Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2020, including Wander Women Cabarete and my post-retreat travels in the Dominican Republic in January.
Have to or want to travel this year? Don’t miss our Travel in 2021 Workshop on Thursday, February 11th 2021, from 5-7PM EST!
It took me a while, but I finally learned one of my most important retreat lessons: giving myself a vacation after, too.
And so, after our incredible Wander Women Cabarete retreat wrapped, I spent another week exploring the North Coast of the Dominican Republic, starting with two days in Punta Rucia with the scuba divers of the crew. It’s so important for Jess and I to take this kind of time post-retreat to recharge, to let it all sink in, and to debrief and daydream together about the next one!
Plus, taking time for my own exploring keeps my own wanderlust alive and staves off burnout. I don’t ever want to lose touch with the spirit of adventure that led me to create Wander Women Retreats in the first place.
The first challenge? Picking up my rental car!
Driving in this country was no joke! My Lonely Planet guidebook informed me it was the second most dangerous place in the world to drive, to which my bestie from childhood told me it probably shot to number one upon my arrival, LOL. Let’s just say that my less than stellar high school driving record continues to socially haunt me.
When I read the statistics I did pause for a moment to reflect on the road trip I had planned. After some soul searching I decided that while I was intimidated and outside my comfort zone, I did have the confidence in myself as a driver to tackle this. And good thing, because it was the only way to take the type of trip I was truly craving!
And, much to the horror of parents to teens everywhere, I did so with the lovely distraction — er, support! — of four beautiful passengers. As Jess had used the trip to a tropical location to finally submit to my bullying to get her scuba diving certification pre-retreat, we were determined to use it for a fun trip after. Considering Emma and I lived on a diving island together in Thailand, I knew she would be in.
And the more the merrier, so when we hatched this idea I’d first sent out a feeler email to our retreat guests about a post-retreat scuba extension, netting the fabulous Valerie (who is co-hosting my Travel in 2021 Workshop!) and my girl Katie.
After a three hour bumpy road adventure that brought us through the big city of Puerto Plata and across the north coast of the Dominican Republic westward towards the border of Haiti, we were thrilled to unload on a white sand beach in front of crystal teal waters.
This day in the Dominican Republic was one of the ones I was most looking forward to — a dive trip out to Cayo Arenas, a small natural sandbar off the coast of Punta Rucia. How could we pass up a place called Paradise Island?
As there are very limited dive operations in the Punta Rucia area (in fact, there appears to be just one — a local divemaster who owns a small hotel and does highly regarded trips) we had arranged the trip with Dive Cabarete, who I dove with in Sosua on my first trip to the Dominican Republic.
After loading into two fishing boats, we were off to the reef!
To put it bluntly, the conditions weren’t great. The torrential rains and winds that had lobbed a curve ball into our retreat had also lowered the visibility and created some underwater surges. In reality, the diving was underwhelming and the diving operator (who had changed management since my previous trip) seemed overwhelmed. This is daring diving in an uncharted area, and so while some speed bumps are expected, it fell pretty firmly into the “misadventure” category in the end.
But, bouncing around on a little dinghy at sea that ran out of fuel, spotting an eagle ray underwater right before ascent, getting whipped in the face by sand and wild winds, spending the day laughing with friends — it was a reminder that nature has the final say and travel can truly be an unpredictable adventure when you brave going off the beaten path.
I do know one thing: there’s no one I’d rather be stuck at sea with than this bunch.
We made the best of our two dives, and I was so proud to see Jess putting her new PADI license to use! And I, it turned out, would be incredibly grateful to the diving aspect for having inspired the trip to an area I might not have discovered otherwise.
I think for us, the real highlight of the diving was, in fact, the surface interval. One of our divemasters had repeatedly all but eye-rolled at our enthusiasm over visited Cayo Arenal, or Paradise Island, continually informing us it was “nothing but an overhyped sand bar.” Well I can assure you that WE. WERE. HYPED. about visiting this tourist-strewn, thrilling strip of sand.
Considering the journey we’d taken that morning, and the lack of hotels we’d passed along the way, I was puzzled where the tourists who’d arrived on catamarans and fishing boats had come from. Most, it turned out, came on day trips all the way from Puerto Plata or Sosua, spending a few hours on the sand before making the long trip back the same day.
I was extremely grateful we weren’t joining them. We had not gotten our fill of Punta Rucia yet.
It’s true — there’s nothing on Cayo Arenal but a few thatch-roof palapas that the tour operators can sit coolers full of drinks and snacks in.
I’d first been drawn to the idea of coming here by stunning drone photos of the island, but we’d visited on such a windy day it would have been an electronics assassination to attempt to throw mine up, sadly. Still, we had a blast sea-twerking to Bad Bunny, running around rolling in the surf, taking Daryl-Hannah inspired photos of each other, overeating watermelon, and pretending we were stranded, Lost-style (wow, that was a lot of pop culture references in one run-on sentence.)
In retrospect, considering we were staying overnight, I would have visited Cayo Arenal on a super early morning trip, before the tour groups arrive — but I love that I have that to look forward to for next time.
