Anyone who initiated their travel careers in backpacker mode routinely loathe resorts—or continue sneaking into them. I was never a cruise ship guy either, until I tried one witnessing Alaska’s coastline. Barceló Bávaro Palace Deluxe, a mega-resort on the shores of the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana region, won me over, firstly with its incredibly delightful beach setting. Going there off-season when it was only half full—when all-inclusive packages are a true bargain—made me a fan. 2000 guests in an empire that can sleep more than 4000 means no pedestrian stop signs.
The gigantic scale of the place initially did not seem intimate. It reminded me of grandiose Soviet Bloc behemoth architecture, with palm trees. It didn’t take long to realize that the LaGuardia Airport-sized designer acreage is all about relaxation or fun—as long as you don’t mind long cross-campus strolls from your room to some of the action. And action options they have. You’re not limited to good old fun on the beach (though it is a great place to teach a kid to swim). There’s everything from Euro-style topless freedom to solo sailing on a catamaran.
You’re always steps away from a perfect white-sand palm-lined beach—a mile and a half of it—where coal reefs create a natural swimming pool. Beachside offers everything cruise shippers love (including weight gain): an empire of hedonism with no chance of being mugged. There are two mammoth pools, an adult pool surrounded by mini futon-cabanas for couples, and a kid’s area with water park and pee-pee pool. If you want to pretend you’re on a health kick try a fresh fruit cocktail at one of the pools’ swim-up bars.
This Barceló property—they have 160 properties in 16 countries—was just completely overhauled, costing more than a Space Shuttle. Their new state-of-the-art open-air amphitheatre, the Caribbean’s Carnegie Hall, can seat more than 1,300 guests. Nightly entertainment includes modern dance, local music, vaudeville type shows…something different every night. I liked the upper-level bar overlooking this spectacle while enjoying the ever-present cross breezes.
Their brand new Club House, an epicenter serving the main lobby for all-three resort sections, connects a superb, sprawling wellness spa, nightclub (they’re still discos to me), 24-hour casino, amphitheatre, and a shopping district. Duty-free premium local rum makes gift buying easy. The gigantic, sparkling, multi-level disco is linked to a casino by way of a casual piano bar. After a singing along to a few piano-man tunes, I took a 2am dip in the ocean with six friends I’d met the night before. You really can do it all here…on 1,800 acres.
One of my early exposures to Latin American grace was watching Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente play when I was a kid. The first Puerto Rican to play Major League Baseball, he overcame American racism by example. He pioneered humanitarian work throughout Latin America, often delivering baseball equipment and food. He died in 1972 plane crash while en route to deliver aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. His gracious manner was born in this region, and the hotel’s affable all-Dominican staff share his kindly way—and they’re everywhere (4,000 employees); seems as if there’s one employee to befriend each guest.
If you haven’t been whisked into care-freedom yet, the amazing variety of linked restaurants must be unmatched in the Caribbean. Premiere food environments include restaurants inspired by Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, America, and gourmet Dominican. Most of the food is sourced locally. Plus, international buffets that can topple any diet and a 24-hour sports bar.
They call the 1,366 rooms here sanctuaries. Every luxuriously-appointed room had a designer “Barceló Bed” (400-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, little chocolates suddenly appearing), rain dance-style showers (arouse your inner singer), and views of lush gardens or spectacular aquamarine seas. Every room category is decked out with audio and video technology that would even make a hurricane enjoyable. A private Jacuzzi waits on your balcony.
Their upfront, all-encompassing price policy means no mysteries are attached to your bill. I appreciated the abundance of non-motorized water activities, such as snorkeling, kayaking, pedaling water bikes or sailing. Jet Skis (none here) are only fun for the person mounting them. And it was nice to play ping pong outside instead of in somebody’s dank basement. Of course there’s first-rate golf and tennis on demand.
The Dominican Republic’s Barceló is kid-friendly, but big enough to keep kids and people who prefer not dealing with them far apart—very far. The toughest question you have to ask yourself at night here is whether or not your shirt is resort casual attire. One key to a successful vacation is forgetting about your life back at home: check.
I use to call all-inclusive resorts all-exclusive resorts because they exclude a country’s reality. Many Caribbean resorts are on tiny, exclusively-priced islands with few or no options to experience a genuine in-country experience. The magically tropical and topographically gnarly Dominican Republic, slightly larger than Maryland, offers numerous affordable off-resort excursions: snorkeling, a coffee plantation tour, a dolphin tour, and a nearby town visit (Higuey), to name a few.
You can also create your own independent roaming possibilities. The Dominican Republic boasts the three highest mountains in the Caribbean, two exceeding 10,000 feet, which is significant since they rise from sea level. These elevations kick the eastern United States’ ass. Comparatively, the highest mountain in New York State is a bit over 5000 feet, situated in the midst of an already ‘high peaks’ region.
But you don’t have to scale peaks to feel this country. Higuey, buzzing with motorbikes, open-air meat markets and colorful fruit stands, is 30 minutes from the resort, and a reminder of the country you’re visiting … and how lucky you are to be in Barceló indulge mode.
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Bruce Northam’s roam continues on www.americandetour.com.