Las Terrenas: DR Destination for Business and Pleasure

When I told US friends I was moving to The Dominican Republic, several said they’d vacationed there and loved it.  Most, like many of my coworkers and school community, enjoyed seclusion at Punta Cana’s resorts where they received five-star treatment.  I get it; I loved this stay at Barcelo Bavaro Grand Resort last fall.  Perfection…or at least one version of it.  But like my friend from home, Sara, who said she had wanted to see the “real DR,” I also understand why many local friends love the Samana area for adventure and authenticity.  I especially like Las Terrenas because of its “mom and pop” properties–private apartments and beach bars I remember from my childhood summers in Florida.

I love the laid back vibe of the province of Samana and will be forever grateful for the good times spent there with friends —horseback riding, swimming in a waterfall, drinking pina coladas on a small island off the main island, and whale watching in Samana Bay. I’ve seen couples enjoying different stages of life together there, too–newlyweds, retirees, and recently a pair from Canada who decided to pack up, move south, start a beach business, and live the dream.

I’ve always been fascinated with expats reinventing their lives in faraway places,  like folks I met in Marrakesh like Aussie Alexandra featured on this blog who are doing just that.   Likewise, Samana has enticed many from North America and Europe to move to the Caribbean.

Something pulls people here–even if just for a weekend.  Anyone who travels regularly from Santo Domingo knows the thrill of coming around this curve, parking on the roadside lookout point, and thinking I’ve arrived. Paradise pops in Renoir-rich blue and green until sunset softens the sky with Monet-muted purples and pinks.  This place definitely leaves an impression.

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Riding through the province of Samana is also colorful.   Mountain homes teeter on cliffs and balance above deep ditches while motorcycles and cars careen around curves.

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Last January I loved the villa  where my friends were married and vowed to stay in such a place near the hub of town on my next trip.   I had instead chosen an all- inclusive  in El Portillo because I’d snagged a Daily Deal on Booking.com.   I looked forward to pondering possibilities for the new year and not having to decide where to eat or what to cook sounded relaxing.

I left Nashville on a redeye flight after the holidays, had a layover in Miami, then a three-hour bus ride from the Santo Domingo airport.   Seventeen hours later, I was excited to finally drop my bag in the room and head for the fridge.  I’d planned to grab a beer, order room service, and take a hot bath in the Jacuzzi, but the fridge was empty, room service was not included, and the bath jets were dead.  When I went to the terrace to regroup before making the trek back to the front desk, the sliding glass door’s lock fell to the floor.  Two days and multiple hikes to the front desk later, I was moved to a room where everything but the safe worked.  It was fixed a day later.  But on the very bright side–where I like to focus–the weather was perfect, and I loved dancing/exercising at the pool with fun instructors, great music, and guests from Europe.  Hearing French, German, Italian, and Spanish on the beach was sweet as was eating every meal on the water, Brazilian steak night, the Crème brûlée, and the French man who sang while couples danced in the dark (see video at bottom).

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Winter weather in the DR is amazing.  Sunny, mostly dry, breezy and low humidity compared to the rest of the year.

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My next trip to Las Terrenas was in mid-March and amazing.  Thanks to Sana we had a private villa, Casa Anna, with a pool she found on AirBnB; Italian owners, Allesandra and her husband , greeted us when we arrived.   The perfect location, it is in a quiet neighbourhood just a five minute walk to the fisherman’s village, Pueblo de Los Pescadores, the town’s pulse where locals, expats, and tourists shoot pool, watch games, listen to live music, eat, drink and are merry.  We started the weekend with dinner there; I had a whole fried fish and a mojito as lights blinked along the shore like fireflies and water lapped the shore near our feet.

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Steve and Sana

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The next morning we had coffee with the hummingbirds on the bungalow’s covered porch, then went looking for an American-sized breakfast on the beach. We found it at One Love Surf Shack.  Owners, Barry and Chef Kari, served bacon, eggs, toast, and  rosemary potatoes (delicious).  Barry joked if we were looking for granola and yogurt we’d come to the wrong place.  I enjoyed every bite but was too full to join the three generations of ladies doing  Zumba on the beach beside us.  Barry said to come back for Happy Hour, their signature burgers, and open mic night.

