Punta Cana is the ultimate getaway where you can simply relax, and everyone mixes and mingles together despite what’s in their pockets. How do I know? Well, I’m a single, working mother of two with a modest income, and Mr. Frank Rainieri, the chairman and founder of Puntacana Group, sat next to me as I was eating my birthday breakfast and talked to me for nearly an hour. I was floored – and honored — to say the least.
According to Forbes, Rainieri has one of the ten largest fortunes in the Dominican Republic, with a net worth near the billion-dollar mark, so can you imagine my surprise as he shared with me his humble beginnings, his dreams as a younger man and asked about the ones I had for myself. Rainieri is a great storyteller and filled me with inspiration. He told me that success often begins with one powerful word – YES – a word that I will be saying more often.
A young Rainieri was just casually going to a business gathering with a friend, and wasn’t expecting to land the deal of a lifetime. It was a mixture of pure luck, true destiny and an idea he got after reading a Life Magazine article that is responsible for the beachfront paradise we enjoy today.
Five men threw in $50,000 each and bought an island for $250,000, but had no idea of what to do with it. Rainieri suggested they turn it into a tourist destination, and wouldn’t you know it, they put him in charge of the project, later making him a partner. Rainieri and Theodore W. Kheel got busy and turned a 58-million square meter lot on the eastern end of the Dominican Republic, covered with jungle and six miles of beach, to the most highly-visited Caribbean destination. We know it, simply, as Punta Cana.
So where do I begin? How about in the sky?
I flew United Airlines non-stop from Houston to Punta Cana, and there are many non-stop flights across the U.S. that fly in daily. The trip was less than four hours and the fare was less than $400 round trip. My travel partner and I enjoyed premiere seating with lots of leg room, tasty hot meals and service fit for a queen, thanks to our friendly, beautiful flight attendant, Pamela Dickerson. No, we did not fly First Class, United just has first-class service across the board.
After landing at Punta Cana International Airport, we went through a quick and painless check-in with customs, then were taken out the VIP exit to our waiting driver. The handsome Miguel took us to the Puntacana Resort & Club, which is less than a 10-minute drive away.
Puntacana Resort & Club is one of the most stylish destinations in the Caribbean. It is more than just the turquoise sea and magnificent white sands that captivates you; the people, the fresh food, and peacefulness make you never want to leave. It is, after all, a home away from home for many of the elite, including Anna Wintour, former first family The Clintons, Julio Iglesias and the late-great Oscar de la Renta. The resort encompasses over 26 square miles and includes AAA Five Diamond Award winning boutique hotel Tortuga Bay, The Westin Puntacana Resort & Club and Four Points by Sheraton at Puntacana Village, in addition to diverse residential communities (Corales, Playa Serena, Hacienda, Hacienda del Mar, Arrecife, Tortuga Bay and The Marina). It also has a full-service marina, restaurants, a shopping village and custom-designed golf courses.
I had a huge ocean-view room all to myself at the Westin, and was ready to enjoy all that the island and hotel had to offer. I hate to say it (no not really) but I had a chance to pig out in my room, feasting on the best room service a girl can order!
Let me tell you how I toured it all.
Six Senses Spa:
I think a little lady climbed on my back, and I LOVED IT!
Puntacana Resort & Club is proud to be the only location within the Americas to feature the world renowned Six Senses Spa, located in La Cana Golf & Beach Club. The spa and wellness center has indoor, individual or couples accommodations and the international team of therapists provide relaxing spa and massage treatments in peaceful, serene private rooms.
You can indulge yourself with a signature deep tissue massage (like I did), a hot stone therapy or just sink into one of the luxurious baths for the perfect Zen experience. Determined NOT to fall asleep, because I snore, I lost myself anyway, only to be awakened by the ring of the bell. I woke up in pure bliss.
