Official Hotel Rating: 4 Stars
The Dominican Republic is not often the first choice of locale for a traveler to the Caribbean. But a quick glance at the price comparison of Punta Cana to, say, Aruba will begin to coax the more budget-conscious toward the DR.
My husband and I set out on our so-called Babymoon to Punta Cana because I did not want to go to Mexico two years in a row, he had heard bad things about Jamaica, and we didn't want to spend the extra money for a more "exotic" Caribbean island. We had also heard good things from friends and acquaintances about Punta Cana, mostly referring to its beauty.
Insider Tip: If you are traveling from a cold climate, bring a change of clothes in your carry-on luggage. If you have connecting flights, change during a lay-over. If this isn't possible, pack a change of clothes in the outermost pocket of your checked suitcase so it is easily accessible. Bathrooms in the arrivals area of Punta Cana airport are few and far-between and are guaranteed to have lines, especially in the ladies' room. You will sweat to death in anything longer than capris or shorts. There is no air conditioning in the airport.
Insider Tip: There is an entrance fee of $10 per person to get into the DR. They only accept cash and you need to pay it as soon as you get off the plane.
Insider Tip: If you have a tendency to get even slightly carsick, choose a hotel that is as close to the airport as possible. The drivers of the transport vans drive like maniacs through crowded streets with no traffic signals or stop signs, cross over into oncoming traffic to pass other vehicles, etc. Not the best way to start or end a supposedly relaxing vacation, especially if you had a few cocktails on the plane.
Upon arriving at the Gran Bahia Principe, you will notice how large the property is. You may have encountered some confusion when booking your trip - "Am I staying at Punta Cana or Bavaro? And what the hell is Esmeralda, and why do they all take me to the same hotel website?" It turns out that there are 5 hotels on the property, with no clear differences between them. Make sure you know which one is your hotel so you can be dropped off at the correct lobby.
If first impressions are good indicators, we should have taken heed when we arrived. There is no orientation to the hotel given, they don't take a credit card from you for incidentals, and they barely speak English. They take your name, slap a bracelet on your wrist, hand you your key and a map, briefly point out where food is on the map, and send you on your way. It turned out that the woman who checked us in wrote down the wrong hours for breakfast on the ocean side of the hotel, so on day 2 we missed it when there should've been an hour left.
Insider Tip: If you stay at this hotel, be prepared for a lot of frustration in communication and a lot of misinformation unless you are absolutely fluent in Spanish, regardless of local dialect. Get your information from written sources whenever possible, such as the hours posted at the restaurants.
The rooms are fair. There is no classification based on view, so your room is just as likely to overlook a pool as an empty field of dirt (like our room). The junior suite includes a beautiful bathroom with a whirlpool tub that may or may not have a bug problem (ours had ants). The mini fridge is housed inside a dressing table where the heat it gives off builds up and prevents anything from being cold. You have to leave the door of the cabinet open at all times in order for the fridge to work.
The maid service at this hotel was a joke. It became a game for us - "What will we be missing today?" Every couple of days she would neglect to replace our washcloths after taking the ones we had hung up. Twice she took the spoons we used for our coffee in the morning and didn't replace them. Every day we hung our towels up per the "I'll use it again" policy clearly posted inside the bathroom, and every day she took them anyway and left us half the number of towels we originally had. The minibar would sometimes be refilled and sometimes not. I tried leaving her a note asking for extra towels, extra diet soda, and extra bottled water - she threw the note away and didn't leave us any of those things. Despite her daily cleaning, the ants on the bathroom counter never went away.
Insider Tip: The maid supply closets on each floor can be easily broken into with a credit card if they haven't been accidentally left ajar overnight. Most of the time you can find whatever missing item you need from one of them.
The all-inclusive buffet breakfast and lunch offer the exact same food every day. Same thing down at the snack bar by the beach. There are no other options until dinner time, but the buffet offers more variety than the snack bar. The fruit is never quite ripe enough, the juice is watered down, and everything is cooked in LOTS of oil. Don't believe me? Watch one of the guys who makes the frittatas to order.
