The Puerto Plata Report: news and travel info from the Dominican Republic's north coast

A family trip to Cabrera

My family and I started going to Cabrera, a quiet surfing area in the Dominican Republic, when friends took us there four years ago—right before my second daughter, Gigi, was born. We’ve been back 10 times since. Cabrera has always felt like our own secret spot, and part of me wants it to stay that way—even now, I’m not sure why I’m writing about it in a national magazine. On the other hand, it’s one of those places that’s so uncommonly special, you want other people to enjoy it, too.

Located in the northern part of the country, Cabrera is paradise—but you have to appreciate that it’s not swanky St. Barths. It’s a more rustic, wild kind of paradise, and for me; my husband, Bill; and my daughters, Kit, 10, and Gigi, 4, that’s exactly the appeal. In New York City, we have a polished urban lifestyle, so a real getaway for us means something completely different.

Generally we spend just four days on the island, Thursday through Sunday, but those days are action-packed—as in dawn-to-dusk action-packed. As nice as Cabrera’s Hotel La Catalina is (it’s a bargain, too, by the way, starting at $82 a night), we don’t spend much time there. Maybe we’ll take a dip in the pool or walk around the garden, but hanging out at a hotel all day feels too quiet, too normal for us. We’ve never been the relax-by-the-pool type of family anyway.

Instead, we explore. On a typical trip, after arriving in the early evening on the four-hour flight from New York, we drop off our stuff at the hotel and head right to Playa Diamante. There, the girls and I cover ourselves head-to-toe in the claylike volcanic sand, which I swear has special beautifying minerals. (Bill thinks the whole thing is ridiculous.) Then we wade out into the shallow water to rinse off before heading to our favorite roadside stand for pineapple yogurt.

Since Bill and I are avid surfers, we tend to spend at least one afternoon at Playa Grande, known for its waves. The water is usually too rough for the kids, so he and I take turns on the shore with Kit and Gigi doing, basically, circus tricks: cartwheels, human pyramids, swinging someone around in a towel. Maybe we’ll dig a hole.

Beyond that, the activities vary. We’ve visited a fresh­water lake known as Lake Dudu (you can imagine the joke mileage the kids get out of that name), where we rope-swing out and splash into the water. We’ve hiked through a jungle, following a guide who hacks through it with a machete, to reach a fairy-tale cave with stalagmites inside and a banyan tree growing atop it. And on our most recent trip, we ended up at a restaurant called Babunuco, which an eccentric artist runs out of his house. You eat whatever he’s cooking that day and sit among the strange, beautiful objects he’s made—a whale-vertebrae stool, a bar made out of a surfboard.

The restaurant is raw and magical—just like Cabrera itself. Lately we’ve started inviting friends and other families along, and everyone falls in love with the place. In fact, one friend who came with us last year loved it so much, she still hasn’t left.

What to Eat

Babunuco

Run by artist (and cigar maker) Juan Alberto Garcia in a building next door to his home, this restaurant has unpredictable hours, so call ahead to make sure he’s cooking that night. The menu typically consists of delicious, simply prepared fish or meat, and there’s usually jazz playing on an old jukebox in the background. Camino de Saltadero, (829) 338-8707.

Playa Grande Casitas

At the 15 food shacks on the beach, you can order a fresh pineapple or coconut with a straw in it any time of day. At lunch, they’ll let you choose your fish or lobster, then serve it with a salad and rice and beans. (Kids—my kids, at least—will eat anything mixed with rice and beans.) The casitas are set among palm trees about 50 yards from the beach, but if you want to have a picnic lunch even closer to the water, they’ll bring your food and table setup there, too.

Don Bululu

A big part of a great food experience is the setting. I would never think to get pineapple yogurt at the grocery store back home, but at this roadside stand a short drive from Playa Diamante, it is just about the purest, most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted. Highway 5, La Entrada, (809) 669-2942.

Getting Around

Fly into Puerta Plata (nonstops are available from New York, Miami, and Atlanta). Arrange through Hotel La Catalina for a taxi from the airport ($96 round-trip)—you won’t want to navigate the 90-minute winding drive yourself. To get around during your stay, book a rental car through the hotel—the car will be waiting for you there—or take its shuttle service to most major sites. (Car seats are rare, so bring your own.)

