Samana’ – The Best of the Dominican Republic is Outside the Package

In tourism circles, the Dominican Republic is known for its sprawling, all-inclusive resorts, with expansive pools, a wealth of bars and restaurants, and of course, a slice of palm-fringed oceanfront real estate. In most cases, tourists are cautioned to stay in their resort, venture out only to well-established tourist attractions, and use guided tours as much as possible. I’m here to tell you that yes, you can do all those things and still have a good vacation. But I’m also going to tell you that if you do, you’re missing out on the best the Dominican Republic has to offer.

The aforementioned best can be found not along the heavily developed beaches of Punta Cana or La Romana, but way out at the tip of a remote peninsula on the north coast of the country. The name of both the peninsula and principal town is Samana’, which is pronounced: Sah – Mah- NAH. If you have trouble remembering it, it sounds just like that irresistible Muppet song Manamana. If you’ve now got that earworm making its way through your brain, you’re welcome.

Not only does the Samana’ Peninsula contain some of the best beaches in the country, it also remains (at the time of writing) gloriously free of large chain hotels and massive resorts. This is an area where the natural beauty of the DR is very much on display, and if it’s beaches you’re after, I dare you to find a better spread than the ones on offer here. But first some practicalities.

How to Get to Samana’

Getting to Samana’ depends primarily on which port of entry you’re starting from, and of course, where on the peninsula you’re going to be staying. Personally, my best flight options were from Punta Cana, which required a long but scenic drive west along the south coast until the capital Santo Domingo, then a turn north to cross the mountainous interior of the country, before heading east out onto the peninsula. Taking out breaks to eat and stop at a roadside waterfall, it was about 5 hours of driving to the town of Samana’, and then another 45 minutes on to where I was staying in Las Galeras. Note that speed limits are rigorously enforced, and you’re going to want to have a bunch of change in the local currency for the multiple toll plazas found along the length and breadth of the modern roadways.

Santa Barbara de Samana’ – the Main Town

Cayo Leventado, Dominican Republic

After an hour’s driving along the southern shore of the peninsula through small towns with their own collection of speed bumps (both official and incidental) you’ll arrive at the main town Santa Barbara de Samana’. The town has a lovely Malecon (or waterfront promenade) with several towers for looking out at the bay of the same name, which from January to June is a favorite haunt of humpback whales. Here you’ll find the greatest selection of eateries and lodging, as well as an active dock where tours depart for the tiny island of Cayo Leventado, whose sugar-white beach and swaying palms were made famous in a Bacardi Rum commercial from the 70’s.

Visiting Cayo Levantado

The Public Beach, Cayo Levantado

Gaining access to the public beach on tiny Cayo Leventado comes in many forms. If you’re staying at the luxury hotel that occupies the other end of the island, your transfers are included. If you’re taking a guided tour, usually with some snorkeling, whale watching and a visit to nearby Cayo La Farola, a stop at Cayo Leventado- usually with lunch – is a prominent feature on nearly any itinerary. Alternately, there are water taxis and ferries that will bring independent travelers to the dock adjacent to the public beach. It’s also possible to visit via cruise ship during certain times of the year – pandemics notwithstanding.

The beach at Cayo Levantado is indeed the stuff that dreams are made of. There’s a broad expanse of sand jutting out into the turquoise blue water, with lots of palms and shade just off the beach. There’s a collection of pavilions that host guests on guided tours, providing them lunch and a place to eat it. There are also plenty of bars, offering rum and Coke or hollowed out pineapples that serve as organic vessels for the pineapple/coconut/rum concoction inside.

Make sure your first order of business upon arriving is renting a beach chair in the shade, as spaces fill up quick and if there’s anywhere in Samana’ you run the risk of encountering a crowd, this is the place. If you can time your arrival for either earlier or later in the day, you’ll have a little more breathing room (more on that later).

