In the mountains near the north coast of the Dominican Republic, our canopied tour bus stopped on a shady country road for a visit to a four-room, wood house of a family of five. A fifth room, the kitchen for making beans, chicken and rice, was in a separate building so as not to spread cooking smoke to the sleeping quarters.
A cruise excursion operator, Outback Adventures, pays this family, and several others nearby, an occasional stipend so that small groups of travelers can poke around their house and backyard garden for a look at an authentic Dominican home where people live off the land.
“We don’t clean up the property or do anything to the house,” said our guide, Angel Espinal. Outside, he explained how the family uses trees and plants, including fruit, coffee and cocoa. The house stop typically is followed by a school visit, a swim and a local lunch such as beans, chicken and rice (tour is $75 children, $95 adults).
This tour is one of more than 30 available to passengers who will begin arriving Oct. 6 at Carnival Corp.’s new cruise port at Amber Cove. It may not be the most popular tour, competing with beaches, a cigar-rolling demonstration, a rum-factory tasting, horseback riding and ATV adventures. But it is a good example of why Dominican Republic tourism officials are so upbeat about the regular arrival of cruise ships to its north coast, near Puerto Plata, for the first time in about three decades.
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We’ve waited almost 30 years for a project like this
Julio Almonte, Dominican Republic tourism
With eight cruise brands expected to bring as many as 350,000 passengers to Amber Cove next year, Carnival Corp. officials said they turned to local operators to design ways to introduce cruisers to a new destination, its historic sites, culture, beaches and adventure activities.
“This is going to be a curiosity,” said Mico Casais, vice president of shore tours for one of the brands, Carnival Cruise Line, which will send the first ship sailing into Amber Cove. The 2,754-passenger Carnival Victory will be on a five-night cruise, departing Oct. 3 out of Miami.
As well, you can see the expected impact of tourism in the list of shops at a Dominican marketplace at the 25-acre Amber Cove, an $85 million port built to berth two big ships. For shopping, passengers can expect the usual crowd — you want to buy a diamond, a watch, a fancy handbag? — but you also will find local stores, which Dominican officials say mean jobs and sales of local products from souvenirs to art, amber, coffee and chocolate.
Carnival Corp. is calling Amber Cove a refresher port, meaning that it will add value to cruises out of the United States for people who have sailed the Caribbean before. Amber Cove also will offer bars, restaurants and a pool with water slides at no extra charge. It will have a zip line for a fee and colorful wooden private cabanas starting at $250 for the day.
Untapped, convenient cruise ports in the well-traveled northern Caribbean region are difficult to locate and expensive to rebuild for big ships. While all cruise lines are looking at potential landings in Cuba, which is the region’s largest island, Carnival Corp. has beaten its competitors to the Dominican Republic’s north coast.
Another new Caribbean cruise port, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Harvest Caye in Belize, will get its first ship Feb. 15.
Amber Cove, with a 1,280-foot pier and a channel dredged to 36 feet, is within reach from cruise homeports across the south of the United States, from Florida to Texas, and less than 40 hours from Miami. The port is just 100 miles from Carnival Corp.’s port on Grand Turk and 276 miles from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A Carnival Corp. representative said that Amber Cove calls are not replacing previous stops in any one specific country in the Caribbean; rather, the new port is being peppered into a wide variety of itineraries from various brands, such as Princess and Holland America. Cruise lines outside Carnival Corp. may be able to use the port in the future, she said.
The Dominican Republic’s north coast near Puerto Plata is not new to travelers, nor unexplored. Christopher Columbus arrived in the late 1400s. The French, English and assorted pirates fought over the shores for centuries, though the Spanish quickly extracted and shipped home most of the gold.
The last, small cruise ships making regular stops left about three decades ago as other Caribbean ports were growing and developing. As ships grew larger, there was no room at the Puerto Plata port, which is now used for cargo. Modern resorts on the north coast were largely all-inclusives, reducing the demand for fine restaurants and clubs in town, and the city has been in need of sprucing up for years. That wasn’t happening, because the Dominican Republic had turned its tourism attention to growth in and around Punta Cana, far to the southeast.
Now, with Carnival Corp.’s investment at Amber Cove, sleepy Puerto Plata is cleaning, rebuilding and renovating. Road crews are reworking crumbling, dusty streets and such attractions as the impressive two-mile brick boardwalk along the coast and the historic Fortaleza San Felipe, one of the first Spanish forts in the Americas. Cruise passengers will be greeted by music and dancers in the town’s central square.
40 Number of hours by cruise ship from Miami to Amber Cove
When it opens, Carnival’s Amber Cove will not be the first cruise port on the north coast of Hispaniola, the Caribbean’s second largest island, which is divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Royal Caribbean makes good use of its modern port in nearby Haiti, designed for its passengers to spend the day inside a well-guarded compound and beach. Royal Caribbean uses this port, Labadee, like a private island, not as a portal to tours in troubled Haiti.
Amber Cove will be different. Carnival Corp. predicts that all passengers will get off the ship, and as many as 60 percent will go on tours.
“We’ve waited almost 30 years for a project like this,” said Julio Almonte, a vice minister of tourism for the Dominican Republic.
So far, Carnival Cruise Line itineraries that include the port are five-night, seven-night and eight-night sailings from Miami, Port Canaveral and Charleston, South Carolina, to the eastern Caribbean.
Starting next April, Amber Cove will be the only destination on bi-weekly “social impact” cruises from Miami on Carnival Corp.’s new Fathom brand, which also intends to cruise to Cuba on alternate weeks. Fathom has a staff in the Dominican Republic, designing programs among which passengers may choose one-to-three days of activities to have a positive impact on local life and businesses.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com
Amber Cove, www.ambercove.com
Carnival Cruise Line tours at Amber Cove, www.carnival.com/shore-excursions/amber-cove-dominican-republic