'There's someone on OUR beach," Michel whispers with disdain, waking me from a half-snooze induced by the gentle murmur of surf and palm fronds rustling in the tropical breeze. Sure enough, some folks are stoking a fire at the edge of the sand, lining up chicken thighs on a grill. It's our fifth day in the Dominican Republic and this is the first time we've seen another soul on the long sandy strand called Playa Caleton. We have become spoiled and unabashedly territorial.
Moments later a smiling woman walks toward us with a pair of freshly topped green coconuts brimming with sweet juice. "My buddies and I offer this as an apology for invading your private beach," jokes the young American Peace Corps worker. "A bit of Dominican hospitality."
The Dominican Republic is synonymous with all-inclusive getaways. It's easy to get to, but seemingly short on unique cultural experiences. So while searching for a reasonable off-the-grid getaway last winter, I was surprised when a friend raved about a sleepy seaside village called Las Galeras at the northeast tip of the DR's Samana Peninsula.
She talked about a no-frills fishing town that is exotic yet comfortably safe with great beaches, friendly locals and decent accommodation. The nightlife is scant but it's home to a few good restaurants. It sounded perfect.
After landing at El Catey airport, my friend and I are met by Ronald Peeters. Sporting a mop of blond-brown dreadlocks, the chatty Belgian ex-pat speaks a unique mash-up of Flemish, Spanish and Creole and runs a backpacker's outpost in Las Galeras. He also provides reliable shuttles on the winding 90-minute drive through mountain villages.
There is a single all-inclusive outside Las Galeras, but in town it's mostly B&Bs and apartments to rent. We chose an apartment with a kitchen at La Isleta, a two-minute walk up a lane from the main street. Set in a tropical garden, we can hear the surf from our two-level unit, which features a loft bedroom and a patio surrounded by hibiscus.
This is a one main-street village with a handful of souvenir/money changer shops, a few restaurants, scuba outfitters and art outlets. There's a supermarket for Dominican coffee and sugar, and a farmer's stall for fresh fruit and veggies. We stock up on Brugel and Barcelo aged rums at a liquor/hardware store before stoping for an espresso at the Boulangerie La Marseillaise. Before leaving we pick up a warm baguette and chilled wine.
In the morning there's distant chatter on the town beach as boat operators barter with tourists heading to two stellar beaches accessible only by a long hike or a 30-minute boat ride: Playa Rincon (three miles of white sand lined with coconut and almond trees) and Playa Fronton, with great snorkelling. Condé Nast Traveler consistently rates the Samana Peninsula's beaches among the world's 10 best.
We contemplate which one to visit while Michel brews coffee and I shake the guava tree for a dozen ripe fruit dangling at the edge of our patio. But we decide to avoid the crowds. "Let's check out the local beaches first," I say.
After breakfast we stroll 20 minutes through town and along a quiet country road to the local beach hangout of La Playita. Nearby, a handful of tourists chat in French, Spanish and Italian. (Las Galeras is also a respite for aid workers in Haiti.)
In late afternoon we hike a rough trail over a craggy headland and pop out at the next beach 15 minutes later, surprised to find the pristine crescent of Playa Caleton completely deserted. We lounge the afternoon away, thrilled that no one comes along.
The next morning, without notice, a handsome fisherman in a grey cable-knit sweater shows up at our condo with a freshly caught snapper. He then filets it at the table: This is dinner delivery Las Galeras-style. After he leaves we stash it in the fridge for later then make a beeline back to Playa Caleton. Once again we are blissfully alone for the entire day.
"Tomorrow for sure we'll go to Playa Rincon," Michel vows as we stroll back to our apartment in the buttery rays of sunset. I laugh: It's the same thing we've said every evening of our stay. And every morning the thought of joining a boatload of others has us heading back to our private Playa Caleton.
After all, can even the world's best tropical beach be better than one you have all to yourself?
IF YOU GO
Both Air Canada and WestJet offer weekly charter flights to Samana's El Catey International Airport, a 90-minute drive from Las Galeras. A taxi is roughly $90 one way, but Ronald Peeters of La Rancheta can arrange a shuttle for $70. 1-809-889-4727 or 1-829-939-8285 In Las Galeras, most establishments don't take credit cards, but do accept Canadian, U.S. and Euro currency.
Where to sleep: Villa Serena This colonial-style hotel with 22 rooms, pool, garden and small beach is the best place in town. From $120, including breakfast. 809-538-0000; villaserena.com
La Isleta This spacious two-level apartment comes with a simple kitchen, terrace, jacuzzi, hammocks, barbecue and free bottled water. $75 daily and $448 weekly. Sleeps up to four. 829-887-5058; la-isleta.com
La Rancheta This collection of properties includes simple and funky bungalows, hostel and hacienda from $45 a night for a double. Tent rental from $12. It's located in La Caleta, one mile from central Las Galeras. 829-939-8285; larancheta.com
Where to eat: El Cabito Reservations are recommended for this restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking Rincon Bay, a 20-minute walk away. 829-697-9506; elcabito.net
Le Tainos The fanciest eatery in town features a French chef in the kitchen and a well-stocked bar. Try the steak tartar or fish, and finish with a killer Nutella brownie. Calle Principal, Las Galeras
L'Aventura de John Dominican stewed chicken and good pizza make this place popular. The lively bar bounces with bracelet-cuffed escapees from the all-inclusive. Calle Principal
What to do:
Go horseback riding at La Hacienda Hostel. From $35 for a two-hour trip (829-939-8285, lahaciendahostel.com).
Go whale watching with Canadian conservationist Kim Beddall. Whales Samana is about 30 minutes from Las Galeras. Tours operate Jan. 15 to March 25. $53 for a four-hour cruise. 809-538-2494; whalesamana.com
The nearby town of Samana is the hub for exploring Los Haitises National Park. Trips within the 820-square-kilometre park can be arranged through Moto Marina Club (809-538-2302). Mountain biking excursions can be booked with with Coco MTB Adventures (809-865-4712).