For years, a holiday in the Dominican Republic entailed staying at a walled-in, cookie-cutter resort. But not anymore. Beyond the touristy town of Punta Cana in the southeast, the country becomes a vast natural landscape of vibrant greens and blues, unmarred by large-scale tourism or commercial hotels. That is the area where, recently, several expatriates have opened smaller boutique hotels that provide what the larger resorts do not: a personal touch, local flavour and key emphasis on the environment.
“You have to love nature to come here; for me, that’s what this country is about,” said Italian expat and now resident Sarah Paradiso. Coincidentally, even her surname (which means “paradise” in Italian) reflects the lifestyle she adopted in 2001 by coming to the fishing village of Las Galeras on the east coast of the Samaná Península. Originally from Milan, she and her husband bought a plot of land near La Playita beach and in 2006 built Chalet Tropical: three two-storey thatched-roof bungalows, handcrafted by locals with wood interiors and stone bathrooms. Set back from the village centre, Chalet Tropical’s surroundings are green and wild, with a dirt track leading to the beach. “I would never consider going back,” Paradiso said. “I am living my dream.”
About 4km to the east, just outside of Las Galeras, I ventured off the tarmac roads and walked along a dirt track, passing both roaming horses and scooters carrying entire families. Perched atop craggy cliffs over the deep blue waters of Rincon Bay, I arrived at what looked like a manmade stone wall surrounding a cluster of huts. Catrin Krueger and John Matthijssen – from Germany and the Netherlands, respectively – opened El Cabito lodge in 2008, staying true to the idea of sustainability and local culture. Area artisans created the handmade furniture; the restaurant serves local food such as grilled fish and banana chips; and – in addition to a natural wastewater treatment process and four solar rooftop panels – the owners collect rainwater for the bathroom tank. By the beginning of 2015, Krueger said, El Cabito should run entirely on solar energy.
With two bungalows and a tree house, El Cabito is a rustic affair with shared bathrooms, mattresses on the floor, an open pavilion with hammocks, and a campsite. Lack of luxury aside, the views from its restaurant are more than worth the sweaty walk; brave visitors can even jump the 14m into the cool, transparent waters below. (The eco-lodge can be reached with a 4x4 or a motorbike, or the owners can arrange a transfer. Due to the poor state of the roads, driving a conventional car is not recommended).
West of the Samaná Peninsula, about 200km from El Cabito, I stopped at Natura Cabana, an isolated beachside boutique hotel outside the lively surf town of Cabarete. Originally built as a home in 1996 by Chilean migrants Soledad Sumar and Pablo Garimani, the bungalows evolved into a lodge almost by accident. “My parents’ guests just never wanted to leave,” said Soleded “Lole” Sumar, one of Sumar and Garimani’s four daughters who today run Natura Cabana. “So eventually we made it bigger for them to stay or come back to, and then it slowly became our 10-bungalow hotel.” The stylish rooms are made of highly polished wood and exposed rock, all adorned with bright bedspreads of Indian silks and cottons, and there’s the added bonus of yoga classes every morning and evening, included in the cost of the room.
Casa Maravilla, located next door, is owned by Belgian immigrant Marc Bautil and his wife Elvira, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in the US. The highlight of Maravilla is the beautiful multi-storey wooden bohio (a shack made of straw or wood, whose main living area has open sides and a view of the beach), providing a real Robinson Crusoe feel. At night, guests fall asleep to the sound of the ocean waves. “We wanted to provide a different experience that was closer to nature,” Marc said.
My next stop was a small hotel in the small village of Tubagua, located about 33km west of Cabarete. Flanked by green, leafy hills and overlooking sugarcane fields toward the turquoise Atlantic, the Tubagua Plantation Eco-Lodge has spectacular views. It also had a charm – and a roster of delicious, home-cooked local food – that made me want to stay for another year, if not a lifetime. Owned by former Canadian journalist and Puerto Plata province’s current Canadian consul Tim Hall, the accommodation features rustic bungalows and one private cottage. Each bungalow room has its own open balcony and a mosquito net. The doors don’t lock (or even close properly), speaking to the safe, familial atmosphere of the bungalow and its openness to the natural world just outside.
Even with the recent boom of small, sustainability-minded hotels, many owners said that most visitors to the Dominican Republic continue to assume that the big resorts are the island’s only accommodation choice. Yet, according to Hall, these “impersonal” structures don’t represent the reality of Dominican. “The reality is so much better than that,” he said. After experiencing some of the country’s most beautiful views, delectable food and the local culture’s warmth, I had to agree.