The Autopista Duarte ultimately leads (via a three- to four-hour drive) from Santo Domingo to the North Coast, sometimes called the Amber Coast because of its large, rich amber deposits. The coastal area around Puerto Plata, notably Playa Dorada, is a region of well-established, all-inclusive resorts and developments; the North Coast has more than 70 miles (110 km) of beaches, with condominiums and villas going up fast.
The farther east you go from Puerto Plata and Sosúa, the prettier and less spoiled the scenery becomes. The autopista runs past Cabarete, a town that’s a popular windsurfing haunt, and Playa Grande, which has a miraculously unspoiled white-sand beach with a new Aman resort, which opened in December 2015 and accompanies the famous Playa Grande Golf Course, open only to Aman guests and members of the golf club. Surrounded by high cliffs, this incredibly beautiful Playa Grande beach once had food shacks and cheapie souvenir stands that marred its beauty. Vendors now have brightly painted, Victorian-style huts that have been relocated to the end of the beach. There is now a proper parking area, and vehicles can no longer drive on the beach. The Playa Grande Beach Club has a new collection of high-end bungalows available for rent.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Of the towns within easy reach of the Puerto Plata airport, Cabarete has the best dining, the longest beaches, and the most youthful spirit. The main street is crowded with colorful signage and speeding traffic, and smoky with the fumes of motoconchos, but it’s easy to ignore these potential annoyances when you’re having so much fun. A hot destination, especially for the young—and more and more for retired baby boomers as well—one of its main claims to fame is the wind. Nowhere on the island can you find such perfect conditions for kitesurfing. If there’s a good breeze, the shoreline flares with bright sails. An annual international competition, Master of the Ocean (www.masteroftheocean.com), takes place the last weekend in February. It’s a triathlon of windsurfing, kitesurfing, and surfing.
Those who are afraid to ride the waves or to soar like an eagle propelled by a piece of lightweight fabric can still watch and enjoy these colorful goings-on across the blue horizon. Later, chat up the water adventurers as they barhop and dance the night away. A dozen chockablock bars and restaurants have created an imaginative and relaxing setup of tables, Bali beds, and lounges right atop the sand on the main beach in town. It makes for the coast’s best beachfront dining and nightlife experience.
Cabrera, Abreu, Río San Juan, and the Playa Grande area are largely unspoiled and pristine coastal areas. There’s a raw beauty, with some beaches that are still completely undeveloped, soaring cliffs overlooking pounding ocean waves, and towering inland hills with sweeping vistas not seen elsewhere on the North Coast. In addition, there are some of the most luxurious villa choices in the country, not to mention the island’s first Aman resort in Playa Grande. The area’s high-end vacation homes, which are far away from the action and the bustle of Sosúa and Cabarete, will appeal primarily to those who wish to avoid noise. The area, in general, attracts a more moneyed crowd—mostly baby boomers—who want an upscale experience, as well as couples or friends who want to share a house and enjoy the unspoiled beaches.
Cabrera itself is still a sleepy, dusty Dominican town centered on its central square, which is remarkably clean. Tourists mingle with townies in the park, and can stop for a drink at one of the adjacent restaurants, such as the thatched-roof Town Square Bar. More than 50 local and expat children now attend the International Academy here, soon to expand to a secondary school. Decades ago, the area was known for its ranchos and more recently for its beaches and the famous Playa Grande golf course (now available only to guests of the associated Amanera Resort and members of the club, than anything else.)
One of the Dominican Republic’s longest established resort areas, Playa Dorada has benefited both from good reefs, which are right off-shore, and a major beach restoration project. Large condo complexes and resorts line the beach, each with its own private slice of beachfront. The Atlantic waters here are great for windsurfing, waterskiing, and fishing.
Although it has been sleeping for decades, this was a dynamic city in its heyday. You can get a feeling for this past in the magnificent Victorian gazebo in the central Parque Independencia. Painted a crisp white, the park looks postcard-pretty, with gleaming statuary. On the Malecón, which had had a multimillion-dollar refurbishment, the Fortaleza de San Felipe protected the city from many a pirate attack and was later used as a political prison. Nearby, a new amphitheater is in the planning stages. The nearby lighthouse has been restored. Much is happening in Puerto Plata and its original hotel zone, Playa Dorada. New nonstop flights are contributing to the area’s revival.
The Office of Cultural Patrimony is working with private business owners and investors on a long-term plan to beautify the city, which has hundreds of classic wooden gingerbread buildings. Mansions, including Casa Olivores and the Tapounet family home, are being restored; at the same time new resorts are under development both on and off Playa Dorada’s beautiful beachfront.
At Puerto Plata’s Port, the new 30-acre, Amber Cove Cruise Center enjoyed its inaugural season in 2016 as the first cruise ships docked here since the 1980s. The $65-million project, which includes restaurants, bars, retail shops, and an elaborate pool complex with waterslides, will welcome several ships a week.
This small community was settled during World War II by 600 Austrian and German Jews. After the war many of them returned to Europe or went to the United States, and most who remained married Dominicans. Only a few Jewish families reside in the community today, and there’s the original one-room wooden synagogue and Museo Judio Sosua (Jewish Museum). Also, a small park has been built on the waterfront to commemorate the Jewish colony.
Sosúa is called Puerto Plata’s little sister, and consists of two communities—El Batey, the more modern hotel development, and Los Charamicos, the old quarter—separated by a cove and one of the island’s prettiest beaches. The sand is soft and nearly white, the water crystal clear and calm. The walkway above the beach is packed with tents filled with souvenirs, pizzas, and even clothing for sale. The town had developed a reputation for prostitution, but much is being done to eliminate that and to clean up the more garish elements. Conversely, there are many fine, cultured types here, both Dominican and expats, and the recent opening of a cultural center, Casa del Arte de Sosua, was a major coup for them.
In Puerto Plata you can find enough interesting stores to both quell your shopping urge and pick up a few funky gifts, like mamajuana, the Dominican herbal liqueur. A popular shopping street for costume jewelry and souvenirs is Calle Beller.