Here’s a general article I wrote about the charms of Samana, published in the latest issue of House & Garden. I’ve added in some pics to illustrate it. All this to urge people to go there! Read this earlier post too, here
THE ALTERNATIVE CARIBBEAN Fiona Dunlop travels to the Samaná Peninsula, off the north-east Dominican Republic, and finds a tropical paradise gently developed by tourism, with tranquil beaches, mountainous scenery and a fascinating cultural mix
Mysteriously, some destinations manage to escape the mainstream travel radar, even in the Caribbean. Jutting out from the north-east corner of the Dominican Republic, the Samaná Peninsula is one of those: the preserve, since the Eighties, of Italian and French free spirits who, after discovering its glorious beaches, acres of coconut groves and lush, mountainous interior, chose to stay and set up tour- ist businesses. The gregarious Dominican farmers and fishermen welcomed them, which resulted in a thriving, harmonious community that is at last generating more widespread interest. It is high time.
Barely 65km long, Samaná offers three diverse centres within a couple of hours’ drive of each other. Las Terrenas, on the north coast, is a former fishing village that in a few decades has developed into a dynamic beach resort for foreigners and, increasingly, for weekending capital-dwellers. It now encompasses three blissful beaches of fine yellow sand, unspoilt, never crowded and lapped by calm water. Nor has the alternative edge of the early days quite disappeared, visible today in relaxed beach bars, small-scale guesthouses and senior bohos whizzing around on motorbikes.
In central Las Terrenas, sophistication comes in fits and starts, from several excellent Italian and French restaurants (the refined menu at Hotel Atlantis is courtesy of Gérard Prystasz, a former chef for François Mitterrand) to shops selling Dominican cigars or jewellery made with locally mined amber and larimar (a turquoise stone unique to the island) and slickly designed condominium complexes. Boosted by a fast toll road from the nearest airport, El Catey, the wild and deserted westernmost beach, Playa Cosón, is fast becoming the focus for more upmarket hotels, including Six Senses. Luckily for authenticity, dirt-road access is part of the experience, and in the centre you can still dine with your toes in the sand, visit the morning fish market, go scuba-diving or cycling, or just laze the afternoon away beside the waves.
Barely an hour’s drive south-west through the mountains speckled with vividly coloured palm-wood houses brings you to the south coast of the peninsula, where its earliest settlement, Santa Bárbara de Samaná, overlooks a vast, dreamy bay. Cruise passengers make sporadic invasions, but the most faithful visitors are humpback whales. Every January to March they migrate from the North Atlantic to mate and give birth in the warm waters of the bay, creating a stirring spectacle, auditory too, as scuba-divers can hear the male courting song underwater. The combination of these playful whales with high season suddenly brings this sleepy town alive, and boat tours multiply; the best are led by Canadian conservationist Kim Beddall. You can also join a boat trip to the opposite side of the bay to explore the otherworldly Los Haitises National Park, where tunnels of mangroves lead to caves etched with ancient Taíno petroglyphs, some of which depict these spouting mammals.
Interestingly, Samaná’s identity is very different to the rest of the Dominican Republic. This stems partly from geographical isolation – communications were mainly by boat until the Seventies, and electricity only came to Las Terrenas in 1994 – and partly from a distinct ethnic mix. In the 1750s, a few surviving indigenous Ciguayos and a handful of buccaneers were joined by Canary Islanders brought by the Spanish to pre-empt British incursions. Next came French plantation owners with their slaves from neighbouring Haiti after its independence in 1804, followed soon after by thou- sands of freed American slaves from Philadelphia. A curious relic of this English-speaking influx is Santa Bárbara de Samaná’s clapboard Methodist church (‘La Churcha’), where services incorporate Creole English, a cultural anomaly in an otherwise Catholic, Spanish-speaking island. It was a rare survivor of a devastating fire that destroyed most of the town in 1946.
East of Santa Bárbara, the rocky south coast swings past Cayo Levantado, an archetypal tropical island monopolised by an all-inclusive resort, to end at the remote promontory of Las Galeras. Life is at its most mellow in this outpost for cosmopolitan lotus-eaters, where quirkily designed guesthouses and villas are scattered through the tropical lushness that borders another magnificent bay. At the main beach, basic comedores, open-air restaurants, cook up fresh lobster, and fishermen doubling as boatmen will whisk you to beauty spots such as Playa Rincón, where soft, white sand and transparent waters meet forested hills in a voluptuous embrace. You can hike, ride, dive or, more sybaritically, toast the sunset at El Cabito, a rustic, clifftop restaurant with sweeping views west across the bay. Somehow this encapsulates the magic of Samaná, a tropical jewel poised at that delightful halfway stage of discovery.
WHERE TO STAY
The Peninsula House at Playa Cosón (www. thepeninsulahouse.com), an exclusive hillside guest- house, recently bought (and soon to be expanded) by Six Senses. Sublime Samana, Playa Cosón (www.sublimesamana.com), a slick beachfront hotel and condominium resort. Villa Serena, Las Galeras (www.villaserena.com), a plantation-style beach hotel with terrific views. m
WAYS AND MEANS
The Samaná Peninsula can be reached either via New York, with onward direct flights into El Catey with JetBlue (www.jetblue.com); or via Miami to the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo, with British Airways (www.ba.com), followed by a two-hour road transfer. For more information about the island, visit www.godominicanrepublic.com.