The Ecological Foundation and Freshwater Lagoons
Jake Kheel, the grandnephew of Theodore Kheel, is the Environmental Director for Grupo Puntacana and head of the Puntacana Ecological Foundation. Forgive me for saying this, but watch out Matthew McConaughey, because I found a real hunk on the island! Oh, but let me get back to the topic at hand….
The island has a 1,500-acre private reserve which is set aside for scientific research, conservation of native and endangered species and recreational activities. Jake gave us a tour and taught us about Tiger Fish, the honey bees, the ecological system and what methods the people on the island go through to preserve nature. You truly appreciate the beauty of the island, understanding the importance of protecting nature, and leave almost guilty of the urbanized, overly-populated, smog-infested cities most of us are forced to return to.
There are also 12 freshwater lagoons on the property and after leaving Jake, we hiked to each one and took several dips. My friend and I sort of took advantage of the scenery and did our own “amateur photo shoot” at a lagoon. Hey, what’s a girl to do!
Snorkeling tour to the Underwater museum
Did I agree to go snorkeling? Yep, and please don’t judge me for wimping out!
Well, I may get beaten over the head for being what is considered the “stereotypical sistah,” one who does not swim and does not venture out into “unknown territory,” but I am going to have to own my truth here.
I must admit that I have always played it safe in my adult life, not doing anything my “control freak” personality can’t micromanage. I am a mom, and each time I go on a trip, I kiss my kids like it is the last time I am going to see them, then sign myself up for some “bucket list” adventure and completely freak out when it is time to take the leap. This time it was no different, but I am quite ashamed because most people would consider this activity “child’s play.”
I decided to go snorkeling, led by the guides at Blue Vision Adventures. I came ready to rock and roll, with my “water-friendly” hairstyle, a secured tank over my swimsuit and even got loaded up with a Go-Pro. I was ready, right? WRONG!
So, I haven’t swam in a long time, always afraid of messing up some pricey hair extensions, but I thought it should be the same concept as riding a bike. You don’t just FORGET how to swim. And another thing, I foolishly thought I would be in the not-so-deep waters with just a school of fish swimming around my feet and wasn’t expecting to be out in the deep blue – albeit beautiful – unknown waters.
How could I NOT snorkel in the most majestic waters I had ever seen? Well, sit back and read a few lines down, you will find out.
The farther the boat got away from the shore – which everyone else thought was not so far at all – I clamped down tighter on the sides and kept checking my life jacket to make sure it was indeed secure. Then after my guide Danijela gave me a caring pep talk and the other woman on the tour with me said “You can do it Nakia,” I hopped off the side of the boat and into the water. Just..one..thing..though…I would not let go of the boat!
Every movie that I loved, “Jaws 3D” starring my kid crush Lou Gossett Jr., “Piranha” with that hunk Lee Majors and “The Deep Blue Sea” with my teenage love LL Cool J, came flooding into mind as I started to hyperventilate, wondering what in the heck was going to snatch me from below. I will spare you the freak out, it was embarrassing to say the least, but after I convinced Danijela to stop trying to convince me to be brave, I grabbed that ladder and hauled my big buns out of that water in record time. I waved from the security of the boat as Danijela and Kim visited the Underwater Museum and guess what, Danijela took my GoPro and captured footage for me. I give myself an “E” for effort, but a “W” for being a wimp! But trust me, anyone who enjoys the beauty and serenity of the ocean will love it out there. I quietly sat back and admired the greatness of God under the clear blue skies, surrounded by the most beautiful blue waters that – obviously DID NOT have sea monsters lurking around in it!
Oscar de la Renta Tennis Club and Felix De Los Santos
Touring the Oscar de la Renta Tennis Center and meeting its director, Felix De Los Santos, and his ball boys was one of the most rewarding parts of my trip. De Los Santos’ story is as great as his hair.
De Los Santos was handpicked by De la Renta to be a part of the “bolerito,” or ball boy, program. Now, he takes troubled boys from underserved communities and turns them into award-winning tennis court magicians.
