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.
Both destinations also have Spanish as their primary language, and both were once-remote areas that erupted with resorts virtually overnight. But whereas Cancun's powder-white beaches are strung with high-rises, including many hotels and resorts that sell rooms and food separately, resorts in Punta Cana, by law, may not be taller than a palm tree. The long ribbon of resorts running down the coast specializes in the all-inclusive model, and each is spread out over acres of land that stretches hundreds of yards behind the beach.
While Cancun is hardly a typical Mexican town, you rarely forget you're in Mexico, and if you do, there is a lively downtown and numerous nearby towns, villages and ruins to remind you. Punta Cana is both culturally and geographically isolated. The nearest town, Higuey, is 28 miles away, and it takes about an hour to drive there. Europeans, particularly the Spanish, tend to own the resorts of Punta Cana. Resort architects are more likely to make some nod to Spain or colonial Mexico than to the Dominican Republic, and for all I know, after eating in resorts for five days, the Dominican Republic might be lacking a single native dish. Cancun includes many American-owned chains among its Mexican-owned properties, but all keep Mexican architecture and culture as their dominant theme.
While Cancun is filled with Americans and Canadians, you're just as likely to be sharing a poolside patch with Europeans or South Americans in Punta Cana. Staff members are as likely to speak German or French as English.
A Day in the Resort Life
Between 15 and 40 minutes after landing in Punta Cana's spiffy new airport, you'll arrive at the gates of your new world and be greeted by a uniformed man who will take your luggage, for later delivery to your room.
Step on deck -- actually it will be a resort lobby -- and you'll likely be met with a colorful tropical drink decorated with a little paper umbrella.
If by chance you arrive at an inconvenient hour, when the buffet tables are being replenished for the next round of nearly everlasting meals, don't worry: You can visit an on-site snack bar.
You won't need to exchange currency -- the American dollar and the euro are accepted everywhere. Should you tire of lounging in the sun and eating, you can join the organized activities that change hourly: dance lessons, Spanish instruction, bocce and shuffleboard tournaments, to name a few. Chances are good that the resort you choose will have a small gym for working out, a spa and a casino.
There will be a choice of restaurants and bars, and a posted schedule will let you know if a certain bar is featuring karaoke, or perhaps bingo, or maybe a dance contest. If you should decide to leave the territory set up to serve you food, drinks and entertainment at any and all moments, the resort will arrange an excursion.
During the day, roaming photographers will snap your picture. Natives wearing historical costumes occasionally appear as props, along with parrots and sometimes snakes. Then, in the evening, between dinner and the nightly show, you'll see the pictures displayed on a photo board so you can decide if you'd like to buy any that feature you.
I occasionally had to look down at the steady ground to remind myself that indeed there was dry land beneath my feet and not a cruise ship deck.
During my trip, I stayed at four separate resorts and visited a dozen others. In many ways, they blur together: All have a huge pool, maybe several. Each resort has beachfront property -- the only question is how many steps from the beach you will be. Every resort has a water sports center. Motorized boats generally cost extra, while kayaks, windsurfing equipment and sailboats are free.
Buffets are ubiquitous, and each resort also has at least a couple of sit-down restaurants. Most include a casual restaurant option on or near the beach. A nightly show is standard, as are organized activities like beach volleyball during the day.
Those basic similarities cover most of the major bases. But that's not to say that every resort is the same. The differences are in the details.
Picking a Property
Because I wanted to test a different resort every night, I booked airfare and resorts separately. The planning was an exercise in frustration. Just finding a Web address or phone number was often a challenge. One resort cut me off during phone transfers six times in a row. The seventh time I actually got a reservations agent and asked if they had rooms available for a given night. "Yes," he answered, and hung up.
Everyone involved in the Punta Cana tourism industry is quite familiar with the packaged tourist, and totally flummoxed by the independent traveler who just wants to rent a room. So do yourself a favor and contact a travel agent or tour operator.
Start, though, by narrowing down the choices before picking up a phone or a mouse. Use the chart on this page to help you decide which of the many similar-seeming resorts you want to include in your package, and ask yourself the following questions:
* Do I want the intimacy and familiarity of a smaller resort -- small in this context means less than 400 rooms -- or the advantages of size that come from a place with 1,000-plus rooms? (The biggest resorts will have more pools and restaurants to choose from, but you lose a sense of intimacy, and getting from the lobby to the beach to your room will mean a longer hike.)
* How much extra do I want to pay to improve the room substantially, the food marginally, and the drinks and beach experience not at all?
* Do I want calm surf? If so, choose from resorts on the southern part of the Punta Cana area. If boogie-boarding or body-surfing is important, head to the north, where the Atlantic holds sway on the island surrounded by Atlantic and Caribbean waters.
* Am I satisfied with beach and swimming pools, or is tennis, a gym, golf or a casino essential?
Once you've zeroed in on a few choices, hone in on the details. Our chart lists Web sites that offer pictures and descriptions. For the tiny details -- down to whether they put flowers on the washcloths -- visit a Web site I unfortunately stumbled over late in my planning process, www.debbiesdominicantravel.com. You can probably find all you need to know at one of the online review sites that take on the world. At www.tripadvisor.com, for example, you'll find more than 100 reviews of Punta Cana. But Debbie's Dominican Republic focuses on that island alone and has more than 4,000 reviews.
The site is an amazing exercise in the democratic review process. Thousands of people who've stayed in Punta Cana want to share the nitty-gritty of their experience, and Debbie lets them rip.
