Five separate hotels. More than 1,300 rooms. Eighteen holes of golf. Sixteen bars. Fourteen restaurants. Five pools. Two discos.
And not a washcloth to be found. It was just another example of the overwhelming European influence on this beautiful behemoth, where spotty towel service, topless sunbathing and languages other than English rule.
Although a Barcelo representative told me that typically about 25 percent of the guests are North American, I encountered only two--not necessarily a bad thing, but it did keep my mingling to a minimum. Fortunately, many staff members either know just enough English to respond to a request or have become skilled in deciphering mangled Spanish.
Otherwise, the resort is a gorgeously landscaped, well-groomed maze. Two hotels--the Bavaro Golf and the Bavaro Casino--sit inland, while the oceanside Bavaro Garden is all but cut off by walkways that dead-end before reaching the hotel. The upscale Palace, the newest, priciest and most ornate of the properties, has the most restaurants and bars and the coolest pool, but it also houses the snootiest crowd.
I bunked next door at the Bavaro Beach Hotel in a four-story, horseshoe-shaped building shaded by towering palm trees. My room--tiled floor, satellite TV, oceanview balcony--was quiet and comfortable, but the minibar was a standout. Containing sodas, beers and two hefty bottles of water ("Don't drink the agua" should be Punta Cana's motto), the small refrigerator was restocked each day. Free!
And thank goodness for the room's air conditioning. Most public areas--except for a few restaurants, an auditorium, gift shops and the like--are open air, adding immeasurably to the lush tropical atmosphere but also conducive to underarm sweat stains. I kept the room cool as a morgue for the times that I needed to, uh, chill.
Though resortgoers must wear annoying plastic bracelets that ID their hotel, all pools and sports facilities and most restaurants and bars (see below) are open to guests of any property on the compound. In other words, you're free to wander.
As it turned out, I didn't need to stray far, but I found that anything away from the beach--particularly the pools--was sedate and generally child-free. The beach itself was palm-packed and spectacular, except for scattered dense clumps of seaweed (removed each morning by two men guiding a mule and cart) and vacationers. Like most, I lolled about on a lounge chair while on the resort grounds, reading and ignoring the organized activities. Relaxing was easy: While music thumped continuously, the place was remarkably mellow.
I don't like the nightlife, I don't like to boogie, but many younger guests headed to the Bavaro Disco when the sun sank. Others flocked to the drab casino. I opted for the amateur shows--talent, fashion, etc.--on the hotel stage, which were hokey but fun. I also checked out "Tropicalissimo," a free, Vegas-style revue with loud music and flashy costumes. Again, hokey but fun.
As for the food . . . Eh. I had my choice of buffets, full-service "grills" with menus or two deluxe restaurants that would have cost extra. I never had a chance at the restaurants--both were booked solid. I hit a buffet for breakfast (great omelets, fruit, bread and cheese) and dinner and ate lunch at a grill, one of which, El Coral, served decent pizza.
The Ambar buffet at dinnertime was always interesting, beginning with the hostess who stabbed my knee with a pen to indicate that my shorts weren't long enough. Yes, the buffets have a dress code. Unable to identify much of what was presented and afraid to risk illness for the sake of adventure, I ate pasta and cooked veggies the first two nights, then ventured into seafood and barbecue. I never will know what those oily brown things were that I plucked out of a steam tray the final evening. I guessed they were onion rings; my tablemates insisted it was calamari.
And the server we asked? She sniffed the plate, wrinkled her nose and disappeared into the kitchen, not to be seen again.
INCLUSIVENESS: Depends on the color appended to your wrist. Only the gold-banded slackers staying at the Palace can eat and drink there without accruing further fees--and that includes the resort's lone swim-up bar. Otherwise, meals and drinks (except, notably, wine and most imported beer and liquor) at resort bars, grills and buffets are included. So: Avoid the Palace, drink rum and you'll do fine. Non-motorized sports are free (snorkeling, tennis, kayaks, paddle boats, etc.), but you pay extra for banana-boat rides, deep-sea fishing and water-skiing. Scuba starts at $50. Golf on the resort's 18-hole course is included--but you'll have to pony up 25 bucks for a cart. Half-hour beach massages start at about $20. Resortwide, tipping isn't expected, but even a few dollars go a long way here.
OFF-RESORT EXCURSIONS: Manati Park, a middling zoo-like attraction featuring animal exhibits and shows, offers free rides; $21 admission (you can swim with dolphins for $65 more). Other excursions, which I could book through my Apple Vacations rep or the on-site Turavia travel agency, included a jeep trip through the countryside ($75); an all-day visit to Santo Domingo ($55); a "Monster Truck" tour, including a meeting with the local witch doctor ($85); and a catamaran ride to Saona Island ($70). Cab and water taxi fees to other resorts start at about $5, and be ready to haggle.
BOOKING: For now, it may be the most difficult thing about traveling to Punta Cana. The problem? No one you know has been there--including most of the travel agents on the other end of the phone.
For his part, Apple Vacations exec Ray Daley says the firm is sending more agents to Punta Cana so they can speak intelligently about the facilities. Still, prepare to do a lot of research when trying to decide which resort is right for you. There's little info in guidebooks, and I found the Dominican tourism folks unhelpful. Instead, I stumbled across www.debbiesdominican travel.com, a superb site maintained by Canadians Debbie and Patrick Downey. Besides numerous links to D.R.-related sites, the page has hundreds of gut-punch-truthful resort reviews by readers.
After checking newspaper ads, I called three agencies and got three different responses to my request for a four-night Apple package (one in D.C. didn't return calls, another in Rockville told me "we don't do four-night deals there"). Finally, I discovered Frank Liebermann, a patient and diligent agent at All Ways Travel (301-571-0400) in Bethesda who booked my trip. I also tried booking online via Liberty Travel (www.libertytravel.com) and American Airlines Vacations (www.aavacations.com), but neither could beat Liebermann's deal.
TRAVEL TIME: About eight hours from BWI, which included connecting service on American Airlines with a two-hour layover in San Juan; 15 minutes in the Punta Cana airport waiting for my luggage; and a 15-minute bus ride to the resort. Flying a nonstop Apple charter would have trimmed about 3 1/2 hours off the commute. Note: I could have taken the charter if I were staying for seven nights; by the end of the year, a midweek charter will be available for those going for shorter stays.
TOTAL COST: $1,334.40 for five days/four nights, or $266.88 per day. I paid $1,167.40 for my package, including cancellation insurance (hurricane season), and another $167 for excursions, tips and souvenirs. Also, the D.R. literally gets you coming and going: It costs $10 to enter the country, $10 to leave it.
If This Resort Were a Drink . . .
. . . it would be a Presidente Cerveza, a D.R.- produced brew--unknown to most Americans, but it goes down easy.