Having a Whale of a Time in Samana, Home of the Humpback
Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2020, including Wander Women Cabarete and my post-retreat travels in the Dominican Republic in January.
Have to or want to travel this year? Don’t miss our Travel in 2022 Workshop on Thursday, February 11th 2022, from 5-7PM EST!
After leaving Punta Rucia, we returned to Cabarete and reloaded the car for the next stop on our North Coast adventure: Samana. Unlike Punta Rucia, The Samana Peninsula isn’t really so much off the beaten path — in fact, it’s the go-to in the Dominican Republic for chic European visitors, primarily the French. C’est parti!
Originally, my girl Emma and I were just going solo. But at the last minute (as in, we were packing up the car) we managed to bully fellow Cabarate resident and Wander Women Retreats instructor Sarah into spontaneously joining — and then our final lingering guest Valerie decided, with moments to spare, to take the flight change she was offered due to storms in the US and come with us too! Within an hour we went from a party of two to a party of four.
This is the kind of travel I think I miss the most: four barefoot girls crammed in a tiny rental car, floor full of sand and trunk full of glittery pool floats, on an adventure we threw together totally on the fly, reggaetown blasting on the radio, a vague destination plugged into the GPS.
We decided to break up the three and a half hour drive with a stop at Dudú Lagoon. This was long a place on my Dominican Republic to-do list as a cavern diving destination once hyped by scuba operators across the North Coast. Sadly, it closed to divers in 2022 following a fatal cave diving accident (which, as I’m sure my astute readers already know, is different than cavern diving) and has not reopened to divers since.
My friend and upcoming trip co-host Brenna highly recommended it even as a topside stop, however, and so we couldn’t pass up a scenic leg stretch.
While we were far too chilly to go for a swim and enjoy the zipline or other features, it was beautiful to wander around and check out the above-ground caves. I’d love to come back here on a hot day and splash around — or scuba dive the caverns someday if they reopen!
Back in the car, I began frantically texting the host at the Airbnb we’d requested as we walked out the door in Cabarete, asking them to approve the reservation before we pulled into the area. Yup, we were really channeling last minute vibes this trip!
After debating between basing ourselves in Las Terrenas, the slightly buzzier choice, or Las Galeras, the more “end of the road” option, we’d opted for the former. I’d been in such a frazzled rush I hadn’t really had time to plan very well — how funny that feels to think about in retrospect — but the universe really rewarded our spontaneity, this time.
I mean, how gorgeous is this villa we scored in Las Terrenas?
Yup, as usual, I’d come prepared — with a drone and with pool floats.
This open-air house was a paradise. Honestly, we spent a decent chunk of our three night stay just lounging in the pool, giggling on the porch, or making breakfast in the open-air kitchen with supplies gathered from town. You know with all those French folks running around they’ve got good baguettes in Las Terrenas.
Whenever I stay at a beautiful rental like this with lots of indoor outdoor space, and lots of light, it really gets me daydreaming about calling a place like this home some day. What a good life!
We’d arrived quite late from Cabarete, so after a quick dinner in town we collapsed in our comfy beds, vowing to start properly exploring the Samana Peninsula next morning.
And that we did, with an early morning beach walk along Playa Casa Blanca, the beach that fringes the heart of town.
What had started as a morning stroll and breakfast supply gathering expedition quickly morphed into an impromptu street art tour. If you like Cabarete, Las Terrenas is a similar vibe — just a slightly grown up, more sophisticated version. What a gorgeous little town, bursting with creative inspiration.
And of course, there were many odes to the humpbacks that make the Peninsula famous — and that we crossed our fingers we were going to see the very next day!
The next day, after a lazy few hours back at our villa with a few stray pups we picked up along the way, we packed up the rental car for another beach expedition. This time, we were headed to Playa Las Ballenas, yet another tribute to the marine mammals that draw so many here.
It was a fabulous stretch of sand. A bit rough and rustic, with wooden shacks selling seafood and a few low-rise hotels set back below the palm trees on the opposite side of the dirt road. We sipped fresh coconuts and I opted for a beach massage while the girls sunbathed. Heaven, right on earth.
