Welcome to Paradise

Last month I wrote a post about my amazing wedding day, but the day was followed by our dream honeymoon. As we’ve already got kids, we knew that this would be our only opportunity to have a slightly longer holiday on our own, and as we arranged the wedding so they still had a week left in school we wanted to make the most of it. Fortunately our kids are old enough to understand the difference between a once-off honeymoon and a holiday, so although they missed us while we were away, they weren’t too unhappy that we were going. We wanted to get the balance between relaxing (which we don’t normally get when we’re cramming in city breaks), and making the most of being where we were. In the end, we did manage to fit a lot in. So, to make this a bit more manageable, both to read and to write, I’m going to do the honeymoon in three instalments, splitting them a week and a destination at a time.

Our first week started very quickly after the wedding, as we actually left our reception at midnight to drive to Heathrow airport- massive thanks to my chief bridesmaid Amy who napped during the day so that she could drive us- before flying off first thing in the morning to our first destination- the Dominican Republic. For months we’d been hoping that my new passport and telling everybody we met that we were newlyweds would get us a free upgrade, like Monica and Chandler in Friends, but while that didn’t happen, we did have a lovely air hostess who treated us to a rose, wine and champagne from the first class carriage. We thanked her with wedding cake that we had taken with us and then realised we wouldn’t be able to bring into the country when we landed!

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After travelling all day we eventually arrived in the Dominican Republic in the early hours of the morning, and were thankful to sink into the transfer shuttle to take us to our hotel. We’d paid a bit extra for an upgrade and there was a bottle of prosecco waiting for us in a cooler of ice, which was a nice welcome. After a slight detour to work out how the ATM’s worked to get some local currency, we arrived at our resort about 2 hours after landing. My mother had given us her time share points us a wedding gift, so we were able to stay at a wonderful all-inclusive resort called Zoetry Agua Punta Cana. It was definitely a level of luxury that we weren’t used to. We had a butler called Bayron who was there to make sure we had everything we needed and help us to arrange excursions. In the end, we did arrange a few through him but found it easier to do most of them directly as we could negotiate discounts that Bayron wouldn’t normally need to worry about for his clients, however he also had some insight into which companies were actually worth going with. So, here are the highlights of the week!

Within the resort itself there was quite a lot going on. There were two pools with rivers running along the front of the accommodation. There were a few foam loungers around if you wanted to sunbathe in the pool itself! One of the pools had a poolside bar, where you could get delicious cocktails. They had a special everyday, but the barmen were very knowledgeable and could make whatever you asked for. The other pool was attached to one of the favourites, which actually ended up being our favourite. Although there were 5 restaurants onsite, the poolside one we found to have the most appetising, and local feeling food. A couple of the others were a bit more posh than we were comfortable with, and one only ever seemed to be open at breakfast. We weren’t there in peak season so there was a rolling programme of which restaurants were open at meal times, and we found the menus to get a bit repetitive after a while, although in all fairness the room service menu was quite diverse as well, and we particularly enjoyed having breakfast in our room in the morning!

We were slightly worried about the beach before we came as a few reviews had complained about the amount of seaweed. When we got there though we found it to be a bit of an over-exaggeration. There was some seaweed, which you would expect on a beach, but it wasn’t a problem. There were some interesting fish if you went snorkelling, although dodging the coral could be a bit of a challenge. Steve managed to get stung by something which left a nasty rash for a couple of days. The beach itself was beautiful. The only problem we found was that it could be quite difficult to get hold of the people in charge of hiring out the equipment- snorkels and water sports, but we were more interested in lounging so it wasn’t really a problem.

