The New Punta Cana/Samana Split

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Spa at the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe
Spa at the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe

In 2002, the 388-room Barcelo Bavaro Beach & Convention Center made a big splash in the meetings industry at that year’s annual buyer/supplier tradeshow. The fact that there was a modern convention center in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic instantly created a new market for the island’s vaunted east coast beaches, ranked among the top 10 in the world.

I was there for that show. And I remember people gushing over the new, really modern looking center and the spectacular beaches and thinking this was the greatest thing ever. And, for a convention center location, it was. Almost.

Few attendees there knew about Samana, however, a 50-minute flight to the north. The setting is mythical. The road to get there, at the time, was tortuous. Rumor was that ex-CIA agents retired to Samana to escape to an unbelievably beautiful paradise. It’s the stuff of spy novels, but for real. Maybe.

Now, what if you could combine Barcelo in Punta Cana with Samana up north? Hold that thought.

BARCELO BAVARO PALACE DELUXE
The adults-only Barcelo Convention Center property is part of the Barcelo complex that includes the neighboring 1,366-room Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe. Both are all-inclusive with a combined 11 restaurants. The Palace Deluxe property has been undergoing upgrades for the last few years to the tune of $250 million, and the final product was unveiled this past January. New balconies with hot tubs were added to all of the 800 junior suites. And the bright decor is especially fun and modern with tropical colors, minimalist loft-style furniture and large glass rain showers.

The entire social, entertainment and dining hub was totally rebuilt. For upscale dinners, the seven à la carte restaurants offer a creative mix including: La Comedie (French), La Dolce Vita (Italian), La Fuente (Spanish tapas), Kyoto (Japanese teppanyaki) and Santa Fe Steakhouse. We tried the latter, which features a private dining room for 200 pax, serving items like a well-prepared 8-oz churrasco steak with BBQ or chimichurri sauce, paired with a decent Latin American wine.

Off the central lobby, the 1,000-seat open-air theater is a cavernous venue with 80-foot ceilings, a large stage and two big bars on both the ground and balcony levels. It’s used nightly for Las Vegas-style shows but groups can book it during the day, or arrange for private seating and VIP service at night.

Really impressed with the new U Spa, in terms of its sheer size and central coed area with multiple fountain, shower and pool experiences. For added high-touch group events, arrange with convention services a large group spa treatment and/or wellness program right on the palm-studded beach.

Behind the two hotels, the new 18-hole, P.B. Dye golf course completes the entire package, offering incredible value and variety. Convention center capacity is 5,000 pax.

Balcones del Atlantico
Balcones del Atlantico

THE SAMANA CONNECTION
Les Pye is vp of operations for Connect Travel Services DMC, the only DMC on-island that works exclusively with groups and incentives. We met for coffee in the covered, open-air lobby at Barcelo that’s about the size of a football field.

“We can take care of all planning services including booking hotels and private jet services,” he says. It’s not uncommon for Pye to arrange helicopter/plane transfers from Punta Cana to other popular DR destinations such as Santo Domingo, La Romana and Puerto Plata.

And now, Samana—the best kept secret in the Caribbean for small groups visiting for an outstanding pre/post or day trip.

It took a while but the new Samana El Catey Int’l Airport opened on the north coast this year, sparking a slew of chic, affordable boutique resorts and a new highway to the rustic fishing town of Las Terrenas. The idyllic postcard beach from one end of town to the other looks just like the untouched photo to the left, without any large crowds.

Groups can fly domestic into El Catey for about $80 r/t, or like we did, charter a plane for the 50-minute flight. The cost runs around $2,000 for a 19-seater, but prices range depending on season/load. Also, there are presently direct international flights from Canada and Europe into El Catey, and negotiations are underway with U.S. carriers.

Behind the town, the mountains are covered with a lush palm tree canopy that gives the destination a slightly wild jungle-like ambience. Untamed, exotic, authentic—a local kind of destination where you feel part of the island culture by the end of the first day.

“When people want a real Dominican experience they choose Terrenas,” says Pedro Sanchez, general manager of the new 87-unit Balcones del Atlantico. “Yet the area was built by the French, Italian, German and Dominicans who lived and worked here for decades. So it’s very multicultural but at the same time lush and natural, so you feel very in touch with the soul of the Dominican Republic.”

It’s been over a decade since I last visited and not much has changed, which is great. Except for hotels like Balcones, which is even greater. The 2- and 3-bedroom villas (1,900-4,000 sf) come with full stainless steel kitchens, modern island furniture, roomy baths and gigantic balconies, hence the name, with 12-person thick wood tables, BBQs and plumpy sofas.

I can see myself dicing fresh veggies to make homemade salsa for a group of colleagues here. Can’t imagine a more awesome place for brainstorming than this balcony boardroom.

“We have a new concept where we have top level executives come for a board meeting but they bring their family, so the spouses and children can be together during the day and then everyone can be together at night,” says Sanchez.

We end our tour on the beach at the open-air Porto restaurant, perched above the sand a few feet from the sea. The breeze is consistent and the decor is refined and rustic—what you’d expect from wealthy owners who designed the place like they would their home. Peruvian chef Bruno Toso meets with local fishermen every morning, not far from where we’re all sitting at a variety of tables. You could host 100 people here easily, followed by a bonfire on the beach with merengue dancing lessons.

Sanchez says groups tend to sample a little of everything: mahi-mahi ceviche, tuna kabobs, shrimp with a bunch of dipping sauces. And the wine list is one of the largest on the island.

I meet co-owner Maria Turull de Bisono and mention the refined/rustic vibe and how everyone looks so entirely content.

“Our motto is ‘Simple Luxury,’” she says. “Definitely luxury but with sandals and shorts, not stuffy.”

Sanchez comes over with another bottle of chilled Chilean, and tells us Balcones works with Pack for a Purpose (PFaP), a global program in its infancy asking groups to pack items to donate to local school kids. I wonder to myself, PFaP seems so simple, why couldn’t it be scaled up all over the world?

Fabeth Martinez Fernandez, executive director of the Samana Hotel & Tourism Association, nods in agreement. She adds, “Sustainable, responsible tourism and educating the community so they can be active in tourism here are our top priorities.”

There’s a great vibe here. Keep an eye on Samana.

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