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Like Christopher Columbus before me, I have set out to explore the Dominican Republic. And like Columbus, I have no idea where I am. Fortunately, my wife, Kat, does. She and I are driving across the D.R. to discover this beautiful country for ourselves, and I have two things Columbus didn’t: Kat’s sense of direction, and a GPS unit for backup.

What Columbus thought was Asia is today an emerging country excited about its future, and is welcoming the rest of the world through tourism. On this trip, we’ve decided to explore what Columbus called “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” Our plan: Fly to Punta Cana on the east coast, and stay close by for a few days; then drive west to Santo Domingo; and finally, north to Puerto Plata, where we’ll stay a few more days before flying out. We’ll be traveling all over the eastern half of the D.R., and we’re determined to venture off the beaten path. Not that there really is a beaten path in the D.R.

Today we’re enjoying a relatively short day-trip — a test run, if you will — driving northwest along the east coast from our resort in Punta Cana to Sabana de la Mar in our rented Kia Picanto, which we’ve dubbed “la Niña” — our small tribute to Columbus. The verdant, rolling Dominican countryside is breathtaking, unlike anything we’ve seen in the Caribbean.

As we pass through villages with colorful homes, neatly uniformed school children and other locals wave at the two turistas bouncing down their road. Stopping at small fruit stands along the way, we find that the proprietors and customers are pleasantly surprised to see foreigners, and they seem eager to share their country with us. It takes us five hours to drive 70 miles — partly due to our self-imposed detours, partly thanks to the bumpy roads that la Niña clearly loathes — but as we approach Sabana de la Mar, I suddenly comprehend the old adage about the journey being more important than the destination.

Taínos, Trujillo, And Today

To appreciate the Dominican Republic in the 21st century, it helps to know a little about the country’s land and its storied past. At 18,815 square miles, the D.R. is a little more than twice the size of New Hampshire. It shares a 224-mile border with Haiti to the west, and together the two countries make up the island of Hispaniola. (Despite Haiti’s tragic January earthquake, travel to the Dominican Republic has not been affected.) The D.R. is quite mountainous in its interior; in fact, 10,416-foot Pico Duarte is the Caribbean’s highest peak, and temperatures there can actually dip below freezing on winter nights. Its topography and size make the D.R. a haven for a range of flora and fauna.

As for history, here it is in a nutshell: After Columbus arrives, the Spanish enslave the native Taíno Indians, but the harsh conditions lead to disease, decimating the tribe. Africans are subsequently forced into slavery and shipped to Hispaniola. In the capital, Santo Domingo, the New World’s first paved street, university, and hospital are built. Spain looks to broaden its interests in the Americas, and the French move in and colonize the western third of the island, which becomes Haiti in 1804. What follows for the D.R. (then known, like the capital, as Santo Domingo) are nearly two centuries of unrest: Haiti rules it for 22 years, until 1844 when, led by national hero Juan Pablo Duarte, independence is won, and the country is renamed the Dominican Republic. There’s a brief return to Spanish rule, then nearly a decade of U.S. occupation, and 30 years of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship. Much of the next 35 years is spent under the tight grip of a former Trujillo crony. Finally, in 1996, with the election of Leonel Fernández, the country turns a corner. Nearly 15 years later, the D.R. is an independent democracy with enthusiastic, fair elections.

Indeed, everywhere we drive, campaign signs depicting smiling men and women decorate utility poles and storefronts. The government has announced that it will invest US$1 billion in tourism development by 2012, and foreign investment has increased dramatically. At the same time, the D.R. is protecting many of its natural resources, which will foster ecotourism and create jobs. And its outpouring of postearthquake aid to Haiti has established a new era of trust between the two neighbors.