If you believe that Caribbean cruises would be heaven on Earth if only there was more beach time and drinks were included, then here is the place for you: Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic.
Nearly 40 all-inclusive resorts are sprinkled along about 25 miles of wide beach fringed with palm and coconut trees. It's the land of the packaged trip. Once you've arrived, you can stash your wallet in the safe and settle in. The only decisions you'll have to make from that moment on will take place at the buffet tables or at the threshold of your door, where sidewalks lead to both the beach and the pool.
But how to choose the resort? Travel agencies and tour operators advertise a dizzying array of choices. Packages for four-day trips, including airfare, meals and endless drinks, usually run from about $660 to $1,300 per person double, and about $1,000 to $1,900 for seven nights.
Not only are there dozens of seemingly similar resorts to choose from, but the names are often confusingly similar. Sometimes resorts are referred to by their chain ownership name -- say, SuperClubs or Sol Melia -- and sometimes by their individual names, as in Breezes or Melia Caribe Tropical. Just to complicate things a bit more, revolving owners keep changing resort names, and new properties are springing up so quickly even the tourism bureau doesn't have a handle on how many there are, let alone what each one offers.
Be assured, there are major differences. But all share a major characteristic: They are built to carry you away from the cares of the world. Don't go expecting to soak up Dominican culture. The closest town of any size to Punta Cana's resorts is an hour's drive away, and resorts are particularly isolated from the world nearby.
And that's the way many travelers like it. Last year, more than 1.2 million visitors flowed through the Punta Cana airport. All, give or take a few, were en route to an all-inclusive resort.
Once there, tourists are wrapped in a cocoon that even political unrest does not penetrate. About eight months ago, demonstrations in poor urban areas erupted into riots, but visitors to Punta Cana returned home unaware that anything had happened. The U.S. State Department's consular information sheet on the Dominican Republic (available at www.travel.state.gov) notes both that demonstrations can turn violent and that they can be avoided by staying away from crowded areas of urban centers.
Recent hurricanes did manage to break through these barriers. Punta Cana was harder hit than any other resort area in the Dominican Republic, but most places mainly suffered water damage that could be cleaned up rather quickly. At last report, five resorts were still closed but planned to reopen in November or December: Club Med, Natura Park, Punta Cana Resort & Club, SuperClub Breezes and Occidental Allegro Punta Cana.
Cancun vs. Punta Cana
When a customer calls Jacquelene Clark, a travel agent at Liberty Travel in Chevy Chase, and asks for an inexpensive, all-inclusive beach vacation, two ideas immediately leap to mind.
"Punta Cana and the Cancun-Riviera Maya area," she says. "Both have a lot of different kinds of properties, large and small, catering to families or adults." Prices in both cases are reasonable.
On a search last week, Clark quickly came up with all-inclusive packages beginning at about $1,000 in both places. The high end in Cancun was $1,600 for a week and $1,900 in Punta Cana, but the higher price in Punta Cana was only reflecting a more luxurious property there.