By: Genevieve Shaw Brown
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the first thing travelers thought of when they considered a trip to the Dominican Republic (often referred to simply as the DR) was "cheap all-inclusive." And a vacation in Punta Cana, the region of beautiful white sand beaches on the eastern tip of the island, was much like a vacation in any other Caribbean destination where the effects of unbridled development had taken a toll: think bad buffet food and sugary drink specials, poor service, and visitors who could care less where they were, so long as their neon-colored bracelets guaranteed them a continuous flow of booze and food.
Though the no-muss, no-fuss vacation still drives the DR's tourism industry, the country has recently begun trading in its reputation for the cheapo vacation and billing itself as a luxury destination. Nowhere is this new focus more prevalent than in Punta Cana, where a slew of properties have either recently opened or are in the works – including an Oscar de la Renta-designed resort – in the area known for boasting 30 miles of white sand beaches and an abundance of golf courses at the point where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. Granted, you can still find the all-inclusive resorts here (ranging from budget to luxe), but boutique properties with a la carte options are also appearing in greater numbers, as are first-class restaurants. The result is a sophisticated beach scene you can get to by lunch – indeed, if there's one upshot to the DR's previous incarnation as an all-inclusive-package destination, it's that the island is well served by direct flights from the US.
Three days in Punta Cana is enough to relax and rejuvenate, but you'll need at least that much time to learn your way around your resort. Five days will give you enough time to soak up plenty of surf and sand before venturing out on a day trip – take your pick from swimming with dolphins at a marine park, taking a catamaran ride to Isla Sanoa to soak up more sun, or visiting the laid-back beach town of El Cortecito. A week will give you time to do all of the above, plus play "18" at one of the area's above-par golf courses, discover how the locals live, in Higuey, or watch a local baseball game in La Romana. Your resort will also likely host a "Dominican Night" during your stay, but why not venture outside the gates and see it for yourself? The Dominican people are warm, welcoming, and anxious to share their culture with you – all you have to do is ask.
Punta Cana, which effectively encompasses several areas along the east coast – like Bavaro, El Cortecito, and Cap Cana – competes for tourism with Puerto Plata, another beach resort area on the island's north coast. The beach may be the foremost reason to visit Punta Cana, but golf comes a close second – the DR has more courses than any other Caribbean destination and some of the best are located here. That said, there's more to Punta Cana than sand and greens, but visitors interested in cultural pursuits will have to work a little harder to experience them.
If you stay at an all-inclusive resort (of any budget level), expect a plethora of non-motorized water sports at your disposal. Your resort's activity desk can assist you in planning an outing to any of the attractions outlined here, but you might save money by calling directly. Keep in mind that not going through your resort may require you to hire a car. Getting around Punta Cana via taxi is easy – you don't need to know the actual address of your destination, just the closest resort. Drivers are knowledgeable and friendly, but know the price before you get in the taxi – rates are fixed, there is little room for negotiation, and you might be surprised at how similar prices are to those in the US.
Beach and Water Sports
All the major resorts of Punta Cana are lined up on a 30-mile stretch of sand that includes Playa Bavaro in the north and Playa Punta Cana in the south. No matter where you stay, from the least-expensive property to the most deluxe, it's all the same sand, which is good news for beach bums on a budget. The proper name of the beach might change with each resort, but the same lovely, silky sand extends all the way down the coast. The one distinction here is the water: Depending on your hotel's location, you'll be swimming in either the calm Caribbean or the slightly rougher Atlantic; that said, you can expect warm, clear-blue water the length of the beach.
An 18-mile-long coral reef (the longest in the DR) lies offshore, but serious snorkelers be forewarned: the underwater scenery here is not the Caribbean's best. If you're a novice scuba diver, however, this is a great place to learn, as the waters are quite shallow. Scuba excursions in the immediate area explore a shipwreck and coral formations; if you're bit more advanced, or simply more adventurous, book an excursion to Isla Saona (see Natural Attractions) where the scenery is more varied. Information on excursions is available from your resort activity desk.
Sailing and windsurfing are more popular, particularly where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic, where stronger winds prevail. Most all-inclusive resorts have everything you need to try your hand at these sports – and most non-motorized water sports are included in the price of your stay. Note: Though exact dates vary from year to year, there is a ban on all water sports (including snorkeling) during Easter Week.
Whether you're a novice or shooting well below par, Punta Cana is paradise for golfers. Top-notch courses designed by big names like Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus beckon with perfectly manicured greens, challenging fairways, and gorgeous surroundings. We've picked two Dye courses from which to tee off during your stay; look for new Jack Nicklaus courses to open by the end of 2007.
