Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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Republic of style

The Amber Coast's wild beaches and intimate hotels are changing the face of travel to the Dominican Republic

If there is a more beautiful beach in the world than the Dominican Republic's Playa Rincón, it can't be much more beautiful. Sand doesn't get much whiter or finer than this. The sweep of thousands of palm trees is uninterrupted. The surrounding cliffs of the Samaná Peninsula's Cape Cabrón are high enough to shelter, while still letting you see the sky. The only evidence of civilization when we arrived was a dozen empty beach chairs and a few small restaurants at one end.

Later, for about five minutes, we were visited by an SUV of local Dominicans blasting high-volume reggaeton though an otherwise silent landscape. But they didn't stay long and, unfortunately, neither could we. We had an hour long return trip on four-wheeled ATVs along a muddy, rocky mountain road where friendly children, descended from a century-old mix of freed American slaves and refugee Haitians, ran out of cabanas to wave at us like minor celebrities.

This is the paradox of the Dominican Republic. This Carribean country, which has a reputation as one of the most over-touristed tropical destinations is, in many ways, still one of the least explored.

To fully understand why, it's best to start at the beginning of the road trip we took along the North Coast to get to Samaná. Most people will be able to skip this part of the adventure, starting in mid-December, when the first Canadian flights are scheduled to land at Samana's brand new international airport, El Catey. But in November, when we visited, the shortest way was still a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Gregorio Luperón airport in Puerto Plata.

Having already visited the Dominican Republic a couple of times, I had several goals for this trip. For one, I wanted to get a stronger sense of what the New York Times recently heralded as the new face of Dominican tourism -- a distinct shift from its notorious all-inclusives towards smaller pricier boutique hotels. But, mostly, I wanted to pay a quick return visit to some favourite spots along the North Coast, and experience some of the legendary beauty of the Samaná Peninsula for the first time.


Italian Inspiration
When I arrived, however, I got a strong reminder of the old face of Dominican tourism. It was dark as we pulled in at Hilton's all-inclusive Marien Coral Resort and it was difficult to see the grounds in any detail, but I was struck with how familiar it all felt. With good reason: two years before I had stayed at its twin sister, the Canoa Coral on the other side of the country in La Romana.

From what I remembered, it was the kind of safe, lazy, stress-free holiday where the staff is friendly, the rooms are pretty, the pool is spacious, the beach is long and clean, and the worst thing that can happen is a truly horrible Italian meal (to be fair, it's unusual to find a decent Italian meal anywhere in the country.) I left my friends with a promise to meet in the lobby the next morning.

This was a promise I was unable to keep. After a morning walk along the beach, I navigated myself into 20 minutes of twilight-zone terror. My room had disappeared, along with the third floor of the complex it was supposed to be in. By the time I figured out that I had simply wandered into the Iberostar Playa Dorada next door -- a hotel with a virtually identical layout -- my friends had been forced to abandon me.

Thanks to our cell phones, I was still able to join them for lunch at Casa Colonial, a stunning two-year-old boutique hotel no one will ever confuse with another property on the island. Though Dominicans may not always be skilled at replicating Italian cooking, Sarah Garcia, the hotel's designer and architect seems to have fared better with Italian style.

Inspired by a family trip to Tuscany, Garcia has managed to combine grandeur and intimacy in a setting that feels as close to a family villa as it does to a hotel catering to a maximum of 50 guests (Donatella Versace was one of its earliest visitors).

Balconies with claw-foot baths overlook majestic mangroves hung with vines that graze a mirror-calm lagoon. A stunning pool and lovely rooftop restaurant overlook the sea. But, unfortunately, once again the food just didn't measure up to the setting. Gooey sushi and wilted lettuce -- trying to replicate foreign food is unnecessary, especially in a country that has nothing to apologize for when it comes to native cuisine.

As we set out northwards along what is traditionally called the Amber Coast, this problem is less apparent. An hour and a half down a lightly pot-holed highway, motorcycles begin to outnumber cars, resorts fade into colourful local towns so undeveloped it's rare to see a sign that isn't painted directly on the small cement walls of local businesses, and the fences surrounding farmland are still constructed out of tree branches.

