Learning to surf is laid-back fun at Dominican Republic camp
If you told me that at just shy of 40 I’d be spending a week at a surf camp in the Dominican Republic, I’d never have believed it. But here I was, on my sixth day of surfing, not sure I was making any progress, catching a wave in deep water—suddenly dropping what seemed like a storey or two and giving myself a complete rush and an experience I won’t soon forget.
After the drop, I must have gone under for what felt like several minutes but was in fact probably only 15 seconds, tumbling in the churning water like clothes in a washing machine, propelled forward, not knowing which way was up, before finally coming to the surface, exhilarated. Others in my learn-to-surf group yelled out to me, thumbs all up, as I beamed from ear to ear. They’d seen it too. I hadn’t imagined a thing.
Before going to surf camp, I’d only spent three hours on a surfboard in Bali and two hours in Tofino. The second experience proved to be less than rewarding, in that I spent more time figuring out how to attach the board to the roof of my Mazda than I did catching any waves.
So a couple of years later, looking for a place where I could chill and do something active (I’m not an all-inclusive type guy), and on the cusp of my milestone birthday, I started looking at surf camps. I thought about Costa Rica (been there), Nicaragua (it didn’t seem developed enough), and Morocco (too far to travel for only one week). Then I came across a Caribbean option.
My surf-camp experience took place on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, in a little town called Cabarete, which, to use a French expression, could best be described as très sympa, with its beachside restaurants and cool surf shops, friendly people, and busy kitesurfing scene. It’s a place I’ve since taken to describing as a Spanish-speaking Tofino. Although the Dominican Republic isn’t especially well known for its surfing, Cabarete proved easy enough to get to from Vancouver; via Toronto, it’s a 30-minute drive from the Puerto Plata airport.
I stayed at a purpose-built surf camp called SWELL, which included instruction at Encuentro Beach, about 10 minutes away. Perhaps the best way to describe life at SWELL and its chill vibe is that it was like hanging out in a friend’s living room, a place where people would kick off their shoes at the front gate and pad around barefoot.
When I arrived, a group of fellow guests welcomed me. Before seeing my room, I was instructed to drop my bags at the door, as the first order of business was to learn how the drinks system worked. I was told to help myself to beer and pop in the cooler and to keep track of my own tab for the week. It happened that I’d arrived just before a group excursion for drinks and a beach seafood barbecue, so I quickly downed my first cerveza, changed, and joined the group.
SWELL was an experience in and of itself. It’s a cross between a hostel and a just-the-basics boutique hotel, with a handful of co-ed quad dorms and private rooms accommodating some two dozen travellers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. It attracts both beginner and experienced surfers and a healthy mix of singles and couples, mostly urban professionals.
Days began with a 6:30 a.m. wakeup call, which invariably seemed to come too soon after a late night at one of Cabarete’s many beach hotspots, drinking rum, mojitos, or mamajuana. The latter is a Dominican liquor made by steeping tree bark and herbs in rum, red wine, and honey, producing something that looks like red-hued Pine-Sol but that’s surprisingly drinkable—and very potent.
After a quick cup of coffee and a fresh banana, we’d all pile into the van for the 10-minute drive to the beach for some instruction before catching some waves. After 90 minutes or so, we’d head back to camp for a made-to-order breakfast, then go out for a second session for an hour or two. By this time, the Dominican sun was out in full force and it was usually about 30 ° C. The rest of the day consisted of lounging by the pool, playing Ping-Pong or billiards, taking part in an Indo Board contest to see who could stay balanced the longest, going on optional excursions, or simply exploring the local beaches and the small town that’s less than 10 minutes away by foot. Every other night, we’d have hearty dinners at the camp.
Though I was only there for a week, it was the perfect balance of surf, sun, sea, and downtime—it felt like I was gone for weeks. I was thrilled to make some new friends from around the world, and I appreciated the laid-back vibe of Cabarete, a place that especially endeared itself to Canadians like me when we were able to catch Hockey Night in Canada at a pub called Jose O’Shea’s. There’s something to be said for watching playoff hockey at a bar on the beach.
Although I normally shy away from visiting a place more than once, I wouldn’t think twice about returning to Cabarete to catch some more waves.
Access: A one-week learn-to-surf package at SWELL starts at US$790. Packages for experienced surfers, as well as yoga and kitesurfing packages, are also available.