- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

PLAYA LIMON, Dominican Republic — I had never felt strongly toward spiders until I saw the tarantula in my bed.

Although I golfed the hand-sized spider outside my cabana with a paperback book, it seemed that my beach vacation on this remote nature preserve came with an inordinate amount of discomfort.

I had come to the verdant nature reserve of Lagunas Redondo and Limon for the beach: tens of miles of undeveloped undulating sand backed by a deep forest that stretches unbroken for several square miles.

The beach formed the quintessential picture of Northern man’s fantasy paradise. Warm turquoise swells rose, formed perfect arcs, then crashed into foam. The soft, palm-fringed beach hosted no yakety children throwing sand. No trinket vendors in wide-brimmed hats interrupted daydreams with “Meester, you like?” No Jet Skis nagged at the quiet. I was alone.

I had traded such distractions, it appeared, for large arachnids, snakes, mosquitoes, warm beer and other depredations. Paradise had rough edges I hadn’t anticipated.

To get to the Playa Limon, I had left a very comfortable all-inclusive resort at Punta Cana, a vacation haven on the Dominican Republic’s eastern tip. I was traveling alone and felt alien to the couples and family scene at the resort. So I rode buses for two hours, mostly on Highway 104, a narrow, untrafficked ribbon that cuts into the country’s rural northeast, a land so colorful it looked electric.

Red dirt roads slashed across spring-green pastures where white egrets and hump-shouldered Brahma bulls communed among skyscraping royal palms.

Brief cloudbursts sent farmers dashing toward clapboard huts painted in sea green, turquoise and orange, accented by sprays of purple bougainvillea.

Dropped off at the side of the highway, I hiked a four-mile dirt road that leads into the nature reserve, an area apparently reserved for “eco-tourism.”

Until a couple years ago, the reserve had been off-limits to construction, but a pair of Austrians bought land and built bungalows and a restaurant. They sparked a political feud that wound up diluting the reserve’s designation.

The Cabanas Playa Tortuga, which my outdated Lonely Planet travel guide labeled as a “special place” developed by one of the nature-loving Austrians, is the only place to stay. I was the only guest.

Things at the cabanas appear to have deteriorated since my guidebook went to press. A caretaker told me that the Austrian fled, selling the cabins to an absentee Italian firm. My cabin had a leaky roof and torn screens. I suspect the new owners are biding their time until the land’s restrictions are diluted again and they can build a big resort.

Such vagaries were minor, I figured, compared to the fantastic draw of a deserted beach. If it were as comfortable as Fort Lauderdale, it wouldn’t be empty. I also felt I was seeing a place that was doomed, eventually, to fall victim to developer concrete. One resident told me singer Julio Iglesias had bought property there.

I figured I would spend a couple days on the beach, kicking back under a palm with a book, swigging beers. I would intersperse the relaxation with body-surfing in the “Hawaii Five-O” breakers.

As it turned out, I didn’t even stay 24 hours. Alone on the beach, none of these things was possible.

The beach was devoid of comfortable seating — lounge chairs, umbrellas and hammocks, and I couldn’t just drop my beach towel under a palm. Piles of rotting coconuts and spiky brown fronds lay below each tree.

It’s dangerous to dwell under ungroomed coconut palms. Falling coconuts kill people every year in the Dominican Republic. Luckier victims have their car windshields smashed.

Ugly flotsam dotted the beach. An orange plastic colander, a brake-fluid bottle, a plastic bag from Ariel laundry detergent. Brochure-caliber beaches take lots of raking, pruning and pickup. Most resorts trim coconuts before they fall on lawsuit-minded Americans.

So I sat on a damp log.

I popped open my book. I had skipped the warm beers at the cabana “office,” an unfinished pavilion of cinder blocks and palm trunks. The only electricity comes from a diesel generator, which is rarely turned on because the nearest gasoline is an hour away. Beers — and everything else at the reserve — are enjoyed at tropical temperatures.

That left the surf. I waded out and felt the surging sea tugging at my legs, then my waist. To reach the breakers, I would need to delve deeper. I’m not a strong swimmer. No one was watching, let alone swimming. Was the current dangerous?

Thoughts of being swept out to sea flooded my brain. Once I had been temporarily tugged away from a crowded beach, and so, I panicked. I imagined it happening again. I stayed in the shallow water, out of the breakers.

The Playa Limon would have been a delight had I come prepared — arriving in a sport utility vehicle loaded with an ice chest, food, beer, camping gear, mosquito repellent and a brace of friends with boogie boards.

Half a mile from the cabanas and the beach, another Austrian, 40-year-old Walter Brandle, built a sprawling house among the palm bramble. He calls it Rancho La Cueva.

Because it’s the only place with food, I wandered over for dinner and a beer. The rain stranded me there for a few hours. We swatted mosquitoes, and Mr. Brandle, a big-bellied man with a sunburned face and shoulder-length blond hair, pontificated on the delights of life in the Caribbean outback, saying things like, “Why would you want just one woman?”

Mr. Brandle is a villain to readers of Dominican newspapers. Since building a road and his rancho in 1995, he has spawned articles describing him as a European profiteer bent on developing one of the last bits of unspoiled Caribbean coast.

Reality is milder. Because of Mr. Brandle’s wrangling — and his determination to stay — the government apparently has allowed him to maintain his eco-tourism ranch.

Resorts ship him truckloads of French and German day-trippers. Mr. Brandle takes them horseback riding and boating on pristine Laguna Limon, and he teaches them to roll cigars. I asked how he could conduct business when the road is mired in foot-deep mud puddles. “Surely you’ll have to pave the road,” I said.

“I like mud,” he answered, swigging a bottle of 7-Up. “Mud keeps people away. With mud, there is peace and quiet.”

Mr. Brandle’s cook brought me two red snapper. They were fried in garlic and were crisp, hot and delicious. The cook plunked down a bowl of hot, fibrous yuca chunks flavored with pickled onions and a plate of peppered tomato slices. If it weren’t for the mosquitoes, I would have been inclined to agree with Mr. Brandle’s fondness for the place.

The rain let up, and Mr. Brandle asked one of his workers to give me a motorcycle ride to my cabana, at night, along a muddy trail in the forest.

In my room, I swatted away the tarantula, climbed into bed to the sound of rain and chirping frogs. The air, thick and warm as pudding, lulled me to sleep.

In my dreams, or perhaps in reality — I’m not sure which — I felt something crawl up my leg.

I awoke in a frenzy, kicking wildly. I was hyperventilating. I groped for the battery-powered light. I scoured the bed. Nothing. The floor. Nothing. The walls. Nothing. Was it a dream?

My watch said 1 a.m. It was stifling. My pillow was damp with sweat. Frogs chirped. The surf boomed. I turned out the light.

I told myself: There’s more to paradise than an empty beach.

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