We were in a fairly quiet resort, for a start it only had 90 rooms, compared with some of the mega resorts up the road. There was a rolling programme of entertainment at the bar in the evenings, which was mainly singers, but one night there was a cocktail entertainer. The advert showed him throwing cocktail shakers around and juggling with fire, which looked very impressive. He was slightly less impressive in person though, knocking a lot of glasses over and eventually ending the show when one of his flaming cocktail shakers fell on him. The bits he did well worked very well, but the mistakes were unfortunately very memorable. However we also went over to Breathless, one of the other resorts, who had a transfer system set up with ours. We had a meal at one of their restaurants and went to a dance show at the hotel. We weren’t impressed with the resort as it was huge and definitely a lot more of a party place, but the show was very good. Initially it just looked like scantily clad women dancing, but it built up to acrobatics and flame throwing, and was actually a very high quality.

When we arrived our hotel offered us a booklet of vouchers towards some of the extras at the resort. One of which was a couples massage, which we took up in the onsite spa, and that was very relaxing, it was so relaxing I think we both fell asleep! The spa was lovely though, with a very quiet and calm atmosphere and really nice staff. We both came away feeling very peaceful! The other activity we took up was horse riding on the beach. The woman in charge was very knowledgeable about the horses, and took us on a short half hour ride along the beach, pointing out the developments coming up between us and the other resorts. It was a good pace for those who hadn’t ridden before, but as always, a horse will do what it’s told if you want to go faster. Nothing too exerting, but a nice experience to have.

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We enjoyed the horse riding so much that we decided to have a longer trip and booked a day out with a company called Horseplay Punta Cana for the end of the week. There were quite a lot of companies who did horse trekking of some variety, but the distinctiveness of Horseplay is that they also offer a trip to a cigar factory, where you can make your own cigar, and a zipline through the jungle. They pick you up from your resort in one of the big tourist trucks- the sort where you climb in and sit on a bench with open sides. One of the downsides of our resort was that it was one of the furthest away so we had to stop at all the others on the way! When you arrive you start with a tour of the cigar factory and a chance to make and smoke your own. There is also a small pool and a gift shop at the initial ranch. You are then matched up to your horse, more on size than ability, before you begin your trek up to the second ranch. There was a family in our group with a young child, so they were able to drive up to the ranch to meet the rest of their family there.

The trek itself is a nice route, through the jungle and along river beds. The horse is really in charge though, if he decides he doesn’t want to stay with the person you came with, there’s not much you can do to stop him! Mine wasn’t too difficult to keep control of, but I think Steve found his a bit more tricky. There were a few experienced riders who had no trouble, but also a few who were clearly just hanging on. Having had a few riding lessons as a child I knew the basics of how to not sit like a sack of potatoes, but I was a bit over-confident and decided to give the optional galloping a go. Big mistake. After the initial plan of gracefully galloping along and pulling to a smooth finish, I found myself holding on for dear life as the horse clearly enjoyed what he was doing, and was ignoring any efforts to rein him in at all! Very exhilarating, but I gave it a miss on the way back.

After an hour or so trekking we came to the ranch, where we were served a meal of soup, and Dominican fried chicken, rice and beans. All very delicious, and even Steve ate it! Our main guide then gave us a chocolate demonstration, which is always a good thing. He had some cocoa beans and showed us how to split them, roast them, grind them down, and then mix them with sugar to give us something close to the chocolate we buy in the shops. We were able to taste it at every stage, which helped us to understand exactly why each stage is necessary! We then had the option to try the zip-wire, which was brilliant. It was in three parts, the first one through the jungle, the second over the plantation, and finally back over the river. I felt confident the guides knew what they were doing, so I felt completely safe and really enjoyed it. We were given the option for another go before the trek back down to the first ranch. There we had the obligatory gift shop before heading back to the resort on the truck. Definitely one of the highlights of the holiday!

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One of the other memorable excursions, although not quite as good was a trip to Saiona Island on a speed boat and catamaran with Living Punta Cana. Although the island itself was beautiful, definitely the idyllic beach you imagine when you think of a tropical paradise, there were a couple of niggles that took away from the day. Firstly, we were picked up in a minibus from our resort, but had to change three or four times to join with ever larger groups. The last stop was at a tourist gift shop where we had to wait 15 minutes to try and encourage people to buy things, before joining the final bus for the last part of the journey. It probably took at least an hour and a half to get from the resort to the where we were meeting the boats. It all felt a bit chaotic when we arrived as there were suddenly lots of groups there all going to different places. However, we eventually found ourselves wading on to a speed boat, and were plied with rum and coke- more rum than coke- which made it all better!

