Ashley Kosciolek has been a travel editor at Cruise Critic, a TripAdvisor company, for more than ten years and has written extensive reviews on voyages to dozens of cities across the globe. She serves as an industry expert and enjoys active sailings that allow her to learn while on the go. Her favourite destinations include London, Krakow, Amsterdam, Rudesheim and Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory. She can found on Instagram (SlyJabroni) and Twitter (@SlyJabroni).
You’re very likely a strong, independent woman (of course you are) and few things hurt the pride of strong, independent women more than feeling like they need to ask for help.
That’s especially true of female millennial jetsetters who — as we’ve been told, ad nauseam, by previous generations — enjoy “authentic” travel they plan themselves. There is, after all, something inherently satisfying about picking a destination, researching and booking the best options, and facing new destinations head-on.
However, your sense of accomplishment can quickly turn to panic when you find yourself in an unsafe place where you don’t speak the language and everything seems to be going wrong.
What I’m about to share with you is one of the worst (and also best) travel experiences I’ve had, and it all started with the best laid plans….
I landed at the airport in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, where I had been sent for a work assignment. I collected my luggage without incident and headed for the car hire desk, relieved that I had reserved a vehicle ahead of time, along with hotels in Santo Domingo and Samana. (The plan was to spend two days in each place, with a pit stop in La Romana on the drive from one to the other.)
My jaw dropped as I was handed the keys to what appeared to be the world’s tiniest car — a Chana Benni. It would have been fine for me, but I was traveling with my then-boyfriend, who’s was 6’1″ and nearly 18 stone. (To this day, I regret not filming his struggle to fit inside.)
After 15 minutes of fighting with the satnav, which was set to Spanish, we took the wrong exit and found ourselves lost in a rough neighbourhood where the streets had no marked lanes, cars filtered in from all angles, and mopeds whizzed past as they weaved dangerously in and out of traffic. Meanwhile, men glared menacingly from their front stoops, and poor street children attempted to steal our windscreen wiper blades so they could sell them back to us.
Two hours. After several more wrong turns, that’s how long it took us to drive the 14 miles to our hotel, which was lovely and positioned along a waterfront promenade. But, despite the idyllic views, the concierge advised us to take a taxi that night to get to dinner — across the street — insisting that it wasn’t safe to walk.
Over dinner, we decided we had no idea what we were doing and that it would be wise to ask for help from someone more familiar with the area. Later that night, the same concierge helped us find a local tour guide to take us to the places we needed to see the following day, our sense of adventure somewhat crushed.
Luckily, what we got were two lovely gentlemen — our driver and our guide — who took us to all of the best local spots, including some lesser-known ones that we would have missed otherwise. Plus, I finished my assignments way ahead of schedule and was able to relax for the rest of the day.
When it came time to make the two-hour drive to Samana, we were optimistic that our luck had shifted, but the navigation gods had other plans. Try as we might, we couldn’t find our way off of the main highway and onto the road we needed, forcing us to stop to ask for directions in our horrible secondary school Spanish.
My boyfriend, more fluent than me, was able to pick up “derecha, derecha, derecha.” Great. Three right turns. By some miracle, it worked, and we were on our way again, only to be met by credit card issues and a car that wouldn’t start when we stopped to fill up at the only petrol station for miles.
The car hire company helped us to get back on the road, but more wrong turns led us through a toll booth we weren’t expecting — twice — and when we explained that we didn’t have any pesos, two soldiers dressed in camouflage and armed with machine guns told us they’d let us through for £15 (each time), which was far more than the actual cost of the tolls.
Ultimately, we ended up in Samana at a gorgeously secluded resort with breathtaking views, which we had mostly to ourselves since it was the off season. But we had learnt our lesson. When we ventured into town, we went directly to the office of a tour operator that had been recommended to us by a colleague. He graciously spent the next two days taking us to nearby homes to chat with residents, filling us with local food and drink, convincing us to try hands-free zip wiring and leading us deep into the rainforest on horseback to swim at the base of a stunning waterfall.
The bottom line? It’s ok to ask for help. You don’t have to have all the answers all the time, and sometimes pre-arranged tours aren’t as kitschy or mass market as you’d think. In fact, the outcome might be better than what you expected from your original plan. My two biggest pieces of advice from this trip are: 1) be flexible, and 2) be safe.
In spite of the challenges I had in the Dominican Republic, the positive experiences are what stick out most in my mind. In that vein, here are three great things to do if you find yourself there, as well as one thing to avoid.
- Tour Samana with Terry. Terry Bandi, an American expat who now lives in Samana, showed some friends around the area when they came to visit. Word spread, and now he operates a full-fledged, reputable English- (and Spanish-) speaking tour business. Amazing (and safe) options include the aforementioned zipwiring and horseback riding/waterfall excursions, often complete with free drinks (including alcohol) and an authentic lunch, cooked on a beach by some of his friends. He and his crew also offer whale-watching tours in Santo Domingo, La Romana and Punta Cana. Because he moved to the Dom. Rep. from elsewhere, Terry is happy to chat about the country’s nuances — both good and bad — so you’ll get a better understanding of the culture.
- Sunbathe at Boca Chica, Cayo Levantado or Bayahibe Beach. If a beach day is what you’re seeking, my best recommendations are:
Boca Chica beach (Santo Domingo): About 30 minutes outside of town, this beach is where the locals go, so it’s a great way to interact with some of the residents. Just outside the entrance, you’ll find food stands that sell mouthwatering empanadas, sandwiches and other great homemade Dominican dishes. There are sit-down restaurants nearby, as well as water sports equipment rentals.
Cayo Levantado island (Samana): This island, a 10-minute boat ride from the docks in Samana, is partprivate resort and part public access. If you’re not staying at the resort, you’ll be ferried to the public dock via a cruise shore excursion (if ships are in port that day) or by private boat. (Private boats, which can be hired at the docks just outside of the downtown area, are not allowed to access the island on cruise days.) Once there, you’ll have a clean beach with plenty of free lounge chairs, sports equipment rentals, and places to buy food and drink. There are also bathrooms and plenty of activities, such as sea lion encounters and kayaking.
Bayahibe Beach (La Romana): This is the closest beach if you’re hoping for a day of sand and sun while in La Romana. A 10-minute taxi ride outside of town, it features water sports and nearby places to eat and shop.
A couple things to note: Unfortunately, theft is common in the Dominican Republic, so don’t leave your belongings unattended. Also be aware that local touts might interrupt your serene beach time to try to sell you things like massages, hair braiding services and fruity cocktails.
- Stay at a resort. If you’re more worried about safety and relaxation than planning an independent trip to various places within the Dominican Republic, look into one of the country’s many resorts, which include the Luxury Grand Bahia Principe on Cayo Levantado and several places in Punta Cana, which is known for its all-inclusives.
Don’t: Even if you’re planning an independent trip to the Dominican Republic, we strongly recommend avoiding car hire. Roads are confusing, and traffic conditions are often congested and unsafe. Avoid the headache by simply grabbing a taxi or booking a tour or the services of a reputable guide.