Big B and I went to Las Vegas for our honeymoon in 2007. It was a wild idea: get married in The Bahamas and honeymoon in Vegas. Kind of backwards, but we’re weird like that.
It was January, and I was totally unprepared for how frigidly cold it would be. I mean, it’s the freakin’ desert. Aren’t deserts hot? While we aren’t really gamblers (unless you call a $40 maximum per day “risky”), we loved walking the strip, shopping, seeing amazing shows (like the Cirque de Soleil show “Eau,” set over water and a must-see). Oh, and we took a helicopter trip to that little hole in the ground called the Grand Canyon.
It’s a bustling city with flash and glamour. I just wish it had been warmer.
Arriving at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic — which graciously hosted us for five nights — it felt like we were walking into Vegas. But awash in sunshine and with the promise of days spent perched on a beach. And this time with two kids in tow.
Let’s start with the word free. You love that word as much as I do, right? Well, kids stay for free at Hard Rock Punta Cana. Doesn’t matter which room category you book; if your kids are under 12, they’re free. For the whole all-inclusive enchilada. Just keep in mind that if you’re booking the smallest rooms, like the Caribbean Sand Suite in which we stayed, you get either a king-sized bed or two doubles and they’ll only let you bring in one cot. For an extra $120 a night, you can book a two-bedroom family suite. And if you want to get your mojo on with your partner, I strongly advise the upgrade.
Another note on free: free calls to Canada and the U.S. from your room. And free wifi. I’d forgotten to make a hair appointment before we left so I just called from our room. We also called our in-laws to see if they would shovel our driveway. We didn’t call too many others and brag about the 28-degree weather for fear of being stoned upon our return.
You want choice? Hard Rock Punta Cana is the ultimate in choice: 13 swimming pools plus a lazy river, nine restaurants (a mix of buffets and full-service), 17 bars and lounges, 24-hour room service, a nightclub, a kids’ club (ages 4+), a casino, a spa, an enormous beauty salon, shopping (shopping, and more shopping), and if you’re a golfer, there’s an 18-hole golf course designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus adjacent to the resort.
The beach. Oh my God, the beach. If you’ve been to Punta Cana, you may know that there are several sections of beach all along the coastline. And some stretches are better than others. Make no mistake: the Hard Rock is on the absolute best stretch of beach in all of Punta Cana. There were mornings when we would see four staffers combing the beach, picking up debris and small rocks just to make it perfect. And perfect it is. Powdery white sand that never gets too hot on your feet, even midday when the sun is at its strongest. You can walk for ages here, so if you like to beach walk, this is the resort for you.
The ocean here is extra-playful. Big B (a water baby) and I (a certified diver) are big fans of rough waves and we’ve put down pre-kid vacation spots we’ve visited for having too few waves. You won’t hear any complaints when it comes to the waves in front of the Hard Rock. Some are well over seven feet if you go in far enough. Riding waves, one after the other, can go on all day long. They’re not so big a few feet in that a teenager can’t manage it without your eagle eyes on him, but if you have younger children or ones who don’t swim well, please bring life jackets. We (thankfully) had some with us and we didn’t go into the ocean without the kids suited up, and had one very scary moment when an unexpected wave took Miss Q and I under. We swirled over top of one another and my mama bear instincts went into overdrive and I somehow managed to catch a strap on her life vest. I yanked her up and pulled us both above the water’s surface, climbing back to shore. Panting. Crying. Relieved that she was breathing. Don’t get me wrong, we went back in the next day (and every day after), but you need to be aware that there are some powerful waves here. So be prepared. And take extra sunglasses; the ocean ate mine on this particular occasion.
The water is so clear we were able to see fish from the ocean’s surface. Every day.
The restaurants are very good. We tried every single one:
- Cafetto: “American”-style food with amazing service, second only to Zen. We had good ol’ burgers and fries here and I had our server create a coconut drink that wasn’t a piña colada, and it was probably my favourite drink all week
- Toro: a carnivore’s dream, this restaurant was directly behind the pool in which we spent a lot of time (the Moon Pool) and not far from the kids’ pool area. Lots of choice and an amazing selection of fresh breads
- Ciao: We really liked the fried ravioli and my salmon was done nicely; the tiramisu wasn’t like what we have here in Canada, so keep in mind that “traditional” may mean something different to you
- Isla: We partook in the Pirate Night here (Tuesdays), which was a definite highlight of our stay at Hard Rock Punta Cana. From the onsite kids’ club activities that kept our kids within view but allowed us to enjoy a bottle of wine after dinner, to the fantastically entertaining “pirate show,” to the three dance routines we learned, it was a night to remember. Most nights, this is simply the seafood restaurant and I enjoyed five different kinds of ceviche here (including snail!)
