Monday, March 16, 2009

Santo Domingo

We awoke early at our hotel, The Duque de Wellington. This place cost about $55 dollars and was marginally nicer than our hotel in Santiago, the Hotel Platino. Our guide does not stay in hotels and I think was not current on the better places to stay for similar pesos, we should have checked with the local cruisers for up to date info.
We grabbed a take away breakfast at the bakery next store (we had dinner at the related restaurant last evening and it was good, not great). Off to Tres Ojos, with underground Indian lagoons where Rob promised incredible luminescent caves. An incredible attraction completing with glowing turtles and a Dominican Johnny Unitas all set to dive from the cave walls for only ten US dollars. We passed.
We returned to the Colonial City and walked around in search of a doll for my granddaughter’s collection. (I think my companions are growing weary of my obsession with Willow whom I miss more than you can imagine.) Then, off to the Alcazar, Columbus’ son Diego’s former residence, a walk along the oldest street in the Americas, and a tour of the oldest Cathedral.
Then the fun part: driving around in circles for 2 ½ hours trying to get out of the city to begin the long ride home. I thought my mellow husband was going to kill our guide, who, not being a driver, does not understand that you can’t make a right turn while in the left lane of a 4 lane highway (remember also while dodging street vendors and guys hanging out of guaguas), nor any of the street locations since she travels only by bus. Our goal had been to get back to Luperon by nightfall to avoid the unlit dirt roads filled with motoconchos and the occasional goat. Oh well.
Since we had already missed the sunset deadline we decided to stop at one of the famous box stores in Santiago. Here you can buy groceries, liquor, clothing, appliances, textiles, stationery products, you name it. With a loaded car we headed home to dodge farm animals and maniacs. Arrived safely.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Touring the DR, Continued

We started our day with a hearty Dominican breakfast consisting of eggs, mashed plantains, fried cheese and the renowned Dominican coffee. Feeling like slugs, we headed for a hike up to the waterfalls at Jarabacoa, the home of white water rafting, gorgeous flora, and hippies. This is a beautiful part of the country. We visited a mountain lodge to view wonderful things previously not viewed by me growing lavishly, and, amazingly, fantastic artwork displayed through the common areas. This would be a very cool place to hang out with tons of good books to get away from it all. Totally away.
On the long drive to Santo Domingo we stopped along the way to visit one of millions of roadside stands for some kind of bread made with corn but nothing like corn bread. You can drive for miles viewing these stands, and all vendors selling the same thing congregate along the same stretch of road. It seems odd; these stands are 100 feet apart, and there are no signs announcing “Peaches for Sale Ahead”. Sort of like a new car dealership mall. Items for sale included fruits and vegetables, roasted pig, live chickens for the do-it-your-selfer, bedspreads, bakery stuff, on and on. You take your life into your hands when you pull over to make your purchase.
For lunch we stopped and had zepeto juice smoothies, I cannot describe this fruit but if you get here, try it. It looks like a large sweet potato, sort of; I have one waiting to ripen on the counter.
Peter drove as fast as he could so that we could get to the Lighthouse, which is not a lighthouse at all as we mariners think about it, but the resting place of Christopher Columbus, whose remains were moved here in 1992 upon the completion of the museum. This building was funded by many, many nations whose named appeared carved on the outside of the building which contains exhibits put together by the contributors. Several provided artifacts or replicas, we were especially impressed with the Canadian exhibit which bore only a plaque, the previously donated moon rocks having been recalled. We are delighted now to remind our friends that they are Indian givers. This location is known as the Lighthouse because at night, under certain conditions, the lighting of the building reflects a cross in the sky. While we were there there, however, there we no lights. Nada. We toured the museum in total darkness as the power was off!
We then drove around the very crowded and bustling streets (sic) of Santo Domingo for an hour and a half looking for our hotel. A frustrating end to a very full day. After checking in we walked around the Colonial City and wished we had more time.

