Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Comparing All-inclusive Adult-only Luxury Resorts: SECRETS ROYAL BEACH, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic - December 2011

For years Michael and I didn't take vacations. In fact, we didn't even go on a honeymoon. We couldn't afford it. I got pregnant within weeks of getting married and a second son followed shortly after the first, along with lots of stray cats and dogs and we were homeschooling for the boys for their early years and the idea of being able to go away for a week and relax was just not on the horizon.

Even once the boys were in highschool and we had a bit more money, we had a houseful of cats and dogs and I didn't feel right about leaving them with the boys for a week, especially since one of them needs daily meds, etc. Plus, they're dachshunds, not the easiest dogs in the world to get along with sometimes. ha!

Anyways, in late fall of 2011 I was thinking about what to get Michael for his birthday (Nov. 24th) and decided that maybe I'd surprise him and take a giant leap and book a 3 day mini holiday away...sort of a birthday treat and belated honeymoon in one! Darien was going to be home from university for the Xmas holidays and said he could watch the animals and my older son offered as well. They were both so supportive and wanted us to spend some money on ourselves and have fun for a change. So, having zero idea about where to go or where to stay, I began my research!

Anyone who knows me know that I'm somewhat of a research junkie. I like to compile a LOT of information, and as I do, I learn things and I can start to see what I want and what I don't want. My husband requests were easy...somewhere hot, with a beach, and preferably no kids. He was swamped at work and really just wanted to get away from it all and relax. I decided an all-inclusive would be the way to go so we wouldn't have to worry about how much we were spending since all the food and drinks would be included.

Now, wanting an adult-only AI resort narrowed things down a bit. I compared the different resorts and read Tripadvisor.ca voraciously (I could not imagine trying to decide where to go without it, the pics and reviews from people who have just come back from these resorts is invaluable!) Clearly some resorts pics are not exactly reality. That brought me to the Secrets chain owned by AMResorts (they also own Dreams, Now, Breathless, Zoetry and Sunscape)...I was impressed that the pictures on Tripadvisor of the rooms and resort looked exactly like their website.

After much discussion, we decided to try Secrets Royal Beach in Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic for 3 nights. (Here's their official website if you want more detailed info. about them: http://www.secretsresorts.com/royal-beach-punta-cana)

I figured a short holiday was a good way to test the waters and see how the animals reacted to us being away, how easily (or not) Darien could cope with looking after them, and how much I would miss them. We also booked the night before at a hotel near the airport where we could leave our car for the week. Our flight was super early and we had to be at the airport in the early hours of the morning, and since we live over 2 hours away, this was a good solution.

The Dominican was really different, espcially the airport. Very tropical and open to the air.
 The resort isn't too far away - like maybe a 20 minute drive. When we arrived, they rushed out to take our bags and we were each offered a glass of champagne and cool wet cloth to refresh ourselves with and to wipe away some of the sweat and grime of the trip. Awwww, lovely! Checkin was quick and I was given a long stemmed red rose which was so nice of them and unexpected (but made me feel special, even if they give it to everyone). :-)

The lobby was gorgeous! I absolutely loved it.
I loved the lights in the lobby!

To our surprise, they upgraded us for free from Tropical to Pool view (!) and we ended up with a gorgeous view of the lazy river pool. Here's a pic looking left from our balcony...
And looking right...

The balcony also had a little sitting area and it was nice to sit out and just enjoy the warm breeze, soooo peaceful!
as well as a jacuzzi, which Michael tried one night. Took forever to fill though!

I loved the tropical vibe of our room! And housekeeping kept it spotless. It was a little damp (being the tropics and all), but incense is provided and that helped with any musty smell. 

The bathroom was also gorgeous...all marble with a double vanity and a huge shower. The room looked exactly like the pictures on the website, something I've noticed is true with all the Secrets resorts that we've been too. I like that! 

And I loved the open air sections that joined the hallways where the room were. There would be a stretch of hallway like this:
And then you'd come to a larger area where you could take the stairs up or down and it was open to the air. Usually there was gorgeous artwork or sculptures and flowers and a small seating area. Really lovely! Then there'd be another hallway with rooms and then another open area and so on:

What really struck us about this resort, apart from how amazing the staff was - so friendly and just the best service, always ready to please and always smiling. Also, the peacefulness. It was unreal how incredibly peaceful it was, from the lack of noise to the beautiful landscaping. It was like a dream.
They had these pretty little arched bridges over the lazy river and these little seating areas like the one below that provided some shade, but the chairs actually sat in the water so you could dip your feet and stay cool while you read and relaxed. Michael liked to sit there while I swam.
This is a pic of our room from the lazy river ...that's our room with the brown towel hanging over the balcony. I really envied the swimup rooms (right below us where the blue loungers are, right on the edge of the lazy river. If we ever come back here, I want to get one of the swimup rooms instead!
They had these big round balls that lit up at night amongst the flora. It was really beautiful, especially at night!

The beach was okay, lots of sea grass which didn't bother me that much but some people didn't like it. They were constantly trying to rake it away. Nice white sand and blue water. It was much windier than I expected. It was lovely to sit on the beach and people come to you to ask what you want to drink and bring it to you ...the cocktails are awesome! So many different ones to try! I particularly liked Banana Mama and of course we had to try the Dominican Mama Jauna, made by allowing rum, red wine and honey to soak in a bottle filled with tree barks bits, leaves and roots. It's rumoured to be an aphrodisiac! LOL!  Michael really got a taste for it! 

