The Dominican Republic’s first tourist was reportedly Christopher Columbus, back in 1492. An island with a rich history, it is the most visited destination in the Caribbean, according to figures reported last year from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and in May, travel firm Expedia declared the island its leading travel destination. It’s not hard to see why – the Dominican Republic has all the essential ingredients that the word Caribbean conjures – (merengue) music, rum, lots of cigars, sandy beaches and turquoise water, as well as a sophisticated and growing hotel infrastructure.
We (myself and nine event planners) were eager to see all this for ourselves and discover what else the destination offered, on a recent fam to the Dominican Republic hosted by Air Europa, Melia Hotels International and DMC Connect. The destination is undeniably popular with US travellers – understandably so given its proximity to the US but perhaps less so with UK travellers when compared to other Caribbean destinations. While some of the planners on the trip had previously visited the Caribbean, none had been to the Dominican Republic so it was a perfect opportunity to challenge our perceptions.
We started with a fast and efficient security clearance through the fast track at Gatwick Airport – which was most welcome considering this was a Thursday morning during October half term. We then gathered in the Clubrooms from No1 Lounges at Gatwick South Terminal, a luxury departure lounge with private rooms and waiter service, which opened in October. Overlooking the runway, the space is ideal for small groups.
After a quick stopover in Madrid, we boarded our second flight to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic and the first European city in the Americas. The transfer by road from the capital to the Punta Cana resort area on the east coast of the island, where we were based for the duration of the fam, is long at around two to three hours, but there are direct flights twice a week to the resort from Madrid with Air Europa.
The transfer, however, did give us an opportunity to appreciate the scale of the island – the Dominican Republic is the second largest Caribbean nation after Cuba, and the Punta Cana area in particular is home to many all-inclusive resorts. Our first stop, where we stayed for two nights, was the Melia Caribe Tropical, which was also huge – with 1,138 rooms, it is the largest Melia hotel in the Caribbean and we quite happily hopped from buggy to buggy during our site inspection the following day.
Despite its size, the hotel works well for both large and small groups, as the property is divided in two areas – the main hotel and The Level, an adults-only part (and where we stayed for two nights). This area has 408 rooms, its own private beach, pool, bar and restaurant, making you feel as if you were in a more intimate setting – ideal for those that want a more boutique atmosphere. The second part of our stay was at the much smaller but equally impressive 484-room Paradisus Palma Real, also in Punta Cana, where we were treated to the Royal Service experience, again an adults-only boutique hotel within the resort, but this time with butler service. We also visited the Paradisus Punta Cana, located on Punta Cana beach, which offers a similar Royal Service experience and where we enjoyed a barbecue lunch in the hotel grounds. We were impressed by the group dining options available at all three resorts – while the Dominican Republic has a reputation as an all-inclusive resort island, the quality at the restaurants was consistently and surprisingly good.
Incentives-wise, there is plenty to keep groups occupied. Our time was spent with a trip on a pirate ship, snorkelling, swimming with sharks and getting up close and personal with stingrays. One standout experience was a trip to Sanoa Island and the Parque Nacional del Este. We all felt we were getting our taste of the true Caribbean (cue desert island, palm trees and sparkling clear water) with the trip including a stop at a beautiful and relatively deserted sand bank (admittedly, we did get there before the other boats) for yet more rum and the chance to spot some friendly starfish.
All good things sadly have to come to an end and we rounded off our trip with a visit to Coco Bongo – the only place to be and to be seen in downtown Punta Cana. The cheesy entertainment – with people alternatively miming and singing to Broadway hits and iconic movies like Moulin Rouge and Cabaret has to be seen to be believed but for sheer entertainment and atmosphere, it was almost up there with the best (maybe depending on how many rums were consumed) and reminiscent of a Las Vegas show. More importantly, we all came away with a new perspective on the Dominican Republic as a Caribbean destination that had most definitely made its mark.