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.

IMG_3317IMG_4115

IMG_3308

IMG_3309

IMG_3305

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.

green and blue (1)

fence (1)

dog (1)

ditch (1)

yikes (1)

IMG_3314

IMG_3312

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).

IMG_3301

IMG_3178

IMG_3083

IMG_3085

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 8.34.18 PM

IMG_3412
Winter weather in the DR is amazing.  Sunny, mostly dry, breezy and low humidity compared to the rest of the year.

IMG_3191

IMG_3156

IMG_3188

IMG_3181

IMG_3163

IMG_3165

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.

IMG_4122IMG_4120 (1)

IMG_4121

IMG_4126

IMG_4124
Steve and Sana

IMG_4130

IMG_4165

IMG_4163

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.

IMG_4252
Backyard Blooms

IMG_4256

IMG_4257

IMG_4258

IMG_4259

IMG_4158

IMG_4156

IMG_4145

zumba (1)

IMG_4142

IMG_4144
Chillin’ with Cava and Fresh-Squeezed Passion Fruit at One Love
IMG_4154
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.

IMG_4239

IMG_4243

IMG_4240

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.

Whale Watching in Samana Bay, Dominican Republic

Spring break may be in April this year  in The Dominican Republic, but spring flings have been happening here for awhile. Every January-March humpback whales go rogue—migrating to Samana from Greenland and Iceland over 3000 miles away.   Dr. Ken De Pree, author of Whales of Samana, likens their mating behavior in Dominican waters of Samana Bay, Silver and Navidad Banks to humans cruising singles bars. To attract the ladies, males croon tunes, form bromances to size up the competition, then brawl-it- out with up to nineteen rivals for the most fertile female.   Breaching, tail slashing, body slamming each other– sometimes even drawing blood–there’s a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.   Pregnant moms then carry calves for eleven-twelve months, give birth, and nurse another eleven months  until their babies are strong enough to make the journey back to the North Atlantic.

Whale watching ranked top of my DR Bucket List since moving here in 2016. Thanks to my friend, Sana, who booked Kim Beddall, an English- speaking Marine Mammal Specialist with Whale Samana, and her husband, Steve, who booked a car to get us there, we set sail last Sunday on Pura Mia, a 55- foot custom whale watching vessel.  We loved returning to beautiful Samana Bay.

IMG_4187

IMG_4302

Since humpbacks are the most active species of whales anytime, knowing our boat would be a bit bigger than creatures that average 40-50 feet and weigh 30-40 tons (the record is 59 feet and 60 tons) was reassuring. Even so, the traffic of an estimated 1500 whales—400 that congregate at one time in rough waters in Samana Bay– made for some rocking and rolling on the waves. The tour company offers Dramamine, but most, like me, who had never been seasick didn’t take it. A rookie mistake. Thankfully pressure point bracelets, Sprite, and crackers helped as an hour in many of us were turning green.

IMG_4304

IMG_4206
Steve and Sana

IMG_4212 (1)

The company offers the next trip free should no whales be spotted, but we, thankfully, hit the motherlode—a 45- foot mom and her 15-foot baby girl that rolled and flailed right beside our boat. Mama Crochet, a regular to these parts named for her lace-like markings, shared her offspring (below) with us up close and personal for much longer than is usual.

Humpbacks are in the family of great whales and are named and catalogued by the unique patterns on their tails, or “flukes,” which power them through the water. These tail markings, like human fingerprints, are one-of-a-kind.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 11.33.21 AM (1)

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 11.39.15 AM (1)

IMG_4305

IMG_4328

Their heads resemble those of alligators, making them seem prehistoric (the DR was scouted by Spielberg for Jurassic Park after all)  as they peer at strangers with their eyes just above the water.

IMG_4310

IMG_4325

They have grapefruit-sized bumps, two blowholes, and an accordian-like gullet, chest, and stomach. Though they can stay underwater forty minutes, they never fully sleep, but take turns resting each side of the brain to avoid drowning.  They have a dorsal fin as keel and body heat regulator. Their flippers are approximately one-third of their body length and their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae means “big wing from New England,” the place where they were first academically described, though there are drawings of them on caves in the DR by aboriginal inhabitants predating Columbus.

IMG_4308

IMG_4314

IMG_4317

Mothers of newborn whales don’t stop moving but tow their calves in their slipstream because babies do not have enough fat or blubber to float and could sink and drown. Also, until they are ready to swim well, they could be attacked. When strong enough to travel north, the mom has to fight off Orcas. Collisions with cruise ships are sadly too common and should mom die in the first year of a calf’s life, baby will die too because it is still nursing, consuming fifty gallons of milk per day. Adult whales do not eat while in the Caribbean but live off their fat until they migrate home. Their daily diet–1.5 tons of fish and shrimp-like crustaceans during feeding season—is the equivalent of 12,000 MacDonald hamburgers.  It  takes energy to carry 1,000 pounds of barnacles—enough to fill a pickup truck—on their bodies.

I highly recommend Whale Samana. They observe safety regulations and $3 of the fee ($59 adults/$30 children under 12) goes to the Marine Mammal Sanctuary.

We spied two adult males and tried to catch up with them, but they stubbornly dove deep and reappeared ten-twenty minutes later in different directions farther away.

