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 Leventado

The Public Beach, Cayo Leventado

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 Leventado 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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All Caribbean Islands Are Not Created Equal (Despite What The Beach Boys Imply)

Trunk Bay, St. Johns, USVI
Trunk Bay, St. Johns, USVI

 

“Aruba. Jamaica. Oooh I want to take you to Bermuda, Bahama. Come on pretty mama…” Thanks a lot Beach Boys. Your song Kokomo just reinforces a stereotype that geographically-challenged Americans have about the Caribbean. Namely, that it’s all the same. Now it’s up to me, and others like me, to set matters straight, and I can do so in two words, not counting the contraction: It’s not.

 

Sure, I suppose there are some common elements—turquoise waters, coral reefs, a laid back lifestyle and such. But saying that the islands of the Caribbean are all the same is like saying all dogs are alike, or telling an Italian that any type of pasta will do. Not only is it blatantly wrong but also likely to raise the ire of those who know better (especially the Italians). So in the spirit of setting the record straight, here’s a brief overview of the Caribbean and the various flavors to be found within.

 

Bermuda & Bahamas

 

Turtle Cove, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos
Turtle Cove, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos

Technically neither is a ‘tropical’ destination since both lie north of the Tropic of Cancer. And since we’re being technical, Bermuda isn’t even in the Caribbean Sea but rather due east of the Carolinas. Regardless, many lump these in with the Caribbean Islands so I’ve included them here. Bermuda, while enjoying much milder temperatures than the North American landmass to the west, is not a year-round destination if you’re looking for sand and sun. By October things are starting to cool down, and while there are still things to do and see, it is much more pleasant when you can lie comfortably on one of their famous pink sand beaches.

 

As for the Bahamas, this archipelago consists primarily of flat, sandy islands with green vegetation. Not much in the way of mountains or waterfalls here, but if it’s a pleasant beach or interesting dive spot you’re after, so long as you hit the weather right in the winter it is a nice destination if you can avoid the persistent vendors. Continuing to the southeast, the Turks & Caicos Islands are more of the same—flat, relatively featureless topography with azure waters on all sides. The only difference in my estimation is the political boundary.

 

Greater Antilles

 

Dunn's River Falls, Jamaica
Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

This term refers to the largest islands of the Caribbean: Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti & the D.R.), Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Forming the northern boundary of the Caribbean Sea, these islands have rugged, mountainous interiors, palm-fringed beaches and colorful colonial histories. With the exception of Cuba which is still pretty much off-limits to American tourists, and Haiti which has an underdeveloped infrastructure and relative political instability, tourism is alive and well. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are extremely popular all-inclusive destinations, though with the proper tour operator and/or a good head on your shoulders there’s plenty to see outside the resort’s grounds—especially Dunn’s River Falls near Ocho Rios. You’ll have to run a gauntlet of vendors but it truly is a world-class site.

 

Lesser Antilles

 

Roadside Bar, Roseau, Dominica
Roadside Bar, Roseau, Dominica

The Lesser Antilles are basically all the islands starting from the U.S. & British Virgin Islands & curving down to Trinidad and the northern shores of South America. These islands are what most envision (erroneously) the entire Caribbean as being—mountainous, waterfall-strewn, jungle-clad jewels of green in a turquoise setting. And while they share the same general topography, the varied colonial heritage of each island makes the local flavor a bit different from the next. You have your former English colonies at Antigua, St. Kitts & Nevis, Barbados and Montserrat. You’ve got your French islands like Martinique & Guadeloupe. And you even have the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten that’s half French and half Dutch. Try telling them that it’s all the same.

 

The ABC Islands

 

Playa Knip, Curacao
Playa Knip, Curacao

This term refers to the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. In contrast to the Antilles both Greater and Lesser, you will not find lush rain forests, gushing waterfalls or emerald mountain ranges here. These islands are dry, windswept, & semi-desert-like. On the windward side of the islands waves batter & scour the jagged coastline, whereas on the leeward sides you’ll find tranquil clear waters and some great diving and snorkeling. Standards of living are a bit higher here and colonial towns such as Willemstad & Oranjestad offer charming architecture and plenty of shopping opportunities. All of this is fine—just know what you’re getting into.

 

I hope this brief overview clears up some of the common misconceptions about Caribbean islands, and may it serve as a lesson to those who accept songs at their word. For the sake of truth, knowledge, and geographical consciousness everywhere, before you lump an entire geographical region all together, consult a map, consult a professional, or even consult me. Just don’t ask the Beach Boys 🙂