Whirlwind Tour of the DR

The first of our three day tour began with the rental car guy who promised a cheaper and better car than we had previously arranged and then cancelled did not show. After various delays and untruths, said rental car guy (Tony) showed up with the wrong car and then drove us to our original rental car place, which tried to up the previous high price since it now had to pay a commission to Tony. What a country.
We picked up Sepeta, the tour guide that Rob had used ten years ago and was now the head of tourism in Luperon (but no longer a guide). Sepeta does not drive, and therefore Peter became chauffeur. Fortunately in this country one drives on the right side of the road. Unfortunately, that is the rule but there are so many motoconchos (cycles) bearing up to 5 bodies (!), wide trucks, guaguas (a ramshackle van with a man hanging out of one open door to facilitate the pushing and shoving of boarding passengers inside to create the effect of a sardine can)and fast moving cars on narrow streets that the rule did not matter. In the cities the streets are occupied by street vendors walking in between the cars selling sunglasses (quick, pick one out before the light changes), cell phones, cell phone cards,semi-peeled oranges, icecream, you name it, or driving bicycles equipped with BBQ cookers hawking roasted corn. As a result, the driving was hair raising. At that end of each evening several scotchs were consumed and deserved by our handsome driver.

Our tour started at Puerto Plata with the San Felipe fort, the oldest European fort in the New World (yawn), and then an exciting cable car ride to the top of Isabel de Torres mountain, with fabulous views of the city and magnificent gardens.
Next, a tour of the amber and larimar museum presenting expensive shopping opportunities (larimar is a stone discovered in the recent past and named after the finder’s daughter Laura and the sea (mar) whose color it reflects. Lunch was followed by a tour of the Brugal Rum factory, with a tasting of Extra Viejo and a magnificent mojito.
We drove through Sosua and visited the Jewish Museum. The former dictator Trujillo, to appease the United States, agreed to accept refuges escaping the Nazis, and most settled here; very few remain. (The synagogue had less than 13 windows, what’s up with that?) Then, off to Cabarete to see the wind surfers, who had the day off lacking sufficient wind.
We finished the day with a drive through the lush Cibao Valley on our way to Santiago, the capital of the DR.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Exploring the DR, On our Own

Our big day of exploring started out ominously; the 7:30 guagua to El Castillo (which we think is a van into which riders are squeezed like sardines) was either cancelled, left before 7:30, or never existed to begin with. We had been told this seat would cost us each 45 pesos (like $1.25). Alternative transportation in the form of a taxi was 100 pesos per person.
We arrived at the Museo and our taxi pulled away. We thought we had arrived before opening time, but a Dominican speaking broken English informed us that the museum was closed for renovations. We could walk the grounds for $50 pesos each, which we did.
This was purportedly the site of the first settlement in the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493. While walking the grounds, we celebrated our fourth consecutive day of rain while viewing the improvements underway.

We had been told of the fantastic beach and restaurant nearby, with facilities to change into our suits and take a dip. We found a beach with some tables occupied by gentlemen playing dominoes and roosters chasing hens, but no smell of or other evidence of food. We were told the owner/cook would show up in about an hour, so we took off to find coffee, and found a local eatery/dance hall which brewed us up a pot of Dominican strong brew, very much like espresso. After getting warmed up after the chill from the rain, we headed back to the beach restaurant.
Our owner/cook had indeed arrived, and prepared for us a luncheon of lobster, salad, fried yucca (better this time), plaintains, and rice. And of course, cervesas (Presidentes and Bohemia, which we are told is a Presidente without the preservatives, for local consumption. This was a fantastic meal for the equivalent of $19 each, our most expensive in this country but well worth it.

Now to get the guagua back to Luperon. We canvassed the population to confirm the 2:30 departure time advised to us by our morning taxi driver. Two told us 2:00, one told us 2:30, two told us 3:30, one told us there was no guagua, so we took the offer from a passerby for a ride for 300 pesos for all of us.
We finished the day with our daily visit to the bakery to pick up our necessaries. We will surely miss our popover bread when we leave!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Luperon Diversions

One of the local restaurants, La Yola, sponsors movie night every Wednesday. About 18 cruisers were packed into a van, transported to the restaurant, wined, dined, and entertained for less than $9 per person. If memory serves, it cost around $8 for a movie seat at home! We had a fantastic dinner of coq a vin or broiled grouper meuniere, my word, was it spectacular. We then turned our chairs, al fresco, to the screen (the size of Alan’s and Donna’s in their basement theater) and watched The Other Boleyn Girl. Quite a night, unlike the usual cruiser evening.
Today Christine and I walked through Luperon without the boys so that we could support the local economy. It was slim pickings, but I did manage to pick up a little dress, and more fresh fruit and veggies from the truck which shows up twice a week. A large papaya, six tomatoes, a large bunch of finger bananas (maybe 15, green as can be, to be hung from the stern rail), all for less than $3.
Before heading back to the boats we stopped at Steve’s, whose menu I have raved about before, to pick up our laundry and check internet. I had three large bags full, all washed and dried and folded for less than $20. Steve does not seem to be well liked by the local clique, but it seems to us he and his wife Annie are a hard working family providing a real service to the cruising community.
We have been unable to Skype here, as the internet signal will not support it. So, we bought a Dominican Republic chip for our Bahamian phone, $1 a minute, for emergency use.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

