Generally, when I plan travel it occurs months in advance with late nights spent combing through maps and articles of local eateries and authentic Airbnbs to ensure the most genuine experience. Our most recent vacation was admittedly nothing like that.
We booked the Dominican Republic, not for the destination, but because I had reached mental roadblock where I just needed to go anywhere. With an especially rigorous couple of weeks at work, paired with recent feat of taking (and passing) the Florida Bar, compounded with NYC’s unbearably long and miserable winter that seemed never ending… I just needed a break to rejuvenate (and thaw out) or else I was close to a breaking point.
With only a week or so to make a decision, we had little time or availability remaining. I advocated for the off-the-grid island in the Dutch Caribbean. I even considered how we could sneak a quick European trip in a week or so, but after pondering these options, I realized that I was spending hours organizing and debating, which is the last thing I needed with my overwhelming schedule. All the while, my boyfriend had suggested an all-inclusive in the Caribbean (which he has done prior with family.)
Our planning made me realize that I’m a *bit* of an elitist when it comes to travel. I don’t mean this in terms of expense or prestige – but rather my insistence to make every travel endeavor a unique cultural adventure. I can largely thank my parents for this attribute. Growing up, while my friends went on cruises or trips to Disney, we were saving up to camp in tree houses in the jungle of Belize or staying in monasteries in the hills of Tuscany, Italy. Regardless, because of this background, I have always flatly rejected the notion of all inclusives. The idea of sitting around in a resort for a week seemed a little…basic. But since time was of the essence and I was desperate to get away, when my boyfriend booked an all inclusive package to Punta Cana, I set aside my reservations and happily accepted. I rarely admit when I am wrong, but my protest about this trip was indeed misguided – it turned out that sitting around and doing nothing at a resort was EXACTLY what I needed, and the Dominican Republic was the ideal place to do this.
Once the package was booked, everything from our flights to transfers to the resort were organized. It was a odd experience to print a single voucher that covered everything (meanwhile we usually have a binder of travel documents and reservations.) Being that I already own an arsenal of bikinis and sundresses from my Florida days, I didn’t even need to buy anything in preparation for the trip. If nothing else, this was already proving to be the most convenient and cost-effective trip I’ve taken in years.
I packed everything I’d need for a week into a carry on. We arrived as the sun was rising at Newark airport and met at a kiosk to check into the airline (which was chartered by the resort and included in the price.) As I handed over our documents and my passport for inspection, that was the last time I would need my wallet or identification, or even have a reason to know what time it was. The flight was easy – a brief nap and a few games of phone solitaire later, and we had touched down at Punta Cana.
On the ride to the resort, I was a bit skeptical. The topography of inland Punta Cana was far from picturesque. We drove through impoverished towns and past townspeople hitchhiking for rides on dilapidated motorbikes. But once we passed through the large gates of the resort, the scenery completely transformed to lush greenery, tropical gardens, and perfectly manicured roads. I was surprised as we drove along the winding entry road to the lobby – this was no ordinary hotel… the resort was the size of a small city within itself.
We checked in an open-air lobby and were greeted with welcome cocktails. I felt instantly embraced with the spirit of leisure and excess. Everywhere you looked were sprawling lounger chairs, fountains, pools and people tucked away in shady chaises. I very quickly got the feeling that if you so much as imagined something you wanted, the staff was already working on bringing it to fruition. If you thought to yourself, “I could go for a cold beer” it was as if a waitress materialized out of thin air behind you with a tray of cold cervesas. I immediately felt completely liberation from any responsibility or decision-making – which was a welcomed change. We had come to a place where laziness and indulgence was celebrated, and I relished in it.
We spent our first days meandering around the resort and learning our way around. We tipped the first couple of bartenders and servers well and learned that a little gratuity goes a long way in the DR. A few single dollar tips, and the already attentive service became nothing short of top-shelf. We spent time by the pool, which was an expansive glittering blue lagoon with semi-submerged tanning chairs, waterfalls, swim-up bars, and shaded private tiki huts emerging from the water. There was a lull of tropical house music, but aside from that – it was beautifully silent. We opted for the adults-only side of the resort, which meant no splashing or yelling, and we were relieved from much of the commotion and chaos from the family-friendly side. Living in the City has made constant noise a norm, so the quiet really added to the tranquility.
Each night we had reservations at different themed restaurants that were curated based on our dining and cuisine preferences. We found ourselves at a romantic Mediterranean dinner at a secluded table near the beach, several lively steakhouses, and fine dining along a golf course and in an over the water bungalow. Our many dining experiences were aside from the fact that we were never a few steps away from one of the countless all-you-can-eat buffets, which we stopped in for breakfast and smaller meals throughout the day. Retrospectively, it was a small miracle that I was able to fit in my clothes by the end of our stay given that indulging in exorbitant amounts of food was so integrated into the lifestyle at the resort. As a perpetually hungry girl, this was a haven on its own (and I especially appreciated that I didn’t have to cook or do a single dish!)
The bar nearest our suite was the epicenter of partying at the resort. Each night at the bar brought a new wave of people, many of whom were Americans eager to make friends. We were among the youngest age demographic, but since our objective was relaxation, I was secretly glad to have come on a week when the vibes were more Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville and less college spring break. We found ourselves sharing drinks and stories with couples from around the world – mid-westerners escaping the cold, honeymooners, and seasoned resort dwellers who were clearly “regulars” at the resort and had all the inside tips.