Las Galleras

Playa La Playita seen from above

If there were an ideal base of operations for visiting the Samana’ Peninsula, I’d say it would be Las Galeras, located at the tip of the peninsula and literally at the end of the road. There are some shops and restaurants in the small drag that comprises the town, along with a number of guesthouses and Air BNB’s in close proximity. Here you’ll find more than a few tour operators willing to take you on boat tours to otherwise inaccessible beaches such as Playa Fronton or Madama. But the biggest draw is a small, tranquil cove appropriately called Playa La Playita, which offers powder-soft sand, calm water, and beach scenes right out of movie.

Playa Rincon & Playa Breman

World Famous Playa Rincon, Dominican Republic

About a half hour’s drive from Las Galeras (or a much shorter boat ride) you’ll come to a gorgeous 3 mile curve of sand located right at the corner of the Bay of Rincon and an undeveloped jungle-covered headland that is Parque Nacional Cabo Cabron. Playa Rincon consistently makes an appearance on World’s Best Beaches lists, and a day spent in the gorgeous, palm-lined coves will leave you with no question as to why.

Despite its incredible beauty and popularity, there isn’t much in the way of development (which is a good thing!), just a few beachside restaurants on each end of the long stretch. On the western end, the crystal-clear, freezing cold waters of the Cano Frio River empty out into the bay, and boat tours into the mangroves are available. At the eastern end, things are generally less-crowded – especially when the tour groups are whisked away and you can have the beach practically to yourself. An advantage of setting up shop at the east end is that you’re also just a few steps away from Playa Breman on the outside edge of the small peninsula that acts as the eastern border of Playa Rincon.

Playa Breman has more of the same blinding white sand and aquamarine water. What it doesn’t have are buildings of any kind. So if you want to really be away from the crowds and all modern convenience, just walk a little down the beach and you’re sure to have your own private slice of paradise.

Playa Colorado

Villa Bahia Rincon and part of Playa Colorado

In between Las Galeras and Playa Rincon is another gorgeous stretch of coastline called Playa Colorado. This beach is actually made up of two beaches separated by a rocky outcropping. Some boat tours will drop off their guests for a brief romp in the water, but if you’re staying in the area (which I did) it was almost as if I had the two beaches all to myself 80% of the time.

Getting to Playa Colorado by vehicle requires traversing an absurdly rutted and pockmarked road from the tiny hamlet of Los Tocones, all the way to the coast. I never needed to shift into 4 wheel drive, but the higher clearance is a must if you’re going to make it without feeling extremely nervous.

My party stayed at a wonderful Air BNB called Villa Bahia Rincon, which is equipped with a private pool looking over both sections of Playa Colorado. Every morning and each night, I walked the 50 feet or so over to one or the other, and from my balcony the only sounds were that of crickets, frogs and the relentless surf. If peace, tranquility and social distancing are what you’re after, this is the place for you.

Practicalities and Advice

Overall, I found navigating the Dominican Republic far less daunting than most travel agents would admit. However there are some tips I’d like to share if you take on the task of traveling independently.

First, it’s a really good idea if someone in your party can speak at least a minimal amount of Spanish, because outside of tour guides and hotel personnel, you’re likely going to have some trouble communicating.

Second, when dining anywhere that doesn’t have posted prices, particularly at those beachside cafes, be sure to agree upon a price BEFORE you order, and write it down. More than once we were overcharged when the bill came out, and the vendors insisted that we ‘misunderstood’ the agreement. It’s interesting to note that anytime there was a ‘misunderstanding’ the conditions were decidedly in their favor. So to avoid unpleasantness and keep you from leaving with a bad impression of Dominicans, who when not selling you something are quite fun and delightful, make sure you have an agreement in writing so that there will be less temptation for anyone to ‘misunderstand’ you to your disadvantage.

