas, is now a bank, while the 500-year-old home of a former governor is now an upscale hotel called the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando.
Ideally situated, this hotel is a few minutes' walk from the Plaza de España, lined with restaurants on one side. Opposite is the Alcázar de Colón built by Columbus's son, Diego, in the early 1500s and the centre of the Spanish court in the Americas. Visitors can take a guided tour to learn how the colonial aristocracy lived.
I opted to stroll the pedestrianised El Conde, Santo Domingo's famous Art Deco shopping street; stopping for coffee in La Cafetera, little changed from its Thirties heyday, when it was the meeting place for Spanish republicans talking revolution.
On venturing farther into the Colonial City's back streets I discovered "Little Haiti" – a rundown collection of scruffy streets with shabby shops and market stalls that bore eloquent witness to the poverty of many in the local Haitian community.
My desire to learn more about Haitian voodoo led to a local fixer introducing me to Maria, a witch doctor who invited me back to her cramped room to talk about her dark arts. I was more unnerved by the squalid living conditions and rancid atmosphere than anything else and felt mightily relieved to escape into the fresh air.
The following day, we made our way into the highest of the Dominican Republic's three mountainous regions, the Central Mountain Range. Known as the Dominican Alps, this area is famous as the country's "soft" adventure capital.
As the tortuously twisty road climbed thousands of feet above the tropical heat and humidity of the lowlands, the vegetation changed, with an abundance of pines and endemic palms better suited to the fresher temperatures more reminiscent of an British summer's day.
The area around the town of Constanza, known as the Switzerland of the Caribbean, on the other hand, had a definite Alpine feel. It is the agricultural centre of the country, renowned for produce you wouldn't expect to find in the Tropics, and I saw apples, pears and plump strawberries growing alongside lettuces, onions and carrots.
My attention was captured by the culinary offerings of roadside shacks, where whole pigs were roasting on spits. We stopped to feast on tender pork accompanied by baked plantain and roasted sweet potato, followed by fresh strawberries, which we washed in a clear mountain stream.
It felt a million miles from the manicured grounds of the popular holiday resorts. As I looked around, I could see only forested mountains stretching to the horizon.
My route took me to Jarabacoa, where daredevils throw themselves into white-knuckle activities, such as canyoning, treks to the summit of the Pico Duarte or riding trips to some of the area's many waterfalls. The top attraction is the Rio Yaque del Norte, the longest river in the Caribbean, which draws visitors keen to ride the rapids on exhilarating white-water rafting trips.
On stopping at Rancho Baiguate, one of the adventure centres, I was soon paddling enthusiastically with other rafters towards our first set of rapids on an eight-mile adventure downstream. We plunged through furiously frothing waters, riding tempestuous rapids with novel nicknames such as Mother-in-Law, Mike Tyson Senior and, most worryingly, The Cemetery.
But I emerged unscathed to continue my journey to the north coast resort of Sosua. This was the last place I expected to find a Jewish wartime haven but tucked away between two hotels in a small garden was a pocket-sized wooden synagogue – a reminder of the Dominican Republic's behaviour leading up to the Second World War, when the ruling dictator, Rafael Trujillo, offered refuge to Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.
A small museum alongside tells the fascinating story of how, from 1938, the country opened its doors to Jewish refugees, promising to help between 50,000 and 100,000 of them start a new life.
Five thousand visas were issued, but only around 650 German and Austrian Jews arrived, settling in Sosua, where they were granted land and livestock. They established an agricultural co-operative that is still in operation, producing much of the island's meat and dairy produce. These days, though, the town's Jewish community is a shadow of its formal self, with just a few families remaining.
In a few days, I had seen a side of the Dominican Republic that few holidaymakers bother to leave their sunloungers to discover. A shame, as the "real" Dominican Republic is infinitely more interesting than the "fake" one.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) flies from Gatwick to Punta Cana, via Antigua, twice a week. Fares are from £654. The country is also served by charter airlines from the UK and can also be reached via Miami, Madrid and Paris.
Packages tend to be to the main beach resorts around Puerto Plata on the north coast, Punta Cana on the east coast and La Romana on the south coast. However, it is easy to put together an itinerary or add side trips. Some tour firms will do this, as will local companies.
