Samaná (pronounced sah-mah-NAH) is a dramatically beautiful peninsula, like an island unto itself, of coconut trees stretching into the sea. It's something of a microcosm of the Dominican Republic: here you'll see poverty and fancy resorts, brand-new highways as well as bad roads, verdant mountainsides, tropical forests, tiny villages lined with street-side fruit vendors, secluded beaches, and the radiant warmth of the Dominican people. Samaná is the name of both the peninsula and its biggest town, as well as the bay to the south. It's worth noting that to locals, Samaná denotes only the largest town, Santa Bárbara de Samaná, which makes a great departure point for whale-watching or an excursion to Los Haitises Park across the bay. The bay is home to some of the world's best whale-watching from mid-January to late March. It is now the site of Puerto Bahia Marina and Residences and the Bannister Hotel, contemporary, luxurious yet moderately priced. This complex has brought an entirely new level of tourism to this area, and given yachts a full-service facility in what has always been a desirable cruising destination.A visit here is really about two things: exploring the preserved natural wonders and relaxing at a small beachfront hotel. The latter is most readily accomplished in Las Terrenas, the only true tourist center, where you can find picturesque restaurants, accommodations of all types (including the new oceanfront Sublime Samaná and the luxury condo-hotel, Balcones del Atlantico), and great beaches. At Las Terrenas you can enjoy peaceful playas, take advantage of the vibrant nightlife, and make all your plans for expeditions on the peninsula. The other pleasures are solitary—quiet beaches, the massive national park Los Haitises, and water sports and hiking. A relatively new toll road connects Santo Domingo to the peninsula; it's about a 2- to 2½-hour drive. Small El Catey International Airport is near Las Terrenas and is now being served by twice-weekly JetBlue flights (Wednesday and Saturday). On the Dominican Republic's Samaná Peninsula, the green mountains teem with coconut trees and dramatic vistas of the ocean. The area is full of hidden beaches reachable only on foot or by sea, protected coves, and undeveloped bays. A visit to Samaná is really about two things: exploring its preserved natural wonders and relaxing on the beach. There are a number of all-inclusive resorts where you can hang your hat, quaint and low-key beachfront hotels, as well as new world-class properties, where you can find complete relaxation and tranquillity.
La Mata Rosada
The French chef/owner, Yvonne Bastian, has been luring local expats and foodies since the late 1990s. Tables are set with white linens in an all-white interior with ceiling fans to keep you cool; breezes waft in from the bay across the street. Some excellent choices are mahi mahi in coconut sauce with a mango chutney or a mix of grilled lobster and other shellfish. Begin with the ceviche, a specialty of this port town, made with mahi mahi and conch. Go local or international, order the creole shrimp or a substantial salad, and you should leave satisfied. Desserts, like the chocolate terrine, are presented with pride.
Whale Museum & Nature Center (Centro de Naturaleza)
This tiny Whale Museum & Nature Center (Centro de Naturaleza) is dedicated to the mighty mammals of the sea. Samaná Bay is part of one of the largest marine mammal sanctuaries in the world and is a center for whale-watching during the winter migration of humpback whales. The C.E.B.S.E. (Center for Conservation and Ecodevelopment of Samaná Bay and Its Environment) manages this facility, which features a 40-foot female humpback skeleton. Information in English is available at the entrance.
Los Haitises National Park
A highlight of a visit to the Samaná Peninsula is a chance to explore Los Haitises National Park (pronounced High-tee-sis), which is across Samaná Bay. The park is famous for its karst limestone formations, caves, and grottoes filled with pictographs and petroglyphs left by the indigenous Taíno.The park is accessible only by boat, and a professionally guided kayaking tour is highly recommended, plus a licensed guide from a tour company or the government is mandatory. You'll paddle around dozens of dramatic rock islands and spectacular cliff faces, while beautiful coastal birds—magnificent Frigatebirds, brown pelicans, brown booby, egrets and herons—swirl around overhead. A good tour will also include the caverns, where your flashlight will illuminate Taíno petroglyphs. It's a continual sensory experience, and you'll feel tiny, like a human speck surrounded by geological grandeur. DominicanShuttles.com can arrange a park tour and a stay at the adjacent, and rustic, Paraiso Caño Hondo Ecolodge, which has authentic creole cuisine and multiple waterfalls.
