A Playground for All Ages
By Kim Duke-Layden
Photography courtesy of Club Med Punta Cana
How could a place that was nothing more than an isolated, impenetrable jungle just fifty years ago become one of the hottest destinations in the Caribbean today? Last June, I joined a group of journalists to find out firsthand.
The Dominican Republic ranks as the number one tourist destination in the Caribbean. Although its charming colonial capital, Santo Domingo, has long attracted worldly travelers—such as Christopher Columbus—Punta Cana has emerged as the country’s hottest spot among twenty-first-century travelers, including international A-listers.
Punta Cana is not a city; rather it is an ever-expanding swath of pristine playas (beaches) on the Dominican Republic’s easternmost cape. Beaches such as Bávaro, Juanillo, and Macao boast sugar-white sands, crystal clear seas, and protected coral reefs. Add in abundant amenities like world-class golfing, all-inclusive resorts, and the Caribbean’s most well connected international airport, and Punta Cana equals one hot ticket.
Just minutes away from the airport is the area’s first all-inclusive property, Club Med Punta Cana. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Club Med had a reputation as a swinging singles resort destination, but times have changed. “In 2004, the company rebranded and began catering to families, who currently make up 70–80 percent of our business,” said Tanya Ansaldi Sacchi, PR and partnership manager for Club Med.
Besides having a convenient location, Club Med exudes an inviting tropical charm, with pastel-colored guest bungalows nestled amid seventy-five lush acres of fragrant plumeria, flamboyant flowers, and a palm-studded lawn that extends from a huge lagoon-shaped pool down to the cerulean sea. A constant breeze is felt throughout the resort, thanks to Punta Cana’s enviable perch straddling the Atlantic and the Caribbean. I felt like I was in Hawaii, minus the jet lag.
The resort features more than 550 renovated guest rooms and multiroom suites with flat-screen TVs, balconies, and minifridges stocked with nonalcoholic drinks. The tropical-chic Tiara suites are the most sumptuous rooms and are secluded along the seashore within the resort’s Five-Trident (Club Med’s own ratings system) Luxury Space. Added luxuries include a private concierge, room service, and access to a private pool club and bar with sunset receptions. And, luckily for us journalists, that’s where we stayed.
The tropical-chic Tiara suites are the most sumptuous rooms and are secluded along the seashore within the resort’s Five-Trident Luxury Space.
Shortly after arriving, I met my fellow wordsmiths for a property tour led by France native Felice, one of the resort’s many outgoing Gracious Organizers (GOs). Besides holding various resort jobs, GOs actively engage with guests to create a memorable stay infused with the unique Club Med Spirit. Tiara’s resident manager, Marie-Claude Poirier, who hails from Quebec, said, “All GOs speak at least three languages and most Club Med properties have GOs from at least twenty-one different nations.” And because the resort hosts many French-speaking guests, GOs are as likely to greet you with “Bonjour” as with “Buenos días.”
There aren’t enough hours in the day to take advantage of the many daily activities that Club Med offers, from snorkeling to sailing to salsa dancing. Teaching and instruction are emphasized, as sports have been part of the brand’s DNA for more than sixty years. So if you’ve ever wanted to learn how to swing a club or a racquet and drive a ball through the air with the greatest of ease, this is your kind of place. And best of all, daily activities—along with snacks, meals, alcoholic beverages, and gratuities—are included with your stay.
There are tons of activities for kids, too. Club Med’s award-winning programs, created for ages four months up to seventeen years, have garnered rave reviews on TripAdvisor. Activities include cooking, archery, junior tennis, an awesome splash park, and a “circus school” that teaches tightrope walking and unicycle riding.
Meals are casual affairs, and both of the main restaurants serve buffet-style. Breakfast and lunch feature international fare, including a great selection of healthy offerings and delicious Dominican comida criolla (Creole food). Tiara guests may also order yummy à la carte food at the Perla bar or through room service. Dinner themes rotate nightly and highlight various ethnic cuisines, like Italian or Caribbean. Club Med has several whimsical traditions, which include an optional nightly dress code color. If you haven’t packed adequately, the resort’s trendy boutique offers many enticing options.
Flickering tiki torches and live island music set the mood for our first night’s sunset reception at Perla’s lovely infinity pool, which seems to kiss the Caribbean. At Hispaniola, the resort’s open-air waterfront restaurant, we joined fellow guests dressed in black and relished flavorful Moroccan delicacies washed down with free-flowing wine and the tasty Dominican pilsner, Presidente. The only thing missing was a magic carpet ride back to my room.
