A cultural oddity in a country usually associated with Columbus and Spanish domination, the town of Samana, 65 mi/105 km northeast of Santo Domingo, was founded in the 1750s and later settled by English-speaking U.S. slaves in the 1820s. This came about through the efforts of U.S. abolitionists and a Haitian general who worked to relocate thousands of slaves who had escaped Southern plantations via the Underground Railroad. Descendants of the original settlers—called Americanos—still live around the town, which is on the south coast of the Samana Peninsula. Some residents speak English as their first language. They continue to have a noticeable impact on the area's food, churches and architecture.
Samana was developed relatively recently as a tourist destination—the first road to the town was built only a few decades ago. A highway now allows travel from Santo Domingo in as little as two hours, and the Sanchez El Catey International Airport has further boosted the peninsula's fortunes. With its low-key atmosphere and many budget-type accommodations, Samana is a popular spot with Europeans and those interested in viewing whales.
Humpback whales inhabit Samana Bay December-early March before heading north for the summer, and the bay is a protected wildlife refuge. The World Wildlife Fund has named Samana Bay as one of the best spots in the world for whale-watching. It lives up to the title, as the views are second to none, made easier by the opening of a whale-viewing platform at Punta Balandra. Boat excursions let you get a close-up look at the huge mammals: Whale Samana is the most respected operator, running trips mid-January to mid-March. Phone 809-539-2492. http://www.whalesamana.com.
On the north side of the peninsula is Las Terrenas, perhaps the Dominican Republic's most pleasant resort village. Its idyllic palm-fringed beaches are lined with some of the most pleasing boutique-hotels in the country (many, along with cosmopolitan but laid-back restaurants, run by European entrepreneurs). The mood remains relaxed, despite the proliferation of noisy motorbikes, burgeoning development and the arrival of the first all-inclusive hotels (thankfully outside town on nearby Playa Coson). The drive over the mountains to reach Las Terrenas is one of the most breathtaking in the country. Be sure to stop at the Salto de Limon waterfalls when driving between Las Terrenas and Samana—horseback treks are offered from the village of Limon.
An even more laid-back spot on the Samana Peninsula is the seaside town of Las Galeras, 16 mi/25 km northeast of Samana. Las Galeras has several small hotels and an all-inclusive resort. Also nearby is Playa Rincon, a lovely secluded beach that can best be reached by four-wheel-drive vehicle or hired boat from Las Galeras.
Los Haitises National Park, on the south side of Samana Bay, is known for its mangrove and swamp areas, and caves with pre-Columbian Native American rock paintings. The park has varied plant life and fabulous birdlife (including frigatebird and boobie rookeries), but is best known for its spectacular karst formations rising sheer from the bay. Guided tours of the park leave from Samana, Sanchez and Sabana de la Mar.
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