Unspoiled Samaná shows another side of Dominican Republic
Most first-time visitors to the Dominican Republic flock to the all-inclusive beach resorts of Punta Cana, where packaged tourism has been polished, shined and sandpapered into a formidable product. While a beach, buffet and booze vacation will have appeal for many, there are some visitors who will pine for a more authentic Dominican experience. One option is to vacation in the less-visited Samaná Peninsula, on the Dominican Republic’s northeastern shore.
Reaching Samaná takes a bit more effort. Direct international flights to the region’s Samaná El Catey International Airport are in short supply. Most visitors bound for Samaná will utilize connecting flights from Punta Cana or opt for a two-hour drive from the capital city of Santo Domingo, along a new and modern highway.
So why make this greater effort? Because on arrival, visitors will find a region that has its own remarkable history, superb eco-attractions and noncookie-cutter hotels and restaurants. All of this is set down in a jungle-lush natural setting of rainforests and coconut plantations. During my visit, my guide noted that Samaná Peninsula had 110,000 residents and 6 million palm trees.
Samaná’s tourism center is Las Terrenas, a town of roughly 14,000 people. Over the years, Samaná has attracted more European vacationers than those from the U.S. Europeans are attracted to the rustic restaurants serving local fare and the option to bed down in either luxury resorts or funky eco- and budget-friendly hotels.
Samaná’s main appeal is its natural attractions. These range from stunning white-sand beaches such as Rincon and Coson, as well as what could be described as Samaná’s iconic site, the trio of waterfalls that make up El Limon Falls. A favorite activity is riding on horseback to reach the falls. Those timing their visit between January and March can indulge in whale watching via boat excursions on Samaná Bay. During these winter months, approximately 2,500 humpback whales migrate to the bay. Another eco-excursion is hiking, caving and birdwatching in Los Haitises National Park, an expansive protected area covering an impressive 319 square miles.
Water sports activities in Samaná include kitesurfing, paddleboarding, diving and surfing, with the option for lessons at Carolina Surf School on Playa Bonita.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Samaná is its link to 19th-century slavery in the U.S. In 1824, Philadelphia granted thousands of African slaves their freedom. These newly freed people opted to sail to Samaná to create their own culture in a setting far from their travails in the United States. This insular enclave called Samaná Americans flourished and held onto their own English language rather than shifting to speaking Spanish, the language of the Dominican Republic. These former slaves have their own African-influenced music called bambula. There is a sizeable community of descendants of Samaná Americans still living in Samaná.
The challenge for travelers is to observe this living culture without being invasive. One place to start is La Churcha, in the town of Santa Bárbara de Samaná. The African Methodist Episcopal church was built by Samaná Americans in the 19th century. Its present-day attendees are descendants of the original Samaná Americans. For a taste of African-American baking, stop into Mi Vieja on the Samaná highway to Las Galeras. Here, travelers can stock up on bread and pastries baked in the Samaná American style.
Visitors to Samaná will also have a range of accommodations to choose from. Luxury resorts include Sublime Samaná, Amanera and the all-inclusive Viva Wyndham V Samaná. Smaller eco-chic resorts include the Dominican Tree House Village, Calve Verde Ecolodge and the 28-room Paraiso Cano Hondo, located in Los Haitises National Park. Those looking for the classic Punta Cana-style all-inclusive experience can book stays in one of three resorts from Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts, including the Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Leventado.
Most restaurants build their menu around fresh seafood served with Caribbean flair. With the number of Europeans vacationing in Samaná, the dining scene has grown to include French, Peruvian, Italian, Belgian and Thai cooking. Resorts have their own restaurants, but since most are not all-inclusive, there’s more reason to venture off-resort to dine at an array of restaurants in Las Terrenas, as well as those tucked away in the countryside. Some of the most celebrated venues are El Cabito, Mi Corazón Restaurant and Pueblo de Los Pescadores.
Bottom-line, Samaná is the flipside of packaged tourism. The destination is a good match for travelers in search of eco-attractions, authentic culture and off-resort activities and dining.