- Isla Saona
It’s not easy to get to the beach from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The guidebook says it’s a 15-minute drive to Boca Chica, the nearest nice beach. We spent about two hours getting there by “express bus,” which stopped every 30 feet to let people off. So we decided to look for a better way, and also explore another area. Boca Chica was actually quite a nice beach and charming little town with many small cafes including a tidy red-and-blue-trimmed pizza place called Napoli — owned by a real Italian — on the corner of the main drag across from Parque Infantil.
The fancy five-star hotel, Nicolas de Ovando, arranged a tour for us to Isla Saona, an island at the southeast end of the DR that’s part of the Parque Nacional del Este. The all-day tour, which included transportation to a boat, the boat trip, lunch
Lunch at the Beach Buffet
and visits to the island and a fabulous shallow spot “in the middle of the ocean” with starfish, cost $90 per person. A deal, we thought. The concierge said it was about a two-hour drive to La Romana where the boat would take us to the island in about an hour. So we left before sunrise at 7:00 a.m. on the dot with our driver, zooming down the coastal highway to pick up other passengers at various resorts. A nice Cuban couple joined us, then we took off for our next pickup. After driving for about 20 minutes the driver stopped to ask directions at a gas station. He didn’t know where the next resort was to pick up the passengers. Turned out it was way back in the original direction we came from, and our Cubans realized it was quite close to their resort. So back we went toward Santo Domingo. After backtracking another 20 minutes we finally reached the resort, where a family of seven piled into the van with us, along with a young French couple.
Tatooed Tourist from Party Boat
We resumed our original direction toward La Romana, noted in the guide book to offer “surprisingly little to tourists.” This was true. A bustling, but boring sugar-cane based town, the only attraction was a colorfully painted oblisque in the center of town — not even as good as the monument in the previous town, which consisted of a strange rocket-shaped object surrounded by a metal sculptures of a locomotive and a crab. Driving through the town, the driver once again stopped to ask directions — apparently not knowing where the boat to the island was — which we found strange for an organized $90 tour.
We drove out of town and into the countryside nowhere near the sea, past fields of sugar cane. Mountains began rearing up in the distance as we seemed to be heading into the island’s interior, which has 10,000-foot mountains. My friend Diane joked that maybe we were on the wrong tour — the mountain tour vs. the beach. On we went, with the paved road finally giving way to an extremely bumpy, potholed dirt road, where other drivers were weaving back and forth across to road to avoid the deeper holes. We hoped that the driver knew where he was going so we wouldn’t have to go back over the bad road again. Going slower and slower our driver finally stopped once again to ask directions. He obviously had no clue where we were going and I wondered if we were being hijacked.
Once again the driver made a U-turn and back we went over the miles of teeth-jarring road in the direction we had come.
Enduring the Beach Excursion
At this point, about three-plus hours into the drive Diane, the Cuban couple and I found this hysterically funny and laughed until we cried, while the French couple and family sat stoically. Back to La Romana we went, past the painted oblisque, where the driver once again stopped to ask directions. Off on another road out of town through sugar cane fields nowhere near the sea we headed. Diane and I gave up the idea of ever finding the boat to the island and were discussing not paying for the tour at all. Fortunately we hadn’t paid yet. After driving another half hour or so we stopped and the driver (who never told us his name) got out and went over to a small wooden shack, turning back, saying, “Mrs. Glenn do you have money for me?” “Not yet,” I replied, clearly irked and wondering again about hijacking. He returned with a handful of paper slips. Apparently, we had reached the entrance of the national park. It was now noon — five hours of driving since we’d left Santo Domingo, expecting a two-hour trip to the boat.
In fact, we had reached the boat! We piled out onto the beach where many small boats rocked in the surf. The driving pursued me, pleading for money saying he needed it for gas. He called his boss at the headquarters and handed me the phone. I told the boss that the driver had no clue where we were going and we’d been driving around lost for the last five hours and I wasn’t planning to pay full price for this tour. Clearly embarrassed he said to go and enjoy the tour and we’d discuss it later. Diane and I finally gave the driver about $35 for gas.
