Chic European women drive their personal ATVs down the dusty beach road, their designer handbags slung over their shoulder, baguettes in tow.
My first impression of Las Terrenas was an image I conjured from Lonely Planet’s guide to the Dominican Republic (paraphrased here from memory). This expat haven I kept reading about formed a mental picture of a scrappy beach town on a French island like Martinique or Guadeloupe; a little rough around the edges with a hint of European sophistication- just the way I like it.
The journey there was not an easy one, full of plenty of developing-world travel “bumps” that I’m all too used to experiencing.
Like the lack of signage to get to the main tourist Route 7 (which added a couple of hours of being lost to our journey).
Or the lack of adherence to any driving laws. Cars and trucks just pull to a dead stop in the middle of the highway to pick up or drop off a passenger and others swarm like fish with no concept of yielding.
The best might have been the corrupt government officials manning the toll booths who swindled us into losing half the exchange rate when we didn’t have pesos (my fault for not being prepared with pesos), taking a $10 self-imposed commission and not giving us enough change to get through the rest of the tolls (although they swore they did). I didn’t do my due diligence to realize there were 4 tolls totaling about $15 each way, and no, they do not accept USD$ (my first experience after being there a week where US money was not accepted).
Disappointing, yes….but I’ve been through much, much worse when traveling. A few good lessons were learned, as usual.
When we finally pulled in to town, my visions of the island village meets expat oasis unfolded. Local islanders mingled in the middle of the streets, loitering in front of shops or around a group of mopeds. At 10 PM, the sleepy fishing village-turned cosmopolitan town wasn’t quite so sleepy.
As we meandered along, heading north towards the coast, fruit stands and trinket shops gave way to larger banks and gas stations. We met the French real estate representative on his moped, following him a short distance to our home for the next three days: a gated community of quaint beach cottages called Las Palmas.
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Picking the Place
When looking for the right place to stay in Las Terrenas, there were options ranging from secluded bungalows, on a beach or on a cliff-top with views of the sea below, to houses at a more centralized location near town.
I started my search with FlipKey, as I usually do when looking to rent an apartment or house while traveling. Ultimately, location and ambiance won out. The adorable beach cottage I rented for three nights from FlipKey was located in the tropically manicured Las Palmas Residence.
It was probably the most ideal set up we could have asked for. With a 24-hour security guard in a gated community, I would imagine there’s no place safer in Las Terrenas. Not that the town seemed dangerous by any means, but when you’re traveling with a young bebe, as we were, it’s nice to have that extra peace of mind.
The tropical beach cottage ambiance was perfection. Although there was no AC, the fans and gentle island breeze kept us pretty comfortable and constantly reminded us of where we were: a tropical paradise. It was quite a deal, as well. The two-story, two bedroom (three bed) and two full bath house rents for $60 USD a night!
If you find yourself in need of a rental property in Las Terrenas, I highly recommend renting this property. Working with the French owner Corrine and with FlipKey was a dream; so easy and pleasant!
The location was perfect. About ten minutes walking along the beach road puts you in the center of the Italian/French enclave “approaching a colony” (as stated in Lonely Planet). Fresh fruit stands, fine jewelry and clothing shops, souvenir stalls, restaurants, French bakeries- it’s all there, at your finger tips. The cottage was just far enough away from the center to retain the quiet, peaceful and secluded atmosphere many search for on vacation.
The Las Terrenas Culture: Where Expat Meets Islander
There was something so cool about the Las Terrenas vibe that I haven’t seen in many other places. A European community, mostly French and Italian from what I observed, effortlessly blended in to the local island culture which predated it.
A sleek French woman strolled out of the bakery she owned, her blonde hair cropped, wearing designer sunglasses and a black knit maxi dress. She sat at the bistro table with an African-Dominican for what appeared to be a business meeting, where they sipped on cappuccinos and jotted down notes.
Having breakfast one morning, I watched a nearby table as a Spanish Dominican woman switched back and forth between perfect non-accent English while talking to her American friend and perfect non-accent Spanish when talking to her husband.
On the streets, beached-out Europeans mingled with islanders in a completely symbiotic way, buying and selling goods from one another or just saying hi. The interactions were so natural, which might be expected of people who spend most or at least half of their lives in Las Terrenas. Many of the expats I spoke to live and work on the island most of the year or vacation there half the year or for months at a time.
The “true locals” didn’t seem to mind their expat counterparts. Conversely, they treated them the same as other locals. I say “local,” but there might not be much of a distinction if many of the expats in fact consider themselves local and if the “locals” treat them as such.
El Lugar- The Coolest Restaurant
One night we slipped in to an inviting, open-air restaurant called El Lugar (The Place), which was conveniently next door to our cottage. The Belgian chef-owner ran around with a permanent smile on his face, tending to the kitchen, serving customers food, and spreading his most infectious, upbeat love for what he does to all his customers.
I instantly fell in love with this tropical, cosmopolitan restaurant. The food was superb, staff amazing, ambiance ideal, and it attracted just the type of expat-local crowd that I wanted to get to know.
