My Night Out in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Julie knew exactly where she wanted to go; she just didn’t know what it was called or where, precisely, it was. It was, she thought, sort of near the beautiful ruins of the 16th-century Hospital de San Nicolas de Bari (now inhabited by hundreds of very contented-looking pigeons), which we’d visited earlier in the day. Julie, having gathered that the place she was thinking about was the hottest club in Santo Domingo (Carlos, our guide, had told her that, and Carlos was born in Santo Domingo, and could barely walk down the street without dancing a little merengue), was dead-set on getting there as soon as we finished dinner. There was another place called Liquid that we could go to if all else failed (although we didn’t know where that was, either), but Julie had her heart set on the place by the ruined hospital.

For my part, I didn’t really care if we never found the hottest club in Santo Domingo, or, for that matter, any other club (I’m 44, and got all of that stuff out of my system some years ago); I just wanted to see what the Colonial City, once home to such 16th-century luminaries as Hernan Cortes, Ponce de Leon, and Diego Columbus (neighborly competition must have been fierce back then), looked like at night.

We’d had dinner, and a number of bottles of wine, at the brand-new Hilton Santo Domingo’s Sol y Sombra restaurant. Over cocktails beforehand, we’d been introduced to the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, who’d strolled into the hotel bar for a drink. If she’d thought of it then, Julie probably would have invited him out to the club too – and he was so amiable that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d taken her up on the invitation. (The Hilton seemed to be a magnet for Santo Domingo’s see-and-be-seen crowd; we’d attended the hotel’s opening party the night before, as had the president of the country and his bodyguards, who spoke into their sleeves and who almost ran me and my glass of champagne and my little plate of shrimp over as they escorted the president out in a kind of human riptide.)

Over dinner, Julie was doing her best to convince us all to go downtown with her; I’d done my best to resist until I remembered that I might not have another chance to see the oldest city in the Americas by night anytime soon. So I went up to my room to brush my hair and tell my Hilton – assigned roommate, a pink Siamese fighting fish whom I’d named Hidalgo, that I wouldn’t be getting back in until late. My big, comfy bed, with its starched white duvet and pile of pillows, looked really appealing at that point, but out my window I could see the dark sea and the lights along the Malecon, and I got the familiar feeling of longing that always draws me out into the night in unfamiliar places.

In the hotel lobby I found Julie, Allison, and a man I didn’t know, at the door and raring to go (actually, only Julie was raring). Julie had somehow convinced the guy, who was dressed in khakis, a candy-apple-red shirt, and the big, squarish, ’80s-style glasses that serial killers tend to favor, to drive us downtown so that we could find the club. Allison and I exchanged this-seems-like-a-bad-Natalee-Holloway-kind-of-an-idea looks, but Julie was already marching out the hotel doors into the warm Dominican night, a veritable force of nature.

There was an SUV waiting just outside, and we all climbed in. The serial killer guy (who, it turned out, was actually a Canadian utility executive named Tom, who was living in Santo Domingo for business reasons) wasn’t driving. Instead, he had a burly driver who apparently spoke no English – or who perhaps thought it wise to pretend that he didn’t – and who claimed to have no more of a clue where the club was or where the crumbling pigeon hospice might have been than we did. We drove along the Malecon, the black sea to our right, a series of big hotels to our left. It made me think of my first trips to Spain, when I was a teenager having her first taste of nightlife in a foreign country, crowded into the back seat of some Spanish boy’s father’s Volvo with my new international friends, riding through the night toward some nightclub.

Julie, as we drove, made increasingly manic attempts to convey to Tom and his driver the importance of finding the ruined hospital, and hence the fabled club. I tried to help out in lame Spanish – “El hospital viejo, el club esta acerca del hospital viejo.”

The Colonial City at night was no disappointment. Neon lights of green, red, and purple flashed through the windows and doors of 500-year-old buildings. Columbus, de Leon, and Cortes would have had the shock of their lives to see the clubgoers and party animals that roamed their ancient streets, congregating in excited little groups at the entrances to discos and bars.

Suddenly Julie yelped – we’d found the ruined hospital, ghostly as a skull lit by candles in the dark, and even lovelier than it was during the day. Tom (no doubt relieved) told his driver (no doubt sick of the ordeal) to park and let us out in front of the club.

Julie sauntered past a couple of bouncers who seemed in no mood to do any bouncing; we followed like obedient ducklings. If there was a cover charge, Tom must have paid it when we weren’t looking. He seemed to have ascertained the role that Julie had chosen for him for the night.

Suffice it to say that the club looked like a club. I’d hoped that would have been, at least, a merengue place, although my ability to dance merengue was even more sadly inadequate than my ability to stand in one spot and make semi-seductive moves with some correlation to club music (I’d been able to in college, but that had quite a bit more to do with the college lifestyle than with dancing ability, if you get my drift). Tom, a natural in his role, bought us a round of drinks.

