Sultry merengue pulses from the El Car Wash bar onto the waterfront of Samana, the namesake city of the Dominican Republic’s Samana Peninsula.
Wherever you go in this Caribbean country, Dominicans move when they hear music; all hips, arms and legs on the dance floor dissolve so that it’s impossible to tell where one body ends and the other begins.
Being Canadian of Anglo-Saxon decent, I am genetically incapable of dancing. So I retreat with photographer Steve Ogle and our Presidente beer to stools on the perimeter of the action to plot a weeklong exploration of Samana.
A Different Slice of the DR
For decades, the Dominican Republic has been a cherished all-inclusive destination, but the Samana Peninsula dances to a slightly different rhythm than the rest of the country.
Topographically, it’s an anomaly, jutting from the north coast like an oversized appendage of limestone cliffs and lush mountains. Demographically, it’s also unique.
First inhabited by the indigenous Taino, then settled by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, it’s now an expat community of sun-worshipping Euros, particularly in Las Terrenas on the north side of the Samana Peninsula.
But today it’s become a mecca for adventure-seekers, spackled with deserted beaches, ocean-side limestone crags, roaring kitesurfing winds, and a Serengeti of marine and bird life.
Motorbike to Playa Rincon
A hunger to see what guidebooks claim is one of the best beaches in the Caribbean prompts us to barrel down a country road on 125cc motorbikes, dodging potholes on our way to Playa Rincon.
Ten spine-jarring kilometres after exiting Hwy 5, the road plunges through fields of yucca and yams toward the sea. Finally, our motorbikes bog down in the sand and our jaws drop at the sight of Rincon.
A silky beach fringed with palm trees stretches southeast for five lazy kilometres from the limestone heights of Cape Cabron.
Coral reefs break the ocean swell and shelter a lagoon of irresistible turquoise water. Capping this idyll, the smell of pan-fried red snapper lures beach bums toward the Restaurant Tipico Bar and Grille Mini at the end of the beach.
Other than this locally owned diner, there is no development. Nada. Even more surprising, I can count the number of people on the beach with one hand.
Mountain Climbing at Playa Fronton
Perhaps a little less friendly for swimming, but a close second for natural beauty, is Playa Fronton near the remote tip of Cabo Samana.
It’s also home to one of the country’s best rock-climbing areas, so we point our motorbikes toward the laidback fishing town of Las Galeras. There we hire a boatman, a no-nonsense character fond of lecturing tourists for taking life too seriously.
“Here, if we have some food, some music and some nice women, we’re happy,” he says, weaving his open-hulled boat, Ginamaria, between the messy, windblown swell off Playa Las Galeras.
Thirty minutes later, he drops anchor and we wade ashore at Fronton to find a young woman cleaning up the small beachside bar.
A peregrine falcon floats upon the breeze rushing up the limestone escarpment behind the bar, while our hostess offers up a swig of “Mamajuana,” a mysterious brew of rum and special herbs that has legendary aphrodisiacal qualities,
It’s a performance-enhancer for certain activities, rock climbing not being one of them.
Once sufficiently fortified, with the Atlantic lapping the shore below us, we rope up. I lead off, following a line of shiny bolts while reaching for improbable pockets and gargoyle-like stalactites typical of eroded seashore limestone.
The extra ballast I’ve packed on from the hotel’s all-you-can-eat buffet challenges my upward progress as does the 80-per cent Caribbean humidity.
However, summoning some Mamajuana courage, I monkey up a few more metres before reaching the top anchor. Clipping in, I sponge the sweat from my eyeballs, relax and take in the ocean view.
Exploring Los Haitises National Park
Samana is also the launching point for excursions into Los Haitises National Park, where we rent kayaks.
At more than 820 square kilometres of virgin inland forest, steaming mangrove lowlands, hidden caves and hundreds of small islands, Los Haitises is home to 120 different species of nesting birds.
I dip my paddle into the milky green water and point my kayak toward an islet of sheer grey limestone capped with dense foliage, like an old man in need of a haircut.
The humid air is ripe with the pungent chicken-farm-smell of guano while male frigate birds inflate their red throats in a colourful form of avian flirtation.
Blue herons soar above like pterodactyls, along with turkey vultures and pelicans.
