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Be a rolling stone and gather no mozzies..; GET OUT AND ENJOY THIS PARADISE ISLE.

THE pretty Thomson tour rep at Puerta Plata airport said: "Ah, yes sir, I will take you to paradise."

Yes, indeed. But instead I jumped in a mini-bus and headed off through green canyons of waving sugar cane for the Paradise Hotel at Playa Dorada, some 30 minutes away.

The Dominican Republic is one of the poorest countries in the western world. It has a population of almost eight million and more than two million people don't have a job.

Almost half of over-25s have had no formal education. And the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti, is Mosquito City for most of the year.

You would think that as a holiday destination its chances of success were as likely as Japan winning the World Cup. And the Dominican Republic scored a few own goals last year with reports of stomach upsets among tourists.

But the fact is that this country provides the cheapest holidays to the Caribbean.

A week or two, fully inclusive, in a well-run three-star hotel will cost around pounds 1,000 less than in Barbados or Antigua. In fact, last week bucket shops were offering flight-only deals to the Dominican Republic for just pounds 89 return.

The reason it's so cheap is because of the unfortunate publicity it has had. Unfortunate in the sense that the country just wasn't ready for the hordes of tourists who came for the sunshine, white beaches and very cheap rum.

And indeed everything seems cheap, though it is very difficult to tell.

Almost every hotel has an all-inclusive package, which means there is no particular need to go into local towns - in the North, Puerta Plata, in the South, Santo Domingo.

This is a problem. One restaurant owner I spoke to in Puerta Plata - a dusty, old town with visible signs of poverty - was nearly going out of business. He said: "Every day the papers say we are getting more and more tourists. But they stay in their hotels.

"We serve lobster, crab, fine steaks. Our meals are a thousand times better than in these hotels. But they won't come because of all-inclusive deals."

Tourism soaks up most of the jobs for young Dominicans.

The amber mines, up in the beautiful wooded hills around Rio Alto, take a few. Others work in the silver mines or on sugar plantations.

But most are employed in the island's capital, Santo Domingo, which feels like a Spanish city with its tapas bars and broad, tree-lined avenues.

The north of the island is more predictable. The Paradise Hotel is one of almost 40 hotels stuffed into a compound surrounded by fences and security guards.

The Paradise is a nice hotel. The superior rooms are tastefully furnished and many overlook the swaying palms. The sea is warm, the staff friendly and there is a disco which plays endless local merengue music - no, I don't know what it is, either, and I had to spend a week listening to it.

The only way to describe it is Herb Alpert playing Iggy Pop with a sort of Lambada beat.

There is even a casino. But there is something missing. After a couple of days I realised what it was. Nobody goes anywhere.

John, from Littlehampton in Sussex, was on his fourth holiday on the island and he had only been out of the compound once to buy souvenirs.

A couple from Wakefield admitted they had only ventured as far as the large shopping mall 50 yards up the road to buy a burger. So here's what they are missing:

A DAY trip by catamaran down the coast to the old town of Sosua (food and unlimited drinks included - about pounds 40). Pre-lunch snorkelling is superb off the coral reefs and the return trip in a fairly lively Atlantic swell is exhilarating.

A DAY trip, or longer, into the Dominican Alps - a range of spectacular mountains in the north west filled with trees and exotic birds.

The scenery is spectacular. Waterfalls, huge ravines and raging rivers suitable for white water rafting - if you're a thrill-seeker not afraid of crocs.

TWO days in Santo Domingo. It is the oldest Spanish colonial city in the Caribbean, big, bustling, dusty and exciting.

So there you have it. The Dominican Republic has had a set-back.

But there is no doubt that holidaymakers, tottering back to their rooms after another day of all-inclusive pina coladas and all-you-can-eat buffet meals, get great value from the cheapest island in the Caribbean.

It may not be paradise, but it's a bargain.

HOT TIPS

When to go: It is very hot and humid from the end of May until October. Hurricanes do occasionally happen during September and October. Where to stay: Ask your travel agent for details of hotels run by American companies - Amsha is among the best of these. Find a hotel on the coast - the sea breezes keep the mosquitoes away. Flight time: Around nine hours non-stop.

TRAVEL CHECK

THOMSON (0990 502 399) 7nts all inclusive at the Amsha Paradise Beach Club, Playa Dorada, pounds 685 (early July), pounds 659 (mid-Sept) with flights from Gatwick.

Flights are also available from Manchester and Birmingham on a weekly basis or Cardiff and Glasgow every fortnight. Further info: Dominican Republic Embassy, 139 Inverness Terrace, London W2 6JF.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Mayhew, Iain
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 13, 1998
Words:884
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