Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017

© Margo Pfeiff

La Playita is the closest sandy beach to the town of Las Galeras.

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A beach of your own

Outside the all-inclusives, the Dominican Republic offers the kind of seclusion you’ve always dreamed of

The sun warmed the sand as the surf and palm tree fronds gently murmurred in the tropical breeze. I was half-snoozing through my novel when my friend Michel suddenly rolled across his towel towards me and said quietly with a hint of disgust in his voice: “There’s someone on our beach.” I looked up to see three locals in the tropical forest at the edge of the strand chopping firewood for a barbecue lunch. It was our fifth day in the Dominican Republic and the first time anyone else had ventured onto the long, pristine stretch of sandy Playa Caletón that had become our daily hangout. Clearly we had become spoiled and territorial.

Like many people, when I think of the DR I think of the Caribbean country’s string of often budget all-inclusive resorts, gated communities offering First World amenities and a buffer from the developing country’s issues — safe, but short on culture and individual experience. Then, last winter when I was looking for a reasonably priced off-the-grid getaway, I was surprised when a friend raved about a sleepy seaside village called Las Galeras she had visited at the northeast tip of the DR’s Samaná Peninsula.

She described the fishing town as an exotic, unpretentious, comfortably safe outpost that had yet to be “discovered,” with great beaches, friendly locals, acceptable accommodation, scant nightlife but a few good restaurants, dodgy Internet access, but plenty of peace and quiet. Sounded perfect since my idea of a vacation is to go “black hole” — a trendy term for what us older folks simply called a “holiday” — no phone, no email and only a point-and-shoot camera that generally remains untouched at the bottom of my bag.

Waterfalls and whales

Michel and I landed at El Catey airport and immediately spotted Ronald Peeters, sporting his trademark blonde-brown dreadlocks. The chatty Belgian ex-pat runs a hostel and hacienda in Las Galeras and also provides reliable shuttles on the winding hour-and-a-half drive through mountain villages from the airport.

En route he filled us in: if we wanted action there was hiking, snorkelling, kayaking, whale-watching and horseback riding, as well as excursions to Cayo Levantado Island and Los Haitises National Park. If we just wanted to relax we could do so on some of the planet’s best and least crowded beaches. Just before the road literally ended on the sand, he turned and dropped us at our condo.

Apart from one all-inclusive on the outskirt, there are no big hotels in Las Galeras, just B&Bs, small apartments and the lovely Villa Serena (Las Galeras oceanfront; tel: 809-538 0000; villaserena.com; doubles from $120. All prices in US dollars) which has a pool, garden and offers yoga and wellness retreats.

Michel and I like to cook so we booked a place with a kitchen at La Isleta (Las Galeras; tel: 829-887-5058; la-isleta.com; $75 per night or $448 weekly), a two-minute walk from the town’s main street. Set in a lush tropical garden with a barbecue, our two-level unit had a loft bedroom with a main floor living room and kitchen opening onto a patio surrounded by hibiscus.

Small-town appeal

Las Galeras is a no-frills one-street village with a handful of souvenir/money-changer shops and restaurants, a couple of scuba outfitters and local art outlets. At a fresh veggie stand, a farmer’s shy nine-year-old daughter weighed up tomatoes, peppers, papaya, pineapple and mangoes. We stocked up on aged Dominican rums at a liquor/hardware store vibrating with bass-ramped reggae music before plopping into roadside café seats at Boulangerie La Marseillaise (Calle Principal, Las Galeras; tel: 809-538-0055), a French bakery. Sipping espresso, we watched scooters roar past, overloaded with kids heading home in school uniforms. Before leaving we picked up chilled wine and a still-warm baguette for dinner.

That night, ocean breezes billowed the bed’s mosquito netting as the surf pounded 30 metres away. In the morning, there was the distant chatter of fishermen and boat operators bartering with beachgoers arriving for shuttles to two stellar beaches accessible only on a long hike or a 30-minute boat ride: Playa Rincón — 4.5 kilometres of white sand lined with coconut and almond trees — and Playa Frontón which offers the area’s best snorkelling. Condé Nast Traveler magazine rates the Samaná Peninsula’s beaches among the world’s 10 best.

