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Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

June 2 to 9 of 2003, my wife & I (age 50 & 51) vacationed at the Riu Naiboa hotel about a 35 minute drive (22 miles) south of the Punta Cana airport on the eastern shores of Dominican Republic. The Riu Naiboa hotel is 4 stories high, has 372 rooms & is rated as 4 star by Sunquest & Riu hotel chain, but 3 to 3.5 star by some others (myself included). Because of the time of year (before the schools get out for the summer), we got a pretty good price of $845. CDN each for this all-inclusive (includes plane, bus transfers, hotel, meals, drinks, taxes, gratuities, facilities, etc), plus $10. U.S. departure fee each when leaving the Island. I enjoyed it very much, but my wife & many others got sick (probably from the water) & it put a damper on their holidays. We would not likely go back to this hotel unless we heard reports that things had gotten better. Below are our experiences in detail.

THE FLIGHT DOWN: We arrived at the Toronto International Airport 2:10 hours before the Skyservice flight was due to leave. The line up was not long & the check-in went very quickly. Pickup of our tickets at the Sunquest booth also went quickly. Airport security was very reasonable & did hand check my carry on film & camera equipment when requested, rather than sending it through the X-ray machine (which can fog high speed film after a few passes, despite them telling you that it's safe). With the exception of a honeymoon couple who were running late, Skyservice had everybody seated on the plane 4 minutes before scheduled departure of 4:15 PM. By the time we pulled away from the gate & taxied, we took off at 4:46 PM which wasn't too bad. We touched down in Dominican Republic on time & the total wheels up time in the air was 3:37 hours (scheduled time including taxi time was 4:10 hours, so we were pretty much bang on estimated time). The seats in this Skyservice Airbus 320 are not all that comfortable (small & narrow, with an uncomfortable metal bar part way up the seat back & lumpy cushion), but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has traveled on Skyservice charter airlines. The seatback at the bottom where it joins the cushion has nothing but a piece of cloth (no padding at all), so an inconsiderate person sitting behind you can easily cross their legs & keep kicking you in the butt periodically, which can be quite annoying. Several people complained that their headphone jacks didn't work (a frequent complaint on Skyservice flights) & Skyservice had no extension cords for these people to plug headphones into a nearby jack, so some people couldn't watch the movie. When we disembarked at Punta Cana airport, there was a long customs line & after that a bit of a wait for the luggage. The Skyservice luggage handlers had ripped the pockets out of both ends of my snorkeling kit & later I noticed that my suitcase had been roughly handled which broke the plastic ribbing inside. Directions to the Sunquest bus for the ride to the hotel were easy. The bus driver's assistant gets on the loudspeaker of the bus & repeatedly requests tips for the driver which was annoying, especially since this is supposed to be an "all inclusive" including gratuities. I would have rather that he not blabber on & try to entertain us during the 35 minute trip to the hotel.

THE ROOM: The check-in at the Riu Naiboa lobby was not a big ordeal, but for some crazy reason they make you fill out all your info all over again, even though you previously gave this information to your travel agent. The 4 star room we stayed in was adequate, not luxurious, some people would only rate it a 3 or 3.5 star. The air conditioning for our room was central air so it was quiet, though it didn't dehumidify very well & struggled to bring the temperature down (in June), which seldom fell below 77.5 F (about 25.3 C) in the room, but that seemed adequate most of the time because there was a ceiling fan (the fan was noisy because it wasn't balanced). Several other guests in our hotel complained that their air conditioning wasn't working well at all. There was 1 single & 1 double bed, not pushed together (just like the AlbaTours/Sunquest brochure said). Two double beds like the Riu Naiboa web site shows, would have been better. The safe in our room didn't have a lock & we later found that several others who came on our plane had the same complaint, but getting a lock at the front desk wasn't a problem. The taps dripped & a lamp was broken. The TV had about 35 satellite channels available (including 1 porno channel, so don't let the kids have the remote). We were easily able to get a second room key (without a deposit) so my wife & I each had a key. The electrical receptacles use the North American 115 Volt standard, but the receptacles use the European type plug, so North Americans will need to bring an adapter plug if you are to plug in any of your North American devices & Europeans will need to bring a step up transformer if their devices don't work on 115 VAC. These adapters are sometimes available for borrowing from the front desk. The balcony door doesn't lock which I suppose could be a security problem if somebody were to jump over the balcony barrier from an adjoining room. The hallway floors outside the rooms use glazed tiles which are very slippery when wet as well as very noisy & there are no vestibules between the hallway & room to distance you from the noise of the hallway. The hotel is open concept (open to the weather in some areas) so rugs wouldn't be practical, but vinyl flooring would have been safer & quieter than glazed tiles. We were fortunate to have a room on an upper floor that faced the pool, so the view was nice (mostly palm trees as far as you could seeSee photo.). The balcony has a rack for drying your bathing suit & clothes. The room included a mini-bar fridge at no extra cost with a jug of water (had an odd taste), beer & soft drinks which were replenished daily.

