The Location: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic has boomed over the last decade into a fantastic getaway option with plenty of all-inclusive resorts offering high end amenities. Located on Hispaniola snuggled up right next to Haiti, there’s no surprise why DR is so popular when you look at the landscape. Tropical rainforests, white sandy beaches, stretches of desert, alpine ranges, and mangrove swamps – it’s all here for every type of traveler possible. The more adventurous, the better.
And luxury is ever growing, with all-inclusive resorts lining the shores of the northern and eastern coasts as well as major designer and brand labels moving in on the international luxury shopping game.
The culture is historically diverse and currently complex. There are fishing villages, stunning colonial architecture in Santo Domingo, and vibrant Caribbean music and dance. If there’s one thing Dominicans know how to do, it’s party.
Yet, from the first time we stepped from the airport, we also saw another side. Although tourism is booming, most Dominicans are not the ones making the money, and a few times we sensed a bit of tension there. Rightfully so, I guess. On the way from the airport or the mega shopping mall to the resort, we saw the run down, sometimes downright impoverished conditions the Dominicans are living in.
And they are treated like 3rd class citizens. At our resort, the employees had to walk all the way from the front gate to the main resort, which probably took them an additional 30 minutes, while we all took carts, which got us there in less than 5. In the hot sun, while they are fully clothed and working. Now, I am all for the luxury, but at the amount we paid per night, can’t you guys splurge and a tram or two and take care of your people? Ok.
I’ll get off my social injustice soap box and move on to the actual review here….
We usually travel to explore, experience everything we can, and oh yes, eat! But this was different – we wanted to detach completely from the hustle of our daily lives, and leave all the work emails and calls behind. Just lounge around, swim, eat, drink, and be merry. And maybe every once in a while, get in a thrill or two with some crazy water sports or zip lining. Oh, and mama’s gotta shop. But that’s it. No cultural excursions. No exploring. Not this time. Just disconnect and unwind.
We compared several destinations, but settled on Punta Cana because of its white sandy beaches, the amount of activities and water sports, as well as access to shopping. Plus the husband likes to golf, and there are several top notch golf courses. From Dec – Mar, the waves are good enough for surfing, while the “off” months have soothing, calm waters…also a bit of seaweed. From there, we still had a ton of resort options to choose from, so we broke down the following criteria:
- Suites: We have kids, and we like our privacy. I want a vacation to feel like a vacation.
- All-inclusive, to include the alcohol.
- Small – Medium: If we want a little rejuvenation and relaxation time, we don’t want to be doing that with 1,000 other people stacked on top of us.
- Private balcony: It’s so nice to enjoy some coffee in the AM or have a cocktail late at night listening to the waves crash or the rustle of the palm trees
- Lots of entertainment and activities included – We wanted the kids to be able to come and go at will, with plenty to keep them entertained while the adults have the choice to lounge or play. This by far turned out to be the best part of the all-inclusive gig as a family. The kids’ clubs that a lot of these places have will give you a few hours of your kids getting snorkel lessons or dance parties, and then they will make friends they will stick with the entire time. Vacation = made.
We selected The Reserve at Paradisus Palma Real and off we went!
The Reserve does not provide airport transfers, so you need to find your own transportation from the airport. I am SO glad we pre-arranged our car service, because as soon as we got off the plane, there were literally dozens…DOZENS of pushy hard sellers trying to get us into their car service counters or into their cars. And when you don’t know who you’re dealing with, you don’t know if you’re getting into a legitimate car business or somebody’s car who’s about to take you for ransom. Ok…maybe that’s an exaggeration, but in the moment, when people are getting into your personal space with clipboards and fake looking badges, that’s how it looks.
We also got a much better deal by arranging it beforehand. We went right into our air conditioned SUV while others were frustratingly having to push their way through the crowd, as our driver was pulling out frosty beers from the cooler for us (and water for the kids). We used Dominican VIP Transfers and had a great experience. But regardless of which company you use, do a little research online beforehand and it’ll well be worth your time.
