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Samana and Cayo Levantado Overview
The Dominican Republic lies on the eastern side of Hispaniola, an island it shares with Haiti. The D.R. (or Dom. Rep in the U.K.), as it's known, stretches over two-thirds of the island and is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It also claims the West Indies' highest mountain peak -- rising some 10,415 feet from the Valley of Cibao. Christopher Columbus founded the first permanent European settlement in the D.R. in 1493.
Samana, a port on the Dominican Republic's northeastern peninsula, might not look like much at first, but it offers some pleasant surprises to those who venture beyond its shops and restaurants. Positioned near several fishing villages, the colorful town offers some amazing food that's both fresh and authentic, as well as opportunities for horseback-riding, ATV tours, beach breaks, waterfall visits and mingling with locals. In-town attractions are limited, so an organized tour is the best way to experience this region. You also won't want to miss local specialties like larimar jewelry, Kola Real soda and Dominican hot chocolate.
Trips to the nearby island of Cayo Levantado, visible from Samana and located about 10 minutes away by boat, are also available, but only through your cruise line's excursion offerings. (Private tour operators aren't allowed to transport cruise passengers to the island on days when ships are anchored.) Additionally, some ships call only on Cayo Levantado, half of which is a public beach that's available only to cruisers on days when ships are in port, and half of which is a private resort.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Samana and Cayo Levantado • Tampa
While you're in town, be sure to try some Mama Juana. Made by combining red wine, rum and honey with the fermented roots of the Mama Juana tree, it gives off a strong red wine taste with a spicy cinnamon finish. If you're not a wine-lover, go for Barcelo or Brugal local rum with Coca-Cola, or Presidente beer, which is quite refreshing when the weather gets unbearably hot. (You'll also want to pick up some sugar cane juice, which is locally made and allegedly a great hangover remedy.)
The Dominican Republic is known for Larimar, a cloudy, pale-blue stone that's only mined on the island of Hispaniola. It's difficult to fake, so chances are good that you'll be snagging the real thing. Don't be afraid to bargain; sellers are used to it, and they often jack up prices with the expectation that haggling will occur. Amber and black coral are also popular, but they're easier to fabricate.
If jewelry isn't your thing, consider Dominican-made cigars, items made from coconut, and natural cocoa or chocolate, but do avoid purchasing woven palm hats. They're considered live plants, and they'll be confiscated when you return to your ship.
Dominicans speak Spanish as their primary language. Some, particularly those who work in tourist areas, speak English. That said, communication can be a problem, so either carry a pocket dictionary, or bone up on basic phrases like hola (hello), buenos dias (good day), por favor (please), gracias (thank you), cuanto cuesta? (how much does it cost?) and donde esta el bano? (where is the bathroom?).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Dominican Republic Peso (check www.xe.com for current exchange rates), but it's rarely a problem to use American dollars. There are ATM's available at Banco Popular (Avenida La Marina/Malecon) and BHD Bank (green building at the corner of Avenida La Marina and Circunvalacion). ATM's will dispense money in pesos. (Note: Each bank's ATM will charge a $5 transaction fee in addition to any fees charged by your bank. BHD's ATM will allow you to withdraw up to the peso equivalent of $500 at one time, while the limit at Banco Popular is less.)
Where You're Docked
In Samana, your ship will anchor near one of two piers and tender you to the appropriate docks, both of which are located along Avenida La Marina/Malecon. (Note: If you're a dog-lover, be sure to pack some treats; there are lots of friendly strays near the docks.)
The main dock is known as Embat Dock, but if more than one ship is in port on a given day, a secondary dock, Dock Moto Marina Club, is used for tendering.
If you're taking an excursion to Cayo Levantado from Samana, or if your ship is calling directly on Cayo Levantado, you'll tender to the island's public dock.
At Embat Dock: You'll find tourism information and booths for booking private shore tours. You'll also find taxis, toilets and a giant map. The main cluster of shops, restaurants and banks is about a 10-minute walk. (Note: When you look at the map, it's reversed – what's to your left on the map is actually to your right. Check to be sure you're setting off in the correct direction.)
At Dock Moto Marina Club: Here you'll find tour operators, taxis and motochonchos, locals who will offer you rides on the backs of their motorcycles for a small fee. Stalls and tents are set up to sell food, art, jewelry and other souvenirs. It's about a five-minute walk to the town's main area.
At Cayo Levantado: Although Cayo isn't a cruise line private island, it feels like one. When you reach the dock, you'll find signs pointing you to beaches, activities, bathrooms and places to eat and drink. Everything you'll need for the entire day is within walking distance.
