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Art of living

india Updated: Jan 02, 2010 23:42 IST
Rajni George

Discovered by Christopher Columbus on December 5, 1492, the Dominican Republic was the first permanent European settlement in the Americas.

Columbus made note of this lush island “with high forested mountains and large river valleys” on his first journey to the Caribbean, all the while looking, of course, for India. An increasingly popular tourist destination in the leisure holiday hub that is the Caribbean today, the Republic is a vivacious, balmy paradise that caters to everyone.

A mix of Spanish, French, Haitian, and African influences, it continues to fascinate voyagers from afar. We began our visit with a trip to gorgeous Casa de Campo, a world-renowned 7,000-acre luxury resort located on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic, outside sleepy La Romana.

The rich and famous of the Caribbean and Latin American worlds do the rounds here or own villas. Dignitaries and divas such as Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce, (who attended Jay Z’s birthday party at the Casa de Campo) were recently spotted here.

Shakira has one, I am told.

Villas can be rented at this rather upscale hangout, for the most part the domain of highflying locals and some lucky tourists. Originally purchased in 1911 by the Puerto Rico Sugar Company, the 70s saw the property’s emergence as a resort.

Today, it is a verdant utopia, a resort of flawless, upmarket homes by the beach, with the particularly scenic Bahiahibe beach only half an hour away.

It’s paradise now

For golfers there’s much to do as Casa de Campo is home to Pete Dye’s legendary Teeth of the Dog golf course. But there’s only so much pampering you can take; after a few days, we were curious to explore the more textured version of paradise in the capital city, Santo Domingo.

Small yet vibrant, Santo Domingo is bustling with every kind of traffic and small enterprise. It is gracefully colonial as well. It houses both old-world buildings and trendy galleries and restaurants, pulsating night clubs on the seafront strip called the Malecon, and rustic bylanes wonderful to explore by foot.

We made for the Zona Colonial at once; the heart of all tourist activity, it houses the first cathedral and castle in the Americas and is a Unesco Heritage Site. The broad, beautiful colonial buildings, intriguingly cluttered art galleries and the atmospheric cafes everywhere, fans whirring lazily from the high ceilings, make for many an amusing afternoon.

There are wonderful gems hidden in this charming old quarter: a tiny shop showcasing the talents of a garrulous, gifted Dominican artist; dive bars which house old school meringue nights; a home-styled sweet shop, Casa de Dulces, which sells every variety of sweet dish. (The sinful coco de leche (coconut sweet) is guaranteed to make your heart lift in unabashed pleasure.)

When you visit, be sure to also spend a day at the cosy, accessible Museum of Modern Art, situated right next to the less contemporary and perhaps less wonderful Museum of Man, which is nevertheless a useful source of information about the early history of the Dominican Republic.

The Columbus Plaza, great for beautifully crafted Caribbean handicrafts, and the newer areas of the city featuring the Presidential Palace and the Cultural Square (fronted by the museums and the National Theater) are nearby, as well.

Of Maharishis and Monroe

The art scene in particular is vital and beginning to thrive in cosmopolitan Santo Domingo. We had the pleasure of witnessing a performance by the band El Hombrecitos, a popular group of writerly musicians, who use multimedia and even street performers to make their point, through song, poetry and dance.

Among the evening’s hits were an India-inspired number, Maharishi, an interesting commentary on a bohemian local school of the same name performed by poet Frank Báez, and Marilyn Monroe de Santo Domingo, a fun, offbeat song with similarly local references and universal appeal.

At the same local gallery, housed in Barna Business School, Cuban Dominican artist Quisqueya Henriquez was displaying her work in La Capital, as the city is fondly called. An international artist with a modernist sensibility, Quisqueya’s work has been showcased all over the world, and is not of the island school of art; yet, at the exhibition, as people studied her sleek paintings and singular video exhibit, we could sense her appeal on home turf.

You can see Santo Domingo and Casa de Campo in a week’s time, but you would need a couple of weeks to truly experience the full array of what the Dominican Republic has to offer.

From the nearly deserted beaches of Playa Limón to windsurfers’ haven, Cabarete, to Riviera-esque Puerto del Plata up north, this Caribbean nation is a revelation to the modern day traveller. This is especially so because the people of Santo Domingo are so exceptionally warm and skilled in the art of living.

To travel to the Dominican Republic is to luxuriate and enjoy lovely little bands playing on the sidewalks; above all, to appreciate a laidback enjoyment of life that is all pervasive.

Rajni is a freelance writer and editor