Dominican Republic: Balcones del Atlántico
Balcones ResortCarretera Las Terrenas, el Limon s/n Las Terrenas, Samaná, Dominican Republic 809/240-5011 balconesdelatlantico.com.do
Executive Chef Bruno Toso's "Gourmet Experience Tour" takes you around the historically European town of Las Terrenas, with stops at the fish market, Italian grocery, French boulangerie, and German market.
A full body massage in the beachside cabanas will work wonders—just avoid getting sunburned beforehand.
Porto bar manager and sommelier Franklin Vizcaino gives you an introduction to fine regional rums and the code of the cigar with his "Rum and Cigar Experience." There is an optional half-day trip to nearby cigar factories.
- Fully-equipped gourmet kitchen with Viking and Cuisinart appliances
- Flat-screen television and DVD player in each room
- Complimentary WiFi
- Private hot tub
- Complimentary gym, yoga room, and beach volleyball court
- 4,300 sq. ft. town house with room to sleep 8 people
So going to a Dominican seaside resort for an extended weekend seemed like exactly the vacation I had, without realizing it, wanted and needed during the entirety of my adult life. I stepped onto a plane one morning out of the depths of a drizzly New York morning and a painless four hours later was discharged into a landscape brimming with glorious jungle greens, turquoise waters, and unclouded azure sky. I felt like a just-planted Dorothy in Oz, having left behind a dreary monochrome world of grey concrete and finding myself suddenly in front of a view so vibrantly hued I had the sensation of rediscovering the world in Technicolor.
As far as weekend getaways go one couldn't do much better than Balcones del Atlántico, located on the lush Dominican peninsula of Samaná. Though I appreciate the amenities of a first-class hotel, I have a horror of the kinds of places where bath towels are folded into animal menageries and one feels encouraged to put on makeup for dinner, so I was pleased to see that the Balcones resort adopts a relaxed policy of "simple luxury," providing service as needed rather than seeing to the needs I don't have. My extraordinarily spacious suite stayed true to this theme, having all the conveniences of a self-service apartment with the perks of hotel service; the two-story fully furnished three-bedroom apartment contained an equipped kitchen with everything from wine cooler to picnic supplies, two outdoor terraces (grill included) as well as an outdoor jacuzzi tub. A number of these suites at Balcones are reserved for sale as private vacation homes, which made the common grounds especially quiet and peaceful—less like a tourist destination than a seaside residence community. Peering through the palm fronds from my own balcony, I could glimpse families enjoying an apéritif or an evening meal on their terrace; on upper-floor lounge chairs there lolled the upturned soles of bare feet. The three pristine pools in the middle of the complex were not churning with shouting youngsters but accommodated a modest few siblings amusing themselves at a reasonable decibel in the waters, parents chatting with cocktails in hand nearby. Here was a peaceful, pleasant scene rare among family-friendly resorts—so pleasant, in fact, that I feel positively rotten getting the word out about it.
I take just as much pleasure in tasting the fruits of the sea as I do swimming in it, and in this respect Balcones did not disappoint. Porto, the resort's open-air restaurant, serves a menu of the best and freshest seafood from the area, including a delectable fried rice with lobster, a pizza with sliced mahi and goat cheese, and ceviche so tender it melts in the mouth. For guests eager to try their own hand at cooking, Executive Chef Bruno Toso demonstrates how to prepare the Peruvian seafood dish as part of his "Ceviche Experience." For those more adept with a fishing rod than a chef's knife, sea excursions are available—the rich fish stocks of the Dominican coast are teeming with marlin, mahi, red snapper, octopus, oysters, lobster, and the best shrimp I've ever tasted—and the kitchen is happy to prepare the catch.
If one tires of lounging around the resort beaches (however unlikely this may be), the lovely pastel-painted towns of Las Terrenas or Santo Domingo are a short drive away along the lush coastal road, ideal for a day of shopping, eating, or wandering. I indulged in a full body massage in one of Balcones' serene ocean-facing cabanas to top off my stay and work out the stubborn knots in my back (which probably arose at the prospect of returning to rainy, colorless New York). This time around I won't wait some twenty-odd years to enjoy a few days in Caribbean paradise. —Camille Bromley
IN THE AREA
- Restaurante Luís: A sure sign of good eats in any locale is when you're surrounded by people who aren't afraid to get their fingers dirty. At Luís, an open-air seafood shack, every table is beachside and the grilled catch of the day is divine dressed with nothing more than a squeeze of lime. You can sip on the sweet water of just-cracked coconuts while you wait for your order of langoustine, giant prawns, red snapper or the prize catch of the day. Sides like mafongo, a mash of fried plantains with garlic and onions; tostones, golden rounds of crispy fried plantains; rice and beans; and fries make each seafood meal into a veritable feast. After eating, forget the 30-minute rule and take a dip in the turquoise waters of the magnificent Cosón beach. Playa Cosón, Las Terrenas
- Las Terrenas: This colorful town is the most visible confluence of European and Dominican culture in Samaná Peninsula. In the center of town you'll find Mundo Puro Fabrica de Tabaco, a small cigar factory where you can witness torsedors (cigar rollers) at work. Save your appetite for the pastries just across the street at the Boulangerie Française, where you'll find a surprising bakery case of pastries (lime and chocolate tart, passionfruit éclair) along with classic croissants and crusty French bread. A stroll down Calle Duarte, the main street, will reveal art galleries, boutiques, gift shops, and international markets from French to Italian to German. Further along, the charming soap shop Jabonitos displays an array of tantalizing scents (among them mint, creamy coconut, chocolate, and bamboo charcoal), all handmade by Betti and her husband Reynold, who are more than happy to chat with you about their products. Mundo Puro and Boulangerie Française: Calle Duarte at Plaza Taina, El Centro. Jabonitos: 7 Calle Libertad, open every day from 8:00 am to 1:30 pm
- Pueblo de los Pescadores: This "fisherman's village" is a strip of open air restaurants and trendy bars bordering a breezy boardwalk along the sandy Atlantic coastline. The string of Spanish tapas bars, casual Italian restaurants, and reggae-themed burger joints here are standard fare, but a slow stroll through the colorful establishments makes for good people-watching and the sound of the waves at night is soothing background noise to a leisurely drink. Round the corner to the street and you'll find a Sucrerie Française (French sweet shop) for ice cream and cotton candy. Pueblo de los Pescadores, Las Terrenas
- Whale Watching with Flora Tours: If you're entranced by these graceful giants of the sea (and who isn't?) plan your visit to coincide with the winter mating season. Flora Tours will pick you up at Balcones and get you on a boat to Samana Bay, out in the midst of one of the largest gatherings of humpback whales in the world. The informative tour teaches you all you never knew about whales while the back-and-forth chases between sightings inspire spikes of adrenaline. In the end you'll likely witness not just a flipper here and a tail there but a fantastic full-body breach (jump) out of the water. Don't burden yourself with a camera—tour operators take photos of every trip and can provide them upon request. Mondays, Thursdays, and Sundays January 15 to March 15 only. Flora Tours: Calle Duarte (in front of El Paseo), Las Terrenas; tel: 809/240-5482; flora-tours.net