Contributing editor Felicity Long recently visited Club Med
Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with her husband and three
children. Her report, based on a day-long excursion in an open
PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic -- "Where are the buildings?" my
7-year-old daughter, Chloe, asked as we peered out of the window
during our descent into Punta Cana airport.
The scenery below included the requisite turquoise water,
beaches and acres of green.
Missing were high-rise buildings and developments.
Although Punta Cana has resorts, the aerial view confirmed what
I had heard about the Dominican Republic -- it is notable as much
for what is not seen as for what is.
Its low-key beauty is evident even in the renovated
thatched-roof airport at Punta Cana, which has none of the crowded,
low-rise feel of some Caribbean airports.
In fact, the entry hall has no walls, which permits cooling breezes
during the wait in line at passport control.
On the 10-minute ride to the resort, we passed tiny houses --
some ramshackle, some neat -- but all painted in bright colors and
adorned with flowers.
Dramatic vegetation and beautiful views conveyed a sense of
stepping back in time.
A few days later, we booked a daylong guided excursion.
Our aim was to get beneath the surface of the Dominican Republic
for a glimpse of real life on the island. We didn't have to look
With our guide, we set out in an open-top vehicle with plenty of
bottled water. We careened toward a home near Ma Cao beach.
"Whose house is this?" we asked our guide.
"A typical home," he replied. It appeared that way, with vivid
blue walls and lush flowers.
The family invited us in and showed us through the tiny,
colorful rooms where a smiling child showed our children a puppy
hiding under a bed.
During refreshments, a little girl approached Chloe, offered her
an unfamiliar fruit and showed her how to eat it.
This was the first of many positive social interactions we
experienced, bringing us into contact with people who were gracious
The baseball cap worn by our 8-year-old son, for example,
elicited reminders that star players Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez
are favorite sons.
On Ma Cao beach, a man hoisted the children into saddles atop
donkeys for a ride to a bluff overlooking the ocean.
Although the adults enjoyed the view, the kids responded to the
ride itself, which comprised a slow, single-file stroll along a
narrow, bumpy path.
After our ride, two young boys appeared with coconuts which, for
a dollar, they offered to crack open for us with the machetes they
Our own boys, ages 8 and 10, who were goggle-eyed at the
machetes, finally approached and took the fruit, washing it down
with fresh coconut milk.
We explored the beach, where we had the whole expanse of white
sand and green water to ourselves.
Our next stop was La Seyba, billed as a typical town but no more
than a bend in the road.
The claim to fame is a cockfight arena which we toured while
empty. It is hard to imagine that Americans are interested in the
fights, but they are part of the local culture.
Vying with Ma Cao beach as the highlight of the day was a coffee
plantation in Bonao where we had a lunch of chicken, beans and
rice, fried bananas and fresh grapefruit.
We ate outdoors in a garden full of sculptures, wildflowers and
a strolling rooster.
Much of the fruit came from the trees around us.
After lunch, our guide took us on a nature walk through the
grounds, where we sampled cacao beans -- white and soft when still
on the tree -mango, breadfruit, grapefruit and a few unfamiliar
Here, as at our other stops, several generations of the host
family watched our progress.
Grandfathers favored us with dignified nods from their upright
chairs while the children followed ours from a distance. Each time,
the children bridged the gap, sharing food or posing for
Our last official stop was the village of El Cruce Isleno,
commonly known as "the cow place." The general store was so tiny it
only could accommodate two patrons at a time.
A boy on horseback made his purchases in drive-up fashion at the
store's open window.
The village also boasted a one-room school, closed because it
Our children were astonished that school is not mandatory in the
Dominican Republic because the children are often needed for
Our guide said that weekday excursions can include visits to the
school while in session.
On the way back to our resort, we sampled raw sugar cane under
the gazes of field workers, who seemed as interested in us as we
were in them.
The outing, which our children still talk about, appeals to
visitors looking for an authentic Caribbean experience away from
prepackaged excursions to big-ticket tourist sites.
Ours was the expanded version of Club Med's Safari 4x4 program;
a packaged version will be available in November for $80 per
Parents traveling with children should realize they will see
poverty in addition to scenery, colorful architecture and friendly
They will discover a destination that looks the way the
Caribbean probably looked before tourism hit, and where one can
pluck lunch from a tree.