The Stay: The Reserve – Paradisus Palma Real
What really sold The Paradisus Palma Real for us was that they have a separate, more exclusive mini resort (within the property of the main resort) called The Reserve, which is smaller, quieter, and more luxurious. Only 200 suites, with more space and more aaahhhh relaxation. So we have all the amenities of a large resort available, but we can still escape back to our little oasis.
For us, this turned out to be the best of both worlds. There is a kids zone that will take groups over to the main (louder) resort for an hour or two of rotating activities and sports, while we get some tranquility to float in the pool with our Coco Locos (an absolute Caribbean staple).
And we had free roam of the entire resort, so if then we felt like a more party vibe was in store, we could go to the main resort with the big crowd and get our fill. It’s nice to have the choice rather than feel trapped.
The suite was definitely more spacious than I was expecting. We stayed in the Paradisus Suite with a king bedroom, and a separate living room with a pullout couch for the kids. Poor kids. Immediately upon our arrival, we were greeted by Augustin, our personal family concierge. He took care of everything for us, including getting us settled into our room, making dinner reservations, cabana reservations, coordinating activities and excursions for us, and making sure our every whims were taken care of. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, he took us to our room!
The bathroom with shower was separate from another sink with as a jetted tub, which also included his and her closets with full-size mirrors in mahogany. Each of these areas were separated with either standard doors or sliding Japanese style sliding screen doors (substantial, providing privacy and also lockable), which was so fantastic when getting ready. We weren’t all stumbling over each other or waiting for somebody to finish before the next person could use that space.
Bonus: They had Mugler toiletries, which was probably only the 3rd or 4th time I’ve traveled that I actually used (and kept) the little bottles provided by the resort.
There was a giant balcony facing the lagoon style pool with two chaise loungers as well as a 4-person round table, which was nice because early in the morning and late in the evening the pools aren’t used. So it’s just a great view with the beautiful grounds surrounding the water. With all of the lush greenery and trees, the different lighting, the sounds of insects or birds in the distance, and the water illuminated below, it *almost* has a bit of an Avatar feel to it. If you get just the right room that has a room that’s off the beaten path, it can feel kind of enchanting at night. Of course, this is only on The Reserve side. The main resort side is much bigger, and has the feel of a standard resort with lots of people and lots of activity. So this little oasis was a great escape.
The one thing I’ll say about the rooms is that the humidity in the atmosphere that far south made a bit of a musty, moldy smell in the room. We changed rooms, thinking it was just the one room, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t as bad in the second room, but you could still smell it. And in a humid environment, apparently that’s what’s going to happen? I noticed it most often when we turned the A/C on. We called about it multiple times to the point where they cleaned our place from top to bottom, and the only change we saw was a lemony fresh musty, moldy smell. Mmmmmmm. ::cough:: So we really think there’s an issue internal issue there that they are incapable of or simply not addressing.
The rooms also come with a mini fridge that they stock every day. They ask you for your favorite beer, sodas, etc. as well as cold water. And they provide snacks, including these fantastic plantain chips. Nom. After a long day at the beach, this is a very nice amenity to have, fully included for free.
Oh, the food. This is a big part of where your money is going, so you want it to be good and plentiful. And for the most part, it was. The plentiful part gets tricky between the main meals, and you just need to know where to go to get the scooby snacks.
There were mostly highs and one or two lows, as can probably be expected anywhere that has the sheer volume of patrons as this. So let’s break it down. We didn’t hit all the restaurants, but we did cover quite a few. First, there’s a lot of variety, so you will not be disappointed with food options, and your palate won’t get bored, and food restrictions probably won’t be an issue.
We liked the way that they created a variety of smaller restaurants throughout the resort rather than creating just giant cafes for mass consumption. The smaller restaurants, again, created spaces that allowed us to have a vacation experience without feeling like we were being crammed into spaces with a ton of other people right on top of us – something a lot of resorts tend to do. And most of them are at no cost, so it only makes sense to make a reservation and try them. You’re only paying your server a tip.
