We Canadians consider ourselves a hearty people, however, the 2003 winter was excessively bitter cold and endless. By February we had had enough and were ready to trade in our winter boots for a pair of sandals.
My traveling companion, Kevin, an avid bogey golfer like myself, and I, flew into Puerto Plata, located on the northern tip of the island. We were looking forward to experiencing and writing about two hotels recently acquired by Hilton and the Guavaberry golf course.
Prior to departing we considered the best method of getting around the island. We obtained maps; we inquired about car rates and researched public transportation and hotel shuttle services. In the end we were undecided and concluded that this was one item we could arrange upon arrival. We have driven in many places including: London, England; Athens, Greece; Germany and even Montreal. Heck, if you can drive in Montreal without an insurance claim, you can drive anywhere, right? As a result, we opted to a rent a car to get us around the island. Figuring we're both careful and confident drivers and competent navigators, we didn't anticipate too many problems.
Our arrival in the Dominican was a pleasant and swift custom's experience and we quickly found ourselves outside the quaint airport watching the taxis and buses come and go, and all the other tourists boarding their all-inclusive package shuttles.
Over to our right was a row of little shops and car rental outlets. We arbitrarily selected one and asked to look at some of the cars for lease and stated we needed one for the week. We negotiated with a friendly agent named Gypsy who spoke superb English and we decided on a 7-year-old white Nissan Sentra with only 40,000 km. We didn't think about it at the time, but 40,000 km on the 180 km island is a lot of driving, and suggests the car had seen its better days. We completed the walk-around and we checked the tires, which looked satisfactory as long as it didn't rain. The best we could arrange was a fair $190 USD for the week. It was a box on wheels with air-conditioning and a radio, with manual windows. We would discover our simple, run-down Nissan with spongy, springy seats, was one of the better cars on the road.
The deal signed and sealed, we fired it up and off we went, map in hand. I was the prepared navigator and Kevin the confident driver. We laugh when we think how naïve we were.
Somehow the excitement, and unclear directional traffic signs, led to taking the wrong turn out of the airport and we drove one pleasant and interesting hour the wrong way. At that point we should have known that we might be up for a bit of challenge.
The resort emits a sensation of serenity and decadence. Swaying palm trees line the circular driveway bringing your vehicle directly to the entrance. Our car door was graciously opened and a friendly smile welcomed us to the Marien Coral by Hilton. A chilled glass of fruit punch is in our hand even before our luggage and clubs are unloaded and we are led into an open-air spacious lobby, accented with a marble floor and inviting couches and a panoramic view of the common pool beyond. The lobby teases us, offering a glimpse of what's to come.
Hilton Caribbean, a division of Hilton International, and Coral Hotels and Resorts decided to join forces in late 2002. As a result, the Hilton Caribbean entered the all-inclusive resort market with the addition of four resorts in the Dominican Republic. Hilton is the first major hotel chain to embark in the all-inclusive-resort market in the Dominican Republic and further plans are underway for Hilton to expand in this market; with the addition of new properties in Haiti and Barbados.
The scene is breathtaking. A huge sprawling convoluted pool unfolds before our eyes. There is a hub of activity at various gathering points around the pool; the towel and games hut, the swim-up bar, the water volleyball net, the serene palm-shaded poolside lounge chairs, the dance lesson area, the mini-putt and more. I prefer a resort with lots of space and people enjoying it, as opposed to a snobby, empty looking facility. In my mind that says a lot about the resort and I was relieved to find lots of "vacationers" spread about and relaxing poolside. We can't wait to get our swimsuits on and join our fellow vacationers for a little poolside relaxation.
We easily find our three-story open-air building. Marien Coral by Hilton host's 326 guests rooms, which are all situated in five, guest buildings. The guest buildings are interspersed throughout the property, connected by superbly landscaped shale walkways. The result is a well-planned resort with professionally exquisite manicured gardens throughout and a central common area where the focus is the never-ending pool and the numerous gathering points around it. Each room offers its own unique ocean or poolside view and the surrounding vistas provide real tranquility we have eagerly anticipated. As we enter our suite, we melt in its spaciousness and warmth. Decorated in an authentic Mediterranean theme, the cool pastels, oranges, oak and cream dare us to just try and leave.
Palm trees border the beach area offering much needed shade for as far as we can see. We stroll past La Guama - a snack bar situated beside the beach and a quaint place to grab a snack or refreshment during the day. We find two lounge chairs, which are plentiful, and order a local beverage settling in to enjoy the late afternoon sun. Shades of blue from the ocean and sky meet somewhere beyond where the rest of the world and Canada must be, but we don't care. We are in the Dominican Republic and we may never leave . . .
The next day we get a feel for the resort culture. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast; sat by the pool, played volleyball, and explored the grounds. The property is immaculately kept and pride of ownership is apparent in the little touches that appear everywhere. The immaculate gardens are laden with fresh flowers. The purposefully placed palms offer welcomed shade. The pool is pristine and the soothing waterfall, located at the center of the pool, lends to the beauty of it all. A bridge located in the center, provides the guest access to El Tubano and the recreation hut.
Our hosts, referred to, as "Chocolate Group" make sure the guests have a great time. All types of events and activities are offered and include aerobics, sailing, horseback riding, snorkeling, henna tattoos, volleyball, and much more. Essentially, if you want to participate in an activity, it's sure to be offered.
