On the first night of my recent stay at Amanera, the new Aman resort in the Dominican Republic, a crab scuttled across the floor of a walk-in closet the size of an extravagant Brooklyn bedroom. Like everything in this fertile part of the world—the ferns, the fruits, the cigars—he was big. Bowling-ball big. And he was also a reminder that at a resort on 2,000 acres of dense jungle, by a coastline that looks like it hasn’t changed since Christopher Columbus declared it the most beautiful in the world, there will be wildlife, and lots of it. (The very large crab was swiftly removed, amid shrieks and with good humor, by the staff.)
Aman’s arrival signals that the Dominican Republic—a destination better known for its popular all-inclusives—is ready for a higher level of luxury. Unlike resort-studded Punta Cana, in the easternmost province of the country, the area around Amanera, on the northern shoreline, is more subdued. In 2007, a developer partnered with Aman to build on a plot of dense jungle near the town of Río San Juan. The location came with its own set of challenges: while Amanyara, its Turks and Caicos sister hotel, offers a postcard-perfect beach experience, the water here can sometimes be too rough for swimming, so the focus is on the property’s jungle slopes and activities like surfing and kayaking.
The resort was designed by architect John Heah to be integrated into the environment, so it sometimes appears invisible. A main building, the Casa Grande, houses the lobby, restaurant, and infinity pool facing the beach, and is all glass and concrete and Indonesian teak. Twenty-four casitas (and one two-bedroom casa) sit in an amphitheater formation facing the ocean. Amanera lies at one end of Playa Grande, a mile-long, crescent-shaped beach that has a rare, wild beauty. At the other end is Aman’s closest neighbor: the equally chic Playa Grande Beach Club, a boutique hotel with colorful interiors by Celerie Kemble and a clientele that also values seclusion.
Amanera is luxuriously laid-back, but it isn’t lacking in things to do. There’s no official list of activities—just a deeply knowledgeable and obliging team, ready with suggestions and gently scented towels, willing to withhold judgment when you sleep through a Pilates session and wake up, instead, to the trill of gray kingbirds at 11 a.m. It is possible for the casita to become a fort of sorts—one day, I had a sprawling breakfast with fresh pineapple juice by the private pool, followed by an in-room massage. No one need know; the spacious, minimalist casitas, with glass walls that allow you to observe the ocean’s moods, are utterly secluded.
Venturing out, however, is the only way to fully appreciate the natural setting. The beach is straight out of Robinson Crusoe, with soft golden sand fringed by bowing palms. There’s an open-air dining area for eating lobster rolls while kids splash in the pool. And, for the first time ever at an Aman resort, there’s an 18-hole golf course.
There’s also much to do in the surrounding hills. Antonio Alvarado, a full-time guide at the resort who in a former life was a martial-arts champion, leads nature walks and mountain bike trips with a sprightly, inquisitive demeanor. He explains medicinal uses for plants, plucks swollen passion fruit off the vine, and breaks open coconuts on sharp branches to share the intensely flavored meat within. One afternoon, reaching the crest of an undulating path, my companion and I ran into a wild horse, which Alvarado gently shooed away. (For a moment, it felt like a music video from the eighties.) After an hour or so of gentle exertion, we arrived at an overlook with a panoramic view across the hills and ocean, as well as two Amanera staff members waiting with chilled Viognier and sandwiches made with prosciutto and burrata.
Most meals at the resort are in this generally European mode. The chef is Italian, the sous-chef Mexican, and the pastry chef Spanish—though you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on the staff ’s diversity from the menu. Steak tartare, risotto, and snapper en papillote are kitchen mainstays. Although there are glimpses of excitement, particularly the Mexican breakfast options (huevos rancheros, satisfyingly spicy chicken chilaquiles), the fare mostly sticks to the tried-and-true.
The real highlight, though, is the chance to interact with the staff. A mangrove tour organized by the hotel, beginning in nearby Río San Juan, was memorable for the astonishing sight of dozens of black buzzard and egret nests, as well as the opportunity to meet Juan Carlos Garcia, the friendly motorboat captain, who offered us Presidente beers and revealed a hidden swimming cove. Victor Rojas Gomez, a driver who led the excursion, pointed out sites like the popular Playa de la Guardia, a dance club/car wash hybrid at the center of the town’s social scene, and his house, painted a typical marigold yellow, with a dozing dog out front. “This is your home too now,” he said, and he sounded like he meant it.
Juan Alberto Martinez, known as Babunuco, after his legendary restaurant in the mountains, often comes by the resort to introduce guests to Dominican cigars. “Everyone knows Cuban cigars, but ours are just as good,” he said, demonstrating the delicate art of rolling the leaves and folding the tip. He insists no cigar session is complete without Mama Juana, a regional drink made with dried bark, rum, honey, and red wine. Recipes vary; Babunuco’s, which he ferments in a big Johnnie Walker bottle for a month, is a secret. It’s best sipped by the infinity pool, which deliberately has no lights to create better reflections, especially when the sound of an acoustic guitar drifts from the restaurant and skims across the sky, dense with stars. You can see why the crab was so eager to stay.
amanera.com; casitas from $950.