I found the site intriguing enough to track down Debbie. Turns out Debbie Downey of Ontario, Canada, enjoyed a trip to Punta Cana in 1998, just about the time her husband thought he'd like to learn how to make a Web page. She provided a review of their trip so her husband, Pat, would have content for what was intended to be a personal home page.
It caught on, and Debbie, in her spare time, posts the thoughts of thousands of people from around the globe. The site, she says, gets about 7,000 hits a day.
Sometimes, what a Debbie reviewer hates is what will convince you to go. For instance, consider the posting of Julie from the University of Massachusetts: "We were disappointed to find very few Americans and even fewer Spring breakers."
Sometimes you have to consider the source. Like the woman who complains that the food got monotonous, and then reveals that she was at the same resort for two weeks. One person gripes that a resort has only Dominican beer, while another grouses that the bartenders put too much alcohol in the drinks.
Once you've read Debbie, you're ready to book.
Bounty of Buffets
I spent many hours planning my trip and booking resorts of different sizes, locations and prices. I arrived at the airport, which is surprisingly modern and extremely attractive, engaged an English-speaking cab driver and was immediately taken to the wrong place. I'd clearly said the Occidental Grand Flamenco, and he took me to the Occidental Grand Allegro, sometimes known as the Grand by Occidental or the Allegro by Occidental. I had to admit the mistake was understandable.
The circuitous route also gave me enough of a look at the area to conclude that there wasn't a lot to see outside of the resorts. The land away from the beach is rather hardscrabble. The nearby villages seem poor, and aside from a few markets, offer little but poverty for a tourist to see.
The resorts, on the other hand, are more luxurious than comparably priced properties in many other parts of the Caribbean. The Grand Flamenco, which I booked for $235 a night for a double at Hotels.com, is one of the more well-appointed resorts on Punta Cana. With 877 rooms, it's mid-range in size. But what immediately struck me upon arrival is how like a cruise ship it seems, and how huge it is.
At check-in I was handed a map to the 12-acre resort and its series of low-slung buildings with red roofs. I headed to the buffet and was overwhelmed with choices. At the time, I thought that it was like most buffets -- the emphasis on quantity, not quality. But that was before I sampled the buffets at somewhat cheaper resorts. Turns out that when it comes to all-you-can-eats, Grand Flamenco is very good.
I feel guilty complaining about the bountiful buffets. At every resort they included fresh fruit and salads, good bread and very tasty desserts -- and loads of everything. If the entrees on the main food line don't appeal, there's always a station where a worker is frying or grilling something to order.
I also tried the resort restaurants with table service. And while always satiated, I was never really satisfied. The meat at the more expensive resorts is definitely of higher quality, and they offer more entree choices prepared on the spot, but the differences seem marginal.
The Grand Flamenco didn't seem so big once I moved to the Barcelo Bavaro Golf Resort. While the resort has only 126 rooms, it's part of a Barcelo-owned complex that includes more than 1,800 rooms. At check-in I got a map and the offer of a $75-dollar-a-day golf cart to traverse the property and a free tram that cruises between hotels.
As a guest in the cheapest of the five properties (a double goes for $186 per night, although that price is pretty much beside the point except for purposes of comparison, since most people book package deals), I was entitled to use the facilities of any of the Barcelo properties, except the restaurants in the most luxurious of the hotels, the Palace.
Between hotel changes, I visited other properties. This was not always easy. The resorts are often rambling affairs a significant distance apart, if you're walking. And forget about driving: Unlike Cancun, there is no central road bordering the hotel district. Instead, there are a meandering series of roads without signs. Sometimes you need to take a taxi to easily find a resort just up the beach.
It's in the Details
Every property I saw was more luxurious than I'd expected for the price. All had well-groomed grounds with flowers and trees. All seemed clean. The staff I encountered were friendly, making me wonder if they are typical of Dominicans or only Dominicans in uniform.
The water at the edge of every beach area had a bit of seaweed, but someone was always on the beach scraping up whatever was deposited on shore.
But while the hotels generally have more in common than they have differences, I was immediately delighted with the 630-room Ocean Bavaro, and thought it a bargain at a rack rate of $184.
Stately pink flamingos hang out in a shallow man-made pond surrounded by gardens intersected with stone walkways. The architecture has a Mexican feel. I was so enamored with walls painted vibrant blues, yellows, greens and golds that I took photos of the colors, wondering if I could match the effect in my own home.
It became my favorite of all the resorts I'd seen, even though a couple of times I caught a faint whiff of sewage coming from somewhere as I walked the otherwise immaculate-seeming grounds.
The next day I checked into the Sunscape and found a new personal favorite. With 346 rooms, it was the smallest I'd seen. For the first time in five days, I suddenly felt a sense of coziness, and belonging.
I was met in the reception area with not only a drink but the world's best chocolate chip cookie -- the only food I was to remember from the trip a few weeks later.
I lucked out and got a terrific view of the ocean from my spacious balcony. But then my odds were better; since the property is smaller, a higher percentage of rooms are close enough to the beach to have views. And when I forgot something in my room, or left my sunglasses at the bar, a short walk fixed the problem, rather than a trek.
A hotel employee had set up a stand near the beach and was cutting luscious fresh fruit for the taking. Even though it was mid-afternoon, there were tons of empty beach chairs, and better yet, the beach had huge swaths of both sun and shade, my choice. In addition to the ubiquitous palm and coconut trees, the beach at Sunscape had lovely pine trees and loads of thatched-roof cabanas.
Of such small details are great vacations made.
Cindy Loose will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.