Once a tiny farming village on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, the beachfront town of Cabarete has a unique rush hour — colorful, mesmerizing and, for those in the thick of it, exhilarating.
The mode of transit consists of a stubby surfboard whose rider is harnessed to a giant kite. When the trade winds pick up in mid to late afternoon, hundreds of kitesurfers gear up on the beach and let the wind tow them into an increasingly busy corridor atop the waves.
The crescent-shaped kites, measuring up to 130 square feet, dominate the seascape, rising and falling as the surfer tethered below executes leaps, airborne turns and spectacular somersaults, sometimes 20-30 feet above the surface.
With windsurfers sprinkled into the afternoon mix, the scene for casual observers like my wife and me was mesmerizing as we sipped our ice-cold Presidente beers on lounge chairs outside Mojito’s, one of the many bars and restaurants that line Cabarete’s entertainment strip.
Now and then we indulged a meandering vendor for a fresh coconut. Its tasty water is über-healthful, and after you finish, the vendor will break open the coconut and shave off sweet, yummy slices for you to eat.
An eclectic assortment of bars, cafés and restaurants adds to Cabarete’s laid-back, Bohemian charm. For my Sunday football fix on our most recent visit, we ducked into José O’Shay’s Irish Bar to watch the action on hi-def, wide-screen TVs.
Packed wall to wall, the beachfront joints most commonly serve burgers, Tex-Mex and Italian. With our toes in the sand at a beachfront table, we enjoyed a delicious, thin-crust, brick-oven pizza at Lax. Reflecting the town’s international appeal, menus are often in several languages, including Spanish, English, French, Italian and German.
At night, after the wave riders have rested up and had dinner, the strip shifts into music and dance mode, rocking into the wee hours to the beat of salsa, merengue and hip-hop at clubs like VoyVoy and Ojo.
By day, though, the action is on the water, starting in the morning with surfers and standup paddlesurfers — they use an oar-like paddle to slice across the waves while standing atop a surfboard. When the winds pick up after lunch, the windsurfers and kitesurfers emerge.
Action-minded tourists can easily find kitesurfing lessons, but several are required just to get the hang of it. Standup paddlesurfing has a shorter learning curve — a lesson or two and you’re good to go. At least a dozen schools are sprinkled throughout Cabarete and nearby beaches, like Kite Beach and Playa Encuentro. Many hotels offer lessons among activities available (for a fee) to guests.
Lying at nearly the same latitude as Hilo, Hawaii, Cabarete enjoys an almost year-round combination of brisk, consistent trade winds and average water temperature of about 80 degrees, which means board shorts and ordinary swimsuits are just fine, no need for thermal wear.
International competitions not only bring athletes, their friends and families but also attract crowds of tourists who simply watch and enjoy. The 13th annual Master of the Ocean competition, which combines all four surf-related disciplines, returns Feb. 23-28. Cabarete is an occasional stop on the Kiteboard World Cup championship tour. Laser sailing (boats 12-15 feet) has a niche here, too.
For a non-beach change of pace, we took a taxi up into the coastal mountain range and spent a night at the rustic Tubagua Plantation Eco Lodge, which is nestled into a hillside about 1,000 feet up. Its thatch-roofed bungalows and spacious, open-air dining room all provided sweeping views down the hillsides to the turquoise coast, with the horizon dominated by the Isabel de Torres mountain peak overlooking Puerto Plata. From Tubagua we took a fascinating guided hike through neighboring villages and hillsides to a natural formation of pools and waterfalls, known as God’s Swimming Pool.
If a fall visit fits your schedule, pencil in the 19th annual Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, featuring four nights of free concerts by internationally acclaimed musicians Nov. 5-8 in Puerto Plata, Sosúa and Cabarete.
Other nearby destinations:
▪ Sosúa. Sandwiched between Puerto Plata and Cabarete, the beach town of Sosúa was carved out of an abandoned plantation by 600-700 European Jews escaping the Holocaust. As part of a 1938 resettlement program, they forged a completely new existence in the tropics. While most tourists gravitate to the beaches, restaurants and honkytonks, the town’s still-active synagogue and the Sosúa Jewish Museum are fascinating stops.
