Cynthia Cunniff’s writing background spans magazine editorial, travel blogging, marketing and PR. She’s a graduate of the creative writing program at CSU Long Beach and went on to UCLA to further her writing skills. Growing up as a military dependent, she lived in several foreign countries and areas of the US. Post college she returned to international living and resided in London for close to a decade, where she took advantage of proximity to the rest of Europe and traveled extensively. She currently lives in the beautiful South Bay of Los Angeles, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @localpathworld.
A great way to experience the essence of the Dominican Republic is to take the Northern Coastal route using the newly built Boulevard Turístico del Atlántico from Puerto Plata to Samaná; a trip of rolling hills, small towns and beautiful beaches. Taking this route you’ll be tempted to stop for photos, fresh fruit, take in the amazing views and explore the towns. There’s something new to see at every turn – from the Atlantic coastline to rustic homes with colorful laundry dotting their fences. Spend a few days in different towns along the way and you’ll have a week’s worth of varied experiences, and a solid feel for the rich culture and diverse landscape.
Driving in the Dominican Republic is hectic and dangerous at best, and may well leave you frazzled at the end of your vacation. I advise those visiting, particularly for the first time, to look into a tour or hire a driver. You can contact CaribeTours or AutobusesMetro to arrange transportation. CaribeTours: Puerto Plata — (809) 586.4544 Samaná — (809) 538.2229 AutobusesMetro: — (809) 586.6063
Starting Point – Puerto Plata
The city of Puerto Plata is lined by an oceanfront boulevard (Malecón) which leads to Fuerte San Felipe. I toured the town center on a lazy Sunday afternoon when many of the shops were closed, but there are two churches along the town square that pull in a crowd – so the people watching was excellent. There were a few eateries open (I happen to stumble on a German bakery) and street vendors were selling everything from cds to sunglasses. I did nose around one of the tourist shops and found they had every tchotchke that can be imagined. The store had a large local art section that was outrageously priced and the pieces were clearly not original; I opted to buy a coffee bean necklace for under $10 which, I was told, was made by local girls and the proceeds would partially go back to their school.
Isabel De Torres National Park – Puerto Plata
The panoramic views of Puerto Plata, surrounding landscape and ocean are spectacular as you head 2555 feet up Mount Isabel on the cable car at the Isabel De Torres National Park. At the top you’ll find a small replica of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (a gift from Brazil to the Dominican Republic) and winding paths that lead into the dense tropical rainforest. The forest floor is carpeted with pink and orange impatients, and several different types of plants you normally seek out at the gardening store grow wild throughout the rainforest. Literally under the feet of Jesus there are gift shops that I found to be pricey, though you can feel free to bargain with the merchants. The shop owners offer to take your picture with the statue of Jesus in the background – their payoff is your promise to tour the shops. Tram Cost is approximately US $8.00.
Fuerte San Felipe
The Fuerte San Felipe (Fort San Felipe) is at the end of the Malecón, and for those who enjoy history, particularly colonialism – it’s a must see. The fort is small, as is the museum inside of it, but has some great stories associated with it and it’s worth taking the tour to hear them. Near the front entrance you may encounter a donkey, do not randomly take a picture unless you’re ready to pay the owner a dollar or two. Entrance fee is approximately US $3.00.
The Casa Colonial Beach and Spa Hotel – Puerto Plata
If you want to spoil yourself, The Colonial Beach and Spa Hotel in Puerto Plata has luxurious rooms with top line amenities. The interior design of the hotel is elegant and it’s obvious great care has been taken in creating a tranquil and lavish environment. Though, the cost matches the high-end property and its amenities: the rack rate currently starts at $441 per night. I would advise checking out their multiple day packages for the best rates and offerings. The Colonial Beach and Spa Hotel, Puerto Plata – (809) 320-2111.
Puerto Plata is known for festivals and celebrations, one of its foremost being The Dominican Republic Jazz Festival held this year on November 1 – 4, 2012. Another great option is the Merengue Festival, which usually takes place around the first week in October. The country has many festivals to choose from and the best way to plan a vacation around them is to check the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism website.
