In September I was very fortunate to be invited to tour some wonderful all-inclusive resorts in The Dominican Republic, courtesy of AM Resorts.
You may not be familiar with that name, but you might well recognise some of their brands - Secrets, Dreams, Zoetry, Breathless, Now and Sunscape.
I have to begin my feedback with an apology to the Dominican Republic. I have always assumed that the Dominican Republic was the haven of cheap, all-inclusives with piles of buffet food, targeting the ‘value’ end of the travel market.
I was wrong!
The seven different resorts I had a nose around were excellent. Beautifully designed, with wonderful staff, comfy rooms and delicious menus!
Here’s a brief overview of those brands and then I’ll tell you what I made of each property (and which ones I’d stay at!!).
Zoetry: The height of luxury! Zoetry resorts are beautifully tranquil, with an emphasis on romance and relaxation. Tends to be more adult friendly, however they allow younger children.
Secrets: This is the five star, adults only brand with an eye for pampering and fine dining.
Dreams: Five star luxury again, but this time with an emphasis on families. Excellent kids/teens clubs.
Now: Still an excellent all-inclusive, but with a lower “4 Star Plus” price point catering for families and friends.
Breathless: A new concept aimed at “younger adults” with the tagline “Welcome to the Party”. Professional DJs oversee pool parties and excitement! This is not a tacky place as the cost indicates.
Sunscape: This is relatively new brand, pitched at the 3 star, all inclusive market. We didn’t see one of these in the Dominican Republic, but there’s a couple in Mexico and the Caribbean that prove popular amongst families.
So here’s my thoughts on the resorts I visited. I was less interested in the things brochures can tell us (how many restaurants, room categories etc.) and more in the feeling of being in the resort.
‘Now’ Larimar, Punta Cana
My first port of call, after a short transfer from Punta Cana Airport, was the first of the ‘Now’ brand resorts on the island (two more are due to open in the next year).
With my expectations set family low (this is, after all, a 4 star resort) I walked into a stunning lobby and continued to be impressed for the rest of my time there.
This is a big resort, with a total of 720 rooms, spread over a relatively large space that includes 5 different pools and 9 different restaurants (plus a smattering of bars to complement them)! It was quite busy while I was staying there, but I couldn’t say it felt crowded. Indeed, if you book into a ‘Preferred Club’ room or suite, you’ll get access to a couple of the pools that regular guests don’t. You’ll also get other extras such as VIP check in, club lounges with canapés and upgraded mini bar to name a few.
I stayed in a regular room, which was spacious and comfortable, with a decent sized bathroom with a massive jetted tub - which I didn’t have time to dive into (although I was told by my colleagues on the trip that it took an age to fill up).
The design style was a little dated, but certainly not something I didn’t like. The only problem I really had with my room was that the air conditioning wouldn’t adjust, so I froze most of the night and woke up to patio windows pouring with condensation! But I’m sure it would have been solved by the resort staff if I had been staying longer - a good point to mention how friendly and helpful the staff were throughout my week in the Dominican Republic.
I would certainly recommend shelling out the small extra cost for an upgraded ‘Preferred Club’ room - the same goes for the other resorts, all of which have their own versions of this level.
There was a large ‘central square’ here that served as a focus for entertainment, both in the evening and during the day. This was also the main hub of restaurants, each of which was well themed with a good sized menu. I ate in the ‘Bluewater Grill’ that night, which is their Seafood and Steakhouse at which I ate the first of several excellent meals during my week. Service was a little slow (but we were in a large group) but the food was delicious.
My other foodie experience was the next morning in the buffet restaurant ‘Carnival’. A fantastic breakfast spread with something for everyone. Weirdly there are two seating sections to this restaurant, with one of them specially set by for ‘Preferred Club’ guests, which felt a bit odd. This is definitely the place to fill up ready for a hard day of sunbathing, reading and splashing in the pool. The only bad thing was the orange juice served to the table which was orange in colour, but tasted more like water with a dash of chlorine.
