PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic -- The delicious meal started with cream of pumpkin soup with ginger shrimp tempura, and ended with a triple chocolate dessert that included a mini Sacher torte, white-chocolate soup with Panko-crusted bananas and mini Grand Marnier souffle. In between were four additional courses that make my mouth water just recalling them.
Nope, I wasn't at a fancy restaurant in Europe, but at Krystal Restaurant at the Riu Hotels & Resorts complex in Punta Cana. All-inclusive dining has certainly risen to a new level there.
The group of hotels at Punta Cana consists of the new Riu Palace Bavaro (where I stayed), the renovated adults-only Riu Palace Macao, the renovated Riu Bambu, Riu Naiboa and the classic Spanish ambience of Riu Palace Punta Cana. With five properties on site, there really is something for everyone -- from price point to style.
Each resort offers plenty of a la carte dining options included in the all-inclusive price. There's the modern Krystal Restaurant, the Geisha Restaurant (Japanese), the Italian cuisine at La Bambola and the grill steakhouse Taino. There's also the 24-hour sports bar and a coffee shop with great espresso and cappuccino (yeah!). These are in addition to the buffet restaurants, that in my opinion, offer a selection, quality and freshness a cut above many all-inclusive resorts I've stayed at in the Caribbean. The food was arranged imaginatively and invitingly. The only problem was it all looked so good I ate too much.
Riu has invested about $100 million on revving up its properties in Punta Cana, with $80 million of that spent on building the 610-room Riu Palace Bavaro, which opened at the end of 2011. It is modern, sleek and stylish. I just loved its colourful decor, including the fuchsia and purple pillows in my room.
The resort is situated on a seriously lovely stretch of beach. Really -- is there anything but gorgeous beaches in the D.R.? These sandy strands are just made for long, long walks. There are also four swimming pools (two with whirlpools), a children's pool with mini club, a spa (good selection of treatments and friendly staff) and a gym (to work off all that food). As well as nightly live entertainment at each resort, the complex has a disco, a casino at Riu Palace Macau (open from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m.) and shops along Caribbean Street.
A popular day trip from Punta Cana is a boat trip to Saona Island, named by Christopher Columbus, who stopped by in 1494. Located off the southeast tip of the island, it's a protected nature reserve. Access is via catamaran and motorboats, and a buffet lunch is served on the island. Although the beach is beautiful (how can it not be), don't expect a Robinson Crusoe-type experience. Many boat-loads of visitors arrive every day.
The best part for me was just getting out on the water because I love the ocean. The catamaran ride was fun, calm and steady, and while I passed on the plentiful drinks that started flowing at 10 a.m., the salsa dancing was fun.
We had a great group of people on board so there were plenty of laughs and chatting. There is also an opportunity for snorkelling and seeing the celebrated starfish indigenous to the area, but we only saw one.
Maybe if I had indulged in more cocktails, I would have seen more.
NEED TO KNOW
-- In the Dominican Republic, Riu Hotels & Resorts has two more properties at Puerto Plata. Around the world, it has 35 hotels in locations such as Mexico, Jamaica, Aruba, Bahamas, the newly opened Riu Palace Costa Rica at Guanacaste, plus several in Europe. In Canada, all inclusive packages are sold exclusively through Sunwing. See sunwing.ca.
-- The Dominican Republic is a popular wedding and honeymoon destination. For details on weddings at Riu hotels, see weddingsbyriu.com.
-- For travel information on the Dominican Republic, see godominicanrepublic.com.