- Ipanema: As the name suggests, Brazilian fare. Now, if you’ve had high-quality Brazilian BBQ before, some of the meat may fall a bit flat for you but most of it was pretty yummy. And all finished with grilled pineapple, of course
- Los Gallos: Although the server initially forgot one of our appetizers, the food made up for it. Overall, really excellent Mexican complete with a roving tequila cart (slip him $5 and you’ll be visited many times). The steak with chili emulsion is a standout dish
- Pizzetto: Easily our favourite lunch; so much so that we went back twice! The best pizza crust I’ve ever eaten. Not all pizzas are created equal here but we loved the pepperoni and romana pizzas, and my absolute favourite among the eight different pizzas we tried was the ligure with the perfect mix of pesto, goat cheese and black olives
- The Market: We ended up trekking quite far from our room block to eat breakfast at The Market just about every morning. We found it had a really wide variety of foods, and (strangely) it was the only place we could find fresh mango slices. Plus it had a fantastic juice bar (tip: grab fruits from the buffet if you don’t love the selection at the juice bar and be sure to stipulate “no sugar” before the blender-ista pours a whack in)
- Zen: Definitely top-notch service, killer food and the most entertaining dining experience at the Hard Rock. Teppanyaki flare was out in full force at Zen; and the chef even managed to catapult a piece of (cooked) chicken right into my mouth from at least six feet away. Mad skillz!
There are mimosas at every breakfast seating. Need I write more?
One final note about the restaurants: we only had to wait once for a table. It was at Zen and we waited five or 10 minutes until another family came along to fill up a cooking table. Otherwise, we were always seated immediately. We did hear that later in the evenings (around 8 p.m.), there could be much longer waits but we usually ate around 6 or 7 p.m. without any trouble at all.
I don’t know if it’s normal, but we had maid service twice every day. Maybe they just thought we were pigs. Who knows?
There are golf cart shuttles running all over the resort, which is really nice after a long day and a full belly. It’s not so big that able-bodied people can’t walk from one end to the other comfortably, though. We often did.
Everyone speaks English. Everyone! If you have no desire to learn even a “gracias,” you won’t need to here. You can order all of your food, drinks and towels in English.
We were in room block 5-A, which was ideal with little kids. It was close to the beach and to the kids’ pool area (not to mention the afternoon snack station that serves chicken fingers, hot dogs, sausages and fries from lunch to dinner time).
You could easily be an adult couple here and enjoy your vacation. Thanks to an adults-only pool and the sheer size of the place, if you wanted to avoid kids, you really could. Remember: they’re not allowed in the casino or the nightclub. Go to there if you find it hard to escape them elsewhere. We met many couples who had either left their kids at home or didn’t have any, and no one complained about it not being a kid-free resort.
The grounds are stunning. There’s always a sprinkler on to help keep everything lush and green. Everything’s manicured beautifully, and there are BOSE speakers coming out of the ground all over the resort. We loved hearing music everywhere we went.
Despite a lot of obvious tipping at the bars, no one was given preferential treatment. We prefer to tip at the end of our stay so (a) we don’t have to carry around cash and (b) so we tip those who went out of their way throughout our trip. The bartenders always had a smile for everyone and made every effort to make their way around the bar to get to every guest.
If you’re happy with a tiki hut on the beach, you’ll be glad to know that even with nearly 1,800 guest rooms, you don’t need to get down to reserve a hut until about 9 a.m. We even found one at 11 a.m. one morning, and we were there during a week that had every single room booked, totalling more than 3,000 guests.
The rooms are quite spacious. And they feel luxurious with their large balconies, high ceilings and sunken two-person jacuzzi tubs. Yeah, every room has one. Pretty sweet. Plus, we loved the lighting; there were four settings, which made it easy to go from dim to bright to black and back again.
Tonnes of top-shelf liquor available and really good drinks. If I wanted my drink made with Smirnoff, I could request it. Far and away the best mojito in any resort I’ve been to. And the bartenders were always excited to make something for the kids (the strawberry-banana smoothies were a hit); again, just be sure to request it without added sugar if you’re like us and believe that fruit has enough natural sugar to satisfy little taste buds. I’m quite sure that’s the reason my kids were bouncing off the walls at 9 p.m. when we first arrived, before we figured out that they were adding sugar to their drinks. Good times!
