Well, we’re back in town after a delightful weeklong trip to the Gran Bahia Pricipe Ambar hotel in the Dominican Republic. Michelle and I have been talking about taking a ‘real’ vacation for quite some time, and after much research, saving, and rushing around at the last minute, we were on our way. We finally decided on the Dominican because of the amazing deals for the all-inclusive resorts down there, and even thought it was inexpensive, it wasn’t cheap. Everything down there was top notch – the service, the rooms, and the activities.
The resorts in Punta Cana are on the easternmost tip of the island, and basically they’re the only things around. There are a handful of developed towns out there, but not much else yet. Most of the towns in the eastern Dominican exist only as a place for the hotel staff members to have somewhere to live. This is actually kind of a good and bad thing – good because despite the massive resort, you can walk down the beach a mile or so and you are completely to yourself. It’s bad because other than the activities at the resort, you’re pretty much on your own. There isn’t really a town to speak of within a few hour’s drive, so the activities at the resort are basically what you get. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to do, but I didn’t really hear anyone talk about leaving the area very often.
The flight from Atlanta to Punta Cana is only about 3 and a half hours. We had a layover in Ft. Lauderdale, but a direct flight would have clocked in under 4 hours easily. At the airport – which is one of those really neat ones where you get to walk out on the runway after you land – we easily found a cab driver (there were dozens there waiting when we landed – look for the guys in pink polo shirts) who spoke some English, and happily drove us to the resort for $33. Considering it’s nearly 30 miles, that’s not a bad deal at all. As soon as you get to the resort, an employee takes your baggage and shows you to the front desk, where you are checked in, given room keys and are taken by a little cart to your room. We lucked out bigtime, as we were told that we had been upgraded from the Punta Cana resort to the nicer Ambar section of the resort. While the word ‘upgrade’ is always a nice thing to hear, I was honestly not too sure what that actually meant at the time.
One of the things that confused me the most before our trip was the layout of the resorts at Gran Bahia Principe. Gran Bahia Principe is the name of the hotel chain, much like Hilton or whatnot. Within this chain there are 3 actual connected but separate hotels: Gran Bahia Principe Punta Cana, Gran Bahia Principe Bavaro, and Gran Bahia Principe Ambar. Visitors to any section can take advantage of most of the facilities of the other resorts, with one major exception: Ambar guests belong to the ‘adults only’ section of the resort, and as such have their own restaurants, pool (with swim-up bar), beach area, lobby area, and 24 hour room service.
Once I realized what we had been upgraded to, I was pretty excited. Closer to the ocean, our own pool, and adults only? Not bad!
Things to see
The resort is pretty well secluded from the rest of the island. There are a handful of other resorts in the area (apparently Punta Cana is the largest concentration of rooms in the Caribbean region), but other than the actual resorts, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to do in the area. That means that most of the things to see are on the beach or around the resort itself. The beaches are absolutely beautiful, and while they can be crowded in places, it’s really simple to escape to a more secluded area. Michelle and I actually took a few walks away from the main resort, and within a half mile or so, there were only a dozen or so folks visible. Another mile or so and you’re the only person on the beach.
One of the first thing you’ll notice when you’re at any of the Gran Bahia Principe resorts is the shipwreck about 200 yards offshore. This is the remains of a Russian freighter named the Astron, which was scuttled there a few decades ago. The entire shoreline is pretty shallow in this area due to a pretty extensive reef/coral system, but near the shipwreck the water can’t be more than a few feet deep – in some places it was only 2 or 3 feet deep 100 yards out.
The architecture is really beautiful at all of the Gran Bahia Principe resorts. It’s a mixture of Caribbean & Victorian styles, but everything is kept absolutely spotless, and doesn’t look very old at all. I’m fairly certain the resort is no more than 5 years old, and it certainly shows. Our room had tile floors, marble everything in the bathroom, a garden tub, a stand up shower, and a separate stall for the toilet. It was a really big bathroom compared to some I’ve had. About the only complaint was a relatively small TV. It was probably only 25 inches, and I kind of expected something nicer. But it wasn’t that big of a deal, as there weren’t that many TV stations worth watching. I doubt we would have even noticed it if it didn’t rain all day during the fourth day, but it would have been nice if they had HBO or another movie channel in English to watch. TBS gets old really fast.
Things to do
The resort we stayed at had a lot of things to do, and most were free. Everyone could take advantage of the ‘all inclusive activities’ such as snorkeling, banana boat rides, catamaran rides, kayaking, and even scuba diving lessons. Each person could do one of these activities per day, and it was as simple as giving your room number to an attendant and you were on your way. Michelle and I tried to kayak out into the reef near the shipwreck, but turned back once we realized we were most likely going to die when the waves nearly threw us on top of rocks.