Each morning, we were unseasonably early to rise and well rested as we emerged to greet the sun. (Our cheery morning demeanor was even more unusual considering my typical disdain for mornings and the amount we had drank the previous nights.) We grabbed breakfast and then claimed our daily spot on the beach – secluded and perched between the shade of two towering palms. The beach was truly the gem of this place. Hailing from the Gulf Coast of Florida, I consider my threshold for beautiful beaches to be rather high. I am not easily impressed by sandy shores, but Bavaro beaches blew me away.
The water was the most vibrant turquoise hue I have ever seen (even more than Turks and Caicos, which previously held my top spot for bluest waters in the tropics.) The shoreline was rimmed with brilliant clear water that almost appeared to be illuminated from the bottom. The cerulean blue skies and puffy clouds met the water for a stunning contrast that looked like it was straight off of a postcard. Almost more beautiful than the water itself was the shoreline, painted with palm trees that reached up into the heavens. The palms were easily 40 feet tall and so bountiful that they provided shade on the white sands below and a bit of shelter from the powerful Caribbean sun. The shores of Punta Cana are protected by reef, so they were serene and the water was calm during our entire stay (with hardly even a wave.) I had read previously that the DR was known for a characteristic breeze – which proved to be delightful. At nearly every hour, even in the night, there was a continuous gentle breeze, which caused the palm trees to rustle and blow gently in the wind. The breeze also was a sanctuary from scorching sun, of which tried our best not to fall victim to.
My initial plan was to fill the week with as many excursions as possible to break up the monotony of “sitting around,” but after spending a day alternating between perfect beach and floating in the pool, my perspective changed and I felt much less inclined to go ANYWHERE, and instead rejoiced in the prospect of just laying around. And this is just what we did – our time in DR fell nicely into a tranquil routine of luxurious meals and naps on the beach and pool. Our greatest disturbances were the short trek to the bar to refill our margaritas, and the incessant need to reapply sunscreen.
In the evenings we paroozed the resort entertainment – some of which was a bit cheesy and geared for an older crowd, but some was remarkable (like a local circus event that easily rivaled the performances of Cirque de Solei). Some evenings we found private rooftop terraces overlooking the beach and casually sipped cocktails, while others we seemed to have never ending rounds of shots with new friends we had made (when all alcohol is free, the rounds are ordered pretty liberally.) One evening, in a tequila inspired stupor, a new friend decided that the best way to traverse the large resort was to steal…or “borrow” a golf cart that a staff member had left unattended. The next thing we knew, we were passengers on a wild (and totally prohibited) joy ride through the resort grounds. We ended up at the casino undetected and laughed until tears streamed down our faces as we watched a perplexed staff member call on his walkie as he discovered the missing golf cart we left behind. I hope the Barcelo staff never reads my blog – but if they do, I hope they accept my apology for our secondary role in the great golf cart heist of Punta Cana. The more lively of evenings wound up at the 24 hour casino or the on-site nightclub, which was a nice balance from our incredibly low-key days.
Although the motivation to explore had dwindled as I became acclimated with just relaxing, we did charter a 12 hour excursion to the island of Saona (or Isla Saona). We left at daybreak and journeyed in a rickety van through the towns to the port where we would meet our boat. The towns were a stark diversion from the splendor of the resorts. It was a realization that while many foreigners travel to this island nation for excess and luxury, most of its actual inhabitants lived in poverty. When we got to the small marina, we were whisked past locals peddling goods to tourists and onto a catamaran. Our guides were enthusiastic with reggaton and plentiful rum drinks, but I was honestly more content to be left alone to lay across the netting of the boat just above the water and let the waves lull me into a trance as we sailed to the island. We sailed for over an hour before we arrived to the Island of Saona, which was also rimmed with the turquoise waters. We hopped off onto the shore and settled into beach chairs as locals prepared us a tropical barbecue lunch (which was surprisingly delicious.) After lunch and plenty of rum punches, we lounged on the island before boarding a speedboat to the “natural pool,” a famous lagoon with a white sandbar that made the water even brighter shades of blue-green. It was also home to a massive starfish colony. We jumped off the bow and swam around in the waist deep warm waters. Our ride home was peaceful as the boat bounced around on the waves as the sun made its decent. When we finally got back to the port, we were utterly spent as we boarded the bus. The trip was wonderful, but a 12 hour day in the sun was exhausting. As I did my best to find a comfortable place on Dani’s shoulder on the long drive back, we affirmed that one major excursion was probably enough for the week. [So much for my unquenchable sense for adventure, huh?]
We spent the remainder of our days in Punta Cana floating around on a raft and taking long walks on the beach. In the final days, I savored the sweet leisure of afternoon naps and champagne brunches even more, knowing that my schedule would soon return to its hectic homeostasis. By the end of the week, I felt we had spent the perfect amount of time. Our skin glowed of the tropics, but we had reached our quota and sunburns were leering. And while I had actually loved the resort policy of not having wifi, we had been isolated from our jobs and family for long enough to mentally check out. And I was quite sure if I had another round of nachos for lunch or mudslides for snack, I would never be able to button the jeans I had reserved for the flight home. I loved being off the grid disappearing into obscurity under the Caribbean sunshine, but it was time to reimmerge into the real world.
Our trip to the Dominican Republic was not exactly a culturally enlightening experience, but it was the mental vacation that I really needed. And while we didn’t digest much history or tradition, the time spent together was without distraction was great for reconnecting. I returned home feeling incredibly relaxed and refreshed – and for that -this leisurely place had certainly achieved an important purpose. I don’t think I will ever be an “all inclusive” traveler, but every so often when I need to indulge without having to think or organize, I will certainly remember the therapeutic and wonderful week we spent in Bavaro. If what you crave is an effortless release, I highly recommend this affordable and accessible slice of paradise, where the water is idyllic and the locals have mastered the art of hospitality.