A few months ago I visited the port of Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic for the first time during a seven-night sailing on Carnival Breeze.
Almost immediately, it became one of my favorite ports of call in the Caribbean, a short distance from Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Port Canaveral.
As of 2021, Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Line, and Costa Cruises all stop in Amber Cove. In late 2021, Carnival Cruise Line’s newest ship Mardi Gras will call to Amber Cove on a regular basis.
About Amber Cove
Located on the north coast of the Dominican Republic in the city of Puerto Plata, Amber Cove is a popular stop on Carnival’s Eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries, thanks to its relatively close proximity to stops like Grand Turk and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Fun Fact: Puerto Plata was discovered by Christopher Columbus on one of his exploration trips to America in the 1400s, long before cruise ships and cruise lines were stopping at the Amber Cove port.
Amber Cove is not an island itself like Half Moon Cay — think of it more like a slice of paradise in the Dominican Republic, carved out exclusively for cruisers, comparable to Princess Cays in Eleuthera, Bahamas.
After an $85 million investment by Carnival Corporation, Amber Cove opened in 2015 as a new port complex for Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Costa Cruises, and all who sail under the Carnival brand.
Arriving at the Cruise Port
If you can, try to go outside and watch the ship pull into Amber Cove. There’s something magical about watching the Dominican mountains and palm trees grow closer as the ship inches toward the pier. You feel like you’ve stepped right into the jungle of Jurassic Park, which makes sense when you learn that some of that movie was filmed in Puerto Plata.
Once the ship docks at the Amber Cove Cruise Center, it’s only a five-minute leisurely walk into all the hustle and bustle of the shopping, restaurants, pools, and activities.
For anyone needing assistance, there are also complimentary pedicabs cycling along the pier that are more than happy to give you a ride and accept any tips.
At the end of the pier is a small duty-free shop you must pass through, but it only takes seconds before you’re standing in the heart of the port’s shopping and entertainment.
Amber Cove Shopping and Restaurants
Once through the shop, you’ll immediately see an outdoor mall of shops and restaurants to your left, silhouetted by the background of the ship parked just behind them.
This is also where the transportation hub is located, and the direction you’ll take if you’ve booked an excursion to meet your tour guide. This covered area for taxis and excursion buses is located at the end of this shopping center.
The shops include the usual souvenirs and trinkets, and the restaurants at the end of the pier offer some dangerously delicious cocktails, such as a classic piña colada or twists on Caribbean favorites.
Amber Cove Photo Spot
One of the more popular attractions on this side of the port is the massive “Amber Cove” sign at the end of the shopping center. It’s strategically placed against the background of the docked cruise ship to create the perfect photo opportunity for visitors to snap a photo of themselves in front of the sign while getting the bright-blue water and their cruise ship in the background.
This usually means there’s a line to take your own memorable pic, but it moves quickly and most people are willing to help out if you need an extra set of hands to be your photographer.
Coco Caña Sky Bar
Nestled atop a hill in Amber Cove is the Coco Caña Sky Bar, a perfect lookout and a must-stop spot when visiting the Dominican port.
Though windy, the bar offers 360-degree views of the port. Jurassic Park-like mountains fill in the background to the cruise ship parked in calm, crystal blue waters in front of rows of shops, resort-like pools, zip-lining, water activities, and more.
Whether or not you plan to order anything here, it’s worth the easy climb to the top of the hill (though the dirt path of stairs is not friendly to those with mobility issues) just for the views and photo opportunities.
Amber Cove Pool Areas and Activities
Anyone looking to lounge out under the sun and cool off in the pool can skip the excursions in Amber Cove. When you first arrive at the port and walk through the duty-free shop, a cobblestone path to the right takes you to a resort-style pool, bar, and activity area.
As you enter the pool area, there are lockers available for a $6 charge for the day in addition to a $6 refundable deposit, and you can also access the local Amber Cove wifi network for just $8 for the day.
The Pool and Bar Areas
As you enter, you’ll pass a bar and restaurant on your left, which is the same bar that extends out to become the swim-up pool bar. The restaurant is open-air — no windows, just walls — so you’re treated to the Caribbean ocean breeze while enjoying a drink or a meal.
While drink prices were pretty reasonable around $8 per cocktail, the food was overpriced, with a burger costing ~$17.
While there, I ordered a drink and chose to wait until I was back on the ship to get my no-cost Guy’s Burger. For families with kids who can’t wait, pack snacks if you can. (Remember you cannot take fresh food off the ship.)
The aqua zone area is made of three pools connected by river-type waterways that we wish were lazy rivers. Each water path features a pedestrian bridge crossing over it for those choosing to lounge in the most central area of the “resort” space.
The largest of the three pools centers around the popular swim-up pool bar. Even as the only ship in port, this is the spot where the crowds became overwhelming, and people were waiting 15+ minutes for a drink. It’s usually a better idea to try another bar instead or to go inside to order.
The second pool section was slightly less crowded and certainly less rowdy. While not quite as large as the main pool area, it is a bit more family-friendly to those with slightly older tykes. Even more family-friendly still is the third pool section, which offers a beach-like gradual entry.
