Punta Cana may be overrun with resorts and open-bar boozehounds, but the Dominican Republic’s north coast has rolling hills, lush forests, golden beaches, and low-key charm. Touch down in Puerto Plata and head to the neighboring beach towns for sun, adventure, and real Dominican sabor.
It doesn’t get more luxurious than Casa Colonial Beach & Spa. Situated in megaresort Playa Dorada, the plantation-style boutique hotel is a departure from the all-inclusive norm. If you can tear yourself away from the lobby’s sky-high ceilings, stately arches, and marble everything, you’ll be rewarded with Frette linens, oceanfront massage gazebos, gardens, and a pristine beach. The rooftop infinity pool and on-site spa are close to heaven.
Or live out your Gilligan’s Island fantasy at rustic, beachside Natura Cabañas, just outside Puerto Plata. Sleep under a thatched-roof bungalow and wake up to mangu (Dominican breakfast of mashed green plantains) and downward dog in the Caribbean breeze.
The action happens in laid-back Cabarete. It’s practically a sin not to try kiteboarding, the parasailing/windsurfing hybrid for which the town is known. Nearby Encuentro Beach is ideal (read: warm and safe) for surfing; ask German expat Marcus Bohm and his crew of Dominicans (their hotness makes up for the fact that they don’t speak English) to show you the ropes. Adventure junkies should venture inland for Iguana Mama’s waterfall tours.
Stroll Cabarete’s main drag for cigars, mamajauana (a heady rum-wine concoction said to be an aphrodisiac), and the usual trinkets, but go back to la playa at night. The restos just off the street (Blu, La Casita de Don Alfredo) move their tables outside, so you can eat feet in the sand, ice cold Presidente in hand. Things crank up late night for bachata, merengue, and reggaeton.
For fancier grub, head to 7.36 P.M. Scantily clad owner Giulia (first name only, please) opens her dreamy backyard every Thursday at, um, 7:36 p.m. and serves two three-course menus, which change weekly. You’ll dine poolside under a hut surrounded by jungle and candlelight. (Call ahead for reservations and directions, 829-847-3290.) Locals also swear by Otra Cosa and its French/Caribbean fare.
Avoid motoconcho (motorbike taxis) and take carros públicos (public sedans), which are surprisingly safe and cheap. Just be prepared to get cozy with the fifteen other riders. Taxis are everywhere; negotiate the fare beforehand.
Traveling alone stinks: Rally the gang and send this e-mail to your beach-desperate friends.