The Dominican Republic's Last Frontier
The Samaná Peninsula is the kind of place where you get your drinks from a thatched hut and your fish from the guy who caught it. It's one of the last undeveloped swaths of beach in the Dominican Republic—but that's about to change.
The walk to the beach from my hotel in the small town of Las Terrenas took five minutes down a rutted, sandy lane bordered by walls covered in bougainvillea. Ahead, coconut palms beckoned, and beyond them the kind of perfect white sand and blue water that seem to exist only in pamphlets produced by tourism bureaus. I stopped at a thatched-roof cabana bar, ordered a mojito made with fresh mint, local limes, and Dominican rum, and threw my towel onto a patch of sand roughly the consistency of flour.
It's not like I had to think about where to position myself. In the few hundred yards spread out around me, there were maybe a dozen people, and the number of overly tanned and topless European women (four) was greater than the number of people splashing in the surf (three). In both directions, the beach curled slightly out to sea, creating a horseshoe of white. I'd read that the Samaná Peninsula has the highest density of coconut palms per square meter on earth, and from here that certainly looked to be true. The trees formed a swaying green wall behind the beach, and if I squinted even slightly, the one- and two-story buildings just inland vanished into the canopy. I was sitting at the edge of the biggest town on the peninsula, but it didn't take much imagination to feel as if I had the whole place to myself.
Jutting from the northeast corner of the Dominican Republic like a thumb, the slender, 35-mile-long Samaná Peninsula has long been spared the kind of mass tourism that has overtaken so much of the country's other prime coastland (think Punta Cana or Puerto Plata). Samaná is best known for sheltering a warm bay where humpback whales winter and reproduce, putting on spectacular shows as they breach. Dominicans have been weekending here for generations, often just camping on the beach. And European expats—mostly French—have been coming here for decades, many staying behind to open small casita hotels and authentic patisseries. But that's about it for tourism. I spent four days on the peninsula and didn't run into a single American—an amazing fact considering that more people from the U.S. have visited the Dominican Republic this year than any other Caribbean nation.
Change is coming, though. This past June, the Dominican government cut the ribbon on a new $150 million road (DR-8, or the Samaná Highway) that connects Santo Domingo with Samaná. The highway's purpose was to shorten the drive from five hours to two—and to literally pave the way for more development. Just west of the peninsula at El Catey, a $70 million airport opened in 2006; the runways are long enough to accommodate commercial jets, but so far they've been used mostly by charters from France. There's one large-scale resort with four outposts on the peninsula already (Gran Bahía Príncipe), and billboards announce that more are on the way.
All of which raises some questions. Could Samaná's days as a throwback to the old Caribbean—the one that predates cruise ships and Club Meds—be in peril? Or will all the investment simply make the place a more convenient version of itself? I flew direct from New York City to Santo Domingo in the morning, and by early afternoon was chasing my mojito with a dip in the surf; I couldn't have done that a year ago. But how soon until hotel towers outnumber all those palm trees?
To those people alarmed at the imminent ruin of the Samaná Peninsula, I offer this: It took me three Avis employees, two gas station attendants, and a guy selling bananas along the road from the Santo Domingo airport to actually direct me to the new highway. It doesn't yet appear on the maps handed out by Avis staff, so the first woman told me to navigate a tangle of old highways and said it would take "about five hours" to reach the peninsula. The second woman knew what I was talking about but couldn't quite tell me where it was. The third vanished into a back room and returned with the highway drawn on my map in black marker.
Once I finally found the road, things quickly looked up. Shiny new red-and-blue signs welcomed me to DR-8, and a ribbon of smooth blacktop rolled out before me. It was a Monday, so there was almost no traffic, and I whipped north, blowing past green fields and a vast palm plantation. About 60 miles in, things got hilly and jungly, and then the road wound down again via switchbacks so dramatic that the recommended speed is only 30 miles per hour.
At the town of Sánchez, the gateway to Samaná, I headed east on a two-lane route rutted with patches of dirt, homemade speed bumps, and potholes the size of Smart cars. A billboard showing a river of new asphalt offered assurance that the authorities will be paving this road, too—very soon! (The government recently received a $45 million development loan to do just that, but as with many of the peninsula's projects, work has yet to begin.) I bumped along until I spotted the Mobil station that acts as the only landmark signaling the turnoff to Las Terrenas, and made a left.