Riu Grande


If you refashioned a Catskill Mountains resort from the 1950s into a cruise ship and then sailed it through a time machine to the Dominican Republic, you'd end up in Punta Cana.

That's where the Borscht Belt has given way to the Coconut Cape.

There's not a mountain or a lox-and-onion omelette or a raincoat in sight. But relaxation, pleasure and suntan lotion are there in abundance.

So the Dominican Republic: What comes to mind?

Well, for me, with my wide frame of reference and sophisticated sense of priorities, what do I think of?

I cannot type a lie: I immediately think of the talented Major League Baseball players from there: ya know, Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Jose Reyes, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and the Phillies' Abraham Nunez.

So who knew the D.R., as it's called, was also a vacation haven?

This Latin American nation — occupying the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and sharing a border with Haiti — is the second-largest of the Antilles Islands. It's east of Jamaica and west of Puerto Rico.

Punta Cana, the paradisiacal region located in the province of La Altagracia at the nation's easternmost tip, boasts a warm subtropical climate, a 25-mile coastline of sandy white beaches, crystal-clear turquoise waters and a busy international airport.

It also touts a sense of history: This is the home of Christopher Columbus's first North American settlement.

But this is also the country's major resort area, and a busy little place it is — although the pace remains easygoing — with folks flocking to it to water-ski, kayak, scuba, snorkel, windsurf, cruise, whale-watch, fish (for marlin, sailfish and dorado) or dive. And, of course, to play golf or tennis — or both — when not hiking, safariing, shopping or horseback riding. Or dining. Or dancing.

Or, like us, just plopping down on the beach from daybreak to sunset.

Recommended equipment includes a beach chair, a piña colada and a compelling paperback. Okay, and the suntan lotion.

Resorts? None of them are allowed, by law, to be taller than the tallest of the towering palm trees.

They're selling simplicity and seclusion here, along with relaxation, tranquility and unviolated nature — sea, sand, sun and breeze — and we're buying!

The particular enterprise that we're buying from is the Riu resort in Punta Cana. Riu (a family name) Hotels & Resorts is a chain of vacation destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico and Florida.

But the most important phrase the Riu brand name uses to compel travelers to visit — those two magical, mesmerizing words and that snappy little hyphen between them — has nothing whatsoever to do with history or climate or exercise: all-inclusive.

It's music to a traveler's ears.

There are three-dozen resorts, virtually all of them "all-inclusive." Plenty of Americans are on hand, but there's lots of Europeans as well.

And most of them are there because they're responding to Riu's claim that the all-inclusive concept has largely removed decision-making from the vacation formula.

You pay in advance — and you don't touch your wallet for the rest of your stay.

The all-inclusive resort we opted for was the Riu Palace Macao, a beachfront hotel with a colonial-palace architectural style.

After a four-hour direct flight from Philadelphia International Airport, visitors take a 40-minute taxi drive through the flat, undeveloped landscape of the D.R. to the guarded entrance of the compound housing the five Riu hotels.

If you ranked the Punta Cana quintet, the Riu Palace Macao would place second in lushness, stateliness, lavishness and expensiveness to the newest addition, the Riu Palace Puntacana. But when you come right down to it, there isn't that much difference from one to the next, and they even share some of the facilities.

The Riu Palace Macao is impeccably manicured, handsomely appointed and generously staffed at every level. What you notice immediately are the tennis courts, the "Caribbean Street" of local shops right on the premises (which you rarely, if ever, leave), the modest-sized casino, the poolside restaurants and bars, the phalanx of ceiling fans, the pool itself, and the glorious white, clean and endless beach that sweeps you toward the crowning jewel.

What color is the Caribbean? It's the color of beauty, the color of heaven, the color of wowie!

Riu's policy means that during your stay, you eat and drink wherever and pretty much whenever you want.

Not only does that mean three lavish, cruise-style buffets a day, but an open bar 24/7.

And they're not kidding! Not only are the rooms outfitted with a free, fully and frequently restocked minibar, but a liquor dispenser on the wall of your bedroom. It looks like four fire extinguishers, but all they extinguish is thirst, given that they dispense gin, rum, vodka and brandy.

Also, for the terminally lazy, there is free, unlimited room service from early in the morning until late at night. Stop cleaning your glasses; you read that right.

As in the Catskills, the rhythm of the day is dictated by the meals, many of them themed with particular cuisines. If the food isn't quite knock-your-socks off gourmet quality, it's respectable, plentiful and impressively varied.

Following dinner each night is a cabaret show of one sort or another — dance, song, game show, audience interaction — emceed by the same tummler who entertains poolside guests during the afternoon.

And like the Catskills tummler, this is a stand-up comic with people skills. The difference is that he doesn't spout Yiddishisms. Instead, he has to deliver his punchlines in five languages — English, Spanish, French, German and Italian — to accommodate the international clientele.

Your only two jobs here are overcoming your guilt — driving, past relative poverty to vacation in relative luxury — and getting used to being indulged and waited on around the clock.

Hey, you'll manage.

For information, go visit: http://www.dr1.com/travel/ puntacana.



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