Chuck and I just got back from spending 9 days (well, 7 days if you don’t count the travel days) in the Caribbean – the Dominican Republic, specifically. Punta Cana even more precisely. We were first timers in the Caribbean and also newbies at all-inlcusive resorts. After reading a boatload of reviews on Trip Advisor , we opted to stay at a place called the Majestic, in the adults-only section called Elegance.
We booked the trip through a company called Cheap Caribbean, and the price was amazingly good (it included round-trip airfare for us both and transportation to and from the airport). Our big add-ons were to upgrade to what was called a junior suite and the Elegance Club (with the Elegance Club you got more access to free wifi, better beach towels and a butler – more on the butler in a minute).
We flew American Airlines (no choice there – all part of the Cheap Caribbean deal) from LAX to Miami, then from Miami on to Punta Cana. It was a long flight with a four hour time change so by the time we got to Punta Cana it was late at night and we were tired and cranky. Our mood didn’t improve when realized that to check-in we had to coordinate with our butler – argh! But Orlando turned out to be a very nice fellow and really proved his worth when we discovered that we had been put in a ground floor room with a view of a hedge. After walking around the property the next morning we decided that a room on a higher floor with an ocean view would be our preferred choice, so we tracked down Orlando and made our case and discovered the REAL merits of a butler at the Majestic – hotel guests can never apparently have any direct dealings with the front desk or hotel management over room assignments – the butler handles all of that. Get a nice one and you’re in good shape. If you fail to sign up for the Elegance Club when you make your initial reservation (thus having no butler to act as your liaison – oh, and trying to get into the Elegance Club once you’re there can be tricky depending on how booked the resort is) and you are pretty much stuck with the luck of the draw. One of the biggest downsides to Cheap Caribbean was that there was absolutely no way to tell what sort of room you were getting (other than the junior suite thing, which meant you got a bedroom room and a sitting room – oh, and the all important non-smoking room – they did let us specify that) . The ocean view room we switched to was MUCH nicer and smelled better (ground floor rooms all smelled dank and musty, a result of the non-stop humidity) and were generally noisier as they more often than not were located off of busy hallways or walkways.
The property itself was quite extensive, with several restaurants (some of which we never actually visited). And there really was food and drink available all the time! Want a gin and tonic at 8AM? No problem! Want room service at 1AM? No problem! All that at no cost! Except for the tipping, (we had read about this in advance and came armed with $300 in ones and fives) which makes the difference between great service and mediocre service. But the beach and the water – WOW – it really was as beautiful as advertised! The water temp was probably in the mid to upper 70′s every day (warmer, ironically, than the hotel pools which felt like cold baths in comparison). Sitting on the beach and just looking at the ocean was probably my favorite activity – we didn’t go running once and never visited the fitness center. The days just slipped by in a pleasant fugue of laziness.
We did do a few off-property things: we went zip lining one day (enormous fun!), snorkeling/snuba-ing (like scuba a on a leash)/speed boating (yes, they crammed all three activities into one afternoon!) another, and took a very long day excursion to Santo Domingo (2-3 hours each way from Punta Cana!). Santo Domingo really showed us what the Dominican Republic is like outside the resorts: poor and overcrowded and crazy busy with a lot of obvious social inequity (it’s a country with a lot of poor folks and a lot of rich folks and not a whole lot in between). We also learned that they also really, really dig Christopher Columbus. In fact he’s buried there in the funkiest monument/tomb I have ever seen. And there’s a statue of him in the town center.
Health-wise, we were really careful with the water – water coming out of sinks and faucets was a big no-no and I was so careful I wouldn’t even brush my teeth with anything other than bottled water. As the week went on, I did get a bit more relaxed and did brush my teeth with the tap water (I did rinse with bottled water) and finally on Friday night I even had a green salad. Saturday morning (we were going home the next day, Sunday) I woke up to a cramping stomach and chills. Sure enough, I had a galloping case of gastroenteritis (was it the water or the salad or just bad luck? I’ll never know). We supposedly had travel medical insurance but never got the card (thanks a lot for nothing, Assist-Card and Cheap Caribbean! Chuck spent over an hour on hold trying to talk to somebody at Assist-Card and was hung up on) so when we went to the medical center at the resort and asked the doctor what options we had and he said it was a cash-only thing. Starting at $150 for diagnosis and climbing up from there depending on what was needed. I opted for a bottle of Pepto-Bismol which I chugged down over the course of three hours. This had the effect of plugging me up so effectively that I am still paying the price two days later. Ugh. But at least I was able to get on the plane for home just suffering from a massive case of gas.
One of the things we really came to enjoy at the resort was a drink called Mama Juana, a local drink that contains herbs, sticks, rum, honey and red wine. You drink it in shot-sized amounts and the locals claim that it cures everything from indigestion to impotency. We wanted to bring some home and were told the best thing to do was to buy it dry (just the twigs and herbs) then make the drink concoction once at home (one third rum, one third red wine and one third honey, or something like that – recipes vary). So we got a bottle of the twigs at the duty free store at the Punta Cana airport. So far so good until we hit customs in Miami. Talk about a conversation starter! We had to get our stuff scrutinized by two different customs agents (the last one telling us his personal recipe for Mama Juana) with me struggling mightily not to let loose the massive quantities of gas roiling around in my stomach while we stood there chatting. In the end we made it through and our jug of twigs is now soaking in two bottles of cheap red wine, curing for at least a week before we can make the first batch. And then have a Mama Juana party!
So would we do another all-inclusive resort vacation? Yes, with several caveats. Next time, I would try dealing directly with the resort (or as directly as possible, given how some of these resorts work – some seem to pretty much require that you book through an agency of some kind – but I wouldn’t use Cheap Caribbean again). Going through Cheap Caribbean, while it was a great deal price-wise, meant we surrendered a lot of control to them (they assigned us airlines, seats, the hotel room, etc, leaving us feeling like we probably could have done better on our own). And if we were to get travel medical insurance again, I would make sure that we had the cards in hand and knew what was and wasn’t covered before going. Minor complaints, though. All in all, it was a great week away!