An independent testimonial on life in Cabarete
This tiny beach town on the Dominican Republic's north shore – the jealously guarded secret stash of surfers and wind junkies until not too long ago – is not just the Caribbean's hippest water-sports playground. It's also the jumping-off point for adventures both earthy and extreme, and a groovy hangout for an international crew that thinks global and surfs local.
The crescent-shaped strand is crawling with athletic 20-and 30-somethings with accents forged everywhere from Quebec to Queensland. On my previous short stops here, catching lunch or a beer on the way to somewhere else, the wind has always been up, and I've seen literally hundreds of brightly colored kites and sails skimming over the teal-blue water. Cabarete is the extreme-sports epicentre of the West Indies, and this breezy little bay plays host to world-championship kiteboarding and windsurfing tournaments. Today, however, there is only a handful of sails coasting around on a slight wind. So the locals and tourists, unable to feed the adrenaline monkey, are mellowing, lazily stirring their drinks in one or another of the funky open-air bars like Jose O'Shay's, your "typical Irish beach pub." I head through a thicket of towering coco palms straight into Lax, short for "relax", a beachfront restaurant filled with surfers, and plunk down my bag at the bar.
The small tows you pass through heading east from Puerto Plata re clogged with bussing, smoking motoconchos, little motorbikes that zigzag through traffic and dart down side streets. Between the towns, expanses of mountainous countryside hint at palm-carpeted jungles inland. I've traveled this road many times in my years of visiting the Dominican Republic, but this time I feel an extra special sense of anticipation. The taxi drops me off in the middle of a mile-long main drag, a gantlet of surf shops and one-story hotels that block the view of the ocean. I duck down a narrow alley lined with stores selling Haitian art and Cuban cigars and quickly emerge into one of the Caribbean's unique panoramas: the beach at Cabarete.
Night and day in Cabarete
Left to Right: Onno's Beach Bar; Sea Horse Ranch; Casanova Restaurant; on the beach.
Each time I passed through Cabarete, I imagined coming back with enough time to settle into the local groove, to live in baggies and flip-flops amid the bohemian expats who followed the wind here and now work at whatever jobs will keep them in beer and board time. I wanted to see a side of the D.R. that didn't include manicured lagoon pools inside massive gated resorts. And I really wanted to learn how to kiteboard. Cabarete didn't even exist on the official Dominican Republic map five years ago. Local lore says a small group of French Canadian and German windsurfers discovered the spot in the early ‘80s. What they found was nirvana for those who live for their sport: a place where warm trade winds blow inshore over a shallow bay protected from the Atlantic swell by a coral reef. Those in the know almost immediately branded Cabarete as having some of the world's very best windsurfing conditions. Then, in the last decade, kiteboarding exploded onto the global scene, and with conditions that are also ideal for this most extreme of water sports, Cabarete finally made the map. Kiteboarders strap their feet to a small surfboard and launch a parachute-like kite that's hooked to a harness around the waist. With the right wind, good kiters rip across the surface of the water at amazing speeds and sometimes launch themselves 30 feet or more into the sky. I'm not planning to pull off that manoeuvre on my first day. The standard course at the Laurel Eastman Kiteboarding School requires four two-hour classes, two on the beach and two in the water. Ika, my Serbian instructor, deftly stewards me through the first lessons about wind direction, raising and steering the kite (using a baby-sized trainer), and the all-important lesson on bailing out. After school, I head back to the Viva Wyndham Tangerine, an all-inclusive of relatively modest size compared to the 1,000-room compounds elsewhere around the island, and just right for Cabarete. Like the D.R.'s other major resorts, though, the Viva delights in putting on a show. When I join the other guests for an after-dinner production of Grease, I'm surprised to see that it's an all-male cast. I'm suitably impressed by the young main in tasteful Dominican drag playing Olivia Newton John's Sandy character - and by the cojones required to successfully pull off the line, "Tell me about it, stud..." On my third morning I'm so stoked that I arrive at the beach early for my first in-water kiteboarding lesson, but my buzz fizzles when Ika points to the limp flags. No wind. I look out across the bay. No surfers. I look back at Ika. Then back at the bay. "So", I say, I'll come back later when the wind picks up." "Uh, no, I don't think so,” Ika chuckles. "But I like your positive attitude." I quickly realize that anyone who surfs here full time develops a sixth sense about wind. If Ika say's there'll be no wind today, you can take it to the bank – or, rather, the bars, which is where everyone not working goes whenever the wind dies. "Maybe tomorrow we'll get out on the water," he says. "Actually, I'm doing the Big b****** tomorrow, I say, not without a hint of bravado. Ika's eyes open wide. "Awesome – that thing almost killed me." That Ika is half my age and in perfect shape gives me pause.
