The Dominican Republic’s family-friendly north coast delivers surprises on every shore.
It’s a sweltering August afternoon in the Dominican Republic when I find myself scouring the jungle for passion fruit, or chinola, with my fit, young Dominican guide, Raul Custodio. We’re hiking at a brisk pace in air so humid it feels like syrup, and by the time we reach a broad ridge that pokes above the forest, our clothes are a sopping mess. “No chinola here,” he declares. “Let’s keep going. I know another spot.”
When I asked if we could look for it before our hike, Raul happily obliged. But he also warned me that our mission to locate the succulent fruit – with its tart flesh and tiny edible seeds that crunch like Pop Rocks – might not be easy. It’s elusive, he explained, with stealthy vines that snake high into an unreachable canopy. If we’re fortunate, a few might drop at our feet from above. More likely, we’ll have to hunt for fallen fruit scattered in the thick undergrowth.
The Dominican Republic is situated on Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean (after Cuba), and borders Haiti. I’ve returned to explore its north coast with my wife, Ashley; our 3-year-old daughter, Sasha; and our 8-year-old son, Simon. It’s our seventh trip here as a family, and it never disappoints – in part because the roughly 175-mile coastline, spanning the easternmost Samaná Peninsula to the Haitian border, seems to reinvent itself with every visit. In 2014, Puerto Plata’s international airport underwent major renovations to accommodate more wide-body jets. The following year, a state-of-the-art cruise terminal opened – the first on the north coast – along with Amanera, one of only two Aman properties in the Caribbean. An explosion of new restaurants, hotels, and adventure outfitters has pushed tourism steadily higher each year, with visitors topping a record 6.5 million in 2018.
The DR is really two locales, each with its own distinctive pace and temperament. Travelers have long vacationed along its better known southern coast, known for high-end, all-inclusive resorts that provide a more familiar, calculated experience. The north is different, with a focus on boutique, low-rise hotels and independent travel. “When you’re on the north coast, you have to mix with the locals – in the bars, in restaurants, in the towns,” says Laura Asilis, a Virtuoso travel agency president. “People looking for that shouldn’t go to Punta Cana or Casa de Campo in the south, which is more like Cancún. They won’t experience our amazing culture.”
The two-hour drive from bustling Puerto Plata to Amanera takes us along the once death-defying Highway 5, now safer thanks to recent repaving and widening projects. The landscape transforms gradually as you proceed east, from sunbaked grasslands to the undulating jade-green hills that encompass the resort, where we arrive midday. Architect John Heah cleverly designed its Balinese style teak-and-glass casitas to blend seamlessly into its 2,000-acre environs. From our veranda, we overlook our private 60-foot-long infinity pool, and beyond that, Playa Grande, a mile-long beach we have practically to ourselves throughout our stay.
While Ashley decamps to the wellness center for a Thai massage, and Simon and Sasha make pottery in the indigenous Taino style with the children’s program director, I meet Raul in the lobby for our hike, which begins with a 30-minute scramble up steep switchbacks through cacao and moringa trees, the latter harvested for its anticancer compounds. A frigate bird soars overhead, exploiting the afternoon breeze and its four-foot wingspan to glide effortlessly. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Raul exclaims, spotting bright-yellow passion fruit on the jungle floor. I manage to retrieve nine of them – a veritable bounty – but whether they’re edible is another story: It’s hard to judge the fruits’ ripeness by skin color alone; each is a game of chance until you dig into it. (They’re all superb, confirm Sasha and Simon, who later devour them with sticky smiles.)
Foraging for chinola is an apt metaphor for traveling the Dominican Republic’s north coast: It’s not always obvious how or where you’ll be rewarded. Ashley and I first came in 2009, not long after we learned to kitesurf. We’d heard stories about the wind. But we were amazed on that inaugural trip to witness it blowing strongly and steadily every day, from midafternoon to dusk throughout the summer months, when the potent sun creates a thermal effect that accelerates the trade winds.
In 1984, a French Canadian windsurfer named Jean Laporte visited a sleepy village here called Cabarete and immediately realized its potential for the sport. Since then, Cabarete’s population has soared from 2,000 to 17,000 residents, and it’s become known as “the adventure capital of the Caribbean.” Dining has come a long way too: Restaurants serving fresh-caught langostino, dorado, and other seafood have superseded roadside chicken shacks and scuzzy pizza joints. Meanwhile, kiteboarding’s popularity has eclipsed windsurfing on the town’s mile-wide bay, with as many as several hundred “kiters” on the water on any given afternoon.
