Warning to animal lovers: some graphic images of a bullfight are included.
1. The history of its sights and ceremonies.
2. Fat trees fighting wrought iron gates.
3. Cool cars for every taste to be ogled on the street.
4. Great gift shopping for a Bond villain, countess or showgirl.
5. Expressive statues.
6. The lights on night walks.
7. Greenery, mostly well-manicured. (Only the fighting trees grow with abandon.)
8. Fantastic, free museums.
9. Pubs, pub-goers and pub names.
10. Bridges, whether they be beautiful, grand, or merely functional, spanning the River Thames.
Las Terrenas, a beach town on the tip of the Samana Peninsula on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, is so flush with natural beauty, it would be easy to pass the entire day sitting by the ocean under a palm tree nursing a mojito.
But, the town itself has so much personality, we'll roll up our soggy beach towels, hang up our swimsuits, say goodbye to Roy, the bartender, and roam the streets for a bit.
Most tourists find their way to Las Terrenas from the capital, Santo Domingo, which is a two hour drive through mountains cleanly cut to make way for a new, mostly empty, highway. The road runs through green pastures, fields sectioned for rice cultivation, rushing rivers, and finally, the gorgeous pink interior of the mountains. In parts it looks like a drive through a towering, crumbly red velvet cake, one with bright green icing.
On the road, the blue ocean stretches below, but strangely, the air is full of chlorophyll and capsium rather than brine. The forest dominates the sea. If you closed your eyes you might think you were sitting in front of a plate of freshly sliced bell peppers on a just-mowed lawn. The scent is so heady it almost leaves an aftertaste.
Out of the dense foliage, men haul large pieces of bloody meat from a cow that had been slaughtered just off the road. Or maybe the animal died of other causes and they're simply making good use of it. It's shocking to see the massive red and white slabs passing from hand to hand against the backdrop of the pristine green landscape.
Getting closer to town, modest houses sit by small shacks that somehow stand up to the heavy tropical storms that often pass through during the night.
Laundry hangs outside to dry. Skinny dogs bark and nip at the passing vehicle. Groups of men drink beer at an open air bar, the only structure on a vast hillside, and tinking guitar music blasts from speakers standing on the dirt floor. Then, a small flourishing hotel. Now, an abandoned one, half-complete, but now overgrown, plans tossed out mid-construction. It's a ghost of gray plaster in the weeds.
The population of Las Terrenas is close to 11,000. There's a substantial expatriate community, mostly European, who work in tourism or real estate. There are so many French people living there, you can just as easily find steak tartar on a menu as you can more traditional Dominican fare, like grilled plantains and beef soup. There is even a French school that follows the standard national curriculum. The expats are easily identified, as they tend to be tanner, smilier and lither than their friends merely visiting from home.
A very rare traffic jam
Most people, locals and tourists alike, get around on 4-wheelers and motorbikes, but you could visit Las Terrenas without a car and just hail a moto-conche when needed. Your motorcycle taxi driver will not even give you a second glance when you load up with pieces of luggage in both hands, teetering behind him on his tiny bike.
The culture is very relaxed with its traffic laws, and it's not uncommon to see a zooming bike with a driver, two passengers carrying heavy loads, and often a baby, hanging jauntily off a mother's hip.
There is not a helmet in sight.
Parking in Las Terrenas
People often stop in the middle of the road to chat with a passing friend. Other drivers give perfunctory honks, but don't really mind the delay.
We see two policemen in hats and dapper uniforms standing, looking official and stern, by the side of the road. They flag down a motorcyclist. Surprised to witness a traffic violation stop, we glance back and see the two policemen hop on the back of the bike behind the driver. He revs the noisy engine and speeds past us. We thought the police were going to write a ticket. Instead, they just needed to hitch a ride.
In the center of the village there are several bustling outdoor shopping centers, often geared towards tourists. Corner stores bulge with Havaianas, sunscreen, colorful pareos, turquoise jewelry, cigars, and rum. The European influence also results in some unusual commerce for the tropics, like a fancy cheese and wine shop. During soccer season, fans pile in beside the casks to watch big games and sample hearty reds.
