Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic --It is, many might argue, unlikely. But if -- just if -- you happen to be relaxing at one of the dozens of hotels that dot the green-draped northern shores of this sun-kissed island, sipping rum and reclining with a deliciously bad novel, or your cruise ship put in at La Romana over on the southeastern coast, you might, against all odds, find yourself asking: "Is this all there is?"
Admittedly, thousands of visitors to the resorts around Puerto Plata never stray from the grounds of their all-inclusive havens, and a cruise may not allow time to stray this far, but if you are one who needs a momentary respite from paradise, take a day trip to this city.
Puerto Plata doesn't feature the airbrushed postcard freshness of the resorts that surround it: Its streets are choked with motor scooters and other traffic, its sidewalks are narrow, and street signs are hard to find. Its shops are geared toward residents, and poverty is visible.
Still, the friendliness of the Dominicans, and the merengue music that spices their lives, are just as common, and the city itself boasts a trio of attractions that easily make an enjoyable excursion: the Amber Museum; the 16th-century Fuerte St. Felipe overlooking Puerto Plata Bay; and a cable-car ride to the top of the 2,700-foot, flat-topped peak of Mount Isabel de Torres that dominates the city.
Grab a taxi or a bus to the city, which is roughly 4 miles from many resorts. If you're traveling by bus (a "gua-gua," as they are called here), take a city street map, as the bus will drop you off a 10-minute walk away from the Amber Museum, which is two blocks east of the Parque Central, a green oasis surrounded by Victorian buildings.
If you've seen Steven Spielberg's hit "Jurassic Park," you may remember the scene in which the character played by Richard Attenborough describes how the long-extinct creatures of his island theme park were re-created through the replication of DNA recovered from blood in the stomachs of mosquitoes preserved in pieces of hardened amber. The Museo del Ambar, which reproduces in its own logo the look of the film's promos, is devoted to those millennia-old time capsules.
Located on the second floor of a mansion built in 1919 by German investors in the island's sugar-cane industry, the museum explores the commercial and scientific uses of the yellow-orange fossil resin, which is mined in the hills surrounding Puerto Plata. Exhibits show various insect and plant "inclusions" encased as many as 30 million years ago in the transparent hardened sap of the Hymenaea Protera tree, itself long extinct.
Here are the delicate silhouettes of ants, moths, mosquitoes, even scorpions, embedded like souvenirs in pieces of amber that vary from yellow to orange to blue. Visitors are educated in the methods of discerning authentic amber from the plastic look-alike items that are marketed by some jewelry sellers around the city. Two easy-to-conduct tests: Real amber is buoyant in salt water, and it will become fluorescent under ultraviolet light.
Exhibits are labeled in Spanish and English, and an English-speaking guide explains various aspects of the scientific uses of resin and of the amber jewelry trade. Downstairs, visitors can shop for amber jewelry and other goods in the museum's gift shop.
After the museum, head back to the Parque Central and then north for six blocks to the Malecon. On weekends and during the evening, this oceanside road is bustling with street vendors and music; by day, it offers a quiet alternative to Puerto Plata's tightly packed streets.
Now head west, and in about five minutes you'll come to Fuerte San Felipe.
Built at the tip of a peninsula, guarding the city's expansive bay, the fort is the only remaining structure from the country's Spanish Colonial period. Built in the early 16th century, even as Puerto Plata's importance in Spain's domination of the island was declining, the fort is an impressive remnant of Christopher Columbus's legacy here.
The well-preserved stone fort, which protected the city from pirates, includes a moat, several sentry turrets, and a string of underground cells that once confined Juan Pablo Duarte, the father of Dominican independence who struggled to liberate the country from its neighbor, Haiti. The cells now house a small museum of military artifacts.
From the fort's high walls, you get some sweeping views of the city, the Atlantic Ocean, and your next stop on this Puerto Plata day trip: Mount Isabel de Torres.
Energetic hikers may climb the city's signature peak, but most people get to the top the easy way, via the "teleferico," a cable car that ascends the mountain's western slopes. To get to the teleferico's site at the mountain's base, take a taxi from outside the fort; if none is available, hike back to the Parque Central to find one.
The top of the mountain gives views of Puerto Plata, the surrounding coastline, and the rolling countryside to the south. A huge statue of Christ also overlooks Puerto Plata, reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro's even bigger Christ the Redeemer Statue.
Trails lead through an extensive botanical garden on the flat-topped summit. A restaurant is nearby, and a crafts center at the base of the statue sells local crafts.
By this time, perhaps, the urge to explore further is waning. Maybe you've had enough of Puerto Plata's charms, or you're exhausted from your climb. Relax. It's all downhill from here.
David Desjardins can be reached at email@example.com.