Apparently this is Colombian pop star Shakira’s favourite restaurant, if it can even be called a restaurant. A tin roof covers a small section of sand on the deserted Playa Coson with a few plastic tables and a reconfigured caravan serving as a kitchen. Fresh seafood sits in ice-filled coolers, ready to be grilled. Palm trees sway gently in the breeze and the sand slopes sharply down to the sparkling blue Atlantic. My genial host recommends a Coco-Loco cocktail. (There’s too much blood in your alcohol stream my dear, he offers. Not after one of these there isn’t.) One of the nimble waiters shimmies up a palm tree to cut down a fresh coconut, cracking the top off and adding rum and sugar to the coconut water inside. It is quite the most perfect place I have ever been.
This is Samaná, a narrow peninsula in the northeast of the Dominican Republic that is the country’s least developed and most relaxed region. The locals live with a casual flair (and a flagrant disregard for proper timekeeping) that is instantly covetable. It couldn’t be further from Punta Cana, the DR’s most popular resort destination that’s on par with Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Punta Cana is home to vast international hotels (like the 1,800 room Hard Rock Hotel that opened in 2011), golf courses and casinos that attract more than two million tourists (overwhelmingly Canadian and American) who arrive for some uncomplicated sea, sand and sun. But here in Samaná I don’t see any of them. My picture perfect beach stays empty all day. Yes, it is the very start of the low season, but I’ve seen more people on Bondi Beach in a thunderstorm. I spend a lazy afternoon sipping from my coconut, swimming in the surprisingly brisk water and dozing on a deckchair.
And Playa Coson isn’t the only quiet strip of sand up here. The huge limestone cliffs surrounding Playa Rincon (meaning corner beach) mean that the only way to reach it is by boat from the sleepy fishing village of Las Galeras. The journey takes you past multimillion dollar homes built right on the water belonging to local celebrities and football players. Rincon is a perfect horseshoe of creamy white sand with warm, flat, crystal clear water. This beach regularly appears on international top 10 lists of the Caribbean’s best beaches but, of the few deckchairs that line the sand, mine is the only one occupied.
It seems seclusion is a theme in Samaná and my home for the next few days, The Peninsula House, is so private there isn’t even a sign. Driving along the narrow paved highway you’ll need to make a sharp turn onto a barely visible dirt road that leads to the gates. There’s no reception or liveried doormen – at The Peninsula House you walk straight into the living area to be greeted by three large and enthusiastic dogs; two Rhodesian ridgebacks and a delightful mutt that hotel manager Thomas refers to as a Dominican coco dog. (The dogs have the run of the ground floor and are on hand at all times to proffer a back to be scratched or a squeaky mouse to be tossed. For a dog lover like me, it’s paradise. By the end of my stay I was sad to leave them and I like to think they were sad to see me go.)
Handsome, charming, brilliantly educated, Thomas (a South African native with a blandly international accent who speaks “five or so” languages) is everything the lord of the Caribbean manor should be. He lives on the property full time and his family considers it their home – and guests are encouraged to do the same. No one wears shoes, almost no areas are off limits and you’re welcome to wander into the kitchen and have a glass of wine while the chef prepares dinner. There’s a large open-air courtyard in the centre of the house (where the rain thunders in during a storm on my first night), polished floorboards and an air of genteel nobility. There are only six bedrooms and, while the doors have locks, no one uses them. It seems churlish to be concerned about the safety of my iPod while there are (literally) million dollar paintings hanging in the games room.
The house is stocked with furniture and artworks from the family’s homes around the world – the antique xylophone in my room was a gift for Thomas’ 12th birthday and there’s a carved head from Angkor Wat sitting on a bookshelf in the lounge.
I spend a couple of dreamy days napping in the enormous bed, reading on the plush lounges and swimming in the pool that resembles an old below ground water tank. There is always someone on hand with ice cold water, a fresh towel or a gin and tonic. It’s like staying at the home of a fabulously wealthy (and mildly eccentric) relative and I fear if I had stayed one more night I would never have left. I would still be there, sipping sundowners on the sweeping verandah with the soft chirping of geckoes and the smell of tomorrow’s breakfast croissants wafting from the kitchen. And, in truth, there are worse ways to live out one’s days.
If this sounds a little quiet for you, there is still some Caribbean glam to be found in Samaná. Puerto Bahia is a purpose built marina with luxury residential apartments and a hotel, The Bannister. All white leather couches and glossy marble floors, the hotel has a decidedly Ibiza vibe so I’m not surprised when I see there’s a Café del Mar (the first in the Americas) on site where beautiful people sip champagne in the pool as the resident DJ pumps out tunes. After my days at The Peninsula House it’s a little hotely for me, but the facilities are flawless and the spa does an amazing facial that left me looking fresh and bright.
I can’t imagine it will be long before the rest of the world discovers this quiet corner of the Caribbean – direct flights have recently started from New York to Samaná, and the upgrade of the highway cut the travel time from Santo Domingo from four hours to less than two. But I can take heart in knowing it won’t go the way of Punta Cana. I am told that all-inclusive resorts have been barred from opening on Playa Coson and that the emphasis is on boutique properties and small-scale tourism. There are no designer boutiques in the towns and I don’t see a McDonald’s or 7-Eleven the entire time I am there, which suits me fine. Samaná is barefoot luxury at its best.