Third, one of the things I loved the most about Samana’ was the quiet -which is not the norm in many parts of the country. For instance, I spent one night in Punta Cana at a lovely complex that unfortunately was next door to a restaurant that felt it was necessary to blast music for their clients at full volume until 3AM. In fact, according to a friend who lives in the country, some Dominicans feel that they’re doing you a favor by broadcasting their music at ear-splitting decibels, as if it’s a form of sharing or something. That disregard for what many would consider polite consideration for one’s neighbors elsewhere, is a factor to consider if you’re going to stay in a more touristy area.

Lastly, don’t be alarmed or offended if Dominicans seem to be unnecessarily right up on top of you. There seems to be a different view of personal space here, and if you’re sitting by yourself on an empty beach, don’t be shocked if a family rolls up and sets up camp right next to you, despite all the other space available. I found it irritating at first, but once you see they mean no harm, just smile and consider it part of the authentic experience.

Closing Thoughts

Unspoiled Playa Breman, Samana, Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic has earned its place in the pantheon of Caribbean beach destinations. But instead of just sticking to a pre-packaged experience, I highly recommend going outside the box and off to the remote corner of Samana’. Here you’ll find the paradise you’re looking for, all packaged together and waiting for you to discover without an all-inclusive in sight.

Have you been to the Samana’ Peninsula? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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Bite Size Destination Throwback: Costa Rica 2006

This week makes a full 15 years since my first visit to the natural playground that is Costa Rica. Though that trip came at a very difficult time in my life, the mind-blowing beauty of this Central American gem somehow kept most of my attention. The lush rain forest, impressive volcanoes and pervasive scent of flowers are as good a natural remedy for depression as the world can offer, and in my much improved state of mind, looking back is more pleasure than pain

Destination: Costa Rica

Year: 2006

Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica

What Brought Me There

Needing a warm weather escape after a tragedy at home, Costa Rica drew my attention for its proximity, its reputation as a safe destination in an otherwise dicey region of the world, and let’s face it: the abundance of soft adventure opportunities on offer. Nothing like going off to play in paradise to get one’s juices flowing.

What I Loved

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Upon landing in Costa Rica, I felt as if I were in one big, giant, natural theme park – each with its own geological attractions. My highlights were all under the shadow of the massive Arenal volcano. I went rappelling for the first time in a nearby canyon, took my lumps on the roughest whitewater rafting trip I’ve encountered to date, and spent a glorious day soaking in the paradise-like waters of Tabacon Hot Springs.

This is not to say that the rest of the country was a bust. Carrera National Park was a trove of wildlife encounters, and despite my negative headspace at the time, the wild Nicoya Peninsula was just as pretty as advertised.

What I Would Do If I Went Back

Technically I have returned since that first trip, but that was just one day off a cruise ship spent at popular Manuel Antonio National Park. If I could go back I wouldn’t mind seeing the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the beaches of the Guanacaste, and if money were no option, the feather in any diver’s cap: Cocos Island.

Have you been to Costa Rica? Share your favorite moment in the comments below. And if you want a great Costa Rica souvenir, check out the Costa Rica Rugged Country Code Tee in the Custom Travel Art Shop.

Bite Size Destination Throwback: Peru 2010

Keep the subject interesting, such as here in Chinchero, Peru

It’s now been over a decade since I visited the Inca wonderland of Peru. The awesomeness of the country is evident in that fact that even though everything went wrong (Machu Picchu closed for mudslides, my dad winding up in the hospital for respiratory problems, an unexpected extended stay) it was still an incredible destination. Looking back, it’s not the bad stuff I remember, it’s the majesty of the Andes, the massive glory of the fortress of Ollantaytambo, and most of all, the warmth and friendliness of the local Peruvians I was fortunate enough to meet.

