Dominican Republic = blended cocktails, baby-oiled bodies and a whole lotta layin’ around in the sun, right? That’s what I thought before I actually ventured to the second largest nation in the Caribbean last weekend.
My only experience down south prior to this had been a family vacation to Mexico when I was 12 and my sole objectives in travel were buying bikinis and getting my hair corn rowed on the beach. So when I was asked to test drive Nolitours new “it zone” vacation to Puerto Plata, I thought “sure, I’ll hang out on a beach and drink my face off for a few days and write about it”. I pictured something along the lines of hanging at a swim up bar and chilling in a nice room with a Jacuzzi. With no real expectations, I handed over my passport number and booked the weekend off work.
Guess who found themselves slightly unprepared for zip lining, monkey feeding, and meringue dancing? I found out that the “It zone” is a package for people who want to immerse themselves in local culture, actually meet people, experience some crazy outdoor adventures and party to the max. And I’m happy to report that I returned with a suitcase full of sandy clothes, a camera loaded with compromising photos, and a new expertise with sea lions and monkey’s (and no braids or new bikinis – which is fine with me).
Here are some highlights of my Nolitours weekend in Puerto Plata:
FLYING FIRST CLASS
Before I start any real recapping, can I just take a moment to moan about how difficult it will be for me to ever go back to flying coach? From the time we boarded at 7:30 AM, there were mimosas, hot towels, full Lindt chocolate bars and magazines being thrust at me from every direction. I didn’t even think about seat kicking children or screaming babies once.
HOLY BALLIN ROOM
This baby was mine. ALL MINE.
EATING MY FACE OFF
Cassavas! Bananas! Avocados! Mangos! They were the freshest and sweetest I’ve ever had.
The most memorable dining experience of the weekend took place in a small bistro in chef’s private villa in downtown Puerto Plata. We sat at a table in his backyard under a canopy of fairy lights, surrounded by a garden of fruit trees and flowers. He had this huge illuminated turquoise pool with beds set up around it with flower petals scattered on top. He made us 7 courses of amuse bouchees: croustinis, an espresso sized mug of cardamom-infused squash soup, sushi rolls, salad with shaved parmesan, cheese cannelloni with tomato sauce and arugla, a veggie stir fry, and chocolate lava cakes for dessert. An epic food coma took place after this meal. Then, we went to the casino and gambled it off!
Also, Presedente, Puerto Plata’s finest grog, is worth a mention here based on its sheer abundance. Like a crisper version of Corona, this light brew was being given out for free when we first got to the airport, and also showed up as a gift in our mini fridges in our rooms.
ZIP LINING AT MONKEY JUNGLE
“Monkey Jungle” is an 800 000 square meter mountain retreat where you can zip line through the trees on 7 different courses, including ones that go inside caves. You can also walk around the monkey’s natural habitat and they crawl around on you like you’re furniture. They’re so adorable it’s unreal.
The real reason the Monkey Jungle exists though, is to finance the medical and dental clinic that operates behind the scenes on the grounds. A couple from Tennessee (the sweetest and most genuine people ever) moved here and started the whole thing up 2 years ago, and they continue provide free health care for the surroundings neighbourhoods in Puerto Plata. They also have a food program that allows them to feed HIV and AIDS patients ever week.
They performed their very first medical procedures from the back of a truck, throwing pulled teeth into a bucket. Now, they serve about 150 patients every Saturday. Last year they brought in 7 teams of doctors, surgeons and dentists from all over the States to volunteer.
BEING NOSY IN THE PRESIDENTIAL SUITE
We got a chance to tour the presedential suites in the Grand Ambar hotel, another participating hotel in the Nolitours It Zones package. We were greeted with cocktails and meringue dancers (that also double as bartenders), then proceeded to tour a 7 bedroom villa, (the most amazing house I’ve ever been in), a pool and bar that was like something from the rap video of my dreams, a beach restaurant that had enormous hammocks hanging between the trees, and enormous harem-like white platforms for hanging out on, with huge pillows and hookahs. It was the pinnacle of fabulousness. At one point we had a disastrous cocktail spillage in our golf cart. But when you’re a VIP, no one yells at you or spilling stuff. They’re more concerned with your empty glass. HOLLAH!
