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!

Confessions of an all-inclusive virgin

I just got back from a visit to Punta Cana, and my trip report (with photos of all the resorts that I toured) will be ready soon.  In the meantime, I have a very interesting blog post from my travel companion, my sister Kate.

Kate is a busy mother of two little girls, and has a very demanding full time job as well, so she jumped at the chance to spend a couple of days on the beach. But she is also a sophisticated New Yorker and a bit of a “foodie”, so I was not at all sure what she would think of our all-inclusive resort. Her first-hand report is below:

Before my recent stay at the Majestic Colonial in Punta Cana, I had never been to an all-inclusive resort. And to be honest, when the opportunity presented itself, I was so excited about the prospect of a few days on the beach, without the kids, that I didn’t really give much though to what I expected the all-inclusive experience to be like. But my trip — in addition to being a much-needed respite from the chaos of being a full-time working mom — was a great introduction to this type of travel experience. Here are my “takeaways,” for any other all-inclusive virgins out there:

1. All-inclusive resorts are a great way to stick to a budget. If you (like me) have a spouse who enjoys his cocktails on the beach, or kids who aren’t sure what they want to eat and like to sample a little bit of a lot of different things, having everything paid for up front takes away the stress of overspending.

2.  There was no sacrifice on the quality of service or amenitites. The grounds were beautifully kept, the beach was gorgeous, and the rooms were clean. We even had the same “towel animals” and flower petals left in our room each night that I got on my honeymoon at a very high-end resort.

3. The food, on balance, was fine. With one exception (dinner at a restaurant that had reopened that very night after a major fire), the meals were pretty good. The quality and variety of the buffets was better than I would have expected. The restaurant dinners, on the other hand, were not as good as I had hoped they would be. But I like to eat out and am used to NYC restaurants, so I have high expectations 🙂

4. All-inclusives — at least this one — are a good option for a family vacation. The resort was very kid-friendly (shallow pools; variety of restaurants; kids’ activities, etc.), without being obtrusively so. Although I probably wouldn’t have considered it before, I would now. 

All the ingredients for the perfect honeymoon

A white sand beach, a few palm trees, and the warm water lapping at your toes. That’s all you need for a tropical honeymoon, right? Wrong!

There’s an art to choosing the perfect destination and finding just the right resort, and there are a lot of factors that come into play (the resort’s atmosphere, the entertainment, the service, the food, the rooms, the other clientele, the available off-resort activities, the ease of getting there, etc.)  With a little help from their favorite travel agent, Jena and Shaun combined all the right ingredients and cooked up exactly the honeymoon they had been dreaming about:

Our honeymoon experience was nothing short of amazing! Annie was excellent to work with and really got to know us and what we were looking for in our honeymoon. We love that we got to see on paper a complete itinerary of a few choices of places so we had all of the knowledge we needed to make an informed decision of what worked best with our schedule, budget, and desires! Annie was great at letting us know what to expect and when, and it all went exactly as we were told it would!

The flights on Continental were smooth. All left at the times they were originally scheduled to, no problems with the air travel at all.

The shuttle transfers also went exactly as planned! We were happy to know exactly what company we should trust when we arrived in Punta Cana, as there were some questionable bystanders that offered to carry our bags. We knew enough not to give them to them, and they left us alone when we said no, but had we not known exactly what company to look for, we would have been confused.

The Majestic Elegance was beautiful! Very clean! The staff was friendly and helpful. Majestic Elegance definitely caters to honeymooners, we met tons of other couples on their honeymoon that all seemed to have the same romantic experience that we were having. The pools were great! And the beach was just steps away! The beach water was soo blue and beautiful and they had those grass hut umbrellas all along the beach to sit under so you could be at the beach all day without frying. We went from the pool to the beach to the pool all day long. Perfect. We didn’t think we were going to use the internet lounge when we read about it before the trip, but it was too easy to hop onto facebook and checkout all of our wedding pictures that people tagged us in, so it was fun to be able to see pictures of our wedding while we were on our honeymoon. Although, we chose not to communicate with anyone, we just wanted to look at pictures of our wedding. 🙂

Our Elegance Club Junior Suite was huge! The bed was gigantic! We loved that it was all tile and no carpets; that gave a very ‘clean’ feeling. We utilized the Jacuzzi in our room which was awesome! We told the staff what time we planned on taking a bath and they came to draw the perfect bath for us with unbelievable bubbles and red rose petals everywhere. We also liked that stand up shower had a rain showerhead, three wall jets, and a handheld jet. The double sinks were also a plus! They also had big closets with hangers and a safe to store our valuables. It was so easy to call it ‘home’ for the week.

The entertainment was great! At 10:00pm almost every night we went to a live show. One night they had a circus that showcased amazing talent! The Michael Jackson tribute show was awesome! There always seemed to be live music on our way to dinner, so we would stop and have a drink first to take that in. They definitely have a great entertainment staff!

The food is the only thing that I can say anything negative about, but I am a food snob, so some people might not mind it as much as I did.  The Japanese restaurant was decent. The Italian restaurant was edible. We did not try the French restaurant, but heard it was good. The buffets (the International buffet and the See by the Sea)…ummm, well, they had a lot of variety, so that was nice, but I personally did not enjoy them at all and found it hard to stomach. But that’s ok, we didn’t go to the DR for the food.