Near the small town of Carrera we find Playa Grande, a long, unexploited stretch of paradise that is a close runner up to Playa Rincón. On the north end, small beachfront restaurants grill up fresh fish and scampi. In a ravine, about 10 minutes away, sits La Catalina. This creatively designed bed-and-breakfast has unrivalled gardens and specializes in local, fresh cuisine, as well as simple, serene accommodation. For my money, it's still one of the best travel spots in the country.


One for the road?
But the trip here has never been without its risks. As we stopped for gas, a mobile liquor vendor offered drivers a selection of pick-me-ups as though this were as normal as selling ice cream sandwiches. The combination of drinking and driving made us think that maybe hotels near airports are not always such a bad idea.

An hour and a half of white-knuckle driving might be bearable. But three and a half hours? Now we knew why Samaná is far more famous with wealthy locals and adventurous Europeans than North Americans. This will, of course, change when tour companies begin to guide their clients towards the new airport. Nevertheless, a short stop at El Catey, which is about a third the size of Gregorio Luperón, suggests that the government isn't expecting the same volume of tourists here.

While one of the few all-inclusives on the peninsula, the Casa Marina Bay, is undergoing a renovation, a more typical project is the boutique hotel being built on Cayo Levantado. This smallish island in Samaná Bay is nicknamed Bacardi Island because of its resemblance to the virtually deserted beach featured in vintage Bacardi Rum ads.

It seems an unlikely spot for a hotel built by Gran Bahía Príncipe, a chain that traditionally boasts all-inclusives with upwards of a 1000 rooms. While it is still an all-inclusive, the exclusive five-star 190-room hotel is set to open in January.

Fortunately, you don't have to book a room on Cayo Levantado to visit. Barely 10 minutes from shore, lunchtime boat tours are cheap and popular. The island is rumoured to get crowded on weekends, especially from January to May, when the bay becomes home to schools of humpback whales which have chosen it as a prime mating spot.


Buffets Be Gone
The day we arrived, the beach was as deserted as any of those retro Bacardi ads. It was a perfect spot to stare out at turquoise waters surrounded by a rumpled quilt of mountains. Our visit also included one of the best meals of our trip. The local Samaná-style fish is cooked in coconut, and while I couldn't detect any coconut, the fish was fresh, perfectly grilled and surrounded by equally perfect rice, creatively carved vegetables and light, delicious hot-and-sour salsa.

In terms of great meals, a close second was the lunch we had the next day at a campesina, one of the rural plantations in the mountains near the small town of El Limón. Dominated by a famous 40-metre waterfall, the hills are dotted with cabanas as colourful as a scattered pack of crayons.

Our visit was typical of the eco-tourism trade that is popular in this area. After a 45-minute horseback tour through orchards, plantations and subtropical forest, and a 20-minute walking tour of the falls, we were treated to a lovingly cooked plato típico. The perfectly cooked chicken with rice and beans were delicious. Dessert was an assortment of bananas, papayas, pineapple and mango dipped in raw sugar and grated organic chocolate. Lunch was followed by a short information session on cocoa growing and processing, as well as a chance to smell and taste the surprisingly sour, white and slug-like cocoa bean.

Along with cocoa, bananas and rum, another popular export from the Dominican Republic is coffee. This is hard to believe, given the mediocrity of most of the stuff we'd been offered in our hotels. I'd given up on decent java until we visited Villa Serena, the kind of slightly upscale bed-and-breakfast that represents the ideal way to vacation in Samaná. A sprawling Victorian house that overlooks the coast near the fishing village of Las Galeras, Villa Serena is an American-owned, European-managed hotel that seems straight out of an early 20th-century novel.

Every room is a unique, comfy version of the kind that a stylish grandmother might have put together. Private balconies are hung with hammocks. The food is simple, gourmet and à la carte, though management is happy to recommend the best local restaurants.

If there is a down side to Villa Serena, it's that you have to walk a little down the coast to sit on a beach, since the one at the end of its manicured lawn is distinctly rocky. On the plus side, this keeps the grounds as serene as the B&B's name suggests, and a small island within view is easily accessible by kayak.

We unfortunately hadn't enough time for a little trip to that island, as well as several other excursions. We couldn't spare time to visit to Los Haitises National Park, which boasts numerous caves, islands and keys all located among the most extensive mangrove population in the country. We would also certainly have preferred to do more than just pass through the charming and popular beach resort of Las Terrenas.

Oh well. On the next trip we'll have the new airport, which may very well keep us coming back as regularly as the area's famous whales.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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