The airport could have been in the South Pacific.
Stepping out of our plane into the brilliant Dominican Republic sunshine after a non-stop flight from Canada, we were very impressed by the low rise, thatched roof buildings of the Punta Cana International Airport. Even better, in spite of several planes unloading guests, the customs formalities were brisk and efficient.
Leaving the airport and heading towards our resort, it was obvious that tourism is a huge industry here in the eastern half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, shared with the troubled country of Haiti. Billboards promote the many attractions of this region of the DR including water parks, zip lines, jungle buggies and the Coco Bongo show – “Puts Vegas Nightlife to Shame”.
For the moment we were more interested in a few days of pampered relaxation adjacent to warm salt water. We found it at the Bahia Principe Luxury Ambar, a five star resort with eleven, three story buildings close to spectacular Bavaro Beach.
Bahia Principe, a Spanish chain with a major presence in the Caribbean, actually runs seven adjacent resorts on the huge property with 13,000 guests and 5,000 staff, each of the seven with its own distinctive flavour. Our resort, Amber, built in 2006 with 528 rooms was the closest to the turquoise Caribbean. It was totally renovated in 2018 and added a coffee shop and sports bar. The soaring all-white lobby with marble floors was gorgeous while each of the first floor suites had a new, swim-out pool attached.
The rooms themselves were large, well equipped and kept meticulously clean. There were excellent reading lights and generous closet space. Guests at each of the seven resorts had a coloured wristband with a chip inside acting as the door key. Very convenient! Some of the rooms in the other six adjacent resorts were a kilometre or more from the beach but an efficient shuttle service ran back and forth every few minutes.
All seven resorts have a grand buffet restaurant (with an excellent selection for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and several reservation-required specialty restaurants including Italian, Japanese (with a Tepanyaki table), Seafood, Mexican, Greek and Brazilian. All of them required a spray of hand sanitizer before entering, especially important these days.
The specialty restaurants we tried all had imaginative architecture and a very friendly wait staff (although some had limited English skills). In addition to the buffet, our favourites were Limbo (the “gourmet” restaurant with smaller, imaginative dishes) and M.E.A.T., designed for lovers of beef, chicken and pork. The Asian fusion restaurant had an outstanding far-east setting but the appetizer table had too many deep fried dishes cooked too long in advance.
All of the restaurants offered complimentary Spanish house wines (the rosé was excellent, the white good and the red barely passable) but most included a choice of unique pre-meal cocktails, prepared by chief mixologist Jonathan and his talented team.
There were lots of activities during the day including pool games, Spanish lessons, tequila tastings and yoga. At Ambar each evening there was singing or dancing entertainment in the large lobby but the better bet in the evening was the large Tropicana Theatre, reached by trolley in Bahia Punta Cana section. The Circus Show we saw had acts approaching Cirque du Soleil quality.
For a quality Caribbean beach, it’s hard to beat Playa Bavaro, one of the finest stretches of fine, white sand and warm, clear water in the world. With a length of almost 50 kilometres, it’s the centerpiece of Dominican tourism. The Bahaia Principe resorts are adjacent to a prime section of the beach with plenty of palm trees and layers of loungers.
Yes, the beach can be crowded and some object to the strolling cigar, clothing and souvenir vendors (all beaches in the DR are public) but we always found a comfortable lounger in the shade. Twice a day a cart comes by with free ice cream.
Because the beach is so attractive many guests never leave the resort but there are plenty of options for those wanting a day long break. The most popular ones include a visit to the historic capital city of Santo Domingo and snorkeling expeditions on a catamaran that include a visit to Saona Island, a government protected nature preserve off the south-east tip of the country.
The Dominican Republic is a prime destination for Canadians in the winter and spring. We were surprised to learn that more than 50% of the guests at our resort were from Canada. One couple from New Brunswick were on their third visit to Bahia Principe Ambar. “We love it,” they told us. “The people are respectful and friendly. The Dominican Republic is our number one choice in the Caribbean”.
All photos by Sandra and John Nowlan – All Rights Reserved