For unspoilt beaches, tropical rainforests and go-slow towns, it’s got to be a holiday to Samana – this place is the real Caribbean deal.
A prime location
The Samana Peninsula is straight out of a David Attenborough documentary. Thanks to a landscape blanketed in waterfalls, lagoons and rainforests, this pincer of land sticking out from the north-east coast is home to all creatures great and small. We’re talking everything from humpback whales to exotic birds.
The beach line-up
The big draw, though, is the beach scene. The sandy sweeps here are among the best in the Caribbean, and Samana Town makes the perfect base for exploring them. Playa Bonita, on the peninsula’s northern shore, is a haven for surfing and diving. And Playa Rincon – a little further east – is so good-looking it made Condé Nast Traveller mag’s top 10 list of beaches. Just off the southern shore, meanwhile, is the little island of Cayo Levantado. Dubbed Bacardi Island thanks to a starring role in an advert for the brand, it’s all white sand, green palms and cobalt-blue sea. Plus, it pulls in the punters with its humpback whales, who visit every January for a 3-month dating session.
Despite its obvious draws, though, the area has managed to stay off the tourist radar for the most part. Wherever you head, expect an old-fashioned Caribbean way of life, with fishermen hauling in the day’s catch by the water, and locals playing dominos in front of pastel-coloured houses.
Things to See and Do in Samana
White sands and swaying palms
Samana is a bit of a beach-lover’s playground. This peninsula on the Dominican Republic’s northeast coast has no end of white-sand bays and secluded coves. They all come with brilliant-blue waters and tall palms, too. Samana Town is a great base for exploring them, thanks to its central location. And the tiny isle of Cayo Levantado is just right for those who like their beach buzzing with activity.
The big beach
Teeny Cayo Levantado is the big cheese round these parts. The beach on the island was the location for a Bacardi ad back in the day, hence its nickname – Bacardi Beach. The sands are of the white and powdery variety, and the waters are calm and clear. It’s popular with cruise passengers, so on some days it can be pretty busy, but there’s enough room for everyone. And when you’ve had your fill of sunbathing there are loads of bars and restaurants to choose from.
The secret beach
For a slower pace, head to Playa Rincon. It’s an arc of white sand fringed by nodding palms on one side and snorkeller-friendly waters the other. It’s not easy to get to – choose between a boat and a bumpy 4x4 ride – but the journey is well worth it. Food-wise, there’s a smattering of little shacks dishing up things like fresh fish and fried plantain.
Granted, Samana isn’t the place for designer goodies. That said, it’s on the Dominican Republic’s Amber Coast, so you’re in the right spot for a bit of bling. The streets around Samana Town’s Malecón are studded with jewellery shops where the stones range from dark red to bright orange. Look out for the larimar pieces, too – this vivid blue stone is unique to the country.
Dominican cigars aren’t as famous as their Cuban counterparts, but they’re hand-rolled and made from the same leaves – plus the prices are a lot cheaper at around 4 US dollars for a decent one. Head to Samana Town and you’ll find a few specialist shops in the streets around the Malecón. Rum is also big news in this country – look out for brands like Brugal and Siboney in the hotel shops.
Samana Town’s Malecón is the peninsula’s main shopping hub, with pint-sized shops selling everything from woodcarvings to colourful sarongs. In Las Terrenas, a 10-minute drive away, the ad-hoc stalls along the beaches and roads sell things like paintings of beach scenes. And in Cayo Levantado, there are a few well-stocked gift shops selling things like tribal masks and blow-your-head-off coffee.
Cayo Levantado is the ultimate spot for a go-slow night out. Its only hotel has a few restaurants where you can watch the sun set over a plate of freshly grilled seafood and a rum cocktail. In Samana Town, you can catch a live cabaret show or merengue concert at most hotels. Or drive 30 minutes or so to Las Galeras, and join the locals at a thatched beach bar for a game of dominos and a cold Presidenté.
If you want to dance ‘til you drop, plant yourself in Samana Town for the night. The Malecón is home to open-air discos and clubs that pull in the party crowds. In Las Terrenas, a 10-minute drive away, everyone heads to the beach, where a cosmopolitan mix of ex-pat bars and locally run drinking holes churn out everything from merengue tunes to Latino beats. There are some lively joints along Calle Principal, too.
La Bandera means ‘Dominican Flag’, and it’s the country’s number-one dish. The white comes from the rice, the red from the kidney beans, and – as it’s pretty difficult to find blue food – stewed chicken or goat meat represents the final colour. It’s all served up with a generous helping of fried plantain.
Sancocho is eaten throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and it’s a big favourite in the Dominican Republic. This super-rich stew is made with whatever meat is available – usually chicken or pork – plus longaniza sausage and beans. Look out for Sancocho de Siete Carnes, made with 7 kinds of meat.
Fish ‘Dominican style’ comes in many guises. ‘Criolla’ is in a spicy tomato sauce, ‘al ajillo’ a rich garlic sauce, ‘con coco’ a tomato, garlic and coconut milk sauce, ‘al horno’ drizzled with lemon, and ‘al oregano’ with a tangy oregano and cream sauce. Sea bass, red snapper and kingfish are nearly always on the menu.
Dulces Con Coco
For an instant sugar shock, give these moreish puddings a try. Little square or ball-shaped treats, they’re made with molasses, coconut, vanilla and ginger. The name means ‘coconut delight’, which sums them up pretty nicely.
You’ll find plenty of your favourite beers in the Dominican Republic, but to really fit in with the locals, order a Presidente. Islanders are obsessed with getting the country’s top tipple as Arctic-cold as possible, which makes it the perfect Caribbean cooler.
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