Breakfast and Lunch
The breakfast and lunch meals were both buffet style at The Reserve (Gabi Club) as well as the main resort (Naos). Both buffets are self-serve except for soda/water at lunch, and coffee and water at breakfast, for which you will often be begging for drink service. The Reserve breakfast buffet is obviously smaller and is often either oddly understaffed, or the wait staff is oblivious to the needs of its patrons for the life blood of the universe: coffee. Oh yeah, and that other thing that we need not to die: water.
They will leave you waiting for quite a while, and you will be left having to ask for it, searching for the person you think might be assigned to your table. This happened to us repeatedly throughout our stay.
*Tip* It’s either hot or cold here with the staff. When you find someone great, ask for their schedule (they rotate locations sometimes as well as shifts), request them by name, and tip them accordingly. They will take care of you. It won’t hurt to also ask if they recommend other servers as well if they’re not here. By the time we left, we had six people that were our go-to guys. They had great personalities, were professional, did their jobs well, and were fun to talk with.
The buffet itself is filled with delicious fresh fruit including their amazing in-season mango for each meal. And when you have a hot day in salt water, slices of refreshing, ripe, cold fruit hit the spot. There is a selection of breads, pastries, bagels, and toast options as well as cereals, yogurt, pancakes, and aahhh crepes with nutella! Finally, there’s a hot bar with eggs, bacon, sausage, and an omelet chef on hand to make requests to order. It’s small but convenient, relaxed, and if you manage to get your drinks at the very beginning you’re good to go.
After a few days we decided to catch a cart over to the main resort to see what their breakfast was all about. (Drivers take you everywhere in golf carts since the resort is so big.) And this my friends, is the MECCA of breakfast. Space is limited on The Reserve side, so they have to rotate what they offer. Here on the main side it’s all available, all the time. Yes, it’s busy, and loud, and kids are being kids. But I recommend you come over to this side at least once to see the full variety you get and make the decision for yourself. It’s pretty much more options of everything, including more pastries, and sweet treats. You can also catch dinner at these buffets at any time. If you’re still hungry after eating at a restaurant, catch dinner #2 at either of these buffet spots if you’re a Reserve guest. If staying at the main resort, you can eat at Naos for the buffet.
Italian Trattoria with a mix of white modern and Caribbean interior design. Exclusively for The Reserve guests. Serves pastas, pizzas, and modern takes on traditional Italian dishes.
They made some great drinks to start with, including fresh mango juice and a **hopefully** non-alcoholic strawberry daiquiri for the kiddos. My son was kind of giddy through dinner, but this was our first night, so I’ll give them a pass. Seriously, this kid’s face cracks me up. While the food was good, it wasn’t outstanding, and I was waiting to get my hands on some fantastic baked Italian goods for dessert that I’d seen as we were coming in. I’d imagined that if any restaurant was going to serve good pastry, it would be this one. Sadly, the dessert was dry, lacking in taste, and across-the-board disappointing. When your kids look at you with disappointment for their dessert, you know it’s not a winner. Because they’ll pretty much be happy with anything. We ended up going over to the main dining room for a second chance on dessert and were much happier there, since there were 100 options of delectable treats.
Latin American Fusion restaurant with an emphasis on Peruvian dishes. Open air with a chic vibe, and good music near the beach and main pool. Great place to wear that one maxi dress you’ve got waiting that billows just right in the breeze for a walk on the beach afterwards. Putting your hair up is a must at this spot, because I didn’t and I regretted it. Get the ceviche – all of them – for your table. This was the best part of our meal, and everyone seemed to have a different favorite.
Mediterranean cuisine in a pseudo-glam space uplit in blue. Um, yes I’m in love with this space just as much as I am the food. For The Reserve guests only, no shorts allowed. Our absolute favorite. We enjoyed it so much, we ended up canceling reservations at another restaurant to eat here again. They offer a saganaki here, although it’s a bit of a disappointment that they don’t provide the table side flambé. It comes pre-flamed. Everything we tried was good – the filet mignon, the snapper, the ravioli, the crispy chicken, it was all. just. goooood. And the service was spot on. They also did special fruit mojitos – mango maybe? Or some sort of berry? In my taste euphoria, I forgot to jot it down, and it now escapes me. But they were delicious. And I had quite a few of them with dinner. So dangerous. But I was a great dinner date, the life of the party! Note to everyone: Don’t let them keep bringing them to you and say “Yes, yes! Just one more! You don’t have to drive anywhere, you’re fine!” These guys are pushers, I tell you.
