Ask even a seasoned traveler what they know about the Dominican Republic’s Samana Peninsula, and chances are, you’ll hear crickets before you hear an answer. Despite its incredible beauty, this wild and wonderful beach-lined spit jutting from the country’s northeastern coast catches only a fleeting spotlight from January through March, when humpback whales return to their breeding grounds in the warm waters offshore and boats loaded with would-be eco-tourists follow. But there’s year-round value in venturing off the beaten path to this gorgeous, uncrowded gem, especially the up-and-coming beach town of Las Terrenas. With a bohemian attitude born of its multicultural melange of influences — you’re as likely to hear French or Italian spoken here as Spanish — this once-sleepy fishermen’s town enchants visitors looking for an alternative to the DR’s ubiquitous megaresorts and all-inclusives. So hop in your rental SUV, brave the region’s adrenaline-pumping hairpin turns and discover the Caribbean secret everyone will soon want to know about.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Pulling into the center of Las Terrenas at rush hour (or what passes for rush hour in this Caribbean outpost) can be a bit overwhelming. Motoconchos loaded with families jockey for position in the main intersection against Coca-Cola trucks, all-terrain vehicles and even the sporadic bicycle. But make it through, and you’re rewarded on the coastal side with the many charms of Pueblo de los Pescadores. Though its fishing-village origins remain readily apparent, an influx of expats from France, Italy and Spain are enthusiastically forging a brand-new identity, one designed to attract visitors to the guesthouses, patisseries and tapas bars now gracing the storefronts once occupied by fishermen.
Make no mistake; the boats still go out every morning, just as they always have. But now there’s a whole new crop of destinations for the daily catch, as European chefs compete with locals to fill the kitchens of their bars and restaurants with the bounty of crabs, mahimahi, snapper, shrimp, clams and lobsters large enough to feed four.
From here, the streets branch out to reveal additional cafes and bars, along with an abundance of stores. There’s plenty of expat action here too, but the must-have souvenirs are island-made, from the DR’s notable rums — Barcelo, Bermudez and Brugal — to the carved wooden figurines of whales, turtles and yolas (fishing boats) commemorating Las Terrenas’ marine heritage. Goods crafted from indigenous materials are also popular, such as the coconut-shell items lining the shelves at Nativ’Arte and the custom-designed larimar and amber jewelry from Blue Corazon Joyeria.
Then, of course, there are the cigars. Dominican stogies give even the most famed Cuban ones a run for their money, and few roll them like Mundo Puro’s Victor Maximo, an islander who has been perfecting his technique for 17 years.
Pescado de coco, or fish in coconut sauce, is a true Samana specialty. Though it’s served throughout the Dominican Republic — perhaps as a result of the country’s one-time depend-ence on the income from coconut plantations — it occupies an especially prominent place in the peninsula’s restaurants. The foundation for the recipe is any species of white-fleshed fish sourced from local waters. Dominicans prefer to stick with tradition and serve the fish whole, but in deference to travelers unused to staring their dinner in the eye or maneuvering around tiny fish bones, many chefs will trim, bone and fillet it prior to serving.
At El Cayuco, in Pueblo de los Pescadores, Spanish transplant Mario Rodriguez honors his adopted homeland with an authentically Dominican version that’s close to perfection, thanks in part to his insistence on using only the finest specimens from local fishermen. Mario’s Dominican chefs then concoct a creole sauce of sauteed onions, celery, garlic and tomatoes, reduced and blended with coconut milk. Finally, the sauce is put through a sieve and served over the fish with a timbale of rice and tostónes. For the expat take, Acaya’s French-inflected version boasts a creole sauce that incorporates green pepper, olive oil, sugar and parsley and is spiked with a little white wine. Vive la difference.
