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 Bahía Marina & 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 beachfront hotel. The latter is most readily accomplished in Las Terrenas, the peninsula’s original tourist center, where you can find beachfront restaurants, accommodations of all types (from small hotels to full-service resorts to luxury condos), 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 now less than a two-hour drive. Small El Catey International Airport is near Las Terrenas and is now being served by twice-weekly JetBlue flights.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Sleepy Las Galeras, a dot on the map between two protected and undeveloped green mountain capes, is the endearingly unkempt North Coast sister of Las Terrenas. Despite its tucked-away location in the eastern end of the Samaná Peninsula, the village maintains a pulse—thanks, mostly, to the hubbub created at the epicenter of the town, which abuts the shoreline. El Kiosko, a bare-bones grouping of local cooks beneath a roof thatched with palm fronds, serves up creole seafood dishes and Presidentes for a crowd of equal parts locals, expats, and tourists. The beach itself is rocky and uneven, but you can bring your own towel and rent a white plastic chaise for a few dollars, accept the syncopated merengue blaring out of a parked car, and stare out toward the cays dotting the horizon.
The real joy of Las Galeras is its lineup of pristine beaches around the bend. To reach them you’ll need to be an intrepid and resourceful navigator by car, or, better yet, hire a boat from the beach. Some tourists trust the fellow manning the pushcart stacked with glossy conch shells to make arrangements for a local fisherman to guide you in his yola (small wooden fishing boat) out to some of the most pristine beaches the peninsula has to offer, Rincón, Frontón, Colorado, La Playita, and Madama. However, we recommend that you make arrangements through your hotel or inn. It may cost a little more but it’s safer, because they know who the reliable boatmen are. You should be able to get a boat to Playa Rincón for about $30 per couple. You can spend the day there or go beach hopping and snorkel off the shore.
Las Terrenas is the main tourist base on the Samaná Peninsula. It, rather than Santa Bárbara de Samaná, the peninsula’s biggest town, is the true center of a visit to the region.
SANTA BARBARA DE SAMANA
The official name of the city is Santa Bárbara de Samaná; but these days it’s just called “Samaná.” An authentic port town, it’s getting its bearings as a tourist zone, and still is not a magnet like Las Galeras and Las Terrenas. It has a typical malecón (seaside promenade) that’s ideal for strolling and watching the boats in the harbor. Lookout “towers” have been built; ascend the stairs and see the whales in season or just look out to the horizon. Strong night lighting has been added, too, so you will see Dominicans and tourists alike taking walks after dinner. A small but bustling town, Samaná is filled with friendly residents, skilled local craftsmen selling their wares, and a handful of outdoor, sea-view, and courtyard restaurants.
A big all-inclusive resort, the Bahía Príncipe Cayacoa, is on one end of the bay road up on a hill. Day passes are available (and the resort has the only beach in town). The hotel also operates a block of colorful gift shops and a small casino. This group was the town’s first attempt to capture cruise-ship-passenger money. It’s the string of buildings called Pueblo Príncipe, which replicates small Victorian buildings painted in Caribbean colors and trimmed in white gingerbread. Along Avenida del Malecón, across from the waterside, is the office of Whale Samaná, ground zero for boat excursions shoving off to see whales from January until late March.