Here’s a fun fact: there are more Dominicans in New York City than in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital. As a New Yorker—especially one of Caribbean descent—I felt that I was more or less familiar with Dominican culture: I could down a plate of platanos with the best of them and don’t get me started on Romeo Santos. However, like a good portion of Dominican New Yorkers “from Santo Domingo” I had never been to the island. When the opportunity presented itself to visit the family owned hotel La Catalina in Cabrera to “live like a local” I naturally jumped at the opportunity.
La Catalina is an institution in Cabrera—the first hotel for tourists in the region, it has been operating for 25 years, and still retains much of its original staff. As far as travel destinations in the DR go, Cabrera has long flown under the radar among travelers, existing as an insider’s secret. The spot does have its famous fans, though. Fashion’s surf ambassador, Cynthia Rowley, for instance, has raved about Cabrera for years, describing it as “a little piece of heaven on earth.” Needless to say, if you want to visit the DR, and live like a local, Cabrera is the place to do it.
Where To Say
You’re in the Caribbean. All of that lush greenery you see comes with heat and humidity. Hotel La Catalina (Los Farallones; lacatalina.com) sits perched on a gorgeous hillside overlooking the ocean. From the hotel’s bar and restaurant, as well as many of the hotel’s rooms and condos, you’ll not only have amazing views but the benefits of that refreshing ocean breeze. The hotel has everything you’ll need for it to be your home away from home, offering configurations from single rooms to affordable two bedroom condos complete with a kitchen, terrace, and living area. The property also has a multilingual staff, two pools (one on the condo residents side and one on the hotel compound side), an ocean facing yoga studio, and a tennis court so there is no need to break your fitness routine, just add the beautiful Dominican backdrop!
What To Do
Hiking: Pack your running sneakers. About a fifteen minute uphill hike from La Catalina is a gorgeous landmark waterfall, Monumento Natural El Saltadero. I would not recommend the inexperienced jumping off the waterfall, as much of the lagoon underneath is shallow, but a few local daredevils will do it for an audience for a mere 10 to 20 pesos. Continue on to a few other La Catalina marked trails for great views and a bit of a leg workout. Don’t be surprised if you have to make way for a local just going about his daily trip to town on horseback!
Beaches: This little town is filled with beaches, including the famed Playa Grande. All of the beaches from the long and super local Entrada to Preciosa, a public beach with drool worthy ocean front villas, have that special something.
Underwater Caves and Zip Lining: The name’s a little suspect, but Dudu Lake and the Blue Lagoon is an attraction that can’t be missed. There is a 200 pesos entrance fee as the site is maintained by the municipality. This is a stunning spot to behold, plus with picnic tables, a bar and small restaurant, and even an ostrich farm, there’s something for everyone in your travel group. The Blue Lagoon is almost otherworldly with ice-cold spring fed water that’s a welcome retreat from the hot weather. And blue doesn’t even begin to describe the color of the water here. Through underwater tunnels and caves, and with a guided instructor, you can swim from this lagoon to the Dudu Lake that you see when you enter the park. This swim is not for the faint of heart, but for the more experienced cave divers. Another great way to enter lake Dudu is via zip line! No more than a 30 foot drop, it’s a fun little rush and a great way to experience one of the most beautiful sites in the region.
Paddle Boarding: One of the smaller beaches I visited, Playa Diamante is definitely the gem that it’s name suggests. The way the inlet is configured into a harbor, and with lush overhanging trees and an old school fishing boat anchored at the horizon, you’ll be instantly transported into a fantasy world. Playa Diamante is a great beach for families because the water is shallow making it particularly kid-friendly. The inlet is also usually calm, making it great for beginner paddle boarders.
Surf’s Up: Playa Grande is arguably the best beach in the area. It boasts a gorgeous coastline, a whimsical parking lot, and best of all, great waves for surfing! I took a surf lesson with Playa Grande surf school and it did not disappoint (two of the instructors are among the top in the country, so you know you’re getting top-tier). Depending on the season, the waves range from ripe for beginners to waves for the champs, and the best part is, no crowds!
Where To Eat
One of the best parts about visiting Playa Grande is the food! This town is a seafood lovers dream and there is nothing like digging into a fresh whole fish (steamed or lightly fried) for lunch. A beachside attendant will bring you a platter of freshly caught fish or spiny lobster for you to choose from—make sure the fish’s eyes are clear—and they’ll then cook them in casitos right on the beach! Served with rice and beans, like most dishes here, you are sure to clear your plate! For a tasty beach desert, be sure to try a dulce de coco, a triangular-shaped, caramelized, shredded, coconut concoction. Another must try culinary adventure while on the island? That would be La Catalina’s Dominican breakfast. The traditional “Dominican Breakfast” is mangú (mashed plantains) covered in marinated onions, fried eggs, fried salami, and fried cheese—a perfect, hearty way to get ready for a day of activities. Perhaps my favorite meal during the visit, though, was lambie, an amazing conch soup found in different varieties in the Caribbean. Conch is very hard to cook and Negra, the chef at La Catalina, has it mastered.
Hit the Town
As far as going out, oddly enough the big party night in the Dominican Republic is Sunday! What better way to cap off church and a day with the family than with meringue, bacchata, and tossing back some Presidentes and mojitos in the town square. Seriously, everyone goes out on Sunday night, so there’s clearly no fear of starting the week off poorly, Dominicans live life to the fullest and what better way to fight off a case off the Mondays than a sly smile about the night before? On many corners in Cabrera you’ll notice something called a colmado, the Dominican equivalent of a bodega. You can get anything from eggs to razors to a flask of rum at one. At night, especially in the outer regions where home electricity is dicey without a generator, the colmado becomes the local watering hole, the only place with electricity for miles. On my last night, I rode in a pick up truck up into the mountains to an area as “local” as it gets. My group enjoyed cuba libres as the sun set and watched as all of the cattle egrets of the area settled in to rest for the night. It was a gorgeous sight to behold and a must-see if you really want to hear local lore. Talk about a way to cap off the trip of a lifetime.