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Dominican Town Greets Visitors With Laid-Back Line: ‘No Problem’

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This mountainous island country’s low-profile north shore, not yet entirely pockmarked by condo enclaves, appeared as a bright blur of reedy sugar-cane fields and tumbledown shacks painted Pepto-Bismol pink and 7-Up green. We were bouncing and clattering along hardscrabble roads coming from the airport a few miles west at Puerto Plata.

Fifteen minutes later, tiny, festive Sosua popped into view. The van groaned to a stop on Main Street, and deposited our band of 30 winter sun-seekers at the North Shore Hotel, oldest in town. We were part of a group last year led by Housatonic (Conn.) Community College art professor and photographer Michael Stein, a confirmed Sosuaphile who leads 10-day tours here every March.

Not to be confused with the smaller Lesser Antilles island of Dominica to the east, the Dominican Republic (Pop.: about 7.2 million) occupies the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola, adjoining Haiti in the West Indies. The capital city of Santo Domingo sits on the island’s south shore.

Already, the North Shore Hotel--a benevolent three-story structure of fading, light-green stucco, about a five-minute walk from the beach--felt like the Dominican equivalent of Fawlty Towers. Roosters crowed from somewhere in back. Motorcyclists raced by, horns beeping. Merengue music pulsated from the bar next door.

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Inside, the North Shore’s rooms were small but clean (drawers are curiously absent), and arranged motel-style around the pool. But the staff is tirelessly good-natured, and within minutes of our arrival, one of the owners was helping a 12-year-old boy among us to hunt down velvety-green lizards that darted in and out of the poolside foliage.

Over our first B-52s at Carlos’, the requisite thatch-roofed, good-times bar next door, some veteran Dominican travelers in our party grumbled and sneered. Not like the old days, they groused; so many more people this year.

But to us newcomers, Sosua looked fine--mercifully unsterilized and lively, like a college town but with much better restaurants and, as we found over the course of the 10 days, quite appealing to budget-minded Type B personalities who like their midwinter R&R; in a slightly wacky, “don’t worry, be happy” setting.

When power goes off in Dominican hotels--as it almost inevitably does, due to the primitive electrical system--guests just pull out a flashlight and head for the nearest watering hole whose backup generator hasn’t given out.

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As the T-shirts say: No problem, Sosua .

We were swept up in the tropical trappings of Sosua. Mimosa trees swelled with wispy pink blossoms, and Cuban emerald humming birds, larger and calmer than their stateside counterparts, alighted on telephone wires, luminescent feathers glinting in the sun.

We were intrigued by the town’s unusual past. During World War II, Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo granted sanctuary to a small community of German Jews, who set up prosperous farms and a booming dairy industry (even now the butter is a rich marigold with a faint honey taste). Gradually the Germans vanished, leaving only a sprinkling of German guest houses and unlikely sounding street names such as Calle David Stern.

Now American, Canadian, German and French visitors amble along Sosua’s two-block town center, which is crowded with a convivial array of open-air restaurants. Dining is relatively inexpensive. But book ahead for Sonya’s, a pretty garden restaurant with a French bistro flair, or for Alberto’s, an airy new Italian restaurant a bit farther out of town that we regrettably discovered on our penultimate evening on the island.

As for night life, there are a few discos in town, but the casinos (one in Puerto Plata and at Jack Tar Village between Puerto Plata and Sosua) are hard to resist. You can play with either American or Dominican money, and opting for the latter means staying at the blackjack table for something like nine cents a bet.

But Sosua’s main attraction is just hanging out at the beach, of which there are two--each a different sand-and-surf experience.

The “small beach” is actually quite wide and wave-logged, and since access is via the upscale new hotels on the eastern edge of town, it’s a full-service beach.

Uniformed waiters tote trays of Coca-Cola. Muzak from the hotels’ sound system competes with the song of the surf and the relentlessly chipper DJ pipes in regularly during a countdown to happy hour and the evening’s themed dinner.

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We opted to make our beach headquarters on the other side of town, at the narrower and calmer “big beach.” There, in a quarter-mile cove, crystalline water laps gently at white sand, and unruly mangrove trees edge the beach in deep, welcome shade.

Just behind the trees, a string of stands stretches the length of the beach from Sosua to the neighboring town of Charimicos, selling everything from paintings, jewelry, handmade hats, the ever-present T-shirts and handcrafts to such food and beverages as plantains, tropical fruits and local beer and rum. The smell of fish barbecuing on grills, ingeniously improvised from oil drums, wafts over to tantalize the outstretched bodies at work on tans.