An American fella who spends plenty of time in Terrenas came over and started chatting with us. How did we find out about Las Terrenas? What did we think about it? Then he continued to profess his love for the town and it’s great expat culture and laid-back vibe. I told him I had read all about it, and was actually observing it first hand as well.
The fabulous Belgian owner-chef-manager walked by and he threw his arm around him. Apparently everyone knows everyone else in this small town. He talked about how great this restaurant was, it was fairly new, and it was a favorite of locals. I felt like we had discovered the secret club.
Another hilarious, bubbly-happy French fella walked up, slightly inebriated, as it was his first night off in six months (I think he said). Our American friend threw his arm around this guy as well and explained that he was the award-winning chef of The Beach Restaurant (which I’ll get to below with the beaches roundup). We had to go there for lunch, he said. We also had to go to Luis Restaurant for the best, most authentic Dominican food, where we would eat sea-side while digging our feet in to the sand (more on this place below as well).
I was intoxicated by all the positive energy these people had for there home, or home-away-from-home as it were, and for one another. It seemed like a reciprocally supportive, relaxed and lovely little community, and I instantly couldn’t wait to come back and spend more time here.
As we were walking out, the table of expat/locals bade us farewell and seemed genuinely happy and excited that we were participating in their community. It was refreshing, invigorating and delightful. NO WONDER people visit Las Terrenas and don’t want to leave!
Let’s not forget the reason most people come here to vacation in the first place…
There are so many great beaches near Las Terrenas. We tried to explore a different one each day, starting with the one right in front of our rental cottage, Playa Popy.
We also ventured out to Playa Cosón and Playa Bonita, each with their own special qualities.
Playa Cosón is home to the well known and loved Luis Restaurant (one of our American friend’s recommendations), an unassuming beach restaurant where plastic tables and chairs rest in the sand. There’s no menu here, just whatever fish they’re serving coupled with plantains, rice and beans or burgers. Very authentic, very Dominican, very simple and very good.
Also on Playa Cosón is The Peninsula House, one of the best small luxury hotels in the Caribbean, according to 1000 Places to See Before You Die. On the same property is the The Beach Restaurant, a lovely little Victorian cottage featuring the same award-winning chef that we met the night before. I believe he is also the chef of the Peninsula House.
The French food, known as some of the best food on the Samaná Peninsula, is served al fresco on the wrap around porch. Arriving early, I only sampled their café and absorbed the colonial ambiance while waiting out a short island storm.
Playa Bonita was a little more trouble to reach by car, with lots of roads dead-ending in private resorts. We finally found a place to park, though. I think it was worth the effort in the end. The beach was probably the most stunning of all the ones I saw after spending 10 days on the island.
The Things We Wanted to Do but Didn’t
There’s plenty to do and see on Samaná Peninsula, which we weren’t able to because of time restraints. I honestly don’t usually leave a place only to plot my return as soon as possible. I like to discover different countries and have a variety of experiences. However, the Dominican Republic, and the Samaná Peninsula in particular, left me wanting much, much more. I think next winter, during the whale migration season, would be the ideal time to get down to the island again.
Here’s a list of what I would do around the Samaná Peninsula:
- Whale watching in the Bahia de Samaná. The whale season is from January to March, when 10,000 30-ton North Atlantic humpback whales (almost the entire population!) migrate here to mate and calve
- Cascada El Limón. I really wanted to make the trip to El Limón waterfall, but the best way to get there is by horseback, which wasn’t really feasible with a five month old. Plus it would have been a half-day journey. Maybe if we had been there for a week we could have fit it in. This 165-foot sheer curtain of water forms a crystal clear swimming hole at its base. It’s surrounded by dense, tropical forest and rugged mountainous peaks.
- Los Haitises National Park is full of islets, mangrove forests, platform karsts, conical hills, sinkholes, orchids, and a variety of birds.
- Las Galeras, supposedly even more of a global village than Las Terrenas, is a small fishing village with an eclectic mix Belgians, Germans, Bulgarians, Americans, Spaniards, Canadians, French and Italians. It’s a place where people go to “lose time.” Ahhhhh….
- Playa El Rincón, near Las Galeras, is considered the showpiece beach, more than 2 miles long and covered in massive palm trees.
- Playa Frontón is known for some of the best diving and snorkeling on the island. Supposedly hard to reach, you have to trek through jungle or hire a boat to get here. Of course this makes it even more intriguing!
OK, so when can I pack my bag? I foresee a January or February trip back to the DR next year. Maybe my husband and baby will come with me this time! In addition to exploring Samaná Peninsula more thoroughly, I’d like to visit the north and central parts of the DR.
Have you been to Las Terrenas or the Samaná Peninsula, or elsewhere in the DR? What did you love about it? I’d love to hear some advice from readers, because I’m definitely returning to this surprisingly diverse land again soon!
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All opinions expressed are entirely my own.