We did not feel the need to leave the resort at all, it was so big and so much to do! Although couples that we talked to that did some of the ‘off resort’ excursions said they were great. We did enjoy some activities right on the beach that were a blast. We did the snorkeling at the reefs that were right at our beach and saw some very colorful fish. We also went kayaking and had a blast. My favorite was the tubing off the back of a motor boat, it was a small cost, but such a rush!

Here are our tips and advice:

  • For the men, be sure to bring a long pair of pants and closed toed shoes- some of the restaurants require this for dinner.
  • We found that the staff here really appreciated it if you opened up a conversation with them in Spanish. Even if you only know how to say “hola”, it seems to go a long way.
  • If you purchase anything from the beach vendors, never pay the first price they ask, always bargain. And if you say “no gracias” to the beach vendors, they leave you alone right away.
  • If delicious food is important to you, this might not be the place for you.
  • Oh, be sure to do the honeymoon dinner at See by the Sea, it is awesome! You have a private table on the beach under a hut at night with your feet in the sand and you feel like you are the only two people in the world, very romantic.

Thank YOU Annie, for everything! We will be sure to contact you for our next trip and spread the word about your great services! I think our next trip is a while away, as now we are onto house hunting!  🙂

Majestic Elegance, Punta Cana

Some great clients just returned from a romantic “escape” to the Majestic Elegance resort in Punta Cana and were kind enough to share their candid feedback, photos, and some tips/advice for other couples considering a similar vacation. 

Hi Ann!

We had such a great time.  Even though we came home to a bunch of snow, we really enjoyed every minute of our vacation. 

The advance planning was great, and we have nothing but positive things to say.  We were provided all the information we needed to make our trip a success! It was very helpful that you told us about the $10 per person fee that they charge when you get there.  It helped us to be more prepared so we knew what to expect.

Our flights were great. Since we only took carry-ons, I thought it may be valuable to know that… I took a curling iron with me in my carry-on.  When we checked in to leave at the Punta Cana airport, the Dominican Republic security does not allow you to carry on hairdryers, curling irons, flat irons, etc.  So I had the option of checking my bag for $29 or relinquishing my curling iron.  I gave them the curling iron since it cost less than $29.  But, it was kind of disappointing that I had to throw it away.  This was surprising, and I thought it would be helpful information that you could pass along to other clients of yours.

We took a cab upon arrival as we didn’t see the shuttle right away and found it difficult to locate the correct person.  We took a taxi to the resort for US $45.   We also did that because we didn’t want to get put in a shuttle that was going to multiple resorts and it would take even longer to get to our resort.  Which turned out to be true –when we met another couple who was also with FunJet and said it took them an hour and half to get to the resort, when our cab ride was only 30 minutes. 

Going home, our concierge told us that the FunJet representative would be there between 3 and 5pm and when I arrived around 3:45, they still had not arrived to help me arrange to shuttle to the airport.  I called the phone number you put on the itinerary for the FunJet service line (thank you so much for providing that!) and was able to confirm our shuttle to go home.  The shuttle was there early and we had no trouble getting to the airport at a time convenient for us.

The Majestic Elegance was wonderful.  It was very clean and well kept, from the rooms to the lobby and all restaurants, bathrooms, etc.  The staff was very nice, friendly and accommodating.  We were very happy with the resort staff who did the games, and events each day (called the “animation team”) The shows each night and the activities during the day were great.  We were very happy with the resort overall and would recommend it to other people.

There was some confusion about the Elegance Club Junior Suite, in the adults-only section of the resort.  At first, we were brought to the wrong room, a room with two small double beds (they looked almost like twin beds).  I told them we were in the wrong room and they said they would push the beds together and make it just like a king.  But then they took us to a different room with a king bed.  The room did not have all the things listed on the website.  We didn’t have robes in our room and had to ask 3 times before they were delivered to us.  There was no “selection of pillows” or aromatherapy stuff or slippers as they stated.  However, the room was always cleaned when we requested and the bed was turned down every night for us.

The food was very good.  The buffet style restaurant was typical, but the steakhouse, Italian, Japanese and French restaurants were excellent.  The food was delicious and we were very happy with those restaurants.  The breakfast buffet was very good and there was basically only one restaurant with a buffet option for lunch if you were in your bathingsuit/cover-ups.

We decided not to do any excursions.  We went parasailing and used the company that had a hut on the beach right at our resort.  We were very happy with that experience and it worked out just as they told us.

Here are some tips/advice for other clients considering a similar “escape”: 

I have stayed at other all-inclusive resorts and it seemed that tipping the staff was a lot more visible and accepted at this resort than others I have stayed at.  I would also recommend that you get more familiar with Spanish phrases/words for the trip.  The staff spoke some English, but many spoke little to no English.  Taxi drivers also spoke little to no English, so if you were familiar with the language, your trip would be smoother – and it’s fun to try and speak a new language.  They also appreciate that you are trying to speak their language, even if it’s not that good.

Thanks again, Ann!

–          Holly

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)