I am so not an all-inclusive resort type of traveler. I'm the type of traveler who goes camping across New Zealand. I pour buckets of water over me at hostels for a shower in Iceland. I party and couchsurf with locals in South Africa. In general, I adventure travel on a budget with minimal environmental impact and maximum exploration of culture and countryside.
But I got that style of travel out of my system in Africa. This week, I am taking a break from my posts about Africa to fast forward to my trip to the Dominican Republic. I broke all my travel norms to have this romantic, Caribbean getaway with Ang! It was her birthday, so I was down for whatever she wanted to do. And an all-inclusive, adults-only resort was it!
Breaking my own travel norms meant I had the chance to pop many travel cherries on this trip. I had my first resort experience, my first swim-up bar experience, my first Caribbean vacation, and my first visit to an international country South of the United States! Woo! Who knew I had so many cherries to pop after all the travel I've done? Well, this post is my take on all these new experiences, from the good to the not so good.
The Catalonia Royal Bavaro All-Inclusive Adult-Only Resort
We considered several things when deciding on the 5-star Catalonia Royal Bavaro in Punta Cana. The first was location. We wanted something that wasn't too far from an airport. The Catalonia Royal Bavaro is only 20 minutes by car from Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ).
We also considered what we got for the price. For a little over $1200, we stayed 4 nights at the resort in one of their mid-tier rooms with "privileged" guest designation. That's $300 a night. Included in our privileged guest package was a list of activities, restaurants, alcohol, and experiences. In this post, I will describe many of the activities we participated in.
Additionally, we decided on adults-only because Ang has a 7 year old whom she rarely gets time away from. While separating for a vacation can be difficult for parents and children, it's also very much necessary at times! When you make the decision to not take your kid with you on a vacation, the last thing you want to do is then be around children all day. So. Adults-only was the right choice for us!
The Catalonia Royal Bavaro is actually one giant resort with a family side and an adult-only side. Folks from the adults-only side can migrate over to the family side at any time. But those on the family side cannot visit the adults-only area. Waterproof wristbands given to us upon entry distinguished our category.
We stayed in Villa 40 in a privileged junior deluxe suite.
When we arrived, we actually thought we were going to get one of the rooms with a mini pool attached. But something went wrong with our purchase online through hotels.com. So we complained a bit and they placed us into one of their renovated rooms at the same level.
The renovated room was absolutely gorgeous! I had read some negative reviews about some of their rooms being old, the AC being broken, and other problems. But this room was perfect. The only complaint I have is that the tub was not a hot tub or a Jacuzzi—there were no jets! We enjoyed it, regardless.
All-inclusive meant we could go from one restaurant to the next, sampling each one at each meal. While we didn't hit every one of them in 4 days, we managed to identify a favorite and a least favorite.
In increasing "goodness" factor, let's start with the least satisfying of the bunch: Tao Cat.
Tao Cat restaurant had outdoor seating a few steps away from our villa building. It overlooked the resort's first pool. It's Asian-inspired cuisine was quite disappointing. I was so uninspired that I didn't even take photos of the food! The food was bland, the meat was tough, and the vegetables were over-cooked. You name it, we didn't enjoy it!
Our room service was also a bit disappointing. I know, I should check my privilege! I deeply enjoyed reaching over for the phone at 10AM, ordering breakfast, and then getting it delivered. Nothing beats included food, delivered to my door. Effortless!
But they didn't get the order exactly right and the food was not the freshest or highest quality. Oh well. We still indulged in a relaxing, balcony breakfast like slothy, gluttonous royalty!
The Gran Caribe Buffet was where we had breakfast for every other morning of our stay. This buffet was large. It reminded me of many Vegas buffets with fresh eggs made to order and a constant flow of fresh breakfast foods of every variety. I particularly loved their tropical juice station with every kind of juice available from banana to guava.