Besides being the Cigar Capital of the World, the Dominican Republic rules as the Caribbean’s premier golf destination. Some of the finest links are in Punta Cana, so the next morning we toured a few. La Cana features a twenty-seven-hole course designed by P.B. Dye and a spectacular clubhouse and beach club designed by the late fashion icon and native Dominican, Oscar de la Renta.
Nestled in a serene Zen garden near the water’s edge, the Caribbean’s only L’Occitane-branded spa is a fragrant haven of pampering and relaxation; the beachside palapas with billowy white curtains add a special dreamy quality to the experience.
The affable Don Law, who Golf Magazine touts as one of the top one hundred teachers of the game and who created the acclaimed junior golf academy at Club Med Sandpiper Bay in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, was on hand to teach us the renowned Stack and Tilt golf swing method. Miraculously, I drove several balls down the green! A first!
Considered to be among the top twenty international courses, Corales is a very exclusive eighteen-hole, Tom Fazio–designed course, the last three holes of which have come to be known collectively as the Devil’s Elbow. “Corales has one of the most opulent, lavish layouts and very special oceanfront holes,” said Brandon Tucker, managing editor of Golf Advisor, who ranks Corales among his three favorite Caribbean courses. Club Med is partnered with both La Cana and Corales and offers guests affordable multiround packages.
My afternoon visit to Club Med’s spa was ahh-some. Nestled in a serene Zen garden near the water’s edge, the Caribbean’s only L’Occitane-branded spa is a fragrant haven of pampering and relaxation; the beachside palapas with billowy white curtains add a special dreamy quality to the experience. Lemongrass-scented breezes and crashing waves lulled me to sleep as Griselda massaged warm essential oils into my tense muscles. Like the tide, my fatigue ebbed away. Spa services are not included but are definitely splurge-worthy.
Friday’s festive Gala Night was buzzing with excitement. Samana, one of the on-site restaurants, was a sea of white with chefs, servers, and guests all dressed in their beachy best for the week’s most elaborate spread, which included an endless platter of grilled lobster.
By nine o’clock, Cielo, the resort’s chic open-air bar, had become party central. Already under way was Club Med’s nightly Crazy Signs ritual of choreographed dances led by dozens of animated GOs. The comical hand gestures and dance steps, all with an impromptu flair, are partly passed down through the years, while others reflect the current generation of GOs.
Crazy Signs blurred into a flash mob party of old-school line dances, conga trains, and Haitian dances performed by local GOs. The party progressed to the Celeste beachside bar, where in the midst of giant video screens, a disco ball, and exploding confetti cannons, we boogied the night away.
Mornings are so much sweeter when accompanied by room service and chocolate croissants. And circus school was better than a triple shot of espresso!
Mornings are so much sweeter when accompanied by room service and chocolate croissants. And circus school was better than a triple shot of espresso! From a dizzyingly high perch, I channeled my inner Carrie Bradshaw, caught hold of the trapeze, and leapt into the air with the shakiest of knees! After gripping the trapeze with my legs, I slowly and terrifyingly released both hands and swung like a pendulum upside down, then backflipped to the net below. It was the thrill of a lifetime!
Still flying high with adrenaline, I beelined to the beach and signed up for an afternoon windsurfing class. However, my lofty aspirations had sailed out to sea without me. Instead, I blissfully whiled away the afternoon sunning and sipping bubbly poolside with Castillo and the rest of Perla’s endearing and personable staff, who made me feel like family.
Tiara guest Angela Shoma, who was vacationing from Toronto with her eighteen-year-old son, echoed my sentiments. Angela told me she’d been coming to Club Med for the past thirty years and praised the kids’ clubs, the resort’s new director, and Tiara’s sweet perks. She added, “When I come to Punta Cana, I wouldn’t consider staying anywhere else.”
Much too soon my pleasurable stay ended, and yet it left a lasting impression on me. With today’s trend of sprawling all-inclusive resorts where bigger, bolder, and faster is the norm, it’s nice to know that charming playgrounds like Club Med Punta Cana still exist—and that they are as enjoyable as ever!
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For more information on Club Med Punta Cana, call 1-800-ClubMed (1-800-258-2633) or visit www.clubmed.us.