We were serenaded by a male’s song by way of a recording played on the ship.  Only males sing and can hear each other twenty miles away.  Jacques Costeau called them the “Carusos of the Deep.” Prior to 1952 when the first scientist captured their song on tape, sailors and whalers were spooked by haunting sounds from beneath their ships.  Though that mystery was solved, there are still many unknowns about humpbacks and what lies beneath.

Sources: Whales of Samana by author Ken De Pree, PhD, who has studied humpbacks near Samana since 1987, and contributors  Osvaldo Vasquez, a leader among Dominican scientists in the study of humpbacks and Kim Beddell, founder of whale watching in Samana Bay in 1984-85.   Also special thanks to Kim Beddell for amazing information given at sea.

Samana Road Trip: Day Two

img_3784

After a Domincan breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans and rice, papaya, mofongo we were  back on the van following the blue bus above deep into the jungle. It is estimated the Dominican Republic has 1.5 billion USD in marble, most of it mined in the Samana province.  When we explored  Mina de Marmol I again wished my dad was with me.  He’d worked in a rock quarry for years in Kentucky.

img_3756

img_3755

img_3757

img_3758

img_3760

From there we headed to Boca Del Diablo, the Mouth of the Devil, a blowhole where the sea churns beneath and sounds like a dragon breathing until it spews water up and out  the cliff’s surface above.  I was so excited to get this on video that when I heard the ocean churning  I took off too fast across an overgrown path and tripped on the jagged stones under the vegetation.  Semi-dehydrated, when I was pulled to my feet and looked down upon a 2- inch strip of skin hanging like crepe paper from bloody gashes in my knee I almost fainted.  Thankfully Steve and Sana took my camera and got the shots of the cliff below.

img_3772

img_3773-1

Though only my traveling companions spoke English, a kind lady on our van from Ecuador gave me some antibiotic cream and our guide brought a bottle of water from the cooler.  Afraid I would vomit or faint, I poured the water over my head and felt better.

In the van as we headed to the beach, I thought about my first instinct after the shock of being bit by the devil’s mouth.

img_3766

Blindsided by going down, I turned on myself:  What are you thinking going on an adventure like this at your age?  Living outside the US?  This is all a bad idea.

As my friend, Kim, and I have discussed often, when blindsided we feel shocked and vulnerable as  I did in an earthquake in Costa Rica or a van wreck in Morocco. The impact of being taken down unexpectedly shakes lose accumulated hurts and hard times  bringing us to our knees literally.

img_3770

Challenges with this move had been churning in me for awhile and, released by my fall, they blew inside my head.  Once I could be as kind to myself as others were to me, I was back on track and headed to the next beach. The next day I’d get a stronger antibiotic

img_2313

but at our next stop beauty would make me forget the pain and I’d plunge into the cleanest, most beautiful waters I’d ever seen.  The salt began healing my body at the gorgeous Las Galeras and I was again so grateful for the chance to see all I’ve seen on this island.  Here we played in the water and had delicious fish for lunch.

img_3779

img_2297

img_2278
Pina Colada

img_3777

img_3778

img_3795

The last stop of your beach hop was Cano Frio where the Atlantic creates a freshwater swimming area locals love.

img_3803

img_3802

img_3801

img_3780

While I enjoy solo travel, this weekend reminded me of the importance of friends wherever we live.  Together we are stronger and can pull each other up when, far from home, we fall down.

img_3782

Road Trip to Samana Province: Day One

Version 4

I understand now why local friends kept saying they love  vacationing in Samana.  While Punta Cana on the easternmost tip of The Dominican Republic is better known by tourists for mammoth all-inclusive resorts, Samana on the north shore is more a Mom and Pop kind of place–pristine and private.    The beach above, Caylo Levanto, is perfection– an isle off the main island in Samana Bay.

img_2257

img_2260

img_2270img_2272

Griselda (left) whose family is from the DR arranged the weekend for Sana, Steve, and me.  She said we wouldn’t believe how beautiful Samana province/peninsula is. She was right.  Our van took off at 7 AM Saturday and by midmorning we were on a boat headed for paradise.

img_3648

img_2269

img_3649

img_3652

img_3658

img_3656

img_3663

img_3664

img_3668
Coconut water

img_3670

img_3752

The afternoon I saddled up with my three amigos– all Jersey boys and girls–and we headed to Salto Limon.  The ride was hot and rocky as the horses climbed up and down mountains through forests scented with coffee beans, coconuts, cacoa and pineapples.

img_3683

img_3680-1

Version 2

Version 2

img_2296

img_3689

img_3691

img_3690

img_3687

img_3693

img_3695

 

The water was so cold it took our breath…but not as much as what we saw next…

Version 2

img_3701

img_3727

img_3730

img_3732

img_3733

img_3734

img_3735

Knowing all came up safely,  I can now exhale looking at these photos, relax and relate. The last 2+ years have felt like diving headfirst–or on less scary or exciting days–plunging feetfirst into a life far from my comfort zone.  I knew it was something I needed to do and though I’ve been lonely at times, God has never left me alone.  I’ve felt my life is a cliffhanger for awhile now because I am not sure what’s next.  But one thing is for sure.  Wherever I land after this adventure, I’ll never forget these moments that have left me feeling very, very alive.

img_3704

img_3746

img_3748

img_3750

img_2265-1