If a visitor can’t quite summon the energy to get from his or her place in the sun to one of the rickety tables under the palms for mero (the Dominican generic term for fish) or a frothy batida (a fruity, milkshake-like concoction), the constant parade of hawkers do their best to accommodate.

A wizened man with pants legs rolled to the knees may stop to display a box bursting with voluptuous coral-colored shrimp. Or a band of teen-agers may tempt you with fresh clams and oysters glistening in a handsome basket made of an enormous banana leaf.

My eye, though, was always looking for the husky Haitian lady who tucked slabs of a strangely wonderful milky peanut brittle laced with ginger into the fruit-filled tub balanced on her head.

Then there’s the flotilla of kids dying to corn-row your hair, bring you an icy pina colada--with or without the rum--to drink from a hollow pineapple, or shine your shoes. From the moment a tireless 10-year-old named Junio beamed his rakish smile at us, we resigned ourselves to having our scuffed sneakers shined and reshined.

The beach has a low-key, neighborly feel. It’s also ideal for snorkeling. And if your body just happens to bump the reef about half a mile from shore, Dominicans galore are ready to proffer time-tested remedies. Even the doctor we traveled with deferred to local expertise in these matters. My husband, his smarting fingers from coral splinters, paid a visit to the desk clerk at our hotel, who expertly teased them out with a sewing needle.

For the restless, there are all-day excursions on horseback up into the mountains, complete with lunch and a swim in an icy stream, as well as boat rides to deserted islands and trips to Puerto Plata, the gritty port city with surprisingly charming Victorian-Carribean architectural gems tucked along its side streets. From Puerto Plata, a gondola whisks riders up to a mountaintop botanical garden overlooking the sea.

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Initially, these sightseeing activities sounded like too much work to us, but after several days of beach-bound indolence, we felt the need to move about and strike out on our own. After all, what would an island vacation be without a fatiguing day on the back of a motorcycle?

After renting cycles on Main Street, our gang of three couples headed down the narrow coastal road, then turned right into the island’s intriguing interior, far from the tourists.

We drove upward into the quiet green hills, past steamy fields where snow-white egrets perched on the backs of listless cattle. Soon the traffic thinned out and we were alone in the stillness, whizzing past occasional deserted roadside stands when a pickup truck coming toward us beeped and screeched to a halt.

The driver climbed out and flashed a grin: It was a waiter from Carlos’ acknowledging my husband, who had become something of a local celebrity that week thanks to his frenetic rendition of a Dominican folk dance at one of the club’s audience participation nights.

On into the interior, the countryside was lush and undisturbed, the surprisingly smooth road threading villages that featured short, sleepy stretches of post offices, bars and churches, where saucer-eyed children in colorful clothes waved to us, and skinny dogs hobbled along in search of shade. Near the tiny town of Jamoa El Norte, we spotted our lunch spot.

The El Pirate restaurant is actually in a farmer’s back yard--a thatched roof over a concrete slab floor, and low walls scattered with baby-blue-painted coffee cans holding red geraniums. A chicken strutted about the handful of wooden tables, and just outside a donkey chewed on the leaves of a tree. We knew we were in for some serious eating.

While the senora and her daughter whispered softly in the corner, we sipped wine and waited, watching the soft rounded hills beyond, for the first time feeling very much away from it all. Finally, a lanky youth slipped around the corner and into the kitchen carrying fish still dripping with river water, the makings of the best meal of our trip.

On the return to Sosua we passed through Cabarete, an internationally known windsurfing spot where constant wind ruffles the sea, whipping electric pink and green and orange sails as high as a house over the water.

Back in front of the North Shore Hotel, we were aglow from a day of mountain air and adventure, though a bit bowlegged and caked with dust from our ride. As if equipped with radar, Junio--shoeshine kit in hand--appeared from nowhere and stared expectantly at our feet. With a nod from my husband, he set up shop and happily went to work.

GUIDEBOOK

Exploring Sosua

Getting there: American Airlines, Pan Am and Continental all offer direct flights from Los Angeles to Puerto Plata International Airport, just a few miles from Sosua. Round-trip coach fares range from about $540 to about $700, depending on time of year and advance purchase. The Dominican Republic’s national airline is Air Dominicana.

Where to stay: In Sosua, there’s the North Shore Hotel (about $20 per night; 809-571-2388). On the beach is the fancier Sosua-by-the-Sea (about $40 per night; 809-571-3020).

Group tours: Art professor and photographer Michael Stein leads trips to Caribbean destinations each year in late March or early April. Our all-inclusive, per-person package of $550 to Sosua included round-trip air fare from New York City, accommodations and transportation to and from the hotel. For more information, contact Stein at 392 Hilltop Road, Orange, Conn., (203) 799-2997.


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