There are also a lot of activities to do that cost money. Things like parasailing, scuba diving, island tours (there are a few large islands a hundred or so miles offshore that you can visit), deep sea fishing, speedboating, massages, mountain excursions (there is a mountain range roughly 100 miles from the coast), and things of that nature. We wanted to take an island trip, but never really got around to it. Next time.
Because it’s an all-inclusive resort, all of your meals are included, and most of them are buffet-style. Even those meals were pretty good, but slightly hit or miss, mainly due to the fact that someone from another country is inevitably going to cook things slightly different than what you’re used to where you’re from. For every week that you stay at the resort, you get to make reservations at smaller ’speciality’ restaurants. These are more traditional ’sit-down’ places that allow you to place your order at the table and get waited on hand and foot.
The speciality restaurants we went to were: BBQ (steaks, chicken, etc), Italian, French, and Japanese. All of them were pretty good, with the Japanese probably being my favorite. The staff at all of the restaurants were fantastic, and most of them spoke english fairly well. It’s funny, most of the places I eat in America didn’t seem to have staff that came close to what we got while down there.
In the middle of the resort are most of the restaurants, an open air theater which had nightly shows, and two of the lobby areas. The lobbies are neat because they’re open all of the time, have a bar, and have lots of comfortable seats in and outdoors. If the weather is crappy, you’ll probably end up here to hang out for a while. Honestly, even if the weather is nice, you’ll probably be here at some point too. There’s usually some sort of entertainment going on (singer, pianist, etc) which contributes to the nice, laid back atmosphere.
At the front of the resort, there is a market area that has a neat open area courtyard for night time entertainment, a casino, a bunch of shops, and some open-air carts that are in the middle of the courtyard. Beware of these guys. They’ll try every trick in the book (most of them hilariously awful) to try to get you to buy their crap. Stick to the stores that ring the market and you’ll not only avoid the high-pressure sales, you’ll probably find better stuff to buy.
By the Numbers
Some number-centric estimations:
25% of the men wear speedos. This was a huge cultural shock. Even more so, around the same percentage of the women were topless. By the end of the trip, this wasn’t a big deal, but I must admit that the first few days were interesting. Us Americans aren’t used to turning around and seeing a topless sunbather.
The make up of nationalities went something like:
- 20% American or Canadian
- 20% Eastern European
- 40% Central American / South American
- 10% French
- 5% British
- 5% Other (Chinese, Italian, German)
The drive from the Punta Cana airport is around 30 minutes.
100% of the salespeople were high-pressure. Avoid them at all costs.
1 US Dollar equals roughly 30 Dominican Republic pesos. While this sounds great, it’s not as amazing as you’d think. Most things cost about the same as they do here in the USA. For example, a t-shirt is around $10-$15. However, they do accept US Dollars everywhere, which saves the hassle of changing money at the airport or the resort.
What I learned
I was really happy with how ’seamless’ the entire week went, but that’s not to say that there weren’t any snags. I made a few mistakes based on either me being too lazy to read up on the resort’s policies, or just sheer chance. First of all, all guys should bring a fair amount of business casual type clothes with them, as the dress code at all of the restaurants lean that way. I made the mistake of bringing only one pair of khakis, and was wearing them almost every night at dinner. Another little tip is to bring your own insulated cup. While the bars are ‘all you can drink’, they give you drinks in fairly small cups, so your tasty fruity drinks get melty pretty fast. We picked up two of these insulated cups from target for about $9 each, and they were well worth it.
We also learned that if you don’t want to spend a lot of money (other than the costs associated with airfare, taxi, and the actual hotel), you don’t have to spend a dime. We spent $33 on a taxi each way from the airport to the resort and back, and $10 each to enter the country. That’s it. We bought some souvenirs for family members, but the only real costs were under $100.
The only news you’re going to get is CNN International. While it’s a great network, you get absolutely no weather information or local news. On our fourth day, a huge rain system roughly double the size of the island blew through, sending us indoors for the entire day. We were completely oblivious to what was going on until we ponied up $12 at the local internet cafe to look up the weather on the web. The moral of the story is: check the weather online once you’re there. It’s the only portal to local news you’re going to get.
I was floored by this place. I honestly didn’t know exactly what to expect at an all-inclusive resort, but these guys set the standard by which all other Caribbean resorts will be judged in my mind. Even if the service wasn’t excellent, the rooms weren’t great, or the beaches weren’t fantastic, I’d be okay with it because of the great deal we got. But the fact that we were able to book a fairly inexpensive vacation and have it be one of the best weeks I’ve ever had makes this place even more special to me. I’ll definitely be recommending any of the Gran Bahia Principe resorts to people, but if you don’t have children I do suggest you go with the Ambar section. It’s only $30-$50 more a night, and it’s much less crowded, there are no kids, and you get 24-hour room service for free (even though I didn’t take advantage of that).
I think the best endorsement you can give a place is to say that you’re going back again. And without a doubt in my mind, I will be back at the GBP resorts in Punta Cana again.
You can find all of the photos that we took while in Punta Cana on my Flickr page.