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

Luxuriating at Villa Castellamonte

My Magical Villa Birthday Bash in the Dominican Republic

I have been coming to the North Coast of the Dominican Republic for more than 15 years and it has come a long way baby! Your North Coast experience can be anything you want it to be. Now being called the Amber Riviera, upscale is the direction in which the whole area is going.

If you fly into the international airport for Puerto Plata (POP), minutes away is the popular Playa Dorada resort. One of the first resort complexes in the country, it put the D.R. on the tourist map with its all-inclusive hotels. There are about a dozen with the exception of the five-star boutique beauty, Casa Colonial. Those dozen are renovating and upgrading to compete with the newer genre of all-inclusives in Punta Cana. The standout, (Casa Colonial) designed by the celebrated architect, Sara Garcia, is pricey but hotels of a comparable quality in the Caribbean, particularly in the French islands, can cost three times more.

When you venture out to more remote areas, the North Country is like Eden. Rich, tropical vegetation grows up the hillsides to the cliffs. The beaches between Rio San Juan and Cabrera are unspoiled, pristine and relatively unpopulated. (Unspoiled beaches and land are becoming a rarity in the Caribbean.) On some, you feel as if you were set adrift from your larger vessel and landed on an undiscovered isle. Play castaways or better yet, Adam and Eve.

Just one hour down the coastal road from the cacophony of Cabarete, (30 minutes from the POP airport) Cabrera is a new “in” destination. The phrase “The Dominican Hamptons” has been coined, and with validity. This area is helping to redefine the D.R. vacation experience and the vacation rental company to help you experience it is North Coast Management (NCM).

Sosua and Cabarete have their fun quotient, but can be too much of a good thing, with the negatives that accompany party towns, not to mention the traffic and diesel fumes and dust. The action is there if you want it, just an hour’s drive to the west over a well-paved highway. More gentile types, well-heeled travelers, baby boomers, and upscale wedding groups prefer the luxurious residences available as rentals in the towns of Cabrera and Abreu, This area now has some of the most high-end holiday homes in the country. Most are within private resort/residential enclaves, many fully staffed and offering the kind of lifestyle pictured in society pages.

These vacation villas were unimaginable even a decade ago in this farming community. This campo (countryside), where most of the land was, and still is, in livestock and agriculture, is becoming a boom-town. Interestingly, el centro, or downtown Cabrera, is still a sleepy, dusty Dominican town with a central square. In a land of warm, hospitable people, Cabrerans are among the nicest.

We had the thrill of staying at Villa Castellamonte in Orchid Bay Estates for my birthday week. I took the experience as a sign that aging was going to be pleasurable! The first time I ever saw Orchid Bay’s beach, the blue dream of the sky and the aquamarine waters, it seemed surreal. Fragrant almond trees dipped sensually to the golden sands. The staggered sea cliffs were colored with wild orchids that bloomed a lipstick shade of hot pink. Villa Castellamonte is the crown jewel of a boutique collection of waterfront estates there.

The Sporting Life

Several sporting options are in easy range of the Cabrera/Abreu area, “beaching it” being the perennial favorite. Among other possibilities are championship golf, scuba diving, atv rides, surfing, horseback riding and the list goes on. A little farther afield, the range goes from mountain biking to kite surfing in Cabarete and even whale watching in Samana.
Beach aficionados rave about the ones in this unspoiled region and Hollywood filmmakers have used Playa Entrada as a set (most recently for Love Wrecked). It is one of the longest stretches of beach on the north coast that is untouched. And in the lens of a movie camera, it looks like it is at the end of the world! Yet you can get a cold beer and a hot empanada at one of the beach shacks. If you are looking for this beach, it is in La Entrada, which is part of Cabrera, at the Km 21 marker on the Rio San Juan – Cabrera Highway.

Playa Grande (Big Beach) is perhaps the most famous of the area beaches, and is where the storied golf course of the same name is. Condé Nast Traveler listed it as one of the top ten beaches in the world. It is an amazing stretch of golden sand, with cliffs on either side. These promontories are punctuated with some of the course’s most celebrated holes.