Our shower was huge. And I know from huge showers because we have a family-sized shower in our master ensuite at home, complete with two showerheads. The Hard Rock put ours to shame.
Everyone gets a minibar! YOU get a minibar…and YOU get a minibar…and YOU, well, you get the picture. Big B loved having fresh cans of Heineken in the room every day and I appreciated the huge bottles of purified water that were replenished regularly.
Dress however you want. If you want to wear a bathingsuit cover-up and flip flops to lunch, go for it. If you want to get all dolled up and don an evening gown with sky-high heels for dinner, no one will look at you sideways. There was every level of fashion at the Hard Rock and I didn’t experience nor see anyone else be discriminated for being underdressed in any corner of the resort.
Resort credit. “Huh?” you’re asking. Let me explain. When you book a minimum of three nights, you get $500 in spending money at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana. Book seven nights and you get $1,800. Twelve nights? Make that $2,500. And all of this can be spent on things like onsite photography, tours, golf, and the only non-inclusive restaurant (located inside the casino). You can even get a couple’s massage or your hair blown out. But there’s a bit of a catch…
You’ll pay 20 per cent of the total cost of the credit yourself. The Hard Rock calls it a service charge. Why they just don’t make the resort credit 20 per cent less is beyond me. This means that at the end of your seven-night stay, if you’ve used up the entire $1,800, you owe $360. So your free money is not exactly free. But it’s not a kick in the teeth either, and if you can go horseback riding for an hour for $18 somewhere else in the Caribbean, I’ll buy you a beer.
You do need to get out pretty early if you want to reserve prime poolside loungers that get shade most of the day. Aim for 7:30 a.m. Really.
The rule about bringing in only one cot has got to go. There was absolutely room for two and for a family of four with two little kids, it’s a huge money-saver to be able to book a lower-category room and add the cots.
The trollies that usher you from one part of the Hard Rock to the next get a bit lazy sometimes, completely missing your stop. We learned to tell the driver before we got on where we were headed. In one case, we ended up right where we started and instead just walked back to our room.
We ended up turning on our white noise app at night because the hallway could get noisy at times. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a neighbouring door slam. The white noise totally did the trick, though, so you can always use the free wifi to download your own if you find it a tad noisy after dark.
The music at Pirate Night and in the theatre were way, WAY too loud for little ears. I’m sure it did permanent damage. Had I known, I would have brought their noise-blocking headphones that we use for fireworks and the air show.
Bring on the veggies, please! We were hard-pressed to find much beyond salad and maybe the odd spear of asparagus at lunch and dinner most days. We had to special order broccoli and other greens! The restaurant staff did mention on more than one occasion that they were surprised our kids would eat off of the “main” menu, so I’m sure this is the case because the Hard Rock knows its audience. It would be nice if there were more vegetable sides on all of the menus for those of us who like to give our kids really balanced meals.
There are no options for child care at the kids’ club if your kid is three or under. Yes, you can take your younger kids to the kids’ club, but you have to stay. You need to book a nanny (with a four-hour minimum) if you want some grown-up time to yourselves. By the same token, The Little Big Club (kids’ club) is really geared to younger kids; beyond age eight, they will probably feel a bit out of place and perhaps even bored by the programming. How many nine year olds like Bob the Builder and Angelina Ballerina? We saw one 10 year old there during the nighttime programming and she looked terrifically out of place.
Some parts of the resort are showing wear and tear and need some TLC. I don’t personally care too much about this sort of thing, but for those that do it’s worth mentioning so you set up your expectations appropriately.
The shopping is, for the most part, insanely expensive. As I mentioned earlier, the ocean ate my (prescription) sunglasses the day Miss Q and I were swept away, so I needed new sunnies. I settled on a pair of Michael Kors aviators, which were $165 (U.S.). I later saw them at the Punta Cana airport for $99 (U.S.), and you know how overpriced airports are (duty-free, my butt). I also tried on a really cute bikini at Carmen Sol, and when I saw the price tag read $125, I decided to go for it because it seemed more than reasonable for Juicy Couture. Then the saleswoman showed me that each piece was $125, tagged separately, so I decided to just buy the bottoms and pair them with another bikini top I already owned. But she wouldn’t let me. I was told I had to buy BOTH pieces, even though they were priced individually. This is dumb.
Hard Rock staff takes most of your bracelet away at the end of your stay. They need to cut off the barcode (presumably so you don’t pass it along to someone incoming at the airport so they can eat and play for the next week on the Hard Rock’s dime), but for a kid-sized bracelet, that means removing about half of the thing. We kept what we could for their memory boxes, but they would have loved to wear them home.