DR Day 3

We visited Playa Grande to load up on sea glass, as suggested by Dick and Nancy on Blue Bay. We arrived near high tide, not a good time for hunting, but we had a good haul.
After lunch we visited with our tour guide and arranged all the details. We had our daily visit to the bakery (this time, a large loaf of circular bread that turned out to be the consistency of Yorkshire pudding or popovers, yum, for less than $2), then to the fruit stand. Libations at Shaggy’s, The Barstool Sailor, apparently where the clique hangs out (every island has one). Dinner this evening was at The Chicken Shak, which truly is a shack with a few tables and plastic chairs. The proprietor did not speak English and Christine’s Spanish was challenged as we ordered dinner, which turned out to be fried chicken and yucca and onions, for $2 each! The chicken was fantastic if not to Bertha Atkin’s standards, and the yucca, well, I’m happy to say I have had it and never need to try it again. Think dry mashed potatoes. But not that good.
These young boys pictured asked for “photo, photo”, and they were delighted to see their faces on the tiny screen on my Canon.

DR Day 2

After rocking and rolling at Big Sand, and a tumultuous crossing, we slept very soundly our first night in Luperon. As promised, the trade winds vanished at night but almost like clockwork, at 9 this morning the boat did a 180 degree turn into a stiff breeze.
At 8 am a cruiser’s net was conducted on channel 72, and we learned about tours, restaurants, commercial services, boat help needed, the usual net stuff. At 10 we headed ashore to the Puerto Blanco Marina for a flea market, locals and cruisers selling art, jewelry, tee shirts and the like. For the equivalent of $2 I bought some cool earrings, and for $11 the four of us shared a big lunch of BBQ ribs, pork chops, and chicken. Oh, and more Presidentes.
We met with Rosa Van Sant, the wife of the infamous cruise guide author, Bruce, to discuss our desire to see the country. We guess Rosa gets a cut from the folks she places the tourists with, she surely spent a lot of quality time with us discussing options. Rob had toured 10 years ago with a guide he remembered fondly, and after recalling her to Rosa, Rosa contacted her and arranged for her to meet us at the marina. Rosa cautioned us that she no longer gave tours, as she had a full time job. But she would accommodate us since Rob remembered her so fondly.
So, it turns out that the full time job is the head of tourism here. We think we are in for a good time

Arrived Dominican Republic

February 28, 2009.
We had too much fantastic wind, squalls complete with a lightning show, big waves, and too much speed on our trip to Luperon. We could have sailed the whole way, but with deeply reefed main and headsail, we had too much speed to arrive at dawn here, so we had to take in the genoa and motorsail with the double reefed main. It was a sloppy trip, noisy and uncomfortable. But we are here.
As you approach the DR you can see the lushness, so very different from the Turks and Caicos, only 100 miles away. You need to get pretty far in before you see channel markers (unheard of in the other islands). The harbor is packed with anchored boats, with several shoals calling for you to settle upon them but friendly cruisers cautioning otherwise.
Upon our arrival, Handy Andy and Poppo motored up to our boat in their skiff to introduce themselves. We gather that they do just about anything and everything: bottom clean boats, deliver water or fuel, arrange for whatever. About a half hour later, they delivered the representative from the Navy (in the camo and black boots), who reviewed our paperwork and took away our exit papers from the Turks and Caicos. We were then told to report to Immigration ashore. Handy Andy explained that there was no fee, but they did accept gifts. What in the heck this really meant we have no idea, although he did say “you understand, there is no fee, but you may give gifts if you’d like”. Peter gave them $10, just in case. At Immigration, he paid $63 plus $10 for something else that was not clear to him. Agriculture visited the boat and inspected our fruits and vegetables, milk, and cheese; $20 for this service. We were now cleared in.
We walked into town. There is not a lot of money here, but it did not feel that way. The streets were crowded with few cars but many motor scooters (motoconchos) which are for hire for a lift to get where you need to go. All of these drivers are reckless and fast. Our friends Nancy and Dick rode these guys, I think I will pass.
We exchanged some dollars for some pesos at the gift shop, 35 pesos to the dollar, then bought some fruit and veggies at a stand: 4 bananas, one pineapple, 3 red peppers, and a Chinese eggplant, all for the equivalent of $3. We bought ice cold Presidentes, the local beer, for about $1 a piece at a supermercado, nothing at all like a grocery store. Christine was able to communicate for us with her high school Spanish but a lot of people seem to speak or at least understand English.
We had dinner (chicken quesadilla and BBQ chicken dinner, which we shared )rum drinks and more Presidentes at Steve’s, which was a recommended restaurant. Dinner and drinks for 4 of us: $48. We may never leave.


