Tito was our dive guide. And judging from the broad smile beneath his new Skin Diver baseball cap, he was eager to show us his favorite dive site. He ran back and forth between the dive boat and shop collecting our gear, each time holding up two fingers and repeating, “Only two minutes to go!” My flight into Santo Domingo from Miami the night before was late, but I was certainly in no hurry. The warm sun felt good and I began to remember a story I read many years ago about a mythological island in the Caribbean called Quisiqueya. Apparently, when God created this legendary island, he wanted it to be used as the model for all other Caribbean islands. He gave it the most beautiful beaches, the perfect climate and the tallest mountains from which he could sit and admire his creation. Watching the Lord at work, St. Peter questioned his generosity, asking what beautiful creatures would inhabit this wondrous island. The Lord replied smiling, “Don’t worry, very soon I’m going to create the Dominican people.” I watched Tito run back and forth a few more times before I finally got his attention and asked, “How many American minutes are in a Dominican minute?” Tito stopped and broke into laughter. “Five or six minutes!” he shouted back.

After our morning dive on the wreck of the Tanya, a former island freighter resting perfectly upright in 130 feet of water, I was feeling a little lazy and decided to forgo the afternoon dive for a visit to the old colonial city of Santo Domingo. I couldn’t imagine a visit to this island without seeing the centuries old colonial buildings that were once the homes and haunts of Christopher Columbus.

The old town part of Santo Domingo is a charming city that resonates with the ghosts of explorers and romantics. I had the taxi drop me at the Parque Colon in the central plaza and took a guided walking tour of the walled city and old fortress. Two sights not to miss are the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco and the nearby First Hospital of the New World.

The colonial city is fascinating; its magnificent architecture sheds new light on old dreams and it is fun to wind your way through the narrow historical streets. At the Plaza de Maria Toledo, I had lunch at the Paté Palo restaurant across from the huge two-story Alcazar de Colon, which was the residence of Christopher Columbus and his family for decades.

Leaving the old city and traveling east along the Avenue Las Americas on the southern coast from Santo Domingo, I planned for stops along the way to visit dive sites at Boca Chica, Juan Dolio and La Romana.

The Dominican Republic occupies two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean. If you measure its coastline, including bays and offshore islands, it totals a staggering 700 miles. As we drove further east, the island became surprisingly flatter and the coastline more accessible.

Visitors certainly could not ask for more in terms of diving opportunities. There are good dive sites virtually everywhere along the island’s south coast, but two of the most popular are La Caleta National Park, just east of Santo Domingo, and around the small islands of Saona and Catalina near La Romana. It was the latter that drew my attention—and I was not disappointed.

The water temperature, especially on the south coast, is very warm—close to 85°F—in all but the coldest winter months. Visibility can vary depending on the dive site location and time of year. However, local authorities explained that mild currents often keep the mountain river runoff away from the reefs and that in winter months visibility can exceed 150 feet. My diving confirmed this.

In La Romana, my diving companion was an enthusiastic guide named Gustavo, who had brought along his young son to dive with us Skin Diver guys. Originally from Colombia, Gustavo has explored the entire coast of the Dominican Republic underwater. He claims that some of the best Caribbean diving is just a stone’s throw from where we were standing.

The wall itself was superb: healthy coral formations, abundant fish, excellent visibility, warm water and little current. Starting in less than 20 feet of water and plunging vertically over 130 feet, I finned along the wall marveling at the huge purple tube sponges and clusters of yellow sponges. There were large trees of black coral and large Orange Elephant Ear Sponges growing everywhere.

The second day we raced southeast across the water until off in the distance, the low mass of Saona Island—a band of green with a lace-white sand fringe in the foreground—appeared, hushed and still in the gathering morning light. A lone fisherman’s sailboat punctuated the horizon.

Isla Catalina’s walls plunge to more than 130 feet deep.

Saona is part of the national underwater park and has perhaps some of the country’s best coral formations. We spent the morning on two tanks and a lot of adrenaline. The gorgonians swayed together, the fish schooled; a wayward stingray glided by. From high above, bright sunlight fell down and danced on the sand and coral, adding and then detracting from the visibility.

The reef was a casual slope that seemed unending. Some of the most spectacular pillar coral formations I have ever seen sat like castles on an English countryside. The reefs randomly jumped towards the surface in 50 to 70 feet of water, where huge barrel sponges and forests of seafans stretch along the ocean floor.

The next morning, in true adventure fashion, I threw all my gear in the back of the rental car, topped off the gas tank and hit the road.

I had heard much about the mock 16th century Italian village high on the Chavon River. Sort of an Artisans place built in 1978 by the chairman of the Gulf & Western Company; it is called Altos de Chavon. Part of the exclusive Casa de Campo resort, it is fascinating to walk around. I was most interested in browsing through the museum of Taino Indian art and artifacts. And, of course, the view above the river is compelling. I also found some excellent workshops, galleries and fine restaurants.

I arrived in Punta Cana at my hotel late in the afternoon, mostly because I stopped to photograph almost every stretch of palm tree-lined beach along the way.

Tightly-packed corals and sponges compete for space off Saona Island.

Punta Cana is unique. At the extreme tip of the Dominican Republic, it is at the point where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea squeeze through the Mona Passage. The Mona Passage is a deepwater corridor between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Because all things large pass through here, you never know for sure what to expect.

The barrier reef borders the shoreline as parallel reef systems, one close to shore on the breaker-line and another approximately 300 yards offshore. The outer reef’s depths average about 70 feet, and it is here that you will find a generous assortment of Caribbean marine life.

