Punta Cana 2007

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Punta Cana is a giant, land based cruise ship. Everything is provided for in the room price - all food all drink, bottled water, beach towels, beach umbrellas, did I mention drink? - you name it. This is called all-inclusive, and we'd never tired it before. It was a "last minute" trip we booked on the internet. In the "old" days, last minute was different. Tour packagers would dump all their unsold inventory on travel agents Wednesday mornings at 11, on the theory that anything they got for an unsold seat and room was better than nothing. You could go anywhere for 50% off if you could leave in two days. Today, it is an industry planned out all year, with the same players making same offers every week. The "last minute" simply refers to not having to book weeks or months in advance.

You rarely get to leave the ship -ah- hotel. Santo Domingo, the capital and largest city, with a history going back 500 years, is only about 90 miles away. But the roads are so bad it takes more than three hours to drive there and another three back, both in stifling heat. So that was out. Most of the remaining humpback whales on the planet birth in a bay on the north coast, but that's (conveniently) only in high season, so that was out. The little villages that spring up outside the resort compounds are simply endless booths of tourist crap, staffed by desperados who practically drag you into their establishments. Once bitten, twice shy (Herman Melville). So you stay in the compound. And you eat. And you drink. And you eat. And you drink. Just like a cruise ship. I might have forgotten to add - you drink. It's all free, and our hotel had seven bars, open from 9 am.

You could drop this concept into pretty much any tropical setting and it would work. If everyone didn't say "Hola!" to you all day, you wouldn't know if you were in California, Florida, or the Bahamas.

Years ago, the Dominican Government very wisely decided that the future would not be in cigar tobacco and coffee. Tourism was the path of least resistance to growth. So everyone in the DR knows the tourist is precious. Everyone is unfailingly smiling, cheerful, and helpful. The hotel employs a huge army, rigourously trained and continuously lectured in courtesy and consideration. Everything runs like clockwork, and it works like a Rolex. Leave your wallet and your shoes in the room. You won't need them on board the SS Occidental Flamenco Punta Cana. 15 buildings of hotel rooms, three storeys high. Everything modern, everything wheelchair accessible, an absolute minimum of idiotic rules. An eager to please and accommodate staff. A pleasure.

Bavaro Beach, Punta Cana, Domincan Republic Sunrise over Occidental Flamenco, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Bavaro Beach Punta Cana Sunrise pink cloud, Occidental Punta Cana

Multiply this by fifty or so and you'll have an idea what tourism has done for the tiny DR. The whole country is busy building furniture, harvesting passion fruit, and sending their kids into the hospitality business. No one in the DR is well paid, so don't let the hundreds of happy employees in their crisp, fresh uniforms fool you. They work 12 hour shifts and are very poorly paid. Dormitories on premises provided, so you can get to work again on time in the morning. So bring plenty of one dollar bills for tips. Everyone wants them, everyone hopes for them and everyone deserves them. And no one can make change. This is one of the last places where the dollar impresses.

The beach is picture postcard perfect. Straight out of a Hollywood film. Two-toned water, gently sloping white sand to the tide line, and mature palm-forested sand populated with a huge number of chaise lounges, so no fighting is necessary. Thatched umbrellas every 15 or 20 feet. Two bars, no waiting.

The beach also brings out the bare essentials. Sadly, tattoos are in evident abundance, and if they weren't obnoxious enough, they are highlighted by the bright red of third degree sunburn on white skin. Men seem to prefer the jagged, dark, pointed, threatening sort of tattoo, while women seem to prefer the jagged, dark, pointed, threatening sort of tattoo. Flabby bodies and wrinkled skin make tattoos even less attractive, everywhere you look.

There are two main differences between our land yacht and a regular ocean cruise. You don't see the same people every day at every meal and every event, because people come and go according to the package they bought. And the ship only has one port of call. Every Friday night is DR night, and the place gets a flag-bedecked makeover, staff dress in native costume, and merengue dancers take over the floor show. The buffet has (at least for one day) authentic Dominican food. And it's so good and so plentiful, we're certain it's something the rest of the country would literally die for.

Punta Cana is on the north side of the eastern tip of the island. People come from the world over to share their viruses at Christmas time. I caught a beaut, but fortunately Ampicillin and Amoxycillin are right on the shelf of the convenience store. $3.00 for a strip of six capsules. Our hotel, the Occidental Flamenco, is Spanish owned, and filled with Canadians, Brits, Germans, French, Russians, and Spaniards. Many people come without the slightest knowledge of either Spanish or English, but free alcohol is an international balbelfish that soon fixes everything.

Like a cruise ship, the hotel scheudules a long list of daily events, games, lessons and entertainment to keep the guests diverted. Veterans of the all-inclusive vacation know to bring cards, chess and Scrabble kits, as well as very fat novels.

Nancy at the posing palm Beachcomber Dave
Nancy in the beach forest Ole Beachcomber Dave

A word about he airport: Wow! The best we've ever seen anywhere in the world. Douglas Adams wrote that in all the literature in the English language you will never find the expression "As pretty as an airport". Well, it is evident Douglas Adams never visted PUJ. It is an open air check-in that is laid back, friendly, and comfortable. It is a thatched roof affair, that overhangs the edges. Three storey atriums - one for each of the two terminals - that are airy and bright, free Wi-fi, fast moving security, and lots of smiling helpful staff, many in native costume. Everything takes place on the ground floor. You just walk right up to your check in counter from the curb. You can wrok on your tan outside the waiting area. People watch you leave from an outdoor bar between the terminals. Musicians serenade you by the tarmac, if that gives you an idea of how different it is in the DR.

Don't worry about the water. The sign above every facuet says do not drink, and thousands of bottles of water are distributed through the bars all day long. The internet is not unknown at the hotel, but it's only available in the lobby, and they made it essentially impossible for us to purchase access. As we had intended to Skype our calls, we didn't bring phones. So we had no internet, no phone, no radio and no tv for a week. (There was tv - 62 channels - massive for a hotel - but we didn't partake.)

At first, I didn't see how I was going make it through seven days of just sitting on a beach. It was so slow we actually took pictures of each other. That never happens on our trips. But on the morning of the fifth day, I woke up feeling "different". They call it "relaxed", a totally alien concept to me, it turns out. I ended up hoping it would go on longer, and the last couple of days were great!

As for the Dominican Republic, we didn't see it. We were only there.