Family road trip offers glimpse of real island and real people

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 vehicle, follows:

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.

Kids on donkeys visit Ma Cao Beach in Punta Cana. 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 far.

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 and welcoming.

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 carried.

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 fruits.

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 photographs.

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 was Saturday.

Our children were astonished that school is not mandatory in the Dominican Republic because the children are often needed for work.

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 person.

Parents traveling with children should realize they will see poverty in addition to scenery, colorful architecture and friendly people.

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.

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