Refuge From The Storm

Luperon, in the Dominican Republic, is an antidote to the norm.

High on a Dominican hill we sat, overlooking a vista that once seduced Christopher Columbus. We rested in shade as a dozen varieties of butterfly and a single, frisky green hummingbird competed for tropical blossoms. They sipped nectar; we sipped wine and waited for lunch. To our left, flowing into the North Atlantic, was the Bajabonico River, whose sands gave the great Queen Isabella her first taste of New World gold.

Once before when I sat in this place, a terrific thunderstorm rolled down the river valley and, for more than an hour, drove its fiery spikes into the bay. Today, the sky was quiet and clear. Layered mountain-ridge lines sloped toward the sea, bearing witness to history, now as then.

Columbus, addressing his queen and sponsor, once wrote:

"May Your Highness believe that these lands are so greatly good and fertile, and especially those on this island … that there is no one who can tell it; and no one could believe it who had not seen it."

Surely, this little valley was the place Columbus loved the best, because here he founded the first Spanish town in the Americas, La Isabella.

We were in the Vista Mar restaurant, owned by a Belgian expatriate and his Dominican wife. Europeans, you see, have rediscovered the Dominican Republic. These new arrivals from the Old World are confused that we Americans, given the proximity of the United States, are a bit rare.

If you come from the Bahamas for your first look at the Spanish Caribbean, the walk from the dinghy dock to the village of Luperon may well be unforgettable. The village is set back a couple hundred yards from the harbor, so you will likely hear the place before you see it. Plinkity-plinking guitars will welcome you-loudly-to the world of boom-box Bachata, the music of love lost.

Entering the village is like walking into an adventure movie set simultaneously in the 19th and 21st centuries. Brown infants frolic naked, welders bang on their ironwork, a fishmonger cleans the morning's brightly colored catch. Chickens peck and scratch. Women bustle through their errands, housework and laundry, occasionally succumbing to the music and breaking into dance, fingers a'wag. You may see the same grandmother I did, sitting on her porch, bouncing a toddler in her lap to the rhythm and singing, "You will dance. You will dance. You will dance!" Stoic dogs sleep on sidewalks at regular intervals, as if assigned by some higher canine authority.

People here are genuinely friendly and willing to laugh at even the lamest traveler's joke. Unlike other destinations in the Caribbean, there is little overt resentment at material disparity. To be sure, many ambitious young Dominicans yearn to cross over to the United States, and many will, but with stable democratic governments, the lot of people here has steadily improved, as well.

The feel of the place is much like Spain of the 1960s, as it began its transition from fascist isolation to mainstream membership in the European community. Heck, many folks in the Dominican Republic still travel to work on the backs of burros. This can't last much longer, as proved by the sight of a Haitian sugar cane cutter walking to the fields at dawn, a machete in his left hand, his right holding a cell phone to his face.

To the Dominicans, foreigners are "gringos." This is not a pejorative, though it perhaps should be synonymous with loco. Cruising yachtsmen, unless they have truly attained an island-time mentality, can't help but seem a frenetic lot to the villagers. After all, these country folk are used to greeting each other by asking, Tranquilo? That is, Are you relaxed, at peace?

Many non-natives you meet will be mom-and-pop cruisers living their retirement dream, but hang around the place long enough and you will glimpse a more colorful gang of dreamers and schemers, con men and conned men, soldiers of fortune, defrocked priests, ruined women, undercover millionaires, master mariners, armchair admirals and old spies. Did I mention alcoholics?

These folks can be hugely entertaining. Joke with them and drink with them, but hang on to your wallet.

Weather is a compelling reason to visit Luperon en route to the Virgins. Taking a direct path from the Turks and Caicos to the Virgins and beyond-against waves, wind and current-can be an exercise in extreme passagemaking. Hugging the Dominican Republic's bold northern shore is a strategy that avoids the worst of these effects, and Luperon is the only suitable harbor in which to wait for better weather. The only other port of entry along this coast is nearby Puerto Plata, a rolly, big-ship harbor that is no place for any type of pleasure vessel.

Diesel fuel is another reason to stop in Luperon. It's good stuff at a reasonable price, but it's not quick. A fuel truck will deliver at the government dock, though you probably have to budget three days: one to set up the delivery, a second to take on fuel and a third in case no one shows on the second.

If your destination is down island, you're probably better off provisioning in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where a supermarket warehouse is a short cab ride from the yacht club. If you're bound for Cuba or the Bahamas, stock up in Luperon or at one of three American-style supermarkets in Puerto Plata.

Puerto Blanco Marina offers dock space for drafts up to 6 feet. Lenin Fernandez, whose family owns the marina, can arrange repairs and services. Bottled and tap water are available; tap water should be treated with chlorine before drinking. For reservations, Fernandez's cell phone number is (809) 299-1480. Leave a message; he speaks English. The marina also has rooms for rent and a café, which is a popular gathering spot for cruisers and local expatriates.

Luperon Harbor has had a few incidents of thievery, but you will always find trustworthy fellow cruisers willing to keep an eye on your vessel while you explore the country.