The day was advertised as stopping at a natural lagoon where we could hold starfish. This was sort of true. We stopped in a shallow part of the sea with a barrage of other boats, and were given the opportunity to hold starfish that the crew had already stopped to pick up, while they took our picture to buy later! Scepticism aside, the break to go swimming was nice. The sea was warm, it was just sand- no coral or seaweed, so we could just relax and float around a bit before carrying on. When we eventually got to the island it was what we expected. Palm trees, long beach, jungle behind, rum punch and a very generous BBQ with chicken, ribs, rice, pasta, salad- enough to keep everyone going! There were other groups there so you had to keep an eye on what yours was doing, and reserve a deck chair as soon as you got to the island. There was also a man selling coconuts, which was not too overpriced, but did become so when he “forgot” to give you change!

We made the most of the crew having decent cameras and had a few more photos taken on the beach. We both worked hard on our weight before the wedding so wanted to make the most of it! The pictures were really nice, in all fairness, the photographer clearly knew what he was doing. He had his laptop with him to make a CD of your photos on the day, which he was initially selling for $70, but we managed to barter him down to about $40 for over 70 photos, and the CD even worked when we got home!

The trip back was then switching boats to the catamaran. By that point a lot of people were a bit on the sunburnt side, so it was nice to stretch out on the netting, watching the people who had a few too many rums dancing, and watching the sea flash by underneath.

The journey back wasn’t as long as before, but it took a little while for them to work out where we were going as they split everyone up to go in the appropriate shuttle buses. It did feel like they had forgotten us. There were less changes on the way back, but it was still a bit of a mystery trip with little communication. Looking back on the main body of the day, we did have a good day, and we came away with some fantastic photos, but the planning and transportation for the day left a lot to be desired.

Fortunately we did have a better boat trip with Ocean Adventures- Caribbean Pirates. To be honest, the selling point was that it was on a pirate ship, always awesome. They even did a live action show as we were sailing along. There were pirates attacking from another boat, sword fights, map swapping, exactly what you would expect from pirates. There was the added advantage of the convenience of getting there- picked up directly from the resort, although it was quite a long way from ours, we didn’t have to worry about switching vehicles multiple times. When we arrived the checking in system felt a bit chaotic, but everyone seemed to end up in the right place at the right time so they must have known what they were doing. We had to wait a little while for the groups to be arranged, but there were toilets, drinks to buy, and entertainment for the children so it was ok.

The boat itself had an upper and lower deck so there was plenty of room for everyone, and the complimentary drinks and fruit were very welcome- particularly the rum punch, it was lush! Our first stop was snorkelling off the boat. It was a bit frustrating because there were other boats there so you had to stay near your own group, which was a problem because it meant that you couldn’t get to a spot of sea away from people. They put bait in the water but it wasn’t really necessary because there were so many fish!

After some more entertainment we had our second stop, where there were some bigger fish. We were split into three groups on a rotation. First up we met some sting rays. The boat stopped at an offshore pool which had an open layer at the bottom so that the rays could swim in. We then all sat on a ledge around the outside and they would bring a couple up and guide them around for people to touch and take photos with.

On the other side of the pool was the shark tank. We were expecting that the sharks would be swimming around freely, and while there were some in cages, others would have been able to, had they not been asleep. There were actually about a dozen sharks in the pool, as well as some pretty impressive shoals of fish, a few more rays and I’m sure I spotted a swordfish. The smaller fish could swim in and out but the sharks were kept confined. I’m not sure about the ethics of keeping sharks in cages, and I didn’t ask to find out if they were ever released and others captured, or kept there all the time, but I’m guessing people are less bothered about sharks than dolphins.

