A travel piece by John and Sandra Nowlan for the Waterloo Record.
It’s the best view in the Caribbean. As we reached the top of the region’s first and highest cable car ride, the community of Puerto Plata spread out 800 metres below us with its crescent harbour, 20 kilometres of white sand beach, several baseball diamonds (locals love the Blue Jays) and thousands of modest homes.
We were in one of the Dominican Republic’s premiere resort areas but, unlike the more popular, upscale and modern Punta Cana region in the east, the north coast of the DR is much more laid-back, established and authentic with a lot of colonial architecture from the late 19th century plus Fort San Felipe, the oldest military installation in the Americas, completed in 1577 to thwart pirates. There are some truly luxurious resorts in the area but most of the all-inclusives we saw tend to be older and modest in size and price. Some promote themselves as “Five Star” but, as a guide told us, “Local Five Star has a different meaning than in Canada or the US.” But all the resorts tend to be good value.
We loved our earlier visits to Punta Cana but we were enchanted by Puerto Plata and the opportunity to enjoy its excellent wide, sandy beaches (among the best in the Caribbean) and wonderful mountain views but also the many attractions beyond our Iberostar resort.
In addition to the cable car to the top of Mount Isabel de Torres, a highlight for us was a visit to nearby Ocean World, a marine park with dolphins, sea lions, sharks, stingrays and thousands of tropical birds. Visitors drive through a curtain of water to reach the entrance (tough if you’re in a convertible) and have the option of staying wet for encounters with dolphins (very popular), sharks and stingrays. We arrived just in time to see the Shark Show, where local handlers stand in the water and, with good humour, warn the volunteers about the dangers of sharks and the need for life insurance. Once in the water, the handlers and the guests soon discover that nurse sharks are remarkably docile and easy to hold and manipulate. It’s a fun show, filled with drama.
We also entered a giant aviary where hundreds of colourful love birds (parakeets) decided they liked us and covered our shoulders, hats and hands. It was great fun but felt a bit like a scene from Hitchcock’s famous bird movie.
The north coast of the Dominican Republic is famous for its amber (ancient resin) and the unique Amber Museum, housed in a beautiful pink and white Colonial building, is well worth a visit. One display case holds a rare, 50 million year old small lizard, trapped in amber and preserved forever. An attached gift shop allows visitors to purchase amber jewellery and larimar (pale blue stone) found only in the DR.
Rum is the famous amber liquid produced in the Caribbean from molasses. Few countries do it as well as the Dominican Republic. Visitors are welcome to visit the Brugal rum factory in Puerto Plata. Established in 1888, it’s the best known rum producer in the country. A knowledgeable guide describes in English the history and manufacturing process of the award-winning spirit (the bottling section is the only part of the factory on view) and the Tasting Room offers generous samples of the various rums. A gift shop, with better rum prices than at the resorts, ends the interesting tour.
On our last day we had a chance to visit two upscale boutique resorts that have brought a new level of luxury to the north coast. The beachside Gansevoort is a modern pristine white building with floor to ceiling windows. It features 48 one to four bedroom suites with private plunge pools and, in the penthouses, rooftop Jacuzzis. As one TripAdvisor guest noted, “It’s beyond amazing.” The other beachside hotel we admired was the opulent Casa Colonial, a 50 room Colonial mansion with a rooftop infinity pool. We had lunch there and enjoyed one of the traditional Dominican dishes, goat stew with rice and red beans. It was, perhaps, our favourite meal of the whole week.
Our last evening was spent about 30 km from Puerto Plata on Playa Cabarete, one of the top five kiteboarding and windsurfing beaches in the world. Along the wide, sandy beach scores of open air restaurants with twinkling lights contribute to a magical night beneath the stars. With toes in the sand we ate at La Casita De Papi, famous for its fresh fish and Shrimp Langostino. The beachfront is also home to the Cabarete Mojito Bar. We thought Cuba made the best mojitos in the world. We were wrong; they’re produced right here in the DR.