Magic Moments on a Magical Isle
By Greg A. James
Published in the Winter 2005-06 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
Photos: Sophy Khwaja – Air Canada Vacations and Greg A. James
As my early morning flight took me closer and closer to my destination, the clouds parted to reveal a series of little islets of pure white sand stretching out below us. Rings of shallow turquoise water encircled these tiny specks of uninhabited land. White-capped waves rhythmically washed their sun-bleached shores.
At that moment, I was struck by the strange beauty of their isolation in this seemingly endless sea of azure – the incredible colour the North Atlantic Ocean becomes as it merges with the warm waters of the beckoning Caribbean Sea.
But this was just a small tantalizing preview of what I was about to experience in the Dominican Republic.
I could already feel the stress of living in a large North American city melting away as my Air Canada plane started its long descent way out over the shimmering waters of the DR’s North Coast, the stretch known as the Amber Coast, to gently touchdown at Puerto Plata’s international airport.
The flight from Toronto’s Pearson Airport had only taken four hours, but the view from my window of the verdant tropical vegetation and neatly thatched roofs attested to the fact that I was indeed about to step out into a magical new world.
A Puerto Plata Welcome
We were met at the airport by our affable and very knowledgeable Ministry of Tourism hosts Carlos and Prudy, whose mission was to show us the best that Dominican Republic has to offer the thousands of tourists who visit the island each year. I was immediately struck by the genuine friendliness that they showed us on that very first meeting. I would later discover that this was a natural trait of the inhabitants of the DR, who greeted us with disarming smiles and a ready willingness to help wherever we went on our far too brief weeklong stay.
French & Japanese Cuisine with
The culinary delights awaiting us at the Hotel Breezes Puerto Plata Beach Resort included a tasty welcoming buffet lunch, accompanied by copious amounts of the excellent local Presidente beer; a three-course dinner of fine French cuisine and wine at the hotel’s à la carte Restaurant Paris; and an authentic Japanese dinner, prepared at tableside on the second night of our stay.
Flamingos with Coffee
Another exceptional meal was our lunch at the elegant, five-star Iberostar Costa Dorado Hotel on the outskirts of Puerto Plata. Its open-sided colonial-style reception hall and dining areas are bordered by the hotel’s lush tropical gardens and ponds, which feature goldfish, turtles and flamingos!
Here again we encountered those legendary DR smiles and gracious hospitality of our hosts and hostesses. Even while simply pouring us another cup of one of the country’s rich blends of coffee, they made us feel like most honoured guests!
Comida Criolla in Santo Domingo
Due to our late arrival in the capital, we drove directly to a quaint two-storied restaurant in the old colonial part of town where we were served a dinner of wonderful authentic comida criolla (Dominican Creole cuisine) by the maître d’ himself.
The restaurant featured several seafood specialities and walls adorned all the way to its high ceilings with local original works of art.
Beans & Merengue
Lunch was a special treat at Restaurant El Conuco, which roughly translates as “the countryside”. Visitors to Santo Domingo will not want to miss this combination of the best-tasting and most authentic Dominican dishes in the capital; a charming rural-style decor; and waiters in costume who will even dance a wicked merengue with you.
A specialty here is the DR flag, a traditional platter whose various colours derive from artfully arranged portions of white rice, beans, meat, fried bananas and salad.
Champagne & Gazebo Dining
A sumptuous dinner awaited us at the five-star Occidental Embajador Hotel in Santo Domingo. On arrival, we were served champagne in the hotel’s inner tropical gardens.
Next came a delectable five-course meal accompanied by fine wines, impeccably served by waiters who almost matched the guests in number. The setting was a private elongated gazebo located next to the lush gardens of the hotel. What a romantic experience!
Omelette à la Carte
My room at Sol Meliá Santo Domingo overlooked Santo Domingo’s busy Malecon Avenue, which runs all along the city’s waterfront. The hotel’s amenities, including its adjoining casino, were second to none – even the luxurious bath towels are changed twice a day!
Breakfast at this five-star Hotel was extraordinary. I had the omelette. You choose from a smorgasbord of ingredients, place them in a bowl and hand it to the chef who combines the finely-chopped ingredients with eggs and cooks you an omelette fit for a king, right in front of your eyes!