That night, we dined at Mojitos, famous for a long menu of variations of its namesake — don’t miss the tamarind! It was a fitting send off for our final night in Las Terrenas.
But boy, did we have a big day planned ahead. After packing our tiny rental car to the brim, we took a big detour before heading back to Cabarete, driving south towards the town of Samana itself.
When I realized the end of my retreat would overlap with the very beginning of whale season in Samana Bay, I knew I had to take my chances at having — wait for it — a whale of a time! Actually, I’d first tried to find an available spot on a snorkeling liveaboard in the remote Silver Bank — but it turns out these things sell out years in advance. (There was a last minute single spot available in a shared male cabin — alas, not for me, but certainly worth looking for.)
So Samana it was. The World Wildlife Fund names Samana Bay as one of the best places in the world to watch whales thanks to the 1,500 whales that visit the area from mid-January through mid-March. We were cutting it close, literally arriving a day or two after tours started for the season, but after sending tons of annoying emails to tour operators with innocent questions like “but do the whales ever come EARLY?!” we decided to take a risk.
A magnet for whale tourism since 1985, from the moment you pull into the town of Samana, you know what you’re there for. Samana Town is certainly not the most alluring destination in the Samana Peninsula, but it’s super cute for a day trip from Las Terrenas or Las Galeras, and they sure are proud of their finned friends.
We’d booked a morning whale watching boat with Whale Samana’s Kim Beddall, an acclaimed conservationist who runs the tightest ship in town. It really pays off to do a little research into the most ethical tour operator whenever you want to respectfully interact with wildlife, and we were immediately happy with our choice when we saw them taking copious records for research, and also taking note of other operators bending the rules, most of which Beddall helped create, to report to the coast guard.
The trip is fairly priced at $60, and we spend a pleasant four hours marveling at whales, listening to interesting commentary — I was surprised and impressed that Kim herself was the one giving it — and napping in the sun.
Did you know most humpbacks of the North Atlantic are Dominican? It’s where they were both conceived and born, and later return to give birth themselves. Now, is it just me, are you also picturing an adorable pod of whales with tiny little whale passports from the DR?!
Mkay, just me then. Anyway, the whales come from as far as Canada, Iceland, and the Caribbean — true travelers, these ones.
I’ve been on whale watching tours before but never one where we saw majestic humpbacks so close or in such numbers! (If you’re not so lucky, Whale Samana allows you to reuse your ticket for another trip.) Definitely do reserve in advance — we actually nabbed the last two seats on the boat the day prior.
As amazing a time I had, all I was thinking was I’m dying to get in that water! At the time I thought, I really need to come back to Silver Bank someday (and got the inside scoop on the few boats permitted into the marine park, from Kim.) But wow, did 2020 have a surprise in store for me — my first trip to French Polynesia, where I spent a whole week swimming alongside majestic humpbacks. (Fear not, you’ll read about it soon.) I think I planted the seed for that trip this very day!
2020, you weren’t all bad.
Once back on land, we grabbed a forgettable lunch, strolled the promenade, and decided to peek in the whale museum before our drive back to Cabarete.
The Museo de las Ballenas was surprisingly charming and informative — it’s definitely worth a brief stop if you’re coming all this way for a whale watching tour.
If you visit Las Terrenas in the season, I can’t even imagine not dedicating a day to saying hi to the whales of Samana! Next time I come back, I’m spending twice as long on the Peninsula — and visiting the waterfalls and national parks we passed, and checking out Las Galeras, too.
I’m so grateful to have found another island I’m smitten with, to have shared this trip with so many amazing women, to have been reminded so starkly that I am most myself when I’m covered in sand and by the sea, and to get to relive it all with you again right now, when our travel memories feel more precious than ever.
I’ll be back, Dominican Republic. I can’t wait.
What do you think? Should we run another Dominican Republic retreat? Clearly, I’m itching for an excuse to go back!