Preciosa in Spanish, should you not be able to be figure it out, means precious; the beach next to Playa Grande (playa is beach, by the by) is named Playa Preciosa… because it is so very beautiful. Alas, it is excellent for wave surfing…if you are looking for calm, go instead to Playa El Breton, Playa Caleton or Playa Diamonte. Take snorkeling gear as it is lovely under the surface and a bag, for sea shells are there for the picking. BYO in general, for there are no facilities, but that means quiet and no litter, either, which is a good thing.

Simply put, I have always said: Things look different from the back of a horse. This is as true here as anywhere, even more so, because this country is so physically beautiful, from the beaches to the mountains and everywhere in between. The area around Cabrera is ranch country. Ranch country translates to horse country, just like in our western states.

It is well worth abandoning your chaise lounge for a few hours to explore the interior. You go through trails that traverse the countryside and into the rainforests, which is a singular adventure. (You won’t find them in Wyoming!) Rainforests have a preternatural stillness about them, one that all but commands you to hush-up. You listen to the nature noises and watch for wildlife and get into the rhythm of your horse, with the cadence of his hoof steps. Other times you get silly, singing cowboy songs and after a rest stop, repeating such western clichés as “Head ‘em up and move ‘em out!”

Rancho Marabel has horses, and there are others that rent out mounts, but me thinks it is best to take the advice of your villa manager and let him make the arrangements. They will determine if it is better for your group to go with Iguana Mama, the area’s top adventure tour company. This way your transportation is taken care of and you have Spanish-speaking staff to help with translating questions and requests. Usually, you will have at least one English-speaking guide on the trail and the cost is quite reasonable, especially considering the drinks and snacks.

Welcome to a whole other water world! One can snorkel by just walking into the ocean or book passage on a dive boat to a sandy beach and have a look-see at colorful, underwater gardens and offshore reefs. The north coast has numerous walls, wreck and caverns. Ancient sunken galleons are among the lures.

We booked a cavern dive that departs from Gri Gri Lagoon in Rio San Juan. (Inquire in advance if you will be given an underwater flashlight.) Some of us snorkeled while others dove and then entered some sea caves. We then visited an idyllic beach in a quiet cove and were amused by the unexpected sculptures. Our boat glided briefly and quietly through a mangrove swamp, teeming with tropical sea birds, before it docked back in the lagoon.

I advise that you go with a PADI 5-Star dive shop to be assured of quality, dependability and safety. NCM generally phones Northern Coast Diving, based in Sosua. (It’s the only National Geographic Center in the D.R.) If you have rented a car, you can meet them at the Lagoon, or they will transport you by van.

Between the towns of Rio San Juan and Cabrera, Playa Grande Golf Course is described as the Pebble Beach of the Caribbean, with 10 holes along cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The standard remark: “Challenging for the best players, but playable for everybody,” actually applies here. You may have heard tell of this oceanfront course, perhaps from a friend who came last year and tipped you off to the villa possibilities in this area.

Playa Grande carries the signature of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and in fact, was the last course he designed before his death. Greens are huge, varied in shape and steeply sloped, but with few tricky undulations. Since everything grows so well here, fairways are incredibly lush, and the course is naturally landscaped with native flowers. It is less expensive and less crowded than other prominent courses because it is some distance from the major tourist zones. Alas, this noble course is going private but the new Playa Grande Resort with Aman Resorts coming to build one of their own crown jewels will definitely spice up the area.

This course will be closing in early 2009 for renovations and will go private when it reopens, available to members only. Home owners in the area will likely have memberships. Playa Grande Resort is developing a second course in the coming year as well. It will be semi-private and pretty much open to a wide variety of people. Until then, and for the remainder of 2008, villa guests can easily get tee-times at what just may be one of the great golf courses of the world.

The Night Life

Much of what you do at night, like in “The Big Chill,” will take place in the privacy of “your home,” enjoying your lavish surroundings and the pleasure of the company of your housemates, be they family, friends or colleagues.

One lifetime memory was my birthday night at Villa Castellamonte. We had a progressively wonderful dinner starting with yucca fritters and crudités accompanied by Moet Chandon, Pork tenderloin stuffed with goat cheese and spinach atop tamarind sauce followed, accompanied by a sweet potato puree and an arugula salad.

