Punta Cana 2010


Until today, we’ve never been the kind of people who make an effort to escape winter. There’s too much going on in Ottawa: skating on the Rideau Canal, building snowmen, going on winter walks … but this year we decided to take the plunge and trade a week of the white stuff for something a little sandier. I tell ya, it’s changed my perspective on winter forever. It’s much more manageable when you’re able to take a vacation from it.

Before I get into the nitty gritty I would like to address a brief comment someone made in yesterday’s post.

Did I feel guilty about travelling to the Dominican Republic while the other side of the island was experiencing immense suffering and total devastation?

I have had lots of time to think about this. A few of you already know how I was feeling about our trip in the days before we left. Did I feel guilty? To say that I didn’t feel guilty sounds cold…  but did I feel extremely sad and sorry? Yes. Had we known that there was going to be an earthquake we probably wouldn’t have booked a holiday in that region. I was too afraid of a tsunami and aftershocks and civil unrest. Fortunately for us, Punta Cana was unscathed and remained so during our trip.

We made a donation to the Red Cross before we left, and if I had been thinking straight I would have brought some goods with me to leave behind, although I’m not entirely sure how it would have been transported across the island and who would have taken care of that.

The quake happened on a Tuesday. I was making dinner and had the radio on. I heard the words “Haiti” and “earthquake” and in my panic I hissed at the girls to be quiet. All I could catch was that it was the biggest one in recent history and that the death toll was unknown and expected to be in the thousands.

And we were leaving on Friday.

It is strange to be lying under a canopy of palm leaves on a beach while enjoying the sound of the surf and drinking in the view of a clear blue ocean while there are people in the world who don’t even have the basics, like clean water or food. But what’s the difference between my relaxing on the beach in the Dominican Republic and having a nap here in Ottawa? There are people suffering both near and far, no matter where we are. We do what we can do. Some people do more, some people do less, but we can’t live our daily lives weighted down by the worries of the world. That’s no way to live, is it?

I didn’t really want to have to address this, but it happened, and it’s been on my mind and it had to be said. So there it is.

We arrived in Punta Cana late Friday night after a very long day. The girls were great on the plane, they’re great when it comes to waiting around, they’re great travellers … and I look forward to someday exploring more of the world with them.

We walked off the plane right onto the tarmac and were immediately enveloped in heat and humidity. My hair was a mess (and would remain so for a whole week) but it was wonderful to take a break from the snow.

Our destination of choice was the IFA Bavaro, a smaller all-inclusive resort which is only 20 minutes from the airport.

We arrived, checked in, and did a quick wander around the resort to get our bearings. We were all hungry, so we grabbed a snack before bed.

We woke to scattered clouds and occasional rain, otherwise we had straight sun for the six other days of our stay.

The resort had it’s good and bad points.

Overall, it was gorgeous. The setting (right on the beach!), the landscaping (regal palms and beautiful flora), and the staff (who were warm and friendly) were all wonderful.

The rooms were nice. Our room had a big window and sliding doors from which there was a pretty view of the backyard of the spa and a field beyond. The air conditioning worked, for which I was grateful. There was ample space for the four of us. We shared two double beds. The mattresses were a little too hard for my liking – not great for my bony hips and shoulders – and the pillows were downright awful. Our pillows were too soft and mildly lumpy, the girls’ pillows were very lumpy. Have you ever washed a polyfilled pillow? They come out all clumpy on the inside and stay that way. We had read that this was an issue with this place so we didn’t bother complaining.

The pools were fantastic. There were three; a quiet small one, a medium busy one, and a large quiet one with lots of nooks and crannies. We spent a lot of time at all of them. The beach was busy, but very fun. IFA offers a lot of water sports: glass-bottom boat tours, scuba/snorkelling tours, parasailing etc. which resulted in a lot of boat traffic outside the marked swimming areas.

We endured some amount of hassle from teams of roaming hair-braiders. I guess they saw us coming a mile away (you know how much hair we have in our family) and they’d shout OLA OLA from afar, asking if we wanted our hair braided. This happened least 20 times a day.

Other than that, the beaches were free of vendors. We did visit a small area beside our resort; a sort of mini mall right on the beach that was full of stuff and people selling it rather relentlessly. We did some bargaining. It’s not for everyone – this kind of hard-nosed negotiation – and it’s certainly not something we’re used to doing. I had to get over the awkward-factor and stand my ground. I found it kind of fun, actually.

Sarah used her own money and bought a necklace with a little stone turtle hanging from it. I bought a shell ring and we paid $10 for both. Emma bought a pretty cotton wrap/cover-up for $10 and we discovered the same up at one of the stores on the resort for $8.

