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Cathedrals in the Eastern Caribbean I

Trip Report: 27 Jan 2024 to 12 Feb 2024: Dominican Republic and NCL Sky

For my first trip of the new calendar year, I booked aboard the Norwegian Sky for 14 days out of La Romana (Punta Cana). This cruise has a backstory – last January, while cruising on the NCL Escape with two friends I’d met cruising on the NCL Epic in January 2022, we all booked an 11-day cruise in mid-January 2024 aboard the Sky. A month later, an email from Norwegian canceled the trip, citing the need for maintenance. When I returned from my spring-summer Europe trip in August, I began casting out for a cruise to use a few of my Cruise Next coupons. While not my first choice, I booked a week aboard the Epic out of Port Canaveral (Jamaica, Caymans, Cozumel.) Then, to deal with my frustration, I changed that booking to the 2-week cruise I took.

The January 2023 cruise took us to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. While there, I’d used Milton, a ToursByLocals guide, to visit the two nearby cathedrals during our day in port. With the January 2024 cruise starting in La Romana (the port for Punta Cana,) I contacted Milton to see if he could guide me on the southern and eastern end of Hispaniola. He couldn’t, but put me in touch with Rome, also a ToursByLocals guide. Via email, we worked out a multi-day agenda where I’d see more of the D.R. prior to the cruise.

Further planning took place in December and January, as I participated on both the CruiseCritics and FaceBook boards, as well as booking a private excursion through Viator for St Kitts. A neighbor in my HOA, Dave, agreed to pick me up both for the start and end of my flights on Delta out of Sarasota, through Atlanta. The day before I purchased a chicken croissant for breakfast and a club salad for lunch at Publix.

Saturday, 27 January

The Delta flight left at 7:05am, so I was up at 4, picked up by Dave at 4:30 and at the airport at 5:20. Check-in was simple, TSA went smoothly, and I had about an hour to kill before boarding. Equipment was there, and we started loading ahead of schedule, and once the door was closed, we pushed back and were soon in the air. My seat companions were Jill (destined for the North Carolina shore) and Antonio (Steamboat Springs to ski.) A bit of rough air as we approached Hartsfield-Jackson, we deplaned at gate A20, and my continuing travels left for Santo Domingo out of gate E8. The subway/metro ran timely, and I was soon boarding. I was seated with Silvia, a woman from Georgia, who held dual DR/USA citizenship; she was returning to bury her grandfather.

From Comfort Plus, I was one of the earlier leaving the aircraft, so reached Immigration ahead to the hordes, and breezed through. Luggage “took forever”, but Customs was basically non-existent. Once out of the sterile zone, I looked for my driver-guide. Probably 5 minutes passed with some texting and then his call to my phone alerted Rome to which of the arrivals was his customer. We wheeled the two bags out to the rental car he’d secured (his was in the shop needing a part) and left the airport for the capital city of Santo Domingo.

SW corner, Cathedral Basilica of Santa María la Menor, Parque Colon
NE corner, Cathedral Basilica of Santa María la Menor

SE corner, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, Plazaleta de los Curas
SE corner, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación

Following the coastal highway about 30km, we parked below the walls of the old city and climbed around and through a pair of gates to reach the city square. Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, the first cathedral built in the New World by the Spanish in 1523 forms one side of this tree-filled plaza. Around the rear of the church, Rome went and secured a ticket for my entry, and we approached the building from the Plazaleta de los Curas. Entering where the nave ended and the presbytery begins, there were three chapels to the side of the sanctuary, including a presence altar with a silver tabernacle. The center of the nave was cordoned off with preparations for a wedding, so the viewing path led down the south side aisle, passing a handful of recessed chapels.

Crossing the rear and looking at the vault, the stone ribbing filled the space with air and light. In the northwest corner, a large painting of the virgin and child garners veneration in a chapel whose dome is elaborate tilework. Continuing to the apse, I noted the current main altar and the dark wooden altarpiece. A chair sits below the statue of the patron saint, with an episcopal coat of arms over the cathedra. From the altar rail, I wasn’t able to clearly “get my picture”, so I returned to the original entry point. Still not a good angle, I asked the cleaners if it was the bishop’s throne, and they allowed me into the sanctuary where I was able to add another to my collection.

Catedral Primada de América de Santo Domingo, western facade
Catedral Primada de América de Santo Domingo

Exiting, and spotting Rome under one of the trees in Parque Colon, I turned west to the gated (and locked) entrance on Calle Arzobispo Meriño. I climbed a pedestal corner of the supporting wall to get a shot of the front façade. Leaving, we walked past the statue of Columbus at the center of the square in his honor, and proceeded back to the Plaza de España o de la Hispanidad, passing the Republica Brewing, regrettably without getting a draft beer. Across the roadway from the parking parada was the Fuerta Invencible, on the Rio Ozama’s edge.

Note to self: two things – the first being to check the time set in the camera when I start a new adventure (for the whole trip, I was set to UTC+1 (Western Europe) while I was actually in UTC-4.) The second is to check Google when local for any nearby cathedrals, as my prime source (Wikipedia) will often not include every bishop’s seat. In Santo Domingo, I missed visiting two more – the Anglican and the Military Ordinariate.

With the daylight slowly disappearing, we returned to Highway 3 to head east, following the coastline. About halfway between the Las Américas International Airport and San Pedro de Macoris, Rome pulled over to an open-air restaurant. We went in and queued up, to select local cuisine to eat out on the waterfront. Cautious after “native” Mexican dining on salad greens, I stuck to barbecue pork, chorizo and a fried chicken wing.