Shot from my beach chair (that's my foot at the bottom of the photo)
Michael at the beach bar
Loungers on the beach nearing sunset

On the beach at sunset
This is a shot looking back from the beach towards where we ate our buffet breakfast every morning. You could sit inside or outside, but we preferred out, so we could see the palm trees swaying and hear the ocean waves crashing on the beach. 

In the evening, an adjacent restaurant called The Seaside Grill also had outdoor seating and we had dinner there twice. It was really nice to be able to sit and hear the waves and see the palm trees as we ate our steaks. :-)

Secrets Royal Beach shares some of its restaurants with Now Larimar, which is for families. Guests at Royal Beach can use all the facilities at the Now Larimar, but they cannot come onto the Secrets property (they have a guard standing there that you have to show your room card to). I'm not crazy about shared Adult Only/Family resort properties and prefer ones like Capri and Silversands which are just adult only. You do pay a higher price for having it adult only and I don't want to share any facilities with kids. Considering the high cost it doesn't seem fair. I've been disappointed to see so many of the new Secrets properties opening up with these shared resorts and to tell you the truth, it makes me angry when I read reviews on Tripadvisor where people stay at the Now side, which is less money but find their way over to the adult only side to spend their days. Apparently not all the Secrets guard against Now guests crossing over on to the Secrets property if they don't have children with them, so from what I've seen in reviews from some people, they simply come in from the beach and use the adult only facilities. That bugs me and I don't find it funny or cute or like that people tell others to do it. Secrets either needs to address that issue or stop building these dual facilities. Anyways, I'm going to rant about that in a separate post since it's not really about Royal Beach but Secrets Resorts and AM Resorts in general. 

We didn't go to any of the shared restaurants since we were only there for a few days, but I'm not sure how I would feel about sharing if we were there for a week.  The only thing we checked out on the Now Larimar side was the casino and their souvenir shop. Definitely noisier. You could hear the kidsm as soon as you walked closer to the hub of the resort where the casino was (kids were not allowed in the casino though). Don't get me wrong, I like kids, but if I'm paying for an adult ony vacation I don't want to hear any little kids screaming. If I didn't care, I would've booked a resort that included kids. Michael was the one who insisted on adult-only originally when I was trying to decide between Now Larimar and Royal Beach, but I have to tell you, after experiencing how quiet and peaceful Royal Beach was, I was sold on us making that mandatory on all vacations if we had a choice. Our life is filled with barking dogs and noise on a regular basis, so it was really calming to have that kind of quiet. I loved it!  Didn't think I would, but I did! 

As far as the decor and landscaping, Now Larimar looked quite nice. We came through the lobby when we got dropped off from a trip into town and the decor was very pretty. The one thing I did not like was all the smoke. I have asthma and I'm allergic to smoke, and I found the small casino (door closed to the outside) hard to breathe in with so many people smoking cigarettes inside. I also didn't like that they allowed smoking in the outside seating area of the buffet. The wind would tend to blow the smoke in your face and I felt like we couldn't get away from it. I noticed that when we went to Secrets Capri, it was non-smoking inside the resort and I appreciated that a lot after Royal Beach!

 The restaurants on our side were La Riviera, which was a buffet that served all kinds of things; Seaside Grill, which was essentially steak and grilled specialties, and Oceana, a seafood place that had a set menu. We only ate at the buffet and Seaside Grill. We had planned to try Oceana, but then my stomach acted up and so we never did. 

The food had beautiful presentation, especially at the buffet! Check out this Buddha made entirely of butter!

Unfortunately, my tummy started acting up the second day we were there. It wasn't a full fledged stomach illness but I definitely didn't feel my best and was careful about what I ate the last day. I don't know if it was the food or just me. Michael had no problems at all. I'm not a big fan of the cuisine compared to Mexico (where I LOVE the cuisine), and I'm also not used to so many different kinds of food, or eating/drinking so much, so that might've had something to do with my tummy upset as well. We've also taken Dukoral before trips since just for added protection, as well as getting Trinrix vaccinations. Better safe than sorry.

The spa on the Secrets side had just opened up and we decided to splurge on a treatment. I went for a massage and Michael decided to have a chocolate wrap or something like that. My massage was very relaxing and that says a lot because I'm the type of person that doesn't normally relax getting a massage, but the girl who did it was wonderful and the setting was very calming. 

Afterwards we went into their new hydrotherapy pools! Only problem was that no one showed us how to use it or what to do, so I just floated around a bit and relaxed. 

The Domincan is known for red amber and larimar, the latter only being found in the Dominican. Here's what Wikipedia says about Larimar: "Larimar, also called "Stefilia's Stone", is a rare blue variety of pectolite found only in the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean. Its coloration varies from white, light-blue, green-blue to deep blue." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larimar
It's such a pretty colour, isn't it?
The resort provided a free bus that went to a little plaza nearby that sported the Amber & Larimar Museum, which was cool, and we also did a bit of souvenir shopping there. Here's Michael inside the museum checking out the displays. I bought a gorgeous bracelet with larimar and red amber on it while we were there: 

All in all it was a lovely first holiday. Here we are at Punta Cana airport heading home:
Our plane home...we had to walk across the tarmac to the stairs to board.

Of course everyone was fine when we got home. In fact, it was such a positive experience that we immediately decided to look at booking another holiday (this time a week) at another Secrets resort, but this time in Mexico. Our anniversary is April 16th and although we couldn't go that early in April because we needed to make sure Darien had finished his exams and was home from university, we decided we'd go shortly thereafter as a belated anniversary celebration trip! I managed to find an awesome deal for late April at Secrets Capri. I'll review that vacation in a future post.

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