Other than the lumpy pillows, the other low point was the food. The food was the subject of much discussion in TripAdvisor. Some people raved about the food, other people didn’t like it. Food is a hard thing to rate, it’s just too subjective.

There are three sit-down restaurants on site at IFA Bavaro and a few self-serve buffet places. We tried two of the three restaurants and the food was pretty much the same stuff you’d get at the buffet.

Buffet eating is a funny thing. At first I found myself kind of excited. At our first breakfast I scanned the offerings (of which there were many) and went a little nuts with my favourites. Bacon! Hash browns! Bread! This isn’t a sustainable or healthy way of eating (for me at least) and I quickly learned that the bacon and the hash browns weren’t better than the ones I occasionally eat at home. (In fact, they weren’t ever hot enough, and if I’m going to eat fried goods I want them to be super hot.) Within a couple of days I got smart and starting eating fruit and yogurt with a croissant every morning (my big indulgence!). It felt better doing it this way.

Lunch was the same; over-excitement followed by the realization that stuffing myself at every opportunity doesn’t work for me. :)

I worried whether the girls would be eating French fries every day (because there WERE French fries there every day) but they did just fine. Both of them ate a lot of pasta (the pasta bar was pretty good) and a lot of fruit. I missed my veggies. I was wary of the salads (I wondered if the iceburg lettuce was washed in local tap water) and many of which were too creamy for my liking. I survived, but nothing I ate was truly stand-out delicious.

Mark and I did a lot of holiday-related soul searching when we were first planning our holiday. We asked ourselves the kinds of questions that make the basis of a personality quiz. What kind of vacation did we want? Are we feeling active? Lazy? In need of detox? Education? All of the above? And what about the details, do we care about the details? Some people don’t care about their rooms, for example, and are happy to sleep in a shack as long as the location is nice. Some people don’t care about the pools because they want to spend all their time at the beach. Some people don’t care about organized activities because they want to turn off their brains and lie in the sun.

We debated the differences between 3-, 4-, and 5-star resorts and now I know where those differences are, and I know more about what I enjoy and would like to get out of this kind of holiday experience at this point in my life. It basically comes down to food and the linens. And I’m sad to report that I would like both of those things to be really really good when I am on holiday. Isn’t that terrible? I am doomed. Spoiled rotten. FOREVER.

I don’t have to be all about filet mignon and medlies of fancy roasted peppers but at the food at least should be yummy, should it not? I just can’t overlook lumpy pillows or undercooked hotdogs at the beachside grill. My idea of a great holiday includes good weather, swimming, reading, people watching, great food, pretty surroundings, and new discoveries. (What about you?)

Anyway, I digress. I had to accept that food was fuel. That was all there was to it.

Before we left Ottawa, a handful of people recommended that we bring along some insulated travel mugs. This turned out to be good advice, because drinks around the resort (not in the restaurants) were served in small disposable plastic cups that were really flimsy. Once they’re filled with ice you end up with a mere splash (!) of cola/juice/rum punch. Our travel mugs (which probably hold 12 oz) kept the drinks cool for longer and cut down on the number or trips we took to the bar as well as the number of plastic cups we used.

At first I was embarrassed to use my mug (I bought a pretty one at Starbucks) but I got over it soon enough. You know who should have been embarrassed? The guys (sadly, all of whom were either Canadian or American) who brought their gigantic 40 oz (?) mugs and plunked them down on the counter to be filled with beer.

The sheer gluttony is something I couldn’t bear to watch here; the drinking, the piles of wasted food. It made me ill, especially given how poor a country we were visiting.

Ha. I’ve just read over what I’ve written so far. It doesn’t sound like we enjoyed our holiday very much does it? Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

The beach was beautiful, with soft white sand and gorgeous clear water and a shallow beach. It was the stuff that postcards are made of. We spent many perfect hours here, just playing, resting, and swimming. We all borrowed masks and snorkels and didn’t have to swim very far to see tropical fish. We met a small octopus (!) in the water and were able to observe him up close. (In case you were wondering, Mark was the only one brave enough to touch him.)

We chased lizards and watched the birds; a motley assortment which included three ducks, some brave little grackles who stole sugar packets and pizza crusts, peacocks, flamingos, some parrots, and a resident rooster and his family who wandered the place as if it was their own.

We also met a monkey named Brenda:

brenda the monkey

We gazed at stars and dug in the sand. We smelled the flowers and soaked up the sun. We laughed and walked and sat around and stretched out like a pack of lazy cats. The sun felt like a giant toaster oven. Clouds were acts of mercy.

And then on Wednesday I was sick as a dog. It started very early in the morning. It was still dark. I awoke to massive stomach pain and spent the rest of the night in the, ahem, commode, or curled up in the fetal position in bed.