We loaded up our plates and then picked a seat on the covered deck outside. We usually chose a side table overlooking the resort's waterways, gardens, and animals. A beautiful setting to welcome the new day.
We figured out that Cata Tapa is the best dinner dining. This indoor, a la carte tapas restaurant has romantic, candlelight decor. If you're lucky, they'll seat you in a room on one of two peninsulas over the resort's no-swim "lake."
The food at Cata Tapa was a giant leap above all the rest! We tasted many of the dishes so we were able to identify our favorites: the tuna, the scallops, the octopus, and the short ribs.
The scallops and ribs were items reserved for "exclusive" guests only. But with a little eye-batting and chef-complimenting, our server happily delivered both dishes to us.
We enjoyed Cata Tapa and its atmosphere so much on our second night, we decided to return for Ang's birthday on our last night. Worth it through and through!
There was no cider at the resort for me to drink. So I chose to drink wine with Ang starting our first night at Tao Cat.
We tried both their red and white wines and then spent the rest of our stay laughing at how awful the all-inclusive wine was. It was the same terrible wine everywhere we ordered it on the resort! And yes, we are wine snobs. We love wine and we have fairly high standards even when drinking back home on a "normal" night. But I actually don't have as refined of taste as Ang. And I lowered my expectations for the resort wine. Still, I didn't anticipate it being this bad.
We nicknamed the white wine "piss water" because it was literally that terrible. And the red wine had a strange banana aftertaste. It was the after taste that made it drinkable! We nicknamed it "banana wine" and could put up with it in small doses.
When we were at Cata Tapa, we paid for a "real" bottle of wine to make up for all the bad wine. It felt right to pay for a bottle in that setting to go with the delicious meal and the romantic atmosphere.
Ang and I both rarely drink beer or liquor. But without wine to turn to, we drank cocktails during most of our stay.
My favorite was at the beach after a groundskeeper chopped open a coconut for us (a la my coconut experience in Niue). We were singing "you put the lime and the vodka in the coconut!" Ohhh yesss!
The Grounds and Aesthetics
I cannot say one damn negative thing about the grounds and overall aesthetics at the resort.
The staff were constantly working to ensure the place was looking pristine. Lawns and gardens were immaculately manicured. There was not a speck of litter along the walkways or beach. The pools and lake were kept clean and pure as crystal.
I am big into lighting and the atmosphere created by great lighting choices. I especially appreciated the evening lighting at the resort. They had colorful, club-like lighting around the pools at night and sexy, dim lighted walkways, pools, and restaurants.
It was a nice mix of beach party and romantic vibes lighting our way at night.
The Pools, Beach, Resort Activities, and Entertainment
We loved chilling in the pools at the resort. The first pool after the lobby has built in chairs and tables in the water and a swim-up bar. There are beds surrounding this pool for lounging. The second pool is a sloping infinity pool with lots of lounge chairs around it.
Lounging at the beach was delightful. Shaded and sun-soaked beds lined the sandy beach to the East. There was a beach bar right there and a beach hut with information on all types of excursions. Some of the excursions are for purchase. Other inclusive activities were kayaking, sailing, and snorkeling.
We rented snorkel gear and kayaked out into the sea on our second day. There was not much to see in the way of coral or fish. There was mostly seaweed. But it was still beautiful and a fun little activity to do for an hour.
There was lots of entertainment and other activities available to us. We briefly caught an acoustic guitar player singing some popular alternative rock songs one night. Other than that, we chose not to catch much live entertainment. We had other priorities and it seemed a little too forced for me!
The Nightlife and Casino
Ang loves to play blackjack so we did spend some time at the casino two nights. I am not a gambler at all. However, I found blackjack to be incredibly fun to watch. Ang even made a few hundred dollars!
We bumped into an interracial lesbian couple at the casino. They sat at the same blackjack table as us. We all laughed at how vacant the place seemed of queers.
