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A plantation visit is part of the immersion experience in the Dominican Republic.
Reinventing the all-inclusive

Reinventing the all-inclusive

The Caribbean is reimagining its popular resorts - think personal butlers and à la carte services, greater authenticity and more community involvement

Andrew Forbes

Friday, 3 May 2019, 17:42

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Using both hands, our host broke open the large, elongated pod, revealing the white flesh of the fruit inside. From the sticky pulp, he pulled out oval seeds a few centimetres in length and held them in the lined and callused palm of his hand. The humid air carried the sweet aroma of the cocoa.

The thick-skinned pods had been harvested directly from the nearby trees, where they were growing in a modest plantation, in the shade of taller tropical vegetation and banana palms. The ground was deep in fallen leaves. The place was peaceful, except for the sound of the hushed voices of a group of women chatting in the shade of a traditionally-thatched bure and the giggling of a few young kids that were inquisitive of the tourists visiting their farm.

Dominican Republic

The morning's fascinating excursion represented a microcosm of modern-day Dominican Republic - tourism and cocoa, probably the two most important sectors in the country's economy.

This was my first time visiting the Dominican Republic, one of the more than two dozen nations that make up the Caribbean archipelagos of hundreds of islands. This is a Spanish-speaking Caribbean country that together with its neighbour, the French Creole-speaking Republic of Haiti, shares Hispaniola - the Spanish island, so called following the arrival of navigator and colonist Christopher Columbus in 1492. It's the second biggest, and most populous island in the Caribbean.

Punta Cana

I was staying at the newly re-opened Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar hotel, one of the finest complexes in the tourist destination of Punta Cana, on the island's hugely popular Bavaro Beach - an attractive Caribbean scene of white sand, azure sea and gently swaying coconut palms.

The Dominican Republic was among the pioneers of all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, with properties built for couples and friends and others designed for families. It's a compelling proposition - warm clear sea, beautiful beaches, balmy weather - and your water sports, entertainment, meals and drinks are all included.

Understandably the Dominican Republic is a favourite with Americans and Canadians, as well as Brits and other Europeans. Spanish family-owned Grupo Piñero is a big part of the island's tourism success story, with 14 properties on the island including the Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar and the group's very first property Grand Bahia Principe San Juan.

Just as the cruise sector goes from strength to strength, so do all-inclusive holidays. They're evolving and becoming much more sophisticated and varied.

My immersive experience, visiting the cocoa plantation was one such example of changes in guests' tastes. Couples and families still want the convenience, security and fun of an all-inclusive resort, but increasingly they also want to discover a destination.

With a wide range of properties, Bahia Principe offer guests the chance to combine different locations in one holiday; maybe the luxury and liveliness of Punta Cana with the seclusion of the Samana peninsula. Trips and excursions include hiking, horseriding and experiences to discover the history of sugarcane and tobacco in the Dominican Republic - and also learn how the nation's future is being shaped by its success as the world's largest producer of sustainable, Fairtrade-certified cocoa.

For the island it means a stronger economy and more opportunities for its citizens. The tourism sector is also endeavouring to play its part in confronting the challenges faced by local communities. For example, Bahia Principe provides housing for some 3,000 people on the island and assists with education (which is not compulsory). The company is also working in communities to address the issue of waste management. There is also a strategy to reduce waste and the use of plastics on the resorts.

Mexico

Leaving the Dominican Republic, heading west across the Caribbean sea, skirting Cuba, one reaches the shores of the lush, tropical Yucatán peninsula. This part of Mexico is home to the ancient Mayan pyramids of Chichén Itzá, and the fascinating coastal ruined city of Tulum. These shores are another visitor favourite for all-inclusive Caribbean holidays, from the resorts of Playa del Carmen to Cancún's famous hotel zone that borders the mangroves lakes of the Nichupté lagoon and faces out to the Caribbean sea.

A little to the north of the province of Quintana Roo are pristine protected beaches and the island national park of Isla Contoy. It's the classic Caribbean land and seascape that we all dream of. Access is controlled, but guided visits are well worth it to see a pristine side of the Caribbean where there isn't a sunbed or coconut stand in sight.

Costa Mujeres

Close by is the lush vegetation and coral beaches of Costa Mujeres. Although only about half an hour's drive from the clubs and malls of Cancún, this feels worlds away, an area defined by thousands of acres of tropical vegetation reaching out to the shoreline.

Part of Costa Mujeres has recently been released for tourism development, with the construction of select properties including an exceptional all-inclusive resort by Palladium Hotels Group, founded by the Matutes family from Ibiza. This self-contained community, including the adults-only TRS Coral Hotel and family-friendly Palladium Hotel & Spa, represents the new generation of all-inclusive Caribbean resorts defined not by just contemporary architecture, eco-responsible construction, and sustainable hospitality, but also by the sophistication of facilities and services. Dining options can reflect the local culture and produce; and indulgence in margaritas is balanced by upscale wellness and sports facilities.

It's home to Rafa Nadal's first tennis centre outside his native Mallorca. I visited for the opening of the Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre Costa Mujeres in February and I can confirm it's truly exceptional. The collaboration of tennis champion Rafael Nadal and Palladium Hotel Group CEO Amel Matutes now means that these hotels probably have the best tennis facilities in the world. Here, specialist coaches from the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in Manacor provide unique tennis programmes for all ages, which have been developed by Nadal himself and his technical team.

Outside the bubble

Yet, even with the luxe suites, fine-dining restaurants and the perfect pools of the resort, it was our Mexican hosts that made Costa Mujeres a standout destination.

Mexico is rightly renowned for its hospitality - from the professionally-trained resort staff, to the local stall-holders at Cancún's humble yet fascinating Mercado 23 produce market. One experiences genuine warmth and politeness.

Sophisticated resort villages are a growing travel trend, but nothing beats heading out and discovering a destination - meeting the local people and gaining an insight into life outside the luxury bubble of all-inclusive hotels.

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