American and international steakhouse with an old school elegant vibe, although a bit dated more than classic. This is the only restaurant that feels just a bit run down in spots. It’s cute and kitschy with the decor, but there are spots that need a refresh. The food was good, and the portions were large. Very large. The service was OK, and we were lucky that we just happened to book an early dinner that evening. The place filled up fast, and they slowed way down from there. So book an early spot here, and expect a long meal.
Other restaurants: Vento (Mediterranean), Bana (Teppanyaki), Passion by Martín Berasategui (winner of 8 Michelin stars!!)
The important thing to remember with dining at Paradisus Palma Real is that the restaurants are just a starting point. If your meal isn’t great, try something else, or head over to the large dining room. You will have inevitably found many delicious items already in the giant buffet. So plan B and plan C are always an option, and you will end up enjoying your food. And we are foodies saying that. We all found food we loved at the main dining rooms in the mass buffets.
We only had to take plan B once. After that, it was just for us to get extra desserts because we wanted to see what else was available, and it was aaaaaall delicious. Be warned! Cardio might also be a good idea.
The Pools and Beach
The pools were nice and clean, with poolside service, and nice big towels available, so you didn’t have to bring one. (Although there’s more in your room.) I’d recommend taking the ones from your room if you’re heading to the pool or the beach in the afternoon because they typically run out and can’t keep up with the demand by that time.
The Reserve Pool
I cannot say enough good things about The Reserve space in general. The layout of the pool and surrounding cabanas and loungers is strategically designed to create all of these nooks of your own little private worlds of absolute bliss. Each day, I would find a tucked away little cabana covered in palm fronds, my husband would order us Coco Locos (coconut rum frozen drinks with cinnamon dashed on top – order it and thank me later!), and we would lounge, read, talk, and take dips in the pool (with our Coco Locos of course. Yes, they have loungers in the pool. So you can literally lay in the pool, bask in the sun, and drink your frozen cocktail in total bliss. And oh, we did.
On one side is also a kid friendly pool nearby as well as the bar, so that side tends to be a little bit louder. So it’s all in what you’re looking for. If you have younger kids, this is your spot. If you want to be social and have the party atmosphere at the bar, sidle up my friends.
You can also catch a cart to the main side of the resort for the giant pool, which can also be a lot of fun. They have a lot of activities here for the kiddos, and this is obviously the social center of the entire resort. However, there’s not enough space for all of them apparently. There were days when there were literally not enough chairs on the main resort side, and people were not happy. We were just passing through to the beach, where we had padded lounge chairs with big tiki umbrellas waiting for us (that had to be reserved in advance…and even then, good luck). But I can imagine I’d feel frustrated if I’d paid for this vacation at a nice all-inclusive resort with nowhere to put my things or lounge by the pool.
The beach was nice, and they sectioned us off by where we stayed here as well. You had The Reserve, standard, and Royal Service (I’ll cover this later). The Reserve had padded lounge chairs with giant palm covered umbrellas. The service here is weird. They require you to make reservations, but then they don’t pay attention to them. Then they move people up to the front rows after a certain hour even though they didn’t pay attention to the reservation you made, and ended up randomly putting you in a back row with empty spots all over the place in front of you blocking your view.
From there, it got even more odd. my server came over and asked if I would like to order anything and I said not yet, I was waiting for my husband, but once he got here, we’d like to get drinks. He said ok great, he’d be back. The hubs got there and we waited. I signaled the server over politely, and he gave me the thumbs up. And then we waited some more. And then I flagged him again, and then we waited some more. It was an hour before we got up and went over to a stand and asked for some water. We figured an actual mixed drink at this point was just asking for too much. After that “magic” time, they moved us up to the second row, and again, the first row was empty. Such a bizarre and disappointing experience.
