One of the Caribbean's great beaches stretches along the so-called Costa del Coco, or Coconut Coast, covering more than 32km (20 miles) of brilliant white sand -- so there's room for everyone. Flanked by the all-inclusives, the major beaches here include Playa Macao, Playa Cortecito, Playa Bávaro, Playa Punta Cana, and Playa Punta Juanillo. The upmarket all-inclusives have staked out the best beachfront properties, so everything is done for you here, including unlimited access to food and drinks and watersports concessions at each hotel. For facilities, bars, and restaurants, you can use the hotel at which you are a guest.
This beachfront is the stuff of Sunday supplements in travel magazines, with perfect sand and zillions of coconut palms. Under an almost constant blue sky during the day, European, American, and Canadian guests frolic in the gin-clear waters.
Despite the visual beauty of the sands and the swaying palms, there isn't any particularly fabulous snorkeling at Punta Cana. There aren't enough offshore reefs nearby -- the kinds that shelter rich deposits of marine life -- so if you happen to sign up for a snorkeling or scuba adventure at Punta Cana, chances are high that you'll be escorted to any of several offshore wrecks whose rusting hulks provide the shelter that underwater critters crave.
The beaches at Punta Cana are wide, they're gorgeous, and it's safe to swim offshore throughout the year. An improvised series of barricades runs parallel to some stretches of the coastal road, prohibiting access to the various beaches fronting the hotels. Entrances guarded by security forces prevent nonguests from entering, since once inside you're entitled to unlimited food and drink. We noted that fewer and fewer of the all-inclusives are selling day passes or evening passes to nonresidents. The policy seems to be viewed with increasing disfavor. When such day passes are available, they can cost anywhere from US$40 to US$75 per person, and are strictly defined as day passes (allowing access from around 9am to around 6pm) and night passes (from around 6pm till around 1am). The idea, frankly, never caught on, and we estimate that only around 25% of the resorts now offer them. Even then, it's complicated and sometimes unpleasant to talk your way past the security guards at the entrance, even if you're willing to pay.
Activities abound, not only scuba diving but snorkeling, windsurfing, kayaking, water biking, sailing, beach volleyball or soccer, even water polo, along with aqua aerobics and tons of children's activities.
How to Spend a Day Outside the All-Inclusive Hotels
The answer for the adventurous would involve a trek to the center of Cortecito Village, where you can pick and choose from at least three beachfront restaurants, each with a radically different style and set of presuppositions. The most glamorous and "Europeanized" of the lot is Palma's Sand Beach Club, Playa Cortecita, Bávaro (tel. 809/552-1448). It's the kind of place that patterned itself on (and this is a stretch) an upscale resort in Sardinia, where you might expect a sun-bronzed crowd that's not afraid to sport their jewelry, their suntans, and not a lot else. Main courses cost from RD$280 to RD$1,155, AND Presidente beer costs about RD$150 each.
Of a different texture altogether is the small, cozy, and very friendly Langosta del Caribe, immediately next door (tel. 809/552-1953). It consists of a thatch-roofed bohío on the sands, a staff with a lot of charm, main courses priced at from RD$360 to RD$1,300, and prideful willingness to divulge the ingredients of their house drink, "Mammajuana." No -- it's not hallucinogenic, and it's legal, consisting of rum marinated in pungent mixtures of wood bark, berries, and leaves.
And if you opt for a day with the madding crowds, expect lots of local color, and about a half-dozen artists who execute their opuses on plywood or masonite, often with house paints, with enormous amounts of panache and flair. The one we got to know the best is known to locals only as Sijolo. His gallery is the Sijolo Gallery (no phone), consisting of dozens of paintings hanging from clotheslines stretched between palm trees in a lot otherwise peppered with used tires. See if you can tell where influences from Dalí, Picasso, and Velázquez crept in, and bargain hard if you want to acquire one of the charming paintings; most are in the RD$1,750 to RD$3,500 range.
Within Punta Cana, the guest services staff at your hotel can arrange horseback riding for you, but if they can't, consider an equestrian jaunt at the region's biggest stables. These are headquartered at Rancho RN-23, Arena Gorda (tel. 809/747-7356 or 747-7538). It supervises as many as 125 horses that are stabled at three separate "ranches," each within a reasonable distance of one another. For RD$2,325 an hour, you'll be guided on equestrian tours through groves of coconut palms near the beach and, in most cases, onto the beach itself. We view riding along this scenic beachfront with the wind in your hair as one of the most memorable equestrian experiences in the country. To reach the ranch, you'll follow some clearly marked signs 3km (2 miles) through some of the wildest terrain left in Punta Cana, down winding sandy paths to a series of palm groves, to the site of these stables. Be warned in advance that many potential riders who think that a 2-hour equestrian excursion will be easy often find it more tiring, with more mosquitoes and horseflies, than they might have expected.
The Bávaro Golf Course at Barceló Bávaro Beach, Golf & Casino Resort, Bávaro Beach (tel. 809/686-5797), is the best golf course on this end of the island, and bears the honor of being the golf course whose allure helped open the eastern D.R. to the tourist boom. Punta Cana Golf Club, near the Punta Cana Resort & Club (tel. 809/959-4653), is the best and most sought-after of the four golf courses now flourishing in Punta Cana. Fronting the sea, it was designed by P. B. Dye of the famous golfing family. Fourteen of its holes open onto panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea, and four play along the ocean itself. Dye is known for crafting each hole to present a unique challenge. For 18 holes, hotel guests pay RD$4,375, and nonguests are charged RD$5,775. In summer, greens fees are reduced to RD$3,150 for hotel guests, RD$4,375 for nonguests. The clubhouse is spectacular, with interiors by Oscar de la Renta.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.