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Sky-high paradise

Dominican jungle a utopia for nature-lovers

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The boat ride to the beaches at Eagle Bay in Jaragua National Park straddles a cliffed coastline and threads through promintory rocks dislodged from the past earthquakes.

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The boat ride to the beaches at Eagle Bay in Jaragua National Park straddles a cliffed coastline and threads through promintory rocks dislodged from the past earthquakes.

Landing in a new city at night disorients me. I often close my eyes on the drive from airport to hotel in a liminal state of departing, arriving, waking and sleeping pierced by street lamps and sounds of the city. This is how I arrived in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic -- tired, in the dark and in a not-too-unpleasant altered state from a long journey.

I am revived with a glass of fresh melon juice in the lobby of the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, a UNESCO heritage site and boutique hotel situated in the colonial quarter of the city.

After dropping my bags in my room, I head to the bar where baseball -- the Red Sox and Tigers -- is on the television. Catching the score over a margarita, a young Dominican mining executive visiting Santo Domingo on business sidles up beside me.

It's easy to sink into the soft evening hues of light that shimmer from the pool and glance off the arches and walls of the hotel, which dates back, like many buildings in this district, to the 1500s. I'm so comfortable here that I wouldn't even be thinking of tomorrow's journey but for the mining exec, who has been studying my itinerary.

"This," he says, pointing at the map, "is going to take you longer to get there than it actually says, but it will be worth it. I hear the beaches are isolated and beautiful." It turns out, he is right on all counts.

My destination is Bahia de las Aguilas or Eagles Bay, a pristine and secluded eight-kilometre stretch of white sand beach tucked away in Jaragua National Park near the Dominican Republic's border with Haiti, about 330 km from Santo Domingo. Driving eight hours to a beach for a day trip from, say, Punta Cana, where most Canadians land and hunker down at an array of all-inclusive resorts, might seem more vocation than vacation.

But the Biosphere Reserve that straddles Barahona and Pedernales provinces at the southwestern tip of the country is attracting a different type of tourist these days. With that comes the development of boutique eco-lodges that cater to the traveller interested in the vast biodiversity of the region -- but who also appreciates a good massage, top-notch local cuisine and a cocktail or two by an infinity pool after a day of hiking in a cloud forest.

Tapping into this niche came naturally for the Toral Campiz family, owners of Rancho Platn, an eco-lodge they built on the family's ancestral coffee plantation snug in the Bahoruco Mountains' tropical forest. A one-time weekend retreat for extended family and friends, it morphed into an adventure getaway, one canopied bungalow at a time.

Accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles from the small town of Paraiso (Paradise), it feels as though we are being winched the seven kilometres up a mountain through the forest, along a rutted trail suited more to the cattle and goats that we pass. The white-knuckle affair is tempered, between exhales, by the astounding beauty of the valleys, rivers and distant glimpses of the sea.

Lucky enough to score one of two treetop rooms, I sleep buttressed in a canopy of palm trees above the rivers that flow naturally through the property, providing the electricity and water supply to this remote haven. It feels like the jungle here, and the torches that guide us along the pathways to the waterfalls and covered dining area remind me of Survivor. I am a willing contestant when it comes to the buffet of seafood, goat casserole and fresh salads and fruits.

Guests are encouraged to hike up the waterfall (surprisingly manageable) to the estate's coffee plantation, still a going concern. Zip-lining, tubing down the rapids of the Nizao River and mountain bike and horseback trails make the trip up this mountain a worthy trek for the outdoor enthusiast.

These activities are enough to keep anyone challenged and engaged for days; a bonus is the proximity to the biodiversity of the UNESCO-ordained Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve, a utopia for hikers, bird-watchers and budding botanists.

Jaragua National Park is a good two-hour drive, so we get a jump on the day, meandering alongside the Caribbean. Laguna de Oviedo is a natural pit stop on the way, allowing us to stretch and look for flamingos or iguanas, which live in this hyper-saline lake. Venturing inland, the climate becomes arid and the vegetation turns to scrub, but it's short-lived: that turquoise beacon appears again. We are at La Cueva in Cabo Rojo overlooking the Caribbean.

An early start to the day means the ability to languorously feast on freshly-caught grilled snapper, lobster and shrimp mofongo, a local favourite. I am happily indolent on this beautiful stretch of sea, glad to just eat and watch the ships in the distance, entirely forgetting the purpose of this day trip. Bahia de las Aguilas, the secluded beach jewel, is only a 15-minute boat ride away.

We hug the cliffed shoreline, threading through monoliths of sheared rock face dislodged by earthquakes. Pelicans teem above us, nonchalant escorts to the soft sands of the beach. The rest is easy -- an afternoon spent floating in the wonderfully warm, crystalline green-blue sea. The beach is bereft of people. It is beautiful.

A few hours later, we are back in Barahona, this time the town proper, for a stay at the luxurious Casa Bonita. Like Rancho Platn, Casa Bonita was a family retreat in the Bahoruco mountains, and the views from the rooms favour both that lush vista and the sea. Everything at Casa Bonita is about views: the open-air dining area segues into a sleek lounge and finally into the infinity pool's seamless meld with the sea.

This stunning viewpoint must have influenced the staff, who are affable and casually attentive: I have everything before I even know I want it. Jungle forest deluxe seems paradoxical, but chef Galmy Guevara, a local woman who learned at the apron hem of her mother, fuses traditional recipes and bountiful local ingredients -- herbs, fruit and vegetables, grown organically in pocket tropical gardens -- with a modern flair.

Casa Bonita's eco-oasis meshes with the jungles of the mountain. I walk down a path to watch some friends zip-line overhead, and then hang left to the Tanama Spa. If there is a zip-lining ruckus above, I don't hear it. I discover that a massage by a river in a jungle cocoons you even farther from civilization than you already are. And the only things that ping my liminal state here are the sound of water on rocks and the scents of rosemary and orange wafting in the air around my skin.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 E1

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