Mike Brawn is the owner of Get Wet Adventures Co. and a self proclaimed dinosaur of canyoning, a sport in which you strap on mountaineering gear and climb, rappel, jump, slip and slide your way down a canyon. We're about 45 minutes into the mountains south of Cabarete, about 2,000 feet above sea level. We've been humping through the canyon for three hours, clambering over boulders, rappelling down waterfalls and leaping into pools of water carved by the Camu River. So far I've felt that I'm in good hands. A cross between a German tank commander and an aging beach bum, Mike says he once operated 22 bases for his global adventure company; he had to shut down the heli-skiing operation in Kashmir because locals kept shooting at the choppers. But now he's telling me I should jump off this rock and into a tiny pool of water 100 feet below. "When I first came here and saw this hole," says Mike, "I said, "Wow, that's a big b******!" I think I've seen this cartoon, and it never ends well. This leap of faith is the Big b****** and, since there's no room for poseurs in the Cabarete crown, I jump, hurtling at – to use an unfortunate term – breakneck speed past jagged outcroppings before finally depth-charging into the chilly water. I'm alive. Bow now there's another waterfall, and I slip as I rappel down, so now I'm sliding along the rock face, then plunging under the torrent and swinging into blackness until I'm dangling 40 feet above unforgiving rocks. Blood begins to flow through the torn skin of my knuckles, but there's no immediate pain, only a sense of rapture as I swing back through the waterfall into the light. Mike and the canyon aren't done with me yet. "Stay off the green rocks," Mike shouts from ahead as he starts off down the river shallows. No problem, I think, then slip off a rock and fall on my knees into the water. My thighs are screaming that they've had enough; my rope and backpack have flopped over my head and hang in front of my face. Not my best moment. I'm thinking maybe this tour is a little much. Mike himself is definitely a little much. "There is no grace and dignity in canyoning," he says helpfully. Of course, he has the ankles and thighs of a rhino. I START MY RECOVERY AT LAX. The sun had already set over the point break, and the beach bars are cranking up. Lax's decor is what you'd expect to find in the D.R. of 700 years ago if the Taino had developed lounge bar-restaurants. Lots of candles and torches and native symbols, and paddle fans dangling from the bamboo ceiling.
As at many of the joints on the beach, there's a DJ playing an eclectic mix of reggae trance, hip-hop merengue and James Bond theme music. After a few drinks to kill the lingering leg pain, I head over to the new Casanova restaurant, which is decked out like some kind of opium den. Good Thai shrimp. I then wander into Jose O'Shay's where an Irishman is playing guitar and singing Elvis tunes. Next is pirate-theme Onno's Bar, with French Canadians slinging drinks to naughty yachties. It's filled to the gunwales, so I walk on the beach under the stars back to Lax. By midnight, the music there is deafening and the bartender is juggling two flaming bottles while simultaneously blowing fire a few feet over patrons' heads: What could possibly go wrong? I'm becoming a regular at Lax, starting each day here with breakfast of yogurt and fresh fruit fortified by double espressos, and then coming back at night for drinks. I love it, with and without the fire-breathing effects. Lax is everything I thought Cabarete would be. Cool people work here, gals like Bettina, a designer from Paris; Johanna, on sabbatical from school in Germany; and Janie from Quebec who plans on being a teacher. Two Dominican surf nuts, Juan and Alex, work the bar, and they're good for the wind and wave info. I spot Ika across the bar. "How was the wind today?" I ask. "Excellent, he says. "You shoulda been here. How was the b******?" "Excellent. I can't feel my legs. So we kitesurf tomorrow?" "You bet." THIS TIME WHEN I ARRIVE FOR the lesson, I can tell that Ika feels personally responsible for the flaccid flags and calm sea. I believe he'd perform a wind dance if he thought it would help. His look tells me there's no need to bother even asking if things will pick up later in the day. If Cabarete were a one-note town, this might mean trouble – at least for my liver. But I simply head over to Iguana Mama, the local adventure outfitter where I'd booked the canyoning trip, and check out the menu. I reserve a horseback tour for tomorrow – maybe give my legs a day of rest? I then move my things to the other end of the bay, to Velero Beach Resort, so I can check out the range of the town's hotel offerings. This one turns out to be honeymoon heaven, with an infinity-edge.
