Stay in an ice hotel, attend a winter festival and wander through an ice castle.
With white-sand beaches and a large number of affordable, all-inclusive resorts, Punta Cana is one of the Caribbean’s most popular vacation destinations. But the Dominican Republic’s eastern coast also features a surprising array of unexpected activities and offerings, from professional polo matches and ziplining to luxury accommodations and exquisite fine dining.
Where to stay: There are plenty of activities for water babies at the all-inclusive Nickelodeon Hotels and Resorts Punta Cana, including the Aqua Nick waterpark, complete with lazy river, splash pads and waterslides. There are also 10 restaurants—book a breakfast at Zest Restaurant with SpongeBob or Dora the Explorer.
What to do: For a family-friendly excursion, head 45 minutes south to Scape Park. This eco-adventure theme park offers activities that include ziplining, waterfall expeditions and boat cruises. Be sure to sign up for the two-hour guided hike through a lush forest to Hoyo Azul, a hidden cenote at the foot of a 75-metre-high cliff.
Where to eat: Feast on fresh seafood at Jellyfish Beach Restaurant, a casual beach club just 30 minutes from the Nickelodeon resort. Grown-up tastes will appreciate the lobster and grilled fish, while kids can have favourites like fish sticks or chicken strips from their own menu. It’s also a great spot for late-afternoon snacks.
Where to stay: One of Punta Cana’s largest resorts, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana boasts one of the region’s biggest beachfronts, making it easy to find a stretch of sand all for yourself. The resort also has 13 pools, four swim-up bars, a casino, nine restaurants and amazing rock music memorabilia.
What to do: Book a catamaran out to Saona Island, a protected island and wildlife refuge inside Parque Nacional del Este, just south of Punta Cana. Saona is home to 112 species of birds, as well as sharks, dolphins and manatees. Snorkellers might be lucky enough to catch glimpses of sea stars, tropical fish and turtles.
Where to eat: It’s fitting that La Yola Restaurant is modelled after a fishing boat, as it’s located in Punta Cana Marina. Sections of the restaurant resemble a ship’s bow, with draped white canvas “sails” shielding diners from the bright sun. Settle in for a seafood meal at tables perched right on the water.
Where to stay: For a five-star boutique hotel experience, stay at Relais & Chateaux Eden Roc at Cap Cana, a private resort enclave located just south of Punta Cana. This secluded beachfront resort features 34 suites, six restaurants and bars, a private beach, an infinity pool, a spa and three Jack Nicklaus signature golf courses.
What to do: Book a private sunrise VIP flight with Dominican Balloons, the only professional hot-air balloon operator in the Caribbean. The gentle, one-hour ride floats above Punta Cana, over lush sugar cane fields and villages. A champagne breakfast and hotel transfers are included in the experience.
Where to eat: Enjoy white-gloved service at Passion by Martin Berasategui at Paradisus Punta Cana. A celebrated chef with seven Michelin stars to his name, Berasategui has developed an often-changing, seven-course tasting menu and curated wine list for Paradisus’ Mediterranean-themed restaurant.
Where to stay: With its manicured fairways and polo fields, Casa de Campo Resort & Villas is a sports-lover’s dream. Located southwest of Punta Cana in La Romana, the beachfront resort boasts one of the world’s best golf courses, an equestrian centre, tennis facilities, a shooting range, a spa and more than a dozen on-site eateries and lounges.
What to do: Test your mettle at Casa de Campo’s award-winning Teeth of the Dog golf course, named for the jagged coral formations along the coastline. If you’d prefer a chukker with the ponies, saddle up for polo classes (the resort has three playing fields and one practice field) or partake in a fun donkey polo tourney.
Where to eat: Celebrate your sporting triumphs in view of the Caribbean Sea at the Pearl Beach Club in Punta Cana. This restaurant and nightclub features casual fare such as grilled fish and burgers. After dinner, head to the Westin Puntacana Resort & Club to enjoy a nightcap at the Don Queco Cigar Bar.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Punta Cana eight times a week from Toronto.