On Foot: It's easy to walk to the main area in Samana, where you'll find small shops, places to eat and a nice view of the harbor area. If you arrive at Embat Dock, it's about a 10-minute walk; from Dock Moto Marina Club, it will take you about five minutes.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available in Samana; they'll park along the street in front of both Embat Dock and Dock Moto Marina Club. Few drivers speak English, so be sure to carry the Spanish names of places you might want to go, and carry a pocket dictionary if you don't know the language.
By Motochoncho: Say what? Enterprising locals with motorbikes will offer rides to anyone in need of transportation for very reasonable prices. However, this can be exceedingly dangerous due to the aggressive habits of all Dominican drivers and the motochoncho's tendency to weave between larger vehicles. It's also not the best method in inclement weather, and you likely won't be provided with a helmet.
Renting a Car: The town has one small, local car rental facility: Xamana Rent-A-Motor. It's pricey, there's not much of a selection, and driving in the Dominican Republic can be confusing and, frankly, scary. If you've got just a few hours in port, it's worth foregoing this option and spending the money on a tour instead.
Watch Out For
The Dominican Republic has a reputation for crime. Although you'll find less of it in Samana than in other locations throughout the D.R., always be aware of your surroundings, stay in groups, and don't venture to places you don't know when not on an organized tour or with a reputable guide. As a general rule of thumb, leave all jewelry and valuables onboard in your cabin safe, and carry only as much cash as you think you'll need. We recommend a money belt to keep valuables safe while you're ashore.
Also be sure to pack bug spray; you won't have much of a problem outdoors, but you might use some restroom facilities (particularly if you're headed to the beach) that are not air-conditioned, making them perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes -- and the blood-suckers are vicious.
Whale-watching: January through March is prime whale-watching season in Samana. If you're lucky, you may be able to see humpbacks frolicking in the water from the deck of your ship, but the best bet if you really want to see these awesome creatures is to book a tour, either independently or through your cruise line.
Walk the Plank Zip Line: A trip to this 12-part zip line can only be had by booking a tour, but it's definitely worth it for the views -- or to conquer your fear of heights. It's rumored to be the safest zip line in the Americas, boasting an actual brake system (as opposed to the glove system used on most zip lines). At the conclusion of the run, you'll end up at the Lulu Waterfall, where you can cool down with a swim. It's generally partnered with a to-and-from tour via open-air bus; a trip to a local co-op, where you can taste-test everything from plantains to homemade local coffee and chocolate; and a delicious lunch on an old fishing beach. Rumor has it that plans are also in the works to add an eco-lodge, a monkey jungle and a chocolate-making facility onsite.
El Limon Waterfall: This breathtaking waterfall is a bit cumbersome to get to, but it's accessible on foot and on horseback. There's no admission fee, and it's open to the public for swimming, but you'll need a guide to get you there. Just behind the falls is a cave that makes for some fun exploration if you're game.
Been There, Done That
Ride an ATV: If you just want to be out and about for the day, look into renting an ATV. Whether you're on your own or carrying a passenger, it's a great way to get around to see some of Samana's most well-known sights, and the price of rental includes a guide so you won't get lost on the wooded trails.
Local Sights: Take Calle Colon to Calle Teadore Chasereaux, and check out the adorable La Churcha, an Evangelical church brought to the Dominican Republic from England in the 1800's. Across from it, you'll find a beautiful Catholic church that holds services on Sunday mornings, should you happen to be in port on a weekend. If you're in the mood for a walk, the Bridge to Nowhere offers an intriguing jaunt from the nearby Playa Cayacoa beach to an uninhabited island just off of the bay in Samana. Or, if you'd like to see an impressive piece of local infrastructure, along with stunning views, grab a taxi to the manmade lake that was recently constructed to supply about 80 percent of the peninsula's homes with water.
Playa Cayacoa: This is the closest beach to where your ship will dock when calling on Samana -- about a 15- to 20-minute walk or a five-minute taxi ride. (Note: Many taxis won't traverse the pitted dirt road to get there, so you might have better luck walking or hiring one of a few rickshaws.) It doesn't have much in the way of amenities, but you will find a few small stands selling trinkets and souvenirs. It's also where you'll find access to the Bridge to Nowhere.
Playa Anadel: The private beach club here offers changing rooms, a restaurant, nice bathrooms and rental loungers. Visitors can buy boat transportation from the port to the beach or day passes that include transportation, a beach chair and drink vouchers.
