My latest assignment brought me to the bustling city of Puerto Plata along the Dominican Republic’s northern shoreline for a look at Carnival Cruise Line’s Amber Cove cruise port. Opened October 2015, the new port is a gateway to miles of white-sand beaches, the surrounding hilly and verdant countryside, museums, attractions and some of the Caribbean’s most noted colonial history. The port itself can dock two ships at a time and can accommodate up to 8,000 cruise passengers and 2,000 crew members daily.
From the port, the majestic Mount Isabel de Torres dominates the city view at about 2,600 feet high. In fact, it was the mountain that led to the naming of Puerto Plata (port of silver) when Christopher Columbus, during his first voyage, noticed a silver-like shimmer reflecting from the frequent foggy haze along the mountaintop. In 1496, Columbus and his brother Bartolomé designed the city.
Sights to see include the Fort of San Felipe, an impressive stone-faced fortress completed in 1577 and used to defend the city from pirates. It’s now a museum with old weapons, cannonballs and other artifacts. Atop the walls and at corners sit the sentry posts, where my voice echoes within its narrow walls. “When you cross the door into the fort, you start feeling like you’re going back into past centuries,” says tour guide Oscar Rodriguez.
In the heart of Puerto Plata’s old town, homes and buildings with Victorian-style architecture dominate the narrow streets around central Plaza Independencia with its art deco gazebo, statues of two of the Dominican Republic’s founding fathers and the imposing San Felipe Cathedral at one end of the square.
I visited the nearby Amber Museum for a look at the museum’s impressive collection of insect-filled resin stones dating back up to 50 million years, with one used in the movie Jurassic Park. “In 1988, Steven Spielberg was in this museum to get a piece of amber with a mosquito,” says museum curator Carlo Vega. The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s main sources of authentic amber – a fossilized resin from the tree Hymenaea Protera which became extinct about 25 million years ago. Amber pieces used in jewelry have been highly polished and are lightweight, colorful and, of course, expensive. Dominican blue amber is thought to be up to 40 million years old.
Other attractions for visitors include cable car rides up Mount Isabel, tours of the Brugal Rum Factory and Ocean World Adventure Park, Marina and Casino. The Malecón, or Ocean Boulevard, stretches almost two miles along the sparkling waterfront.
Outback Adventures Tours
From the Amber Cove cruise port, I joined a cultural tour with Outback Adventures (www.outbacksafari.com.do) aboard a safari truck venturing deep into the hilly countryside and to a few communities outside the city. Outback Adventures’ tours share a more genuine look at local life. “You meet the people, see the typical homes and plantations, see the schools and come into contact with some of the children,” says Outback spokesman Roger Keith. “You also get to savor the local food, and get to see a secluded beach after a trek through a tropical forest.” Outback has an agreement with local schools, says Keith, where some of the proceeds from sales of merchandise go to improve the school, provide supplies and uniforms and more.
VIDEO: In the following video, tour guide Manny Acosta (known for his great jokes along the tour) cracks open a cocoa pod.
SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS
La Aurora Cigar Factory
Many cigar aficionados will tell you Dominican cigars are just as good as Cuban cigars. The popularity stems from a history of ties to Cuba; namely, Cuban tobacco farmers settling in the Dominican Republic after Cuba’s farms became state owned. Coming from generations of tobacco growers and cigar makers, these Cuban farmers would take advantage of the similarities in climate and soil to continue their traditions in the Dominican Republic. I visited the colossal La Aurora Cigar Factory, dating back to 1903, to learn more about that industry and how cigars are actually rolled from dried tobacco leaves. The factory in Santiago de los Caballeros, the Dominican Republic’s second largest city, is maybe an hour’s drive from Puerto Plata and the Amber Cove cruise port. “La Aurora is the oldest cigar factory in the country,” says tour guide Eugene Palanco. “The Dominican Republic is the biggest exporter of tobacco in the world with close to 400 million handmade cigars each year.”
The cigar-making process can be complicated. In a nutshell, it involves drying tobacco leaves for seven weeks and aging for four years or more. Tobacco is then rolled with an outside wrapper and a binder covering added, and then the cigars are pressed, cut and inspected. They’re fumigated for 96 hours, aged for six months more, and then finally packaged.
VIDEO: The videos below showcase highlights of La Aurora. The first video features guide Eugene Palanco explaining the cigar-making process, while the second shows how one worker adds binding to each cigar in just seconds.
While in Santiago, I also visited the Centro León Museum featuring exhibitions on the Dominican Republic’s Taino culture and history, Dominican art and the island’s biodiversity and ecology. A separate building portrays the history and houses certain furniture and keepsakes of the León-Jimenez family, founders of La Aurora.
And a must see with any visit to Santiago de los Caballeros is the soaring Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration, built upon a hill during the time of dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the 1940s. Although Trujillo wanted the monument – then called the “Monument of Peace” – to honor him, it was later changed after his assassination in 1961 to its current name as a tribute to the heroes of the Dominican War of Independence from Spain. The monument is a museum of sorts with dioramas of the momentous events of this colonial history. And I couldn’t help but notice the astounding 360 degree views of the city.
Tour Guide Oscar Rodriguez
A shout out for the excellent tour guide Oscar Rodriguez… I was lucky to have Oscar escorting me for two days as we visited the sights in both Puerto Plata and Santiago de los Caballeros. Oscar knows his history and is a great guy as well! Oscarrodriguez1964@hotmail.com Office: 809-586-2866.
Blue JackTar Hotel/Resort
My business trip included a stay at the Blue JackTar, one of the resort hotels along the Playa Dorada shoreline. I was very pleased with the resort – my room one of three within one of the bungalow-like buildings along the property, just a stone’s throw from the beach. I was also very pleased with the restaurant and the dishes I ordered.