WITNESSING THE SPECTACLE OF THE BRAVISSIMO SHOW
The Bravissimo show is essentially a Las Vegas style dance show with tropical twist – a spectacle of costumes, lights, plastic tropical fruits, and cleavage. I had to consciously close my jaw several times watching these dancers. At one point, the girl sitting next to me leaned over and whispered “they are like, from outer space”.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the show was not how many times the word BRAVISSIMO! was cried, but that every single one of the 120 costume changes managed to incorporate velour, sequins and thongs. No butt cheek was left unbared, no leg unfishnetted, no eyelid unspackled, and no hip ungyrating.
The memorable costumes included glittering green sea foliage skirts, towering chandelier hats, American flag cowboy outfits and for the grand finale, each dancer adopted the triumphant personality a different aquatic creature. My favourite was the leading man, who displayed a tidal wave scene around his entire upper body complete with 3 jumping dolphins. True tourist attraction entertainment, Dominican style.
TAKING FULL ADVANTAGE OF ROOM SERVICE
I hadn’t been in my room for 20 minutes before someone knocked on the door to present me with an exotic fruit platter. Throughout the weekend, the employees left me little treats: a free internet card, a feathery souvenir mask, and a coconut macaroon with chocolate covered strawberries (can I always stumble home to a romantic drunk snack complete with a napkin folded like a swan?)
MEETING THE KIDS AT THE SOS CHILDREN’S VILLAGE
The SOS Children’s village is a nongovernmental organization that provides abandoned kids with a mother, house, brothers and sisters, and a village environment. It exists in 133 different countries. The village in Santiago, an hour and a half from Puerto Plata, is home to 127 kids. When we arrived, the village was alive with kids running around, laundry swaying on the lines, and moms hanging out on stucco porches. It looked just like a regular neighbourhood.
We got a chance to talk to one of the mothers of the houses. We sat with Guillermina on the porch of house #7 and talked about her life looking after 7 kids between the ages of 6 – 13. She’s been doing all the cooking, cleaning, school assignments and readying kids for school for 8 years. She told us she can cook for up to 30 people in her tiny kitchen, which is about the size of a kitchen in a basement apartment on Queen Street. Visiting Guillermina absolutely confirmed my ideas that mothers have superpowers.
The kids loved our cameras. All they wanted to do was take pictures of us. I think we were all gearing up for an emotional afternoon at the Children’s village, but it was definitely some of the most fun we had on the trip. The kids seemedb really happy and were all total characters. By the time we left, they were jumping into our van with us.
(Sidenote: If I ever had as much swag as these girls, I’d be really stoked.)
MAKING FRIENDS WITH SEA LIONS
Ocean World is an ocean-themed park with a casino, restaurant, nightclub and auditorium for shows. It’s the biggest attraction in the Caribbean. Everything about it is quite overwhelming. Our “sea lion experience” let us get intimate and interactive with these huge, floppy creatures. We on the edge of a pool and they swam around us and we touched their furry backs and bellies. They sang for us, danced, walked on their hands and splashed us. Up close, their eyes are like huge round glassy balls and their whiskers feel like plastic straws. It’s actually pretty terrifying, but when they smiled on command for us, they were the most adorable things in the deep blue sea.
PARTYING / MERENGUE DANCING ON THE BEACH
Our last party of the weekend took place on a private beach and had an all white dress code and each guest had to wear a mask. The beach was transformed into a party paradise of sorts, with a huge stage set up, 7 or 8 tents housing amazing local food that was as creatively displayed as it was delish. There was an entire table devoted to peacock watermelon sculptures, breadstick arrangements, and brownie towers. The drinks were flowing, the bands were bumpin’, and we ate cassava and banana tamales till our hearts content. Then we danced our faces off in the sand and learned how to meringue. The morning after, I was walking to breakfast and noticed a member of our group asleep on a lounge chair by the pool. T’was a pass out on a deck chair kind of night.
If you are seeking a one-of-a-kind adventure, I wholeheartedly suggest you take the plunge.