We also discovered an enormous nightclub next door to the resort called Pearl Beach Club. We were dumbfounded at how abandoned the Pearl was. We noted that it is popping during the daytime, but we stopped by at night when it was closing down. At just after midnight, the staff told us to try again earlier the next night. When we did, there was nobody there even after sitting, sipping a drink for an hour.
Perhaps it's because the bar there is not a part of the all-inclusive?
Looking around, Pearl would have been awesome for a big party. I think big event parties like New Years Eve and private parties take place there. It would be the perfect place to take over for a wedding reception! If the Pearl was more populated, we would have been there every night dancing the night away. It had the perfect lighting and an awesome sound system with great music. What a missed opportunity!
Extra Perks: Birthday Celebrations
Resorts are all about catering to you and ensuring you are having a wonderful time. I'm sure the business model is that a happy guest is a guest who is more willing to pay for something a little extra—like our bottle of wine at dinner or even a well-made cocktail at Pearl.
We discovered the perks of this business model on Ang's birthday.
We got back from an all-day outing to the south shore (more on that in my next post!) to encounter a little surprise. A woman knocked on our door almost immediately after we returned. Holding a big bag full of balloons, she said, "Is it somebody's birthday??" She came in and started hanging balloons up all over the room.
At first I was like, "Dammit! I should have thought of this!" as a surprise for Ang. Then, we wondered if a friend or relative back home called it in. But it was actually super special to find out that the resort was responsible.
We figured out that they probably noted our birthdays when we checked in with our passports. Very tricky of them! And an excellent little touch.
After she put up the balloons, she said to stick around because there would be a cake coming! Again, we were so surprised and delighted at how thoughtful this was. Sure enough, a guy arrived shortly after with a full, little cake just for the two of us.
He spread it out on the bed and even "boop-a-doo'ed" a little happy birthday song. It was adorable! And the cake was even really yummy.
My Take on Resort Culture
Resort culture is an experience on its own. It's so weird walking into a restaurant, sitting down, eating, and then getting up and leaving "without paying." What even is that? Even swimming up to the bar and then swimming away with my drink in hand felt very weird to me. It was weird especially for me since I had little opportunity to actually get to know the folks who served me in this context. Maybe if I was there alone it would have been different. Usually, if there are folks waiting on me in their country, I like to get to know them as people.
Besides the couple we met at the casino, we were the only queer couple there. There was some racial diversity among the vacationers—for example, I started to notice many folks from Puerto Rico visit the DR. But it was mostly white and/or heterosexual couples at the resort. Just an observation!
We laughed over how we were in a "privileged" suite which made us oh-so-privileged. Yes, resort stays are affordable by middle-class American standards. But it was like...aren't all the folks here, if they are here at all, privileged?
Another observation about the resort culture was the timeline of activities. The daytime is for soaking up the sun and the alcohol, while the nighttime is for dressing up and dining.
I think it's hysterical how by 5/6pm the pool area would become deserted. Then by about 6/7pm, you'd see couples trickling out of their rooms all dressed up for dinner. No matter how hot it was, most of the men would be in their button-up, collared shirts and pants. Many of the women would be in flowing or tight dresses with handbags and nice shoes.
Ang and I had some nicer clothes with us but we were on vacation! We were relaxing! To me, that kind of pomp and circumstance is for very specific occasions.
Would I Resort Again?
Yes, I would stay at a resort again. Despite some of the disappointments and uncomfortable observations, I honestly had a great time with Ang. It was relaxing, romantic, and fun. It was wonderful not having to worry about where I would get my next meal or beverage. Being able to walk right out of my room and into a pool or the ocean was awesome!
The next time I go to the DR or another Caribbean country, I would like to experience it the way I usually do: with a little more independence and adventure. But I would also return for the resort experience again—particularly if I am with my partner.
Either way, I would choose to stay on the Caribbean Sea part of the island next time. You'll see in my next post exactly why the clear blue waters on the Caribbean coast make it the ideal place to stay!