Walking back from breakfast one morning during our most recent visit to the little beach town of Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic, I noticed the front door to the apartment across the hall from ours open.
I couldn’t help but see inside as I passed. The scene was wet bathing suits and beach towels strewn over the backs of chairs… snorkel gear and beach balls piled in the corners…
I continued on to our place and opened the door to see my and Lief’ s laptops side-by-side on the dining room table, just as we’ d left them, notepads, real estate brochures, and other materials we’d collected during our stay all around.
We’re not your typical tourists in the Caribbean.
The truth is, I prefer the Pacific Ocean, and, I have to admit that, at the start of this recent visit, as we drove into Las Terrenas that Monday afternoon, I was secretly counting down the days until our return to Panama City. Lief and I had to carve out time for this trip reluctantly. Lots to do in the office… no time for a week at the beach in the Dominican Republic…
But by the next morning, I noticed my perspective adjusting. The office in Panama City seemed farther away, while the sparkling Caribbean was ever-present.
No kidding. The Caribbean and the sands that fringe it are everywhere in Las Terrenas. You can use the beach as a thoroughfare to get from one part of town to another; it’s the most pleasantpedestrian route.
At any time throughout the day, you turn this way or that, and there it is again, the sea, now blue, then green. You can dine at a table on a deck just a foot or two above the sand with the lapping water only a few feet beyond, small fishing boats bobbing just offshore, bigger sailing boats swinging at anchor farther out at sea.
I’ve seen my share of Caribbean beach towns. Las Terrenas is that… but more.
Scratch the surface and you find one of the most interesting expat communities I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. Americans are in the minority; we’ve noticed only a few during each visit we’ve made. This is a majority French expat population, bolstered by Italians, Brits, Danes, and Germans.
Lief and I watched a pétanque match on the beach one evening at dusk. A dozen retired Frenchmen pitched (is that what you do in pétanque ?) for two hours before the light left them entirely in the dark, on the sand, with the Caribbean lapping behind them and the bar open for business.
They transitioned easily from pétanque to white wine.
The strong European presence has not only entertainment but also dining implications. Restaurants in Caribbean beach towns are typically long on jerk chicken and coconut rice. You can find those things here, I’m sure, but I didn’t notice them on any menu where we dined.
Instead, French and Italian restaurants offer prosciutto and melon, beef c arpaccio, pepper steak, roasted chicken, homemade pasta, and fresh bread that wouldn’t be out of place in good restaurants in Paris or Tuscany… supported often by wine menus that include many options for fine, even sparkling wine—champagne, p rosecco, and cava.
It’s not only the restaurant fare that, until you adjust your expectations, doesn’t quite fit with the geography, but also the restaurant service. Wait staff is alert, attentive, competent, reliable… none of the things I expect from wait staff in the tropics.
It’s all a pleasant surprise.
Other things are surprising, too, including the quality of construction, for example. The dozen-plus new condo buildings we toured are solidly built—again, not what I expect in this part of the world. This is thanks to new hurricane standards aggressively enforced.
It’s also thanks to the types of developers who have been attracted to this particular Caribbean beach. The ones we’ve met aren’t typical gringo developers in the Third World, learning as they go and cutting corners when they can. The guys we met have been in the business for decades in some cases and boast strong track records.
They’re also European rather than North American. This is evident in the interior finishings. Tiles, countertops, bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets, and furnishings in general are contemporary Euro-chic.
The tourism powers that be in the country have set out to establish Las Terrenas as the St. Tropez of the Caribbean.
The white, sandy coast of this part of the DR and the dancing topaz waters that lap it could be mistaken for their counterparts over on the Med. Onshore, you hear more French spoken than anything else, the baguette in town is authentic, and people kiss on both cheeks in greeting.
I noticed an antiques shop offering toile-covered sofas and other French favorites. And people here talk about new restaurants and the great meals they had the evening before the way people I’ve known in other parts of the Caribbean talk about the weather.
Still, I’ve been to St. Tropez. The DR isn’t France.
On the other hand, the cost of enjoying what Las Terrenas has to offer is nothing like the cost of spending time over in St. Tropez either. A retiree could live full time in Las Terrenas for less than the cost of a monthly rental on the French Riviera.