The Dye-designed La Cana Golf Course (Puntacana Resort & Club; 809/959-4653; $110+ hotel guests, $150+ non-guests; www.puntacana.com) is a par-72 course with four oceanfront holes and 14 holes with ocean views. In an environmentally responsible and forward-thinking move, the golf course uses Seashore Paspalum, a form of grass that uses seawater for irrigation and greatly reduces the amount of pesticides flowing off the course and into the Caribbean. The resort offers transportation to the course for non-resort guests; as long as you're here, you may want to dine at the renowned Coccoloba or La Yola restaurants (See Where to Eat) on the grounds. Dye die-hards won't mind making the trip to the Casa de Campo resort in La Romana (about 90 minutes by car; www.casadecampo.com.do), home of three courses designed by the legendary golfer: Teeth of the Dog, Dye Fore, and The Links.
Add depth to your trip by learning a little about the Dominican Republic's rich culture. The country is mainly Spanish-speaking, but the majority of Dominicans who work in the tourism industry (from housekeepers to tour guides) also speak English. If you've any interaction with the local people, you'll come away with the following information: they are religious (mostly Catholic); they love baseball and idolize players; tobacco-growing is a major part of the economy; they are fiercely proud of their rum (known for being very smooth) but don't need it to unleash on the dance floor – the merengue is the national dance and you'll see it everywhere from local nightclubs to the stages of your resort.
Spend a few hours soaking up the hippie-beach-town vibe of El Cortecito, a great place to find a mix of tourists and locals. The center of this town comprises a block-long strip of inexpensive hotels, souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants. You might not realize the beach is just steps away, but if you wander into Captain Cook's (see Where to Eat) you can eat and drink on tables in the sand. Don't be surprised if your lunch plans turn into an entire afternoon spent sipping drinks and enjoying views of the Caribbean Sea.
If you're interested in seeing how the locals live, the town of Higuey (about 45 minutes from Punta Cana) is a true Dominican city. Among the few tourist attractions here is the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia (Basilica of Our Lady), one of the country's most important architectural structures and a national monument. Dominicans make a pilgrimage to this Roman Catholic church every January 21 to commemorate a battle won against the French. For some local flavor, wander the streets of Higuey and visit a daily market selling local fruit, cheese, and meat. You can get there via taxi, but a far less expensive and more authentic trip can be made by bus – ask at your resort the closest place to pick up the guagua to Higuey.
Baseball fans know that several of Major League Baseball's most famous players call the DR home. Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez are national heroes, and many Dominican MLB players travel back to their home country to play during the winter months (the baseball season in the DR runs from late October through February). Baseball is not only the national sport, but the national obsession – you'll see children playing it constantly – whether it's an organized game complete with uniforms or a pick-up game with one boy playing several positions. Though much of the professional action takes place around the country's capital city, Santo Domingo (a three- to four-hour drive away), you can catch an Azucareros del Este game in La Romana at the Francisco A. Micheli stadium, where music blares, the crowd goes wild, and cheerleaders dance the merengue on the sidelines. It's about 70 miles south of Punta Cana; keep in mind that traveling by car often takes longer than it does in the US as many roads are in poor condition.
If you love marine life, there are two parks worth checking out. Manati Park (Bávaro/Higüey; daily 9am-6pm; $30, $75 to swim with dolphins; www.manatipark.com) offers dolphin encounters, shows featuring animals such as parrots and horses, a small village replica with performers in traditional Dominican costumes, and a crafts shop. A free shuttle bus will pick you up at your hotel. You can also opt to take a half-day outing to Marinarium (Cabeza de Toro; 809/689-5183; $78; www.marinarium.com) – catch a shuttle at your resort and head to the departure pier, where you'll board a catamaran with an underwater chamber to view the sea life while you cruise out to a protected snorkeling area to swim with stingrays and sharks.
Isla Saona (Saona Island), located in the Parque Nacional Del Este, and one of many national parks in the DR, is accessible by speedboat from the mainland. Most tours stop at a sand bar en-route, so you can take a quick swim to break up the trip – the shallow waters are rich with starfish, so don't be alarmed if your feet brush against one hiding beneath the sand's surface. Once on the island, claim your beach chair and just laze the day away – lunch (local seafood and barbecue) should be included in your tour as are local drinks like rum and beer. The ride back to the mainland typically has a "booze-cruise" feel – complete with free-flowing drinks, plenty of music, and dancing on deck. Tip: Arrange the trip directly through your resort to get picked up and dropped off as well.
