Punta Cana — the good, the bad, and the surprising

I just returned from my first visit to Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) and wanted to share my impressions of the destination itself, as well as the resorts that I toured.  Overall, I have to say that I was impressed.  The beaches were beautiful, the service was better than I expected, and I did not have any real issues with the food (and that’s a big one for me, since I’ve experienced “Montezuma’s Revenge” in Mexico – twice)  If you want to skip right ahead to the photos, you can visit my Facebook page. The detailed trip review is below.

I flew nonstop on Jet Blue from Boston, which was a quick four-hour hop. The Punta Cana airport is a typical Caribbean set-up where you exit your plane via portable stairs down to the tarmac and then shuttle over to the terminal itself. Customs/immigration were a breeze, I paid my $10 entry fee, found my bag, and was at the tour operator’s desk in just a few minutes. Since I had booked a private transfer, there was no waiting around for other passengers – I was in the car and on my way in no time. The 30-minute ride to the resort was a little bit scary, as the roads are not in great condition and my driver liked to pass people using the oncoming lane, but I survived. It’s worth noting that when you return to the airport to depart, the right-hand side of the departures terminal is not air-conditioned (it’s open-air) but the left-hand side, past the food court, does have A/C. And it was much appreciated!

Majestic Colonial

I chose this resort because I like a more traditional Caribbean décor, I frequently sell its sister property (Majestic Elegance) to my honeymoon clients, and I wanted to see how this one would be for families.  The property experienced a major fire about 6-8 weeks prior to my arrival, and I was a little bit concerned about the re-construction that would be taking place, but I decided not to change my plans.

What a smart decision that turned out to be! The spa and the swim-up bar had already been re-built by the time I arrived, and the main beachfront restaurant re-opened on my second night. You really would never know there had been a fire.

The open-air lobby has a vaulted ceiling and a very tropical feel. It looks down onto a lower level lobby bar with open archways looking out onto pools and fountains. A great first impression! A long meandering pool winds its way through the property all the way to the beach, and there are plenty of different areas for sun and shade – we never had a problem finding chairs. The beach itself is beautiful and wide, with more than enough shade trees and palapas for everyone. There’s a beachfront bar, and a barbecue area for lunch/snacks, and we spent most of our time right there under a palapa looking out at the ocean. We also got to watch a few weddings on the beach (at our resort and the Majestic Elegance next door), so that was a nice treat.

Our standard junior suite with Jacuzzi was on the second floor in building #2, close to the main lobby and restaurants, with a lovely view over the pool. I could not have asked for a better location. The room was spacious, with two double beds, a large sitting area, a stocked minibar, a furnished balcony, and an open-plan bathroom that I had read lots of complaints about online, but which actually turned out fine. The Jacuzzi (for two) separates the bedroom from the bathroom, and is totally open to the rest of the room – as is the double sink area. The toilet is in its own small alcove with a frosted glass door, and the (very large) walk-in rain shower is also behind frosted glass. Even though I was traveling with my sister there really was no problem with a lack of privacy. The beds were comfortable, although the pillows were kind of strange (long, narrow and flat) and the A/C worked great.

The service varied from excellent (the front desk staffer who remembered my name AND my room number after checking me in a few days prior) to perfectly acceptable (the staff in the buffet restaurant who did not speak English but did their best to understand and accommodate any requests) We found our room decorated with rose petals and towel swans, and were surprised each evening with “treats” delivered to our room (a bottle of wine, a plate of sushi, etc.) – though I never found out whether this was standard practice or if they did it because they knew I was a travel agent.

The drinks were not great, unless you stuck with tried-and-true things like the local beer (which was very good) or a basic rum and coke. I definitely would not have ordered anything complicated like a martini. The food was fine. The breakfast buffet was extensive, with more choices than anyone could ever need, including fresh fruit, made-to-order omelettes and crepes, and lots of local delicacies. The lunches were good.  We ate at the beachfront barbecue as well as at the buffet. And the dinners varied – the Mexican/Dominican restaurant was better than I expected, the Japanese Hibachi restaurant was kind of weird (very tasty food, but no interaction at all from the Hibachi chef, who just put the food on the grill, put it on our plates, and walked away), and the seafood restaurant (which had just re-opened the night we ate there) was kind of disappointing. Overall, it wasn’t terrible, and we didn’t have any stomach issues. That’s better than what I expected, so it was more than fine.

Every evening after dinner there was live music in the main plaza, and there was also a theater that supposedly had entertainment every night at 10pm, but we never went. There’s also a Kids Club, a small casino, and a watersports desk that provides snorkel equipment, kayaks, and sailboats.

My overall opinion is that it’s a very solid four-star beachfront all-inclusive with a nice casual vibe and a family-friendly atmosphere. My only complaints (and these are minor) are that the free WiFi service (only available in the lobby area) was spotty and slow, and that I wished there was a snack bar where you could get just a slice of pizza or a dish of ice cream if you didn’t want a full meal. I would certainly go back again, and would happily send clients there. They are about to begin construction on an adults-only “Colonial Club” section within the resort (set to open in Nov) and I would definitely send honeymooners there in the future.