The British pastry chef made a pineapple upside down cake at my request, and after the dinner plates were cleared away, the lights were dimmed. Through the swinging kitchen door, the cake emerged, flaming with candles and followed by the villa staff singing Feliz Cumpleaños. It was dramatic!

We adjourned to the game room for some vintage rum in snifters, some of the men smoking their Fuente cigars outdoors. We had two teenagers amongst us, a 14 and a 17-year-old, and they alternated between playing ping-pong, pool, and shuffleboard.

Three of our gang got involved with the karaoke equipment; with the lyrics coming clear on the wide screen TV. They became addicted and sang their heart out for a solid hour. One of the guys seductively unbuttoned his shirt while crouching low to mouth an Elvis ballad. Another gal was consistently scoring 90s on the karaoke Richter scale, as she belted out one show tune after another. It was really fascinating to watch as who-was-playing-what gradually changed.

The boys abandoned the ping-pong table for the video games and their father, Elvis reincarnated, started to play pong with another guy, who previously was content to smoke his Opus X. His wife joined me as we tried our talents on the karaoke mike, while my niece and the high-ranking soprano wet their tired whistles. And so it went until everyone gave up the ghost and retired to their luxurious suites. For me it had been a glorious birthday, and as the B’Day girl I had the master suite. Looking up from the many, downy pillows to the sensual ceiling painting illuminated by the gas fireplace, I said: “This is the good life!”

That was September and I just received an e-mail from one couple who said they are still talking about my birthday bash. Memories were made of this!

As for other nocturnal adventures, we enjoyed the nights we would make forays into town, particularly right around Happy Hour. You can get a drink to go (para llevar) from one of the bars, like the Town Square, and mingle with locals in the park. They head there after work and always on a Sunday. Later in the night you can safely hit some of the Dominican bars and discos. They can be a fun change of pace and the people are dancers! In a single night, you can learn to merengue and bachata, and discover body rhythms that you never knew you had.

Every town has a patron saint and in Cabrera, the annual Patronales Festival in late September, lasts for nine days. Like everything else here, the action is centered in and around the central park and the whole town comes out. From the makeshift stage, live bands electrify the night. Some years, national recording artists perform.

Food booths serve the favored local snacks, like empanadas, and there are Presidente beer stands. Vendors sell inexpensive souvenirs and jewelry and kids’ stuff. Meanwhile the children of the Dominicans and expats are in a frenzy racing between the carnival rides and the cotton candy stands.

On a normal weekend, “the” thing to do on a Friday night is to go on up to the Hotel La Catalina. Make dinner reservations according to the time the songbird starts to sing. This hillside hideaway has dramatic oceanfront views from its terrace, so go for cocktail hour. The bar is convivial and you can easily make new friends, a diplomat just in from the capital, a French Canadian escaping Montreal’s winter.

Luxury Villas – Another Way to Vacation

Once you are aware of the villa alternative, and then experience it, it is hard to go back. It is like the old adage: Once you have been to Paree, it’s hard to go back to the farm. It takes you no time at all to get used to the good life.

Having had years of all-inclusive experiences, what an incredible difference it is not to have to elbow your way through a throng of strangers to get a cocktail. Often, amidst those strangers there is not anyone you would normally want to party with and the cocktails are substandard, a Dominican brand of liquor and some juice made from a powder.

“At our own villa,” we had an inventory of top-shelf liquors and quality mixers, even coconuts and fresh-squeezed juice. Our butler served it on a silver tray decorated with tropical flowers. This old saying may now be politically incorrect, but one of our gang asked: “I wonder what the poor people are doing?”

Luxury villa rentals are not for your average Joe, this be the facts. They are for savvy travelers who don’t like crowds and who are seeking a personalized vacation experience with privacy a priority, particularly around the pool and in dining areas. Again, if you have ever been to an all-inclusive resort, which has some 2,000 guests and is a low four star or less, you will remember litter and un-bussed tables. You will remember over-populated swimming pools with Dominican music at a deafening decibel and animation boys blowing whistles and aggressively coaxing you into the games people play! Whew!

