GOOD TO KNOW: www.godominicanrepublic.com/
Areas visited: Altos de Cano Hondo, Las Terrenas, Punta Cana
Gluten-free: Native foods are corn, cassava, rice, plantains, seafood, chicken
Other: Rum is made from sugar cane and readily available everywhere
Note: Recommend using a English/Spanish food allergy card for ordering if not fluent in Spanish
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Eating gluten-free in the Dominican Republic
So here's an idea, how about spending two weeks traversing a country whose primary language is Spanish.
No worries, I've spent time in Spain and took a couple trips to Mexico, I've totally got the necessities covered - beer, bathroom, and mumbling perfunctory greetings. Ok, so charades-ing my way through an explanation of food intolerances isn't a brilliant idea but packing a Spanish/English gluten allergy card is and it worked like a charm. In fact, my meals were clean and aside from a few sympathy looks, using the card made traveling and eating gluten-free meals in the Dominican Republic easier than in the USA.
First stop, an eco-lodge and a bit of culture shock . . .
Lodging: Altos de Cano Hondo eco-lodge
First stop off the plane and the most authentically Dominican experience of our trip, Altos de Cano Hondo was easily my favorite place in the Dominican Republic. The rooms at the resort are spacious, clean and rustic with lots of raw wood, a hammock on the balcony and ceiling fans for air circulation. Down a stone paved hill is the swimming area and crown jewel of the lodge with multiple levels of waterfalls and natural pools.
Dining is all onsite and the only option is in the open air dining room which also serves as the lobby and front desk. My gluten-free food choices were simple - for breakfast, eggs and ham, a glass of fresh juice and coffee for lunch and dinner, grilled chicken or seafood with rice and salad or plantains. The Spanish speaking staff was very kind and smiled/snickered politely at my awkward attempts to communicate. Hey, just cause I don't know the language doesn't mean I'm won't try to cobble together a conversation. Thanks to my food allergy card and a tour guide with a little bit of self-taught English, I managed to get fed, take a boat tour through Los Haitises National Park and get a "taxi" booked for transport to the ferry.
Want to visit Los Haiteses without an overnight stay? Tours from Punta Cana, Samana, and Las Terrenas are offered by several companies but my favorite is ELewis Tours. We booked with ELewis for a full day of beaches and snorkeling in Las Terrenas. He ensured we had a great day and also arranged for my lunch (included in our full day trip) to be prepared allergen free.
Gluten-free at Los Haitises National Park
Lodging: Apartment/condo rental booked through AirBnB
Las Terrenas, located on the Samana peninsula, was once a quaint fishing village but has grown into a popular spot for European ex-pats and tourists. Our apartment was right across the street from Playa Popi with a view of the pool and sea beyond. Our location was within easy walking distance to grocery stores that carry gluten-free items like Bob's Red Mill oatmeal, tortillas, cookies etc., tour companies, tourist shops, the fish market, and tons of full-service restaurants. The most notable restaurant was El Lugar, located a couple doors down from our apartment. For a gluten-free eater, there are several salads with chicken or shrimp and even a gluten-free pasta dish. Our waiter went above and beyond to accommodate my food intolerances. He read my allergy card and consulted with the cook/chef to recommend items and ensure my food would be prepared correctly. I ended up eating there twice because the food was good and the service impeccable. Note: El Lugar is not a quick or budget meal.
On the other end of the dining spectrum is the grilled seafood stand located on Playa Bonita. It didn't really have a name - just a guy selling food and drinks on the beach. Getting to Playa Bonita from Playa Popi requires a vehicle of some sort so we rented a Razor and braved the crazy drivers in and around Las Terrenas. In exchange for free parking we agreed to purchase something to eat or drink from the food stand. It ended up being a great deal and completely gluten-free - fresh grilled lobster and shrimp, tostones (smashed, fried plantains), soda and beer for a very reasonable price and we were served in the shade of the trees right on the beach.
Because there are a lot of tourists and expats, finding wine and gluten-free food was never an issue. The allergy card helped with the Spanish language barrier but it wasn't as useful at the European restaurants whose proprietors are Italian/French/German.
Gluten-free in Las Terrenas
Gluten-free in Punta Cana
Lodging: Catalonia Punta Cana all-inclusive resort
The concept of taking a vacation from my vacation is to tack on a couple days at the end of a fast paced trip to relax and regroup before heading back to the real world. An all-inclusive resort is a perfect way to kick back, soak up sun, and take a break from making decisions/hustling transportation/deciding where to eat.
The primary dining options at most all-inclusive resorts are the large buffets and a handful of specialty restaurants. The buffet at the Catalonia was huge and offered a wide range of items including fresh fruits and veggies, salad bar, meats and cheeses, hot items, desserts, an omelette bar during breakfast, and a small section labeled gluten-free. My allergy card wasn't much use in the buffet and the items in the gluten-free section were either filled with dairy (mac and cheese) or not appealing (corn dogs and goopy casseroles) but there were enough fresh or made to order items that I always felt satisfied.
The two specialty/themed restaurants we chose for dinner were Rodeo Steakhouse which served American style meals like steak and ribs, and Mikado, a Japanese steakhouse with an Asian inspired menu. Rodeo Steakhouse was just meh - I ordered a steak and baked potato - nothing too notable but easy to manage ordering gluten-free. The real winner was Mikado. If you've never been to a Japanese steakhouse, it's a reaI treat. All the diners sit around a giant grill and the chef prepares each order with a lot of flare and showmanship. I had a lot of trepidation about eating at a Japanese steakhouse since nearly all Asian food is seasoned with soy sauce but my family really wanted to go so I gave the host my allergy card and hoped for the best. I'm so glad we went. Our chef consulted me before he started cooking and had my food items set aside. He also cooked my items on a cleaned section of the grill and served my meal before adding the gluten-containing items to the other orders. The food was delicious and I ended up with way more than I could eat.
During our three night stay at the Catalonia, in addition to decent food choices, we enjoyed ocean kayaking, snorkeling, sipping fruit smoothies under palapas, and tossing back a couple boozy drinks at the swim up bar.
Traveling for two weeks with food allergies in a country whose primary language is not English can be challenging but not impossible and is definitely part of the adventure. The best plan is to keep it simple and eat closer to the vine. Also, carry a food allergy card with a full description of allergies and foods to avoid clearly outlined and translated.
Get all the details on the DR in the Caribbean Islands - Dominican Republic eBook by Lonely Planet.
Interested in the Caribbean? Read about gluten-free dining on the Carnival Breeze.
A note to readers:
I am gluten sensitive/intolerant so I am not overly concerned with possible cross contamination. If you have severe reactions, I recommend taking additional precautions.