The Spanish certainly knew what they were doing when they sequestered the island of Hispaniola and founded the future Dominican Republic.
The country might not be the wealthiest state in the Carribean, but it has soul by the bucket load. And sugar plantations aplenty, which means gallons of rum. And sweet, freshly-rolled cigars. Crystallised amber from the Jurassic era, with insects inside that might even contain the bumper DNA of Dinosaurs. The people are charming, friendly, welcoming and know how to mix the perfect cocktail for a terrific holiday.
A chirpy-faced crew member handed me a Pina Colada as I stood at the Catamaran’s helm, azure waves speeding beneath us. Four p.m. on a Monday afternoon in January and it was so much fun that I had to occasionally glance at my girlfriend’s left hand just to confirm I hadn’t unconsciously got married and ended up on a dream honeymoon. A brief tropical shower suddenly appeared, but the only umbrella in sight was small, pink, and resting on the side of my glass. Ten minutes later we were snorkelling at the coral reef and although it was sunny once again, the rain had brought shoals of fish to the surface. Perfect.
One unique, distinguishing and impressive fact separates the Dominican Republic from every other country on the planet. It was the only place to officially welcome Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
The 1939 Evian Conference may have been full of people avidly refusing to take in the fleeing Jews, but the then Dominican ruler was reputedly keen to improve his international standing, so he encouraged Jewish men to move to the country. Rumour has it that the despotic Rafael Trujilo wanted to whiten the skin of the native race.
While the Germans were busy trying to purify themselves of the Semitic bloodline, Trujilo was actively encouraging Jewish men to come and intermarry. 100,000 visas were offered in 1943 and 700 Ashkenazim made it over. The well-behaved immigrants promptly learned agricultural skills, formed the dairy company that is now the biggest on the island, and set up a vibrant, diaspora community. Most of them eventually intermarried or emigrated, but there is still a modest Jewish presence and a museum and synagogue in the town of Sosua that is quite breathtaking for its poignant tales of survival.
We stayed at the Hacienda Lifestyle Resort, one of several all-inclusive complexes that dot the Northern coastline near Puerto Plata. ‘All-inclusive’ becomes a by-word for not having to carry your wallet around, as it is possible to spend days on end wandering between the pool, restaurants and beach, without ever spending a single peso, except for doling out cash tips to friendly and efficient waiting staff.
Our time was split between the three-star Vitalis Garden Club and four-star Tropical Hotel and although I was hanging in for an upgrade to the five-star Crown Villas, North London chutzpah is a limited currency at peak season in the tropics.
The Garden Club boasts well-landscaped villas that are surprisingly spacious for their grading and this section of the complex is reserved for adults, presumably because the family-friendly Tropical Hotel is relatively closer to the beach. It’s a real challenge not to have an amazing time when the biggest decision of the day is whether to put guava or mango into the morning smoothie. The second decision is which swimming pool to laze by, and whether it’s really ethical to move somebody else’s towels when all of the best sunbed positions have been reserved and you want somewhere to lie down.
The daily routine consists of choosing which of the five restaurants to attend for the evening meal, and whether to break up the morning with a salsa class or windsurf lesson. My own preference was to begin each day with a 45-minute yoga session on a wooden veranda that faced out towards the ocean before promptly undoing any health benefits by eating a four-course breakfast. The yoga was good, but the smoothies were great. So were the pancakes, boiled eggs, coffee, pastries, fruit salads, mixed salads and fresh papaya. It was imperative to start the yoga session early because otherwise by the time we had finished breakfast, it was already time for lunch.
Too much of a good thing can quickly turn into, well, too much of a good thing, which is why every visitor should budget for a few day trips to explore the island.
Charcos Damajagua hosts a waterfall hike that involved climbing a series of waterfalls and swimming through the intervening mountain pools, while the daredevil guides leapt across rocks like escapee acrobats from the Chinese State Circus. As if this picturesque adventure wasn’t enough, the adrenalin started flowing as we became one with the river to find our way back. In what looked like an adventure park straight out of The Flintstones, we slid over the smoothly carved surfaces of each waterfall on stone chutes that had been worn down by rushing water, and ended the hike by an adrenalin-fuelled cliff jump into a deep rock pool.
Puerto Plata’s newest attraction is the intimate and innovative Ocean World Adventure Park. Although I couldn’t quite bring myself to go for the Stingray Encounter, in the wake of Steve Irwin’s unlucky joyride with those unfriendly fish, the swim-with-sharks opportunity definitely held some appeal. Of course, these sharks aren’t the sort that win first place in the underwater hard-man stakes. They are girly sharks, unthreatening mammals with mouths like upturned vacuum cleaners that are as far from getting a role in the next Jaws film as the England football team is from winning a championship. Come to think of it, the stingrays weren’t that bad either, although as their stings had all been removed, perhaps they should just be called ‘Ray’. It wasn’t time to take any chances, so the girlfriend and I headed for some dolphins.
You can’t go wrong with a dolphin unless you’re a mass of oleaginous plankton, which we’re not. They grin. They leap. They let you stroke their belly, which feels like a wetsuit on a fat man. Technically, it is a wetsuit, of sorts. We were given a brief overview of dolphin anatomy telling us where we could stroke them and where would be an infringement of dorsal modesty, before diving in to meet a couple of the Bottlenosed carnivores. The there is an immense intensely therapeutic value to sticking your arms out like a submerged crucifix and then having two aquatic thunderbolts slide their fins into your hands before dragging you 10 metres through the water. I loved it, my girlfriend loved it, and even the well-cared for dolphins seemed to be quite pleased with themselves, judging by the intensity of their ever-present smiles.
This is an excellent, satisfying and fulfilling holiday destination and presents absolute value for money. Even the staff on our Thomas Cook flight managed to elevate the journey beyond the usual sardine-can experience of a charter plane and the Premair upgrade package make a small but valuable difference on the long-haul. It’s worth budgeting for some day trips as there is so much on offer, and make sure you get to the Jewish museum. The locals are pleased to see a few Semites once in a while.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.
Jewish Dominican Republic
• The Jewish community museum is in Sosua, near Puerto Plata. Tel: 809 571 1386.
• There are two synagogues, one in Santo Domingo and one in Sosua.
• It was at the Evian conference at 1938 that the dictator Rafael Trujillo offered visas to 100,00 Jewish refugees but 700 only reached the settlement. By 1943 the numbers of Jews in the republic peaked at 1000.
• The main irony of the gesture was that Trujilo was thoroughly racist and many believe that his humanitarian gesture was to deflect attention from his brutal treatment of the Haitian people.
• The first known Jewish immigrants were Spanish Marranos who travelled with Christopher Columbus when he discovered the island (then known as Hispaniola). Rumour has it that the Columbus himself was really Jewish. The oldest Jewish grave is dated 1826.
• Israel and the Dominican Republic enjoy full diplomatic relations.
• A threadbare community exists in Santo Domingo, with a rabbi for the high holydays and provision for Jewish weddings.
• Vitalis Garden Club, Lead-in price of £766 per adult with My Travel for April 2007.
• Lifestyle Tropical Beach Resort & Spa, Lead-in price of £930.95 per adult with My Travel for April 2007.
• www.mytravel.com 0870 241 5333
• Flying on Thomas Cook airlines, flying from London Gatwick to Puerto Plata. – Premair upgrade available for £239.
• Ocean World Dolphin Swim – US $145
• Ocean World day pass – US $55
• Catamaran Cruise - $59