HARD ROCK HOTEL & CASINO
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, 1-888-762-5002, 1,787 rooms, hardrockhotelpuntacana.com. Until April 30, all-inclusive rates start at $246 (U.S.) a person for a double. No eco-rating.
Size is both a blessing and a curse at the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana. Guests at the 49-hectare property have access to nine (soon to be 11) restaurants, 15 bars and lounges and 15 swimming pools, plus a casino, spa, beach, shops and golf. The downside to this smorgasbord is that newcomers feel constantly lost for the first couple of days. Management says it's working on the problem.
Palace Resorts, renowned for top-of-the-line all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, opened part of the property under a different name in 2009. After a slow start, the chain brought in Hard Rock International to manage the facility and create buzz. The hybrid, officially launched at the end of January, boasts the largest casino in the Caribbean and is the first all-inclusive resort operated by Hard Rock. Amazingly, its room rates include not only all food and drink but also phone calls to Canada and the United States. Bookings of five or more nights made by May 31 for travel throughout 2011 include a credit of $1,500 toward such activities as golf, spa treatments or tours.
The massive main building - with the casino at one end and conference facilities at the other - spreads across the front of the property. Studded with restaurants, bars and shops, it has the could-be-anywhere feel of an upscale shopping mall. What brings it to life, however, is the extensive collection of rock-star memorabilia that includes Madonna's limo, Elton John's hand-painted piano and a fur jacket worn by Jimi Hendrix.
Beyond the main building is a forest of three- and four-storey accommodation units, gardens and ornamental pools, connected by roofed walkways. Next comes a natural canal, teeming with birdlife. Finally, beside the beach, one finds the swimming pools and more restaurants. A free tram service whisks guests around this vast complex. Unfortunately, when I visited, there were no signs or announcements to identify the stops.
The 18-hole golf course was designed by Jack Nicklaus. The Vegas-style casino has more than 450 slots and 45 gaming tables. The spa has 48 treatment rooms and a hydrotherapy area. While there is music in the bars at night, there will be no concerts until an arena theatre is constructed. The Oro nightclub, which will open soon, should pump up the rock 'n' roll vibe.
Among other facilities are a children's club, arcade, kids' waterslide, mini-golf, tennis, business centre and an array of high-end shops. The beach has lifeguards during the day, but high waves mean it's red-flagged most of the winter. The sand seems to stretch forever, but walk southward to avoid a garbage-strewn wasteland.
The standard Caribbean suites are oversized and come with one king bed or two doubles, a double Jacuzzi two steps below the sleeping level, free Wi-Fi, a large covered balcony - and light switches that are confusing to operate and awkwardly placed. Once renovations are complete, all rooms will have multi-coloured walls and photos of rock celebrities.
The friendly employees are eager to please and greet guests with "Hola" whenever you meet. Many speak only limited English, although the resort is providing lessons. When I let the front desk know about a problem with the shower, it was fixed quickly.
While buffet dinners remain the norm at many all-inclusive resorts, Hard Rock's restaurants are mainly à la carte in the evening. Even better, for the most part advance reservations are not needed. For fun, sit grill-side at Zen and get a close-up view of showman-chefs preparing your Japanese dinner. Or go to Ipanema, where waiters slice meats from swords beside your table. Among the many other choices are Mexican, Caribbean, Italian and steak eateries. A restaurant featuring celebrity chef Kerry
Simon will open soon. The Market offers a full buffet at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and room service is available around the clock. Bars feature the local Dominicana beer, but have decent wines and familiar brands of liquor.
It may not be intimate, but the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino offers a top-of-the-line all-inclusive experience. Once you master the layout, you'll find the property Disney-clean and quite attractive. Just don't be put off by sharing your vacation with a multitude of conference attendees.
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