Review: What does a $26 per day all inclusive resort get you?

So there it sat.  A limited, short term offer for an All-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic for $26 USD (taxes included) per day.

Say whaaaat?

Was this a deal?  A misprint? A come on?

I checked and the Travelocity advertised special indicated that it could be cancelled, so why not?  In fact, I booked three different dates.  The first six days in length, the second for five, and the last one for only four days.

In the end, I would cancel the first two reservations, but ended up traveling and checking out the resort and this offer.

The question is “What do you get for a $26 per day all inclusive Caribbean resort?”

Truth is you get quite a bit…both bad and good.

This seemed to confirm my pre-trip research, but the experience surprised me.

The Tropicals Lifestyles Resort in Puerto Plata seemed gorgeous online.  The resort hugging the Dominican’s north shore is one of eight branded resorts under the Lifestyles Holidays Vacation Resorts banner in a sprawling complex.

 

Getting There: 

The resort is most accessible from the Gregorio Luperon/Puerto Plata airport (POP) which is an approximately 35 minutes by car from the resort.  Air fares are generally pricier than flying into Punta Cana or Santo Domingo.  North American carriers serving the market include American (MIA, CLT-seasonal); Air Canada (YYZ, YUL; YHZ-seasonal); United (EWR) and Jet Blue (JFK; BOS-seasonal).  I arranged for ground transportation through Viator and paid approximately $26.25 USD (or an amount equal to a one night stay at the resort) for round trip transfers.  The return trip took longer as we made 3 or 4 stops at other resorts to pick up other riders.  I actually missed my first night at the resort as American cancelled my MCI-MIA flight and there is only one flight per day from MIA to POP in December.  However, arrival is simple with immigration merely charging $10USD for a tourist visa which is purchased as you leave the arrival gates’ area.

20161206_170950
Traffic and Chaos outside the resort.

Navigating the Dominican streets, however, is not as easy. Unless you enjoy dodging motor scooters, pedestrians and stray dogs, it’s best to leave the driving to the locals.  If you are simply looking to relax at the resort, a car is unnecessary and really can be a liability.  The Dominican Republic is known for having one of the highest driving death rates in the world, but don’t let that scare you.  A reliable tourist operator can arrange transportation and have you arriving well rested for your holiday.

Where is Your Other Guest?

Quite honestly, the resort and I did not get off to the best of starts.

“Where is your other guest?” the hotel clerk insisted upon check in.

“Excuse me?” I stammered.

“Your other guest, per the terms of the reservation, there are supposed to be 2 guests,” she replied.

I dutifully explained that my wife was ill and was not with me so I was simply checking in solo.

Most all-inclusives would have considered that a “win”…one less guest to ply with food, drink, etc., but not Lifestyles.  The clerk insisted that per the terms of the reservation (which I had with me) there was a requirement of double occupancy and they were going to charge me a fee for sans accompaniment.  In fact, the amount levied was equal to the cost of the four night stay.  I quickly reviewed the reservation and found no such language.  Over the next hour on and off the telephone with helpful and sympathetic Travelocity representatives, they also could not unearth any such obligation either.  Several times they attempted to contact the resort directly, but were not able to get through.  (I had experienced the same issue stateside when I tried to reach the resort when my flight was cancelled).  Ultimately, the resort would only allow me to check in with a credit card charge  equal to fee and a promise to attempt to “sort it out later.”  “Later” is still hanging around as the charge still remains in dispute a couple month hence.

Accommodations: 

Keys finally in hand, I was escorted to my room by a friendly bell hop.

The room was fairly plain, but perfectly serviceable.

20161206_184025
Habitación blanca

 

The furnishings were fairly spartan and with an all white tile floor and relatively bare pale walls, it kind of felt like I was lodging in a racquetball court.  My bed may have dated to the Ford Administration, but was tolerable, not luxurious.  The ceiling fan turned out to be a god send.  It not only served to bail out the inconsistent air conditioning, but also drowned out the outside party noises which revved up around 11 pm to carry through for the next few hours.

