Discover One Reader’s Love Affair with Puerto Plata and What Keeps Her Coming Back

Thandiwe Myke

Thandiwe Myke is like many New Yorkers who yearn for warmer climates during the harsh, cold winters of the northeast United States. Thandiwe celebrated her 30th birthday with two of her closest girlfriends during her most recent trip to Puerto Plata. “My trip was amazing! It was my girlfriends’ first time visiting Puerto Plata and also their first time at an all-inclusive resort and we had a blast.” She and her friends were fortunate to have stayed in Puerto Plata for nine days during their vacation. “I’m the type of person that when I go away on a trip, I want to feel like I moved! So I definitely could have stayed longer.”

You clearly have a love affair with Puerto Plata, as you have now traveled there a total of three times. What about Puerto Plata continues to draw you back?

Thandiwe: The culture and the people continue to bring me back. Dominicans are very friendly, genuine people. They are ready to help, nothing seems forced, and I love their cuisine. Dominican fried fish with yucca and tostones is absolutely delicious. I find that Dominican fish – from their sea bass to their salmon – is cooked very, very well.

Thandiwe MykeCan you share some of the highlights from your most recent visit to Puerto Plata?

Thandiwe: The ATV excursion was amazing. I did it during my first trip to Puerto Plata and I just had to go do it again, this time on my birthday. Driving the ATV gives you such a rush and you get to experience some of Puerto Plata city, especially on the journey to the ATV starting area. The ATV operators are really good because they allow you to ride on a small course to get you comfortable with the vehicle first. The excursion is a little dirty – you have to be okay with getting dirty because it can be rough but it’s fun; it’s very exhilarating! Midway through the day we stopped at a beach where you can go for a quick swim. I would definitely recommend doing an ATV excursion.

Thandiwe MykeDuring her first trip to Puerto Plata, Thandiwe went horseback riding for the first time, an excursion that she loved. She recalls “it was a little scary but it was nice. It was my first time on a horse and we were taken up into the mountains and you get a beautiful view of the countryside. You also get an idea of rural living in Puerto Plata. It was really, really cool. On my next trip I plan to go to the 27 waterfalls, experience some of the underground caves and also go zip lining.”

What tips can you give to first time travelers traveling to Puerto Plata?

Thandiwe: First, there is a $10 visitation fee to the Dominican Republic. A lot of people leaving the plane were caught off guard when asked to pay this fee in the airport. Also, you have to prepare yourself for the workers who help you with your luggage at the airport as they are friendly but can be a little pushy. They are expecting a tip so if you know that you are not prepared to tip, politely decline their help with your luggage. At the resort, although it’s all-inclusive, it’s nice to give a little something to the employees, especially if you’ve been provided with great service or have ordered a lot of drinks.”

Can you tell our readers about the Puerto Plata nightlife, and your experience with the nightlife?

Thandiwe: Shamelessly, I went to the nightclub every night that I was there. They played a lot of different types of music. We didn’t realize it, but we traveled to Puerto Plata during their Labor Day [which is May 1] and so a lot of locals arrived and stayed on the resort for the weekend. The club completely turned into a discoteca with a lot of bachata and merengue and it was a lot of fun.

As well as being a serial visitor to Puerto Plata, Thandiwe is also a serial entrepreneur in the beauty industry. Currently running two businesses of her own, Thandiwe is both a licensed aesthetician and licensed hair stylist. Lashes by Tea is a service that provides individual lash extensions. “It is great for people who do not necessarily want to wear mascara and want to have the ready look.  Natural, individual lash extensions are applied onto each eyelash in the shape, color, and length that the client desires. Lash extensions really brighten up your eyes and add so much to your face.”

Thandiwe MykeHer other business endeavor, Tender Loving Hair Care, is a service that teaches parents of transracial adoption, any parent who adopts a child of African descent with curly hair, how to properly care for their child’s hair. “Hair is very much tied to identity and beauty and everyone’s hair requires specific care. It can sometimes be a challenge for adoptive parents to care for their child’s curly hair. I teach parents how to nurture their child into feeling good about themselves.”

What inspired you to pursue a career in beauty?

Thandiwe: I’ve always had a knack for it. I graduated college in a time when it was a bit difficult to get a job and I also didn’t feel married to what I studied in school. So I decided to get a trade in the meantime; I didn’t mean for it to be a full-time career. What happened is that I thoroughly enjoyed working in the beauty industry. When you look good, you feel good and I like the feeling that I give clients after I’ve performed a beauty service. Their whole energy just perks up. Whatever they were dealing with that day, it’s not a concern for the moment at least because they can look at themselves and feel good about themselves. With Tender Loving Hair Care, I find that when you instill self-esteem and self love and the importance of self beautification in children, especially little girls, it sets the tone for who they’re going to be as they grow into an adult or as they’re going into their teens.”

Within the next five years, Tender Loving Hair Care will be synonymous with transracial adoption and aims to be an integral part of the transracial adoption process.

If you could leave our readers with one piece of advice, what would it be?

Thandiwe: Take a Spanish class.  [Laughing] Seriously, you don’t really need it but it would be helpful. Here in the States, we have the option of studying other languages in public school and I had so many years of Spanish and was frustrated with myself that I couldn’t communicate better. I think it’s nice to be able to communicate with the people because it enriches your experience there. When people see that you try and that you’re committed to learn about them and their culture, your experience really goes up a few notches and you almost feel like part of the family.

Thandiwe’s love affair with Puerto Plata runs very deep and holds a special place in her heart. You will be sure to see Thandiwe on a beach near you in Puerto Plata this coming October when she returns to celebrate her friend’s birthday.