Fruit seller on Cabarete
Action and Relaxation in Cabarete
The town of Cabarete has a high-energy atmosphere with a mix of travelers from Europe and North America. There are eateries and bars the length of Cabarete Beach and vendors make their way up and down the sand with fruit, palm hats, drinks and a variety of other items to buy.
Millenium Resort & Spa
To get closer to the feel of the Dominican Republic with modern options I would suggest a place that offers a combination of affordable luxury and easy access to the towns. The Millenium Resort & Spa in Cabarete is a reasonably priced, contemporary new build that has several choices of accommodation and all the amenities you could want for a mix of active and relaxing vacation. Its location provides walking access to clean beaches, lively restaurants and bars, but with plenty of opportunity for chill out pool and spa time. For all rates click here Millenium Rate Page. A King Bed Garden Suite runs from US $100.00 – $125.00 per night depending on the season and the King Ocean Suite runs US $125.00 – $150.00 per night depending on the season.
A highlight of the Millenium property is the kiteboarding at LaurelEastmanKiteboarding school. Just walk out to the beach from the hotel and take a quick right and you’ll find yourself in the able hands of Laurel’s kiteboarding trainers who all speak English. Laurel is originally from Ventura County, California and brings with her the wonderfully easy-going Southern California attitude. Laurel’s second in command, Peter Pan, is a friendly chihuahua/dachshund mix (lovingly referred to as the Chiweenie) who will happily pose for pictures. Lessons start at $66 per hour and the hourly costs goes down as you buy more hours. Do know that this sport isn’t picked up in two hours; if you want to master the basics, you will need several hours of training. Click here for LaurelEastmanKiteboardingRates or call (809) 571-0564.
My next trip to Dominican Republic will include mountain biking, rafting, hiking and more kiteboarding! A great place to get your adventure-on is to stop at IguanaMama in Cabarete where they can set you up with equipment and a guide for all types of outdoor activities. You have the option to tailor your own tour, or have their team create one for you. Pricing is dependent on your package or activity – make sure to check their website or call them for specials. IguanaMama — (809) 654-2325.
Cabrera Beach – Perfect Stop for Lunch on the Road
One of the benefits of being in an expatriate area is the variety of food. You can get everything from fresh fish to gelato and crêpes in Cabrera and several of the restaurants offer a glorious ocean view. There are several types of stores catering to tourists; you can replace a busted flip flop for around $10-$15 or find a piece of locally mined larimar or amber jewelry from $15 on up. The crowd is a lively combination of locals and expat Europeans who are hurriedly going about their day on scooters and motorcycles, so make sure to look both ways before crossing the narrow streets.
Destination – Samaná
Samaná is where local life and tourism collide and this is evident in the choice of shopping venues. The first is the modern village along the pier filled with little stores that cater to cruise ships. It’s clean and the staff at the shops understand at least some English. The shops are touristy, but a good alternative for a bathroom break, snack or trinket hunt. My preference is the other option, the locals market, which is full of vibrant colors, smells, locals, and a good insight to daily Dominican life. You may not find too many merchants who understand English there, but they are wonderful at finding ways to communicate. One woman selling coconut oil was intrigued by the instantaneous pictures of my digital camera. She pointed out an ornate umbrella for me to snap and I made a fast friend in the process.
Bannister Hotel – Puerto Bahia, Samaná
The Bannister Hotel is part of a fully appointed high-end resort with a choice of restaurants, a spa, private homes and boat docks. No matter where you are on the property you can’t beat the amazing views – you’re either looking at lush mountainside or the gorgeous ocean front. The hotel is a new build, so expect a few quirks here and there – like plugs in the rooms not at convenient places. The staff are some of the most accommodating people I met in the Dominican Republic, they were highly professional and never hesitated to help. Click here for Bannister Hotel Rates and Packages. Nightly Rates range from US $213.00 – $551.00 per night.