One of the things we loved was our pool complex, which was beautifully designed with a bubbling hot tub. There is a diving board and my niece has a diving talent and performed tirelessly for us. The teenage boys were like dolphins, in and out, up and down. We had the sound system going but with our choice of music. If we were loud, it was our noise not that of a multi-generational, local family with a half dozen kids out shouting each other.

A favorite recollection was the first night the boys arrived and the older one, always impressed with wealth, said: “You didn’t tell us we were coming to a palace?”

I said: “I told you it was a palazzo, and that means palace in Italian. The name of the villa is Castellamonte, get it?” (little castle on a hill according to the owner)

“Right,” he answered and said: “Let me get a towel, I believe it’s hot-tub time.”

He reemerged in the terry-cloth robe that was in his suite. He had rolled up the sleeves and was wearing a gold chain and walking with a swagger. He had his arm cocked and a beach towel was hanging from it. “Jacuzzi anyone?” he queried. We laughed! Our young Huge Hefner!

In most of the villas that NCM manages, meals are not in the rental price, but must be added for a moderate daily supplement, which includes an allotment of wine and liquor. “At our place,” we enjoyed snacks and meals when we wanted them. The cookie jar was always filled with something homemade and scones were a breakfast favorite. Although, we would give our personal chef an idea of when he should be ready, we weren’t locked into specific time frames, like at a resort. We were able to choose our meals in advance, based on individual preferences. Our well-trained staff really went out of their way to please and pamper, and they were fun…not formal. Several of the key employees spoke English well.

Villa Castellamonte’s philosophy is: “Your vacation is all about you – what you want, how you want it, and when.” That works for me!!

And one of the very best things about one of the greatest vacation weeks ever, was interacting with the Matthews family who owns and operates North Coast Management. A retired self-admitted techno-geek, Jason, and his lovely wife Michelle, started the company to help manage their own vacation home (the very same Villa Castellamonte). They are ultimately efficient, not to mention hip, hospitable, and helpful. A small example: For my birthday dinner they brought fresh arugula from their farm, as I had mentioned in passing I wanted an arugula salad.

Felicita, the villa concierge, can make anything happen in Cabrera, which is her hometown. Once married to an American, she understands our North American mentality, which was a big plus. She also coordinates some dozen, glorious weddings a year at Villa Castellamonte and other nearby ultra-luxury villas overseen by NCM. In all of Orchid Bay, Villa Castellamonte del Mare is one that is most in demand for on-site weddings and is my personal favorite.

Villa Flor de Cabrera, also located in Orchid Bay Estates, is another drop-dead dazzler. We paid it a neighborly visit; the Association of South Carolina Chiropractors had just vacated the 10 bedrooms, leaving behind their positive comments, which were more like rave reviews. The pool with its water sculptures and the view of their pristine beach are dreamy. Excellent taste is exhibited throughout, from the architecture to the contemporary furnishings of this, the newest of the mega-villas.

The kitchen staff is fine-tuned for feeding upscale groups, especially wedding parties. There are two kitchens; one is a huge commercial one. Each of NCM’s villas has its own unique features. Another plus for this one is that there is a separate, master casita, ideal for a bride and groom or the big Kahuna of a corporate group. One of the most costly in the inventory, it is heartwarming to know that after expenses are covered, this villa’s profits all go to local charities benefiting the Dominican people.

There are no cookie cutters amongst the villas of North Coast Management. Each is architecturally designed and individualistic. The unique character of these villas is a key attribute as are the differing staffs, all with wonderful personalities reflective of the villa and the owners.

Another fave of mine, perhaps because of my fond memories of Indonesia, is the multi-unit home that looks like a modern Balinese village. At Sunrise Villa there is the “Manana Bar” where you feel immediately relaxed as you start drinking…an ancient island ritual. A fun, party place, a giant, outdoor chess set stimulates competitiveness. It does not have the elegant furniture such as Castellamonte or Flor de Cabrera, but the casual environment is ideal for golfing buddies or families with kids. Yet it has privacy in that each bedroom suite is in its own building. The on-site manager, Chris, is one of the American owners and is a very cool type. He can boast an 11-handicap and is always willing to play a round of golf with an in-house group.