Big Lee: Puerto Plata’s Most Loved Expat and Restaurateur

Meet Puerto Plata’s lovable and local celebrity Big Lee Peak. Bored with his life in the south suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Big Lee was within 3 years of retiring when he decided to start taking vacations to help him decide where to spend his retirement. “I saw a ’60 Minutes’ segment on retiring outside the US where your money can go further. I went to Cancun where I joined a timeshare and then to Puerto Plata and Punta Cana. I’m so glad that I chose Puerto Plata; it is a real town with real people with real culture and history.”

Big Lee is the proud owner of the very popular Big Lee’s Beach Bar, which is located on the Malecón and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Big Lee’s Beach Bar employs 11 locals and a loyal dog named Spot.

After moving to Puerto Plata, what inspired you to open a restaurant/bar, and how did you decide on the type of restaurant/bar, as well as the area?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABig Lee: I’m going to give you some history first. I met a girl, came back in 6 months and in 1 year I retired. My kids graduated & moved across the US. Might as well move down since the relationship didn’t work out. I’m bored out of my mind after 2.5 years of just sitting around on the computer and watching cable TV. I started talking to people in the local watering hole about my interest in opening a sports bar. The cook heard that I was interested in opening a bar and said that she wanted to work for me because the manager at her bar wasn’t her favorite. I spent 3 months looking for the right location. I wanted to find 2 buildings together, one for the tourists to watch the ocean and one for the expats to sit on the street.

We didn’t start off with food until after one year to see if the business will succeed. I know I succeeded when I know that I have two hundred reviews on TripAdvisor with 4.9 stars. Everyone who has rated loves our fish & chips or our burgers & fries. Not a restaurant but bar with a grill with a very limited menu.   We do 14 dishes and I try to do them spectacularly. Our fish is bought every day, sea bass, but it’s frozen because it’s caught deep at sea. Everything else is prepared fresh. We peel & slice every potato for fries and we make homemade tartar sauce.  Every day we buy meat, potatoes, chicken and start serving at 9 am until 8 pm. We’re starting to branch out with a few specials every now and again to please as many as possible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe majority of Big Lee’s clientele are Canadian and American expatriates with 20% Dominican locals frequenting his establishment as well. “We play soft classic rock from around the world from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. For three and a half years that we’ve been open, we’ve been rate the number one bar in Puerto Plata and the number one bar in the Dominican Republic.” Big Lee’s Beach Bar is also rated #2 on TripAdvisor’s list of Top Things to Do in Puerto Plata.

Big Lee’s road to becoming the number one bar in the Dominican Republic is also a story of finding love. The cook mentioned above who was not too thrilled about working for her previous boss is now his fiancé.

Big Lee: So, I would love to finish telling you the story about how the girl that said she would never date me, but only work for me. I found the place, opened it up, called her and hired her. I was smitten with her. Worked with me for 3 months, then finally hugged and kissed me. We’re more than 3 years later, we’re engaged and we had a baby.

[Laughing] My vasectomy didn’t work so we are proud. We are moving across the street from her parents in a currently remodeled house. We’re getting married at the end of this year or the beginning of next. She’s now my boss because I can’t own [the bar] because it’s city property.

My baby is 1 year, 4 months. Her name is Marilee. My fiancé’s name is Mariela and she wanted a combination of Mariela and Lee. Thank goodness it was a girl because there was no combination for a boy!

We’ve touched on bits and pieces on your secret recipe to success. Do you think it’s you as the celebrity or combination of location/celebrity, the food, the atmosphere…what is your key to success?

Big Lee: [I’m] always around people. If I was going to open a business, I want to read people, shake their hand, thank them for stopping, say thank you for coming. I can’t imagine running a business any other way. There’s so much competition; places to eat and drink. I want [people] to come to my bar and I want them to return. Our food is spectacular. It’s as good of a cheeseburger as you’re ever going to get around the world. I search for the best meat, bun, lettuce, tomato, pickle. The food is excellent. I had to go through all the different hotdogs at all the grocery stores here just to find one that is edible. It’s spectacular. It’s a jumbo hot dog that tastes like home.

It’s a combination of me (the celebrity), and greeting everyone and the food but the views are spectacular. We are less than 100 feet from the ocean. Two islands are right off our shore. There is a statue of Neptune. I have a row of flags, looks like the United Nations. People find their flag and are really excited. If they don’t find their flag [here], they go find it and bring me one. We are within 2 miles of Mount Isabel De Torres, which is just gorgeous.

In addition to his busy schedule running his bar, Big Lee is also involved in philanthropic endeavors. In 2014 alone, Big Lee helped supply 40 children with back to school clothing and school supplies. With the help of donations and his ever-increasing popularity, in December 2014 Big Lee took 16 children and 2 mothers Christmas shopping. He also helps out the local dog association by helping to organize over 1000 street cats and dogs.

So, for those of you who are wondering, we certainly had to ask!

Where did the name Big Lee come from?

Big Lee: I was 325 lbs, wearing a 4X shirt, 50-inch belt with my belly hanging over; I was a huge man. I weigh 250 lbs now, there are no drive-thru’s, everything is fresh, not processed. [Laughing] They tease me and say that I need to rename it Skinny Lee’s or get the red circle with the slash through it to go over “Big” — formally known as “Big Lee’s!”

What advice can you give an expat who would like to open a restaurant/bar of their own?  

Big Lee: If you are going to open a business, no matter where but especially here in the Dominican Republic, put your entire heart and personality into it and do it with a 100% effort.  That is what I have done and it has worked.

Big Lee plans to expand to other locations throughout the Dominican Republic and with the first Carnival Cruise ships expected in October 2015, he will become even more busy. Big Lee’s Beach Bar is fast becoming a brand. Check him out in an upcoming JetBlue inflight magazine.