It's astounding to learn that only 40 years ago the Dominican Republic's Punta Cana region -- now home more than 50 full-service beach resorts -- was mostly jungle, coconut palms and white sugary sand. Then in the late 1960s, a group of U.S. investors purchased nearly 50 sq. km of that wild, roadless landscape and developers have been having their way with the east coast of "The D.R." ever since.
Asked whether he was a local, one resort employee remarked: "Few people are actually from Punta Cana. When most of us were born, this place didn't even exist!"
As one of the fastest growing resort areas in the Caribbean, Punta Cana is no stranger to new resorts.
Two of its most recent are owned by Melia Hotels International, a Spanish chain with more than 350 properties in 35 countries. The Paradisus Punta Cana and the Paradisus Palma Real line up along very different parts of Punta Cana's famed Playa Bavaro (Bavaro Beach), a 15-km stretch of remarkably white sand and gentle surf -- a region ideal for family beach vacations.
PARADISUS PALMA REAL
The smaller and more luxurious of the two resorts, the Paradisus Palma Real is about 20 minutes from Punta Cana International Airport, with shuttles operating regularly. Its Balinese-style architecture -- open-air restaurants, thatched roofs, ceiling fans, eco-spas, teak and mahogany furnishings -- is relaxing from the get-go. There are three outdoor swimming pools, two children's pools, tennis courts, a kid's zone and access to the Cocotal Golf and Country Club.
Palma Real also features an intriguing family friendly concept: The Reserve. It's a resort within the resort that caters specifically to families, including private pools, a private lounge, and more than 200 oversized suites with large bathrooms, and small kitchenettes with refrigerators.
The Reserve's fees are higher than that of the regular hotel, but the rate includes access to a Family Concierge -- a staff person on stand-by to book your excursions, summon shuttles, draw bubble baths and scent your pillows.
The Family Concierge is also helpful in booking restaurant tables -- a must at a Paradisus hotel. At Palma Real alone there are 10 restaurants, many of which require reservations.
At the top end is Palma Real's new Passion designed by six-star Michelin chef, Martin Berasategui, and currently billed as the finest restaurant in Punta Cana. While most definitely not child-friendly, an evening being served a tasting menu paired with fine wine might well appeal to mom and dad.
As Melia is a Spanish chain, most of the food offered at the buffets at breakfast, lunch, and dinner is tapas style -- small servings of tasty concoctions that include cheese, tuna, calamari, tomatoes, and all kinds of tropical fruits. In the private lounges there are loads of canapes at snack time, plus little cups full of fruit mousses.
The tapas and canapes are especially attractive to kids, who, if adventurous, get a thrill loading up their trays with tiny plates. There are few choices for picky eaters -- pizza and chicken nuggets are scarce -- but I was assured by hotel management that these are available upon request.
Kid-friendly fare is available in the Kids Zone -- an admission-free hang-out for children aged five to 12, featuring low tables, arts and crafts, and serveries set up for little ones to reach food easily. Among the Kids Zone features: Air hockey, computers, Xbox and Wii, bouncy castles and a climbing wall.
But Palma Real's best feature for kids has to be the beach. Located on a stretch of Playa Bavaro known for its especially gentle surf, the waves are not intimidating, the water is warm and the sand is perfect for castle making.
Greens fees at the nearby Cocotal Golf and Country Club are free for guests of Palma Real. Kids are welcome on course. The caveat: Guests are required to use, and pay for, a golf cart -- from a costly $50 US per person.
PARADISUS PUNTA CANA
The Palma Real's sister hotel is the Paradisus Punta Cana, also along Playa Bavaro. This property is considerably larger, with seven swimming pools, a kid's club, horseback riding, four tennis courts and a shopping village.
The Reserve section of Paradisus Punta Cana works much the same as it does at the Palma Real, with pods of low-rise buildings encircling two large pools, including one zero-entry pool for small children, and some slides and water features for young kids. Bali beds and in-water loungers are an especially easy way to while away the day. There is a swim-up bar, a lounge serving tasty snacks, a section of beach designated for Reserve guests, and of course, a front desk full of family concierges.
The drawback is The Reserve's distance to the beach. While there are free shuttles leaving every five minutes, the ride to the beach can take 10 to 15 minutes -- if you forget the sunscreen in your hotel room, you may not be keen to trek back.
Families might want to save money and book rooms outside of The Reserve. Many rooms in the general part of the resort have been renovated recently and are closer to the beach. Along this section of Playa Bavaro the waves are large. For kids who can swim, body surfing and boogie boarding are a riot.
Also fun for families: The resort's Mangrove, a natural reserve of Dominican flora and fauna. The Mangrove hosts cultural days twice per week -- presentations of island food (dulce de pina, dulce de coco) and dance. The resort's theatre and dance floor are also lively spots in the evenings. Nightly music and dance concerts are a blast with circus and fire shows and '80s dance parties. After the party, dancers hit the floor and encourage every one -- especially kids -- to take part.
For guests without children, there is a new splurge-worthy Royal Service option. For about $70 extra per person, per day, adults can stay in an exclusive section of either resort, close to the beach, with exceptional views. Royal Service rooms have their own pool, restaurants, and Bali beds on the beach, as well as 24-hour personal butler service. If looking for a quiet, child-free pool and guaranteed space on lounge chairs and Bali beds, it is money well spent.
TOP 5 FAMILY ACTIVITIES IN PUNTA CANA
Top spot is the coral reef and clear waters of Cap Cana near Punta Cana.
2. Safari trucking
Ride on a safari truck through the cane fields of The D.R.'s Higuey region.
Glide through the jungle canopy of the Taino Anamuya Mountains alongside Anamuya Lake.
Ride a horse from Rancho Capote to explore the caves at Haitises National Park.
Punta Cana has more than a dozen courses, with more on the way. Cocotal Golf and Country Club near Paradisus Palma Real has three nine-hole courses with a number of water features.
NEED TO KNOW
-- For more information on Punta Cana's Paradisus hotels, see paradisus.com.
-- All-inclusive packages to Dominican Republic's Paradisus resorts at Punta Canada are sold through Air Canada Vacations, WestJest Vacations and Transat Holidays. Kids stay and eat free discounts are available on some packages until mid-December.