Punta Cana has the glitz and the glitter; Puerto Plata has the pretty downtown and the best kitesurfing in the world. But for those looking for a back-to-nature experience in the Dominican Republic, Samana is the place to go.
Christopher Columbus described the Samana Peninsula as “the fairest land on the face of the earth,” and most visitors and natives agree it is the prettiest and most scenic part of the island of Hispaniola.
There were no hotels at all here until 2006; today a crop of all-inclusive resorts circle its tip. It is a three-hour drive from the capital of Santo Domingo, through the Los Haiteses National Park and up into the tallest mountains in the Caribbean. But the views, the sunsets, the beaches — and even the friendly inhabitants who welcome tourists here — make it worth the trip.
An April trip to the region, for example, offered a boat ride to prehistoric caves on which the Caonabo Indians charcoaled hieroglyphics in the year 400; horseback riding through the forest to the El Limon waterfalls; and miles of beautiful and virtually uninhabited beaches. It’s all about the whales and the birds out here; there is not much in the way of “town” or “shopping,” though the resorts and the food are upscale and globally appealing.
It’s an area well known by Snowbirds from Canada and Germany, who flock here for a month or two every winter. But Americans are fewer, making up only about 3 percent of their guests this time of year, though the number rises to about 10 percent by summer.
Many travel agents, though, know the region and love it.
“I have 11 guests heading to Samana tomorrow,” said Mary Lynn Villeneuve, travel advisor with TravelOnly in Brockville, Ontario, Canada. “The beaches and resorts of Punta Cana are beautiful but my clients are looking for something less busy and more natural beauty. Samana and La Romana are being discovered for beautiful beaches, breathtaking landscapes and a great fusion of Caribbean cultures.”
For Ann Erwin, owner of The Travel Shoppe in Quincy, Kentucky, the real draw of the Dominican Republic, though, lies beyond its natural beauty. “We absolutely love the DR,” she said. “For me it’s the people — and my clients who have visited have told me the same thing. The locals I have met have been so kind and gracious. They appreciate what tourism is bringing to their country.”
“Mountains, waterfalls, the ocean, who could ask for more!” agreed Jan Campbell at Signature Travel in Dallas, Texas. “Loved the mountains, nature, and the people are very nice here; they love to show you their country. Awesome guides. Beautiful island, beautiful people. I cannot wait to return.”
Bahia Principe Resorts now welcoming children
Meanwhile, in a bow to the growing trends of intergenerational travel and destination weddings, the Bahia Principe chain of all-inclusive resorts, with four properties on the Samana Peninsula, is becoming more family friendly.
Responding to the numerous requests of the travel agents who deliver a majority of its customers, the Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado on May 1 will begin allowing children. Previously, guests at all of Bahia Principe’s Luxury class resorts had to be at least 18 years old.
And the chain’s newest property, the Fantasia Bahia Principe Tenerife, in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, will open as a family friendly resort later this year.
Based in Spain, Bahia Principe has a portfolio of 25 resorts in the Caribbean, Canary Islands, Mexico, and Spain; 17 are in the Dominican Republic. In December, it announced it will add a new Fantasia category of family friendly resorts, including its existing resort in Punta Cana and the new property being built in Tenerife.
While Cayo Levantado will not change its overall focus, which will remain offering a luxury experience to an adult international clientele, it will offer a full-day program of activities, from 9 to 5, for children aged 4 and up.
“Travel agents have been asking us for a luxury property that accepts kids, as they have many requests for it,” said Mercedes Moreno, who oversees the four Bahia Principe properties in the Samana region. “We have so many repeat customers who want to bring their children, and so many destination weddings that want to allow some children, too.”
About 70 percent of the hotel's guests come through the travel agent channel, Moreno said. And in high season, the property hosts an average of three destination weddings a week.
The nearby Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa also has a children’s program, for those 4 to 12 years of age; about 30 percent of guests there bring children. But the most popular property for families is the Grand Bahia Principe El Portillo, which has a full water park on site. Neither of those properties is in the luxury category, however.