Around the pools, there were more than enough lounge chairs. We were the only ship in port that day, but it seemed like there were enough loungers for three or four ships’ worth of passengers. But being the only ship, we enjoyed the extra space and extra chairs to spread out.
Amber Cove was clearly designed with kids and families in mind. Just on the other side of the main pool, across a short bridge over the lazy river, there’s a splash pad with a splash bucket and a mini slide for the littlest ones to enjoy. Next to the splash pad is a half basketball court and giant chess set for more fun and games.
However, the real attractions for the slightly older kids and the young at heart are the waterslides and the zip line. The big, enclosed, twisting water slides are impossible to miss once you enter the pool area, though their entrance might be tricky to find for some.
If you start at the base of the waterslides, there’s a path to the right of where they spill out that leads up the hill. As you walk up the hill, you’ll see the entrance for the slides on your left before you get to the top of the hill. The slides are free and weren’t at all busy when I was there. They were practically begging for more riders.
The zip line starts higher up the hill and costs $20 for an all-day pass, unless you’ve purchased a cabana for the day and your pass is included. If you only want to ride it once, sorry… it’s still $20, so you might as well enjoy it a few times. For smaller kids, keep in mind you have to be at least 80 lbs to ride the zip line.
If all of that isn’t enough, there are also water sports equipment rentals available toward the entrance that include paddleboards, hydro bikes, kayaks, and boat cycles.
Exclusive and Private Areas
At the base of the hill from which the zip line runs, you’ll notice a VIP area with cabanas around the main pool. These poolside cabanas come with exclusive access to one roped-off side of the pool as well as one side of the swim-up pool bar. They’re sold as a Carnival shore excursions at $309.99 per cabana, accommodating up to 8 guests each.
Even though you can retreat into the privacy of your cabana, don’t expect these to be the most tranquil. After all, they’re still connected to the main pool, which can get quite loud and rowdy, and they are adjacent to the open-air restaurant, which blasts music all day long.
If you’re looking for the most privacy you can buy in the closest proximity to the ship, check out the ocean cabanas and grand cabanas.
Located just off a short dock and based in a quiet area away from the buzz of the main pool area, these cabanas extend out over the water and offer absolute luxury and serenity for $344.99 per ocean cabana (max. 8 guests) or — hold onto your sunhat — $1,169.99 per grand cabana (max. 20 guests) through Carnival.
Despite the sticker shock, if you’re cruising with a group and you’d like to hang out on your own for the day without fighting the crowds, these cabanas are more than worth it when factoring in the privacy, luxury, and the view of the cruise ship behind them. Booking any type of cabana (poolside, ocean, or grand) also comes with free all-day zipline passes for anyone over 14 years old.
It’s also important to note that, although there’s a sign at Amber Cove that lists cabana rentals for slightly lower prices than what’s noted above, the cabanas are usually sold out via Carnival excursions long before you arrive in port, making it difficult to secure the lower price offered in port.
However, there’s also an option once in port to purchase access to the VIP area around the pool for $125 without having to book a cabana, though it’s not indicated whether that’s per person or per family.
Along the private dock, there’s also a private over-the-water bar and restaurant that was nearly empty the entire day, meaning you don’t have to wait to get service there like at the main pool. While it’s probably meant to be exclusively for the cabana guests, no one stopped me when I walked right up to the bar and ordered a piña colada—probably because the place was completely empty and the bartender was happy to see someone.
Last but not least is the hammock area. While these are not “private” or “exclusive,” there are only five hammocks but thousands of people in port. This is not something you can rent like a cabana; they’re simply available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
READ MORE: What’s Included in an Amber Cove Cabana?
It may not seem important to cruisers, but I was really impressed that Carnival Corporation built out a designated “Crew Area” for their crew to visit without having to go across town to get what they need.
Let’s be honest — the crew members don’t care about swim-up pool bars, zip-lining, or souvenir shops. When the ship is in port, they often look for a drugstore to buy the medicine and goods that they need and a place onshore to relax if they have the afternoon off. The crew area in Amber Cove hits all those points, so kudos to Carnival for not ignoring their own family here.
It’s No Beach Day
To be honest, just about the only thing Amber Cove is truly missing is the beachfront. If you’re someone who likes to dig your toes into the sand and listen to the waves crashing against the shore all day, you’ll want to book a beach day excursion or find a taxi to take you to one nearby, as there’s no beach immediately off the pier and connected to all the Carnival facilities.
As I was planning for my cruise, I was undecided in what I wanted to do in Amber Cove.
For no particular reason, I felt apprehensive about relying completely on a free-access resort-like area for my plans, even though I was looking for a low-key day to spend relaxing in the sun. It was ultimately budgetary reasons that pushed me to give the port a try and skip any excursions.
In the end, it was the perfect decision. If you’re on the fence about what to do in Amber Cove or whether to book an excursion, I highly recommend simply exploring the pier area and taking full advantage of the free pool areas as well as all the shopping and restaurants.