There are times, when the opportunity presents itself, when you need to grab the chance to get to the Caribbean – if only to emphatically erase memories of a long winter, and get a jump on browning up that pasty Canadian pallor. Of course, the choices seem endless – should it be Bermuda, Cozumel, Jamaica? Cuba? Canada’s wannabe 11th province of Turks and Caicos? It really does seem like a banquet of choice – unless you’re a celiac traveller, which brings a sobering reality. Hours of Googling still produce the same paltry results – almost nobody yet caters to those needing a safe, gluten free vacation. Yes, Royal Caribbean will provide a gluten-free cruise experience, and Sandals all-inclusive resorts have just launched their offering in this space, but the fact remains – you cannot be sure unless you are in control of your kitchen, which means vacation rentals are often the only reasonable choice for the celiac traveller.
Which brought us to a gem of a place. We went looking for a bargain on VRBO.com, all the while hoping that we could still land an actual beachfront property with all the amenities. There are hundreds of those, too, believe me – so it was actually quite by luck that we came across Playa Ventosa, in the small city of Cabarete, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. For US$86 per night, (with April being the off season already – go figure!), we wound up in an amazing, spacious, beautifully appointed condominium in a quiet, secure enclave – right on the beach, with an infinity pool leading up to the ocean’s edge.
Now – I freely admit that I knew almost nothing about the Dominican Republic before this trip, but the more we read before getting on the plane, and the more we talked with our host over the phone, the more it became obvious that this is one of those rare places that is a true diamond-in-the-rough – a Caribbean paradise where the giant all-inclusives have not yet taken root, where local food, culture and life has not yet been packaged and commercialized into blandness, and where you can count on vast sandy beaches, sunshine and reasonable prices. The North Coast is famous for its wind – Playa Ventosa means “Windy Beach” after all – and as a result, Cabarete has become a mecca for the rapidly-emerging adventure sport of kite surfing. On any given day, you can look out on the ocean and see these daredevils flying past on mini-boards tugged by giant kites, at 50 km/h or more. And with that influx of knowledgeable, hungry and active tourists comes an emerging infrastructure tailored much more comfortably towards the international, savvy traveller. Great food, understated chic, and a relaxed and easygoing pace are the benchmark for this oceanside town.
Whereas most folks drop their suitcases in the condo and head straight for the beach upon arrival, the GF traveller knows the first order of business is to inspect the kitchen in your rental unit, and then figure out where you can get the next series of meals without getting glutened. Here’s where the real kudos come in for Pam, the excellent onsite sales and development manager for Playa Ventosa. Once she had heard our explanation of what we needed – she immediately decided she was going to assemble a full Gluten Free kitchen kit for all future GF renters at Playa Ventosa. You bet – once you arrive, your pots, pans, utensils, toaster, etc. will arrive from Pam in an enclosed package, guaranteed never to have touched gluten. So your kitchen will be set! And after that, it was off to Janet’s Super Market – literally five minutes walk down the road from the front gate of Playa Ventosa, where we found virtually everything you might expect at your local Safeway or Co-op – but also an impressive array of gluten-free ingredients. Would you believe not one but FIVE kinds of GF pasta? And breakfast cereal – clearly marked “sin gluten”. There were Bob’s Red Mill products in the bakery department – in fact, the only thing conspicuously absent was GF bread of any kind – but if you’re willing to bake your own (on vacation? Who am I kidding?) – still, you could, with the stuff Janet’s keeps in stock. Add to that an impressive selection of canned goods, fresh meat and deli, a bewilderingly huge and beautiful liquor section and a good selection of cheese, and you’re set. (Don’t let the dollar signs scare you – the exchange rate is 47 Dominican pesos to US$1).
And whatever you can’t get at Janet’s – just have your cabbie stop off on your way in from the Puerto Plata airport, at the Supermercado Playero in Sosua, about a half hour out of Cabarete. McCormick’s spices (guaranteed GF, by that company) are available here – along with an impressive selection of produce and dairy.
That takes care of the essentials for your pantry – with prices just about the same as you’d pay in Calgary. But who wants to cook every meal while on vacation? Well – the food along the massive Kite Beach has a deservedly good reputation, but the question remained – how well acquainted are these chefs with GF requirements? Turns out some of them were surprisingly well-informed. The few we talked to understood the importance of separate fryers, of cross-con in the kitchen, and of “harina de trigo” in the sauces. We actually only indulged once – but it was worth it. Gordito’s Fresh Mex, which is back off the beach about 500 metres along the main drag through Cabarete proper, has an extremely well-deserved reputation for having the best Mexican food in the country – and yes, the staff there know GF intimately. There’s enough variety on the menu to hit Gordito’s more than once, should the desire to cook ebb away with the tide during your stay.
Back at Playa Ventosa, Pam thought it would be especially useful to have a list of places in Cabarete where GF travellers could be assured of getting a gluten-free meal. That list starts with Gordito’s, but expands to include Cocoron on the beach (where the chef knew what we could, and could not have), and will expand further, now that Pam knows what questions to ask. Check with her when you arrive – and then add to her list by bringing along your business-card sized GF instructions in Spanish to hand out for good measure in restaurants you might want to try.
Yes, we could go into great detail about the sand, the sun, the waves, the rum, and the pool. But you already know this is what the Caribbean offers everyone. We’re just happy to tell you that THIS corner of the Caribbean also ensures that you, the GF traveller, can have as good a vacation as anyone else does in this part of the world.
For more information on Playa Ventosa, please visit their VRBO website. And tell Pam that GFYYC.com sent ya!