Twenty years – to the day: July 8th if you’re curious. In 1992, it was the day I met “her” and also the day I had the foresight to ask her on a second date. Love at first sight. In 2012, it was the day that we began the trip of all trips to celebrate twenty years together. Our wedding anniversary is in December. What kind of crazy kids get married in Salt Lake City at a time when there’s three feet of snow on the ground? Hindsight says it was lovebirds that couldn’t wait to spend their first Christmas together. Some of those twenty years we’ve celebrated cozy at home; still others, a quick overnighter in town. Our tenth was a little more adventuresome with nine days in California’s Bay Area with San Francisco and Monterey getting the lion’s share of the trip. That fact, coupled with what materialized for twenty, has me excited about where to from here?
Affordable and comfortable JetBlue® http://www.jetblue.com flights from LAS (Vegas’ McCarran Airport) to JFK, then JFK to POP were just the beginning and get their “extra space” seats. I know, I know . . . where is POP? Unfortunately for me, this might be one of those secrets that won’t stay kept for long.
Both lists, traditional and modern, show that the “silver anniversary” should be the 25th. However, the Caribbean’s “Silver Harbor” that is Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic http://www.puertoplata.com/ (airport code “POP”) is the island paradise where we spent our 20th. Again, foresight was in our favor as, on a tip, we found prices too good to turn down booking through http://www.cheapcaribbean.com to stay with the Lifestyles Resort http://www.lhvcresorts.com/ in Puerto Plata. Cheapcaribbean.com is worth pinning to your “look at everyday” list of websites; we have seen them offer this all inclusive trip as low as $15 per person per day. We weren’t quite that fortunate, but not far from it. If you’re going to be opportunist vacationers like we often are, find a few “tipsters” of your own. Acquaint yourself with someone you trust who might be an “early adopter” while you patiently wait in the wings to snatch last minute or killer deals. Our lead had been to this resort, had even taken some of the excursions we wanted to take and had returned with rave reviews. In fact, we even had a second witness come from another friend and then we followed a travel blog commentary for a few weeks before making our purchase.
“Tell It Only to Your Best Friends” is the motto of the Lifestyles Resorts and believe me friends, we found plenty worth telling. The killer deal we found was the same quality offering regardless of the price you ended up landing; prices likely fluctuate based on season, occupancy and travel provider. We “told it to our best of friends” and they joined us to celebrate their 20th as well. The deal delivered a Lifestyles exclusive, all-inclusive vacation which included such amenities as an exceptionally clean, tiled room (there are very few bugs in the DR – we never saw any in our room throughout the week) with daily turn down and mini-fridge service, an in-room safe for valuables, air conditioning (a must in the DR), a 47” screen TV with cable access, open and airy rooms all with a balcony view. All the aforementioned amenities come “stock” as part of the all-inclusive deal with any room ranging from the cheapest to their Presidential Suites. My bias could be in the fact that I speak Spanish, but we found that the staff members were almost always approachable, kind and helpful at every turn. Options for play are around every corner while there. A list of tomorrow’s resort activities was slid under your door nightly and there seemed to be something for everyone; beaches, dancing, parties, shows, poolside entertainment, shops and of course the food. Oh . . . the food. Upon arrival, guests are encouraged to book restaurants of choice due to resort scheduling and potentially busy dinner crowds. Those who don’t lock down a specific eatery are always welcomed at the buffet. We tried the buffet on our way to our first night’s reserved-restaurant meal and were pleasantly surprised with the variety and quality of food and drink. While I can’t comment on the variety day in and day out, never is a piña colada or banana mama any length away from your reach and the options seem limitless.
Much like we do, we encourage you to do it your own way . . . but here is how the week rolled out for us:
Pre-trip planning not only included our booking with cheapcaribbean.com but we also put a call in to them to ask about AC-DC power (they have US and Euro options), currency exchange suggestions and any other tidbits they might have for us. Their representative was both helpful and knowledgeable. Of course, reps can’t offer some of the tips that we were looking for. One such was how to find a cheaper taxi to and from the resort. We followed the advice of one heavily trafficked travel blog and went with a trusted local in Jesus Garcia at http://www.taxiaeropuertopop.com/; his price was less than half of the price of the shuttle – $50 per couple instead of $120. He was a kind soul who not only was honest but went the extra mile meeting us at the airport with a sign with our name on it and four cold sodas in hand. Jesus even stopped, at our request, on our way to the resort to allow us to change currency at the local “casa de cambio.”