While Michel brewed coffee, I shook the guava tree at the edge of our patio, adding to a tropical fruit breakfast. We strolled 20 minutes through town and along a quiet country road to the nearest sandy beach, the popular local hangout of La Playita where two casual eateries serve simple, delicious meals of spiny lobster, fish, chicken, rice and beans, plantain and smokey grilled eggplant. I wiggled my toes in warm sand and felt like I was in heaven. Around us a smattering of tourists chatted in French, Spanish and Italian. Las Galeras is also a popular respite for volunteers and aid workers from Haiti.

Restless by late afternoon, we tackled a gnarly bush trail for 15 minutes over a headland of sharply eroded coral through jungle and alongside small caves to the next beach. To our surprise Playa Caletón was completely deserted.

Fishermen and hustlers

The following morning, as we finished breakfast, a handsome fisherman in a grey cable-knit sweater showed up at our door with freshly caught snapper. He fileted the fish at the table, before we made a bee-line back to Playa Caletón. At midday, we hiked back out to the beach shack at La Playita for lunch, then back to Caletón which we blissfully had to ourselves the entire day.

In late afternoons, we prowled the cheesy shops, then joined locals on the town waterfront as they danced to merengue and bachata music in the sand. In the evenings, we dined at Le Tainos (Calle Principal, Las Galeras; tel: 829-713-7463), an excellent, chic little open-air resto with a French chef in the kitchen. At the casual L’Aventura de John (Calle Principal, Las Galeras), we tucked into traditional Dominican stewed chicken watching local Sanky Panky boys — young male escorts — strut their stuff on the street in front of single female tourists. Meanwhile the lively bar bounced with European ex-pats and escapees from the nearby all-inclusive.

One early afternoon, we strolled the kilometre from town to Ronald’s backpackers’ outpost, La Rancheta (La Caleta, Las Galeras; tel: 829-939-8285; larancheta.com; doubles from $45), a cluster of Caribbean-coloured cottages.

Ronald is renowned for his version of Mamajuana and he joined us for a glass of the traditional Dominican concoction of rum, red wine and honey left to soak in a bottle with tree bark and herbs. Deep red in colour, it is similar to port, with a cinnamon flavour and it soon has my head spinning.

Chef-worthy beach food

We continued walking up a winding hill for another 20 minutes away from town towards the cliff-top El Cabito (La Caleta, Las Galeras; tel: 829-697-9506; elcabito.net), a restaurant with spectacular views out to sea and the best food in Las Galeras — which chef Anthony Bourdain featured on his food and travel program No Reservations last October.

While the appetizer of calamari carpaccio marinated in garlic and olive oil is a melt-in-your-mouth must, the snapper in coconut milk is divine, and “spiny lobster El Cabito" (book in advance) is their specialty. From our cliff-edge table we watched humpback whales breach and glide offshore. When we settled into a giant hammock in the shade of the thatch-roofed bar, we were served the best mojitos I’ve ever had.

The afternoon drifted at a leisurely pace to the tune of great music and waves thundering against the cliffs. In one spot, the pressure has carved a tunnel well inland forcing blasts of warm humid air through a crack in the ground. A group of teenaged boys delighted in standing atop the hole holding out their T-shirts that filled and billowed while their hair went straight up with a hoarse puff of air that sounded like a fire-breathing dragon.

As the sun dipped to the horizon, we headed back on the 45-minute walk through farmland. “Tomorrow for sure we head to Playa Rincón,” Michel vowed when we reached the town beach. I laughed.

Every evening of our stay we swore we would head by boat to one of the more remote beaches. And every morning we thought of spending 30 minutes each way with a boatload of others, and instead we would pack our towels and stroll back to Playa Caletón. After all, can any tropical beach be better than one you have all to yourself?

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