The Dominican Republic is bigger than New Hampshire and Vermont combined, and it is one of the most geographically diverse places on Earth. The scenery varies from lush lowland foliage and farmland to deserts to frosty mountain peaks, including Pico Duarte, the highest point in the Caribbean. In fact, Duarte is just one of 20 Dominican mountains that stand higher than New Hampshire's Mount Washington. Rental cars and guides can be arranged for overnight visits to the capital, Santo Domingo, whose beautiful colonial district resonates with history.

The country brews excellent Pilsener beer, the most popular of which is Presidente. The country's best rums may well be the best you'll ever drink, like fine cognac. Try Brugal Extra Viejo or Macorix Anejo, neat or with a slice of lime. The cigars here also are among the finest.

Venues for imbibing include all manner of cafés, taverns and roadside stands. For maximum entertainment, go to a disco on dance night and watch the locals cut a rug. You will be impressed, perhaps even intimidated, by the quality of dance.

For decent local dishes, international cuisine and seafood, try La Yola and Casa Del Sol. For down-home Dominican cooking, Laisa's (of the blue doors on Calle Duarte) is a cruisers' favorite. The restaurant mentioned in the beginning of this article is Vista Mar in El Castillo; the food is good, and the view is better than great.

If you go to Puerto Plata, try Café Cito's fine dining. The chef, from Montreal, also happens to be the Canadian consul. After Café Cito, the nightlife of the North Coast's largest city awaits. Orion is a slick, high-end merengue discotheque, and there are others, but be aware that any venue with the word "club" in its name is invariably a house of ill repute.

For more wholesome adventure, the waterfalls in the nearby city of Imbert are a kick. Centuries of running water has carved a series of natural water slides into the rock face of these foothills, and for a modest fee, an athletic young Dominican will guide you well through the cool, deep pools and up through the falls. The first seven levels are easy and fun, and the water will take you back down the smoothed channels.

In Luperon itself, Mario's Ranch offers horseback riding through countryside inaccessible by motorized means. Mario, a gentle soul who rides like Geronimo, will guide you himself, stopping every few miles to explain in English some facet of local history and culture, or maybe to pick a few mangoes for snacks.

You might also attend a cockfight, every one of which is like Super Bowl Sunday to Dominican enthusiasts. You may not enjoy watching roosters duel to the death, but the pre-contest preparations and intense wagering are fascinating.

In all, Luperon offers mariners great shelter at a Caribbean crossroads-to the west lies Cuba; to the north, the Bahamas; to the east, Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles. The best reason to stop is not geographic but spiritual, to feed your own sense of adventure.

Isn't that why you went cruising in the first place?

PLANNING YOUR APPROACH

Arrive in daylight to enter Luperon Harbor. Morning is better than afternoon. If you have been in the sand-scrubbed Bahamas for a few months, you will notice the rich smell of soil. As you near the coast, the Luperon beach resort will stand out as white forms against the terrain. The harbor entrance is just left of them.

The waypoint 19 57.0 N 70 56.5 W puts you two miles north of the harbor entrance. Proceed to waypoint 19 55.0 N, 70 56.5 W, which puts you three-fourths of a mile from the harbor mouth. There's a small headland on the eastern shore of the harbor; come in on a bearing of 190 degrees (magnetic) to its tip. The reefs usually break on either side of you and occasionally are marked by red and green marker balls. Your depth should level off at 12 feet. Come right gradually, keeping between the red and green marker stake buoys, and enter the westernmost of the harbor's two pools.

Inside, the harbor divides with Puerto Blanco Marina to starboard and the government dock straight ahead. Mind your marks, motor slowly and watch for sandbars. There is ample room to anchor in 14 feet. The bottom is thick, colloidal muck. For local knowledge, put out a call on Channel 68. Channel 16 belongs to the military here.

Marina Puerto Blanco can accommodate a few vessels in 7 feet of water. The government has set down moorings, which may run you a nominal fee. Though less than a year old, a couple have already broken loose.

CHECKING IN

Wait with Q-flag hoisted. Dominican officials will come to you in a skiff. The counter-narcotics agent will root around perfunctorily. A naval officer will record your presence, and the immigration man will issue to each person aboard the equivalent of a tourist visa for up to 90 days (renewable). The cost is $10 per passport and another $10 for the boat. Offer them a cold Coke.

If no one shows, dinghy to the government dock. Walk the quay toward the village. At the edge of town, look to your left and up the hill. The building with flag flying is the Navy's Commandancia. Check in with sailors there.

WHAT TO READ

The best cruising guide is "Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward," by Bruce Van Sant. It includes chartlets and waypoints not available elsewhere, including one for Luperon, and shoreside amenities. Cruising Guide Publications, (727) 733-5322; fax (727) 734-8179; www.cruisingguides.com.

Also worth a look are "Dominican Republic Handbook" by Gaylord Dold, "Moon Travel Handbooks; Explore the Dominican Republic" by Harry S. Pariser, Hunter Publishing; and "Dominican Republic" by Ulysses Travel Publications.

CHARTS

The Defense Mapping Agency has charts for the North Coast. A good buy is Hispaniola 017 by Wavey Line Publishing, available at major chart providers. On one side, the chart depicts a small-scale view of the Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic and the West Coast of Puerto Rico. On the reverse side, it provides several large-scale charts for important harbors. Unfortunately, Luperon is not included.