Last updated: 08:47 PM ET, Wed October 26 2016

Las Terrenas: Dominican Beach Town with European Flair

Destination & Tourism Matt Bokor October 19, 2016

Las Terrenas: Dominican Beach Town with European Flair

PHOTO: Fishermen's Village features a variety of restaurants, all with stunning views of the Atlantic. (Photo by Matt Bokor)

A former fishing camp on the northeast shore of the Dominican Republic, Las Terrenas is a tropical paradise appealing for what it isn't—crowded, noisy or pretentious.

Its charm includes eight miles of palm-dotted, golden-sand beaches sprinkled with thatch-roofed bars and cook shacks fronting the Atlantic Ocean; excellent international cuisine served at tables in the sand; lodging choices for every budget; and inviting, family-owned markets and shops.

You won't see a McDonald's, Chili's or Pizza Hut. Only one Dominican grocery chain has a presence here.

You won't hear much English, either, as Las Terrenas is by far more popular among Europeans than Americans. The most-often overheard languages are French, German, Italian and two types of Spanish, the Dominican vernacular and that of expatriates and tourists from Spain.

Now with about 25,000 year-round residents, Las Terrenas in the Samaná province didn't even show up on the map until the 1980s after a handful of Dominican fishermen had built their rustic homes and simple markets on the Atlantic shore.

Fishermen's Village is the Hotspot

Pioneering European entrepreneurs, who came to open boutique hotels and inns, began to buy out the fishermen and set up bars and cafés in the ramshackle houses. The little spot morphed into a thriving, bohemian cluster of a dozen bars and restaurants known as the Pueblo de los Pescadores (Fishermen's Village).

Fire wiped it out in May 2012, but a new, Key West-style plaza quickly went up in its footprint, with several of the same businesses thriving there once again.

READ MORE: 3 Dominican Republic Treasures Beyond Punta Cana

The town's main attraction with nine restaurants and two nightclubs, Fishermen's Village dishes up something for everyone: Spanish cuisine (Cayuco); French dining (La Terrasse); Italian fare (La Vita E Bella); genuine, brick-oven Italian pizza (Pizza Playa); and hamburgers, empanadas, ceviche, tuna sliders and carpaccios (One Love Surfshack/Sports Bar). A few scorched tree trunks are the only reminders of the fire.

The fishermen are still there, too, just on the other side of town. They set out in their beat-up, fiberglass boats daily at dawn and by midmorning have displayed the day's catch—mahi-mahi, tuna, lobster, shrimp, clams, octopus, conch, squid—on wooden tables shaded by almond trees.

Beachfront Bocce

Las Terrenas' popularity among Europeans is evident throughout town. At least one pizzeria is on every block, reflecting the Italian influence. La Bagette café and bakery is ground zero of the widespread French influence. Several beachfront bars have bocce courts marked off in the sand, where European expats converge like clockwork in midafternoon to compete and imbibe. Several restaurants print multilingual menus (Spanish, French, Italian, German, English).

PHOTO: Coconut palms dot the tranquil, eight-mile beach at Las Terrenas. (Photo by Matt Bokor)

Staying this time at the mid-range Las Palmas Al Mar villas, my wife and I spent quality time at the beach in blue lounge chairs, occasionally shifting them to follow the shade of the coconut palms. We strategically parked ourselves a few steps from a drink shack for a steady flow of Presidente beer, the national brew.

To experience luxury at its finest, escape to Sublime Samaná Hotel & Residence, an exclusive collection of 52 suites and 24 casitas (freestanding villas) nestled among seven oceanfront acres. Modern and elegant, the resort, five minutes from Las Terrenas, opened in 2012 and centers around an expansive canal of pools stretching nearly 500 feet from end-to-end.  

Waterfalls, Caves and Whale-Watching

Another plus for Las Terrenas is its proximity to other great destinations. The best side trips are a half-day excursion to the moss-draped, 120-foot waterfall at El Limón, and a day trip to Los Haitises National Park, a former pirate hideout featuring unique rock keys, pristine mangrove forests, serpentine caves and coastal and inland wildlife habitats.

From January through March, whale-watching excursions provide visitors a close-up view of humpback whales frolicking in their annual winter migration from the northern Gulf of Maine to Samaná Bay.

In our latest visit, we mustered the courage to rent surfboards (about $9 an hour) to try stand-up paddle surfing. Although I could paddle pretty easily on my knees, standing up proved more challenging, as evidenced by the row of bruises across my chest from falling onto the board. Next time we'll do it right and take lessons at Carolina Surf School, owned and operated by Dominican surfing pro Carolina Gutierrez.

While we enjoy the all-inclusive experience on occasion, we also enjoy immersing ourselves in the local mix of people, culture, shops and sites while traveling. Being a Dominican beach town with European flair, Las Terrenas weaves it all together.