Ian SG Smith
In this article we will look at an unmissable festival in the Dominican Republic and sea kayaking in the Bahamas.
The last week of July every summer since 1967, the three-million-plus inhabitants of Santo Domingo have converged on the Malecon, a seven-kilometre strand of palm-lined Caribbean boulevard that runs along the southern side of the Zona Colonial, for the Dominican Republic’s biggest event of the year. The Fiesta de Merengue is the ultimate rum-drenched tropical blast-out, with twenty different bandstands belting out live music from local stars past, present and future, including the city’s former mayor, hip-swivelling singing legend Johnny Ventura. The atmosphere and location are unbeatable with an expansive ribbon of turquoise sea stretching out into the distance, and headline acts playing under the spectacular limestone palace of Christopher Columbus and the ruins of the walled city he built five centuries ago.
The Fiesta fills the beachfront Malecon, a labyrinth of jam-packed venues that has been dubbed the world’s largest disco. As always at such events, the crowd is more than half the fun. Phalanxes of drunken youths bump up against white-haired old folks cutting quick, graceful moves across the asphalt; beaming teenage girls in formal, powder-pink dresses couple off together at the fringes and giggle in rhythm as they bob up and down. Candy striped vendors weave through the masses hawking everything from sugar cane and boiled corn to condoms and Clorets; and Mayor Ventura ploughs across the promenade at midnight in a horse and carriage, rocking and rolling in a tailored three-piece suit as he waves to his fans. Local politicians get in on the act, too, as pickup trucks driven by blatantly tipsy party members slowly cruise the major city streets, blaring out meringue jingles as they go.
Wilderness is not the first word that springs to mind when someone mentions the Bahamas for rum cocktails, high-rise hotels and limbo contests are the ready images. Yet a short hop from the wall to wall cruise ship carnival in Nassau lie the Exuma Cays, a chain of a couple of hundred mainly uninhabited islands stretching for more than 65km along the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Separated by a tranquil sea, the low-lying chunks of honeycombed limestone rimmed by powdery white sand and covered in dense vegetation have seemingly been designed with one mode of exploration in mind: the sea kayak.
The Exuma Land and Sea Park, in the middle section of the cays, makes for an excellent starting point, though this could be said of almost anywhere in the chain. Your ride begins at dawn, when the mirror-smooth sea takes on a delicate shade of pink. The languid morning hours are spent blissfully dipping your paddle into turquoise waters lit from beneath by sunlight reflected off a brilliant white sandy bottom and brimming with lush undersea gardens, coral reefs and a profusion of tropical fish.
At midday, beach your kayak on an inviting swath of sand and picnic under a palm tree. Snorkel over bright-hued clumps of coral, marvelling at the dazzling colours and patterns of the fish as they dart among the waving purple sea fans. Visit the colonies of metre-long iguanas sunning themselves on beaches scattered throughout the islands. Hike the footpath to the summit of Boo Boo Hill on Warderick Wells Cay and enjoy a commanding view down the length of the island chain as it trails off over the horizon. Watch the sunset through its operatic gradations of red, pink and purple.
At night, a bright moon looms overhead and an opulent canopy of stars appears close enough to pluck. Lying on the sand, you’ll fall asleep to nothing, aside from the periodic muffled thump of a coconut falling from a tree but the gentle lapping of the waves.
By: → Ian SG Smith