Is there a destination that completely changed your life? That’s what the Dominican Republic did for me. But it’s only after I’d made my second trip to this island nation, that the authenticity of its culture and the pride of its people truly revealed themselves to me.
I first visited the Dominican Republic (DR) in January of 2009 on a traditional beach vacation with friends. It was a great trip, but we were staying at one of those five-star all-inclusive resorts that offer you beautiful beachfront accommodations and all the food you can eat, so the focus was primarily on having a fun getaway. It certainly wasn’t an eco-friendly trip that focused on sustainability. However, there was one very special agri-tourism excursion that we booked which planted the seed to ultimately change the way I travel, and the travel experiences I seek out.
We booked the Bavaro Runners tour through the travel desk at our hotel in Punta Cana. For me, that excursion turned out to be the best day of our entire trip. It took us to a coffee plantation, where we learned how coffee was grown and processed. We visited a sugar cane plantation and learned how sugar cane is grown, and how important it is to the local economy. And we visited a cacao farm, where we tasted cocoa beans right off the tree and still in the pod. For me, that experience was transformative.
I’ve always been a chocolate lover, but had never previously given any thought to where chocolate comes from. It was fascinating to learn that ultimately, chocolate really does grow on trees! We drank the traditional cocoa drink of the Caribbean islands. It was strong and somewhat bitter, but it gave us insight into the importance of cacao as a food with healing properties and planted the seed in my brain to want to learn more about this “food of the gods.” It was later that year that I decided to write a book about chocolate travel, and planned my first chocolate-focused Chocolatour to Europe.
The Europeans taught me how to taste and savour sophisticated chocolate. But it was cocoa growers and chocolate makers throughout the Caribbean and other cocoa-growing regions that have taught me how to understand the terroir of chocolate and the challenges undertaken to produce our favourite food on Earth.
When you eat chocolate at the source where it is grown, you taste an entirely different product. You taste jungle chocolate that still tastes pure and as it is intended—a sustainable health food with the greatest number of antioxidants of any power food on the planet.
Which brought me back to the Dominican Republic in 2017. I’d previously known of Eric and Crisoire Reid who own US-based SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier and had admired the quality and flavour of their chocolate. Crisoire Reid is originally from the DR; her husband hails from Panama. They live half-time in Maryland, USA, and half-time in Hato Mayor, DR, where they grow and process their own cacao in a completely sustainable fashion.
I was thrilled to be invited to be their guest in the DR and visit Hacienda SPAGnVOLA where they grow their high-altitude cacao and a few other jungle crops. Eric arranged for me to visit the leaders of the Asociación de Mujures Esperanzas Unidas, a women’s cocoa cooperative in the area. It was fascinating to learn how the women process the cacao (which their husbands have harvested on the family farms) into chocolate, cacao jam, and cacao wine. They are using every part of the cacao pod in their fully sustainable venture.
The Dominican Republic is just one example of cocoa-growing countries chocolate lovers can visit to learn about the world of chocolate and cacao, experience the challenges of growing our favourite food crop, participating in the cacao harvest, and becoming a chocolate adventurist. For the past 10 years, I’ve been immersed in the world of chocolate travel that has taken me to 20 countries (to date) to experience every stop along the food chain as chocolate makes its journey from the jungles to the International Chocolate Awards in London, England, where, in 2016, Hummingbird Chocolate of Almonte, Ontario, Canada, won the Golden Bean Award for its Best in the World dark chocolate Hispaniola bar handcrafted from cocoa beans grown in the Dominican Republic. It doesn’t get any better than that.
- Doreen Pendgracs
- : Doreen Pendgracs is an award-winning author and travel blogger. She is based in Manitoba, Canada, and focuses on the niche of chocolate travel. Doreen’s brand is called Chocolatour. The mission statement of Chocolatour is to educate, entertain, and inspire chocolate lovers to gain greater knowledge of the world of chocolate through travel. In addition to writing about chocolate and cacao, Doreen talks about chocolate. She has been a featured speaker at several chocolate events around the world and curates custom chocolate tastings and pairing events for various clients. Doreen also plans to lead small-group chocolate tours to various destinations.
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- : Doreen Pendgracs is known as Doreen the Chocolate Queen. She lives and breathes chocolate travel. Via her vibrant site, books, social media streams, and freelance articles, Doreen transports chocolate lovers to various locales around the world as she continues her quest for the best chocolate adventures on the planet. Doreen writes in a fun, conversational style that is backed up by her skills as an award-winning journalist. Her site is highly illustrated by photos Doreen has taken to bring each story to life.
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- : This is the first time this story has been published.