Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic - A Vacation Destination You Will Not Soon Forget

Over the years, we have visited the Dominican Republic a number of times, first to Puerto Plata, on the north Coast, but also to Punta Cana, on the south east shore.

The Dominican Republic (DR) shares the island of Hispaniola, also known as Santo Domingo, with the country of Haiti. It is the second largest Caribbean nation after Cuba and the most visited of all the Carribean Islands.  Originally inhabited by Taino indiginous peoples, DR was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and was under Spanish rule for about three centuries, with French and Haitian interludes.  DR gained its independence in 1821 though it struggled to maintain it throughout its tumultuous history of government and slave revolts.  Unemployment, government corruption and inconsistent electric services challenges the country even today.  But when all is said and done, DR offers the tourist a first-class affordable experience.  For those living on the east coast of Canada, it's about a 3-hour trip.  For those of us on the Prairies, it's closer to 7 hours.  

DR is geographically diverse, with 4 mountain ranges; rich fertile valleys, hot, desert-like areas and, of course, beautiful coastlines.  January and February are the coldest months of the year, with the wet season, mostly along the northern coast, lasts from  November through January. In January, for example, temperatures will peak around 28C, cooling off to around 20C in the evenings.  Rain will typically fall during the evening and can be intense but short-lived.

The country's economy relies primarily on natural resources and government services.  Due to the growth in tourism, the public service sector has overtaken mining and agriculture as the leading employer.  There remains a noted problem in child labour laws; on our very first visit we were disturbed to be given a tour of a local jewelry store where the owners proudly displayed a group of 12-15 year old boys working at the rear of the shop.  When asked what kind of hours they worked, we were told ' full days, like we do'.  Trust me when I tell you, 'full days' are considerably longer in the DR than in Canada or the USA.

Playa Dorado, Puerto Plata

But don't let this be the deciding factor in visiting the DR.  Not only is there a lot to offer the tourist; perhaps there is something you can offer its citizens by treating those who serve you with dignity and kindness, tipping generously and finding ways to help the poor. We often take balls and school supplies for children, and light clothing for adults.  In particular, you may find numerous Haitians employed in the more menial positions in the tourist industry. These men and women are often lured to the DR, particularly since the 2000 earthquake, in hopes of making a decent livelihood to bring home to their families.  More often than not, they are bound to their new country by poverty, never able to return home to their loved ones.  Current, however, many Haitian migrants face expulsion.  Here's a link where you can read more about their plight:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/22/haitian-migrants-dominican-republic_n_7641030.html

San Felipe Fortress, Puerto Plata
There are basically five tourist areas in the DR, catering primarily to Europeans and Canadians, with only a small smattering of Americans.   Santo Domingo is a large cosmopolitan city but includes the Colonial City, consisiting of 16 short streets of architecture from the 16th to the 20th century. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   La Romana is one of the country's top destinations, defined by its fields of sugar cane, golf courses and beaches. Punta Cana is located where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.  If you are looking for rest and relaxation, along with all the comforts a beachfront resort can offer, this is the place for you.  Samana is the place to go if you are seeking nature though there are a fair number of European tourists who decided not to leave, lending  a bit of a cosmopolitan vibe to towns such as Las Galeras and Terrenas. Puerto Plata is a port City with a collection of 19th century victorian style homes located along the coastline.  San Felipe Fort is one of the oldest military installations dating back to 1577.  Nearby beach towns of Sosua and Caberette, wold famous for windsurfing and kiteboarding, are a short drive away.

Punta Cana was our lmost recent destination in the DR.  After visiting some years prior, we decided we weren't quite finished there.  We liked its rural flavour and mix of traditional caribbean villages and agriculture consisting of sugar cane, coffee, cocoa beans, tobacco and bananas.  The area's best asset, however, is its people who are warm, friendly and easygoing.  Upon our arrival, the first thing we noted was the incredible amount of ongoing development. The economy in this area of the country is booming due to the more recent interest from tourists.



On our first visit to this area, we stayed at the  Grand Palladium Punta Cana Resort and Spa.  Located directly on a one-kilometre stretch of Bavaro Beach, this resort offers every type of room and service one could possibly think of to accommodate everything from two adults looking for peace and solitude to groups of extended famliies and friends. Many of the large, comfortable rooms offer baths with jacuzzi tubs.  We chose this resort because we were travelling with a group of 6 couples, with varying interests and means. Some of our companions were so impressed they returned for a second time around!

Playa Bavaro, Punta Cana
Our second visit, we chose the Majestic Colonial.  The property is relatively compact but somehow it never felt crowded.  The condition of the private and public spaces, facilities and grounds was great and the resort appeared to cater to a larger variety of age groups than other all-inclusive resorts we have been to.  Young or old, the resort is very 'walkable'.  While the beach may not be quite as nice as we have experienced in other areas of DR, that is not to say they were not very good.  If anything, we have found great consistency in the quality of the beaches throughout DR.  While they may not offer much in the way of snorkeling from the beach (there are tours available), every single time we have found long beaches of golden sand perfect for walking and the waves are just enough to be fun without causing serious injury. Having been tossed, rolled, dunked and stripped of much of my clothing by large waves, this is my kind of beach!
Jr. Suite, Majestic Colonial, Playa Bavaro

The adjacent sister resort, the Majestic Elegance, has a very similar layout but features a more contemporary architectural style and is a few years newer.  The rooms are, without doubt, some of the best we have every had the privilege to stay in!  Our 700 sq.ft. junior suite sported a king bed, open concept bath with double jacuzzi, small sofa, chairs, coffee table, desk and armoire.  And did I mention the 900 sq.ft. deck, sporting a 4-man jacuzzi?  While we have paid considerably more to stay in chic resorts, such as Sandals, Secrets, Dreams, Karisma and Palace lines, the Majestic was BY FAR, the best bang for the buck!   The food was also pretty darn good but be warned, the seafood restaurant offers not a single item on its menu that isn't 'of the sea'. As I'm not an 'of the sea' kind of girl, this forced our small group to break up for a few meals so as not to leave me eating by my lonesome.  

Our Jr. Suite Deck, beacfront
I have recommended the Majestic to a number of friends who have all returned smiling and pleased with what awaited them. If there is a single complaint about DR (and it's a very small complaint), top shelf liquor can be hard to come by and often is not included in the all-inclusive package.  That means you will either have to pay extra for your Bailey's or bring your own.  Either way, it's not a deal breaker.

Or perhaps the all-inclusive resort vacation isn't your bag.  I admit, it is no longer mine either.  Though often the best answer for groups travelling from various parts of the country/world, I have come to enjoy vacation rentals.  Many offer the same perks that an all-inclusive resort and depending on your lifestyle, you may actually find it less expensive.  There are plenty of options available on vacation rental sites.  Do your homework and read the reviews.  Personally, I look for accommodation that is well situated in close proximity to the beach, restaurants, and other amenities because we have no desire to rent a vehicle.  If you haven't been to the DR, you should know that the drivers are c-r-a-z-y!  we have seen busses force mopeds off the road in peak traffic; we have seen a family of 5 being transported on a single moped.  And no, they weren't wearing helmuts.

Have I convinced you yet?  The moral of this story is, if you are looking for a great destination,check into DR.  If you are looking for a cost-effective yet elegant all-inclusive resort, I recommend the Majestic.  The Colonial is, as the name implies, colonial style and a wee bit older than the Elegance, therefore a wee bit cheaper.  If AIs aren't your thing, perhaps a nice vacation rental is.  Your call, either way, I'm pretty darn confident that you will find a little piece of heaven in the Dominican Republic!  Have fun!

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