“Hop out,” the boat captain says. Our speedboat has stopped and is bobbing about on a crystal blue sea. In the distance, I see a white sand beach lined with palm trees, but we’re at least half a mile from shore.
“Trust me,” he says. “You can stand up here.”
I nod and slip over the side of boat. Sure enough, the water comes up to my shoulders. We’re on a sandbank in the middle of the sea, and colorful starfish dot the soft sand beneath our feet. The boat captain turns on some music as my friends jump into the sea beside me. A crew member offers us cups of rum and Coke, which we sip, relaxing in the warm water.
Right now, the cold weather back home seems very far away. Yet the Dominican Republic is just a 3.5-hour flight from Newark, N.J. Those few hours can make a world of difference.
Punta Cana, a resort region located on the easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic, draws visitors from all over the world. Many come for the warm weather, the miles of beautiful beach and clear waters. Most resorts here are all-inclusive, meaning that meals, most drinks, and some activities are included in the room price, making for an affordable vacation.
Occidental Punta Cana
Our base for the weekend is the lovely Occidental Punta Cana, an all-inclusive resort on Bavaro Beach, less than 19 miles from the airport. Three huge pools wind through the resort, and there are 11 restaurants and snack bars to choose from. Along with two buffets, we can dine at ala carte restaurants specializing in Italian, Asian, seafood, Mexican cuisine or even steak.
My room is one of 52 “Royal Level” rooms, which includes access to a private area on the beach, a private ala carte restaurant, and free Internet service. My room is large and comfortable, with a private Hydro massage tub on the deck.
Walking around the resort, I see couples, groups of friends and families with children. The Occidental Punta Cana has an entertainment program just for kids, with a supervised kids’ club for those aged 4 to 12. Adults have plenty of entertainment as well, from yoga and dance classes to volleyball, a disco, and a full schedule of evening shows and live music.
I’m most interested in the beach and non-motorized water sports included with my stay, such as kayaking, boogie boarding, and even a free scuba lesson in the pool.
With so much to do onsite, many guests don’t leave the resort, but the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer those who like the outdoors.
Earlier in the week, I had spent the day at Scape Park, a natural adventure theme park at Cap Cana. The $149 fee included transportation from my hotel, along with a full day at the park and a buffet lunch. Scape Park has more activities than you can do in one day, including zip lining, swimming in ancient caves and cenotes (including the unique Blue Hole), a cultural hike, and more. My favorite activity was swinging from a rope across the Saltos Azules pool with its impressive waterfalls, and then dropping into the water. What an adrenaline rush!
Later in the day, my friends and I went to the private beach club included in the Scape Park admission. We had the beautiful beach almost to ourselves and spent the afternoon in the water and sipping cool drinks from our beach chairs.
I wanted to see more of the Dominican Republic, so that’s why I’m here, standing on a sandbank in the sea. It’s a stop on our day-long excursion to Saona Island, a small isle that lies off the southeastern tip of the Dominican Republic.
The tour, arranged through the Occidental Punta Cana, includes transportation to the boat terminal, a speedboat to the island, a buffet lunch on the island, and a catamaran trip back.
“Today, you’re our guest in the Dominican Republic,” says our guide, Ray. “Forget about your worries, your work, your home countries. Just enjoy our hospitality.”
Our excursion group, which includes Brazilians, Canadians, Russians, and Americans, chuckle at his words. That sounds good. We can all use a break from the stresses of life.
After 45 minutes on the sandbank, we boat to the island, where beach chairs line the pristine shore. Palm trees offer shade, and the water is that constant azure color. For lunch, we have Dominican BBQ. My only regret is that I didn’t bring any cash with me to the island, because there are little shops and even vendors offering beach massages.
After a relaxing afternoon, it’s time to head back. This time, we board a wide catamaran. The crew puts up the sails and the ride is smooth. Music plays onboard while servers bring around snacks and rum and Coke.
The mood is light, and the crew drums up a game of hot potato with some of the passengers. (Only instead of a potato, they use a broom.) I watch from the sidelines, hearing laughing exchanges in English, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
It’s nice to be in a place where we can all vacation together, forgetting our differences. The Dominican Republic has worked its magic on me, and as we head back to shore, I sit back and enjoy the view.
The writer was a guest of Occidental Punta Cana.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.