Sunrise is an earlier design of Sara Garcia, and perhaps because I know and admire her, I am drawn to another nearby residence that she did in Seatree Estates, the newest gated community in the nearby town of Abreu. Villa Cantamar is a contemporary dream house with four-bedrooms and is priced as moderately as $800 a night in low season. Because it is so reasonable and romantic, couples, particularly honeymooners, take it on their own.

Villa Cantamar stirs the blood…its secluded location is dramatic…on a cliffside elevation looking down to the ocean and onto a picture perfect horseshoe bay framed by a rugged coastline. You see no other houses, just raw beauty. A 2.5 acre estate, it is set back on a rolling lawn. Security, like at all the villas, is staunch, yet unobtrusive. The all-night security guards are seldom obvious to guests, but they are there.

I had occasion to visit another ultra-luxurious vacation home managed by NCM, in the well-established enclave of Sea Horse Ranch, between Cabarete and Sosua. Villa Catalina, also known as Numero Uno (its address within the compound) is a jaw-dropper! Once you see this place it is indelibly etched in your memory bank. If you are a lover of expensive modern art, enjoy the whimsy of offbeat sculpture, including life-size cartoon creations, even a Soprano’s pinball machine, you will be dazzled by this seven-bedroom, contemporary mansion. With a rose-colored stucco exterior, it has its own beach, an ocean cavern, 3 1/2 acres of sweeping lawn that drops down to the water, a white-on-white interior, and art, art, art in every room on every floor.

If someone asked me if we would opt for a luxurious villa again, the answer would be a resounding “yes.”

Should you?

To begin the decision-making process, you need to consider the type of individualized experience you want, your personal preferences and budget and how important your privacy is to you. Although, initially, the villas, particularly the larger ones, may seem out of reach financially, you have to take into consideration the number of bedrooms and divide the total price by that figure, providing that you will have all of them taken.

Larger villas of eight to ten bedrooms or suites are generally booked by larger travel parties such as family reunions, corporate retreats, wedding groups and those celebrating anniversaries or landmark birthdays. They are perfect for a “Big Chill” gathering. It comes out to be about the same cost as a five-star hotel room – and then you just have a room.

Here in a private vacation villa you have the amenities of the five-star hotel but with the entire facility for your private use along with a personable staff dedicated solely to your pleasure. (The Dominican nannies love children.) Then there is the food supplement, which takes in all of your meals and snacks and yet is about the price of a good dinner.

Not all vacation homes are ultra-luxurious; there are others available that are quite moderate in price. NCM has some that are popular with honeymoon couples, spacious but not mega-houses, with pools and the best attribute — privacy.

Another consideration is that even if a villa is super-posh, it still has a warm, homey environment, especially in comparison to the impersonal and commercial nature of a resort. Cleanliness factors into the equation, as it is a private home and not a heavily trafficked hotel with a high litter quotient.

For me, I loved that there was free broadband WiFi at Villa Castellamonte as well as a dedicated DSL line; long distance calls were easily made and were literally free because they were Internet phones! I could do what work I had to either in the office, if everyone was in the game room, or in that room if the others were outside, spreading out my papers on the oversized coffee table and enjoying the sound system. As opulent as it was, our place was as laid back as the garden hammock, where I would take my afternoon siestas.

Many adults who chose the villa alternative and particularly their children, have never experienced anything like these grand homes. They just may be spoiled forever for any other kind of vacation. It is like that ad campaign for MasterCard that gives the prices of various necessities and luxuries that one can buy and finishes by saying:

The price of a villa vacation? Priceless

For further information please click to North Coast Management

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  1. drnorthcoast says:

    The Dominican Republic is safe, or safer, than most any other island in the Caribbean or Latin American country. Obviously the owner of this property could have built it anywhere but decided the Dominican Republic was the best, the safest and the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Others who have invested heavily in the Dominican Republic include movie stars such as Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt or Shakira, moguls such as Donald Trump and the Bush Family and many more. Safe? You bet!

  2. holidays to tenerife says:

    is it safe there? there was some trouble in haiti recently i believe.

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