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The Dominican Republic's Emerging Samana Region

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© Picjumbo The Luxury Bahia Principe Samana (Courtesy Bahia Principe)

By Mia Taylor,  TravelPulse

When airline passengers disembark at the Santo Domingo airport, they’re greeted by the message, written vibrantly on a wall: “Welcome to the Dominican Republic, where the ocean is always near and the mountains are never far.”

From its stunning perch on a picturesque bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Luxury Bahia Principe Samana appears to be the very embodiment of this idea.

The hotel offers sweeping views of the ocean at nearly every turn and the beach is just a few steps away. Just beyond the hotel gates, there are rainforests, rolling mountains and picturesque valleys.

The Luxury Bahia Principe Samana is located on the Dominican Republic’s northeastern coast, on the Samana Peninsula, an area of the country that remains largely undiscovered by rank and file tourists.

Legend has it that long ago pirates discovered the area and would hide in Samana’s lush, palm-filled forests, on its isolated beaches and in its many caves. Later, European and Haitian troops competed over its deep water, protected bay.

Those early arrivals aside, Samana, much to its benefit, continues to be a place where only a small number of visitors venture.

It’s low-key, under the radar status is due in large part to the fact that it takes just under two hours to reach by car from the capital of Santo Domingo. And that approximately 90 to 120-minute drive is an improvement because until recently there was no direct road linking the capital with Samana and the trip took upwards of three hours.

Enter Bahia Principe – a Spanish hotel company that has in many ways been a trailblazer in the region, helping to put Samana on the map and guide the development of tourism infrastructure while also working hard to do so in a way that maintains its unique charm.

In the early 2000s, Bahia Principe owner Pablo Pinero visited Samana and immediately became smitten, falling in love with its natural beauty and picturesque appeal.

Not long after, the company purchased a property in Samana and created the five-star, 149-room, Luxury Bahia Principe Samana. Later, they established a second property in Samana, the stunning five-star Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado, a sprawling retreat located on a private island that can only be reached by ferry.

Bahia Principe’s presence in the region has since grown to a total of four all-inclusive hotels, with the subsequent additions of the Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa and the Grand Bahia Principe El Portillo.

Combined, the four properties offer something for nearly every type of traveler. Luxury Bahia Principe Samana and Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado represent the upper end of the spectrum.

The Luxury Bahia Principe Samana is an adults-only resort, while the Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado only recently began allowing children once again.

The Grand Bahia Principe El Portillo and the Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa are squarely aimed at family vacationers. At El Portillo for instance, there’s a water park designed for kids, while the Cayacoa resort includes a Bahia Scouts program for young visitors.

The El Portillo has the added charm of being located near Las Terrenas, a tiny fishing village that oozes a 1970s hippy, bohemian, surfer vibe where you’ll have long stretches of beach all to yourself and can easily spend hours sitting at a small oceanfront cafĂ© sipping a drink from a hollowed out pineapple.

The 295-room Grand Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa meanwhile, is located just a short walk from the town of Samana and is the only Bahia Principe hotel of the four in Samana that includes a casino.

Each of the resorts offers multiple dining options (including buffets and a la carte choices), a variety of pools, and nightlife. There are also spas for those in search of a massage or facial and the Luxury Bahia Principe Samana features a wellness program that includes such offerings as eco-walks.

Not far from the Bahia Principe Cayacoa property, the Bahia Principe company also helped develop Bahia Principe Village, a place where visitors can explore shops, bars and nightclubs.

Yet all of this development led by the Bahia Principe company has not significantly impacted Samana’s inherent charm. It continues to be the anti-Punta Cana. The vast majority of Dominican Republic visitors make a beeline for Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic’s version of Cancun thanks to its dozens of beachfront resorts.

Those who arrive on the northeastern coast and to Samana, in particular, tend to be Europeans and Latin Americans coming to see lesser known parts of the Dominican Republic.

The area, which outside of the Bahia Principe properties primarily offers small local hotels, appeals to nature lovers, eco-tourists, adventure seeking travelers and travelers opting for a quieter, more authentic and enchanting atmosphere.

Outside of the handful of hotels and resorts, there's very little obvious tourism infrastructure or commercial development. It's a place where the Dominican way of life is on full display, where you'll see families sitting together on their front steps in the late afternoon, kids playing baseball or walking down the street practicing their swing with an imaginary bat (this is the land of Samy Sosa and Pedro Martinez after all) and small, local markets that sell the necessities of everyday life.

What it doesn't have is high-rises, traffic, smog or ubiquitous chain restaurants.

“I would say it's one of the prettiest areas in the whole of the Dominican Republic because it has all the nature, the unspoiled beaches, and it is really an area of unparalleled natural wonders,” says Bahia Principe’s Helen Montijano, the vice-president of sales and marketing for the U.S. and Canada. “Samana Bay was named by UNESCO one of best bays in the world.”

“The turquoise water and sand are more or less the same in Punta Cana and Samana,” she continues. “But there’s a very different amount of hotels in the two places. And the whole area of Samana is still lush with nature and beautiful landscapes.”

Samana, says Montijano, is more exclusive, a place for seasoned travelers and those who want to experience nature, local culture and interact with the Dominican people.

Among the top attractions is Los Haitises Park, one of four national parks in the Dominican Republic. Created in 1976, the park features protected virgin forests that only a limited amount of tourists are allowed to visit.

Accessed by boat, it is reminiscent of Vietnam’s Halong Bay with its striking rock formations jutting out of the emerald water, and a backdrop of mountains blanketed by lush forests. In addition to being home to more than 200 species of birds (including turkey vultures, herons and pelicans) the park features caves where the native Taino Indians created drawings that date back to 400 B.C.

El Limon falls is another popular stop for visitors. Tucked deep in the rainforest, the striking 131-foot-high waterfalls descend into a beautiful swimming hole.

Come winter, Samana Bay hosts about 2,500 humpback whales. The giant mammals return every year to mate and give birth. Hiking, birding, and boat-hopping from one white sand beach to another are yet additional ways to while away an afternoon in Samana.

These are just some of the features that Bahia Principe's Pablo Pinero found so appealing years ago.

Though the hotel company has worked hard to establish itself and the stunning Samana region as a whole, it has done so fully cognizant of the need to protect this corner of the country and all that makes it special.

“I would say for us, in the near future, Bahia Principe has no intention of constructing anymore. We are keen on delivering the best possible experience,” said Montijano. “We know people who are coming here are looking to get off the beaten path and for something unique.”

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