It has become undeniable that Spring is among us now and it often comes with a very special feeling of longing, restlessness and sense of adventure, something that is called ‘Fernweh’ in German. Hannah Bailey followed her feeling to the Dominican Republic, where she found all she wanted.
Not only do I have to put up with a charter plane stuffed full of Brit tourists, all heading for all-inclusive laziness, but also a 25 hour delay with no explanation. It’s not the picture perfect start to the Caribbean adventure I had “planned” (well, decided and booked four days before I jetted away).
I am off to the Dominican Republic in search of surf. Research whispers warm water, friendly waves, and a perfect break for a beginner surfer. Samana, on the South East coast of the island, is my arrival airport and as all other travellers are funnelled from the plane to the awaiting coaches, I am greeted by the biggest smile and a friendly Caribbean welcome. I meet Franklyn, my driver and automatic friend, who will whisk me 3 hours up the Dominican coast, deep into this underrated and diverse island. My destination is the kitesurf mecca of Cabarete and the highly recommended Swell Surf Camp.
Five minutes into the journey we stop to meet the locals, eat some food and drink some beer. I am quickly learning about life and mentality on the island! I ask Franklyn a million and one questions as really I feel stupidly clueless about his country. The Dominican Republic is the most visited Caribbean island and boasts the highest number of all-inclusive resorts. Tourism is the nation’s biggest money-spinner but 91 per cent of tourists choose a resort based stay so the incoming money gets monopolised rather than shared with the population, over 40 per cent of which are living below the poverty line.
And let’s not forget DR is the neighbour of hurricane-devastated Haiti. Although unfriendly relations exist between the two, Franklyn tells me that around 2 million Haitians are now living, legally, in the DR. His opinion, “People are people no matter where they are from.” He recently built his Haitian neighbours a water well (saving them a daily 5km trek!). He’s a good man.
After an educational first half of the journey, my thoughts are quickly turned to the water and the waves. In my peripheral vision as we drive the coast of DR, I spot perfect sets but no surfers. I ask Franklyn if he has ever surfed, “Every week Luciano (instructor at Swell Surf camp) tries, but no, never. It’s not a sport we really do.” Why I ask? “Dominicans are lazy.”
We arrive at the Swell “compound”, an enclosed paradise reachable only by a “yet to be constructed” road. It’s a bumpy ride. A stark contrast awaits me through the gate. Hammocks on a groomed lawn and a crystal clear pool. It’s almost too perfect – but let’s not fault perfection. I meet the inhabitants and guests, mainly from North America. Everyone is here for different reasons, but in the end it’s about the surf and the sun. It’s an evening of conversations, ping pong, pool then bed.
Jetlag or the thought of surfing wakes me perfectly at 6.30am. It’s a ten-minute drive to the perfect beginner break of Encuentro, and the Swell crew take us on an army-style open top vehicle, which gives my hair a life of its own. I resort to wearing my tie-dyed towel as a Sari each day – it’s a good look, enjoyed by my fellow campers. The surf spot literally looks like a snapshot from a million of my daydreams. It’s a tropical, isolated golden-sanded beach with only driftwood cabins camouflaged into the trees. And it’s blessed with warm water and the cleanest surf break I’ve ever seen.
Playa Encuentro is the most consistent spot on the Amber coast as it catches the swell from both the North and the East. In winter it comes from the North and there are plenty of waves to go around the “crowd” (if you can call it that). In summer it’s a bit on the small side however. People in the know can find some bigger waves on the island, at breaks such as Preciosa, an outside reef about an hour’s drive from Cabarete. But for me and my standard, Encuentro fits perfectly.
Each morning I’m more than eager to get in the (26 degree) water. You can join in the lesson with the Swell crew, for laid back advice and watchful guidance in the water. The waves are as friendly as the locals. The ones you choose not to catch, crash past you politely. It’s a far cry from my previous surf memories involving the cold sea of Fistral beach. All week I was blessed with, at least, 4ft, 10sec swell.
By 1pm the surf gets messy. The wind is blowing and it’s the kitesurfers’ turn, literally hundreds of them weave the waters. I enjoy wandering into town, meeting the locals, drinking their beer and simply enjoying life. I recommend grabbing some food at the local shacks, especially the “chicken man”. He rocks. Also, buy a coconut and drink the vitamin-packed water. Take a walk along the beach or simply sit in a hammock.
On my final day, I frantically search for later flights home – I’m not ready to leave the island and especially the surf. But alas I find myself on the return charter flight with the same all-inclusive characters I had travelled out with a week earlier. These punters leaving the island a bit higher on the scales, while I leave high on life, vitamin D and with my mind caught up on surf. The island has inspired me in many ways. I learn, from the friendly locals living in the now, to enjoy the slower pace of life (in London I move too fast). I am intrigued, to hunt out more hidden surf spots in the world and get in the line-up with the locals. So, I guess when you find those untouched beaches and secret swells, it’s best to keep them to yourself. Wait, maybe this article wasn’t such a good idea…
I was an extreme last minute booker. Getting a great deal (£299 return) on a charter flight with Thomson’s, London Gatwick to Samana. But it is more convenient to fly into Puerto Plata airport with transfers to Cabarete in around an hour. A week’s stay at Swell starts at $425 for a dorm bed (includes transfer from Puerto Plata, board rental, breakfasts and 4 awesome dinners).
Thanks to the team at Swell Surf Camp for it all and to Franklyn for the informative island drives.
Hannah blogs at neonstash.com