The full-service resorts on the D.R.’s north coast fill so many vacation needs that many visiting families never leave their compounds. Too bad—they’re missing what makes this Caribbean getaway on the island of Hispaniola special: secluded beaches; fun cycling trips; the busy streets of Puerto Plata, the region’s main city. While most guidebooks discourage visitors from driving, I found it doable, even though passing on the highway rivals baseball as a national sport. If that sounds too daunting, leave it to the local pros. (Resorts list standard fares for taxi rides, so no negotiating is required.) Once you’re out and about, the following five diversions will easily fill up an active family week.
BIKE THE BACK LANES
Outfitter Iguana Mama runs the half-day Islabon Coast Cruise for families. First, your group takes a 40-minute pedal down country lanes, and then you visit genial Willy Wilson, who shows off his mini-zoo: iguanas, turtles, a boa, a baby crocodile, even puppies. After that, ditch the bikes for a lazy boat ride to the coast, ending with a swim in a warm lagoon. A guy with a machete lops the tops off coconuts for a refreshing drink. Other Iguana Mama outings include hiking in national parks, horseback riding on the beach, whitewater rafting and deep-sea fishing. (Islabon Coast Cruise $45 for adults, $20 for children under 12; 809-571-0908; iguanamama.com)
WILL WORK FOR FISH
At Ocean World, swimming with bottlenose dolphins is available. Other activities: snorkeling over a manmade reef, petting sea lions and hand-feeding nurse sharks. The compact site also houses a rain forest exhibit and a bird sanctuary with Crayola-colored toucans. (Ocean World, 809-291-1000; adults $55, kids 4–12 $40. Add $90 for dolphin swim; kids must be 6 or older. Reserve ahead.) Afterwards, the nearby seafood restaurant Chris & Mady’s serves great garlic shrimp (809-970-7502).
Of the D.R.’s 1,000 miles of beaches, Sosua is one of the best. It sits on a lovely, protected bay, and the snorkeling is fantastic, right off the beach. Adult-size masks and fins are available for rent (you might try Northern Coast Diving), but for kids’ sizes you’re smart to bring your own. Bring some bananas, too, and the fish will swim right up to you.
Along Puerto Plata’s narrow streets are hundreds of wooden gingerbread buildings. A Victorian mansion houses the town’s second-floor Amber Museum (and rather more extensive first-floor shop). The glowing semiprecious stones found here are exceptionally translucent. One prized piece holds a tiny, 50-million-year-old lizard. (61 Duarte St.; 809-586-2848; entrance $2; closed Sundays.) Fort San Felipe once protected the city from pirate attacks. Inside its chambers are old cannonballs, musket balls and bayonet fragments found on site. The Mount Isabel de Torres cable car soars to a park 2,600 feet above sea level. The ride takes 15 minutes and the view is spectacular. ($8; closed Wednesdays.)
SURF CITY, HERE WE COME
Spend a day in Cabarete, a laid-back beach town known for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Aspiring windsurfers can take classes from one of the many schools along the beach. Kiteboarding is harder to pick up but fun to watch. It’s like windsurfing but with a giant kite instead of a sail, allowing experts to jump 30 feet in the air. This one-street town has young visitors from all over (tanned surfers with bleach-tipped do’s), shops selling crafts and sports gear, and a row of restaurants opening onto the palm-fringed beach. Try EZE Bar (809-880-8779) for a “dude curry” chicken wrap and mango smoothie. Then hit the sand.
Before booking an all-inclusive, ask your travel agent to check for packages. Most D.R. resorts offer good value; just don’t expect pampering.
Iberostar Costa Dorada
A well-landscaped 516-room all-inclusive, with a huge pool and reliably good food. 809-320-1000; iberostar.com
Occidental Grand Flamenco Puerto Plata
582-room all-inclusive, right on the golf course. 809-320-5084; occidental-hoteles.com
Sosua Bay Hotel
Overlooking Sosua Beach, a 193-room all-inclusive with terrific food. Sosua; 809-571-4000; sosuabayresort.com
Velero Beach Resort
Not all-inclusive, but a good choice for families. The 29 suites have full kitchens. Cabarete; 809-571-9727; velerobeach.com
Viva Wyndham Tangerine
An attractive all-inclusive, with 221 rooms, a kids’ program and a dive center. Cabarete; 809-571-0402; wyndham.com