While I was in Punta Cana, I also spent a couple of days touring some other resorts. Some visits were more extensive than others (including room inspections and/or a meal on property) but my general thoughts and impressions are below:

 

Excellence Punta Cana

This adults-only all-inclusive is very popular for honeymoons and destination weddings, and I can see why. The beach and pools are lovely, and I especially liked the smaller, quieter pool on the right hand side of the property. There are lots of included activities (from water sports and fitness activities, to minigolf, archery, and horseback riding on the beach), and the guys would love the open-air sports bar with TVs, pool tables, ping pong and more.  There’s also a wide assortment of restaurants, with no need for reservations and no surcharges for specialty items like lobster. Some reviews have called the rooms “dated”, but I actually saw them more as “tropical” and casual in style, rather than marble/contemporary like some of the big new resorts. The balconies were kind of small, but other than that I had no complaints about the rooms. From what I was told, the “Excellence Club” rooms have recently been re-done, and the rest of the rooms are slated for an update as well.

Hard Rock Hotel Punta Cana

The polar opposite of the Majestic or the Excellence, the Hard Rock is huge (1,300+ rooms), glitzy and modern. To me, it felt more like Las Vegas than the Caribbean. There are two separate lobbies, one for individuals and one just for groups, and it’s clear that groups/conventions are a large part of this hotel’s business. Because of the sheer size of the property, there are trams that run continuously to take guests from one end to another, and I would counsel clients to choose their room location wisely – some room blocks are close to the beach, but a very long walk from the restaurants/entertainment, and others are the opposite. This resort was the most American of all the ones I visited (in comparison to the Majestic Colonial, where it seemed like half the guests were speaking other languages), it was also the busiest and most active, and it looked like it had the most nightlife (a huge casino, a disco, live shows, etc.) I did not get to see a room, as the hotel was at 100% occupancy, but the public areas were very polished, with lots of marble, glass, and high-tech video screens. To me, this property would be best for active singles and groups who want a lot of entertainment, dining, and nightlife options. I would not recommend it for romance, quiet relaxation, or beach-worshippers.

 Iberostar Bavaro Suites / Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro

I got a very quick spin through the Bavaro Suites (a low-rise, all-suite property with small clusters of buildings sprinkled throughout a lush property) and a more extensive tour of the adults-only Iberostar Grand next door.  The Grand is an impressive U-shaped building surrounding a beautiful pool complex with a unique accessory  — a ship “docked” in the middle, that houses a bar and club onboard. There are multiple gourmet a la carte restaurants and, while reservations are required, the concierge will sit down with guests and make all the advance reservations for them on the day they check in. The property feels very romantic and serene, and the room décor is in keeping with that, with lots of soothing white and ivory, punctuated by colorful local Dominican art on the walls. The ocean view room that I toured also had a glass-enclosed whirlpool tub with a fantastic view! I would recommend this property for honeymoons, anniversaries, milestone birthdays, girls’ getaways, or any relaxing, pampering, adult-oriented vacation.

 

Paradisus Punta Cana / The Reserve at Paradisus Punta Cana

I wanted to love this property, and there are elements that I did like very much, but the sheer physical size of the resort is a little bit off-putting – I saw too many hot, tired guests trudging along the paths between their rooms and the beach or the restaurants, trying to flag down our golf cart for a ride. While there is a shuttle that runs a continuous loop, I’m not sure how practical that is for a family with tired/cranky kids, or even just a guest who forgot his/her sunblock back at the room. That aside, the property is extremely lush and beautiful, and the newly renovated room that I toured was stunning (check out the “fish tank”!). Some of these rooms even have unique little private gardens with Bali beds.  The family-oriented Reserve section has spacious one- and two-bedroom suites, and an available “family concierge” room category that includes all sorts of perks/amenities for the little ones. There’s a family-oriented pool area, a high-quality kids club, and lots of kid-friendly dining options. And I have to say that the best meal that I had on this trip was in the Mediterranean restaurant at Paradisus. But I would be cautious about who I booked into this property, and would have to make sure they understood the distances involved.

 

 

Barcelo Bavaro Beach  / Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe

By the time that I reached the Barcelo complex, my energy was waning, and my camera battery was dying, so this will be a brief review. The Barcelo Bavaro Beach is connected to a convention center, and I saw LOTS of guests with nametags, who clearly were there on business. If you do not mind sharing your vacation with convention-goers, it is a nice adults-only option on a great beach. The adjacent Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe offers some nice family-friendly features like their new water park (where I saw some adults enjoying the water slides and wave pool as well) and family suites that have just one entrance from the hall into rooms that connect through an interior door and the balcony. While this is also a large property, with a tram that runs from end to end, it feels more walkable because of the layout. The resort runs parallel to the beach, so there are waterviews from even the more distant room blocks, and you’re never THAT long a walk from the ocean.

For another viewpoint on the Majestic Colonial, check out my sister’s blog post — “Confessions of an all-inclusive virgin“. And if you want more information about any of these properties, just let me know!

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You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)