Caribbean

Santo Domingo: sun, history and quick divorces

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The Catedral Santa Maria de la Encarnacion in Santo Domingo. (Ian Cumming/The Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism)

It's Valentine's Day, a time when some of us will receive more than just a card or a candlelit dinner. For a lucky few, a diamond ring will be on offer, along with the starry-eyed dreams of a future life together.

The islands of the Caribbean are depending on it. Thousands of Canadians come down each year to tie the knot in this land of trade winds, swaying palm trees and dazzling warm waters.

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Still, according to current statistics, about 50 per cent of marriages in Canada end in divorce, and that figure remains the same for second and even third marriages. Thus, divorce is another booming market. And at least one island has capitalized on it.

Call it the Republic of Love-gone-wrong, or the Divorce Capital of the Caribbean, but the Dominican Republic makes breakups its business. Yes, this is the spot to come after that destination wedding - for a destination divorce.

The island nation's largest city, Santo Domingo, is home to the lawyers and magistrates you'll need, as well as luxurious hotels and convenient air connections. This beautiful, sophisticated and lively city - the oldest in the New World - is sure to make your split the best (and hopefully only) you'll ever have.

After all, why spend all that money on expensive Canadian lawyers? Even an uncontested divorce will set you back $10,000, but, for around $2,000 you can join the ranks of celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Mia Farrow, Marc Anthony and Lisa Marie Presley, all of whom have taken advantage of an easy, cheap and quick divorce in the Dominican Republic. Even the "queen of divorce" herself, Elizabeth Taylor, has availed herself of the amenities here.

In fact, in the current economic climate, when a Caribbean vacation, let alone a Caribbean wedding, is out of reach for many Canadians, getting a divorce in the Dominican Republic might be your only affordable option of soaking up some sun.

Only one spouse needs to show up for the half-hour proceedings, and they have to remain on the island, billed as the "Quick Divorce Island," for only a single day. But why leave when there is so much to see and do in Santo Domingo? And why come alone? Take your ex-spouse, or your next-spouse, and come visit this sometimes overlooked but thrilling city on the shores of the Caribbean Sea.

I'm here with my ex-wife. We got divorced three years ago in Santo Domingo, living proof that a quick Dominican divorce can allow you to remain friends.

This is my third visit to Santo Domingo, but my first to Hotel Nicolas de Ovando. Named after the first governor of the New World whose home this once was, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is situated in the heart of the colonial zone. It sits along the first street built in the Americas - appropriately named if you are here to get a divorce - Calle Las Damas: the Street Of Women.

Built in 1502, the French-managed four-star hotel has rooms with four-poster beds and high-beamed ceilings and some with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the cobblestone streets. There is a pool with views of the Ozama River, where Christopher Columbus and Herman Cortes once sailed, making this a lovely place to relax before venturing into the city.

A short walk from the hotel, past the first cathedral of the New World, brings me to the pedestrian walkway of El Conde, where La Cafetera, a going concern since 1929, can be found.I enjoy fine Dominican coffee, fresh-roasted on site, served by taciturn yet efficient baristas who need merely the faintest of nods to refill my cup of espresso. Visited by artists and writers, it is a place where, if you are so inclined, you might be tempted to uncover the deeper meanings of life. With Valentine's Day in mind, I ask one man if he would like to make a comment on love or divorce - whichever he preferred.

"My greatest love is my coffee and that I will always have."

With those wise words in mind, I decide to do some exploring. Like Montreal's Old City, much has changed in the colonial zone since my last visit nearly a decade ago. Boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, cafés and museums now liven up the area, which has luckily yet to be overrun by tourists. Tailors ply their trade, and fruit and freshly squeezed juice can be bought from donkey-drawn carts.

The colonial zone is a feast for history buffs, but a different sort of feast awaits me at La Casa De Los Dulces, "the house of desserts." Cakes, rice pudding and a delicious Dominican specialty, leche con coco tierno - milk with coconut - are on offer at this local store.

I don't want to ruin my appetite, though, because Santo Domingo has some of the best food in the Caribbean. Local fare can be found at Meson de Bari, which serves traditional rice and beans with goat, beef or chicken, and is a popular haunt for locals and tourists.

There are also more sophisticated restaurants in both the old and new parts of the city, including the seaside Adrian Tropical, which offers freshly grilled fish. Santo Domingo has a large Italian immigrant population and La Briciola is one of the best restaurants to try some jamon serrano (dry-cured ham) followed by pasta el pescador, with shrimp, octopus, clam and calamari. I rarely spent more than $20 on a main course, La Briciola included.

And then there is the nightlife. As would be expected in a boisterous city of three million, there is no limit to how late you can keep going. A quick jaunt down Calle Las Damas, leading past the house of Francisco Davila, the first lawyer to practise in the Americas - a point worthy of a moment's consideration if you're getting a divorce - takes me to the beautiful square of Plaza de Espana, where I meet some friends. After dinner and a few drinks, they even take me to Bed. (No, it's not what you think, but rather a bar with lots of beds where you can drink and feast in horizontal mode.) After that, we set off to Jet Set in the newer part of the city, where the elite come to salsa dance. Later, at Ataracana, we hear the pulsing beat of merengue, the national musical obsession.

After a hard night of enjoying myself, I am grateful that this city reaches the shores of the Caribbean Sea. Beaches are neither far nor hard to find.

One great place is Aura Beach Club. A 45-minute drive east of Santo Domingo takes me to a beach where palapas (thatched huts) with white cotton beds and plump pillows await.

Who knows, you might even have such a good time that you'll decide to skip the divorce and instead renew your vows beneath the tropical sun.

Or maybe not.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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