There is one main grocery store, fully stocked for Dominican and European appetites. You could pick up a bottle of rosé, a baguette and a chunk of blue cheese for a meal after your mojito if you wish. Or, you could visit any of the smaller shops selling locally grown fruits and vegetables. Fish, shrimp and even live, flailing crab can be purchased by venders holding up their slippery wares by the side of the road.
Animals are everywhere. Dogs nap in the sun. At dusk, cats leap up to catch birds flying low for their nightly insect meal. Chickens pace in front of doorways. Lizards sprint and freeze and sprint again. It's a tropical menagerie.
Most of the dogs look like free agents and you wonder what they are dining on to look so well-fed. Are lizards part of a balanced canine diet?
Walking the smaller streets, beyond the typical tourist souvenir shops, we notice even more odd merchandise. There is a stand that sells only second-hand shoes, displayed in a giant white heap in the bed of a truck, and a store specializing in spandex body suits, which are especially useful in the tropical heat. There must be some crazy, air-conditioned nightlife that we don't know about.
Around the corner we spot Roy, one of the best bartenders in town, and discover that he has a second profession. He's just come from his first shift at the bar, and now he stands alone at an open air butcher counter and explains that he owns the shop and lives with his family just behind it. From his deftness with the knife, one can see he's just as much an expert at breaking down a side of beef as he is creating the perfect cocktail.
Roy, bartender and butcher extraordinaire
Las Terrenas is a small town, and even after a few days, we can start to feel local. The owner of the only pizza place, an impressive beach joint with a wood-burning oven, waves at us as he whizzes by on his 4-wheeler. Passing a French-style coffee shop we say "bonjour" to a former ski instructor from Savoie who recently purchased another beach-front restaurant called Eden.
Every morning, just after the sun has risen, he meticulously rakes the sand in front of his restaurant. His customers will dine on razor clams and Chablis before flopping down on white lounge chairs that he's provided on his immaculate sandy lawn. Everything must be perfectly in order. He has the service-ethic of a fine French maitre-d', with a resolutely casual personal style. Just before lunch, after his midmorning swim, he scoots behind a wood pillar to whip off his swim suit and change into shorts. For a moment, a curious customer could see him standing naked next to the chalkboard specials. He takes orders shirtless, displaying his leathery-tan torso. Would you like to see the wine list? That's Las Terrenas.
We'll circle back through town, back to the 4-wheeler whose black leather seat is roasting, even in the shade of a palm tree. Back on newly paved paths along the ocean. The fishing boats have returned and are resting on the hot sand. It's quiet except for sporatic motorcycle buzz. Evening is ahead. Time for another swim out into the shallow, clear water where we can see the shore, its white lip of sand around a wide bowl of trees and beyond, the town. Roy will be closing up shop. The Savoyard bringing a case of rosé back to the restaurant for dinner service. The cats are taking their places on sidewalks, their eyes on the sky, waiting for birds. The tourists haven't budged from the beach, just getting up to move their parasols around them like the hands of a clock, ticking the long day away, soaking up Las Terrenas.
If you lived here, in the Irish countryside, you'd wake up to moody skies…
But would walk into town anyway
You'd stop by your cheesemonger to pick up provisions for a picnic lunch.
And maybe a savory pie or two
Bypassing the grease of the Supermac's
You'd drive out on thin roads and wouldn't be petrified, because you'd be used to driving on the left.
You'd pass ridiculously happy cows.
And Shrek-style castles
You'd gape at all that rain-fed green grass.
And fight the temptation to run your fingers through it
You'd scope out picnic spots at the Cliffs of Moher.
But, think better of it
You'd finally find the perfect picnic spot.
And the perfect picnic rock
But then the rainclouds would roll in, fierce and low, and the waves would spray salt on your savory pie.
And, you'd have a nice lunch in your car.
Paris transplant hatching stories, sketching bridges, photographing tourists unaware, hiding out in museums, walking fast.