To their credit, however, The Dominican Republic has the best coffee I’ve tasted!
Who would like this resort?
Families would enjoy their time here. There is plenty of scope for mums, dads, auntie Jean and the kids to enjoy themselves together and apart - and there’s a great kid’s club for all ages! Plus it comes at a very attractive rate that might surprise you.
Secrets Royal Beach, Punta Cana
Right next door to ‘Now Larimar’ is the luxurious adults only resort ‘Secrets Royal Beach’. A much smaller resort at 464 rooms, this is the place for adults only, with an air of romance aimed at couples.
I didn’t get to stay here, but the brief tour highlighted their newly refurbished rooms, which were plush and stylish. Here I saw the biggest difference in attention between ‘Now’ and it’s five star sibling. I WANTED to stay in one of these rooms!
Restaurants were beautifully designed again and our hosted dinner, which took place that night in the ‘Seaside Grill’, was delicious and in beautiful surroundings. I was also aware that the service was far more attentive than at ‘Now’ and that my glass was rarely empty - although I hasten to add that I was a good boy and avoided over indulging in the copious amounts of booze around!
Another perk of staying here at Royal Beach is it’s direct connection to ‘Now’ next door. Although you may not want to take advantage of their beach and pool (after all, you have your own), you may like to try out a different restaurant or bar. For ‘Secrets’ guests this is all included, but the same is not true for ‘Now’ guests, who are not allowed in.
Walking around the resort I never felt the grounds were overwhelming in size, which only amplified that feeling of tranquility, although it does mean that the rooms that have terraces opening up into the gardens are less secluded than you might like. Then again, if you don’t mind your fellow guests passing by occasionally, it’s not a problem.
Who would like this resort?
Couples and honeymooners looking for chilled out luxury and good food.
Dreams La Romana
Next we moved down to the Caribbean coast for a night at Secret’s sister resort, Dreams La Romana. Dreams properties boast the same 5 star standards as Secrets, but designed for Families, so little Timmy and Tabitha can come along to join in the fun too.
That said, La Romana also caters for those who might prefer a break from family-fun with a fantastic ‘Adults Only’ section of the property, which also boasts its own pool, restaurant and club lounge. Even better is the layout of the resort. Unlike some of those on the Atlantic Coast, Dreams La Romana covers a larger area and as a result hasn’t had to cram too much into the space. Hence the adults only rooms and pool are spacious and inviting.
Restaurant standards and variety were excellent, a theme I found ran throughout almost all of the resorts I visited. On the way to check into my room I passed a section of the garden with some rather tacky looking flamingo statues in that seemed very out of place. And then one of them moved! Flamingoes. On the resort. Flamingoes! Suddenly I was a ten year-old again!
We didn’t have long here, but another thing that really caught my attention was the amazing show put on that evening, on the stage by the pool. I’ve seen in-resort entertain before that has been a variation on a cabaret show, staged by the entertainments team. It’s pleasant, but nothing special. I temper this assessment with my love of theatre that makes me a bit ‘judgy’! This was something a bit special though. Rather than the resort entertainment team, this was a show that tours round the various resorts (along with several others) and as a result it was a professional, bespoke production that was well conceived and performed. The theme was the cultural heritage of the island and was performed by a large cast, with excellent costumes, emotional music, a great set and a story thread that included an atmospheric voice over that would put Richard Burton to shame. OK maybe not, but close! More on shows later.
I would say of all the resorts I visited during my stay in the Dominican Republic, this is the one that has the most attractive qualities, with the only slight downside n that it’s a little further from the main airport - but with the new motorway, it wasn’t an ordeal. Highly recommended!
Who would like this resort?
Families with children of any age. Wedding parties. Adults travelling with a group who want their own space. This resort caters for the broadest spectru of client needs.