And then Julie was gone. We were mildly concerned. She wasn’t at the bar, and she wasn’t in the blue and pulsating room where people were standing in one spot, etc. Then Allison pulled back a beaded curtain across from the bar, and there was Julie, alone in what seemed to be some kind of VIP lounge. She was sitting on a big couch in the corner of the room, looking both regal and utterly oblivious. I pulled the ladylike little cigar that I’d been given earlier in the day in a cigar factory out from my bag, and we all sat down to participate in the VIP fantasy.

But Julie was not content to sit for long; she seemed to have people to meet and plans to make. In a little courtyard behind the club, we watched her swing on a big white swing that hung from an ancient tree, chatter with a preppy-looking Dominican boy (who’d attended prep school in Connecticut), and alternate between engaging Tom in serious conversation and mocking him. Undeterred, Tom (who, I’d ascertained in a quiet moment, was a twice-divorced bachelor with several children to his name) engaged her in a tale of how two of his co-workers had been murdered in some mysterious, nefarious, corporate-mob way.

“He says his car is bullet-proof,” Julie exclaimed to Allison, the Preppy Dominican, and me. “And that his driver is really a bodyguard. We could have been killed tonight!” She seemed to find the whole idea both utterly ridiculous and absolutely delicious. Tom didn’t seem to understand why she might find his story in any way amusing. Having learned that she was a writer, he went on to offer her ten thousand dollars to investigate and write about the murders, but Julie had already turned her attention elsewhere.

Allison and I, amused but not nearly as much as Julie, were beginning to worry about getting stranded in downtown Santo Domingo (Julie was now making plans to go to some party with the Preppy Dominican, who explained to us that there was public transportation in Santo Domingo only in theory). It was becoming clear to me that someone was going to have to make a firm decision to leave now if we were going to avoid finding ourselves coming out of the club onto the streets of the Colonial City at dawn, with only the nonplussed bouncers and the Preppy Dominican to rely on (I’ve never much trusted preppy guys of any nationality – think Robert Chamberlain, think the Dutch son-of-a-judge in Aruba).

“I’m leaving,” I announced, hoping that saying it would somehow make it so.

Fortunately, Tom seemed to have gleaned by then that he wasn’t going to make any headway with Julie while her attentions were so widely dispersed by the goings-on at the club. “I’ll take you back to the hotel,” he said.

So, after somehow convincing Julie that there were many parties to be found elsewhere, we left. The Preppy Dominican had followed us out without our noticing; he came very close to running us over with his father’s very spiffy car in his eagerness to get Julie to accompany him to a big party on the beach. Julie saw a great deal more wisdom in that idea than Allison, Tom, and I did, so Tom (who had sent his driver home for the night, leaving us vulnerable to corporate-mob hits) told her very firmly to get into the SUV, where she could use his cell phone to make further plans with P.D. It took some doing, but she eventually acquiesced.

For a while, the Preppy Dominican followed us through the narrow streets of Santo Domingo while Julie talked to him on Tom’s cell phone, making profanity-laced, sketchy arrangements and yelling orders at the ever-patient Tom. The plans, however, seemed to fall through at some point in the conversation, and Julie was finally content to be driven back to the welcoming Hilton.

We spent some time, and a good deal of Tom’s money, in the hotel casino, playing blackjack with yet another guy from Connecticut and twin sisters with beautiful Taino faces and an intricate understanding of the game. Coached by the sisters, and taking advantage of the remarkably relaxed Dominican casino rules–which seemed to include do-overs–I won quite a few hands. (In my own defense, I did hand my winnings back to financier Tom as I went; I really did feel kind of sorry for the guy, whose imminent disappointment I anticipated.)

The anticipated scene happened just outside the Hilton’s glass elevator, on the floor where our rooms were. Julie cheerily and very firmly wished Tom a good night, leaving no room for misunderstanding.

“I guess I was just the chauffeur,” said Tom, with just a little bit of an edge in his ever-patient voice. But Julie made some vague promises about getting together the following evening, and took off in the direction of my room.

“I know what floor you’re on,” Tom said, and the elevator door closed. It occurred to me that we’d really had no reason to think that Tom wasn’t less of a potential psycho than anyone else. I pointed out to Julie that, thanks to her, he also now knew which room was mine, but this seemed to disturb not her in the least. She wandered back to her own room when the coast was clear.

When I was, at last, alone in my plushy room, with my floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the serene Caribbean, my big, comfy, duvet-covered bed, and my very friendly and accepting Siamese fighting fish, I got out of my smoke-scented clothes, brushed my filmy-feeling teeth, and took a couple of Tylenols. It was a ritual I’d performed many times, and in many places, in my life. I fell asleep congratulating myself for seeing the lovely, ghostly Colonial City by night, and for once again getting back from a late night out unscathed.

For information on the Hilton Santo Domingo, visit