Paella & Lobster Tails
Back in Puerto Plata, we checked into the Canadian-owned Sun Village Resort & Spa conveniently located just next door to Ocean World. The hotel is built on beautifully landscaped descending terraces with seven pools (one with a waterfall!) on its different levels.
We were immediately ushered into a private dining room where we dined on a wonderful Mexican-styled lunch, including a flavourful paella and succulent lobster tails. That night, we were wined and dined in the Hotel’s five-star Citrus Restaurant, which features world-fusion cuisine and an impressive wine list, then danced the night away at the best disco I had visited on my trip to the DR.
A Room with a View
At the Hotel Breezes Puerto Plata Beach Resort, my air-conditioned hotel room featured a spacious private balcony with a stunning view of the surrounding landscape and the mountains on the horizon. The hotel’s first-class facilities include a horseshoe-shaped pool and swim-up bar and a long undulating beachfront.
Every island in the Caribbean claims it produces the best rum in the world and the DR is no exception. However, on touring the fascinating Brugal & Co. rum bottling and distribution facilities in Puerto Plata, I discovered that there is a long proud family tradition behind the Brugal name, dating back to 1888. The tour included a complimentary rum cocktail and an opportunity to buy any of the over ten different Brugal rum products at a quarter of the price one pays in Canada.
A Living Monument
The colonial fortress of San Felipe in Puerto Plata was built in 1541 as a defence against possible pirate attacks. The highlight was a vivid recounting of the history of the fortress by our nearly blind, eighty-something-year-old tour guide called “Blackie”, who also charmed the female tourists with his soulful rendition of a local love song.
Historic Puerto Plata
On walking along its narrow streets lined with charming, colonial-style, two-storied buildings, many of which now house shops, we were approached several times by young boys selling CDs of the local quick-paced merengue music.
I was so impressed by the sales pitches of these budding entrepreneurs, that I eventually bought a CD from a particularly persistent, yet always courteous young salesman. What also impressed me about the DR was that, unlike on other Caribbean islands, these obviously under-privileged kids had not turned to crime, but were intent on making an honest living.
Coral Reef Jacuzzis
In Sosua, we visited the fascinating neighbouring hotels of Casa Marina Beach and Reef Resorts. While the Casa Marina Beach Resort features a great beach with golden sand and rolling surf, the Casa Marina Reef Resort is exactly what it says – a resort built on coral reefs!
The unique thing is that there are sandy paths between the coral outcroppings that lead to a string of outdoor jacuzzis carved into the coral formations.
As the sun set, it was indeed a unique experience to watch it sink into the ocean while soaking in one of the seaside jacuzzis and enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail.
DR’s historic yet ultramodern capital city Santo Domingo is located on its Caribbean seacoast. From Samaná, it’s an interesting ride through some of the DR’s rich agricultural areas and lively market towns.
As we approached the city, gone were the darkened towns and uneven roadways. We now sped along a multi-lane, modern, brightly-lit highway past high-rise office towers and chic apartment complexes.
The city’s historic Zona Colonial was recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Highlights include the Alcazar de Colon (home of the son of Christopher Columbus); the first cathedral in the New World; and the well-preserved ruins of the first hospital in the Americas.
We also visited a cigar factory right in the centre of town and received complimentary samples of the DR’s world-famous, hand-rolled cigars at the end of our visit.
If time permits, you should visit the monumental Columbus Lighthouse which houses the true remains of the Great Discoverer.
The lights on the roof of this huge building form a cross-shaped pattern in the sky, but are only turned on for special occasions to conserve electricity. I later learned that all of the major establishments in the DR switch to their own generators during power outages.
Pilgrimage to Vega
On the way back north to Puerto Plata, we interrupted our journey to stop at Santo Cerro de Vega (Holy Mount), which was founded in 1495 by Columbus and is one of the oldest settlements in the New World.
During our brief visit, villagers and city folk from near and far converged on this hillside town to pay homage to La Virgen de las Mercedes (the Virgin Mary), who is not only considered by many to be the Patron Saint of the Dominican Republic, but said to have made a miraculous apparition at the original settlement of Old La Vega.
The present-day town’s remarkable Concepción de la Vega Church was constructed in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America.
But on the day we visited, the pilgrims who arrived on motorcycles, in cars, in Jeeps and on foot seemed more intent on having a giant, wonderfully disorganized street party.