Destination: Peru

Year: 2010

Llocals with their llama, Cuzco, Peru

What Brought Me There

When I was a young boy, I distinctly remember seeing an image of Machu Picchu in an old book and thinking: someday I have to go here! In February of 2010 I thought I would finally get to reach that goal. But a series of mudslides damaged the train route to that remote citadel, and the government decided to close the site for a month – very inconveniently during the time I was scheduled to arrive with my dad as a week-long pre-trip to a Central American cruise. As a consolation prize, I got to spend my time in the amazing Sacred Valley, which also was the setting for one of my favorite unscripted travel moments.

What I Loved

Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Cuzco, the Andes took my breath away – both figuratively and literally. The lush green mountains and terraced slopes were everything I had imagined it would be. In particular I was fascinated by the Inca ruins with their incredibly fitted stones that have kept them standing when so many less-quality buildings have been destroyed.

Most of all I loved the people. Even though I was incredibly stressed at my dad’s health situation, to a person they treated me kindly, and made me feel welcome despite the obvious fact that I was a tourist. Even on the darkest day I had there, I can still fondly think back on sitting on a terrace overlooking the main square in Cuzco, after a meal of pollo asado washed down with super-sweet Inka Cola, and feeling a measure of contentment through all that anxiety. To me, that’s a great testament to the character of the place.

What I Would Do If I Went Back

As already mentioned, Machu Picchu still remains untouched by my footsteps, and I would welcome the chance to finally get to stand atop that world famous landmark that mesmerized me as a young child and gaze about. I would also like the chance to check out the Rainbow Mountain and make my way towards the Bolivian border and Lake Titicaca.

Have you been to Peru? Share your favorite moment in the comments below. And if you want a great Peru souvenir, check out the Peru Rugged Country Code Tee in the Custom Travel Art Shop.

Bite Size Destination Throwback: New Zealand 2005

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

It’s been nearly 16 years and 45 countries ago since I visited New Zealand, yet it still retains its top billing in my mind as the all-time most beautiful place on Earth. In the spirit of a throwback, I thought a stroll down Memory Lane, New Zealand would evoke some fond mental images of natural beauty in its most compelling state. Turns out I was right.

Destination: New Zealand (South Island circle tour)

Year: 2005

What Brought Me There

The Pancake Rocks, New Zealand

What Brought Me There

In the 2000’s New Zealand was well on its way to becoming a hip and popular destination thanks to its spectacular scenery being broadcast to worldwide audiences via several blockbuster movies of the time. But even before that I had heard rumor of incredible, natural landscapes that had even well-traveled adventurers gushing like schoolchildren. Somehow I sensed that this would be “my kind of place.”

Using airline miles accrued through a combination of credit card rewards and actual travel, my wife and I joined my parents on an ambitious 3.5 week journey Down Under, visiting Australia and New Zealand’s South Island. While I enjoyed both destinations immensely, it became readily evident that it would take more than just the 1 week allotted to appreciate the ubiquitous splendor of New Zealand’s incomparable scenery.

What I Loved

Hiking Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Our whirlwind tour started in Christchurch, took in an afternoon at majestic Mount Cook, then lingered a few days in Queenstown before working our way up the wild West Coast and coming round to Christchurch again. The highlight was Milford Sound, in Fiordland National Park. Despite the many travels I’ve had since then, I still consider it to be the most beautiful place on Earth.

Another personal favorite was a hike on the Fox Glacier, mostly because of the incredible sense of scale when watching tiny dots clambering their way across a thousand-foot deep block of blue and white ice. In fact there several occasions when the sheer enormity of the landscape I was contemplating literally took my breath away.

What I Would Do If I Went Back

Even though by most accounts the South Island is where the most jaw-dropping scenery resides, there are several places on the North Island that I would like to see firsthand: The geothermal features of Rotorua, Tongariro National Park, and most of all, taking a blackwater rafting trip down an underground river in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Yes, you heard right – glowworms.

Have you been to New Zealand? Share your favorite moment in the comments below. And if you want a great New Zealand souvenir, check out the New Zealand Rugged Country Code Tee in the Custom Travel Art Shop.

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