ORIENTATION MEETING: The next morning there was an orientation meeting put on by the permanent hostess (Sarah) from Sunquest/Alba Tours if you want to attend. It lasted about 50 minutes & the hostess could have easily imparted the relevant information in half that time. The internet comment sights like those listed below & Riu hotel web site, had pretty much told me most of the same information anyway. At this meeting they do warn you that the privately run beach ATV & other chargeable activities are run by thieves, but the hotel can't do anything about it for now because these beach services still have a contract with the hotel to sell from the beach until the contract runs out.

THE POOL: Each of the 5 hotels at this Riu complex has a nice pool & you are allowed to go to any of them except the "Palace Macao" which is a 5+ star hotel. Our pool at the Riu NaiboaSee photo. was lovely & very large with no spot deeper than chest height & very warm comfortable water in June of 86 F (30 C). You are each given a towel card which you can trade for a large beach towel at your pool (they run out some times), but for some strange reason they won't let you exchange it for a towel at any of the other hotel pools in the Riu complex, even though all facilities are shared & the towels were identical. I tried using the towel card at the Taino hotel & they were rude to me. A bar is near by the Naiboa pool & there are plenty of thatched shade umbrellas. Most of the time there were not a lot of kids at the Naiboa pool. Because of the open concept of lobby & sidewalks, they are made of glazed tiles that are VERY slippery when wet & we saw a number of people slip & almost hurt themselves on the way to the pool or the painted ramp into the pool. Likewise the sloped walkway leading to the pool from the lobby is made of wood & is also slippery when wet. The Riu Naiboa is not on the beach (just a short 5 minute walk away via Caribbean StreetSee photo.), but they do have a large nice sandy area near the pool if you just want to relax & play in the sand or tan. This really was an exceptionally nice pool, the only things I didn't like were the constant loud music & that they close the pool for the rest of the day in the early evening to put chemicals in it. We would have like to have the occasional swim in the pool in the evening.

RESTAURANTS & BARS: There is a large buffet style restaurant on the main floor of the hotel. No reservations are required for breakfast or lunch, but for some strange reason reservations are required for dinner, as well as a dress code. You must book either the early (7:30 PM) or later (9:30 PM) dinner sitting & arrive at that same time each night. Frankly I wished they would lighten up a bit, since myself & many others on vacation didn't feel like conforming to a schedule, or dressing up for dinner especially if it was hot. One evening it was 80.6 F (27 C) in the dinning room at 9:30 PM & humid, which in my opinion is too hot for long pants. There is a bar & snack bar very near the pool that is open during the day & late evening, but in the early evening is for specialty steakhouse dinners (book early). Between the 4 hotels in the complex that you are allowed to eat/drink at, there is nearly always a bar, restaurant or snack bar open & of course it's all included in your vacation so you have no need to carry money with you if you stay on the complex (other than drinks at the disco or shops on Caribbean Street). We found the desserts to be mostly European & very bland. Despite the huge amount of food, it doesn't change much from day to day, so the food gets a bit predictably boring by the end of the week (I'm not a fussy eater). Part way through the week my wife spotted a large rat running through the main restaurant, but the staff & front desk didn't seem very concerned, the waiter only laughed when she mentioned it to him. Nearly everybody we talked to got sick (diarrhea) at some point during the week except myself & one other man. Once you're sick, eating more carefully or taking Imodium didn't seem to help, only antibiotics helped. Our hunch was that it had to be either a water problem, or unsanitary food preparation at our hotel. Some buffet food stays out exposed for many hours, so avoid those foods that easily go bad. Some guests reported getting violent food poisoning when eating at the 5 star Riu Taino hotel. Dominican Republic is what I would call a third world nation, so it comes as no surprise to me that the staff might not have the same standards of sanitation as a developing nation or a developed nation. It's interesting to note that some people on our plane stayed at a different hotel chain nearby (the Iberostar I think) & none of them reported getting sick, whereas almost everybody got sick at the Riu Naiboa. The Riu Naiboa evening lounge & bar (disco) area had a strong moldy smell, as well as smelling of cigarettes, but the Riu Taino hotel lounge & bar (disco) didn't smell bad & was air conditioned. There is also a Mediterranean restaurant about a block away which you can book if you want a change of pace for dinner (included in the package).