After dinner, we decided to have a drink at the Disco. A busy place, many couples were enjoying the music and becoming dancing fools as they boogied to the latest sounds. Away from home, without embarrassment we danced to disco and top 40 hits from the '80s. What a hoot. Pool tables are available if you're keen on a game of eight ball or you can play one of the slot machines. Cocktails are included as part of your package. Nevertheless, we retired early; the next day we were driving to the Costa Caribe near Santo Domingo.
The next morning, we took advantage of the clear sky; we enjoyed a few hours by the pool and snapped some photos of the resort. I checked my email at the Internet Café, which is near the lobby. Guests can buy "minutes" for a few dollars. The café is open during the day and early evening. I found the Internet access speed rather good. I was pleased I could email my friends and tell them what a great time we were having!
It was time to depart and make our trek southwards. We originally calculated a four-hour trip, believing that to be more than enough time to cover the cross-island trip, only 180 kms. We arrived five and half grueling hours later. Little did we know that this trip would be an adventure in itself!
The only way I can describe driving in the Dominican Republic is by comparing it to a computer racing game! Picture a secondary road with little or no shoulder. The local's homes are tin, wood and straw, literally built beside the road. Families, young and old, sell fruit, nuts, honey, cookies and peppers from a makeshift shop on the small shoulder. Add to the mix the reckless drivers, never-ending honking horns, mopeds carrying four passengers, transport trucks with loose wheels, tailgaters, cars with no doors or headlights, donkeys and chickens. We dodged, darted, yielded and swerved like Pacman being chased through the maze.
As we reflect on this story, Kevin admits to a "white knuckle" drive. We reached Santiago, which looked like a small village on the map, within 1.5 hours. It turned out to be a sprawling city of congestion. Believing their highway infrastructure was similar to that of North America's, we assumed that the highway would bypass downtown. Well, it didn't! The highway came to an abrupt end and the next thing we knew we were trying to navigate our way through a very busy, dirty, noisy, smelly city. All we had to guide us were the mountains. We just kept trying to keep them on our left and rely on our instincts. We would converge on a "roundabout" that split into four dirctions, with no signs, only to find another, and then another. We asked for directions, but deep in the island we couldn't find anyone that spoke English. We continued through the congested city, swarmed by cars and peddlers at every stoplight.
Eventually, we found the highway and much to our relief our journey continued. We began to relax and enjoyed the views that unfolded before us. Rolling mountains, orange groves, and sugar cane fields were just some of the compelling vistas. We knew that we were seeing a part of the country that many tourists usually miss. We were optimistic that we would zip through the next major city, Santo Domingo. However, it was more of the same.
The Costa Caribe Coral and Casino by Hilton is a much larger resort than it's sister property in Puerto Plata. Upon our arrival, we knew that this hotel would have a different atmosphere. The impressive main building towered over us. It hosts 534 guest rooms and suites within one large ten-story complex and two smaller, executive units. It also offers full conference facilities, complete with meeting rooms and latest audio/visual equipment.
We returned to the lobby and I noticed it was humming with activity. Of course, dinner was being served. We entered the Amber Buffet Restaurant (adjacent tothe lobby) and were greeted by a smiling hostess. We are seated immediately and our waiter appeared, filling our water glasses and instructing us to help ourselves to the buffet.
Roast Leg of Pork was served that night along with "dirty rice", okra and a variety of local dishes. A well-stocked salad bar, cheese trays, grill, soda fountains and dessert bar complete the buffet. House wine was included with dinner.
After a satisfying meal, we decided to explore the resort. Upon leaving the dining area, paths lead the guests in the direction of the pool. It appears to be the "pre-show" gathering area, so we decide to observe the resort culture and visit the poolside bar. We talked to a few of the guests, who appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, many of whom came to golf! We received some tips from some avid golf fans, which made us even more excited about playing Guavaberry!
With our energy slowly dwindling from a long drive and a strenuous day, we decided to checkout the resort's disco! A lively place, both guestsand locals can enjoy themselves to the pounding beat. The disco is comprised of two separate areas, the first is the "sports bar", the second is the "disco", with a door separating the two rooms. The sports bar is decorated with a couple of pool tables, foozeball and TVs. This is where we watched the War on Iraq begin!
The culture at this resort was much more lively and this was even more apparent by the high-spirited "Chocolate Gang". Activities were the order of the day at this club! Arm wrestling, beer chugging, egg toss and Olympics were just some of the events that were planned for the guests. Guests could also sign-up for a myriad of other activities, everything from water polo to aerobics was offered. The hotel offers several day excursions - trips to remote islands for snorkeling, sailing on a catamaran, and scuba diving excursions.
In late afternoon the main pool becomes "the" gathering place. Many of the guests show up and soak in the late afternoon sun, sipping on one of the many cocktail that are served at the poolside bar. We meet Canadians, Americans, Europeans, and others, all friendly and pleased with the resort and their stay.
We had heard some of the guests talk about the "Chocolate" bar, which is located off the resort. It is known for its cheap drinks, open air setting and interesting patrons. Only a five-minute walk from the hotel, we decide to investigate. It is not hard to find, and we settle down with a cold beer. We noticed many locals hanging around, sipping beer as well. Meringue music fills the air and we exchange banter with the bartender about the Toronto Blue Jays. The Chocolate Bar is worth visiting if you want to absorb some local culture.
By Lise Lacasse, Toronto Correspondent.