Millions of tourists visit the Dominican Republic each year for its pristine beaches, merengue music and high quality rum, but many visitors don’t get to see the real thing. Packaged holidays and all-inclusive deals confine travelers to the resorts that stud the coastline in towns like Punta Cana and Puerto Plata. Overrun with chain hotels and tacky restaurants, these places do little to show off the country’s rich cultural heritage. But with crime rates dropping and more roads being built, other areas of the island are opening up.
The Samaná Peninsula in the north is of particular interest and is large enough to keep you busy for at least a week. With a bounty of natural attractions, cute towns and untouched beaches, plan your visit now before it gets discovered.
The jewel in the crown that any Samaná resident will proudly tell you about is Cascada El Limón (pictured above), a 171-foot-high waterfall hidden deep within the folds of steep trails and rough terrain. It’s not too far from the main road and can be reached either on foot or horseback. Winding through farmland, narrow paths and river banks, the trail eventually leads you to the top of the waterfall, where stone steps take you back down to the bottom. Locals and travelers alike bathe in its natural swimming pool, despite the water’s often-cold temperatures. Pack a picnic and pull up a log or stop at the top for a snack in the shack; it might not look like much, but they offer anything from cocktails to lobster while local artisans sell their wares and horses graze in the shade.
As of now, the Samaná Peninsula is home to many deserted beaches. On the far side of Playa Bonita is a hidden cove where local fishermen roam, bucket in hand. Houses with well-manicured lawns dot the edge of this section of the beach, and a surf school runs courses year-round. Go a little further and you’ll soon have the beach to yourself, without a building or human in sight—except for the passing few who sell Presidente beers out of coolers. Keep walking to reach Playa Cosón, where small restaurants await. Order anything off the grill and admire the view while sipping a piña colada out of a freshly foraged pineapple.
Las Terrenas is a little fishing village that in the last two decades has attracted a wave of expats to its shores without scaring off the locals. Start your morning at the French bakery, Boulangerie Francaise, where fresh croissants and coffee ensure a bustling trade every day of the week. Next, visit the old fish market; the goods are caught on the beach and sold steps away, ensuring freshness. Boatloads of fishermen go in and out throughout the day, hauling in buckets of tuna, lobster, shrimp and sardines. Some of them run shacks on the beach where they grill that day’s catch and serve it to passers-by with rice or fried plantain. For a more refined evening out, XO serves cocktails and tapas-style dishes like serrano-wrapped lobster on its chic beachfront terrace.
If the beaches already mentioned aren’t remote enough for you, head south to the town of Samaná and convince a fisherman to take you over to Cayo Levantado, a tiny speck of paradise in the Samaná Bay. Most of the island is part of a luxury hotel, but non-guests can enjoy the beaches, restaurants and amenities. The currents can be dangerous so don’t swim out too far while snorkeling—a must-do for fans of sparkling marine life. The sand is as fine as salt and as white as snow, and the water glistens emerald. Several inland spots offer rum cocktails, lobster grills and fine cigars as well as artisan crafts—enough to keep you occupied until the last boat back to the mainland.
Some of the best fish on the Peninsula can be found at Playa Rincón. On the east side near Las Galeras—another small fishing village—this spot is well-hidden, but if you know where you’re going and you keep a close eye out for the road sign, you’ll get there eventually. Playa Rincón is even wilder than Playa Bonita; the only sign of development here is a fish shack on the beach and a cabin further up the hill. The underwater life is also more animated here. Take a seat on one of the benches inside the beach’s makeshift restaurant and try grilled lobster, whole fish or huge shrimp, then succumb to the sweet calls of the girl with the coconut bread winding her way up and down the beach.
is a traveler that writes. With homes all over Europe, she is currently based in Brooklyn, New York.