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Tropical locales can make best vacation destinations

People are always asking me for my favorite destination or trip. My honest response is Europe in the spring, summer, and fall. Then give me the warmth and sunshine of the tropics in the winter months.

Personal tropical preferences are the Mexican or Caribbean beaches. I’ve scouted out other great locales like Hawaii and South Pacific but always return to my Gulf and Caribbean favorites.

Those other places are wonderful but the long flight times followed by price are the major deterrents for me.

A couple hours flight out of O-H-I-O and you can be in the heart of the Mexican Riviera or the Spanish Lake.

The “Spanish Lake” is a term not used these days but it refers to the day when most of the Caribbean islands were controlled by the Spanish Crown. Places like Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba were major ports of trade and thriving communities.

The gold, silver and other wealth of the New World flowed through these ports en route back to Europe.

While the Spanish explorers dominated this region the flags on other European nation’s flags dotted the Caribbean. You’ll find the Dutch, French and English here.

The Europeans brought their customs, cultures, religions and architecture to these new colonies. Even today there are still splendid colonial cites

Last week I wrote about the Christmas holidays in Germany. A few days ago a radio station played Jimmy Buffet’s “It’s Christmas in the Caribbean snowbirds fill the air…it’s Christmas in the Caribbean we have everything but snow”.

My images of snow and ice were replaced with ones of lush plush tropical vegetation lined beaches and historic colonial period architecture.

There are excellent colonial period examples of palaces, forts, plazas and government houses all constructed with a European flair located in the Caribbean and Mexico.

These old “New World” buildings take on a special glow during the holiday season. Palm trees sparkling with lights, store front window displays, season appropriate music with a reggae, salsa or Latin beat.

Its shorts, sandals and sun tan lotion here instead of bundling up for the chill of the European nights. Lobster, fresh fish, rice and beans dominate the menus instead of sausage, kraut and beer.

Puerto Rico’s “Old San Juan” neighborhood and the Ciudad Colonial (colonial district) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic are my two favorite island holiday places. Both islands architectural heritage are Spanish, of course, as seen in the narrow, winding cobblestone streets and the pastel-colored, tile-roofed buildings with ornate balconies and heavy wooden doors that open onto inner courtyards in the style of Andalusia in southern Spain.

Founded by Ponce de Leon in 1508 Old San Juan has seen a recent rebirth with plenty of restoration and renewal projects.

It is estimated that there are at least 400 structures of historic value in Old San Juan (OSJ), including some of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the New World.

A must see in El Morro-a walled fortress that guards the entrance to the harbor. Old San Juan was Spain’s major center of commerce and military power in the West Indies for nearly four centuries which is evident in the OSJ buildings.

This area has developed into a dining shopping and entertainment gem. Its location is an easy walk from the cruise terminal and a must visit.

I also feel that some of the better buys on gold, jewelry and rum can be found here. There are plenty of street vendors peddling a wide array of local and knock off products so buyers beware. Good news for American travelers is that you do not need passport to visit just proof of citizenship/legal residence status.

Next on my list is Santo Domingo capitol of the Dominican Republic. Founded in 1498 it is the oldest city in the New World and a prime example of this architectural style. It has not experienced redevelopment like OSJ but I’ve been seeing progress in restoration and site rehabilitation.

There are two important commercial districts in the “Zona Colonial”, including the “Calle del Conde” and “Avenida Duarte”. One discovers plenty of shops and cafes along these routes Avenida Duarte is shopping center frequented by locals and is currently undergoing renovations aimed to making it more appealing to tourists.

The recently restored and expanded Plaza de España is bordered by Las Atarazanas, filled with small shops and restaurants.

This area was one of the first commercial centers in the Americas, and is still a hub of activity today. The Alcazar de Coln, having once been the colonial palace of the Columbus family, is now a well-regarded museum displaying period furniture and decorations. The building was originally built in 1510.

Many travelers to this island enjoy the great beach resorts but miss the history and heritage of this country and its people by not venturing off the resort. I suggest scheduling a day trip through your hotel and not trying to do it on your own.

I learned this the hard way-from an interesting personal adventure. Crime is an issue and tourists are easy to spot. Pay for a local walking guide in town as he/she will keep the other locals away.

The DR and Santo Domingo are well worth the visit but US travelers will need a passport. A wide range of air and hotel packages to this region and 2010 looks to usher in great values.

Yes it is Christmas in the Caribbean and they have everything but snow.

Travel Professor Talks.

The fine folks at Briggs Library have invited me to talk about travel this January. I’ll share my thoughts about Caribbean “No Passport” required travel to Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands.

The dates are Tuesday Jan 5th at the Chesapeake branch and in Ironton on Jan. 7. Destination Weddings and Honeymoons will be the topics in Ironton on Jan. 19 and Chesapeake on Jan. 26. All presentations start at 6 p.m. Light snacks and travel prizes will be provided.

Got travel questions? Contact thetravelprofessor@gmail.com.