Adjacent to the Punta Cana Resort & Club (about 10 minutes from the airport) is the Punta Cana Ecological Reserve (Punta Cana Resort & Club; daily sunrise-sunset; $10; 809/959-9221; www.puntacana.org) a nature preserve on 1,500 acres operated by a local foundation in partnership with Cornell University. Dedicated to education about local ecosystems and sustainable tourism, the preserve offers both guided and self-guided tours daily; highlights include a petting farm of local animals, an iguana habitat, cultural exhibits, and numerous gardens.
In keeping with the desire to upgrade its image, Punta Cana now boasts several top-notch properties. But don't fear if you need an affordable vacation – there are plenty of properties at very reasonable prices. The majority of resorts still operate on the all-inclusive model, and choosing to stay at one means you can do as much or as little as you wish – most resorts offer a daily calendar with activities that start at sunrise and go well into the evening hours. But if you want to spend your days relaxing on the beach, feel free to laze your days away. If all-inclusives aren't your thing, your choices are limited to very high-end properties with expensive a la carte options or beach-bungalow type budget digs. You're not going to find a Holiday Inn in Punta Cana – but wait a few years, and you probably will. Tip: The term a la carte has different meanings depending on where you stay. At the majority of all-inclusive resorts it means that you can dine at a restaurant with a menu and order what you wish (as opposed to a buffet) and still pay no additional charge. The term can also mean there is an additional charge associated with the restaurant; this information is very clearly stated on the hotel/resort website.
For luxury accommodations, privacy seekers and design aficionados alike love the Oscar de la Renta-decorated villas at Tortuga Bay (Puntacana Resort and Club; 888/442-2262; www.puntacana.com), a boutique property of 15 spacious villas owned and operated by the Puntacana Resort and Club. Along with de la Renta, Julio Iglesias and Mikhail Baryshnikov keep residences in this gated community. The one- to four-bedroom villas are clean and plush, and all guests get a golf cart to explore the vast resort. Other than breakfast, everything you eat or drink here will be added to your bill. Guests have use of the adjacent Puntacana Hotel's facilities, which include an on-site golf course (La Cana boasts four oceanfront holes and views of the Caribbean from 14 holes), a marina, and a Six Senses spa. You'll know you've "arrived" when you land on the beach at Sivory Punta Cana (Sivory Beach; 809/552-0500; www.sivorypuntacana.com) via helicopter ($300/couple each way) from the airport. The all-suite hotel has just 50 oversized rooms, some with private plunge pools, and is a popular destination for honeymooners seeking solitude. While you can opt for one of two plans – one that includes meals and drinks and one that doesn't (save for your in-room minibar stocked with water and beer) – note that you'll have to take the majority of your meals at the resort anyway, as there are no nearby dining options.
There are many, many mid-range properties in Punta Cana. Though resorts with quality a la carte options have not arrived in this category yet, all-inclusive properties are plentiful. The Puntacana Hotel (Puntacana Resort & Club; 809/959-2262; www.puntacana.com) is the area's original resort and includes a variety of accommodations ranging from basic rooms to family-style villas. Included with the price of your room is the option to dine at no additional charge at several casual eateries, but alcohol is not included. Guests can also opt to dine at the more upscale restaurants on the property and pay menu prices. The hotel offers guests on a budget the opportunity to pay less for their accommodations and pick and choose what else they want to pay for among the resort's vast offerings. You'll want to pony up some extra bucks for boat rentals on the marina, horseback riding on the beach, and scuba diving. Tennis and non-motorized water sports have no additional charge. The Paradisus Palma Real (Playa del Bavaro; 866/436-3542; www.paradisuspalmareal.travel) opened in 2005 on a spectacular stretch of Punta Cana sand and offers guests an excellent value with its luxury accommodations, six restaurants, eight bars, and three swimming pools. There are also many add-ons: Spa treatments and tee times, of course, but also the "Royal Service" plan, which gives you access to a personal butler, a private pool with bed-like seating, a private stretch of beach with beach concierge, preferential reservations, customizable in-room minibar, and much more. Keep in mind, however, that you'll be making the leap from mid-range to luxe prices when you opt for this service.