The sun had set while we ate (about 6:30pm,) so the unlit highway became an adventure as Rome sped his way towards La Romana, his hometown, the cruise port and where my hotel was. It took a bit for him to orient, albeit the Hotel Silvestre is part of his extended family. My room was on the third level, away from the courtyard with the pool and restaurant. Once I got my two pieces of luggage in the room, I checked, and found that the tap water wasn’t potable. Into the restaurant and I got 4 bottles from the bar. As I’d been up nearly 18 hours, I crashed.

The bed was harder than I like. There was a barking dog who seemed to be agitated all night. I wasn’t able to flip the shower connection, so had to bathe from the faucet. With only a small closet to hang clothes, storage was lacking. Personally, I would give the place 2-stars.

Sunday, 28 January

The car Rome had used to collect me had given him issues, so he showed up with a nicer version. He collected me earlier than planned at 8 and requested the indulgence of running several errands to start, which included a stop at the ATM at the local airport. I decided I wanted some local currency, but the ATM kept my card and didn’t give me cash. (A quick call to Schwab cancelled the card and transaction. However, I had no access to more cash for the trip.) Rome then took me to Restaurant Crema where I had an omelet, potatoes, cut fruit and coffee, while he had a much more substantial meal.

Continuing my itinerary, we got on Highway 3 east to Highway4 north into the city of Higüey, or in full Salvaleón de Higüey, which is the capital city of the eastern La Altagracia Province. In Rome’s haste he missed the exit, and we weren’t able to legally turn around for 10 miles. The roadway took us through and into the center of the city, as we headed to the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia. The soaring arch acted as a beacon, and we approached and circumnavigated the modern poured concrete cathedral. Traffic was miserable, probably due to both it being Sunday and the middle of a 4-day holiday.

Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, Higüey
Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia. Higüey

Parking, we headed to the entrance. The nave was filled to overflowing, with many sitting on the marble floor along the sides – Mass was to begin in about a quarter hour. I stealthily made my down the southern side aisle, approaching the raised altar and sanctuary. The high vault kept the space cool, albeit few windows allowed less light. As I neared the presbytery, I noted a queue of worshipers who had climbed a set of stairs on the opposite side to honor an image of the Virgin Mary. I looked for a way behind the shrine and found none. I came back to the entry and walked the north aisle, finishing up my photographs just as the noon bells announced the arrival of the celebrant.

We were out in front of the east-facing façade as I began looking for an optimal angle to capture the splendor and beauty of the building. Off under a curving covering was the end of a queue which would extend alongside the exterior of the church and then into the transept where I’d seen the stairs. I estimated at least an hour to complete one’s brief (2 seconds) obeisance. My route took us completely around the structure, allowing us a restroom break.

Back in the car, Rome made a brief tour of Higüey. My notes include the observation of lots of retail and commercial buildings, with the streets in fair condition. At my request, we returned to La Romana by backroads. Mostly agricultural, as we headed west, the crops changed to sugar cane. We made a stop to observe harvesters loading the oxen-drawn wagon with cut canes. The terrain reminded me of the rolling hills of the US heartland, with tiny hamlets where streams ran by.

By 2pm we had returned to La Romana, where I exchanged some US cash for DR pesos. A nearby shop offered smoothies, so I had a lite, healthy lunch. Rome dropped me at the hotel for a 3-hour siesta. I was able to use the hotel wifi and clear emails before my nap. I had a lukewarm shower and read a little before Rome texted me that he had returned. He explained he had spent the entire time running errands for his extended family. We went downtown, passing several clubs and a street full of food trucks, to a club, NOLA, where we were the sole patrons – it was much too early for the social scene to start. With my local beer I had an order of 4 BBQ chicken wings which were delicious.

Rome dropped me back at the hotel, and after a bit in the room, I came down to the restaurant for dinner. With a Negra Modelo (dark Mexican beer) and a shrimp dish, I enjoyed the evening until the mosquitoes got a bit too aggressive. I returned to the room, preparing for a 9am pickup.

Monday, 29 January

Up, I made some adjustments to the contents of my luggage, moving electronics around so the “carry-on” roller would be lighter. When Rome’s text arrived, I began my descent, moving the two bags in stages down the two flights and across an inner courtyard to reception. There was a question about the water in the mini-refrigerator (which I hadn’t consumed), but left soon. We headed to a roadside café where I got avocado, a slice of pork roll and a fried egg with OJ, as I wasn’t particularly hungry. Rome made a few stops, taking care of errands as we travelled through La Romana. Of significance is a small memorial park sitting in a strip between a roadway and a surface street, where the Baseball Hall of Fame players from the Dominican Republic are memorialized. Across the highway is a stadium and a basketball arena. Into the town square, the main church was locked behind a gate and fence.

Scooters are everywhere, sometimes serving as taxis. The drivers are brazen, running red lights, weaving around cars and trucks, loaded to the max. They use the shoulder on the highways, and operate seemingly without rules on roads. This probably triggers the aggressive driving of the locals, which might explain my experiences with Rome’s driving. Coupled with his history of living in New York City, his macho urges as well as his frequently voiced distain for other’s driving “skills” made for some harrowing rides. Plus he told me that he couldn’t drive leisurely when I asked him to slow down, particularly as we had no true schedule.

Throughout my time in the Dominican Republic, the streets and roadways were lined with political posters. A local, regional and national election happens soon, and we ran into cavalcades of cars carrying supporters and huge speakers, as they crawled through neighborhoods.

As lunchtime approached, we picked up his ex-wife, his youngest daughter, and his grandson. We headed to the beach, where we had a reservation for lunch under a palapa overlooking the sandy beach. Picking tilapia from a tray offering 5 freshly caught fish, my meal included rice and a bottle of El Presidente.

 After dropping his family off, Rome took me to the cruise terminal.

Book: Cathedrals to the Glory of God
Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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