A side trip to paradise and false advertising
Although the focus of my trip with AM Resorts was on their resorts, there were a couple of excursions that showed a small amount of the Island and what you can do there.
Unfortunately I was highly unimpressed with the first one. A trip to Saona Island.
In theory, an exciting catamaran cruise that culminates in lounging about on a sandy beach next to the lapping, clear water sounds like heaven. Unfortunately the expectation far outweighed the reality. The catamaran that took us over was old and tatty, with little seating and a blasting speaker that pounded out music at deafening levels - OK I sound a bit old, but I’ve been on far superior ‘party boats’ (Sandals’ Red Locks for example), and you could tell the majority of the passengers weren’t impressed.
Arriving at Saona Island I could feel the dread setting in as the number of boats and hubbub on the strip of beach crept into view. This is obviously the ‘go-to’ place for day trips, but as a result is very heavily populated during the day. They’ve set up a system so everyone gets some space (which is sensible). Each boat that comes in is allocated a section of the beach, with its own beach beds. Cheap plastic ones, with lots of them broken, packed into an area with some sun protection from the palm trees above.
Lunch was a barbecue and buffet, with each section called up a different times. Drinks from the bar were included as well as the lunch, so all-in-all its quite good value (if you’re not fussy, like me!).
I think I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a perfectly good, less crowded beach back at the resort, with more food and drink choices available.
The return trip was by speedboat - and that bit I loved! We took off like a rocket, bouncing off waves and enjoying the blast of air. On the way back we stopped in an idyllic spot of very clear and shallow water, to jump out and search for starfish. There were lots and they were big. I would have been very happy taking the speedboat out here and splashed around for a while.
Don't get me wrong, some people will enjoy this trip, but I think it’s important to go with expectations set appropriately.
Dreams Punta Cana
Back on the Atlantic coast and our home for the night is family favourite, Dreams Punta Cana. It’s not as up-to-date in style, but the grounds are beautiful (including another appearance by some flamingoes). Dominating the top of the gardens is a wonderful stone gazebo, home of any wedding ceremonies that might take place on site, with beautifully landscaped surroundings.
The pool area in huge, running the length of the gardens (rather than in one big circle) and as such means you can still find a fairly quiet corner if you prefer. Good food, again, although some of the restaurants are underwhelming in comparison to others in the resort chain.
The rooms are not the most contemporary in style, but light and clean with all the amenities you’d expect in the small bathrooms. The facilities for the ‘Explorers’ kids club were excellently organised and staffed, but could do with refurbishing as they seemed quite run down.
Once again at the end of the day I was blown away by the best entertainment show I’ve ever seen in resort. The huge theatre area had seem rather cavernous during the day as we toured the resort, but this evening it was filled with light and the exciting sights and sounds of Circus! Wow! The acts were fantastic, as was the staging and by the end of the performance there was an incredible guy spinning up and down a huge ribbon hanging from the ceiling, meters above our heads! Very impressive.
I see this resort as one that offered great service is pleasant surroundings that more than justify the excellent value price point in comparison to the others I saw and is certainly popular with it’s 90%+ occupancy rate while we were there.
Who would like this resort?
Predominantly families with younger children looking for a balance between good value and high standards.
Zoetry Agua, Punta Cana
On the way to our next stop we called into the most luxurious of all the AM Resorts properties for a tour and lunch.
This is my kind of place. Chilled out, quiet and beautiful designed and decorated. Of course, it all comes with a hefty price tag, but then I’ve always had expensive tastes!
Every element of the resort, which is the smallest of all the ones I visited at just 96 suites, was perfect. Styled in on a caribbean theme with thatched roofs hiding away plush guest suites (and one penthouse suite) the resort has a pool that snakes alongside the suites, down to a beautifully rustic beach - not perfectly groomed, but clean and with the calmest bit of water I saw on the atlantic coast of the island. This is helped by a natural reef a little way out that calms it all down.