A small motorboat took us out to a big catamaran, where Latin music blared and hoards of somewhat tipsy American and European tourists were swilling rum and coke, standing around in bathing suits.
The Calmer Front of the Party Boat
A shapely, young Dominican woman — part of the crew — was swiveling her hips and shaking her booty with various passengers. Turned out we were supposed to meet the boat at 10. It was now noon, so the party boat was in full swing with rum and Coke being doled out as fast as the bartender could pour it.
Off we went barely able to converse with the deafening music and a master of ceremony leading the crowd in cheers and hip thrusts. After a few beers we mellowed out and didn’t care. We cruised fast over the blue waters and lay on the webbing in front, two feet above the water. Finally emerald-green palms gleamed on a white-sand beach — Isla Saona — and we anchored and zoomed ashore in smaller boats that were waiting to transport us. On the pretty beach were hundreds of tourists like ourselves and several covered picnic areas where a barbecue buffet was in progress.
Tourists at the Trough
We ate, walked the beach, swam in the clear turquoise waters and finally enjoyed what we’d come for.
What We Came For -- But Too Far!
After a few hours we met our group back on the beach to be transported back to the mainland. Diane and I ended up in the wrong boat, full of very rowdy French Canadians. It turned out that we’d return, not in our spacious catamaran, but in these little speedboats that were trying to out-speed and out-shout each other — a nerve-wracking and ear-splitting affair. At last after hair-raising, high-speed turns that excited our drunken revelers even more we reached the incredible shallow area in the middle of the ocean with starfish. It was nothing more than a slightly offshore sandbar, not far from the beach. Probably three-dozen boats with at least 30 passengers each anchored, everyone jumped overboard and waded around in the waist-deep cocktail party of rum and cokes. The particularly obnoxious and loud young man on our boat found a starfish, which he dangled in front of everyone. If the lone starfish wasn’t already dead, it is now, since everyone took turns holding it and having their photos taken. It was mass tourism at its worst.
Cocktail Party at the Starfish Sandbar
Finally we zoomed back to the marina at break-neck speed and found our van driver waiting on the beach. We hoped he could find his way back to Santo Domingo. As he started up the van, the motor roared at a worrisome pitch, as if the accelerator was stuck down. The Cuban guy said we’d never make it back to Santo Domingo. We started along the highway, but the van kept roaring and stalling out. Finally, with smoke and terrible fumes of a burning clutch, we pulled to the side of the road, all of us spilling out, coughing and covering our noses from the noxious fumes. Our Cuban guy came to the rescue, readjusting something in the engine that stopped the high acceleration. As we crossed a railroad track and I heard the toots of a train, I said, “What next? Now are we going to hit a train?”
Next, the driver stopped at a large building and announced, “Shopping.” Inside, all of the tourists who had been on the island were now milling around this giant, tacky souvenir shop. At least we could also buy beer and snacks — my one beer, tiny can of Pringles and a Twix bar cost $10.
Beautiful Beach at Isla Saona
As I sat outside drinking my beer, the driver walked sheepishly over to me. He said it was the first time he had made the trip. He said he’d remember me from my conversation with his boss. I said I’d remember him, too, and asked his name. “Mickey,” he said. I asked what kind of work he did before. “I worked in a grocery store,” he said. He’d lived in Boston for 17 years working for UPS and other companies. He said he had trouble with his wife, something about jail, so he came back to the Dominican Republic, where he was born. He seemed a bit of a scallywag.
When we stopped at the resort to let the family and French couple out, the van’s sliding door wouldn’t open. They’ll have to crawl out through the windows, I thought, a fitting end to a very aggravating day — so aggravating, it was comic. The door finally opened and they departed. As we drove into Santo Domingo in the dark, Mickey had trouble finding our hotel and we helped him. When we finally arrived we wondered how much we should pay him. He said his boss called him three times. He said he really needed this job and begged us to pay him the full amount.
Alms for the Poor
We did, but no tip. So much for an easier way to get to the beach.