With a capital boasting the oldest cathedral and fortress in the New World, lush, verdant forest which covers soaring mountains, spectacular beaches and, of course, rum, cigars and chocolate, the Dominican Republic has long been one of the jewels in the Caribbean crown…
Until recently though, there has never been a hotel which pulled the travelling cognoscenti in the way that other neighbouring islands have had. Step up Amanera, which opened at the end of 2015 overlooking the flawless sweep of Playa Grande’s golden sands from its perch on the cliff tops high above.
It is on the north coast of the island, an hour away from Puerto Plata airport, past villages clad in colourful Caribbean graffiti, where the evocative beat of music seeps into the car as you drive through. The arrival is memorable – just a glint of sea is visible – through the John Heah designed Casa Grande, the main hotel building. As you descend to enter the lobby and reception, you are treated first to split-level water features, then an infinity pool and finally the sea – blue upon blue upon blue – all in one sweeping glance. Beyond are 25 casitas, built into terraces that run down to the palm fringed sands. Half of them have private pools; all have huge terraces, and interiors of polished concrete, teak, beige stone and handmade Aguayo tiles in soft blues. Sparingly decorated, their starkness allows the main attraction to be the outside which dominates through the floor to ceiling glass windows.
Amanera Beach Club Restaurant
Beneath you lies the Amanera Beach Club Restaurant, where you can dig your toes in the sand and dine off delicious blackened tuna with palm heart salad while deciding if you have time for a dip before lunch. After lunch you should walk along the beach, famous on the island for its beauty, past the also new, Playa Grande Beach Club whose enchanting, white-latticed, woodwork bungalows, in various pastel washes, peep through the palms lining the beach. Continue on and you find a little restaurant by the sands, a favourite of the locals, where the lobster is lip smackingly good.
The Spa & Beyond
Turn around to walk home and you see Amanera in the distance, its low-lying structure atop the huge cliffs which rise 60 feet up from the shore. Behind the hotel buildings is the golf course, marking a first for Aman resorts, who have never before had a golf-integrated hotel. The course, originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. was refreshed by his son Rees Jones and is a beauty. Ten of its eighteen holes seduce with ocean views as you follow the curve of the coastline, breeze coming off the sea as you play. A little further is the spa, where you can give in to body treatments such as coffee exfoliation with a rosemary-infused, clay body wrap before a long massage, or a clay body wrap infused with guanãbana leaves. All the body treatments include the option of smudging, which is the fanning of Palo Santo (holy wood) wood smoke over your body. Traditionally, this is done before a journey to provide a new beginning, cleansing the body, mind and soul. Head out then, refreshed, to see the island.
What to explore on the Island
First stop should be the little fishing village of Rio San Juan. Here you can rent one of the colourful wooden boats and explore the Laguna Gri Gri, a freshwater lagoon which is lined with mangroves. Stop near one of the pristine beaches and snorkel or go into a sea cave to find nesting swallows. The little village itself boasts a vibrant street art scene with bold murals and graffiti interspersing the shops selling larimar jewellery. Larimar is a rare blue rock that exists only in the Dominican Republic and adorns many of pendants here. Look too for maracas – hollow balls made from dried gourd shells filled with seeds or dried beans – an essential instrument for Bachata, the island’s music. You might also see zemís, made from native Guayacan wood, handcrafted by local artisans. Originating from the indigenous Taíno people, these zemís were worshipped as physical representation of Gods and spirits. More for the body than the soul, chocolate is a good buy, with the island home to fine quality organic cocoa. Dominican chocolate offers a variety of flavours from wood, tobacco and spice to fresh fruits. Look out for a local, family, company called Kah Kow, who produce excellent chocolate and have over a century of experience in planting, harvesting and producing the first organic chocolate on the island.
And then there are the cigars and rum. The local drink is called Mama Juana and comes with a reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is a potent mix of equal amounts of rum, red wine and honey which are allowed to steep with local leaves, dried bark and herbs for a month before drinking. For the cigars you must go to Babunoco, a restaurant in the jungle clad hills nearby where after wholesome family food you can pull up a chair and get a lesson in how to roll cigars from the Chef Patron, Juan Alberto Martinez. With more than a decade’s experience at Arturo Fuente, one of the Domincan Republic’s most exclusive cigar brands, Juan Alberto is a fount of knowledge, explaining the difference between the varieties of cigar and how to blend, roll and press the tobacco.
But it is the views that are the memory I treasure most from my stay here. Of course dawn rising over a deserted golden beach, sea coming in awash with gentle, egg-white, foam, is magnificent, but best of all was the onset of night. From a seat in the Bar, you could watch the beautifully designed pool beneath you merge into the inky blue of dusk. Then a dinner of scallop ceviche with mango and mojito foam, followed by caramelised mahi-mahi, whilst the silver moon would begin to rise into the black night. Then, the moment when its height allowed it to be reflected in the dark waters of the infinity pool beneath. Silence and silver; a world caressed by silver light and the moon at your feet. What a way to end the day.