The airport will offer to change your currency for a fee but don’t do it there. The resort will offer to change it for a lesser fee but only do it there if you can’t find a reputable ride to take you to the “casa de cambio.” We figure we saved $10 – $20 in the exchange – might not be worth the hassle if you don’t want to brave the city. Also prior to leaving we contacted an American friend living local in the DR who suggested we never venture out on public transportation. He said that for every story you hear about there being no issue, there are several more that ended in travelers being taken advantage of in one way or another. We did get that sense while there; stay with a trusted taxista. Our favorite while there was Rafael Eve. He was both the cheapest ride and the kindest man we met while in Puerto Plata. He can be reached via email prior to coming at email@example.com or via phone at 829-599-9125. Note that 809 and 829 are Dominican Area Codes and international charges apply. In fact, part of the draw for us to go on this wonderful vacation was the fact that our phones would need to be turned off for the week to avoid roaming and data charges. While there, we found it prefect to check in with our kids via email or Skype® with free Wi-Fi available in VIP rooms or in certain spots in the resort.
Our last pre-trip ritual is my personal favorite. As we always do when we travel together, Brandi and I left our wedding rings safely stored in SLC with intent on personally renewing our vows once we found new rings somewhere in along the way. Puerto Plata is along the amber coast of the DR and Larimar is their “official” stone. Three of those nouns made finding Brandi’s new ring a cinch: we needed it to be Silver (Plata), Amber and Larimar.
The vendors call it “happy hour” (see closest above.) It’s a double banded silver ring that is reversible with Larimar on one side and Amber on the other. After some haggling, Brandi’s only cost $17 . . . $25 was the going rate throughout the week. Mission accomplished. Vows renewed. Our 20th anniversary vacation a success. The “how to” details of that glorious vacation are as follows:
Our first day in the DR was, as is every “first” when traveling, eye-opening. Take in the surroundings and take pictures! We were fascinated by the many “motorconchos” or motorcycle taxis. At times we saw as many as four people riding one motorcycle. Another carried a mattress. One had a woman riding side-saddle. Nearly no one had helmets. Our driver said there are not many days that go by without seeing someone hurt on one of these cheap rides. Don’t take this mode of transportation anywhere while there as it is both unsafe and unreliable.
Upon arrival at the spacious Lifestyles Resort (through several gated and guarded areas) we were welcomed by breathtaking tropical beauty and a kind, efficient staff. Drinks and smiles abounded. Staffers were quick to arrange our shuttle to our room; take the shuttle wherever you go here . . . yes, it really is that big! Our concierge showed us to the room, answered our questions and described all amenities.
The Lifestyles Resort and Vacation Club http://www.lifestyleholidaysvc.com/ has a lock on some of the best resort locations in the DR both in Puerto Plata (north) and in Punta Cana (east).
This Austrian owned series of properties has made their go in the DR since 2002 and touts more than 14,000 members. This is a resort that is actively looking for “members” (affiliated with RCI) and as such, though certainly priced right, may not be the worry-free trip for every would-be traveler. We found that their sales reps were aggressive yet kind when rebuffed. Sales reps were easily identified in their white golf shirts and their usual question was “when did you arrive” or “did you just arrive yesterday”? Our answer that we had been there a few days would encourage them to move on. No need to ever tell them your room number and don’t be afraid to express your not wanting to buy or upgrade. However, for those looking for a membership, upgrades are immediate. Once upgraded, staff will move your belongings to the upgraded room and change your bracelet VIP status. Amenities for VIP members were considerably better including additional access to exclusive restaurants, beaches and clubs.
VIP rooms came with many upgrades including larger rooms with king-sized beds, spacious balconies, jetted tub, etc. We discussed the matter and determined that, upgrade or no, this resort was worth the money you would pay regardless of your decision to go cheap or go “big.” It wasn’t uncommon to find members there that were returning for their second or third time. This truly is a resort one would gladly return to again and again.
Our meals while there were exceptional. We made reservations early for our restaurants of choice. They have an option for all tastes. We tried the surf and turf at The Blue Lagoon, Indochine for Chinese, Trapiche for Mexican, Brazilian BBQ at Rodizio (it was there that we met a cute couple on their honeymoon) and “fine dining” or “French fusion” at Jazz. The latter two had a dress code for dining and seemed a little too “stuffy” yet we enjoyed all with positive results. By far, the two best options we found for dining while there were that of El Pilón (authentic Dominican) and the weekly VIP Welcome Party for all guests on the peninsula. El Pilón offered some of the best food I have ever eaten. A dense broth, meat soup called Sancocho (considered a Dominican national dish) was all I really needed. The snapper civiche’ and grilled skirt steak were amazing and worthy in their own right, but the Sancocho could have been appetizer, dinner and dessert! Our party also sampled fresh caught fish (rivaling the buttery, flaky grouper we had eaten the day prior), the pork chop, chicken and various sides all with delight.
But again, it was the VIP Welcome Party that was most worth swooning over; it was unlike any extravaganza I have attended. The entire resort literally shuts down for this event – minus the buffet for those not wanting the throng of the crowds. Preparations begin at least a day in advance. I can’t imagine how this happens weekly! There must be thousands of chairs and hundreds of tables placed all along the peninsula the night before. Some of the cooking must have begun days prior as well. By party time the night of the celebration, a grand buffet was prepared with every avenue covered. Local fruits and vegetables, cheeses, breads, meats, seafood, pastas, salads, desserts, and drinks are all in abundance.