Cayo Levantado: This island, just off the Samana peninsula, is reachable only by ship-sponsored tender boat, regardless of where your ship docks. It's made up of two sides: a private resort side and a public side to which cruise visitors have access. On the public half are bathrooms, activity areas (kayaking, sea lion encounters, etc.), places to eat and buy fancy drinks, and a clean beach with loungers and water sports equipment rentals. Beware: Locals will interrupt your otherwise serene sunbathing to tout painfully rough massages, hair-braiding and overpriced coconut drinks.
Authentic Dominican food is generally locally grown and produced. You'll find there's an emphasis on chicken and freshly caught fish, rice and beans, and fruits like coconuts and plantains. Many residents operate stands that offer homemade items like bread and empanadas. Drinks native to the area include fresh fruit juices, Dominican coffee and hot chocolate, Kola Real soda and -- for those looking for a bit of an alcoholic kick -- Mama Juana, Presidente beer and local rum. There also seems to be a surplus of Italian fare in the DR.
Cafesitio: Don't let this cafe's small size fool you; the menu is fairly extensive, and the food is amazing to boot. It's open all day, but its specialties are desserts and breakfast foods. Choose from sandwiches, pancakes and other standard fare. Of note are the milkshakes, fruit juices (especially pina/pineapple and chinola/passion fruit) and hot chocolate made fresh with local cocoa. Menus are available in Spanish and English. (Calle Colon; open daily 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Bon: For those who only have eyes for dessert, check out Bon, an ice cream shop. You may have some trouble communicating with the employees if they don't speak English, as the menus are only in Spanish. It's worth the gesturing, though -- the end result sure is tasty. (Avenida La Marina/Malecon)
Le Royal Snack Bar & Restaurant: Craving a burger? Look no further than this little spot, situated next to Bon. (Avenida La Marina/Malecon; 829-994-2952)
Local Fare: On days when ships are in port, locals set up stands near Dock Moto Marina Club. Be sure to try the empanadas. Fried and filled with meat, they're very inexpensive, they're great for a quick meal on the go, and -- best of all -- they're delicious. If you book a tour in Samana, there's a chance an authentic Dominican lunch will be included, featuring items like chicken, fish, rice and beans, cabbage salad and plantains.
On Cayo Levantado: If you're venturing to the island, you'll have a few buffet options for lunch, but they all serve similar fare: chicken, fish, pasta salad, rice and beans, lots of fresh veggies (cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots), bread and fruit (orange, pineapple, papaya, coconut).
Staying in Touch
The aforementioned El Cafesitio offers free Wi-Fi for customers. It's also a great place to grab a bite to eat. (Calle Colon; open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Best for Adventure-seekers: Try an ATV adventure or horseback ride to one of two stunning waterfalls, where you can take a refreshing dip. You'll also get a bit of local history as you pass notable sites like the peninsula's new manmade lake, which provides water to most of Samana. These tours take roughly three hours, and ATV excursions can be done with one passenger or two. For more wallet-friendly and all-inclusive independent versions of these excursions, try Tour Samana With Terry. His tours may also include a zip line ride and visits to a local co-op -- where you'll sample items like real cocoa, freshly made hot chocolate, Mama Juana and plantains -- and an old fishing beach that hosts a buffet lunch with authentic Dominican cuisine. You'll even get free beverages (water, soda, beer, rum) throughout the excursion. (2nd Roundabout, Main Street; 809-538-3179; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Best for History and Culture Buffs: A four-hour cultural highlights tour will take you to local sites with cultural significance, including La Churcha, a church brought from England in pieces and reassembled in 1860; a small whale exhibit, explaining all you need to know about the area's famed humpback whales; and Taino Park, where you'll learn about Hispaniola's original inhabitants.
Best for Beach Bums: If a beach day is what you're seeking and your ship isn't calling directly on Cayo Levantado, book a trip to this island, a 10-minute tender ride from Samana. Once ashore, you'll have access to everything you need for a fun day outdoors -- a clean beach with loungers and water sports rentals, massages, food and drinks, souvenirs, bathrooms and activities like kayaking and sea lion encounters -- all within walking distance. (Note: When ships are in port in Samana, they have exclusive rights to tender passengers to Cayo. So, if you want to go, you'll have to book the excursion through your cruise line.) Budget about five hours for this jaunt.
For More Information
Official Tourism Web site of the Dominican Republic
Go Samana Web site
Cayo Levantado Web site
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Dominican Republic
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--by Ashley Kosciolek, Associate Editor