On a wet, dreary night in March last year I got a phone call from my parents. They were having dinner on the beach in Cabarete, a small Caribbean beach village on the northern shore of the Dominican Republic. I could barely hear my mom over the voices and music in the background. “You would not believe how fabulous this place is,” I managed to gather from her exclamations on the other end of the line. “Mark your calendar–we’re taking you with us when we come next year.” At the time, the concept of dining on the beach in the Dominican Republic was far from being a plausible dot on my radar. I was in D.C. mentally preparing for work the next day, and it was raining. I tucked the possibility into the back of my mind and hung up the phone. But now, a little over a year later, here I am on the beach in Cabarete with my parents. I’ve just returned from a morning of surfing on the ruggedly beautiful Playa Encuentro, and I’m already sore–the sort of sore that’s not supposed to hit you until the day after. But it was worth it.
A few other people in-the-know about Cabarete have implored me not to blog about it lest the tourist crowds from the all-inclusive resorts of Punta Cana be inspired to hop on the next plane to Puerto Plata and overwhelm this small, hidden gem. But I couldn’t resist. So after you read this blog you must promise not to tell anyone else about it…
The main draw of Cabarete is the fact that it offers some of the best windsurfing and kiteboarding in the world. And my dad, always in search of the next extreme water sport (he mastered windsurfing long ago), had been cutting out articles on its to-die-for kiteboarding (his latest obsession) from a magazine for months before my mom finally agreed to book a trip for his birthday.
The town of Cabarete is about a 20-minute taxi ride from the Puerto Plata airport. My parents usually rent a car when they travel, but here all of the restaurants, bars, and shops are situated along the main stretch of beach where most of the hotels and villas stand. There are no concrete high-rise hotels here, and the people who inhabit the space are equally low-key–and respectful. My parents and I are some of the only Americans around. The crowd we find is a mix of European, South American, and Dominican families, couples, and long-haired, bronzed surfers. Laid back is a phrase that seldom crosses my lips during my day-to-day life back home, but in Cabarete it’s all I ever think or feel.
We’ve rented one half of a two-family beachfront villa in a small community of privately owned apartments and villas called Olas de Oro.
Our villa is the sort of idyllic whitewashed, low-rise, geometrical beach house I associate with Southern California– complete with a pool, a grill, and the ocean in the backyard.
During the day the sky above the beach fills up with colorful, billowing kites that dip and rise like pendulums in slow motion. My dad spends his afternoons on the ever-blustery Kite Beach, a fifteen-minute walk from our villa; and on the second day my mom and I walk down to meet him for lunch at the tiny beach shack where all the surfers and boarders eat.
We sit at picnic tables in the sand and watch as two Dominican women prepare us fish tacos: thick cuts of freshly fried fish stuffed inside alternating layers of soft and crunchy taco shells, dressed with shredded cheese, tomatoes, homemade salsa, sour cream, and juicy pineapple chunks. Meals here are always a high point in the day. On the plane ride over my parents assured me that it was impossible to have a bad meal in Cabarete, and so far they haven’t been proved wrong.
What sets Cabarete apart from the other Caribbean surfing towns we’ve visited over the years is the surprisingly chic, South Beach-like atmosphere that emerges after the kites and surfboards are put away. As soon as the sun begins to set, all of the beach-side restaurants and bars set up couches, tables, and cushioned lounge chairs on the beach and wait for the crowds to flock. Candles on the tables and lanterns strung from palm trees illuminate the scene, and the entire beach comes to life with music, different languages, and the smell of spices and frying fish.
Each night we roll up our pants and walk barefoot down the beach to dinner. Our favorite beachside meal so far was at La Casita de Don Alfredo–known to the locals simply as Papi’s–a popular seafood restaurant best known for its oversized portions of shellfish served whole in cast-iron pans. We began our meal with a white fish carpaccio doused in citrus marinade and topped with thinly sliced red peppers and onions. We then split an order of langostas–Caribbean lobster drenched in a creamy garlic butter sauce and served in the signature cast-iron pan.
By the time we finished inhaling the dishes, dessert was out of the question, but we were given a complimentary digestif of warm rum and honey that made our journey back home a woozy saunter down the beach. Walking away from the restaurant we passed groups of people sitting at long rectangular tables and red beanbag chairs in the sand; people at tables covered with fresh juices, Presidente beer, and heaping plates of seafood and pasta. Two children were lying on top of a stack of beach chairs from a nearby hotel, and I could feel them watching us as we passed. In spite of the dark, a man bounded through the surf with his dog. For most of these people the night was just getting started. But for me it had to end, so my aching body could get some rest and do it all again tomorrow.
Photo: Beth Lizardo