Perhaps the most fascinating dive site in the Punta Cana area is a freshwater cavern dive named Laguna Pepe. It is in the middle of a golf course, not far from the ocean. The cavern entrance is about 12 feet high by 30 feet wide, and once inside, opens to a spectacular cathedral-like chamber of more than 160 feet wide and 65 feet high. A floating mass of green water floats on top of a clear layer of fresh spring water. The ghostly green glow that permeates the clear water is surreal. The cavern floor is covered with tiny shrimp and some small species of freshwater fish.

From Punta Cana I flew northwest to the Samana Peninsula and El Portillo. I was greeted by Safaris guide Luis and his four-wheel-drive Jeep. Ditching my wet dive gear for a day and trekking through the rain forest seemed like the perfect topside diversion.

As we left the hotel, I immediately asked Luis to stop next to a field where a baseball game was just getting underway. Sunday afternoons bring out local ball teams in their game day dress. I knew this was going to be a great photo opportunity and I asked Luis if I could photograph the ball players. I was amused by Luis’ animated gestures as he talked to the team; and suddenly, everyone jumped into a pose for my camera.

Back in the Jeep I asked Luis what he had said. Laughing uncontrollably, Luis blurted out, “I told them you where taking pictures for the New York Yankees!”

Because all things large pass through here, you never know for sure what to expect.

Our next day in Samana found us in the dive boat along a rugged coastline with sheer cliffs rising over 400 feet high. The deep water swirling below was so clear I could see the base of the pinnacle more than 200 feet down. This was Cabo Cabron, and I glided down the spectacular tower, easily swimming the circumference of the rocky formation, approximately 80 feet in diameter. The top is barely awash at 15 feet and the vertical walls plummet to nearly 200 feet. I can’t recall ever being quite so hypnotized.

Our second dive was also breathtaking. At a site called Punta Tibisi, a rock cliff continues into the sea, plunging downward to 130 feet. I was again in awe as I watched the sea explode on the rocks over me. The cliff forms three distinct tiers of ancient beaches with many more lying scattered along the sand floor. These provide a random profile of reef structure while others form deep ravines. In the late winter months of January through early March, Humpback Whales migrate into the Samana Bay. The songs of whales are almost always heard and sometimes divers can catch a glimpse of the whales themselves.

My 10-day odyssey was drawing to a close and I knew I had to move on. The following morning I moved up the north coast toward Puerto Plata, where all I really wanted to do was buy a good cigar. Francisco, my taxi driver, promised to take me to the best cigar factory for pictures. We drove for two hours one way to the Leon Jimines Cigar Factory in Santiago to see the craftsmen hand rolling cigars.

Puerto Plata is a huge resort area. Diving is very much part of the scene with some good shallow reefs perfect for new divers. Some of the best diving is just east of Puerto Plata around the small fishing village of Sosua. You’ll find high profile corals and a shoreline cave that offer excellent diving.

The day ended well after dark in the patio restaurant of my hotel. Lubricated with fine Dominican rum, I traded tales and talked about the future of diving with some other guests. Sometime around midnight, it occurred to me how ironic it is that a land synonymous with Christopher Columbus could be so undiscovered by the rest of the world.

getting there
-DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The Dominican Republic is a year-round destination. January to early March is the best time to see and hear the migrating Humpback Whales.

The Dominican Republic occupies about two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola. It shares the island with Haiti. There are two major international airports: one in the capital city of Santo Domingo and the other in the northern coastal city of Puerto Plata. Other smaller international airports can be found at La Romana and Punta Cana. It is approximately a two-hour flight from Miami.

TOPSIDE CLIMATE
Both air and water temperatures are typical Caribbean. Winter months average 80°F, while the summer months are approximately 85°F.

WATER TEMPERATURE
Winter months water temperature averages 75°F. Summer months 85°F.
TIME DIFFERENCE
Eastern Standard Time + 1 hour

EXCHANGE RATE
1.00 (USD) = 16 (Peso). Credit cards and travelers checks are accepted everywhere.

CONTACTS

Barcelo Hotels & Resorts
Ph. (888) 884-3584
E-mail: bavaro.vpal@codetel.net.do
Website: www.barcelo.com

Don Juan Beach Resorts
Ph. (800) 820-1631
E-mail: djuanbch@diveres.com.
Website: www.caei.com/djbr

El Portillo Beach Resort & Samana Dive Center
Ph. (800) 550-1869
E-mail: prieto.tours@codetel.net.do
Website: www.prieto-tours.com/portillo/scuba

Hodelpa Caribe Club
Ph. (809) 683-1000
E-mail: hodelpa@codeltel.net.do
Website: www.hodelpa.com

Vesuvio Restaurant
Ph. (809) 221-1954









Coral Hotels & Resorts
Ph. (809) 562-6725
E-mail: coral@codetel.net.do
Website: www.coralhotels.com

Viva Resorts
Ph. (877) 564-VIVA
Fax (954) 462-4100
E-mail: vivadive@nealwatson.com
Website: www.vivadive@nealwatson.com

Punta Cana Beach Resort
Ph. (800) 815-5019
Fax (305) 261-6648
E-mail: www.puntacana.com/scubadiving
Website: www.puntacana.com

Dominican Republic Tourist Board
Ph. (888) 374-6361
E-mail: dr.info@ix.netcom.com
Website: www.dominicana.com.do or www.drl.com