As my friend who lived in the DR describes it, when you walk out of the airport, the warm air hugs you. Unlike some humid air's uncomfortable smolder, it's a friendly, much needed hug, welcoming you to the island, and VACATION.
I went to the Dominican Republic with my parents for our sixth annual Christmas getaway, a tradition we started in 2011 to escape the harsh Californian winters. This year did not fail to disappoint as we maximized our beach time and stumbled onto a few adventures.
Our villas were a one minute walk from the beach - in fact, as soon as you step out the hotel, you step onto sand, and breakfast had an open-air ocean view. Paradise yes please. On our beach days, we leisurely ate breakfast, then made our way to the beach for a morning soak in the sun and bathed in the water. Something about time on an island - those hours felt like minutes - it was always a surprise to glance at the clock and see it was noon or noon thirty when I swore we just laid down. We stayed at the island for a week and met a few people on various tours who were there for three, four, five weeks at a time. Given it's such a small island, I first thought that this surely could cause island fever or boredom. But, a few days of lying on the beach with time going at hyper-speed, I quickly saw the appeal of staying for an extended period.
My parents and I also had a few more adventurous days, taking a few tours around the island. I will say that Remote Year has spoiled day excursions for me a bit. Our day trips on Remote Year, or "tracks" were private, custom tailored experiences led by the local city teams, often taking us to places outside of the usual "tourist radar," picking you up from one spot and taking you exactly to where you need to go. No needing to round up multiple guests from different hotels or random off-trip stopes to coffee factories, plantations or unexpected ranches that have nothing to do with what you were actually hoping to see. I missed a bit of this personalized touch on the DR, but we had an overall good time regardless.
Day Excursions from Punta Cana
Having rented a car, we went to Santo Domingo ourselves. This had its own interesting consequences, namely, driving with unfamiliar unspoken rules of the road -honks to indicate going straight through a stop, having to bribe police officers after being pulled over for no obvious violation, and no signs on the highway when you really need a sign to know where to go. It's enough to perplex even the most easy-going person, but even so, and even in the midst of getting lost, at least it was on our own terms.
We visited a few of the major sites in Santo Domingo, including the oldest Catholic church in the "New World," Alzacar de Colon and the Colonial neighborhood. These sites serve as a reminder that this was the gateway of European colonization of the Americas, and the reason today why most of South America speaks Spanish. Prior to the white man calling these lands their own, there was a great diversity in all these lands, their own languages, cultures and peoples, which are heavily mixed in now with European descent. Enjoying tourism in the Caribbean, Central and South America is good, but we should not forget its true history.
Los Haitises is a national park in the DR and was named one of the top 10 regions to go in 2018 by Lonely Planet. This was a truly magical experience - we explored the park on a river boat that took us through mangroove tree tunnels, caves and around some of the most beautiful islands I've seen. We were also able to witness beaches where pirates used to hide out and run through caves. Overall, Los Haitises seems like a place lost in time, with an almost Jurassic Park feel, and it was an amazing experience to see it up close.
Located off the southwestern coast of the island, Saona Island is everything you ever dreamed about the Caribbean - wind swept palms, white sand beaches and the clearest aquamarine blue waters one could imagine. There are a lot of booze cruises to the island, but we opted to take a more family-friendly tour, which included a stop to a natural wading pool where we could snorkel for starfish and two different private beaches. Our final stop of the day included a charming tiny town with most of its original residents and buildings, where we were able to take a tour through its streets and meet the locals. Any day that involves beaches and water is a success, and this was no different.
Although I didn't go "home" for Christmas, given that our tropical family tradition is well set in place, just being with my parents was enough to feel like I was truly home. There was also a realization this year that my parents are getting older. It's necessary to be gentler to them, to forgive their set-in-ways habits and to accept that while they may drive me crazy, they love me - and probably more than they love anything else - and that I love them. At the end of the day, this is the most important thing - maybe the only important thing. When everything else is stripped away, family remains.