Isla Saona

Punta Cana & the Southeast

There’s a reason why boatloads of tourists descend upon this island every day. The powdery, white-sand beach doesn’t seem real from afar, and a dip in the aquamarine surf is a gentle restorative, while palm trees provide a natural awning from the intense sun.

All of this would be perfect if it weren’t for that ear-splitting dance music that's blasted from competing sound systems and the vendors wandering the beach in search of those in need of hair braiding, shells and other knickknacks.

There isn’t much coral to speak of, since much of it has been damaged by heavy boat traffic and inexperienced snorkelers. Most of this 12km-by-5km island is taken over by various companies and all-inclusive resorts that have set up lounge chairs, small dance floors, bars and buffets. Mano Juan (population 500) is the only established community on the island, which is separated from the mainland by the narrow Paseo del Catuano.

The majority of visitors are ferried to Bayahibe early in the morning from resorts further east and expect a booze-cruise-like experience, and usually aren’t disappointed. Most trips include a catamaran ride out to the island and then a speedier motorboat trip back, or vice versa (plus, admission to the park is included). A stop at the piscina natural, a shallow sandbank that extends far from the shore and has crystal-clear water, often includes young Dominican men and women wading through the water serving up glasses of rum and soda to tourists in need of a drink. The buffet lunch tends to be large and quite good.

Unless you specifically request a trip that avoids the standard stops, don’t expect a peaceful paradise, much less a protected national park. The dive shops in Bayahibe tend to offer more rewarding trips that stop for lunch at Isla Saona, but only after visiting other spots for hiking, snorkeling or both. Every hotel, restaurant and shop advertises Saona trips with little variation in quality and price (US$45 to US$80).