Dinner entertainment included clowns for the children, singers, dancers and a large multi-media music, light and fireworks show. This open air evening was a Dominican Thanksgiving to rival feast and festival anywhere . . . and it happens EVERY WEEK!
Perhaps the only thing better than the restaurants and parties were the quiet moments of peace on one of the several beach options while at Lifestyles. We strolled along the VIP and Harmony beaches. Each has hammocks, beach chairs and cabanas with “beach butlers” bringing snacks and drinks as you desire them. For VIP members, the offerings of Serenity Beach and, with a little planning and a 10-15 minute bus ride, Golden Sands Beach are not to be missed. Both offer the same amenities listed above and more. Serenity has Oh Crepes! which offers fruit, chocolate or meat crepes made to order. It was at Serenity that we found a favorite drink in their virgin “Lumumba.” These treats, coupled with our own variations of piña coladas and banana mamitas and snack foods galore, helped make our relaxing days on the beaches truly our Caribbean paradise. Golden Sands Beach is accessible via short transport to another nearby resort owned by Lifestyles and sits mid-way along the prettiest beach we saw while in the DR.
We swam and snorkeled there with the some of the clearest views to be found on the north side of the island. Again, staffers were always on hand to bring towels, food and drink. We were there on a particularly hot day and enjoyed the “cool tubs” en route to the waterfront. Vendors were aplenty outside the resort’s roped off area and yet kept at bay for most of the day.
Other “must do” activities that made this trip so remarkable were the two biggest draws for this part of the DR: Ocean World and 27 Waterfalls. Ocean World http://www.oceanworld.net/ is without comparison. We took our children to Sea World in San Antonio this summer and enjoyed every minute. However, to come all the way to Puerto Plata only to make the mistake of missing Ocean World because “I have already been to Sea World” would be a sad mistake. We began with a few minutes in the exotic bird exhibit feeding the local love birds from our hands.
Then, we were treated to shows that allowed us to be up close with sea-lions, sharks, tropical birds and dolphins. One of the benefits of being outside the U.S. is that regulations are different. Most of the shows had front row visitors dangling their feet in the same water in which the animals were performing!
If that wasn’t enough, Ocean World offers every visitor a free snorkel experience (see above) in their Tropical Reef Aquarium or a free swim with their Bengal tigers; only a glass pane separates you from the tigers while swimming in the same pool! Of course there are a few “upgrades” available while there. You can swim or dive with dolphins, sting rays, and sharks all of which are “once in a lifetime” opportunities and at a very reasonable price. Though we did not make it there, on Thursday nights a small peek into Ocean World comes with your stay at Lifestyles. The resort will shuttle you over to Ocean World for a free Vegas-style show called “Bravissimo.”
Finally, reserve a day for “Los 27 Charcos” http://www.27charcos.com or 27 Waterfalls.
Get in shape enough to climb a gradual to moderate ascent for 30-40 minutes. I did it in water socks – a mistake for sure, but possible. Take hard-soled shoes that can be submerged over and over. Maybe take a pair of shoes that you can leave in the DR. Whatever you do, don’t miss this excursion and if you are adventurous enough, book it on your own instead of through the resort or an outfitter. From the resort to the waterfalls with Rafael (see info above) it cost $70 round trip for four of us – $80 with Jesus. Once there, the guided trip to and from the 27th waterfall was only 500 pesos each – about $13 U.S. Less if you only go to the 17th or the 12th waterfall. We tipped each guide another $5 which made our total cost just under $70 per couple. Rafael waited under a shade tree for us the entire time we hiked the 3-4 hour round trip. The views were spectacular and nature-carved like none other we had ever seen.
We jumped, we dove, and we slid down Swiss Family Robinson-like rock waterslides to the delight of all. Our guides Wellington and Nelson – names not particularly reminiscent of Cristobal Colon or “Christopher Columbus” who first discovered the DR – were both patient and friendly. Nelson was the 6th person in the DR to ask me if I liked baseball. Along with many others topics, we chatted the whole way often about the American pastime turned Dominican way of life! We took a water camera with us on this excursion – a must! Nelson carried the camera and was a fine photographer; he picked up on some scenes we would have missed and also caught all the planned shots with care. Tourism has only come to the waterfalls since 1994 and the word keeps spreading; get there before it becomes too commercial and makes its way on the map. Seasons change and bring different water levels and scenery so this might have to be a regular stop on subsequent visits.
They say hindsight is 20/20 and, while that may be true, the 20/20 foresight of marrying the girl of my dreams could only be improved upon by picking this tropical paradise to celebrate our 20 years of bliss together! The Silver Harbor that is Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic would be the ideal destination for any celebration. Warm, welcoming people. Golden sands. Peace and quiet. 4-5 star lodging and food. Affordable, fun unique excursions. All within a few hours from the U.S and well within your reach. Maybe you too ought to use 20/20 judgment and not to wait 20 years like we did!