By Ian Keown
“Love at first sight” – it’s a phrase you hear many times on a jaunt through the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic. On a recent week-long visit I heard it from expatriates hailing from France, Germany, Spain, the Azores, the Basque Country, Toronto and Colorado. Travelers, it seems, are discovering this uncrowded, unhurried corner of the Caribbean (many of the beaches are accessible only by boat) – and many of these vacationers are so beguiled they decided to put down roots here, giving the place a unique Caribbean-cum-cosmopolitan flavor.
The Samana Peninsula is that northeasternmost tip of the island of Hispaniola, jutting into the Atlantic and forming the great sweep of Bahia Samana. The drive from the town of Sanchez in the west to the village of Las Galeras in the east covers a mere 40 miles but given the hills and bends and scattershot potholes the trip takes twice as long as you expect. Not that you’d want to drive fast, anyway: the scenery is too beguiling, with the beaches and the hillsides lined with cocoteros, or coconut palms. Millions of them, literally.
Until recently, this peninsula was visited mostly by nature lovers, escapists and whale-spotters (it’s a major winter sanctuary for humpbacks) but a new four-lane highway from Santo Domingo to Sanchez turned Samana into a quickie getaway for locals escaping the capital. The highway was followed by a new international airport at the western end and, more recently, a new cruiseship pier in the eponymous town of Samana, halfway along the southern shore. JetBlue just began direct flights from New York to the new El Catey airport, which is great news for some (especially developers of condos and gated communities) but for those expats and escapists who want to enjoy the Caribbean the way it used to be, these developments could signal the end of a dream. Especially for Las Galer
I first rolled into this slightly ragtag fishing village about 20 years ago and, just like all those expats, was so enchanted by its manana vibe (if vibe is not too active a word for such a laid-back place) I promised myself I’d return some day to spread my beach towel among the fishing boats drawn up on windswept sand, within the aromas of fresh shrimp cooked by Rafaela la Famosa and Yaquelin and the other ladies pescado con coco tending the steel-drum grills set up among the cocoteros. When, recently, I finally made it back to Las Galeras I half expected to find that the main drag (the only street more or less) had succumbed to gentrification or that the fish ladies had been displaced by KFC. But behold! — Las Galeras was still as I remembered it. The fishing dinghies hauled up on the sand still needed a coat of paint and the only sign of “progress” was that the grills were now congregated in a rustic, wood-tabled pavilion sponsored by the Asociacion Comunitario de Vendoras. True, there seemed to be a few more options, thanks in large measure to the new expats. I could now, for example, put together a picnic for the beach by heading for a small epicerie on Avenida Jimi Hendrix and buying French bread, cheeses and meats from Madame Cogez, from Lille or check into the 21-room Villa Serena Hotel, with Croatian owner, French manager and German greeter. Eight wicker rocking chairs face a garden with stone pathways leading to a tented massage gazebo and there’s no TV or radio to disturb the serenity.– exactly the sort of charming little inn I hope to find in such a backwater setting.
But what of manana in Samana? What does tomorrow promise? We get a hint of the future from Las Terrenas, at the western end of the peninsula, another sleepy fishing village that blossomed under its expats but is now being bulldozed into the future courtesy of the new highway. In the case of Las Galeras, I’m more concerned about the cruise ship pier piling jolly passengers into charabancs then flooding its narrow streets and cluttering the beach that should be a place where we should hear only the lulling surf and the rustle of the cocoteros. Go, but go soon.
JetBlue Airways (www.JetBlue.com) offers nonstop service from New York’s JFK to Samna’s El Catey International Airport (AZS). The twice-weekly flights (Wednesdays and Saturdays) depart from JFK at 8:25 a.m. and arrive at AZS at 1:05 p.m., then depart AZS at 2:00 p.m. and arrive at JFK at 4:50 p.m.
Ian Keown is a freelance writer based in New York City. Over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared inTravel & Leisure (as a contributing editor), Gourmet (as contributing editor), Caribbean Travel & Life (contributing writer), Diversion (as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera. His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”). He is the recipient of the Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.