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Columbus wanted to establish a city at Puerto Plata and name it La Isabela, but a tempest detained him. It wasn't until 1502 that Nicolás de Ovando founded Puerto Plata ("port of silver"). The port became the last stop for ships going back to Europe, their holds laden with treasures taken from the New World.

Puerto Plata appeals to a mass-market crowd that prefers less expensive, all-inclusive resorts. More accommodations of this kind continue to pop up on this coast, and yet many are still booked solid almost year-round. It's estimated that 95% of all visitors to the north coast stay at an all-inclusive, usually in the Playa Dorada complex, and limit their exploration of the coast to a ride from the airport to their resort and back again. An unfortunate byproduct of the all-inclusive trend is that several good restaurants have been forced to close.

Most of the hotels are not actually in Puerto Plata itself but in a tourist zone called Playa Dorada, which consists of about 14 major hotels, a scattering of secluded condominiums and villas, a Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed golf course, and a riding stable. With the lone exception of Casa Colonial, each of the hotels within Playa Dorada books their clients in as part of all-inclusive plans. For years, Playa Dorada was the largest all-inclusive resort complex on earth, although other competitors, both within and outside the D.R., have caught up with it. A very short drive to the west from Playa Dorada is Costa Dorada, a smaller plot of carefully landscaped beachfront terrain that contains a scattering of resorts.

Encompassing 300km (186 miles) of prime waterfront property on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, the region around Puerto Plata is known by some as the "Silver Coast." But today more and more people are referring to it as the "Amber Coast" because of the rich deposits of amber found here, and because of the tawny color of the sandy beachfronts.

Publicity of such other resorts as Punta Cana has brought that resort's beaches into frequent comparisons to those of Puerto Plata. So here's what we think: Puerto Plata lies on the more verdant, and rainier, north shore of the island; Punta Cana lies on the somewhat drier southeastern tip. Instead of the tranquil Caribbean Sea, the beaches face the Atlantic Ocean, which means that waters can be more turbulent, especially in the winter months. Rainfall in Puerto Plata, when it comes, arrives suddenly, but doesn't last long. And it keeps the landscape green. Puerto Plata's beaches aren't as wide as some of those in Punta Cana, but recent improvement of the beaches in Puerto Plata has done a lot to even out the equation.

Staff at hotels in Puerto Plata tend to have been born and raised within the region, and they usually retain cultural links to the region and to their families. Staff within hotels in Punta Cana tend to have been recently displaced from other parts of the island, and some of them have complained about feeling sociologically uprooted, now that they might be living in "company housing."

And finally, Puerto Plata maintains an urbanized feel, and an economy based on something in addition to tourism, whereas newer communities (Punta Cana and Samaná) are basically modern communities carved from what was wilderness or scrubland, with none of the feelings of urban life that are so deeply engrained within the Dominican consciousness. Therefore, in the battle presently raging for which resort within the D.R. will reign, we don't by any means underestimate the ongoing allure of the country's grande dame of Puerto Plata: It has a lot going for it, and the race for preeminence is far from over. Incidentally, Americans account for only a quarter of the visitors, the rest coming from Canada or Europe.

You need not confine your visit just to the resorts in and around Puerto Plata and Playa Dorada. To the east lie the emerging resort towns of Sosúa, once a prime center for those seeking sex in the sun, or Cabarete, the windsurfing capital of the Americas.