A lone motorcycle raced through the coral dirt road, unraveling misty gusts of powdered sand. We were lost, and had already given up on reaching Playa Cosón, a beach off of Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic.
We waved the driver down. "Hey! Excuse me!" my father shouted in his loud, Dominican-style Spanish, peeking his head out the car's window. "Which way to the restaurant, The Beach?"
The charming driver smiled, slowly took off his Aviator sunglasses, and answered, "You mean my restaurant?" A closer look at our guide revealed he was wearing an impeccable chef's coat -- a paradox amid the palm trees and unpaved roads surrounding this cool beachfront path.
Giancarlo Fiori, the Chilean executive chef of The Beach, arrived in this lax beach town after extensive stints in kitchens all over Europe. His restaurant is difficult to find, with only a teeny wooden sign announcing the entrance to the plantation style, open air property. The Beach serves as the club for the hilltop luxury hotel, The Peninsula House. Both locations were probably selected because of their natural, native exclusivity. Both places are impossible to find.
The Beach at Playa Cosón
But that's a true characteristic of the restaurants and hotels in Las Terrenas, a former fishing village in the Samaná peninsula of the northeastern part of the Dominican Republic. Most places can only be found the old-fashioned way, by waving down whoever you spot along the tropical roads. It's as if the beauty and charm of Las Terrenas is a guarded secret, one protected by all of its residents.
The lure of this beach side town is evident by its large expat community, formed by those who once visited for vacation and never made it back home. Fiori is just one among the foreign crowd, injecting the town's restaurants and hotels with European and Latin American fare.
That's why the food at this beach town is much less Dominican than it is international. When you're at Las Terrenas, it's just as easy to find a solid margherita pizza as it is to find an emerald bottle of chilled Presidente beer. Soon after arriving, I realized that residents like Fiori have lost most of their native accents, quickly picking up the loud, short, upbeat speech that characterizes Dominican Spanish.
Fiori's The Beach offers local seafood in a Mediterranean and Asian-inspired context, like in the case of the delectable prawn ravioli, ribboned with squid ink, and tossed in a delicate hint of butter with slow roasted tomatoes. Thai fried rice with pineapple is served as it is traditionally, inside a hollowed pineapple, packed with hefty kicks of chili sauce and local shrimp. Though the menu might seem in-cohesive with such a vast fusion of diverse inspiration, it's this fusion that Las Terrenas is really all about. And it all also happens to be surprisingly delicious.
Ravioli de langostinos at The Beach
Main courses at The Beach range anywhere from $12 to $16 dollars, and, as is the case in most of Las Terrenas, the restaurant is strictly cash only. But those visitors who arrive for lunch usually end up staying the entire afternoon, leisurely enjoying the scenic beach of Playa Cosón.
We stayed at the modern Hotel Alisei, a 54-room hotel that's located right in front of the Las Terrenas beach, about two minutes away from the pueblo. The hotel functions almost like apartments, with one bedroom's costing about $120 per night and two bedrooms going for about $350. That's about $120 per couple per night, and the price includes a generous breakfast buffet with Dominican staples like yucca with onions, fried cheese and café con leche.
Yuca encebollada con queso frito: breakfast at Hotel Alisei
The best rooms are the two bedroom ground floor villas, with lofts, on the ground floor, and only a few steps away from the pool (the pool also boasts an integrated bar inside the body of water). The hotel is packed with a mix of locals and tourists, all arriving to Las Terrenas for a taste of the relaxed, chill town.
But the beach directly in front of the hotel can get crowded and, quite truthfully, it isn't exactly the best that Las Terrenas has to offer. Walk a couple of miles east and head towards the end of Playa Las Ballenas, a small, isolated cove with barely any bathers. There, you'll also find a Sailing Club, where more adventurous travelers can rent a sixteen foot Hobie Cat Getaway for just $50 dollars for a couple of hours.
Playa Las Ballenas
Sailing Club at Playa Las Ballenas
We quickly made this small cove our go-to beach, and instantly became friends with the manager of the Sailing Club, Bruno, a relocated French man with a serious passion for local seafood. The club has a tiny kitchen, where Bruno cooks for his family and friends. The menu is based solely on what's fresh, with the short options written on a small chalkboard on the side of the club. On one occasion Bruno brought platters of piping hot French fries and grilled snapper for only $7 bucks a plate. This price also includes several comfortable beach chairs.
A vendor of fresh coconuts popped up soon after the fish was served, and we washed down the grilled snapper with real deal coconut water for less than 50 cents per coconut. The whole meal, and the entire afternoon, cost less than ten bucks per person. It happened to be a perfect day of vacation, for such a low price.
Simple, delicious meal at the Sailing Club, Playa Las Ballenas
Real deal coconut water
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The village is just a few miles away from the Sailing Club and the hotel. There, the streets buzz with zooming motorcyclists, and the sidewalks serve as runways for the cheerful tourists, gleeful after too much sun, too many Presidente beers. Part II of A Local's Guide to Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic features the visits to the pueblo, a small town with international and local flavor.