Puerto Plata & The North Coast
Dominican Republic

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Considering the quality and quantity of the area's beaches, it's not surprising Dominican tourism started on the north coast and created the popular tourist towns like Playa Dorado, Sosua and Cabarete.

Gateway to the north coast is Puerto Plata, which receives numerous direct international flights; it isn't necessary to enter through Santo Domingo first.

Puerto Plata (Port of Silver) has a more romantic-sounding name than it deserves. It was not a great treasure stronghold, as you might suspect. Instead, it had many grayumo trees whose leaves reflect silver in the sunshine. A forest of the glinting leaves is what inspired Columbus to name this place Puerto Plata.

The city was founded in 1502 to provide a port on the island's north coast. Its importance soon declined when more wealth was unearthed elsewhere, so locals took up smuggling contraband. The situation grew so out of hand that the Spanish crown ordered the city destroyed and abandoned only a century after its founding. It wasn't until 1742 that Puerto Plata was rebuilt.

Puerto Plata's most interesting sites are located close together, which allows you to see the city in just a half day. The most impressive building is the old fort, Fortaleza San Felipe located at the western end of the Malecon, the waterfront promenade. Built in the 16th century to fend off pirate attacks, it also served as a penitentiary. The interior is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but access to the grounds around it is anytime.

Just a few blocks from the Fortaleza is Parque Central, at the corner of Calles Beller and Separacion. Surrounded by buildings of a Victorian design, Parque Central is best known for its striking pavilion, La Glorieta, built in 1872.

A few streets away is the Amber Museum, at the corners of Calles Prudhomme and Duarte; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. The displays do an excellent job of describing how amber is formed. Naturally, the gift shop specializes in amber and larimar.

Just to the west of the Puerto Plata city limits is the well-marked turnoff inland to the cable car going to the summit of Pico Isabel de Torres. Besides offering an excellent view, the mountaintop holds a small botanical garden that attracts 32 bird species.

Puerto Plata is really a large city and not much of a beach town. The beaches begin 10 minutes away, to the east, at Playa Dorada, which has the largest concentration of hotel rooms on the DR's north coast.

Playa Dorado was DR's top year-round tourist hot spot until scores of new all-inclusives popped up in the Bayahibe, Bavaro and Punta Cana region along the southeast coast. It remains a strong draw at Spring Break.

Something of a mini-city, Playa Dorado's facilities include 14 low-rise resorts, an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, shopping center, movie theater and casinos. It's an easy place to get around on foot or with a rental bicycle.

Windsurfers from all over the world cluster to the small town of Cabarete, which also has an excellent wide beach. Wind conditions here are reliable and predictable. The morning breeze is light but then steadily picks up throughout the day. By mid-afternoon it's strong enough to send hundreds of windsurfers out who turn the bay into a sea of glistening sails. Numerous places on the beach offer equipment rental and instruction.

Cabarete also is the home of Iguana Mama, the American-owned company specializing in mountain biking and hiking, including ascents up Pico Duarte, the Caribbean 's highest mountain, and whale watching in Samana. Web site: www.iguanamama.com or call (800) 849-4720 or (809) 571-0908.

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