LA ROMANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
The thought was unbidden and insistent. Italians lolled around us in all directions, glazed nut brown by the sun. In spite of the collective lassitude, beach chairs turned synchronously toward the white orb as it arced slowly across the sky, a complicated sundial of metal, plastic webbing and warmed human flesh. Many women were topless, nearly everyone in disconcertingly skimpy bottoms. The thought again: Where do they keep their room keys? • This would not be a surprising scene along Italy's Amalfi Coast. The fact was, though, we had just arrived on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic for a five-night, all-inclusive vacation at the Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach Resort in La Romana Beach. It was the winner of our "best last-minute deal we could find" competition.
There were voting irregularities and bias on the part of some judges, but still, this was a Big-D Deal. Airfare from Tampa to Miami to Santo Domingo and back on American, five nights in a "superior room," all food and drink (alcohol or otherwise) and lots of activities like group scuba, windsurfing or trapeze lessons for — wait for it — $520. For kicks, let's say $200 of that is for airfare, $50 a night is for lodging, which makes 15 breakfasts, lunches and dinners ring in at $4.65 each (Not totally accurate because there was also gratuitous late-night pizza eating and about 25 excellent espressos at the beachside espresso bar. Remember, Italians.)
For a week I trolled websites for deals, my mouse arm throbbing by day's end, my dreams invaded by screen grabs, like that time I played too much Tetris and falling blocks etched themselves along the backs of my eyelids. Cruises, package deals, just airfare, eco-trips and educational vacations — it was all on the table. The economy, natural disasters and general consumer unease have served to make the past couple of years a bargain hunter's heaven, especially for those willing to pack a bag and go.
We chose a winner for the runnersup) on April 6, and by the morning of April 11 my 14-year-old daughter and I had tossed together passports and bathing suits (American style, much more fabric) and were flying south.
Follow the flag
La Romana is the Dominican Republic's longest-standing destination for international tourists, marketing actively to Western Europeans. Sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, there is nothing about the topography, climate or culture that makes the Dominican Republic intrinsically more appealing to certain nations.
Here on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Sarasota is visited most exuberantly by tourists from the United Kingdom, Lee County by Germans. You'll see lots of Danes on Anna Maria Island, and if you go the Warm Mineral Springs in North Port it's mostly Russians dipping their toes in the restorative waters. The local convention and visitors bureau people have complex theories, but it may be as simple as Person A goes for mysterious reasons, Person B goes because he trusts Person A, Person C follows and then it's just a thing. Thus, the beaches of La Romana, the Dominican Republic's third-largest city, welcome Italians in droves. There are Germans and French as well, Americans and Canadians falling somewhere behind that.
Spanish is the mother tongue in the Dominican Republic, but at the resort it seems Italian is the lingua franca, with English trailing. La Romana got its own airport in 2000, but our tickets were to Santo Domingo, about 90 minutes to the west. From there we hired a cab, pantomiming furiously with Wilson Otanez of the Sichala service, his English not so good, our Spanish execrable. He got us there over rutted roads overseen by glinty-eyed dogs that knew no master.
The ride cost us $100 (so adjust all those figures above accordingly) and we arrived and gained admittance past the amiable guard. The resort is a sprawling 604-room property with a contiguous sister resort called the Viva Wyndham Dominicus Palace that shares amenities (the disco, some services and restaurants). Clutching the resort map, we circled around toward the tennis courts but not quite to the archery field to find our room, a pleasant ground-floor two-bedder with a back patio that looked out on meticulously landscaped grounds. My plumbago and variegated ginger back home didn't look nearly as vivacious, but who cares, I'm on vacation.
There's an inverse correlation between your general happiness and the distance between who you see yourself as and who you are. My fond memories from childhood involve being awakened in the middle of the night to lie shoulder-to-shoulder under a scratchy Army blanket to watch stars until the sprinklers sent us scurrying. I relish the idea of adventure, even more the notion of sharing an adventure with my progeny.
Still, I chafe at being a joiner. Also, I'm a little cheap, two qualities at war at Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach. Lovely young Dominican staffers exhorted us to play darts, play volleyball, cavort in a perplexing but exuberant aqua-aerobics class. Several times a day we might have harnessed up and made like the Flying Wallendas on the trapeze, or learned the rudiments of diving with a PADI instructor. It was all ours for the taking, but being the odd men out languagewise was stymieing. What are the Italian words for "the bends" or "shark attack"? Mostly, my daughter and I demurred.
Like a fish in water, we seldom notice when foreign destinations cater to American tourists, importing our food, music and culture to set us at ease. But here on the second-largest Caribbean island, it was disorienting to hear a street musician launch into Volare.
We slid into three gorgeous freshwater pools, each with its own style of chaises and its own bar, between visits to the wide, white-sand beach (ocean temperature: chilly but workable). The hotel was built in 1986 and in 2009 underwent major renovations, the upshot a comfortable property with several room styles in a lush tropical setting. A supervised all-day kids' club is for kids ages 4 to 12 (no extra charge), adjacent to which a very nice fitness center sits fairly underutilized.
There are five onsite restaurants, with two others at the sister property that cost an additional $10 per person. La Terraza is the largest, a dizzying international buffet with long hours for all three meals, no reservations necessary. Viva Mexico is dinner only, reservations required; La Roca sits gorgeously at the water's edge and serves a reservations-required buffet lunch and a la carte dinner. La Pizzeria is open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for walkup pizza noshes and self-serve beer, wine and coffee. In general, the food wasn't good, but good enough, the best offerings the wide array of tropical fruits. The most perplexing meal for us was at Bambu, one of the $10-extra restaurants. Envision Dominican cooks interpreting Chinese food to satisfy an Italian palate. Nuff said.
After a long sun-drenched day of swimming, exercise and desultory paperback skimming, our inclination was to throw on a sundress and yank the hair into a ponytail. Oh no, said the Italians. They dressed for dinner, the women in heels and va-va-voom outfits that carried over gracefully to each evening's variety show and late-night disco. Vexed a little, we followed suit, heading after dinner to the evening's song-and-dance revue, a master of ceremonies keeping things moving with a slightly salacious polyglot patter. Audience participation being de rigueur, my daughter lived in fear of being drawn up on stage to merengue.
The disco was similarly terrifying to her. The specter of her mother hauling out her impeccably preserved 1980s moves, combined with the menace of being asked to dance (at 14, a limbo age for most of us, no longer child and not yet otherwise), made her beat a retreat. Each night, the sheets laid gently across our sunburned skin, we strained to hear the ocean over the DOOF-da-da-DOOF of the disco.
Not quite what we expected, this super-cheap getaway was nonetheless a window into a world unknown. When Wilson Otanez came to pick us up for the return trip to Santo Domingo, we pantomimed all that we had done. He smiled when I mimed drinking an espresso from a tiny invisible cup. When in Rome.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.