Playa Las Galeras
Playa Las Galeras is within this tiny coastal town, a 20-minute drive northeast from Samaná town. It's a lovely, long, and uncluttered beach (except for the wild dogs, some local litter, and the boat hawkers and shell vendors around El Kiosko). The sand is nearly white, the Atlantic waters generally calm. It has been designated a "Blue Flag" beach, which means that it's crystal-clean with no pollution, though there are several small hotels here. This is a good snorkeling spot, too. That said, this is really just a departure point for the nearby virgin beaches closer to the cape to the west. Hire a boat and the skipper will take you...but will he pick you back up? Ask your hotel to arrange it through one of their trusted buddies or make friends with an expat and ask him to make reservations in Spanish for you, letting the boatman know that they will expect you back at a designated time.
Amenities: food and drink. Best For: partiers; sunset; walking.
Remote Playa Rincón, a beautiful, white-sand beach, is considered one of the top beaches in the Caribbean. Relatively undeveloped, there’s a sheltered area where you can snorkel. At the other end, cliffs segue into the turquoise water of Caño Frio, an ice-cold river that runs down from the mountains and forms a splash pool. There are no facilities per se, but local ladies will sell you lobster and fish in coconut sauce with rice, and cold drinks. (However, make sure that you see your lobster animated, fighting back before the kill, and do not eat langostinos [baby lobster] between May and August. You can reach Rincón by boat, bus, or car from Las Galeras. A boat is preferable; expect to pay about $35. Driving here takes about 50 minutes from town because of the deplorable state of the road.
Amenities : food and drink Best for : partiers; snorkeling; swimming, walking.
On Playa Bonita you can bounce between the golden beach (BYO towel—no chaises) and one of the hotels and restaurants directly across the rough road, where you can have lunch. The beach can disappear during flooding and high tides. It's a quiet stretch of gold sand with leaning coconut trees.If you go across the street you will have the following: Amenities: food and drink; toilets. Best For: partiers; sunset; surfing; swimming; walking; windsurfing.
This is a long, wonderful stretch of nearly white sand and the best beach close to the town of Las Terrenas. Previously undeveloped, it's now reachable by a new highway, Carretera Cosón, and there are a number of condo developments under construction (so the current sense of solitude probably won't last). One excellent restaurant, The Beach, serves the entire 15-mile shore, and there's the European-owned boutique hotel, Casa Cosón and its restaurant and bar. If beachgoers buy lunch and/or drinks at either, then they can use the restrooms.
Amenities: food and drink; parking; toilets. Best for: swimming; sunset; walking; windsurfing.
There are no public beaches in Samaná town, but you can hire a boat to take you to Cayo Levantado, which has a wonderful white-sand beach on an island in Samaná Bay. Today the small island has largely been turned into a commercial enterprise to accommodate the 1,500 cruise-ship passengers who anchor here; it has dining facilities, bars, restrooms, and lounge chairs. Unfortunately, it can be extremely crowded and boisterous when there's a ship in port. The beach, however, is undeniably beautiful. The island's Bahía Príncipe Cayo Levantado (809–538–3131, ext.1205), an upscale, all-inclusive resort with its own launch, sells one-day passes (adults only) for US$120.
Dominican Evangelical Church
Back in 1824, a sailing vessel called the Turtle Dove, carrying several hundred slaves that had escaped from Philadelphia, was blown ashore in Samaná. The historic Dominican Evangelical Church is the oldest original building left in Samaná. The structure actually came across the ocean from England in 1881 in a hundred pieces and was reassembled here, serving the spiritual needs of the African-American freedman here. In 1946 a city-wide fire wiped out most of Samaná's wooden buildings and Victorian architecture; this church was miraculously saved.
Salto el Limón Waterfall
Provided that you're fit and willing to deal with a long and slippery path, an adventurous guided trip (3 hours) to the spectacular Salto el Limón Waterfall is a delight. Its mostly on horseback, but includes walking down rocky, sometimes muddy trails. Horse paths are slippery, and the trek is strenuous. The well-mannered horses take you across two rivers and up mountains to El Limón, the 165-foot waterfall amid luxuriant vegetation. Some snacks and drinks are usually included, but a grilled chicken lunch is only a few more pesos. The outpost for the trek, a local guide service called Santi Rancho, is difficult to find; it's best to arrange a tour from a professional operator like Flora Tours in Las Terrenas.