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.
A barefoot Haitian greeted me at the door of Villas Eva Luna, a collection of five stucco-and-wood casitas 300 yards up a narrow lane from the town's main beach. He walked me along a path and pointed to a one-bedroom structure with wooden doors that swung open to reveal a large kitchen with a whirring ceiling fan. "Su casa," he said, and then he smiled and walked away. He didn't give me a key (one would appear later), and I'd yet to pay a single dollar. Eva Luna doesn't take credit cards, so I had arrived on the good faith of a promissory e-mail.
Soon enough, a 30-something Frenchwoman showed up on my porch with two dogs, a hulking mastiff puppy and an alert Belgian shepherd. She introduced herself as Aude Mentrier; Aude owns and runs Eva Luna with her partner, Jérôme. The two bought the property from a fellow Frenchman eight years ago, she explained, and other than her feeling that there are "too many French people" around (some 2,500 is the number locals cite), they're quite happy. I asked Aude why so many French settle here, and she said she didn't know—as did everybody else I asked on my trip. (I later learned that the connection dates back to an 18th-century French-owned coconut-export business.)
As one of the only French people I'd encounter in Samaná who spoke passable English, Aude became my unofficial guide, doling out restaurant recommendations, driving directions, and tips on what was worth seeing and what was a waste of time.
Mostly, she told me to go to the beach.
The morning after I arrived, I took the only right heading back out of Las Terrenas toward the mainland and followed an even narrower road than the one that had brought me in. My destination was Playa Cosón, a roughly four-mile-long beach just west of town. I had seen many signs around, as well as ads in a local tourist guide, promoting a development of $1.7 million-and-up condos known as Terrazas de Cosón, said to be opening in 2010. I fully expected to arrive out there and find the skeletons of resorts-in-progress, along with busloads of prospective buyers wandering around the palm fronds in pith helmets.
But I drove along, alone, for about three miles until a few smaller strands of road began to peel off toward the beach, each with a tiny hand-painted wood sign bearing the name of a restaurant or bar. Aude had suggested I visit a place called Luis, and when I spotted that word, in blue paint chipped away by the elements, I turned, negotiated a 100-meter goat track to the beach, and parked in the shade near a small wooden shack.
Luis himself greeted me. "Buen día," he said.
I looked at my watch. Noon. "What drinks do you have?"
"Mojito, caipirinha, piña colada, cerveza..." he said.
I asked for a mojito.
He pursed his face and repeated the word, in question form. "Mojito?" He turned toward the shack's small bar and yelled, "¿Hay mojitos?" Someone hollered back. "Ahora, no." They were apparently out of mint. He shrugged. "Caipirinha?"
The establishment's few lounge chairs were all occupied by French tourists who appeared to have settled in for the day, so I grabbed a plastic table chair and dragged it nearer to the water. It was an even rawer version of what I'd seen that first afternoon—in either direction, as far as I could see, was untouched beach absent hotels, absent villas, absent everything save for a very few thatched huts and a handful of bronzed French families and topless ladies.
This is what a beach club wants to be: a bunch of mismatched chairs, an open kitchen, a cooler, and a jolly guy cooking shrimp and fish somebody caught that morning. I paddled around in the placid water and read 100 pages of my book before moving from the beach to one of the scattered tables, where I ordered shrimp that Luis cooked on an open-air grill. A teen ager brought them over to me on a platter with sliced avocado, red beans and rice, and a Presidente, the national beer of the D.R.
As I ate, two white SUVs arrived and disgorged four men in khakis with ample bellies that stretched their oxford shirts taut. They were clean-cut and prosperous looking. I watched them walk away from the hut along the tree line and point out (I had to assume) where they hoped pools and swim-up bars would one day reside. It seems convenient to say this, but I swear it's true: I could feel tension in the air as every head at every table turned to track these men. They split up, and two of them parked themselves just feet from my table with their arms behind their backs.