THE BEACH: Three of the 5 hotels in this complex have beach front property which guests from all 5 hotels can use. The beach has very nice light beige sand (no it's not white as some people report, it's beige coral colored) & the beach is wide & long, though there isn't a lot of shady areas. Each hotel has a large swimming area cordoned off by buoys so the boats can't come in the swimming area. It gets deep rather quickly & you can actually snorkel out to a small reef within the swimming area, although the underwater scene at the Riu Taino beach is not all that spectacular compared to many other places I've been (good but not great snorkeling). If you have a mask, it can be fun to feed bread to the fish (bring a zip lock bag for the bread). There is some natural coral & rock underwater at some places in the swimming area near the Riu Taino shore, but there are also several old boat anchors made from cement blocksSee photo. that are still in the swimming area, so wear water booties in the water & be careful. Many people hurt themselves (my wife badly bruised her toe) on these cement blocks that are often only 10 feet out from shore & the hotel management should have these cement blocks removed. Guest safety at this hotel does not seem to be a high priority & there is a general staff attitude that sometimes is a bit too laid back (read, they just don't care sometimes). You are given a turquoise card as deposit (showing your room key would have been a better idea), if you wish to borrow water equipment such as a body board, mask/fins/snorkel, kayaking or paddle boats, but they will only let you use them for 1 hour, even if nobody else wants them. The equipment policy seemed rather inflexible & we did not find this inflexibility when we vacationed at a Riu hotel in Mexico. If you are an avid snorkeler, bring your own equipment. The whole week we were here the water was quite choppy & rough, which made it not as pleasant for snorkeling & I couldn't imagine trying to sailboard in this kind of water. Many other reports I've read seem to indicate that the water is usually rough at this location. We couldn't find any personal water craft (jet ski) rentals nearby. The ocean water temperature was really nice in June, 82.4 F (28.0 C) at shore, though not quite as warm as the pool. You should wear something comfortable on your feet while walking to/from your hotel because of the hot asphalt & some broken glass on Caribbean StreetSee photo.. Since a large percentage of vacationers are European, the beach & pool areas have some topless women.

SUNRISE SUNSET: Dominican Republic is about 19 degrees latitude & one week before our trip (May 24) the Punta Cana sunrise was 5:57am & sunset was 7:03pm (total 13:06 hours of daylight). Our latitude, where we are from in London Ontario Canada, is 43 degrees & the London sunrise is 5:54am & sunset is 8:50pm (total 14:56 hours of daylight on May 24). So in June when you are getting close to the longest amount of daylight hours during the year in the northern hemisphere, it's interesting to note that daylight hours are actually almost 2 hours longer up north, than in the Caribbean. If you like to take maximum advantage of the daylight hours, you may want to gear your schedule while on vacation to getting up early & going to bed early.

