NONSTOP // CLT-AZS
Samaná, Dominican Republic
Flight Time: 3:45
En route along the winding, mountainous road from Samaná El Catey International Airport, a surprise rises out of the rain forest: a full Hollywood production, complete with towering lights and equipment trucks. It takes only 20 minutes to arrive at my destination, the all-inclusive resort Bahia Principe Grand El Portillo, where an attendant tells me Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock are on the Dominican peninsula for the jungle-set adventure film The Lost City. The film crew has taken up a few hundred rooms at the resort, along with a restaurant converted into a temporary production office.
“Are the stars staying here, too?” I ask.
“Oh, no,” she says with a laugh. “No one knows where they’re staying.”
I briefly feel inclined to solve that mystery during my three-night stay at the Grand El Portillo. Then I remember I’m not here as a paparazzo. I’m an honest-to-God journalist here to discover Charlotte’s latest nonstop destination, Samaná, Dominican Republic. Plus, an honest-to-God cabana bar serves honest-to-God piña coladas just feet from my room.
Airlines have offered nonstop flights from CLT to the Dominican cities of Santo Domingo and Punta Cana for years. Until recently, Samaná has been a destination for wealthy European and Canadian tourists. But it’s become popular for Americans, too; thousands of tourists flock to the shorelines in winter and spring to watch humpback whales during their prime breeding season.
Many of Samaná’s major resorts have opened just in the past few years, and the peninsula is gaining new nonstops from airports like CLT. (To quell any confusion in your Google searches: Samaná is the name of a peninsula, a province inside of that peninsula, and a town inside of that province. For clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to the entire peninsula.) Of the D.R.’s well-traversed locales, Samaná is known for its undeveloped jungle terrain. On his first trip to the Americas, Christopher Columbus described the lush, tropical landscape as “the fairest land on the face of the earth.” To this day, Samaná is the primary producer of coconuts in the D.R.
When you stay at a resort, you typically get to know your bartender better than the country you’re in. Still, one of this resort’s best attributes is its evocation of what surrounds it. Flamboyant blooms, West Indian cedars, and the lush green of the region’s palms engulf the villas and walkways. Miniature huts, spaced for privacy, line the beach at the rear of the property; stand at its center and look in any direction, and you witness a cinematic, Instagram-worthy attraction. (Which, I guess, is why Pitt, Bullock, et al., are in town.) As you walk the paths, you might come across a Buddhist-style zen garden, a private wooden enclosure hidden by palm trees, or, most welcome, a hut with a full bar you hadn’t previously encountered.
Grand El Portillo reopened in 2021 after an eight-figure upgrade during a COVID shutdown. Its “renovation concept” is called “Mirror of the Sea,” modeled after coastal towns scattered throughout the region. Bahia Principe has properties more suited for romantic getaways; this one is about pampering visitors of all ages and interests with six restaurants, two pools, a water park, spas, a sports bar, and separate, staff-monitored hangouts for kids and teens. The breakfast and lunch buffet, El Limón, reflects that blend of familiarity for U.S. visitors and local options for adventurous tourists, with mashed plantains alongside American-style waffles.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities to see Samaná outside of a resort. The ratio of comfort to adventure is up to you.
Rooms at Bahia Principe Grand El Portillo are simplistic and spacious, in keeping with its family-friendliness. (The hillside Bahia Principe Luxury Samaná, with its seaside balconies, bathrobes and slippers, and 24-hour room service, is the more romantic, adults-only experience. That resort is about an hour away, on the southern side of Samaná.) Activities like beach yoga, dance classes, and arcade games maintain the familial vibe throughout the day; hoppin’ bars, live shows, and dancing give the night a more mature appeal. But don’t worry: The bars are open all day.
Eat + Drink
We’ve touched on the buffets, but Bahia Principe Grand El Portillo also has diverse non-buffet, dine-in restaurant options. The menus at The Greek and The Fish Market offer different ocean flavors. Boavista, a Brazilian-style rodízio, serves grilled meat tableside. A personal favorite: Portofino (not to be confused with Charlotte’s Italian restaurants) makes an especially addictive Bolognese pasta.
Atop the mountainous Rancho Español region in Samaná, the Las Ballenas Cigars factory produces hundreds of handcrafted cigars each day. Owner Roel Vosters, a native of Belgium, came to the Dominican Republic as an exchange student more than a decade ago before he decided to return and enter the industry. The D.R. produces three times as many cigars as Cuba, and several are among the highest rated in the world.
Las Ballenas is one of several stops on tours by Runners Adventures, which takes visitors to a Dominican farm that produces native fruits, coffee, and chocolate; a rubber plantation; and into nearby towns. Other Runners Adventures tours: “Monkeyland,” a 5-acre attraction with monkeys and other native fauna; a zip-line outing; a waterfall survey; and a horseback riding tour.