Dinner has an international theme every night. More often than not the food is bland, over- or undercooked, and appears sickly. Desserts become comical if you stay at the hotel long enough - you will see the exact same dessert item on 5 different occasions, labeled as 5 different things. What is "chocolate torte" on Gala night is also "tiramisu" on Italian night. They'll put a layer of chocolate ganache on top of it and then call it something else for Mexican night. The "Creme Brulee" was nothing but vanilla pudding with a cottage cheese texture. The ice cream bar was good as long as you stick with basic vanilla or chocolate variations and the more exotic fruit flavors. The passion fruit, for example, was excellent but the "strawberry" tasted like bubble gum.
The A La Carte restaurants are trickier to review. Capriccio's food was amazing, with some very high-end appetizers (including caviar), extremely fresh pesto, and wonderfully cooked fish. This was our favorite restaurant. The Garden Grill was better than the buffet, but left much to be desired. Requested medium, my beef tenderloin was presented to me cold-rare. Requested medium-well, my husband's tenderloin was presented to him perfectly medium. After trading plates, we sent back the rare steak which they sliced in half and placed open-faced on the grill to cook it further. The meat here was excellent, but all other items were mediocre.
The Santa Fe Tex-Mex restaurant was where the problems were. A huge fan of Mexican fare, I was excited for this particular night out. The food, which appeared to be excellent, was never eaten after a worm appeared under one of our dinner plates followed by a dead spider on the table. The head waiter informed us that the bugs were falling from the ceiling above our table, and would we like to switch to a different seat. With a beautiful, otherwise mouth-watering plate of untouched Mexican food in front of me, I chose to get up and walk out rather than risk vomiting into the fountain. Our A La Carte night was not "refunded" to us, nor were we compensated in any way for our experience.
Overall the food was not enjoyable. To put it in perspective for you, my husband found himself in ecstasy eating a crispy chicken sandwich from Wendy's at the airport, sighing dreamily and saying "It is so sad that this tastes so amazing right now."
Insider Tip: We learned after leaving the resort that guests can easily bribe their way into the a la cartes with $5 American and no reservation. If we had known that, we would have eaten at Capriccio nearly every night. So bring some extra cash and use it if you find a restaurant you particularly enjoy.
If you are a big fan of being in or on the water, this is where the resort shines. The pools are near-perfect temperature and the smaller ones are almost never crowded. The ocean itself is also near-perfect temperature and clear. Early in the day the water is very clean and enjoyable, but by afternoon the seaweed and rocks begin to come in with the tide and suddenly you're reminded that this is the Atlantic you're swimming in. The strange oil-rig looking thing offshore is actually a shipwreck. I recommend borrowing one of the kayaks to go out and get a closer look. It is one of the coolest things I have seen. Snorkeling, windsurfing, catamarans, kayaks, inner tubes, and a banana boat ride were all available as part of the all-inclusive. Parasailing, scuba and snorkeling trips, and other activities were available at an additional cost.
As nice as the water is, be prepared for a crowded beach. While there are usually plenty of chairs available, the sheer number of them makes it difficult to find a good spot to park your stuff. Get out there and place your towels early in the morning if you want to be under a hut.
Insider Tip: The DR allows women to be topless on the beach. And, as always, the women who choose to go topless are the ones who no one wants to see topless. This is more of a heads-up than a tip.
There are not many excursions available for off-resort. Swimming with dolphins, sharks, manta rays, and sea lions were the only consistent activities we noticed. Shopping is available on the resort itself, but unless you are a fan of kitschy rather than authentic items, you will have a hard time spending money here. Vendors are pushy and obnoxious. They will quote someone else a lower price on the same item when they think you aren't listening or don't understand the language.
Overall I give the Gran Bahia Principe and Punta Cana 2 out of 5 Margaritas (my personal rating system.) I would not go back to either. There is nothing about Punta Cana that makes it unique or more attractive than other locations, regardless of your vacation goals. If you want to spend the week drunk on all-inclusive cocktails, Mexico is a more cost-effective alternative. If you are looking for culture and activities, Mexico and Hawaii have a lot more to offer. If you're looking to relax and unwind, Mexico and Hawaii tend to be less crowded and the hotel employees less intrusive and bossy.
I would not recommend Punta Cana or the Gran Bahia to anyone over other locations. If you have specific questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.