“I want to give them what I had,” De Los Santos said. “We want to keep them off the streets.”
De Los Santos teaches the boys how to be players and how to work with the guests and he says the boys oftentimes makes more money in tips than the actual employees. It is money they can use to help their families and save for their education.
The program was designed to be a bridge for the youth to go to college. That was the goal of De La Renta.
“We want to build a chain. When I go the graduations, when I read their thesis writings, when I hear them thank me, that is big,” he said as he teared up. “I wish Mr. De La Renta would have been alive to see that.”
There are currently two dozen boys in the program. Some of the boys are local, and others come from places like Haiti. De Los Santos said, no matter where the boys are from, he teaches them to be proud.
All of the ball boys are given a nickname. One of the most well-known ball boys is 16-year-old Luis David Fortuna, also known as “Feo.” De Los Santos calls this teen a gladiator, and he is a favorite among many celebrity guests, including Anna Wintour, who is known as a godmother to the boys. She once purchased 26 rackets for the boys, valued at $250 each. She is deeply-connected to the program, helping to maintain the legacy of De la Renta, her good friend.
The commitment from the supporters is paying off. De Los Santos proudly said they now have three business administration graduates, and one lawyer to who finished the program. Those graduates now give back and the help the younger ones.
I was spellbound by a trio of boys who were off practicing on that quiet day. They were innocently energetic, and graciously let me intrude on their private time and take a picture. Visiting the center and meeting De Los Santos and the boys is something I will never forget.
Did someone say Dominican food?
Then of course, there was THE FOOD! I could go on and on listing what I liked, what I loved and what I would be craving for years to come because it was all GREAT. Instead, I will just list the great restaurants that you can visit that will surely not disappoint you on the grounds of the Puntacana Resort & Club .
The Brassa Grill & Bar showcases American heritage such as USDA Prime steaks. It is located on the first floor of the Westin Puntacana Hotel & Resort.
Ananí Restaurant, which is also at the hotel offers contemporary breakfast, lunch and dinner. I dined there most mornings while enjoying the poolside views.
The Grill: This Caribbean-Mediterranean grill commands breathtaking views of La Cana Golf Course and the sparkling Caribbean Sea. A perfect bookend to a round of golf, El Grill is conveniently located at La Cana Golf & Beach Club. El Grill is the ideal destination for a casual beachfront lunch or dinner. Reservations not required.
La Yola: Enjoy AAA Three Diamond Award-winning La Yola Restaurant, serving the freshest Mediterranean cuisine and seafood in an elegant setting. Modeled on a fishing boat, La Yola restaurant perches on the sea at the Puntacana Resort & Club Marina, with magnificent views of the sparkling turquoise waters. At this restaurant, we were honored to meet the famed tabacalera Charles Parker, and buy some of his signature Dominican cigars.
Playa Blanca: Playa Blanca is located beach side on the Caribbean Sea. This tropical restaurant and bar serves fresh local seafood, grilled meats and cocktails for lunch and dinner daily. Live music by local musicians featured weekly. Horseback riding, Segway Touring, Kite/ Wind Surfing, bicycle, and golf cart rentals are available onsite. Playa Blanca is also a unique venue for a private event or wedding to remember.
Bamboo Lounge: For a truly special dining experience, visit the AAA Four Diamond Award-winning Bamboo Restaurant, tucked away at the exclusive Tortuga Bay. The unique menu blends locally sourced food with Mediterranean influences for a variety of innovative fusion dishes in a cozy, graceful setting designed by Oscar de la Renta. Vegetables served at Bamboo are grown in our own organic gardens. Make sure you try The Lion Fish, and help restore the balance of our marine environment.
Have I told you enough to make you want to go? Well, I’ve definitely written enough to make me want to go back. Save me a lounge chair, Punta Cana, I shall see those sands again some day.
Check out the slideshow of all the food, fun and beauty on the beach.