When to Stay

Hotel la Catalina

This well-run family-owned hotel consists of 36 rooms and condominiums. We usually stay in a one-bedroom condo, which is basic but comfortable: a simple kitchen and charming painted rattan furniture that reminds me of my ’70s childhood. The hotel is less than 10 minutes’ drive from the nearest beach and has beautiful gardens, two pools, a pond with turtles, and fantastic food—we always fuel up on the fresh juices and crepes for breakfast before setting out. From $82 a night for two adults and a child in a double in low season (June through October) to $168 a night for a two-bedroom condo in high season (November through May).

Beaches

Head to Diamante or Caleton for calm, shallow water; for surfing, try Playa Grande. (You can rent boards on the beach.) All the beaches are a drive of 20 minutes or less from the hotel, but be warned: Only Caleton has public restrooms.

Lake Dudu

At the larger of the two swimming holes here, local teens dive from great heights (while we all scream, “Don’t do it, don’t do it!”). Our family often has the smaller one, sheltered by a cave, to ourselves. $2 admission fee; off Highway 5, La Entrada.

Horseback Riding

A guide named Junior will bring horses right to the hotel and lead you on different paths. It’s very informal: Helmets are available, but there are no waivers or age requirements, so you ride at your own risk; Bill and I each double up with one of the kids. $20 a person for a one-hour ride; book through Hotel La Catalina.

Laguna Gri Gri Rides

You can book an official tour at the dock, which is about a 30-minute drive from the hotel, but we just hired one of the fishermen by the water to take us on a ride. The lagoon is amazing, full of wild tangles of mangroves and the biggest vultures you’ve ever seen. Calle Duarte, Rio San Juan.

Rowley’s trip tips

The designer’s strategies for making any family vacation smooth sailing.

1. Start with the flight. When we were trying to find a warm-weather place for a long-weekend getaway, we first narrowed down our options by looking at flight schedules: Where could we fly directly and arrive by the afternoon? That’s how we initially homed in on the Dominican Republic.

2. Stay in the zone. We’ve taken big family trips to Japan and China, and I have to say, it’s always better to travel as close to your own time zone as possible. Otherwise the kids are up all night and sleep all day—which, of course, means the same goes for the parents.

3. Pack lightly (and creatively). To save time and avoid baggage claim, no one is allowed to check luggage, and everyone, even 4-year-old Gigi, has to carry his or her own stuff. We make a game out of trying to pack things that can be used several ways—I bring a top that Kit can wear as a dress; Kit brings a shirt that Gigi can wear as a dress; we all share sun hats … that kind of thing.

4. BYO fun. I always bring little notebooks and crayons, which keep Kit and Gigi entertained the whole time we’re away. It’s also a ritual that we let the girls pick out something special at an airport gift shop before each flight. It keeps them excited both as we wait to board and once we’re on the plane.

5. Let everyone call the shots. On the first morning of each trip to Cabrera, we sit down at breakfast and make a big plan—some activity, like fishing or horseback riding, that’s been on our wish list. Then we make the smaller plans: Gigi picks an activity, Kit picks an activity, and the grown-ups pick an activity.

By Cynthia Rowley http://www.cookiemag.com

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  1. Cynthia
    Couldn’t agree with you more. WE are staying at La Catalina (young adult children 28’21’20’18)and are having a ball. The quiet is what we were seeking.
    Went to Babunuko on an off night but Juan opened up for us….
    Better food than we expected. My kids are tough critics as I own a very high quality restaurant.
    This area of SD is charming. Great tropical feel and great people. We feel safe here even though on the surface level one might expect issues. Golf was a blast (great just seeing the holes) and the beaches were great……although restaurant #8 at Playa Grande would not pass many (any) US Food Safety Inspection)
    Found another funky restaurant in town (Manny’s) owned by Francis Acosta(DR-SDomingo) and Jerome Glomaud (Parisien artist who resides in NYC and DR)Beach thatched hut on the ocean with friendly service and also good quality food. Unlike Babunuco though, the bathrooms at Manny’s (named after Francis’s oldest boy) were quite clean.
    We will return to this ‘little oasis’ in the future as after a long cold Hanover NH winter we are rejuvenated and pleased with our experience.
    Thanks WE HAVE TWO GLORIOUS DAYS REMAINING. Now what to do on St. Paddy’s day in Cabrera??
    Ole!

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