Within a half hour of departing Big Sand in the Turks and Caicos on our way to Luperon in the Dominican Republic, this awesome creature breached directly in front of First Edition, about 60 feet away. It was scary and wonderful.
We had seen whales before in the South Pacific during a charter we took to celebrate Lynn, Vickie, and the Prince of Tonga’s 50th birthdays. We even swam with them in the wild. We were younger, and nuts.
For some reason (perhaps a failed memory) today’s experience was more incredible. Maybe it was because it was on our own boat. Maybe it was because the thing was sooo close.
I am thankful for this opportunity, and the wonderful shots Peter managed to get. I am happy my friend Christine got to see the whales. I wish it had breached for her as it did for us.

Big Sand Cay

There is an author with a very big attitude but loads of experience that wrote the book on how to transit South to the Caribbean on the “thornless” path. Because of the direction of the tradewinds, if you follow the Bahamas route down to the DR, such as we are doing, unless you heed Bruce Van Sant’s instructions you will be beating into big winds and seas (the “thorny” way).
In his book he advises all to stage for the DR passage at Big Sand Cay, which is described as a beachcombing and nature experience extraordinaire. It is also referred to as a rolly anchorage. Well, right on both counts, especially with a big ocean swell making things interesting.
We arrived with several other boats planning to leave that afternoon for Luperon or Ocean World in the Dominican. We had already decided to pass up this weather window and wait for the next in order to explore Big Sand. Our first night aboard was awful. The seas you can see rolling ashore had both boats in a death roll, and no one slept. The next day we rigged bridles to point the boats into the waves and not the wind. Some improvement, but still rolling.
At low tide I harvested many uninhabited seashells in great shape, and Peter and Rob meanwhile found a sea glass cache. In between the east and west shores while crossing the land I found more than 10 hamburger and heart sea beans that had washed ashore in particularly high tides.

The environs around here are the mating grounds for humpback whales. Rob and Christine saw some blow during a walk ashore, and other boaters reported seeing them while they were underway. We are still waiting.

Ambergris Cay in the T&C

It took all day to cross the Caicos Banks, as we carefully picked our way through the coral heads. You do not want to do this trip in any sort of reduced visibility; we were happy the sun was bright and the winds were somewhat calm.
We anchored between Big and Small Ambergris inward from where Van Sant recommends. The anchorage is huge and a bit rolly but based upon conversations with boaters anchored at South Caicos, this is the better choice. There is no internet signal in the anchorage. However, we dinked close to shore near the restaurant on Big Ambergris and I picked up but could not sustain a signal. Holding is very good in sand.
We took a picnic lunch and a long dinghy ride to explore Little Ambergris. We found some incredible conch shells and walked the mangrove creek and the flats, which held many treasures. The shells pictured are 8 inches long and in great shape; it was difficult deciding which ones to take as First Edition is being overrun with my beach findings. The dinghy ride home was ridiculous, with winds around 20 knots kicking up the seas. We were drenched, and cancelled our dinner invite to Celebrian as these seas and darkness would not be a good combo.
Two days later when the wind and seas had calmed, we dinghied over to Big Ambergris, where a luxury real estate development is slowly underway. All over the cay you can find turk head cactus (do I have it right?), accounting for part of the name of this island group. The “lots” were marked with etched wood signs, indicating the ownership. Reportedly, $130 million has been sunk into infrastructure but not many homes were built as of yet. I wonder when these guys bought and how they are feeling about their investment now.
We are anxious to get moving, but wind direction and seas are not terrific for a trip to Luperon. Some boats are taking off, but we may just hang at Big Sand Cay, our staging anchorage, for a few more days to beachcomb and watch for whales.