(creative

(creative commons / edhi)

When foreign tourists head to the Dominican Republic, they go to one of three places: Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, or Santo Domingo - and that's why you should head to the Samana Peninsula!

Equidistant from Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and Santo Domingo, this North Coast peninsula boasts untouched beaches, soothing azure waters, and coconut-covered mountains that march down to the sea.

Punta Cana and Puerto Plata are great - but they're expensive and you will spend most of your time surrounded by peeling, pink-skinned tourists. If you're searching for a beach that doesn't look like it was attacked by the creators of Disney World, head to Samana.

You'll most likely need to rent a car to venture into this part of the Dominican Republic, but you will be rewarded with your own slice of paradise - not to mention boutique hotels and rustic bungalows at a quarter the price you would have paid in Punta Cana.

A new highway, opened in 2008, sliced the driving time from Santo Domingo in half, from a frustrating four hours to an enjoyable one-and-a-half hour trip.

If you're willing to get off-the-beaten path in the Dominican Republic, here's a look at what awaits on the Samana Peninsula.

Playa Rincon

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(creative commons / Stupid Dingo)

Also called the Fisherman's Beach, Playa Rincon sits right between the pinchers of this lobster-claw-shaped peninsula. It's widely regarded as the most beautiful beach in the Dominican Republic. Some say it's the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Others say it's the most beautiful stretch of sand in the world. You be the judge.

You better have a Jeep or an SUV and a sense of adventure to attempt the craggy, half-there road that leads down to this remote beach. Driving yourself is not recommended. A more scenic way to approach the sun-drenched strip is by boat from Las Galeras (where you can stock up on food, drinks, sunscreen, and other essentials).

You may be in the middle of nowhere, but the locals who run the two makeshift restaurants at Playa Rincon will cook you the best meal of your life. Choose from lobster, octopus, shrimp, or fish, plucked from the sea, cooked over a small fire, and served with coconut rice and fried plantains.

It doesn't get much better than that.

There are no accommodations at Playa Rincon, but in nearby Las Galeras, you can stay in all-inclusive style at Grand Paradise Samana, or in the well-loved and incredibly affordable Paradisio Bungalows.

Samana

(REUTERS/Eduardo

(REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

The main town, and hub of life on the peninsula, Samana is a surprisingly scenic port. Though you may have a hard time enjoying the harbor in the evening with reggaeton blasting from the seafront bars, a walk through town in the morning is another story.

The highlight of Samana is the scenic walkway that connects a series of small islands in the bay. If you're around between January and March, Samana is one of the breeding places of the humpback whale. Be on the lookout for spouts of water shooting from the sea.

Travelers on a budget should check out Backpackers Samana, a great, affordable option with friendly staff and free WIFI. For a more upscale experience, head to the all-inclusive Gran Bahia Principe Samana.

Las Terrenas

(REUTERS/Eduardo

(REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

Las Terrenas was a famous port for the British in the early 17th century. Today, the town still houses the peninsula's largest European community and biggest tourism industry.

The North Coast town has hotels to fit all tastes at prices that will make you smile. For those on a budget, try the pleasantly landscaped garden apartments of Casa Robinson. For a more upscale (but still reasonably priced) boutique hotel, try the beachfront Los Pinos.

The streets of Las Terrenas deserve a good stroll. There are several shops to appease all of your touristy needs. There are also great restaurants, delicious pate, and pastry shops, reflecting the European influence.

While the small city's beach is quite thin and by no means the best in the area, a quick trip to the east or west will find you on larger, more secluded stretches of sand where horseback riding is very popular.

Dudu Caves

(itsokihadmyhelmeton.blogspot.com)

(itsokihadmyhelmeton.blogspot.com)

Not technically on the Samana Peninsula, the caves are located nearby outside the town of Cabrera.

The caves are a popular local hangout for swimming. If you're feeling adventurous - and want to act like you are 19 again - try jumping off the cliff into the deep lagoon or swinging from one of two rope swings that hover over the clear-blue waters.

The caves are also a popular stop for thrill-seeking scuba divers who head into the dark, flooded cavern to explore the great unknown.

While you can order food or drinks nearby, Dudu is best done as a day trip from Las Terrenas.

Los Haitises National Park

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(creative commons / djembali)

An easy boat ride across the peninsula (or a somewhat longer drive), Los Haitises National Park is known for having one of the most important rainforests and mangrove reserves in the entire Caribbean complete with keys and caves. Look out for parrots, owls, and gannets in the trees or head into the caverns to explore the petroglyphs of the indigenous Taino Indians.

You can only enter with a certified guide, but day excursions can be booked from most hotels and there is a booming ecotourism industry in the park.

Have you been to the Samana Peninsula? Share your suggestions in the comments

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