Mesmerized by the fast-moving, animated crowd, I happily purchased a medallion of the Virgin and a fresh water coconut from the many colourful venders who hawked their wares along the undulating hillside main road of the town. This was a truly unique, memorable experience where tourist and pilgrim became one!
A Cable Car Ride
We took an exciting ride by cable car to the top of the nature reserve of Mt. Isabel de Torres, which afforded a bird’s-eye, panoramic view of all of Puerto Plata.
Atop is a scaled-down version of Rio’s famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, a gift from the Brazilian government to the DR on the inauguration of the cable ride.
Cabarete by Night
The town of Cabarete boasts a unique long row of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs lining its main road. What makes them unique is that these establishments all back onto the beach. At night, the beach is illuminated by strings of coloured lights hung between the trees, creating a veritable fairyland. We sat at one of the many tables randomly placed on the beach and danced on the sand to the strains of the music emanating from one of the seaside terraces. A truly magical experience!
A Catamaran Ride
We boarded one of two catamarans anchored on the beach at Playa Dorado for an invigorating sailing tour to Sosua Beach. Unfortunately, some of the passengers got seasick, but for most of us it was a thrilling experience culminating in a half hour of snorkelling for those who chose to do so.
The schools of brightly coloured tropical fish and exotic sea urchins swam about or moved languidly against the intriguing background of coral that rose and fell like some alien landscape in the crystal-clear tepid water.
Palm Trees & Horses
In Samaná, we stayed at the Hotel Casa Marina Bay, where I awoke in my bungalow-type suite to view an impressive scene from its private terrace.
Rays of golden sunshine filtered through the scores of majestic palm trees that grew in the swatch of landscaped greenery lying between the beach and me. A pair of horseback riders came into view and then disappeared further along the beach. This was indeed close to paradise!
Swim with the Sharks
Puerto Plata’s amazing Ocean World is the world’s first fully-interactive ocean park, where you can swim with the dolphins, the sea lions – and the sharks.
Playa Grande, located approximately 120 km east of Puerto Plata, is a spectacularly unspoiled white powder-sand beach. We viewed it from the vantage point of the magnificent, Robert Trent Jones – designed, 18-hole Playa Grande Golf Course.
We toured this cliff-top course in a cavalcade of golf carts, marvelling at the unbelievable views of the deep blue Atlantic Ocean and rugged coral formations below us.
Las Terrenas is located on the Samaná Peninsula’s north coast. After a bumpy ride from the centre of the town to the beachfront (the speed bumps were actually trunks of palm trees laid across the sand road!), we were rewarded with the sight of Playa Bonita – over 8.5 km of the prettiest beach in the DR.
The sugary white sands and perfect rolling waves of this unspoiled and surprisingly deserted beach beckoned us to the water’s edge. But there was a sudden tropical downpour, so we took shelter at a beach bar located just steps from the ocean. Here we sat enjoying cocktails and beer until our intrepid coordinator Noemi inveigled some of us to go swimming, even though it was still raining softly.
As we ran into the ocean, the warm salty waves caressed our bodies while the fresh rain water washed our upturned faces. We almost simultaneously broke into the hilarious refrain “I’m SWIMMING in the rain”. What an incredible experience!
A short boat ride off the north coast of the Samaná Peninsula takes you to the tiny island of Cayo Levantado (Bacardi Island). Its beautiful white-sand beaches and stunning views of the coast line should not be missed.
While there, we were treated to the intriguing sights of a rainbow arcing over the island’s swaying palm trees and local fishermen (some of them mere boys) hauling in their catch while silhouetted against a golden sunset.
Farewell to Puerto Plata
On the last afternoon of my trip, I wandered down the descending terraces of the Sun Village Resort & Spa to arrive on its stretch of Cofresi Beach. I was pleased to see local residents happily sharing the beach with the tourists. I plunged into the waves and enjoyed what was for me my last frolic on one of the Dominican Republic’s fabled beaches.
Before I realized it, my week in the Dominican Republic had come to an end with my requested 7:00 am wake-up call. I packed my bags and my memories of many magical moments and headed for the hotel lobby to have a quick breakfast and to check out.
As I write this article and face yet another Canadian Winter, my thoughts inevitably turn to the wonderful places and people of the magical Dominican Republic!
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