Many visitors to the beach-fringed northern coast of the Dominican Republic, which stretches east and west of the lively city of Puerto Plata, happily remain at the resort during their entire stay. Content to soak up the sun, they limit their exertions to reaching for a tropical fruit drink, with or without rum. If you’re feeling more adventurous than that, and especially if your adventures tend toward the culinary, the area offers days of tasty possibilities.
You can sample coffee and cocoa not so far from the fields where the beans are grown, or sip rum, in all its surprising variations, from the plant where it is bottled. You can discover Dominican tastes and flavors that aspire to haute cuisine, or grab a table at a seafood shack where you can go into the kitchen to make your selection from the day’s catch. And while waiting for your meal you can ask for an ice-cold beer “con la vestida de novia,” or “with the wedding dress,” a reference to the bottle’s frosty coating.
Introduce yourself to Dominican cuisine at the string of seafood restaurants in the community of Maimón, along Route 5, about a mile west of the turnoff for the duo of hotels known as Riu Resorts Puerto Plata. These simple eateries are open every day, but they’re busiest on Sundays, when Dominican families spend hours at the table eating, talking, laughing and eating some more. The fish served are caught locally off the reefs and usually cooked whole. Most popular is chillo, or red snapper. Try it either at Los Primos or Parada La Playa.
You can expect a more touristy crowd (and higher prices) at Cofresi Beach, near the Lifestyles Resort. A good restaurant for lobster is the open-air Chris and Mady’s, across from the palm-shaded beach.
Twenty miles east of Puerto Plata is Cabarete, one of the world’s premier locations for windsurfing and kite boarding. It’s also worth the drive for the fish tacos at Gordito’s Fresh Mexican or the Kite Club Café, which is right on the beach.
For the finest seafood, and a special meal, the top choice is Lucia, an haute cuisine restaurant serving Caribbean fusion dishes. It overlooks a romantic garden at Casa Colonial, a luxury hotel in a gated community on the golden sands of Playa Dorada.
During your visit, you must try the dish called la bandera, which not by coincidence is also the term for flag. It consists of various combinations of white rice, red beans and chicken or other meat and is as much a national symbol as the Dominican flag—hence the name. You’ll find the dish at fast-food restaurants and street-corner stalls everywhere, but a convenient place to try it in Puerto Plata is La Llena. In part, La Llena is a snack bar serving all the usual fast-food items, but its most popular feature is a cafeteria-like section where la bandera is dished up. The clientele is largely Dominican, and most people order take-away, but after you order you can move to a table in the restaurant itself.
A harder-to-find culinary treasure is Mares, the restaurant of acclaimed Dominican chef Rafael Vasquez. It’s located in the heart of Puerto Plata, on a residential side street; the only hints of its existence are the large fork and spoon handles on the door of what otherwise appears to be an upscale private residence. Mares is as haute as Lucia, but more oriented toward the tastes and dishes of the Dominican Republic. Vasquez consults on various food and hotel projects around the world, so he’s not always in residence. Regardless, you’ll find a menu that features the expected seafood and beef dishes, but also such Dominican specialties as goat, yucca fritters, plantain rolls and Taíno bread. This tasty cassava bread, originally made by the Taíno Indians, is one of the few surviving remnants of the Dominican Republic’s pre-Columbian culture.
COCOA, COFFEE, RUM
These tropical icons are major agricultural products in the Dominican Republic, and sampling them is one of the pleasures of a visit. Most of the coffee is cultivated in the mountains a few hours’ drive south of Puerto Plata, near the town of Jarabacoa. The heart of cocoa production is even farther south. A visit to either area is an ambitious day trip; all but the most avid aficionados could probably better spend their time closer to Puerto Plata. Outback Safari offers tours that let you visit a local family for coffee and conversation in their home. If rum is more to your liking, the Dominican Republic’s major brand, Brugal, has a bottling plant just outside Puerto Plata that is open for free tours and tastings.
To buy cocoa, coffee or rum for a fraction of what they cost in the hotel shops, visit the Tropical Supermarket, which shares a parking lot with La Llena restaurant, or La Sirena, a local version of Walmart just across from the Puerto Plata waterfront. You’ll find organically grown Monte Alto coffee.
Other attractions in Puerto Plata include Mount Isabel de Torres, presided over by a statue of Christ (much like Rio de Janeiro’s) and reached by a cable car ride (and, only recently, by paved road). It offers sweeping views of the area. Another is Ocean World Adventure Park, Marina and Casino, at Playa Cofresi, which has dolphin and sea lion shows, shark encounters and a Vegas–style cabaret performance that’s as good as any in the Caribbean.
One popular souvenir is larimar, a blue stone found only here that is used in jewelry. Another is amber: The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s few sources of this transparent resin in which ancient plants and animals have been trapped—in fact, the area where Puerto Plata is located is sometimes called the Amber Coast. Jewelry and other items made of amber are available in many shops; just look out for counterfeit amber, made of acrylic plastic. A good place to see it is the Amber Museum, in a former merchant’s mansion; the museum’s extensive shop sells the genuine article.
Note that wherever you go, it’s best to pay in Dominican pesos. Many stores and vendors take U.S. dollars, but often at rates excessively generous to themselves.
One way to experience the adventures outlined here is by rental car. Roads are in relatively good condition and fairly well marked. But the driving habits of Dominicans can make self-touring a challenge. Those riding motorbikes, for example, are likely to be driving on the wrong side of the road. Alternatives are to hire a taxi or sign up with a tour company, such as Isaria Tours or Marysol Tours. You won’t have the independence you would if you were behind the wheel, but you may enjoy yourself more—in the rum factory tasting room, for instance.
Riu Resorts Puerto Plata: www.riu.com
Lifestyles Resort: Costambar, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; +1 809-970-7777
Chris and Mady’s: +1 809-970-7502
Gordito’s Fresh Mexican: RD #5 Plaza Ocean Dream, Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Kite Club Café: 5, Cabarete, Dominican Republic; +1 829-678-6485
Lucia: +1 809-320-3232
Casa Colonial: +1 809-320-3232
Mares: #6, Puerto Plata 58000, Dominican Republic; +1 809-261-3330
La Sirena: +1 809-586-6066
Ocean World Adventure Park, Marina and Casino: +1 809-291-1000
Amber Museum: 61 Duarte St Playa Dorada, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; +1 809-586-2848;