ITS A SHORE THING
Las Terrenas’ beaches — clad in towering coconut palms and tangles of sea grapes — are considered by some to be the pride of the Dominican Republic, thanks in part to the road that hugs the shore, which keeps the hotels from blocking the mesmerizing panorama of the sea. Playa Coson’s 12 miles of golden sand, just a quick 15-minute drive from town, offer a welcome respite from the chaos of Las Terrenas, along with something for every beach lover. There are calm waters ideal for families with small children, sections of rolling waves where surfers are in their glory and spots punctuated by strong winds to delight kiters. There’s so much real estate that some stretches are virtually deserted, though if you’re looking for some action, you’ll find it at CasaCoson, a charming boutique hotel whose poolside restaurant and bar is a popular hangout.
Four miles down the road lies Playa Bonita, which lives up to its name with wind-swept coconut palms that nearly dip into the placid waves and a carpet of grass edging the sand. Beginning surfers often get their toes wet here. For scenesters, there’s no shortage of restaurants and bars just across the dirt road at which to grab a cold libation, along with lunch and killer water views, but the hot spot is Acaya hotel’s restaurant, where the Mediterranean meets the Caribbean under a thatch roof.
BE THEIR GUEST
Perhaps the most obvious sign of Las Terrenas’ evolution from seaside fishing town to international best-kept secret is the influx in recent years of luxe-leaning hotels among the town’s small Caribbean-style guesthouses, boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. One of the most anticipated newcomers is RockResorts’ Balcones del Atlantico condo-hotel, the first phase now being developed in a planned high-end residential complex that will ultimately include condos, villas and shops. The hotel, situated about 10 minutes east of Pueblo de los Pescadores on a half-mile-plus of sugar-soft sand, is a true luxury option in this bohemian enclave, with two- and three-bedroom villas outfitted with gourmet kitchens, teak and stone bathrooms and expansive terraces, making it an ideal getaway for families as well as couples.
Rivaling RockResorts’ grandeur is Peninsula House, about 15 minutes west of town. This ethereal plantation-style great house looks like something off the cover of a Victorian romance novel but was actually built in 2008, to exacting standards, by French co-owner Marie-Claude Thiebault and her American partner (and restaurateur) Cary Guy. The exquisitely furnished property is as exclusive as it is opulent: There are only six suites, and the hotel’s Beach Club & Restaurant is the private domain of guests during dinner (though it is open to the public for lunch).
For those wanting to stay closer to Las Terrenas in location — and in spirit to its laid-back charm — Hotel Alisei claims a primo spot on Playa las Ballenas, near Pueblo de los Pescadores. These deluxe beachfront apartments may lack some of the village’s left-rudder vibe, but they more than make up for it with contemporary style and creature comforts that include a private terrace and full kitchen in most rooms, as well as an on-site spa with a Turkish hammam and a full-service restaurant overlooking the water.
On Playa Coson, tucked amid a profusion of swaying palms, hotel CasaCoson houses just nine secluded accommodations (including three eclectic casitas) presided over by welcoming Italian owners Yvan and Marzia Magnien.
A NIGHT ON THE TOWN
Nowhere is the European influence more keenly felt than in the selection of standout restaurants adding a flavorful touch to the town’s night life. El Mambo channels Spain’s legendary Mediterranean cuisine with upscale tapas selections such as shrimp with aioli; bacalao, or saltfish, salad; and a Catalan-style paella made with thin pasta rather than rice. Gregarious owners Juan and Paquita Rosell up the fun quotient with themed fiestas every other Friday night ($8 buys you unlimited tapas to cushion the drinks) and Paquita’s quirky decor, which mixes flamenco memorabilia with a polka-dot motif.
For a more traditional fine-dining experience, Porto’s upscale ambience is distinguished by a designer interior that pays homage to the town’s fishing legacy with a yola (fishing boat) motif. Peruvian chef Bruno Toso melds inspiration from his homeland with Asian influences and Italian favorites like gnocchi to create a menu that’s both refined and innovative. His ceviche — a must-try — is in such demand he even offers special classes on making it.
For a post-prandial diversion, there’s no place quite like El Mosquito Art Bar. Owner and barkeep Alex Rodriguez, an expat Spaniard, keeps the scene lively with his colorful character and the house specialty: tasty rum-based shooters, or chupitos, which are served in special holders resembling a candelabrum.