The room was furnished with a modern television which purported to receive about 25 channels, including North American mainstays like CNN, ESPN and Miami network affiliates. In my room, at least, that was an oversell.  I received about 6 channels with the clearest picture and sound arriving on the local channel touting optional excursions for hire.  That being said, if you are traveling to an all inclusive Dominican resort for the television reception, you may want to rethink the reasons for which you travel.  For some, the dearth of television actually may be considered an amenity.

The room to which I was assigned was in very close proximity to the main resort center, but the standard Wi-fi did not work.  I was able to purchase 24 hours of internet service on site for about $15USD.  It was fine for email and some mild surfing, but it struggled to support a Skype connection or stream any content.

Don’t Drink the Water!

It wasn’t until Day 2 that I noticed what this upside down sticker above my sink represented…

20161206_18401720161206_184017 (1)

At that point, the water had only been used for showering and brushing of teeth, but it bears being aware that the tap water on site is not safe to drink.  That won’t earn you a five star rating, but it also isn’t fatal to staying there if you go in understanding that.  I found the resort to be very accommodating with bottled water and my room also featured a small refrigerator for keeping them cool.  One of my key tenets of travel is that you shouldn’t expect everything to be like you find it at home.  In fact, that is the reason we travel.  When I travel I don’t expect and frankly don’t want to find things the same way they are at home.  This is certainly true in the Dominican Republic where the average housekeeper makes in a month what it cost me for a four night stay.  That, however, didn’t deter the staff I mingled with from being impressively friendly and gracious with their services.

CAVEAT: Prior to my stay, I read numerous reviews from tourists suggesting that they had items stolen from their rooms.  I didn’t experience any such problem and the room did come equipped with a small safe, but it could be a concern.

The water did serve its purpose for showering, but my shower was fairly anemic.  There was a fine compliment of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel.

Let them eat Cake:

Much as Marie Antoinette’s uttering seemed to be inconsistent, I found a great contrast in the plentiful food on site.  The resort true to its word lined you up with 3 squares a day.  Much of it came in the form of  buffets, but on two or three nights per week, you can upgrade (at no additional charge) to one of about six rotating choices of restaurants which offer more upscale dinners.  Due to one missed night, I only spent three nights on property, but in that time I got to sample dinners at both their Mexican and Italian restaurants.  Both topped my first night when I had the standard buffet, which featured fairly bland (and occasionally inedible) fish, chicken and rice type staples.  Alongside all meals, you could choose from regular non alcoholic beverages, house wine and beer (only standard beer is “Presidente,” the local brew).  Breakfast feature local specialties along side standard items of eggs, french toast, etc. and was always in buffet form.  (Note: When I was visiting, the main breakfast area was under reconstruction, so the Japanese restaurant was converted to house the onsite buffet).  There was also a beach side option, which provides similar fare albeit with better views and more intimate service which many guests didn’t seem to be aware of.

20161208_082030
Beach side breakfast

What may very well be the highlight of my stay at the Resort was an evening at “Trapiche Paradise,” a well-decored, a la carte venue serving up Mexican cuisine.  The service was excellent and presented a lineup commencing with a Nacho bar, followed by appetizers (including stellar ‘Tijuana smoked Chicken wings”), an entree and choice of desert.  For the former, the couple at the next table recommended the signature “Guajillo Chile Rubbed Imported Grilled Filet Mignon” and it did not disappoint.  It was doused with an Ancho Chili Demi Glace and a hearty helping of roasted mash potatoes and fried eggplant.  However, I also heard good things about the Chicken or Vegetarian burritos advertised “as big as your head.” A warmed chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream closed out the evening.

