Cruise ships haven't called regularly at Puerto Plata on the Dominican Republic's north coast in decades. That's about to change. Starting in October, the new $85 million Amber Cove port will introduce travelers to a region of great natural beauty, with historic and cultural interest, good food, and locally produced rum, chocolate, and coffee.
Puerto Plata was the country's main tourism draw until the 1970s, when Punta Cana ascended. Today it's a laid-back, almost sleepy town on the edge of the glorious Atlantic—aqua near the shore, melting into turquoise further out. Almond trees line the waterfront, where people doze on the seawall, string hammocks between the coconut palms, and sip Presidente beer at beach shacks with names like the Tam Tam Cafe-Bar.
The Amber Cove port is set in Maimón Bay, fringed by lush mountains. There are duty-free shops, a zip line, over-the-water rental cabanas, and a swimming pool with space for a thousand lounge chairs. The beaches are a taxi ride away. Playa Dorada is the main one, while Cabarete, further east, is wonderful for windsurfing and kiteboarding.
In the city you can watch cigars being rolled, taste rum at the Brugal distillery, peruse art galleries, and visit the Amber Museum to see the fossilized resin that gives this area its official name: Amber Coast. San Felipe Fortress survives from the pirate era and became a prison during the Trujillo dictatorship. A cable car goes to the top of Mount Isabel de Torres. Fine-dining spots include Mares, where chef Rafael Vasquez Heinsen's mofongo, a traditional dish of mashed fried green plantains, has goat marinated in Brugal rum.
Built by the giant Carnival Corporation and Dominican partners, Amber Cove is designed for big ships. Within easy sailing distance of the major embarkation ports in South Florida, it fits into many seven-day cruises. Twenty-three ships from eight brands, mainly Carnival Cruise Line, are booked. Carnival ships will sail in from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral in central Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Starting in April 2016, Amber Cove will be the gateway for travelers who book a cruise with Carnival’s new Fathom brand, which is focused on voluntourism. Fathom's Adonia will spend three days alongside while passengers participate in activities that range from lending a hand at a chocolate-making collective to helping children learn English.
In addition to Fathom, Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2, Holland America Line's Eurodam, P&O Cruises' Azura, AIDA Cruises' AIDAvita, and Costa Cruises' Costa Deliziosa are all scheduled before year's end. Next winter Princess Cruises has Amber Cove on every Regal Princess seven-day eastern Caribbean itinerary from Fort Lauderdale.
At least 42 excursions are available—one of the biggest arrays of any cruise port. Among them is an "outback" tour that shows what rural life is like. Safari-style trucks visit a farming family, a school, and a beach. The main plaza puts on a folkloric festival every time a ship calls, so cruise visitors can get a taste of what Carnival is like.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is ironing out a deal with PortMiami to build a $100 million cruise terminal with a berth big enough to handle the company's Oasis-class ships. These are the world's largest passenger vessels. If the project goes ahead, the first privately owned and operated cruise terminal at the world's busiest cruise port would open in late 2018.
Silversea Cruises plans to equip its original ship, Silver Cloud, with ice-class safety features and a fleet of Zodiacs to operate in polar regions and other remote areas. This top luxury ship would bring some novel elements, like a Relais & Châteaux fine-dining restaurant, to expedition cruising.
The southern Caribbean island of Tobago is adding a new way to experience one of its most venerated natural features, the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere. A zip line canopy tour is coming to the Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve, established in 1776. Riders should look out for the rare, endemic white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird. Costa Cruises, Princess Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Haimark Line, Holland America, Crystal Cruises, Windstar Cruises, and Carnival Cruise Line make calls at Tobago, which also draws ships carrying mainly Europeans.
Anne Kalosh doesn't count the cruises she's taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she's on top of the latest cruise developments as the long-time U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review.