Double rainbows arching across the sky, going from palm tree to palm tree along clean white beaches, are nature’s way of saying welcome to Samana.
A peninsular province on the Atlantic side of the Dominican Republic, Samana offers great outdoor activities for the adventurous visitor or relaxation for New Yorkers who want to lie on a beach, read a book in a hammock or suntan by the pool. All-inclusive resorts dominate, and the value of air, hotel, food and drink packages to Samana is almost unbeatable.
Other visitors, of the marine variety, make Samana their annual winter destination too. Thousands of humpback whales, often up to 50 feet long and weighing 75,000 pounds, return to the Bay of Samana from January to March every year to mate and give birth. Their tail flips and breaching, where the whales seem to fly out of the water, are visible to anyone with binoculars on shore or on the ocean in boats.
All of this used to be a largely undiscovered secret. A lack of direct flights from the U.S. — or the inconvenience of a four-hour drive from other airports — kept this beautiful paradise off the radar for most American visitors. Until now.
Last month, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to fly to Samana, their sixth destination in the Dominican Republic. Airfare from New York is currently only $318 per person, round trip, and four-day, three-night all-inclusive packages are as low as $595 per person.
Europeans have long visited, starting with Columbus in 1493. Today, restaurants influenced by the French, Italians, Spanish, Belgians and Germans, along with shops and galleries, line the beachfront village of Las Terrenas. The gastronomy of these countries merges with Dominican cuisine to keep visitors returning year after year.
Here’s one highlight of a trip to Samana: a trek on horseback and foot up the mountainside to Salto El Limon, the Lemon Waterfall. This is a must and costs less than $50, including a home-cooked meal.
We went with Basilio and Ramona Excursions, named for the husband-and-wife team that takes care of the horses and cooks for the guests. Only a roadside, handmade sign identifies the business and the adventure is probably best booked through a hotel concierge.
Hop on your horse for a 45-minute guided walk through the dense jungle. Pass almond, mango and cocoa trees, head through a small village, across a river where youngsters dive from tree limbs and up the lush, rocky mountainside.
At the top, you dismount in a clearing where guides are laughing and playing an aggressive game of dominoes while waiting for guests to return. The view of the falls is stunning and those with creaky knees or asthma might want to snap a few photographs, enjoy the distant perspective and turn around here.
For the young, young at heart or agile, it’s a 15-minute walk down a steep hillside to the falls. Wear water shoes to protect your feet on the rocks as you hang on to a single rope for the hand-over-hand walk across the fast-moving waterfall-fed stream.
Guides do Olympic-quality flips off rock jetties as visitors strip down to bathing suits and relax in the pools under the 150-foot falls. It’s a beautiful moment, and leaving paradise is difficult.
The walk uphill is slow going and leaves even those in good shape breathing hard in the heat and humidity. A soda or water before your horseback trip back for lunch is a great suggestion.
A family-style buffet of Dominican delicacies, such as stewed chicken with rice and beans, goes well with a Presidente beer. You’ve earned it.
You can’t leave Samana without a boat tour of Los Haitises National Park, with its three walkable limestone caves, bird-watching and mangrove trees. The catamaran from Escapade Samana picks us up at the marina behind the Bannister Hotel, where we are staying.
A half-hour ride across calm seas and we’re floating off Cayo de los Pajaros, watching pelicans and frigate birds, also known as man-o’-war birds, doing midair combat over food. The male frigates have a distinctive red pouch under their chin that inflates during breeding season.
We walk through the San Gabriel cave, a series of underground chambers with stalactites and stalagmites. We also visit exotic mangrove swamps. Manatees, bats, tortoises and more than 100 species of birds call these protected regions home.
It’s still quite warm at night, but the breeze is the perfect complement to Chef Bruno Toso’s beachfront dinner at Porto. After the meal, a hand-rolled Dominican cigar and a snifter of Atlantico rum will get you ready for a night of bachata, a sensual Dominican dance bound to get even nondancers shaking hips and tapping feet.
Samana offers guest accommodations on all levels, from bed-and-breakfasts in Las Terrenas to exclusive hotels like the Bannister. All-inclusives like the Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado set the standard for all-you-can-eat-and-drink resorts. On a small island a short boat trip from shore, their manicured beach and warm water pools offer a wealth of activities right on the premises.
Extended families, groups of friends and wedding parties can find a great deal in Samana — with individually owned multiroom luxury suites available for rent. Samana is bound to become a premier wedding destination, so couples contemplating a Caribbean ceremony should add this to their list of possible locations.
The secret is definitely out.
IF YOU GO
JetBlue is the only U.S. airline to fly directly to Samana, twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. JetBlue.com or jetblue.com/vacations.
Catamaran rides go to Los Haitises National Park and many other outdoor adventures. EscapadeSamana.com.
The Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism has its own website: GoDominicanRepublic.com.