photo by Linda Murfin
Let's face it – Fort Mill isn’t the worst place to live in the winter. At least the snow we get is measured in inches rather than feet and is usually gone in a day or two.
But still, it’s dark in winter; your feet get cold in flip-flops; you’re more likely to get windburn than sunburn at the beach; and you actually find yourself missing those 90+ degree days of last summer. Not to fear...there's a quick fix for sunshine starvation and a few days of sun, sand and sea can do wonders for your outlook.
One of the best places I’ve found for this type of winter getaway is Punta Cana. Punta Cana is on the east coast of the Dominican Republic, just a little southeast of Puerto Rico. The climate is wonderfully tropical and you can expect temperatures in the 80's during the winter. There are nonstop flights every day from Charlotte so you can go from dreary to cheery in a few short hours.
Most resorts in Punta Cana are all-inclusive, meaning that for one price, you get your accommodations, meals, entertainment, drinks and most recreational activities for one price. Even the tips are included! Some resorts also include butler service, golf and/or resort credits for such items as spa treatments and excursions.
Just to give you an idea of how crystal-clear the water in Punta Cana is, a few years back a friend and I were visiting and my friend’s clear-frame glasses came off on a dive under the surface of the water. We both thought that was the last time the glasses would ever be seen since we were in about 6 feet of water. Amazingly, I looked down and saw the glasses as clearly as if they were sitting on the surface.
On a more recent trip last spring, my husband and I stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. During our stay, I made it a point to visit as many resorts as I could during our 5 days there, just so I could come back with first-hand information to pass along to my customers. All totaled, there are 67 hotels in the Bavaro area alone, with a total of over 22,000 rooms. Let me tell you about a few of them.
The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is a large property with over 1700 rooms, ranging from a luxurious Caribbean Suite with a huge Jacuzzi tub and all marble bath, to a three-bedroom Ocean Front Rock Star Suite of 7,744 square feet that will sleep 6! All spacious guest rooms provide a double Jacuzzi, LCD TV with satellite, a fully stocked liquor dispenser, bathrobes & slippers and spectacular views.
This all-inclusive resort also boasts a championship golf course plus mini-golf, a world-class SPA, 12 expansive pools and 3 kid pools complete with flume water slides and kid activities, 7 bars PLUS the swim-up pool bars, an arcade center, tennis courts and tons of shops where you can pick up all your favorite Hard Rock Souvenirs.
Bicycle and skate rental is free or you can rack up those steps on your pedometer by hoofing it around the property. There are also golf carts to come and fetch you, should you desire. Tennis equipment is free and a stable for horse riding is currently under construction. As you can tell, this is a resort that families can really enjoy. The kids’ pool even has its very own snack area that is alcohol free.
As for restaurants, the Hard Rock has plenty! There are nine full-service restaurants plus three delis and an ice cream shop – all free of charge. 24-hour room service is also available – free of charge. And the in-room liquor dispenser – you guessed it – free of charge!
Of the nine restaurants, one of my favorite was Ipanema, a Brazilian style steak house much like one where you would pay $40+ for a meal in Uptown Charlotte. I am not a meat eater but I thoroughly enjoyed the selection offered up at Ipanema. In addition to every cut of beef imaginable there were cuts of lamb, pork, chicken and plenty of seafood for me. Add to this the huge salad bar and you have yourself quite a meal.
Two of the restaurants at the Hard Rock are reservations-only. One is Toro, with its premier cuts of meat and perfect martinis, and Zen, a Teppanyaki style Asian-fusion restaurant. Rounding out the selection are a Dominican, an Italian, and a Mexican restaurant plus delis and coffee shops and 24-hour room service.
Currently, if you book a stay of 4 or more nights at the Hard Rock Hotel Punta Cana, you will get a $1500 resort credit to use in any way you like at the resort. Use the credit for SPA treatments, golf, souvenirs, excursions – whatever you like.
Just down the beach in Bavaro (which was named by National Geographic as one of the top ten beaches in the world) is my favorite adults-only resort, the Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro. The Grand is the anchor for the Iberostar complex on Bavaro Beach. The Iberostar complex consists of three more great family resorts that complement the Grand - the Iberostar Bavaro, Iberostar Dominicana, Iberostar Punta Cana. Make no mistake, though: the Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro is at the top of the heap for good reason!
To start there are the butlers. Yes, personal stewards who are there to take care of anything you like from dining and tour reservations to drawing a rose-petal bath to packing or unpacking your bags for you. Every room at the Iberostar Grand comes with a personal butler.
Then there is the all-inclusive factor. How many times has "all-inclusive" meant that you can have any drink you like so long as it's made from "well liquor"? Not so at the Grand. Here you have access to premium brands, imported beers and many wines. One note: nowhere in the Punta Cana area do you find wines like the ones we drink in the USA. I tried to find an answer as to why this is but got many vague responses. The one that made the most sense is that there is a huge tax for importing wines. In many restaurants and hotels, the moderately priced wines we enjoy in Fort Mill were over $100! My advice -- learn to like beer or liquor for a week!
The all-inclusive factor at the Iberostar Grand includes a lot of little things, too, such as any brand or SPF of sun screen you can imagine is offered up in a basket at the pool hut, yours for the asking. This may not sound like a big deal but for people like me who travel with only a carry-on bag, it's impossible to bring a container of much-needed-in-the-tropics sunscreen and get through airport security. And buying it at a resort normally costs a small fortune!
For a family vacation, the Iberostar Bavaro is right next door. While the Grand has its own private beach and private dining rooms for adults only, the Bavaro has plenty to offer a family group, from the beautiful beach to five ala carte restaurants and an international buffet. There is the mini club for kids as well as a teen club. At the Iberostar Bávaro keeping fit is easy thanks to the wide range of activities and facilities, including aerobics, table tennis, volleyball, as well as tennis, snorkeling, kayaking and windsurfing. Optional activities include SCUBA diving and golf, though currently packages at the Iberostar Grand include a round or more of free golf.
All restaurants and facilities at all Iberostar resorts are available to guests at the Iberostar Grand. Those staying at the Iberostar Bavaro can access all of them except at the Grand.
One of the most active resorts we visited was the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe. This all-new 1,366 room mega resort features three distinct, upscale hotel wings consisting of: deluxe junior suites located right on the beach, deluxe family rooms tucked back in its own private area, and a section of high end suites – Club Premium, Panoramic, Master, and Presidential – also located right on the beach.
Here you will find a winding river of pools, a world-class spa, restaurants with cuisine from all corners of the world, suites for families, all on a 2-mile long stretch of beach that is protected by coral reefs, making it smooth and tranquil. On our inspection of this resort, we walked over 9 miles just to see everything the property had to offer.
The Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe even has its own swim-with-the-dolphins area located on a dock a few hundred yards off the beach! Kids just love this exciting side trip.
Most of the major hotels in Punta Cana also have casinos for your enjoyment. The one at the Hard Rock is the largest in the Caribbean.
If you're able to tear yourself away from the stunning beaches, Punta Cana has much more to see. You can take dune buggies or four-wheelers out for a spin in the countryside or go deep sea fishing or zip lining. There is also a gastronomy tour where you have lunch at the home of a local family and learn about the Dominican culture.
For more information about vacationing in Punta Cana at these or other resorts, call Linda Murfin, CTC, at Above The Crowds Travel & Meeting Planning at 803-835-0585. If you are interested in going with a group from Fort Mill, there is space available from March 30 at the Hard Rock Resort and Casino. Reservations are on a first-come-first-served basis for members of the Fort Mill Magazine Travel Club.