Apr 14 2009

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Budget-, family-friendly all-inclusive vacations in the Dominican Republic

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All inclusive vacation By Samantha Chapnick

My family picked all-inclusive vacations in the Dominican Republic for our spring break for four reasons :

  1. We could stick to our budget with no real opportunity to spend more than we set aside.
  2. It's a simple short, affordable, non-stop, no jet lag, JetBlue plane trip from NYC with few delays or complications.
  3. Unlike several tropical islands, the DR has walking beaches, not just coves.
  4. Almost all the all-inclusive resorts have kids programs and activities.

After 11 days, 6 tours, and 4 hotels, 33 meals, 7 kids events and I'm not going to tell you how many pina coladas, this is the round-up of our Caribbean vacation in Punta Cana:

Punta Cana is ideal for travelers who want an all-inclusive vacation and are willing to trade their Crackberries for cocktails, marble bathrooms for beach walks and Whole Foods for watersports.

To continue the alliterations, Punta Cana is more about interaction than intimacy. It's a stretch of continuous beach on the Dominican Republic's northeastern coast, with 20+ two- to five-story all-inclusive hotels lined up one next to the other. Lush with palm trees and other verdant foliage, for the most part you won't notice there are other properties until you walk on the soft pink sand beach (my favorite feature of this area). Hundreds of plastic lounge chairs continue for miles, fostering a very social environment. Guests revel in the chance to meet others and play together — fueled by the non-stop entertainment schedule. With water aerobics, ping pong tournaments, Salsa lessons, beach drumming, kids and adult discos and shows, boredom is not an option here.

The entertainment staff is a second major asset. Extremely friendly, outgoing, helpful and energetic — everyone we encountered at every resort was naturally ebullient, professional and dedicated to making sure visitors had a great time.

Caribbean vacations I think the resorts expect most people to spend their all-inclusive vacation lounging around the pool or beach, and they have invested the most heavily in those areas. There are plenty of loungers, the pools are huge (albeit UNHEATED), the ocean is crystal clear, and there are plenty of people walking around offering drinks (except at Club Med where there is no pool staff at all except lifeguards).

Food
I think a non-foodie would find the meals to be just fine. At all the resorts we visited during our Caribbean vacation, there was plenty of variety, the food was relatively fresh, and perfectly acceptable. Most offer "gourmet" restaurant options, but beware: there seemed to me to be a system designed to make sure that we didn't eat at most of them. Compared to the gargantuan buffets where everyone can eat at any time, the 30- or 40-seat specialty restaurants are teeny — and they usually only allow one seating.

The gourmet restaurants are, in general, a modicum better than the buffet. In general, I'd say unless food is very important to you, simply avoid the hassle and go the buffet for your stay. I would suggest that those who want to go down the gourmet path should find out what the policy is for each restaurant IN ADVANCE. Most require showing up at 8:15 a.m. when reservations open to book it for that night. We felt the Iberostar has the best policy: they allow you book a certain number of gourmet restaurants based upon the number of nights of your stay, and it was easy to get a table. And Club Med, with the best all around food, only has buffet restaurants, so they are a good choice as well.

Rooms
The rooms themselves range from college-dorm like to island upscale. The RIU and Iberostar have basic furniture, marble sinks, compact fluorescent lights and polyester bed spreads. They are pragmatic, easy-to-clean functional, just right for the all-inclusive vacation bargain hunter who does not need Pratesi sheets and Chippendale furniture. Club Med's rooms were the most luxurious, albeit just about one decorator notch above your local Hampton Inn. Down comforters and pillows, rain showers (with very low pressure and no real hot water), and glass-tiled bathrooms made this the only hotel I'd stay in were I go to back.

Finally, do not expect to use the Internet or make phone calls during your all-inclusive vacation. Most of the resorts we tried had limited Internet access in the lobby which was often unreliable or expensive. (Club Med charges $7 for an hour of Internet). My iPhone did not work at all, although others with Blackberries told us they could get a signal but were paying about $1.75 per minute for calls.

QUICK HOTEL OVERVIEWS:

All inclusive vacations RIU Palace Punta Cana All Inclusive

  • Very popular with tourists from Europe, particularly Spain, Germany and England. Atmosphere reminiscent of an Italian or Spanish town plaza with plenty of room to mingle and roam — my family liked the atmosphere here the best.
  • Alas, the food was the most disappointing element of the resort. If they upped the quality of their food, it would have been one of our favorites.
  • Kid's camp is ultra basic, but the staff is excellent — more like a personal baby sitter than a club. She took a personal interest in our child, and the kids reported having lots of fun. Lots of time spent at the pool and on the beach.
  • Ask for a room on a high floor, preferably close to the pool and ocean.

Iberostar Bavaro

  • They have put considerable effort into the decor. Swans, flamingos, wrought iron bridges, the lobby area is really charming and reflects people who care.
  • Big nighttime bar scene.
  • Very very big and spread out — get a room near what is important to you. May be too much for young children to have to constantly walk so far for dinner etc..
  • I liked these rooms the best of the non-Club Med resorts. Biggest, airiest, best views.
  • Next to Club Med, my family thought this was the best food.
  • Overall, our family's choice for best value.

Caribbean vacation Viva Wyndham Dominicus Palace All Inclusive, Santo Domingo

  • Party city. If you're young and single, this is the resort for you.
  • Very budget basic — feels more like a timeshare.
  • The calmest ocean — much better if you just want to take a raft and lounge in the ocean.
  • There is a very, very small town next to the resort giving the option of getting outside your hotel.
  • A few hours from Santo Domingo, a much more modern town than Punta Cana. If you want to do some historical sightseeing or cultural travel, take a day or two and visit the city.

Club Med Punta Cana

  • By far the best resort for families with kids. The kid's club facilities are remarkable, diverse and extensive. There is a program for each age group, and the staff are mostly Americans, and there is almost always something going on. Extremely creative and varied, high energy. My first choice for family travel.
  • Club Med's food is by far the best and easiest of the places we stayed. There are only two restaurants, both buffet and easy to get into. Stations making fresh food constantly including crepes, pasta, fish and an ethnic specialty kept it interesting.
  • The profusion of families and New Yorkers make this a much higher stress, higher energy, pretentious environment than the laid back European feel of the other resorts. Come here to meet former venture capitalists, lawyers, PR professionals and their families. 

BOTTOM LINE:
Budget-minded travelers who are looking for an unplugged good time and are willing to sacrifice some creature comforts will love Punta Cana.

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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn't been found.

More About: Cristina Alcocer

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