The third section was lunch, which was sandwiches and salad so not the most exciting we had on our trip, but very welcome after all the swimming! When everyone had finished up we regrouped on the boat, had some more rum and fruit and headed back. The system for everyone leaving was much more straightforward and we got back pretty easily. There was also a chance to buy various pictures that you could have had taken throughout the trip. Definitely one of the better boat trips out there.

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I think our favourite excursion though was one that was a little bit different. For most of the tours available you are only seeing the tourist face of the island, whereas we prefer to find out what life is actually like in the places we visit. So when we came across Punta Cana Mike we decided that was just what we were looking for. Mike is Canadian and has been living on the island for several years. He started off in the tourist industry but married a local woman, and now knows the island very well. Mike’s tours are a lot smaller, taking a maximum of 12 people, partly because that’s what you fit in a minibus, but takes you around a lot more interesting places on the island.

We started off visiting one of the hoyos, the general residential areas for local people. Mike has links with a local school, that he helped to open and continues to support. We visited the school, which was on its summer holidays, but were still able to meet a lot of the children who go there. They were so sweet, instantly interested in you, following you around and holding your hand. A couple of the cheekier ones asking for money, but in the same way that cheeky kids at home would ask for sweets. Mike explained a bit about the way they live, what their parents do, and some of the politics of the island- particularly in relation to Haiti. We met the local shopkeeper and his family, most of the kids go to the school, and he had a beautiful new three week old daughter who we had lovely cuddles with! There is a lot of poverty in the area, and it’s a completely different way of life to here, but the people were so happy and welcoming. You want to do something to help them but without being condescending or patronising, or suggesting that your standard of living is better than theirs. Definitely an interesting and worthwhile experience.

Our next stop was a chocolate, rum and cigar factory. There was a chocolate workshop which explained where the beans come from, how they’re grown, and then how they become chocolate. We were then able to try some of the chocolate, hot chocolate, and chocolate liqueur that is made onsite, and it was fantastic. There was a shop selling all sorts of chocolate products, and a wide variety of things made with coconut oil, which has all sorts of uses and is really good for you. Apparently.

On the same site was the rum. Not a factory, just a bar, but we won’t hold it against them. And if we did before, then we certainly didn’t by the time we sampled whichever rums they had on sale that we wanted to. We tried some ‘normal’ rum, as well as various flavours, some strong ones, some old ones, we lost track after a little while to be honest. We ended up bringing home some flavoured rum and some black rum, as well as the bottle of fairly normal rum we had been given by the hotel. Oh, and some chocolate liqueur and mamajuana- a mixture of rum and various spices that is supposed to be good for fertility, or maybe just the process that leads to it!

Finally was the cigar sampling. We were talked through the process of how to make them, as well as the different strengths, ageing process and flavours. We also had the chance to try them, which some people found easier than others. I found that it was actually quite difficult to light, and to keep it going. Although I got used to it after a while, the experience didn’t convert me to smoking cigars. I brought a couple back that we were given, and while I considered a few flavoured ones, I didn’t consider them seriously enough to go anywhere with it!

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We then moved on to lunch, which was the best meal we had on the island. We headed to Playa Macao, which used to be a fairly untouched beach, but has become more common knowledge now. We headed down to the far end where the fishing hauls were brought in, and had freshly caught and cooked fish for lunch. You pay by the pound, so we had a pretty large portion of Mahi Mahi for about $20, along with rice and beans, as we had come to expect. Considering Steve doesn’t like fish, and yet liked this, I think we did pretty well. While we were waiting for the food to cook we went for a swim in the beautifully warm water, and later on made friends with an iguana with no sense of personal space. We then headed back, tired and full but very happy! If you ever go to the Dominican Republic and only have a short amount of time, then this is definitely the tour to do.

So that was the first week of our honeymoon. The excursions were interspersed with hanging out in our wonderful suite at the hotel, swimming at the hotel and drinking cocktails, chilling out on the beach, napping and reading on the balcony and just generally unwinding. We had a fantastic week and were really sad to be leaving, until we arrived for week 2. More on that at a later date….

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