Travelers on a budget will have no problem finding a resort to suit their wallets. For families, we can't think of a better place for the price than the Ocean Blue Golf and Beach Resort (Playa Arena Gorda; 888/403-2603; www.oceanhotels.net) where kids and adults alike get a kick out of the beach, the pool, the wide selection of activities, and the vast array of dining options – nine in all – including seven a la carte restaurants (no additional cost) decorated by theme and positioned around a large courtyard. There's a 1950s diner with hamburgers and milkshakes on the menu and Elvis memorabilia on the walls, a Starbucks-type café offering designer coffees and pastries, and an authentic Dominican restaurant designed to look like an elegant Dominican home. There are 10 bars and a casino to keep the adults entertained, and a game room and bowling alley for the kids. The Hotel Carabela Beach Resort and Casino (809/221-2728; www.vistasolhotels.com) offers basic accommodations and direct access to the town of El Cortecito – perfect for guests who want an all-inclusive with the option to easily venture outside their resort. For those who want to stay put, there are three swimming pools, eight bars, a casino, several restaurants (both buffet and a la carte), tennis courts, and a variety of water sports on the beach. In El Cortecito itself, there are also a few small hotels for independent travelers – check out the El Cortecito Inn (Playa El Cortecito; 809/552-0639) or the La Posada de Piedra (Playa El Cortecito; 809/221-0754; www.laposadadepiedra.com).
The tastiest Dominican delights are usually found outside the resorts, but even if you don't venture out you should still look for these local dishes on menus at your hotel: Mangu, a typical Dominican breakfast dish made of lightly salted mashed plantains and onion, often mixed with cheese and bacon; Chibo (goat), a Dominican delicacy served on special occasions; and Chimichurri, usually referred to as a "chimi" – this ultimate Dominican street food is similar to a hamburger and sold by street vendors (the vendors themselves are also sometimes referred to as chimis, so don't get confused).
Those with high-end tastes and a preference for posh surroundings love the Oscar de la Renta-designed Coccoloba (809/959-2262; www.puntacana.com) at the PuntaCana Resort & Club. Named after the sea grape tree that's common to the DR, this small and elegant restaurant offers an excellent wine list and serves seafood, meat (including chibo), and pasta and is widely regarded as the top dining experience in Punta Cana (reserve ahead). Also at the Puntacana Resort & Club, La Yola (closed Tuesday; 809/959-2262) is an open-air, waterfront restaurant with glass floor panels overlooking the resort's marina. Appropriately, the menu is dominated by fresh seafood dishes.
For mid-range dining options, your best bet is to head to Plaza Punta Cana (across from the airport) where you'll find several good restaurants and a variety of cuisines. Trattoria Mama Luisa (809/959-2013) offers fried calamari, meat-sauce lasagna, tomato and mozzarella salad, and many other Italian-American food items, all in a red-checked table cloth setting. Pizzarelli (809/959-4017) is a casual place that offers – you guessed it – pizza, while El Guano (809/959-1007) serves traditional Dominican cuisine in slightly more upscale surroundings.
For a barefoot-in-the-sand eatery, you don't want to miss Captain Cook's (Playa El Cortecito; 809/552-1061), where the menu – mostly seafood – is hanging on the wall. Watch the fishermen come in with the day's catch and pick your meal from a barrel. Bare feet and swim trunks are the attire of choice. Tip: If your resort isn't far from Playa El Cortecito, you can arrange to be brought to the restaurant by water taxi. The similarly-themed but more upscale Jellyfish (Carretera Bavaro; 809/886-5754; www.jellyfishrestaurant.com) is another well-regarded, primarily seafood restaurant with a beachfront location – spend some time in a beach bed or hammock after your meal and enjoy a few more cocktails.
You should know a few things about nightlife in Punta Cana. First: Since the majority of resorts are all-inclusive, most visitors opt to remain there and enjoy free beverages and nightly entertainment programs (the larger resorts have several bars, a casino, and a nightly show at minimum). Second: if you do head to a nightclub outside your resort, you're likely to encounter a true mix of locals and tourists. Third: arrange a taxi with your resort concierge and a pre-arranged pick up time with the driver, as you won't have much luck hailing down a taxi in the middle of the night; and bring along your resort's phone number in case of a problem.
Whatever kind of drinking establishment you find yourself at, order a Presidente (the local beer), a cubalibre (rum and coke), or a santalibre (rum and 7-up) – the Dominicans are fiercely proud of their local rum, known as some of the smoothest in the world. Order your rum with mamajuana (or buy some to take home with you). You can order these items at any bar here, but why not head to the Mangu Club (next to the Occidental Grand Flamenco Resort) – reputed by everyone from taxi drivers to tour guides to resort concierges as the hottest nightclub in Punta Cana – for a night on the town. Brush up on your moves before you go – the merengue originated in the DR and is the national dance. Once considered the dance of the lower classes, it rose through the ranks when a man from humble beginnings became the president of the country; the dance took off in popularity and is now an integral part of the country's identity. Ask your resort if they offer lessons. For something a little less pulsating, check out Mascara Bar (Plaza Punta Cana; 809/959-2007), frequented by employees of the nearby Puntacana Resort & Club as well as tourists, or the beachfront Jellyfish Restaurant (Carretera Bavaro; 809/886-5754; www.jellyfishrestaurant.com) which really comes alive on full-moon nights.
