Sunday, February 17, 2013

Christmas on the Beach: Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

It was Christmas morning, 2011. All of the presents had been opened and wrapping paper was stored away in garbage bags. “A Christmas Story” was blaring from the television, as it normally does for 24 hours on Christmas at my family’s home.

My all-adult family was relishing in the holiday, but dreaming about being on a nice, warm beach to celebrate Christmas, when I suggested we do it. Why not trade in our winter coats and hats for a swimsuit? From that conversation the ball was in motion and JC put on his travel salesman hat.
By the summer we had our 2012 Christmas vacation chosen and booked. Even though we had many months to wait before we landed on the beach, we fantasized about our trip in length and talked about preparations for the island get-a-way.

The months flew by and before we knew it our Dominican Republic Christmas was upon us! The whole family was very excited about the trip, but changing our normal traditions was a bit of an adjustment.

Christmas morning at 2 a.m. JC and I had the car loaded up and were on our way to St. Louis to take off for paradise. Luckily, snow was predicted for the day, but later in the afternoon, long after we would have landed on the island.

Since it was Christmas, JC and I planned a fun little gift to give to my parents and grandmother in the airport. We put together a small little bag for each of them with island and travel essentials, i.e. chap stick, gum, and candy.

When we finally arrived to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic it was a quick walk to our taxi and about a 30 minute drive to our resort, which was tucked back in a little cove near a small town called Maimon.

A big Christmas tree was set up as the main focal point when you walked into the hotel. Other garland and ornaments were strung throughout the front lobby as well. For people from the Midwest, it was hard to even imagine that it was actually Christmas. Christmas comes with cold temperatures and snow, not sun and 80 degree temperatures.

Christmas Tree in the main lobby.
The first thing we did once our bags were settled in our rooms was to dig out our swimsuits and head down to the pool, and also the swim-up bar. JC and I had gotten our vacation Christmas gifts, Bubba mugs, from my parents once we got to the resort to use.  JC was the only brave sole to think about getting in the water that first evening, but even his dip in the pool didn’t last long because of the cold water temperature.

The beach at the resort was unlike any other we’d been to. Palm trees and mangroves filled the beach area, making it a little hard to find any sun, but great for the pale people in the group (myself included). The resort had a great lookout point on the top of the hill overlooking the entire resort and beach area. It also had a nice little beach on the other side of the cliffs. On this beach were a few shops and some very calm water.

Small, quiet beach.
For the majority of our stay we had dinner in the buffet of the resort. There would be “themed” nights to try to change up some of the foods. My favorite nights were Mexican night and Asian night. The fresh seafood in the sushi was delicious. As with any resort, the food got a little repetitive, but we managed to enjoy something at every meal. For me, the food I enjoyed the most was beans and rice. I have never been a fan of beans, so when I heard this was a famous food in the Dominican I was sure I wouldn’t enjoy it; however I gave it a try and ending up really liking it.

Our first excursion was the Outback Safari trip. This trip took you through rural areas of the country to see what actual residents of Puerto Plata live like. Some of the areas we went through had no electricity and very few amenities (no refrigerators, washing machines, running water or bathroom facilities). Our first stop on the Safari was to a local Dominican’s house. This person’s house had two very small buildings. The front part of the house had a living/dining area and one bedroom. The second building was for the kitchen. Of course, the kitchen had no stove, microwave or refrigerator. The family also grew some bananas, pineapple and other fruits in a plantation on their grounds. Probably the most interesting part of this stop were the children. Some of the people on the excursion had brought stickers and candy for the kids. Since school was out, the people gave the treats to the kids living nearby. This created a big crowd to gather and the constant chatter of “amigo” as the kids tried to get the attention of those with the treats.

House in the countryside. 

All of the local children yelling "amigo" to get stickers.


JC drinking coffee made from home-grown coffee beans.

Another house on our tour.
The second stop of the trip was at a country school. There were two buildings and a fenced in play area, plus two separate bathrooms with running water and flushing capabilities (which is a treat). The Outback Safari group helps fund projects for the country schools and the bathrooms and second building in this school were some of the things the company has funded. The school serves about 75 students grades kindergarten through eighth. The kids attend school in three different shifts, morning, afternoon and evening. For my parents and myself, who work in schools, this part of the trip was very interesting. It also made us realize how much students, parents and teachers take for granted in the states.

Our third stop along the way was at a freshwater stream. The stream was covered in rocks, so it was hard for me to walk around, but the water was very clear, and cold. The stream flowed all the way out to the ocean.

After our stream we stopped for lunch to have Dominican fried chicken and beans and rice before heading to the ocean for boogey boarding. The beach we stopped at was a National Park and took a little time to get to the ocean from our parking spot. We had to walk for a decent time over a bridge made of sticks before we finally came upon the water. The waves were great for boogey boarding. We had a really good time reveling in a fun activity I hadn’t taken part in since high school. Massages were also given to those on the trip.

JC boogey boarding.

The Outback Safari trip was a great way to experience the Dominican Republic and see what the people of the country are like and how they live. JC and I took the Outback Safari trip in Punta Cana and loved it – and this trip was almost as good as the first.

Our second excursion was to Paradise Island.  Trip Advisor reviews had rated Paradise Island as an excellent snorkeling excursion, which is why we decided to try this trip.

The day started very early with an hour and a half ride to the company’s headquarters where we changed and got ready to jump on speed boats to take to the island in the middle of the ocean.  The speedboat ride was pretty rough.  The water we rode through was a gorgeous, clear blue, but the waves made for a rocky, bumpy ride.  On the way out to the island we drove through some mangrove trees.  The mangroves were pretty and it was neat to see how many trees were growing through the water. 

Once we got to the island we realized that it was actually a pretty small pile of sand in the middle of the ocean surrounded by coral reef.  The tour groups packed on a couple hundred people on this tiny island, but the water and mountainous view was beautiful.  Our tour group offered guided snorkeling so we would not damage the coral or get hurt by the sharp coral.  It always takes a minute to gather my bearings once I start snorkeling; however once I get the hang of it I’m like a fish.  This snorkeling experience was by far the best I’ve ever experienced.  The coral was everywhere and beautiful.  The guides brought bread with them out into the water and fish would gather around them knowing they were going to get fed.  Many times I would look down and see that I was surrounded by hundreds of fish.  After snorkeling we got to spend some more time on the beach before braving the final speedboat ride back to the mainland where lunch was waiting for us. 


JC and I usually like to try something to immerse ourselves into the culture of the country we are visiting.  There was a small town called Maimon very close to our resort, so we decided to venture to the town for some local cuisine.  The first trip we visited a small restaurant called Los Primos.  The food was great; I had shrimp and JC had lobster.  He was even able to pick out the lobster.  Because we had such a good experience we decided to take the rest of our group back to Los Primos the last night of our trip.  The food was just as good as the first experience, and everyone enjoyed the short trip off of the resort despite the fact that we sat through a short power outage, making eating in complete darkness in an open air restaurant a little uneasy.  Thankfully the power outage only lasted a minute or two.

Our second trip back to the Dominican Republic offered some really eye-opening, enjoyable experiences that I will always remember.  This trip was also great because we got to spend time with family doing new things in a new country.  In my opinion, Puerto Plata didn’t quiet measure up to our experience in Punta Cana when it comes to the resort and excursions, but this trip was extremely memorable and great.