The Caribbean is a magnet for beach-lovers and sun-worshippers, and a few days on the party island of the Dominican Republic is guaranteed to bring a grin to your face
It took just a couple of days for the sun, fun and rum-soaked atmosphere of the Dominican Republic to really get to me. Then I found myself dancing barefoot on a beach, wearing a straw hat and slurping rum from a giant coconut. Yep, you could definitely find yourself going loco on this party island.
I was on the Mambo Tour, a bar crawl that set out from my hotel, the Bluebay Villas in Playa Dorada. A bunch of us were ushered on to a bus complete with fairy lights, DJ and bar staff, plus plenty of rum and straw hats for everyone. First stop was the nearest local town, Puerto Plata. We alighted at the ocean boulevard as our hosts hacked the tops of coconuts and laced them with rum. From then on, there was no excuse but to let loose and party like a local.
The Dom Rep is a poor island – it’s officially a third world nation – but everyone seems to wear a permanent grin. And after spending a little time with the Dominican people, you can’t help but smile too. Of course, that ubiquitous rum – which runs through the veins of the island and the islanders – helps too.
After several more Cuba Libres, or rum and cokes, we all stumbled off the party bus on to the beach at Cabarete. This long stretch of buzzing bars, each spilling thumping music and revellers on to the beach, was the highlight of the Mambo Tour. It’s impossible not to get dragged in by the rhythm. Suddenly it was 3am and time to stumble across the sand, past the palm trees swaying under the bright moon, and head back to the hotel.
Dominicans move at their own relaxed pace – but hours pass like minutes when you’re busy simply having fun. Even days spent sunbathing whizz by. The private section of beach at Bluebay is dotted with double beds, each with a canopy to shield pasty bodies from the fierce sun. While the pool area reverberates with the noise of sozzled bodies splashing about and the resident ‘animation team’ organising drinking contests, merengue dance lessons and canoe races, the beach area is a haven of calm. As long as you can avoid the ‘looky-looky’ men, hawking everything from hair braids to toy monkeys, that is...
At night, the pool area is once again the domain of the animation team, who put on a different show each night. The ‘international show’, where they perform as artists from Michael Jackson to the cast of Grease, is worth catching. It’s amazing they find the time to rehearse all those moves in between keeping the pool dwellers amused all day.
Once the pool bar shuts, at midnight, the beach bar is the place to go to keep the morning at bay. It’s open 24 hours, which can be pretty dangerous. One minute you’re nursing a caipirinha cocktail or two, the next it’s 6am and the beach is swarming with early-risers hoping to get a picture of a perfect sunrise. Well, that’s what happened to me, anyway...
The food is more sophisticated than many all-inclusive resorts, with an impressive buffet and three à la carte restaurants. Jade Garden serves up delicate green chicken curry and Thai beef noodles, the El Pescador seafood restaurant offers melt-in-the-mouth Mahiki, while the beachfront El Dorado grill is the place for juicy steaks and barbequed chicken. El Dorado is also open from late morning to early evening, offering snacks of hotdogs, burgers and chips for anyone who didn’t make it to breakfast or lunch.
This is a resort geared towards couples and groups of friends – children are strictly banned and the place buzzes with a carnival atmosphere. So it’s easy to while away the hours at the swim-up bar or being lulled by the soft waves down at the beach. But you need a few trips out of the resort to stop you going stir crazy – and to give you a real taste of the island.
One of the most popular excursions is to Cayo Paraiso, or Paradise Island. Hopping on the coach at 6.15am, bleary-eyed, we were unbundled on the northwest coast and loaded onto speedboats. After bumping and crashing our way across the waves for 20 minutes, paradise was in sight. This sandbank, complete with cabanas and resident photographers, sits in a circular reef and is the only coral island in the Dom Rep. Visitors flock here for a chance to sunbathe on the Caribbean’s fabled fine white sand and for some of the best snorkelling around the island. The island was near-deserted when we arrived, and we were greeted with a breakfast of sandwiches, fruit and, for those who could stomach it, rum.
After a snorkel on the reef and an hour’s sunbathing, it was back on the speedboat for a ride through the lush, wild mangroves of the island’s national park, where rare manatees, or sea cows, are said to lurk below the surface. Manatees are painfully shy, so you’re unlikely to spot one. If you want to get up close and personal with sea dwellers, your best option is a trip to Ocean World.
Just a few miles from Bluebay Villas, this is no poky aquarium. Huge pools roll outwards towards a marina, beach area and, beyond, the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can choose a swim or encounter with nurse sharks, sea lions, stingrays or dolphins. I chose to swim with the latter – the classic ‘thing to do before you die’. None of us human beings had a clue what we were doing, but luckily the dolphins did. You feel it’s a privilege just to share the same water as these clever, deceptively delicate-skinned mammals. I expected it to be a fulfilling encounter – but it was also surprisingly fun. One by one, we were instructed to swim further out into the pool and wait for a pair of dolphins to launch us across the water. The half-hour session, ending with a hug and a ‘kiss’ from our hosts, flew by, but being nose to bottlenose with a dolphin is an experience I’ll always remember.
Back at the hotel, it was my last night and I was determined to make the most of the free bar, warm breeze and beach setting before flying home. Lounging in my favourite spot, on one of the double beds just down the steps from the beach bar, I listened to the swishing of the palm trees and watched the sun set over the water. A broad, Dominican grin spread across my face. This is definitely a place worth going loco for.