I flushed away most of my innards by Wednesday morning, and spend all of the day feeling weak and nauseous. I’m still not sure of the cause of my gastrointestinal misfortunes. We all avoided the tap water fairly religiously. My mother thinks I should have drank more alcohol, because it would have burned away any stomach bugs. I’m not sure about that one.

Wednesday was recovery day, after that I was ok. Everyone else got sick later, though no one had it as bad as I did. Thursday I was back to normal, despite the occasional painful ping in my gut (oh guts, why did you fail me!). I was even brave enough to try the deep-fried cheese at one of the buffets. :)

Anyway, the days passed both quickly and slowly. It was lovely to be able to stop and turn off. Too soon it was time to leave. It was a long flight home, which was compounded by a long wait time at the airport. We fell into our beds around 3:00 a.m. on Saturday morning.

I am still processing photos, a project now made more complicated because Mark has a new laptop for work and bought some photo software that I need to figure out. I hope to get them online ASAP.

It’s true what they say – we all need to have a vacation from our vacations. I still haven’t quite recovered! But I can’t help but start dreaming about our next trip. I’m thinking a cruise might be in order. Or maybe an eco-tour? Any suggestions? ;)

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  1. Food is a major factor on vacation and sadly I think that at most all inclusives people want quantity over quality but I’m with you, food is really important to me (so are linens, and CLEANLINESS!). I remember craving salads when I was in Mexico, salad and coffee (it’s the cream that was the biggest problem for me) but I would take some crappy food right now to get away somewhere sandy and warm.

    I think you gave an awesome and thorough review of your resort (and vacation). I’m glad you had such a great time.

    Welcome back!!!!

  2. I used to think I didn’t like ‘do nothing’ holidays in the sun. Now I’m firmly of the opinion that a week in paradise makes the winter so much easier to get through.

    Hey, we all lead lives of incredible privilege whether we are at home or on holiday. I agree, save the guilt and contribute something positive to the relief effort instead.

    And I so agree about the food! It’s the one thing that usually lets down these places.

  3. Definitely agree that good food and good accomodations (linens included!) are keys to enjoying a vacation for me. Unfortunately, if I don’t enjoy the region’s cuisine, I’m probably not going to visit there… and we weren’t excited by the food in the DR either, on our one and only vacation there.

    We love travelling with our girls, and can’t wait until they’re a little older and we can start exploring a little further from Canada’s borders! We’re thinking maybe Italy for the first big trip in a couple of years… the food is really quite good there, I hear ;)

  4. What a great picture with the monkey! Apart from the “sickness” , it sounds like a beautiful vacation . I also agree about the gastronomy and the linen, it should be the top priority in every resort!
    Oh and you are absolutely entitled to a vacation whether it be a few km away from the earthquake or in your own hometown. The people of Haiti do not need our guilt but our compassion and any help we can send there. Tragedies occur in many places on the globe and almost always in the poorest countries , it is our awareness and compassion and not our “guilt” that can help them rebuild their lives at times like these.

  5. I have to agree with the linens and food being number one!!

    I know how you feel about the waste. We did a trip to Sandals St. Lucia for our honeymoon and I had a hard time with just how much food was going to waste when the people who worked there had so little. You almost wish the resorts would let them take the leftovers home.

    I brought lots of little things with me to leave for the cleaning staff- samples of makeup and perfume from ‘bonus’ with purchase I had received and never used. I left them something every day, and they were so appreciative.

  6. A winter vacation is soooo good. And it is only natural to feel guilty…we’re Canadian. But, keep in mind that when you go on vacation, you do help somebody…you give them business. All those people at the resort would be out of luck if everybody stayed home. And, you now have a better connection to another part of the world, which helps to make the world feel a little bit smaller to you…which means you will be more compassionate to people who used to feel distant.

  7. looks like a wonderful vaca! i agree that winter is easier to get through when you take a mini-break down south.

  8. It sounds like you had a wonderful trip!
    The question of guilt is such an interesting one. I snapped at one of my kids the other night when they were whining about their dinner, and I told them don’t they know there are children in Haiti right now with nothing…..I know, a reformulated line that every parent has used to much eye rolling. But here, or on holiday, we are just so unbelievably lucky to have the things we have and it’s important to appreciate them and do what we can to help others. But guilt is an awfully useless emotion.

  9. You must post your comments on TripAdvisor. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. Next time, take plenty of probiotics before and after your trip. Chances are your stomach was adjusting to the food (how it’s grown and prepared mixed with drinking whether it be water, juice, milk, booze — it’s all different from what we have here).