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Backyard Blooms

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Chillin’ with Cava and Fresh-Squeezed Passion Fruit at One Love
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Barry and Kari, owners of One Love Surf Shack

The Canadian couple scouted locations around the world to open their restaurant:   Mexico, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands,  France,  Thailand,  Panama,  England, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hawaii.  Why did they choose the DR?

“Health care, title to own the property, exchange rates, tax treaties (getting their retirement money from Canada), basic amenities and infrastructure as opposed to ‘nice to have’ things which we placed on the bottom of the list. We tried to stay away from the ‘la-la’ happy things and focus on daily reality basic fundamentals when making our decision.”

It seems they made a great call… maybe even got it all… judging from the jovial crowd of back-slapping regulars reminiscent of buds who gathered every night at the bar Cheers. We watched the US play the DR in baseball.  There was a whole lot of happy going on.

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I’ll be leaving the island in June but will maybe return one day with a dance partner like these guys at El Portillo.  Sana says she’d like to stay here with Steve and sell coconuts on the beach.  No doubt business in Las Terennas will be booming.

A Wedding, the United Nations, and Disney

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A wedding. Two unique people become one. A mystery and a marvel. Until recently I’d never attended a January wedding, but starting a new year with a couple committing to share the rest of their lives felt right.

And kind of Disney. Weddings renew hope, reminding us that there is happy-ever-after, not only for the couples, but also for the communities their love creates. Flocked around the lovebirds on an island in the Caribbean were family and friends who’d flown from around the globe to witness, to be…love.

The Magic Kingdom may own ships on which families ride off into the sunset, but they still market their “It’s a Small World” ride as the “Happiest Cruise that Ever Sailed.” I went to Disney World as a kid just after it opened, and, shocker, it was my favourite attraction. Three-hundred papier-mâché dolls traditionally dressed dancing and singing in their native languages a simple song of world peace made my soul sing.

Looking at the guests gathered, I remembered again that it IS a small world. Marcus, the priest who married them and the groom’s lifelong friend, called us The United Nations. They’d gone to high school together when Moises moved from the Dominican Republic to the US, and it turns out Marcus now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, the state in which I was born. In fact, when I met his fiancé at the wedding (they got engaged three days after the wedding at this waterfall) I learned she is from Madisonville, Kentucky –35 miles from Hopkinsville where I grew up.

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Maria, the bride, is my coworker. Some of her family and friends flew in from Russia for the celebration. A couple of years ago I’d assisted a coworker, also Russian, in taking student delegates from The American School of Marrakesh to St. Petersburg to the Model United Nations Conference. (I love that in Model UN each student draws a country—not his or her own—to research and represent on global issues. The task is to collaborate with delegates from other countries to find solutions that benefit all.)  Of all the European cities I’ve fallen in love with, St. Petersburg is probably the most beautiful–canals like Venice and Amsterdam lined with art, parks, and more palaces than Paris.

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Emma, Maria’s longtime friend, came down from New York.
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Maria’s sister Skypes in their mom from Russia.
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Calise, a friend I met at my table of Santo Domingo friends including one couple now living in Brazil, is a diplomat for the DR in India and Argentina.  Her brother, who was abroad, is another close friend of the groom.  

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Maria was one of the first people I met after moving to the Caribbean. When I needed to see a doctor and couldn’t make an appointment or speak in Spanish to the clinic staff, she went with me and translated. She introduced other coworkers and me to Moises. Gregarious and kind, he took us all to Zona Colonial for salsa and dinner and has grilled for us while on duty and  off the best steaks in town.  A chef for big destination weddings across the island, he and Maria decided they wanted their day to be relaxed and fun, which it was, with his staff cooking in the kitchen and serving the feast.

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Guacamole
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The best mojitos imaginable
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Coconut water

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Traveling to twenty-five countries on four continents has amazed me with the world’s vastness.  Travel provides wide, open spaces for beauty and adventure.  And sometimes loneliness.  I didn’t speak French or Arabic in Morocco and I barely speak Spanish, but I’ve learned to depend on the kindness, the hospitality, of strangers who become friends.

I am most changed–I think we all are– by the people we meet.  Friends I’ve met on the road. People at home I’ve loved all my life.  I’m no longer a child, but I still believe it’s a small world. That most of us are more alike than different. That God is love and says we must love one another. That peace happens in our world, our country, our hearts through real relationship.  Face-to-face, heart-to-heart encounters with people truly change the world…for good.

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