There are a few things (besides a tan) you'll want to take home with you as mementos of your trip to Punta Cana, namely cigars, rum, and the alleged aphrodisiac mamajuana, a mix of spices and bark that locals use to infuse their rum. The last item is basically the same no matter where you purchase it, but if you're a cigar or rum novice, you may want to sample a few before purchasing the brand you'll take back. There are more cigars produced in the DR than any other country in the world and some of the more famous brands include Romeo y Julieta, Cojimar (which comes in flavors ranging from vanilla to amaretto), and Arturo Fuente. You can certainly buy select stogies at your resort gift shop, but if you're an aficionado, you'll want to take an outing to see this process from start to finish. Watch a professional roll cigars at the Domenico Premium Cigar Manufactory (Bávaro, Domenico Ave. 6; free; 809/552-1414); then puff away on a free sample. As for rums, the three most popular brands are Brugal, Barcelo, and Bermudez. Tip You might get a great deal on great rum in Punta Cana, but airline restrictions limiting passengers to liquid carry-ons of less than three ounces means you'll have to pack it in your checked luggage.
If clothes are your thing, stop at the open-air Plaza Punta Cana (across from the airport), where several shops stock high-end duds to take you from the beach to the nightclub. You'll find beautiful bikinis and elegant one-piece bathing suits at Alta Mar (Plaza Punta Cana; 809/959-0069) and gorgeous sandals to go along with them at Scaviola (Plaza Punta Cana; 809/959-6393). Oscar de la Renta's influence on Punta Cana (he keeps a residence here) extends all the way to this shopping center – you can purchase his high-end, yet casual, designer clothes at the Boutique Oscar de la Renta (Plaza Punta Cana; 809/959-6002). The prices at Coco (Plaza Punta Cana; 809/959-0058) are only slightly less expensive but, if you have the means, they carry gorgeous linen-wear for both men and women.
Finally, for souvenirs of the T-shirt and coffee mug variety, stroll through the beach town of El Cortecito (see above); the shop adjacent to Captain Cook's sells fun T-shirts and Dominican-themed knick knacks.
When To Go
With warm weather year round, there's really no bad time to go to Punta Cana. The average temperature hovers around 80°F and climbs in the summer months (May through September). This time of year is also the most humid, and thus considered the low season, when you'll find your resort quiet and the prices low. The high season runs from November to April with certain weeks being tops in terms of prices – go during spring break weeks, school vacation weeks, or the week between Christmas and New Year's and you'll pay a premium for the privilege. The best bang for your buck comes in October, when the majority of hurricane activity has historically died down, the days are less humid, and the nights are a bit cooler.
Best bang for your buck:
In a country barely twice the size of New Hampshire there are three international airports – so getting to Punta Cana is never a problem. Of the three, the Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) is the most convenient to the area with even the furthest resorts less than an hour away by taxi. Daily flights on American (www.aa.com), United (www.united.com), US Airways (www.usair.com), Delta (www.delta.com), and Continental (www.continental.com) are all available. There are direct flights to Punta Cana from New York (about 4.5 hours), Miami (about 2.5 hours), Atlanta (about 3.5 hours), and Charlotte (about 3.5 hours). Once you land at the airport, you'll either be picked up by a representative of your resort or from the company you booked your vacation package through; if you haven't pre-arranged, there are plenty of taxis to get you to your resort. Keep in mind the rates are set (you can find out from your hotel how much it should cost for a taxi) but there is a little wiggle room – ask for a price about $10 cheaper and you will likely get it, or something close to it.
Look to the major booking engines for savings on airfare and hotel packages; booking through a website like Expedia (www.expedia.com), Orbitz, (www.orbitz.com), or Travelocity, (www.travelocity.com) can save you money over booking separately. However, package providers who specialize in Caribbean vacations, like Apple Vacations, (www.applevacations.com) can not only save you a bundle, but offer direct charter flights from cities like Boston that don't offer direct flights on the major airlines. Also check out Funjet (www.funjet.com), particularly good for folks in the Midwest; and CheapCaribbean (www.CheapCaribbean.com).
It is possible to rent a car or motorbike in Punta Cana, but it's not advisable due to the poor conditions of many of the roads. Most of the excursions you'll want to take will include a van to pick you up and drop you off, but if you want to go off on your own, you can arrange for a taxi or to take the public bus (called the guagua); ask your resort for assistance with locating the nearest bus stop or a reputable driver. If you do decide to rent a car, most of the larger resorts have car rental desks – even if yours doesn't have one they should still be able to arrange a car rental for you.