▪ 27 Falls of Rio Damajagua. A fun adventure for the physically fit, this natural formation of 27 waterfalls about 40 miles west of Cabarete is one of the top adventure tourism sites in the country. Visitors hike up to the seventh, 12th or 27th fall and hop, slide and jump all the way down. (Life jackets and helmets provided.)
▪ Puerto Plata. The cultural capital of the north coast, Puerto Plata is a vibrant, historic port city with a wide, scenic malecón hugging its coastline. It has the only sky tram in the Caribbean, taking visitors to the peak of Mount Isabel de Torres (2,500 feet). Another top spot is the oceanfront San Felipe fortress, which dates to the 16th century. The Ocean World Adventure Park, Marina & Casino includes an aquatic park and plenty of dining and nightlife options.
Going to Cabarete
Getting there: American flies nonstop from Miami to Gregorio Luperón International Airport at Puerto Plata, a two-hour flight. Roundtrip airfare starts at $715 in mid-February. Visitors must pay $10 for a tourist card upon arrival. It’s a 30-minute cab ride or less to Sosúa and Cabarete to the east and downtown Puerto Plata to the west.
WHERE TO STAY
Sea Horse Ranch, Carretera Principal, Cabarete; 800-635-0991; www.sea-horse-ranch.com. An oceanfront villa resort, Sea Horse Ranch features equestrian and tennis centers, restaurant and pools amid 250 acres of tropical landscaping. Sizes range from three to six bedrooms; each villa has a private pool. The resort is six miles east of the international airport and six miles west of Cabarete. Villas $700-$2,500 a night.
Ultravioleta, Carretera Principal, Cabarete; 1-829-931-5555; www.ultravioletacabarete.com. Located between Cabarete and Kite Beach, this oceanfront, boutique residence features 21 luxury suites (one to three bedrooms), each with ocean views, private balconies and full kitchens. An infinity-edge pool and deck overlook the ocean. Although there’s no restaurant, the Cabarete Coffee Company (breakfast and lunch) is next door. Suites $196-$545.
Millennium Resort & Spa, Carretera Principal, Cabarete; 1-809-571-0407, www.millenniumcabarete.com. A short walk to the heart of Cabarete, this modern beachfront resort has 53 condos (one to three bedrooms, most with water views) with full kitchens or kitchenettes and balconies. Restaurant, infinity-edge pool, lobby bar, spa, fitness center, surf school. Condos $100-$600.
Surf Break Cabarete, Playa Encuentro, Cabarete; 1-829-921-4080, www.surfbreakcabarete.com. A rustic hideaway featuring surf instruction and a spacious yoga studio, Surf Break is in the Encuentro Beach area, five miles west of Cabarete. Seventeen units, two pools, health-food restaurant, recently renovated, five-minute walk to the beach. $24-$74 (add $7 per night for air conditioning).
WHERE TO EAT
Wilson’s La Boca Restaurant, La Boca, Cabarete; 1-809-667-1960. Off the beaten path on a river delta, Wilson’s is a rustic joint that serves fresh seafood Dominican-style. Choices may include rainbow fish, shrimp, lobster, crab or octopus, served with rice, beans, fried plantains and salad. $15-$20 (includes two drinks).
Gordito’s Fresh Mex, Ocean Dream, Cabarete; 1-829-844-3434; www.gorditosfreshmex.com. Like a Dominican version of Chipotle Grill, Gordito’s serves generous tacos, burritos and bowls (bed of lettuce, rice and beans, topped with your pick of beef, chicken, pork or mahi). The mambo fish taco is a customer favorite. A la carte menu $1-$6; occasional specials to $12.
Lax, Carretera Principal, Cabarete; 1-829-745-8811; www.laxojo.com. The menu includes Italian and Asian dishes, TexMex, salads and sandwiches. Lax serves a tempting menu of exotic drinks, too. Sharing space with the nightclub Ojo, Lax has outdoor seating shaded by canopies stretched among coconut palm trees. $5-$14.
Mojito Bar, Carretera Principal, Cabarete; 1-829-298-9469, www.mojitobar-cabarete.com. The name is misleading because in addition to its splendid rum elixirs, Mojito offers more than 20 sandwiches, many gluten-free, a variety of bruschetta and an assortment of creative, international salads. $4-$13.