FEATURE

The Mellow Dominican Republic

There's no better place to just hang loose than the perpetually mellow town of Cabarete, on the Dominican Republic's northeast coast.

After driving 15 minutes from Cabarete along a sandy road, I reach La Boca, a broad estuary where the Río Yásica meets the sea. To my right is a glassy lagoon, and beyond that is a deserted beach. Directly in front of me there's a pale green lean-to thatched with palm fronds. At one of the tables scattered on the sand, three young Dominican women sip drinks from hollowed-out pineapples. The name of the place, La Boca Grill, is on a battered surfboard hanging from the roof. It's an idyllic little slice of the tropics.

My unofficial guide is Marcus Bohm, a shaggy German who settled in Cabarete 17 years ago. A former pro kiteboarder, Marcus runs an array of ventures, including a surf school (321 Takeoff), a sailboard-repair shop, and an international water-sports competition called Master of the Ocean. I met Marcus when he stopped by my hotel to chat with a friend. With characteristic Cabarete friendliness, he offered to spend the day chauffeuring me around in his beat-up white pickup plastered with surf stickers.

Marcus motions for me to follow him and another man into a dank, dirt-floored room. The man opens a cooler and pulls out fish in a rainbow of shimmering purples, yellows, and blues. Half an hour later, I'm seated at a table, obsessively licking my fingers and staring at the remains of one of the most memorable meals of my life: a foot-long grouper fried to perfection and served with rice and beans, fried plantains, a simple salad of cabbage and thinly sliced tomatoes, and an ice-cold Presidente beer. The meal costs less than $10--including tip.

"I always bring out-of-towners to La Boca, because it's impossible not to fall in love with the place," says Marcus.

The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two thirds of the island of Hispaniola (the rest is Haiti), a popular landing spot for travelers ever since Christopher Columbus washed ashore in 1492. During World War II, it became a haven for a small group of German Jews. Even today you'll notice the occasional German road sign.

Santo Domingo, on the island's southern coast, is the capital and a bustling port. Punta Cana, on the eastern tip, attracts the European set with upscale accommodations. To the north is Puerto Plata, a beach resort strip located next to the world's largest all-inclusive complex, Playa Dorada.

Cabarete, meanwhile, is a ramshackle beach town of 20,000 people about 20 minutes east of the international airport at Puerto Plata. For much of its history, the town was an isolated fishing village. But in the past two decades, hotels, restaurants, and surf shops have filled the main drag, Calle Principal, without any apparent master plan. An old Victorian house sits next to sleek condos, which sit next to a palapa. The town is only about a mile and a quarter wide, but Calle Principal is choked with buses, street vendors, pedestrians, and mopeds carrying families of four.

Cabarete is among the world's top spots for windsurfing and kiteboarding, and those sports have created the culture and driven the development. There's a sizeable young expat community, and backpacking adrenaline junkies share the beach with families and couples. On my first day, I met a British family who had just finished a group surfing lesson--even the 82-year-old grandmother.

Unlike in some other parts of the country, here the Dominican character shines through. Merengue music is a constant, pumping out of every window, and the people are welcoming. Simply smile and say hola, and people smile back, doors open, and drinks are offered. And then you find yourself in a place like La Boca.

After lunch, Marcus takes me to the mountains. Cabarete's southern edge is lined by the foothills of the Cordillera Septentrional, which not only make for a dramatic backdrop, but provide a venue for non-beach activities such as waterfall climbing, horseback riding, and caving.

The road eventually turns into a dirt path that leads to El Choco National Park, a 48-square-mile reserve with mango and avocado trees, hundreds of caves, a dizzying web of mostly unmarked trails, and human settlements that were grand­fathered in. As the road climbs, the dirt gives way to deep-red clay. We pass a couple of shanties hidden among the trees, and a dozen barefoot young boys come chasing after us. Marcus slows down, and they scramble into the back of his truck. The journey is a short one: Only 100 yards farther, the road peters out. We all pile out, and the kids dash down the slope to a spring, tearing off their clothes and jumping off a big rock.

From there, Marcus and I hike a few minutes up an unmarked trail that leads to a lookout with views of the coast, the cerulean water far below winking in the sunlight. Caribbean in every aspect, this Atlantic has no similarity to the one I know in the U.S.

EVER BEEN CHILL?

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