The road to paradise might be fraught with bumps, but this was beyond ridiculous. They weren’t just bumps lining the dirt road to The Peninsula House inn, but giant pot-holes. Seriously giant. The type that threatened to swallow up the entire right side of my poor little Chevy rental (and had me wishing I’d sprung for the SUV). Like an Olympic skier tackling moguls, I’d been twisting and turning for the past hour or so. Truth be told, up until that point I had been quite proud of myself (and my Chevy). I arrived Dominican Republic with all the tools a modern nomad could hope for – a GPS, Google Maps on my iPhone, and a printout of maps ready in case all else should fail. Technology always isn’t that much help in the country’s Samaná Peninsula, a mountainous stretch of land that juts into the Atlantic like a finger from Hispaniola’s northeast end. And that was absolutely fine.
Over the past week, I’d logged countless hours behind the wheel getting to know the rugged, lush patch of land, which is ringed by some of the most beautiful powder-white beaches I’d ever seen and lacks the mass development that plagues other parts of the DR. I took roughpaved switch-backs like a local, accelerated up clìffside roads that seemed to ascend for days, played chicken with motorbikes on the narrow coastal lanes, and maneuvered along the few proper streets that crisscross the penìnsu1a’s tiny towns during “rush hour,” when no one abides by any logical traffic laws. But it was the journey to The Peninsula House that almost did me in. Yet finally, with my insides more than a little shaken, rattled, and rolled, I passed through the wrought iron gates and climbed the steep, curving driveway to what is undoubtedly one of the finest small hotels in these Caribbean parts.
It wasn’t such a long way for owners Cary Guy and Marie-Claude Thiebauit from the South of France to the hilltop former coconut plantation where they opened this six-room inn in 2008. After Cary sold his chic little guesthouse in Provence, he teamed up with Marie-Claude with the vision to open a similarly oriented venture somewhere in Europe. That was, until the two heard about a tiny corner of the Dominican Republic that was one of the most exceptionally beautiful places in the country; a place where land could still be bought for a reasonable amount, and where -strangely enough- a small community of European expats had settled. So it was there that the duo decided to build a two-story Victoriansty1e plantation home, gingerbread trim and all. Then they kitted out the interiors with a cosmopolitan mix of treasures: Surrounding an inner courtyard downstairs, the library, billiards rooms, and salons are decorated Turkish carpets and French settees; upstairs, you’ll find rooms filled with wardrobes made from handcarved doors from India, antique nesting tables from France, and framed Tibetan prayer book pages and Balinese puppets hanging on walls.
“It’s pretty easy to see what captivated us,” Cary tells me, gesturing to the surrounding landscape from the house’s wraparound veranda. An endless stretch of green cascades down before us until it ends at the ocean, which sparkles in the distance. A 10-minute drive away (potholes notwithstanding) is the beachfront town of Las Terrenas, the peninsula’s cultural hub, where transplants to Samaná have enthusiastically mixed with resident Dominicans. They’ve kept the walls down and embraced the amalgamation of different cultures, and together they’ve opened up restaurants, tiny hotels, and boutiques. Now, Las Terrenas offers a heady mix of contrasts that is equal parts raw (stray dogs wandering the streets and buildings covered in a fine layer of grit) and refined (high-design hotels and Pueblo de los Pescadores, a group of former fisher-man’s homes along the waterfront that has been turned into a collection of restaurants and bars). “We are betting that the area will turn into a mini, untamed St. Bart’s,” explains Cary. “That it could become the Caribbean’s next great place.” To those who knew Samaná several years ago, Cary and MarieClaude’s gamble may have seemed risky. While the peninsula has almost a glut of natural beauty-remote beaches, forest waterfalls, coconut trees, and a blueblue bay regarded as among the world’s best places to see humpback whales, which come to breed here-it was still very much off the beaten tourist path. In fact, it was downright inaccessible to those who weren’t determined. Samana is only 60 or so miles from the capital of Santo Domingo as the crow flies, but until recently the far reaches of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range had blocked any straight shot to the destination, which meant that reaching Las Terrenas from the capital required driving almost six hours. All that’s changed now, thanks to a new road that bisects the mountain range and cuts the total driving time from Santo Domingo down to just around two hours.
After checking out of The Peninsula House, I head down to Las Terrenas and to Balcones del Atlantico, the area’s first internationally managed hotel, which opened just across the way from a lovely stretch of sand on the town’s fringes last year. Whereas The Peninsula House is small, Balcones is of the big-beach-resort variety. Both are gunning for the same well-heeled clients, and Balcones isn’t scared of displaying its luxe chops. Spread out across 100 acres on a half-mile of beach are the 86 two- and three-bedroom villas (the property operates as a condo hotel) surrounded by manicured tropical gardens and pools with swim-up bars. But here’s how Balcones differs from just any resort: When you approach the grounds, you immediately notice the lack of a large wall separating the resort from the surroundings. In fact, the property feels very much like it has long been a part of the quaint Las Terrenas waterfront, which is characterized by low-slung buildings abutting a two-lane road that separates the town from the beach. Rooms also carry an area-inspired charm, as Dominican designer Patricia Reid put an emphasis on locally made items, from pieces of art on walls (painted wooden fish, shell-crusted bowls, colorful oars) to impossibly delicate curtains, which were crafted in the surrounding communities. Even the beachfront restaurant, Porto, is firmly grounded in Samaná, with a fresh menu of grilied fish, ceviche, and other delicacies from the sea.
And then there’s Ba1cones’s rigorous eco-ethos: The property was constructed using local materials, and the staff members work with a number of community organizations on projects such as coral reef regenesis. wanted something that was the absolute antithesis of what you find in other parts of the Dominican Republic, something that’s rooted in the place that it’s in,” says Dominican developer Máximo Bisonó, the property’s owner.
Balcones may be the area’s first international luxury hotel development, but it’s certainly not going to be the last. (Most notably, 2014 will see Auberge Hotels open the all-bungalow resort Casa Tropicalia on a stretch of beach-front along Samaná Bay.) Still, by and large, most of the projects here are being built to take advantage of the setting, not to intrude upon it. From the turquoise bordered shores of Balcones to the bright, verdant grounds of The Peninsula House, it only takes one look to discover what makes this part of the globe so special: the cove beaches with soft, golden sand and the lush interior full of waterfalls, mountains, and tropical rain forests. And the roads – well, we’ll just say they’re a work in progress. But I’ll still take Samaná, bumps and all.