An Artists' Colony

In 1976, a plateau about 160km (100 miles) east of Santo Domingo was selected by Charles G. Bluhdorn, then chairman of Gulf + Western Inc., as the site for a remarkable project. Dominican stonecutters, woodworkers, and ironsmiths began the task that would produce Altos de Chavón, a flourishing Caribbean art center set above the canyon of the Río Chavón and the Caribbean Sea. Within a 10-minute drive from Casa de Campo, with which it is linked, it's a timeless and intelligently crafted accumulation of baroque and rococo style that's architecturally and touristically unique.

A walk down one of the cobblestone paths of Altos de Chavón reveals architecture reminiscent of the era when the Caribbean was being colonized at every turn. Coral block and terra-cotta bricks were fancifully crafted into copies of architecture reminiscent of 18th-century Italy and Spain, all of it arranged into a semi-fortified hilltop village of enormous charm. Various buildings house artists' studios, craft workshops, art galleries, stores, and restaurants. Set on the town's main square, the Church of St. Stanislaus is the village's most central attraction, with its fountain of four lions, colonnade of obelisks, and panoramic views. Masses are conducted at this church every Saturday and Sunday at 5pm.

Enormous scholarship went into the design for Altos de Chavón. Thanks to elaborate masonry, terra-cotta tiles, and lavish use of wrought-iron window grilles and balustrades, it evokes an antique hilltop village in Italy or Spain. Many of its restaurants are recommended within this guide, and many visitors, including busloads from cruise ships anchored offshore, wander around buying souvenirs and artwork. But it's much more than just a tourist attraction. Hidden behind the elegant facades are apartments occupied by students at the arts school that's located within the village. The fact that the place is actually lived in, full-time, adds enormously to its allure as a living, breathing monument.

The galleries (tel. 809/523-8470) at Altos de Chavón offer an engaging mix of exhibits. In three distinct spaces -- the Principal Gallery, the Rincón Gallery, and the Loggia -- the work of well-known and emerging Dominican and international artists is showcased. No one artist is ever showcased or featured for very long, so you'll have to check out the exhibits for yourself. Perhaps you'll discover a new, emerging talent. The gallery has a consignment space where finely crafted silk-screen and other works are available for sale. Exhibits change about every month.

Altos de Chavón's talleres are craft ateliers, where local artisans have been trained to produce ceramic, silk-screen, and woven-fiber products. From the clay apothecary jars with Carnival devil lids to the colored tapestries of Dominican houses, the rich island folklore is much in evidence. The posters, notecards, and printed T-shirts that come from the silk-screen workshops are among the most sophisticated in the Caribbean. All the products of Altos de Chavón's talleres are sold at La Tienda (tel. 809/523-3333, ext. 5398), the foundation village store.

The Altos de Chavón Regional Museum of Archaeology (tel. 809/523-8554) houses the objects of Samuel Pion, an amateur archaeologist and collector of treasures from the vanished Taíno tribes, the island's first settlers. The timeless quality of some of the museum's objects makes them seem strangely contemporary in design -- one discovers sculptural forms that recall the work of Brancusi or Arp. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 8pm. Entrance is free.

At the heart of the village's performing-arts complex is the 5,000-seat open-air amphitheater. Since its inauguration over a decade ago by Carlos Santana and the late Frank Sinatra, the amphitheater has hosted renowned concerts, symphonies, theater, and festivals, including concerts by Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan. The annual Heineken Jazz Festival has brought together such diverse talents as Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Randy Brecker, Shakira, Carlos Ponce, Carlo Vives, and Jon Secada.

The creations at Everett Designs (tel. 809/523-8331) are so original that many visitors mistake this place for a museum. Each piece of jewelry is handcrafted by Bill Everett in a mini-factory at the rear of the shop.