20161207_191835
Guajillo Chile Rubbed Imported Grilled Filet Mignon

On my final night in the Dominican, I took the resort shuttle bus to “Bellini,” Lifestyles interpretation of Italian.  The outdoor, poolside bistro serves up classic Italian entrees, including pizza, spaghetti and chicken parmesan.  The presentation opens with a self serve salad bar and a complimentary helping of bruschetta.  I chose the Tuscany Meaty Lasagna and while perfectly tasty and fine, I wondered if I may have chosen wrong.  Did I leave the best entree of the establishment in the kitchen?

20161208_195421
Bellini

Dinner, however, wasn’t the only time Tropicals’ culinary prowess was put on display.  Midday on the beach, the VIP sushi bar is the place to be.  Thrown on a coverup or simply amble up in the Speedo and sample several raw fish delights.  All of the bars also feature unlimited typical beach cocktails.  They won’t be fleshed out with top shelf liquors, but they are readily available.  Premium liquors are available for an additional cost.

VIP or not to be?

A funny thing happened on the way to the beach.  I quickly learned that while I was graced with a wrist band reflecting my all inclusive status, I was not ‘VIP all inclusive.’  It seems Lifestyles practices a resort caste system.  The VIP status gives you access to extra bars, restaurants and beach villas that others are not allowed into.  As near as I could gauge, this higher social status is arrived at by buying into ownership on site….there we arrived at it.  Lest, you didn’t think it was looming out here.  A big part of the price and marketing of this incredible rate is the time honored, time share presentation.  However, while heavily peddled to you, there was no firm requirement that you actually go on a tour.  Promptly, at 8 a.m., on my first morning my phone rang and I was introduced to Rudy, my personal concierge for a ‘free breakfast.”  Five minutes later, he was at my door and ready to show me around the grounds.  He pressed hard, but eventually lighten up when I expressed no interest in putting down roots.  After that, you may be occasionally solicited by beige shirted sales reps, but a polite “already done that” sends them on their way.

I did speak with several guests who succumbed to the marketing efforts and lamented that they spent a better part of their first full day being shuttled around the property and cajoled about the virtues of beach front property.  In fairness, I also visited with VIP members who seemed to sincerely enjoy the props of ownership and who made a yearly pilgrimage to Puerto Plata. It appears significant marketing promotions are geared towards the North American market, but I also encountered a number of visitors from Latin America.

Not having VIP credentials, I figured I was shut out of prime beach access.  However, while that is true for certain venues, an area ironically called VIP Beach is open to all guests.  The area affords very nice semi-private cabanas with gorgeous ocean views, beach access and a nice bar area.  The resort also has multiple pools with a fair number of them open to all.  Surrounding all that, is a lively entertainment crew which puts on low budget, high energy festivities which embody the Dominican spirit.

 

20161209_111529
VIP Beach Cabanas

The resort also fleshes out the week with entertainment shows nightly.  One night, I accompanied some “next door neighbors” to a part amateurish, part spectacular presentation embracing Dominican culture.  The highlight of the night came with a fire-breathing performer who lit up the Caribbean sky.  Other nights, guests can hit up the nearby Casino, sports bars or dance clubs on property.

The property comes complete with a sandy nice, smooth beach where you can easily access the ocean in its cove protected inlet.  Each guest is provided two towel cards complimentary.

Don’t let the bed bugs bite…

All in all by the last day, I was feeling fairly good about my investment of a Benjamin for four nights in the D.R., problems included.  However, while waiting out my return shuttle, I encountered several guests who had less than stellar experiences.  A Colorado couple lamented that their building lacked any air conditioning at all.  Another female guest complained about being plagued by bed bugs and her legs provided the visual evidence.  Maybe it was just the idea of being on vacation, but each seemed to accept it as part of the experience and the low cost of escaping the Northern Winter at an affordable rate.

For $26 a night, don’t expect to be hob-knobbing with glamorous movie stars on the Riviera, but it will buy you a nice relaxing  inclusive beach experience…albeit within expectations.