Pool and canopied daybeds that overlook the entire breadth of Cabarete Beach. I spend the rest of the day reading by the pool while couples giggle in the beds. Later, there's a big event at the Miro Gallery & Restaurant. Por Amor is a nonprofit organization that sets up youth programs in developing countries and showcases talented local artists to inspire the area residents. Throughout the evening there are poetry readings, classical guitarists and jewellery makers and other artisans selling their work. The feel-good vibe only gets better through the night, and its nice to learn there is more to Cabarete than surf and sand. HORSEBACK RIDING ON A Caribbean beach doesn't always live up to the slow motion, hair-flying, salt-spraying expectation bred in Hollywood. Too often, tourists are paired with poorly cared-for mounts whose slow motion is not a special effect. It's an altogether different show at Sea Horse Ranch; an oceanfront community just west of town where vacationers can rent privately owned villas. I'm greeted by the resident manager, Jennifer, who's well turned-out in classic equestrian gear complete with boots, a red jacket and a little cap. Here the stables are of blue-blood calibre, and my trusty mare barely notices when I hoist my 200 pounds into the saddle. Jennifer, riding English style, and I, going Western, happy-trail it through the palm trees, mangroves and ferns, past multimillion-dollar manors to the private beach. When hoofs hit the sand our mounts canter into a gallop and, before I know it, I'm enacting a Blue Lagoon fantasy, flying down the beach through jasmine-scented air. Afterward, over coffee in the stable, we talk about the state of affairs on the north coast. Jennifer tells me about the Dream Project, an organization that works with local businesses and tourists to help raise funds for 10 schools in the region. More than 5,000 visitors have donated more than $80,000 worth of school supplies, some even traveling down with extra suitcases full of spanish-language children's books.
I've found that ultra-casual dining is de rigueur at places like Lax (above and Cafe Pitu (right). Opposite: Preparing lift off on Cabarete Beach. After running around the Caribbean for a decade, one becomes a little less preoccupied with beaches and palm trees and more attuned to local culture and how it's affected by tourism. It's not always a win-win situation, so this charity really seems worth checking out. I looked up Jonathan Wunderlich, director of operations at the Dream Project, who tells me that at one school the program teaches children how to plant vegetable gardens, and the produce is sold to help pay the teachers' salaries. There's also a new solar-powered model school under construction that will help train more teachers. Jonathan says the hope is that this type of program will expand, because presently less than 50 percent of Dominican students go past fifth grade. The fact that the Dream Project started here in Cabarete attests to the area's harmonic vibe. "Cabarete is unique because it's a sustainable melting pot of cultures that are working together," Jonathan says. "Where else can you find an Italian, a Bosnian, a German and an American to sit down and work together to help raise their kids and other local children?" He offers to show me the new school building, and we hop in his truck for a ride into town. At the school, children just leaving class walk along with us, excited to peek inside the new classrooms. Jonathan points out where the computers will go. "These kids go nuts when they first use a computer," he says. "They think it's a magic box." Later, I buy some reams of paper and leave them with Jonathan, just a little something, before heading back to the beach and the bars and the warm blue water. The last lodging I sample is at Hotel Villa Taina, a small European-style pension in the very center of the bay, directly between the wind surf and kite surf beaches. "Our guests tend to be very independent travelers,"says the manager. "When you visit here, you're living among the residents." I've arrived during a wellness weekend at the hotel, so at 7:30a.m. I'm out on the sand stretching and breathing and doing some balancing exercises. "The idea," says Guenther, our very elastic leader, "is to transfer all of that primitive energy in your lower chakras to your higher chakras to achieve spiritual awakening." My left hand and right foot achieve perfect symmetry in the air while I try not to topple over the nice lady from Sweden next to me. STILL NO WIND. ON MY LAST morning I head to Encuentro Beach, five minutes outside of town. Every day at sunrise, dozens of locals grab their boards and ride their motoconchos out to this hidden spot to catch some waves, which today are cresting at almost 6 feet. I rent a board from 321 Takeoff and ride a few through the thick dawn mist. I then settle under a palm to watch the beach crowd come and go. It doesn't get much more laid back than this. I never do get out on the ocean tied to a giant kite, but I'm thankful because it's prompted me to see so many other facets of this beach bohemia I might otherwise have overlooked. And kiteboarding is still a reason to return, if not the only one. I hear Mike has started a volunteer organization called The Pueblo Project that builds concrete homes for impoverished families. He could probably use a hand.