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Learning to surf had been on my bucket list for a while. So when “surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic” appeared in a Google search result, I was intrigued.

“It’s less about age and more about mindset” read the Swell website, flanked in youthful bodies. Still, learning to surf after six decades on the planet promised to be a physical challenge. With the age clock ticking, I found a boutique surf camp in the heart of old Cabarete, where tourism originated on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. Catering to mature travelers, while offering a fun social environment with other like-minded professionals, Swell looked like a great place to learn to surf. So, I suggested to my husband we sign up. 

According to Clare Barnaby, the camp’s owner, who herself learned to surf at 52, the average guest age is 44, but the oldest they have taught was 70. So there was hope.

Swell Surfboard for surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

Swell Surf Camp

Clare and her husband Jimmy saw opportunity in Cabarete, when they built Swell Surf Camp in 2009.

“At the time surf camps were primarily crude accommodations for dope smoking 19 years old’s,” notes Clare, who followed her future husband, to Panama and Nicaragua for his surf travel agency in 2006. “In our travels, we identified an unserved market niche – the mature surfer, and designed an experience at Swell focused on luxury accommodation, quality surf instruction, healthy food, group dining, and a lounge area that encouraged socializing.”

Accommodations at SWELL while surfing Cabarete DR

View of the pool at SWELL Accommodations in Cabarete Dominican Republic

Another pool view at SWELL accommodations in Cabarete DR

The lounge at the accommodations in Cabarete Dominican Republic

By the late 1990s Cabarete had become known for its trade winds and protected reef, attracting windsurfers and kite boarders. But Encuentro Beach, just west of town, had also caught the attention of surfers internationally.

And it was on that beach that I would finally learn to surf.

Sunrise and surfer surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

Day one surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

Dawn breaks at Encuentro Beach close to Cabarete. Palms silhouette the shore as the rising sun pokes the horizon. The air, still cool, has yet to climax into a Caribbean scorcher. Clutching surf boards our group nervously gathers on the shore to stretch, before hitting the 7am session waves, during our first lesson with Swell Surf Camp instructors.

Getting ready for surfing cabarete Dominican Republic with the crew on the beach

Stretching on the beach before surfing cabarete Dominican Republic

The goal that day: convince my fit, yet no longer youthful body that I can learn to surf.

Early mornings surfing cabarete dominican republic with Swell

Our surf beach transport departed twice daily; at daybreak, and at 10:30am for a second session. Waking to exercise at 6:30am before breakfast was not body clock friendly, and adding an alarm to the daily routine while on holidays sealed the deal. But great surf conditions arrive with morning high tide, and the massive breakfast that followed made up for it. Who knew surfing could muster an appetite to consume 1000 calories in one sitting?

While surfing cabarete Dominican Republic, SWELL provides transport

Challenges faced while surfing cabarete Dominican Republic

After witnessing my slow motion attempt to mimic a pop up, where surfers glide from horizontal to standing in a nanosecond, my instructor suggested a modified approach. The resulting left leg to chest push up, while slower to execute, allowed me to gain proper positioning. Flexibility and speed of movement were challenges we faced, but group stretches at sunrise helped, and soon became an anticipated ritual of surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic.

Mary surfing cabarete Dominican Republic

Balancing on a moving surfboard is not easy. I spent more time tossed like a rag doll in the washer, than vertical on day one. But by day three both my husband and I tasted success. And by day five I was riding white water waves towards shore. While not destined to join the line up or trade my longboard for something shorter, it was liberating. Over successive lessons we learn to accelerate, break and turn. Channeling familiar parallels to waterskiing, windsurfing and skateboarding helped.

Instructors and students leaving the water after surfing in cabarete DR

Surf theory

Having grown up on a lake in Ontario, and later the ocean with a move to BC, I was comfortable around water. But my previous experience around surf was limited. We found the theory class, offered by our Swell surf instructors, prior to a group dinner one night, helped us understand different shore breaks, the impact of wind and tide, as well as safety and etiquette.

Instructor teaching Surf Theory in Cabarete DR

Self-instruction visual to teach surfing

Getting social at Swell

Group dinners add to the camaraderie at Swell. Healthy, plentiful, and served family dining style, we were never short on fuel – and fun!

Getting social at SWELL with a group of people who are in Cabarete, DR, for surfing

SWELL chefs preparing food for the surfers in Cabarete DR

Beyond scraped elbows and a few bruises, which were a given for newbies, we nursed sore shoulders, arms and core muscles daily, despite pre-trip workouts. Surfing is physically challenging, but the triumph of acquired skills made it worthwhile. There may also have been some Advil involved.

Walking the boards to the beach for surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

Surf hut in Cabarete, DR

Chris after surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

But it was the phycological impact that is now long lasting. We broke down perceptions that surfing is for the young. In truth, it is for the young at heart. Swell’s purpose built surf camp and instruction, in response to the mature surfer niche, had delivered.

Day seven surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

Day seven dawns at Encuentro Beach. Our van of strangers a week ago, now besties, pour out with the camaraderie of kids at camp on their last day.  Sore muscles, torched like burning pieces of toast, are back for more.

Rainbow over the Cabarete Beach in Dominican Republic

After a warm tropical shower, the sun breaks through clouds to the east, and on the western horizon a rainbow forms. I spot the perfect wave, paddle and pull up. Propelled by the forces of water and sheer determination, I ride the wave gracefully toward shore with pride. Clare was right. It’s not about age. It’s about attitude.

We were all truly young at heart that last morning surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

Us with Haudy, the SWELL manager for surfing Cabarete Dominican Republic

A farewell until next time!

We were sorry to say farewell at the end of our stay to Haudy, Clare’s manager at Swell since 2010. Indeed, all 16 locals employed at Swell were exceptional – chefs, grounds keeper, security, hospitality, and of course surf instructors. Several, like Haudy, have been there since the beginning.

The town of Cabarete

Swell Surf Camp is located within it’s own oasis, down a side street off the main road through Cabarete. With easy access to the pulse of the town, guests are never far from a truly authentic Dominican Republic experience.

The town of Cabarete, DR

Cabarete town road

It’s best to fly into Puerto Plata and take a cab to Cabarete.

Map of the Dominican Republic

Cabarete beach has a relaxed vibe both day and night, with music and restaurants right on the beach. Learn more about travel to the Dominican Republic here. Or check out Swell Surf Camp website here. And if you book, be sure to tell them that Mary from sent you!

Cabarete Beach at night

Travel insurance

Since 2002, World Nomads have been protecting, connecting and inspiring independent travelers. They offer simple and flexible travel insurance and safety advice to help you travel confidently. We receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.


Hurley – surf and wind short gear, wetsuits, rash guards, bathing suits, board shorts and more!

Body Glove – wetsuits, surf shorties and lots of other surf gear

Pantagonia – outdoor clothing built to last

Oakley – sunglasses and sports eye wear for on the water

Ready to book your next learning to wing foil holiday?

Be sure to mention that Mary Charleson, the carry-on queen sent you!

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