The Dominican company Caribbean Dream (001 829 548 2386; caribbeandreamto.com ) can package a 10-day trip that includes stays at Punta Cana, Santo Domingo, Jarabacoa and Las Galeras on the Samana Peninsula, including all transport, an internal flight and some meals.
The cost is approximately £2,200 between May and October, but flights are extra.
As the Dominican Republic is fairly sizeable (242 miles wide by 178 miles long), it is sometimes worth considering internal flights. The flight from Samana to Punta Cana, for example, takes an hour while the road journey is about five hours. There is a good network of bus services across the country operated by a number of companies. Further information on public transport is available on the tourist board’s website at GoDominicanRepublic.com.
When to go
While the region’s tropical climate is warm year-round, the best time to visit is from November to April, as this is outside hurricane season and humidity is lower.
If you’re going into the mountains, remember to pack warmer clothing as it can be chilly – it also rains more.
The best hotels
There are several new resorts (and not necessarily all-inclusive) that boast an impressive range of facilities, but little local flavour. However, they can offer a comfortable alternative if you want to relax before or after exploring the country. Small boutique properties are found pretty much everywhere and even in the more commercialised resorts it is always possible to find atmospheric alternatives.
Rancho Baiguate, Jarabacoa £
One of the main adventure activity centres in the mountain town of Jarabacoa, it describes itself as an eco-resort, with rooms that are simply furnished and which have ceilingfans instead of air-conditioning. Note that there are no televisions. The resort is very reasonably priced (001 809 574 6890; grupobaiguate.com ; from £29 per person, per night, with all meals).
Natura Cabana ££
A charming rustic “eco-sensitive” beachfront hotel situated between the north-coast resorts of Sosua and Cabarete. The hotel consists of a cluster of thatched roundel-style bungalows built from local materials, including bamboo and coral (571 1507; naturacabana.com ; b & b from £45 per person, per night).
Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, Santo Domingo £££
Set in the heart of Santo Domingo’s Colonial City, this 500-year-old property is delightfully atmospheric, with exposed original fortress walls, tiled courtyards and brick archways that add to the building’s sense of history. It has been sympathetically transformed into an upmarket hotel with decent mod-cons and an attractive swimming pool (0871 663 0624; accorhotels.com ; from £139 per room per night. Breakfast is not included).
The best restaurants
La Yuca Caliente, Las Terrenas, Samana £
One of a line of restaurants in a fabulous beachside location. Enjoy fabulous fresh fish and salad while watching the fisherman haul their morning catch up the beach. The restaurant does good pizzas, too. The setting and the food are both fabulous (Calle Libertad 6; 240 6634).
El Conde, Santo Domingo ££
El Conde’s setting in Parque Colón, opposite the 16th-century Cathedral Primada de America, makes it a prime spot for people-watching. Sit at an outside table to soak up the ambience and choose from international dishes or local specialities, including pastels (minced beef or chicken wrapped and cooked in plantain leaves) and mangu – mashed plantain and ham (Calle El Conde; 688 7121; condepenalba.com ).
El Manguito, Puerto Plata ££
Set just off the coast road to Sosua just before Playa Dorada, this casual restaurant is renowned for its Dominican cuisine. It serves good local stews, mofongo – mashed plantain with seafood, meat or vegetables –and seafood is a speciality, with lobster at around £10 per pound (Puerto Plata Sosua Kilometer 5; 586 4392).
What to avoid
Driving is feasible and the roads are not bad, but it is not for the faint-hearted and I wouldn't recommend driving on winding mountain roads. Best to leave those to locals who are used to the roads – and the other drivers.
Don't underestimate the distances between places. Leave plenty of time so you have the flexibility to stop anywhere interesting en route. It takes at least two hours from Santo Domingo to Jarabacoa and three to Puerto Plata on the north coast.
If you're flying in to the main international airport at Punta Cana, don't try to reach Santo Domingo on the same day as it is a three-and-half-hour drive. The BA flight doesn't arrive until evening, so spend the first night at a hotel in Punta Cana.
Venturing into Little Haiti in Santo Domingo is best done with a guide. It is reached through the Mercado Modelo covered market, located on Mella Avenue. Don't wear anything ostentatious and keep a tight hold of your possessions. The same can apply to the barrios, or poorer neighbourhoods.