Café del Mar at the Bannister Hotel
Not to be missed is the glass front, ocean facing Café del Mar, one of the Bannister Hotel’s many restaurants.
The food is top notch and the menu is a sophisticated mix of several cultures. Lunch there was one of the best meals I enjoyed on the trip, and I highly advise any fresh fish dish. Meals can be simple tapas style for US $9.00 and under, or you can have a traditional meal with starters around US $13.00 and entrees around US $19.00. Make sure to catch a sunset at the restaurant’s eternity pool overlooking the Atlantic, the view is so glorious it approaches surreal. For more info: Café del Mar – (809) 503-6363 or email@example.com.
Los Haitsises National Park
Los Haitsises is a series of sumptuously green islands off the Samaná coast that have a variety of nesting sea birds,decaying ports used in colonial times, and caves to explore. Touring the caves of Los Haitsises you’ll find petroglyphs from the indigenous Taíno people, bats hanging from indentations in the jagged ceilings, and the occasional shower of sunlight from cave holes above. This is a tourist destination, so not an adventure tour spelunking-type of experience – but there are plenty of sites to take in and discover. You have a choice of several tour companies that can get you to the park by boat, make sure to choose one that has all the safety requirements met (enough life jackets, capable staff, etc.).
Whale Watching off the Samaná Coast
If you plan on heading out to whale watch, keep in mind the whales aren’t on a schedule and the likelihood of seeing them in action isn’t guaranteed. Traveling onboard the Pura Mia, 55′ custom whale watch boat, owned and run by Canadian expat Kim Beddall is a refreshing few hours out at sea. Even if you don’t actually see whales, you do come back well educated about the North Atlantic Humpback. Kim gives a thorough and thought-provoking presentation that includes pictures, recordings of whales and allows for passengers to ask any questions they may have on the subject. In addition, there are multilingual marine biologists on staff who are more than happy to answer questions throughout the boat ride. The views are worth the trip alone, but make sure to take Dramamine before you head out to sea. It was a bit rough the day we went out and quite a few people onboard were sea sick – they were well looked after by the boat crew. WhaleSamaná – (809) 538-2494 Whale Watch Excursion US $50.00 per person Children 2-10 years of age, US $25.00 (not recommended for children under 2 years).
Eat Like a LocaI
I strongly encourage travelers in the Dominican Republic to try local fare. One of the best meals I had was at El Manguito in Carretera a Playa Dorada hidden off the main road to Puerto Plata. Fresh fish, lobster, garlic soup, rice and beans, stewed goat, croquets, and many other choices – all cooked with homespun love and the flavors of the country. The entrees range from US $5 -$15 Cash only establishment – (809) 586 4392
The other options are the variety of street vendors, which can be a dodgy choice. The panderia’s (bakeries) are the most likely safe bet and you’ll find delicious varieties of breads and sweets – a great inexpensive breakfast or snack alternative. The average cost for a sweet roll or bread pudding is US $1.00.
I’ll Be Back
The opportunity for fun and relaxation is limitless in the Dominican Republic, but as I’ve found in many places that can’t compete with the U.S. in their general wealth, the richness is in its people and their passion for their country and heritage. The best thing I experienced in the Dominican Republic was making some local friends and getting a feel for their country through their eyes. The trip from Puerto Plata to Samaná was a small sampling of what the Dominican Republic has for travelers, but it’s a great start to exploring this diverse country and made me want to return for more experiences in this unique nation.
About the Author Cynthia Cunniff’s writing background spans marketing, PR, magazine editorial and travel blogging. She’s a graduate of the creative writing program at CSU Long Beach and went on to UCLA to further her writing skills. Growing up as a military dependent, she lived in several foreign countries and several parts of the US. Post college she returned to international living and resided in London for close to a decade, where she took advantage of proximity to the rest of Europe and traveled extensively. She currently lives in the beautiful South Bay of Los Angeles, and Tweets about traveling in the U.S. and throughout the world @localpathworld.
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