Embark on a two-hour drive heading northeast from Dominican Republic's blustering historical capital, past roadside villages and farmlands, and you'll find yourself in a place completely different from the one you just came from.
Samana is, in many ways, still very old-fashioned and uncomplicated. There are no towering skyscrapers, barely any trivialities of the modern city life. There are just brightly painted houses, lush hills, locals on modest motorcycles, and beaches... miles and miles of glorious beaches with equally glorious waters.
A short boat ride away from town takes you to an even more tantalizing destination: the tropical island paradise of Cayo Levantado. While American travelers still descend upon the resort region of Punta Cana, about four hours southeast of Samana, the flurry of European and Canadian tourists that have long frequented the destination consider Samana the spot to be, their little own slice of mostly unspoiled heaven. And Cayo Levantado, in particular, they wouldn't mind keeping for themselves.
What makes Cayo Levantado irresistible isn't how extraordinarily beautiful it is. It's beautiful, certainly; but from a boat, the island looks like any other island in the area: unbelievably green with a coast made of alternating water-chiseled rocks and white sand beaches. It isn't the warm, shallow waters either--so clear you can easily spot a flesh-colored sand dollar at the bottom, its gentle waves lapping endlessly and ever so invitingly. It isn't even Bacardi Beach, whose fine sandy shore dotted with tall, swaying palm trees draws day trippers by the numbers aboard small passenger catamarans from the mainland.
Set in the vast Samana Bay, Cayo Levantado's unmistakable appeal stems not from its aesthetics but more from the feeling of remoteness it conveys. Save for a few golf carts used by guests at the only resort on the island, it is free of land vehicles, even motorcycles (the preferred mode of transportation around these parts). Walk along the coast and all you can hear is the sound of the rolling sea; meander through its wooded sections and your only distractions are the calls of the birds. It's only a few minutes from town and yet it feels completely isolated, shut away from the rest of the world's thundering noise. It's a place where you can slip into a slow rhythm and forget, even for just a few hours.
The wiser travelers know the drill - to stay here for a few days, one must book a suite at Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado, the one resort that's managed to build and set roots on the island while still respecting its tranquility and wildness. It is adults-only, all-inclusive and alluringly splendid, with palatial bedrooms and bathrooms, four-poster beds and Jacuzzis on balconies, posh service that includes your very own butler, and access to private beaches.
What would normally come with a high price tag, however, is surprisingly affordable. While bubbling with exclusivity, the resort's free form pools, marvelous spa, 24-hour room service, and fantastic buffet and a la carte restaurants serving international fares from Mediterranean to Brazilian aren't reserved only for the rich and the famous.
Book a suite or a villa at the resort and stay for a few nights or so to experience what Cayo Levantado is really about. Snorkel its shallow reefs; watch the sunset at one of its beaches; take a Scuba diving lesson; or simply explore the rest of the island and get to know its 'residents.' When the last of the day visitors have left, head to Bacardi Beach for drinks. Afterwards, when the night has come and the alcohol has ever so slightly dulled your senses, let your inhibitions go and dance the Merengue (Dominican Republic's national dance) on the now dimly lit beach under the glow of the moonlight.
This is Cayo Levantado, after all; and what is it if not a place for unspooling?
Michelle Rae Uy is a travel writer, editor and amateur photographer based in Los Angeles. Check out her other adventures on Another Spur on the Road.