Back on the mainland, I could not wait to check into our accommodation for the night. Talk about a hotel crush!
I still buy and read old fashioned guidebooks which makes some people laugh as I am a travel blogger. Fear not, I turn to the Internet too, but I do love starting my trip planning with a thorough read through a physical or digital LP — in this case, the Lonely Planet Dominican Republic.
And that’s how I found Punta Rucia Lodge.
We fell madly in love with this serene resort from pretty much the moment we walked into the open-air reception. And it was there that we had a pretty entertaining welcome. At one point, on our drive that morning, we had stopped in a very small rural town and ran into a pharmacy. The front desk guy checking us in said, “you were in (insert name of town) today?” When we raised an eyebrow and replied sí, he said oh yes, I saw your reservation here and thought it must be you. Talk about small town vibes — in one of the biggest countries in the Caribbean! It really cracked us up that our arrival was such big news in town.
But, it was an era in which tourism in the Dominican Republic was suffering — one of many reasons I was proud to hold our retreat there. Still scathed from the media scandal that erupted after a spate of tourist deaths in the resorts of the South Coast, the traveler-dependent economy was in trouble.
But, those willing to venture were richly rewarded. Locals were friendly and thrilled to have us, and rates reflected that. I contacted the hotel directly on WhatsApp and they offered us a good deal to pay directly in cash upon arrival — a hot tip to save for future travel in this area.
While I love the buzz and vibe of Cabarete, which is a gathering hub for surfers and other watersports enthusiasts on the North Coast, Punta Rucia felt deliciously all ours. It really is in the middle of nowhere, so there’s little to do but kick back in one of the million hammocks and enjoy the peace, quiet, and beauty of nature.
We very quickly realized our enormous mistake in staying one night instead of two, and launched a campaign to get Jess tipsy enough on piña coladas to change her flight back to snowy Albany. Against all odds, we were unsuccessful.
After dinner at hotel restaurant, where we toasted to an absolutely wild day, we made our way out to the dock for an incredibly serene end to it all.
After a long day, we were early to bed. And good thing, because we had set our alarms for very early the next morning to get up and enjoy as much as we could of the gorgeous beachfront at Punta Rucia Lodge before checkout.
And dang, was there plenty to enjoy.
As much relaxing potential as there was… of course Jess and I could not resist the opportunity to climb on literally anything we could turn into a potential aerial apparatus. We can’t wait to run our next aerial retreat together in 2022!
Lucky for me, I had plenty of willing models when I broke out the drone. It’s seriously my most fun toy I’ve ever purchased.
We were on a mad mission to enjoy every venue for relaxation before checkout, which meant a rigorous post-breakfast lounging session by the pool. Can you believe how chic and beautiful this place was — and that we literally had it entirely to ourselves?
I’m not normally one to return to the same hotel over and over. I love trying something new, even in a familiar destination. But I can say without question, Punta Rucia Lodge, I’ll be back.
We’d decided to make at least one stop on the way back towards Cabarete, to get a better feel for the area. We settled on the Santuario de Maníferos Marions de Estero Hondo, where I’d read you could spot manatees from a viewing deck — a claim I was suspicious of.
Yet, we had a wildlife sighting already, just on our way there! Google Maps, not terribly familiar with this remote area, brought us down a hilariously bumpy dirt road, where Emma had to get out of the car and shoo some free-roaming horses out of the path so we could pass.
And lo and behold, we saw some dang manatees! I love these sweet creatures, and while we didn’t get in the water with them this time, they are always a special treat to see out in the wild living their best sea cow lives.
And then, we were back on the road.
By getting behind the wheel I saw a side to this country I never would have found otherwise. The back-to-basics fruit stands we pulled over and grabbed snacks at, the small rural towns we drove through with cow traffic jams, the bumpy dirt roads our GPS sent us down and we laughed and shrugged and followed, or the amazing local reggaeton radio stations we tuned into. I loved experiencing this side of the Dominican Republic.
Yes, you need to be hyper alert when driving here. People pass in all directions and roads are busy with cars, trucks and motorbikes. Yes, you need to have some baseline of confidence in yourself on both bad roads and bad traffic. Yes, I upgraded to an SUV as that’s what I have the most experience and comfort driving. Yes, I recommend sticking to daytime driving if possible. And yes, for once get all that insurance they offer you, ha.
But I am so beyond thrilled I took the leap and faced one of my fears! Here’s to being brave.
After a tearful goodbye to Jess at the airport — late, because of who we are as people — we were back in our now familiar home base of Cabarete for a night before taking off on the next leg of our adventure.
And wow, don’t these carefree travel adventures look all the dreamier in retrospect today. I can’t wait to get back to it, and enjoy it in a whole new light.
And when that day comes, the Dominican Republic will be somewhere I flock back to! This road trip to Punta Rucia reinforced what I had already known from the first time I set flip-flopped foot in the country — there is an undiscovered paradise here for independent travelers willing to breeze past the all inclusive resorts and discover the gems hidden in plain sight in the most visited country in the Caribbean.
Punta Rucia — I loved you.
Have you been to the Dominican Republic? Would you consider it?