To limit the Dominican Republic to the popular all-inclusive resorts of Punta Cana would be to miss the country’s spectacular northern coast, full of miles of unspoilt, lush green vegetation, white-sand beaches, and perfectly curving palm trees. Welcome to Samaná, the Dominican Republic’s unspoilt northeastern peninsula! Here, from January to March, you can often catch glimpses of humpback whales just offshore. Or enjoy the quirky mix of locals and foreigners who fell in love with the area and now call it their home. You can have entire beaches practically to yourself (though beware of strong currents in some places) – it’s the ideal hideaway to write that book you’ve been putting off, or just spend quality time with the family.
Prices throughout the Dominican Republic are very reasonable (on average, we spent $70 to stay at well maintained B&Bs that typically also included breakfast). After stopping for a quick meal just east of the airport, complete with jugo de chinola (passionfruit juice) at Puerco Rosado in Boca Chica, we headed north to Las Galeras, a small village in the northeast corner of the Samaná peninsula. We stayed at a beautiful but hard to reach B&B, El Monte Azul, led by a charming French couple, Vanina and Pierre. The views from the infinity pool and restaurant (open only at lunch, as the owners recently opened La Joia in town for dinner) are spectacular, though the last few steep, uphill curves along the unpaved road to reach the house were difficult for our underpowered car. After relaxing in the pool, we enjoyed some sunset cocktails at the pretty but somewhat run-down El Cabito and a tasty, Thai-inspired dinner at La Joia.
Post afternoon showers in Samaná
The following day, we lingered at Playa Rincon, exploring a few different local BBQ spots, finally settling at the open-air Bar y Grill Minin, at the far eastern end of the beach, for a couple of different freshly caught fish and delicious pina coladas served directly in the pineapple. We then drove southwest to the public pier next to the Gran Bahia Principe hotel just east of the town of Samaná and negotiated a private boat ride to nearby Cayo Levantado, a popular island getaway for both locals and tourists alike. The ride takes approximately 15 minutes, and the island features a beautiful white sand beach, complete with a number of stands selling small tourist souvenirs and drinks. The other half of the island is privately owned by the hotel and is inaccessible to visitors. While it was certainly a more popular place than Playa Rincon, it didn’t feel overly touristy, and the water was great for swimming or just taking a dip.
We drove onwards to Las Terrenas, a slightly larger town with more low-rise hotels and restaurants, where we had a delicious beachside dinner and drinks in gorgeously designed surroundings at Porto while watching the sunset change the colours of the sea and sand. We stayed at La Casa de Sergio y Cristina, a short drive away, which featured spacious rooms, a pair of friendly dogs, and a filling breakfast (the best we had on the trip, including omelettes as well as nutella souffles). Our stomachs full, we took a long stroll on Playa Cosón, encountering a total of just five other people on the most beautiful beach of the trip. Contemplating it, you wonder when its time will come, and whether one day this place, too, will look like modern-day Cancun. In the meantime, we were free to enjoy the wide, solitary expanses of sand, chirping tropical birds, and crashing of waves.
From Las Terrenas, we headed northwest, stopping en route at Laguna El Dudu for some snorkeling and a jump off a zipline in the beautiful cenotes. The water was cool but a refreshing contrast to the relative afternoon heat. Afterwards, we enjoyed a late afternoon lunch at the high-end Amanera resort (reservations required) at the far western end of Playa Grande (worth a stop on its own) before enjoying an evening with locals at Playa Caleton.
The following day, we continued on to the kitesurfing capital of Cabarete. While the weather did not cooperate, we enjoyed a breakfast at the Cabarate Coffee Company, which donates a percentage of sales to benefit a local organization dedicated to girls’ education. We also stopped at Sosúa, which felt too touristy for our preferences, and so we drove onward to Playa El Chaparral. Flanked by a couple of resorts, the middle section of the beach is relatively non trafficked, but it did not compare to the wild, vast expanses of beaches in the Samaná province. We followed the severely pockmarked road up to the Parque Nacional Isabel De Torres in Puerto Plata to get a nice panorama of the surrounding coast as well as a walk through the local flora. We enjoyed some light bites and drinks at Kaffe in town, as we planned to wake up early the following morning to experience the 27 waterfalls at Damajaguas.
A 45 min drive from Puerto Plato, Damajaguas did not disappoint. Arrive early in the morning when they open to beat the cruise ship groups, and you may get lucky and have the waterfalls largely to yourself. Be sure to wear a pair of water shoes (they are required; if you don’t have your own, you can rent a pair on location) and something comfortable to slide down natural rock slides. It’s an unforgettable experience.
While we didn’t have time to linger in Santiago Los Caballeros, we did stop for brunch at Camp David, with a spectacular vista over the surrounding area. The brunch menu featured a number of delicious options, including Nutella french toast, with elevated but still reasonable prices. Finally, we made our way to Santo Domingo, where we primarily focused on the vibrant Zona Colonial. Highlights included stumbling upon a local watering hole just off the Plaza Pellerano Castro, meandering the narrow, picturesque streets, and sampling tapas at Lulu Tasting Bar (50% off if you pay with an Amex card before 9pm). Also worth checking out (if you speak Spanish) is the Microteatro, which shows 20 minute long plays every 30 minutes (best to come in advance to purchase your ticket, as it does fill up). Finally, be sure to sample some local handmade chocolate (some good brands include Cacaoteca and Xocolat), which can be purchased in most larger supermarkets.
República Dominicana, I plan to be back, even if just for the chocolate.
Map of our route: https://goo.gl/maps/KU7ZabeYMXn
A few notes about renting a car in the Dominican Republic: Beware of scams run by car rental agencies outside of the top tier. In our case, we had booked a car with a credit card guarantee with Ace (which seems to do business primarily as Nelly in the country). After picking us up at the airport and driving us to their nearby location, they informed us they did not have any cars available. After some negotiation, a car materialised, but it was not a 4WD, as we had booked. Additional fees that the agent insisted were mandatory (despite us having our own insurance) resulted in a price nearly 3 times what we had reserved. My tip is to book with a reputable international company, such as Hertz or Avis, to avoid issues on the ground.
Despite a number of online posts to the contrary, driving in the Dominican Republic is relatively straightforward, minus a few hiccups. You will encounter potholes and speed bumps without warning, as well as locals casually crossing the road. In addition, Google Maps is sometimes incorrect, and we learned to use the satellite view to ensure that the app’s directions led us along actual roads. But once you adjust, and enter a more relaxed vacation mode, it’s really no different than driving everywhere else. During our 6-day, 5 night trip, in which we stayed at a different location each night, we encountered no issues; in fact, locals once stopped us to ensure we were on the correct road to reach our destination. One further tip: ensure you carry a good amount of Dominican pesos (we spent over 1500 during our trip), as there are tolls, and they only accept cash in the local currency.
Read more on Vanessa’s blog here!