Punta Cana: Penny-Wise in Paradise

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A 23-mile stretch of the Dominican Republic's eastern tip offers some of the Caribbean's best-value all-inclusive beach resorts. Here are half a dozen to sink your teeth into

With fine beaches and one of the most relaxing vibes in the Caribbean, la Repoblica Dominicana, which is roughly twice the size of Vermont, has sprouted some 80 resorts since the 1970s. Almost all of them are all-inclusive, meaning that for one price they sell everything vacationers need: a room; airport transfers; all meals and drinks, including alcoholic ones; a slew of daytime activities; kids' clubs; entertainment; and tips. Because of its undeveloped economy and extremely low wages, the Dominican Republic's prices are among the lowest in all the Caribbean for such arrangements. Though properties on other islands may occasionally match the DR's low rates, none do so consistently. And among the best values on the island are the accommodations in the modern development of Punta Cana. What is the atmosphere like in Punta Cana and what sort of vacationer chooses it? Located along 23 miles of beaches and an 18-mile coral reef in low-lying, arid land at the eastern tip of the country, Punta Cana is serviced by direct flights to its own airport, making arrival easy. Most visitors don't come to be submerged in Caribbean culture (there are no real towns nearby), but rather to get away from it all in a quiet, self-contained vacationland of large, low-rise, mellow resorts, each with its own palm-lined, soft-sand beach. Punta Cana's guests want to feel as if their hotel is the only one around for miles, and they rarely leave the grounds.

Punta Cana is the cheapest area on the Caribbean's cheapest island-and here are its six most affordable all-inclusive resorts, all of high quality. They offer the amenities mentioned above, as well as private bathrooms, A/C, cable TV, phone, hairdryer, and fridge or minibar. High season runs January through April, low season June to mid-December. Rack rates for doubles (all are per person, per day; kids under 14 often less) are given as guidelines. You'll save much more by booking an air/resort package from a vendor such as Apple or Funjet, which in some months fly there daily and supply all-inclusive stays for as little as $500 a week, from New York and Miami (see box for more operators).

Breezes Punta Cana

Built in 2000 and managed by the SuperClubs chain, it has an elegant neoclassical design, with vaults and arches in the main buffet restaurant. Most of the 735 rooms are not enormous, but comfy, all with a balcony or terrace, CD players, and fridges stocked with soda and water. There are five bars and six restaurants: the elegant main buffet, El Alcazar; five good reserved-seating eateries serving Italian, Japanese, French, and Mexican cuisine; plus one near the beach offering grilled meats, fish, and a cold buffet. In addition to a small casino, Breezes offers unusual extras: a bank with ATM, a circus trapeze and trampoline, a rock-climbing wall, and-believe it or not-a little hockey rink. There's even an offshore shipwreck for snorkelers. Free wedding (ceremony, cake, champagne, flowers, etc.; legal fees extra) with a three-night stay. Wheelchair accessible. High season $130 all-inclusive, low season $91; 877/467-8737, superclubs.com.

Carabela Bavaro

Opened on El Cortecito beach in 1992, this Spanish-owned property is intimate and private, as it's tucked away on a park-like spread with shady tall pines and palms and patrolled by pink flamingos and peacocks. An ocean mural peers over wicker chairs in the cool, open lobby, and its 399 rooms are arrayed in eight low-slung buildings. There are two pools with a swim-up bar, a children's pool area, and an enormous round spa tub. Besides the La Noray buffet restaurant, three others are reservation-only: Italian, seafood, and international cuisine; there's also a snack bar and five bars. Nightlife is not a strong suit, but there are funky little bars down the beach and in adjoining El Cortecito village. Extras: miniature golf; a hairdresser; massage on the beach for around $20. High season $80 to $90 all-inclusive, low season $70; 809/221-2728, vistasolhotels.com.

Catalonia Bavaro

Another Spanish-owned property, this five-year-old has bungalow-style buildings with 711 bright and spacious units, each with a terrace with hammock and a living area (some have hot tubs). Apart from the Gran Caribe buffet and a beach buffet, there are four ? la carte eateries with reserved seating (Japanese, Mexican, French, Italian). Bars number five, including a swim-up in the pool. Extras: archery, a basketball court, a small casino, an ice cream parlor/cr?perie, and (for a charge) a decent nine-hole golf course. The beautiful beach has a bit more sea grass than at some other resorts. Wheelchair accessible. High season $125 all-inclusive, low season $80; 809/412-0000, cataloniabavaro.com.

Club Med Punta Cana

In 2000, this 74-acre member of the classic French chain was part of a $350 million renovation project. It has always been family oriented (rooms are now extra-big) and strong on tennis, with 14 courts and good instruction. It now offers an all-inclusive program closer to those offered by other resorts. There are two bars and round-the-clock snacks. The food is among the best in Punta Cana; apart from the main buffet, there's a fabulous over-the-water restaurant. The pool is huge and dreamy, there's a smaller one for kids, and the half-mile of talcum-soft beach is the area's longest, with its own coral reef. Some rooms are far from the main facilities. High season $140 all-inclusive, low season $100 to $110; 800/258-2633, clubmed.com. Fiesta Bavaro: Part of a three-resort complex with a great beach and coral reef, its 608 units are in two-story bungalow-style structures. The fare gets good reviews at its main buffet, three ? la carte eateries (Mediterranean, Tex-Mex, international), and pizza bar. Guests may use the adjoining Fiestas-nine restaurants, twelve bars, two discos, and four pools. There's also an ocean-view fitness center offering (for an affordable price) massage and spa treatments. High season up to $128 all-inclusive, low season from $99; 809/221-8149, fiesta-hotels.com.

Occidental Allegro Punta Cana

This older resort serves up 540 rooms in nine three-story buildings. Besides Topaz (the buffet) and a half-dozen bars, good food is found in four a la carte eateries (Italian, seafood, Caribbean, a caf?) and a poolside snack bar. There's a bit more energy here than at some of the more laid-back resorts above, but it's far from a "party-till-you-puke" kinda place. The helpful staff is a particular plus. A slight minus: no fridges in rooms. Horseback riding is included. High season from $105 to $169 all-inclusive, low season from $89; 800/858-2258, occidentalhotels.com.

Package it, Pedro

  • Apple Vacationsapplevacations.com, book only through a travel agent
  • CheapCaribbean.com 800/915-2322, cheapcaribbean.com
  • FunCaribe 800/680-6991, funcaribe.com
  • Funjet Vacationsfunjet.com, travel agents only
  • Inter Island Tours 800/245-3434, interislandtours.com
  • GOGO Worldwide Vacationsgogowwv.com, travel agents only
  • MK Tours 888/441-7600, mktours.com
  • TourScan 800/962-2080, tourscan.com
  • Travel Best 800/955-2378, travelbest.net
  • Vacation Express 877/784-3786, vacationexpress.com
  • Vacation Travel Mart 800/288-1435, vacmart.com
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