THE LANGUAGE: The staff at our hotel mostly spoke Spanish though most knew a bit of English (barely passable). Dominican Republic seems much more oriented towards European vacationers who speak German, French, Spanish, Dutch etc, so if you are from North America & only speak English, don't be too surprised to find much more of a language barrier than if you went to Mexico. It was difficult to find anybody at the front desk who could speak English fluently. I've been to quite a number of foreign countries & I would have to say that I never really had as much of a language barrier problem in most other countries as I did here. It wouldn't hurt to take a vacationer's Spanish course before you arrive, or learn at least a few important words & phrases in Spanish. http://www.studyspanish.comExternal link

SMOKING: Note that unlike North America where smoking is not permitted in most public places, Dominican Republic allows smoking & many Europeans smoke, so this can be quite annoying if you're not a smoker. The bulk of the North American visitors seem to be Canadian, because few American travel agents push packages for Dominican Republic.

PHOTOGRAPHS: If you prefer to develop & print your exposed film so that it doesn't get exposed in the security X-ray machine going home, the price is $11. U.S. for a roll of 24 in the photo shop on Caribbean Street. Hotel photographers come to the pool & beach throughout the week & will take your picture with a parrotSee photo., iguana or dancing girls, etc. These pictures are usually on display & for sale in the photo shop by the next day, if you want them (no obligation).

LOCAL VENDERS: If you walk south down the beach during the day about 15 minutes, there are local venders selling all manner of souvenirs from semi permanent tents. We found them not very pushy (not aggressive) & it was worth a visit. They would accept American dollars (best to have) or Dominican Republic pesos (not required), but not credit cards or travelers cheques. Initial price quotes are ridiculous as they expect you to barter. The hotel allows local venders to come into the hotel lobby once a week & we found them to be extremely pushy & con artists. My wife was interested in a necklace which the vender wanted $130. U.S. for (I guess she looked gullible) & she ended up buying it for $10. U.S. which was probably still more than it was worth. The shops on Caribbean Street on the Riu complex usually don't barter. There aren't many other places nearby to shop.

TRIP BACK HOME: The Punta Cana airport is open concept with a thatched roof so it can't be air conditioned. The temperature the evening we left was 83.1 F (28.4 C) & 100% humidity so it was like a sauna. Our bus was scheduled to leave the hotel for the airport at 5:15 PM but left at 5:35 PM for our 9:15 PM airport departure, which I felt was way too early, but package charters like Sunquest tend to herd vacationers like cattle with little respect for their time, especially on the return trip home. After the trip to the airport, checking our luggage, getting our seat assignment & going through airport security, we still had about 2:50 hours to wait around before our flight, which is not a nice way to end your vacation. It seems completely unacceptable to me at a little airport like this to have to arrive so early, especially when nearly everybody was coming from the same hotel complex to get on the same plane. Check-in by Skyservice was quick & nobody bothered to ask any security questions, (i.e. was our luggage packed by us or left unattended). In fact the hotel asked us to check out of our rooms by noon & our luggage sat semi-unattended in the lobby for over 5 hours & anybody could have slipped something into our suitcases. Skyservice did not weigh our luggage or notice that it was over the allowed limit of 20 kilos (44 pounds) plus 4.5 kilo (10 pounds) carry on bag each. There were X-ray machines for carry on luggage, but security was reasonable with me & agreed to hand check my film & camera after I insisted. Once you pass security they have pictures for sale ($5. U.S.), which were taken when you arrived at the airport one week earlier. There are lots of places to eat while you are waiting for your plane, but our Sunquest representative didn't know this even though she had been acting as a hostess at this location for over two years. The Skyservice Airbus 320 left the gate on time. Humidity was so high (100%) that the air vent nozzles in the plane at first seemed like they were spraying smoke. There were no beverages served with the meal on the plane so you had to choke it down & wait until they served drinks later on. The temperature inside the plane was rather hot 81.7 F (27.6 C) but then Airbus 320 planes have never been known for having very good climate control systems (humidity wasn't too bad once we got going, which made it acceptable). Wheels up take off to landing took 3:52 hours in the air because we were fighting some head winds (normal heading north). The scheduled time for the flight was 4:20 hours including taxi time. There was no time zone change from Toronto.

Here are some interesting links for the area: lots of reports from other tourists.
TripAdvisor user reviews. Lots more user reviews. RIU Naiboa web site. about Dominican Republic. about Dominican Republic.   maps weather.

By Doug Hembruff.

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