Thankfully, it’s not always windy. Mornings are calm and the ocean placid, providing what some claim is the Caribbean’s best surfing. At Amanera, Simon and I take a two-hour lesson with instructors who walk us halfway up Playa Grande to an inviting break, where we stand comfortably on the sandy bottom. In the shallow water, about 100 yards from shore, we wait for the perfect wave. Simon pops up on his first attempt, standing confidently all the way to the beach. Then he does it again and again. “Cuántos años tiene? Cuántos años tiene?” one instructor asks me, howling with delight. He’s flabbergasted that a third-grader – a marginal swimmer from landlocked Boulder, Colorado – could take to surfing so readily.
But that’s the thing about the north coast: Conditions are rarely intimidating. With its gentle waves and steady breezes, even rookie ocean-goers can enjoy surfing, kiteboarding, sea kayaking, snorkeling, or stand-up paddleboarding. The sea temperature hovers at a spalike 88 degrees, and the water is so sparkling and transparent, you might as well be swimming in liquid diamonds. Before today, I had never surfed. Nor had Simon. Now we’re both eager to get back in the waves.
After a few days at Amanera, we relocate to Cabarete to be closer to the kiteboarding action and dedicate mornings to activities best done before the wind ramps up, such as honing board skills at Playa Encuentro’s beginner surf break. One day, we take a skiff to snorkel in Tres Rocas marine preserve a quarter mile offshore in Sosúa Bay. Sasha wouldn’t dare dip her head underwater in our community pool at home. Now she dons a mask, snorkel, and life vest to join her brother in the big blue, plunging from the stern into a living aquarium of queen angels, French grunts, spotted drums, and banded butterflies that school around them.
I’m up one morning to stand-up paddleboard with Simon, who sits cross-legged on the nose and wears swim goggles, dunking his head every few minutes to scan for marine life. It’s 10am, and there’s still not a soul on the bay. After a 30-minute paddle out to a reef, Simon reports, “No fish yet, Dad. Just lots of sand and coral.” It’s this same reef that protected the region from Hurricane Maria’s high surf and devastating storm surge, which leveled Puerto Rico in 2017. While heavy rains caused severe flooding in parts of the Dominican Republic, the north coast was largely spared. But be forewarned, it’s still a developing country – you can’t drink the tap water, power outages are common, armed guards police the ATMs, and corruption is endemic. Yet Asilis urges travelers to venture around her homeland. “When people tell me they’ve spent the whole week at their resort, I tell them, ‘You didn’t go to the Dominican Republic.”
The nice thing about the north coast in particular is that travelers don’t have to choose between cloistered luxury and seat-of-the-pants adventure travel; you can dabble comfortably in both worlds. Indeed, throughout our days we routinely interact with Dominicans, whose easygoing demeanor is both contagious and restorative. As a bonus, Dominicans adore children. When my kids get restless at a beachfront restaurant, a waiter takes charge, coaxing them onto the sand to play tag so my wife and I can enjoy dinner leisurely.
One day, we drive east to the Samaná Peninsula with no set plans. Our effort pays off when we stop to ask for directions from a local woman, who directs us to Playa El Portillo, arguably the most kid-friendly beach in the north, with chalk-white sand and an outer reef that forms a protected lagoon. It’s a natural wading pool, ideal for children to frolic in the shallows. After a full afternoon of swimming and snorkeling, we decide last minute to spend the night in nearby Las Terrenas, a seaside resort town that’s “still a virgin part of the island,” according to Asilis.
An evening stroll down the waterfront esplanade brings us to La Dolce Vita for dinner. Its langostino, steeped in garlic butter, is the best I’ve had in the country. As the restaurant fills up, the bartender switches deftly between mixing pineapple daiquiris and manning the wood-fired grill, where a cornucopia of seafood sizzles with a smoky haze. It’s a snapshot of the region’s wild and dynamic personality, a place primed for discoveries even after repeated visits where you should embrace spontaneity. Not always knowing where to look for your next adventure often reveals its sweetest fruits.