The rooms included a fully stocked mini bar (with plenty of good snacks) AND all your laundry is included as well! Imagine being able to take home a suitcase full of clothes as clean as when you arrived - I always hate digging through that lot upon return! Add to that your own butler that will make sure you have everything you need for your holiday and the place is paradise!
This resort is aimed at adults, although it is not officially adults only and there were a few young children there with parents. However, there is nothing here to entertain children. No kids club, no bespoke entertainment. As a result this has the feel of an adults only property. Kids would be bored.
Who would like this resort?
ME! This is a romantic and idylic place, perfect for adults and couples seeking peace and tranquility. Probably not for those seeking adventure!
Breathless, Punta Cana
From my idea of paradise, to something very different but no less amazing. The idea behind the ‘Breathless’ brand is to attract young, sophisticated adults. The words above the entrance say it all... “Welcome to the Party”!
The standards are as high as any of the best resorts I have stayed at, with full mini bars and very well stocked bathrooms. The design style of the resort is very modern, with strong colours, abstract art and some great concept restaurants offering ‘fusion’ dining experiences.
All this style is dressed around a large pool in which, during our stay, parties are held during the day and night with ‘named’ DJs and pounding music. The party at night turned into a pool ‘n foam party, which was a very exciting combination. The crowds went wild!
OK, so this isn’t exactly the place I’d choose to stay at, but this is a fantastic place for friends and young couples to blow off some steam and have the time of their lives.
The resort is undergoing some developments at the moment (Sept. ’15) to expand some of the restaurants and kitchens that are causing a little disruption, but nothing too terrible and that will be over in the next few months. A bigger issue is the development work happening to either side of the place. This was a daily empty stretch of land until Breathless arrived and now others are being developed in the same area. As such some of the views looking out from the higher category of rooms are of diggers, cranes and unfinished building work. Rooms facing into the resort gardens and pool are generally fine - I would just object to paying extra for a flash suite only to have half my view spoiled. Of course, if you’re having a party in the jacuzzi on the balcony you probably wouldn’t care!
This is a great place and the right clients will love it!
Who would like this resort?
Sophisticated, young adults (although there were some older guests there too - we wondered if they had been mis-sold the place). This is not a cheap place to stay, so don't expect to see the 18-30's crowd here!
Dreams Palm Beach, Punta Cana
My final stay on the trip was at another ‘Dreams’ resort, called ‘Palm Beach’. Once again there’s all the same high quality dining and facilities I encountered at La Romana, but in a more compressed space.
Again there was an ‘Adults Only’ section with pool and lounge, but with less space to work in it didn’t feel as special as La Romana. The beach was interesting in that it was the only one we encountered that had taken some pro-active measures to combat the seaweed issues that have been plaguing the caribbean and Mexico this year. They have installed an inflatable barrier that floats off the coastline and helps block a lot of it from approaching the beach in the first place. Its also useful as a safe bathing marker, but let’s hope that they don’t need it for too long as it’s a little bit of an eyesore.
Best bit of my couple of days here for me was my morning in the spa. It’s an indulgence, I admit, but I consider it my duty to investigate these things to make sure I’m happy recommending them! The spas in all the resorts I had visited were well done and Dreams Palm Beach was no exception. The service was excellent and the therapist’s skills top notch. As you might expect, the additional charges to use the spa were quite high, but they run regular deals that you can take advantage of to make it better value and afterwards I felt fab!
Who would like this resort?
This resort really cateres for a broad range of guests, however I would push it towards families and mixed groups. It has it's adults only section, but it isn't a patch on the one at La Romana.
AM Resorts are continuing to develop their range of resorts, with new ‘Secrets’ and ‘Now’ properties opening in the Dominican Republic this year (2015). I didn't get the chance to see a 'Sunscape' property (none in Dominican Republic), but the training meeting we had sugested that this 3 star+ style of property is an excellent consideration for those looking for a value all inclusive in the Caribbean.