Beyond the island, we drift into the shade of mangroves, dense and claustrophobic, until the throaty croak of a heron suddenly shatters the silence of the last coastal world.
Riding Horseback to El Limon Waterfall
The next day, wanting a taste of the Samana interior, we stop at Parada la Manzana to summon our inner John Wayne.
The smiling proprietor, Antonia De La Nuez, greets us with a hearty cocido, a rich beef stew accompanied by rice, beans and a side of yucca fries. La Manzana has a stable of nearly 30 horses for carrying tourists to the 44-metre tall El Limon waterfall.
The trail to the falls winds through undulating farmland, past groves of papayas, lemons, bananas, coffee, yucca and yams.
“That’s a, how-do-you-say, pamplemousse?” says our young guide, Manuel Garcia, mistaking us for Frenchmen and pointing to a tree with branches bowed with plump softballs of grapefruit.
The rush of water, like rustling leaves, grows louder as we clip-clop through a densely forested valley. After leaving the horses to graze, Garcia wastes no time scrambling up the falls using invisible handholds until he reaches a small pedestal of rock a third of the way up.
Without hesitation, Garcia swan dives into the pool with Olympic form, gumboots and all, exhibiting the carefree exuberance of a kid who has spent his life around water. I, on the other hand, gingerly lower myself into the pool from a metre-high rock shelf.
Kitesurfing in Las Terrenas
It seems fitting to end this sojourn in Las Terrenas, the nightlife and watersports capital of the Samana Peninsula. On weekends, the bars heave with Spanish, French, Italian, German and English tourists.
Sun and sand attract this foreign contingent, but so does wind and its empty beaches.
Although Yannick Bataller, owner of Loco-Kite kitesurfing school, prefers 30 km/h-plus winds, I decide a modest 15 km/h is fine for my first lesson.
After attaching my feet to a hybridized surf-snowboard, I harness my body to a half-moon-shaped kite that, in theory, will capture the wind.
Sounds simple, but it’s not—at least, not at first. Bataller muzzles a laugh as he watches me wrestle with the strings, as awkward as an accountant attempting open-heart surgery.
However, in 10 minutes I am able to keep the kite between “12 and 2,” enough for a clumsy body drag across the water toward a skin-shredding coral reef.
Thankfully Bataller grabs the back of my harness and resumes control. I try again, this time with a little more finesse, feeling the surge of wind as it powers up the kite while the silvery flash of fish dart in front of me.
Water, wind, board and kite—there’s freedom to a sport in which no entrance fees or lift tickets are required.
“If there’s wind, I kite, if there’s no wind, I don’t kite,” Bataller says, summing up the beautiful simplicity of the Las Terrenas lifestyle, as a fireball-red sun dips into the ocean and daylight fades to black.
That night, warm sultry air drifts into the El Mosquito bar, mixing with merengue music that I wish I could import back to the Canadian winter.
Our server, a statuesque beauty with skin the colour of milk chocolate, sidles up to our table.
“Something else, mis amores?” she says, looking at our half-empty Cuba Libres.
Spontaneously my foot taps to the merengue rhythms,in violation of my predisposition against dancing. Maybe, just maybe, after a week in the Samana, I have captured some of the rhythm of the north coast of the Dominican Republic.
One day I know that I’ll return to complete my kiteboarding lesson, and perhaps even dance to merengue.
Your Adventure Guide
Based in Las Terrenas, Loco-Kite (809-801-5671) will have you riding the wind in just three days.
Horseback Riding to Salto El Limon
The owners of Parada la Manzana (829-931-6964; 809-889-1909) treat their horses well and serve a fabulous lunch after a trip to the falls.
Exploring Los Haitises National Park
Discover the wild beauty within the 820-sq.-km park with the Moto Marina Club (809-538-2302), which offers tours several times weekly.
Bike around Samana’s lush countryside with Coco MTB Adventures (809-865-4712; 809-512-7506).
Whale Samana (809-538-2722; 809-538-2494) offers eco-friendly whale-watching trips during the January-to-March calving season.
The Best Places in Canada to See the Northern Lights
Canada is a prime destination for northern lights viewing, best experienced between October and March. Watch them dance in the night sky above Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, in Whitehorse, on Prince Edward Island, in Yellowknife or near Edmonton.