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.
I woke up intending to check out Cascada del Limón, a popular waterfall reached via horseback, but Aude dismissed the idea. "It is not fantastique," she told me. What was fantastique? An all-day back-roads tour of the peninsula's interior, she said, and she suggested I go to town to set one up with Flora Tours, a local operator that is, naturally, French-owned.
The main street through Las Terrenas is lined with open-air fish and beer stands, a handful of stores selling trinkets, some cigar shops, and a few authentic French businesses, such as the patisserie Sucré Salé. A crowd of French expats gathers there every morning to savor strong Dominican-grown coffee and flaky croissants while they chat over breakfast and see who can smoke the most cigarettes.
At the north end of town, the road forks when it reaches the beach, and to the west, it shifts from asphalt to sand and passes a cluster of renovated fishing shacks known as Pueblo de los Pescadores (Fishermen's Village). This is the town's most popular stretch of restaurants and cafés, and home to El Mosquito Art Bar, a dark, animal-print-heavy lounge that is the center of the expat nightlife scene. To the east, the road gets wider and smoother and actually has a name: Avenida 27 de Febrero. It is by far the best road in the area, and leads to an outpost of the Gran Bahía Príncipe, the all-inclusive resort. But first it passes a long strip of small hotels and cabana bars where Europeans in Speedos play boules in the shade of coconut palms, and then a public beach where locals arrive two or three per scooter to play in the calm, crystal water.
The Bahía Príncipe, a sprawling 462-room pastel colonial-style complex, sits tucked amid the palms behind an imposingly large gate. It's a tasteful five-star resort, and one so popular with Dominicans that there's an adjoining airstrip to accommodate private planes and occasional flights from Santo Domingo. On the east side of Bahía Príncipe, a large condo development is under way, and just to its west, the El Portillo Beach Club & Spa is rising. It's not hard to take it all in and imagine how a place like Cancún becomes what it is.
After booking my back-roads tour, I walked to La Terrasse—Aude's favorite restaurant, in Fishermen's Village. My dinner of fresh grilled dorado served with a spicy cream sauce was a fitting fusion of French and Dominican cultures. One side of the candlelit white dining room was open to the ocean, so the hum of conversation around me was occasionally interrupted by the barking of stray dogs on the beach.
All-terrain vehicles are the preferred method of transport on Samaná, which makes sense as soon as you spend any time on the roads. My last morning there, I fired up a coughing four-wheeler and set out behind Stéphane and Sylvie, a couple of French tourists from Lyon, and our 20-year-old Dominican guide, Willy.
We buzzed by the new resorts and turned away from the beach, through banana fields and villages and thick patches of forest. Willy occasion ally stopped to show us points of interest: coffee trees, cocoa trees, orange leaves being used as medicine, a view of the peninsula from the top of a pass. From that apogee, I asked him what he thought about all the construction down below.
"It's too much," he answered. "Many hotels. It's very tranquil here now. I don't want it to be like Punta Cana."
We rode on through villages—where children chased us and waved, begging for rides—and then stopped at a village co-op made up of 25 families and learned how they raise organic coffee beans, cocoa, and vanilla, and make mama juana, a legendary local concoction that smells like anise and is said to be a natural form of Viagra.
I don't speak French, and neither Stéphane nor Sylvie spoke much English, but at lunch they managed to tell me about their horseback trip to the falls. It was, of course, fantastique. I asked where they were staying: the Bahía Príncipe. Stéphane said it was very nice and that they were happy there. He asked me what I thought of Samaná, and I said it was stunning. He agreed and then said something surprising: "I think we came at the right time. In two or three years...oof."
We passed a resort construction site, about halfway between Las Terrenas and the peninsula's tip, and then rode onto Playa Limón, a beach that appeared to be every bit as long as Playa Cosón. For miles to the east, the only building in sight was a private villa in the distance that Willy told me belonged to "an Italian guy." There were no beach shacks. There were no French-owned cabana hotels. There weren't even swimmers or fishermen. As I looked back toward the footprint of the resort-in-progress, it seemed dwarfed by the forest. It could easily rise, and still this place would be remarkable.