The white sand was perfect, and the water was beautiful, but once we got closer and stepped in, we realized it was full of floating seaweed, so it wasn’t so much swimming as it was wading for a few moments, saying that was fun, and then getting out and hoping we didn’t pick up any sort of bacteria. I hear it’s not always like this, just poor luck.
One afternoon we took a walk on the beach, which turned out to be a bit interesting. We got to see the other resorts and the beach activities they provided, some of them organized and fun to people watch. We witnessed a two weddings – one happening live in front of us, and one being set up in a more private home rental.
As we walked further we were then followed and hard-sold again, this time by a group of guys trying to get us to go to a store right off the beach. They just would not go away no matter how many times we said no thank you. It pretty much kills the paradise experience right there. They literally followed up and down the beach for several minutes before giving up each time and moving on to the next victim. So be prepared.
The Paradisus has a pretty wide selection of events and activities to keep you entertained. There is a kids zone and teens group that schedule classes and events like snorkeling classes, paddle boarding, rockwall climbing, volleyball, etc.
In addition to sports such as football, basketball, and beach volleyball for adults, there is also yoga, salsa, bachata and merenge classes, themed workshop classes like cocktail mixology or candle making. Staying at the Paradisus also gets you complementary green fees at the Cocotal Golf Course & Country Club.
For the nightlife, there are multiple lounges and discos along the main resort surrounding the pool, or the DJ in the Red Lounge at The Reserve. There’s also some pretty decent evening shows. We missed Circus (themed after Cirque du Soleil), but we caught the Queen inspired show, and it was very good. Freddie Mercury would have been proud.
I recommend going here at least once. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s a pretty fantastic experience from start to finish. They plied me with coconut water and had me change into a comfy robe and sandals. Everywhere I walked, it was like I was floating on a bridge over a tranquil waterscape. I could hear far eastern instrumental music playing softly. It was a sensory experience.
My husband went for a back massage while I went for a facial. He was in total bliss when I got out, and yeah…I pretty much was too. Even the facial was very relaxing. She was meticulous taking care of my skin, and the products used were high quality. Sometimes I’m leery of going to resort spas, because I never know what their products are going to do to my skin, but there was no question here.
Afterwards, we were given more fruit water and were left to enjoy another portion of the spa with more cabanas and a water spa. We were told to take our time and feel free to use the spa pool, and you didn’t have to tell us twice. For a while, we had it to ourselves, yet again creating this fantastic little retreat all to ourselves. Eventually we made some friends, and had a good time. I loved the fact that this lounge spot allows you to linger and relax, getting the full experience (and your money’s worth) of the spa. They probably wouldn’t allow us to stick around all day, but it was nice to get our fill.
The Royal Service
If you are going without any kids, you also have the option to stay on the main side at the Royal Service rooms, which are 18+. Similar to The Reserve, you get personalized butler service, VIP areas throughout the resort as well as the beach. There is one private restaurant, the Palazzo, which offers Italian cuisine. These guests enjoy a private section at the spa, a private pool right near the beach (which I was ogling like all get out), a poolside/beachside bar with fantastic bartenders (Carlos and Pedro are your guys!), as well as the Royal Service Lounge.
Overall – Was it worth is?
A spectacular resort as far as the accommodations and grounds are concerned. The service varies widely high and low, and this could really impact the enjoyment of the trip. We had one or two not so great encounters, and had to rebound to a different person to salvage the good vibes. So find your people. The food is usually great, depending on the location, and really the food and the fantastic accommodations and personalized family concierge service made it worth the cost.
The spa is extra, and a bit overpriced. So if you decide to go, know you’ll pay a heck of a lot more than what you’re used to, but it’s not your typical spa. In addition to the facial and massage (that were so satisfying), you also have a heavenly atmosphere and access to water spa features for a total rejuvenation experience.
And the Reserve pool is so secluded and relaxing compared to the rest of the resort, you might have to remind yourself there’s actually a beach to get to. We’d definitely go back, but only to The Reserve or Royal Service.