My family spends the better part of the year planning our annual July vacation.  It’s the one Bella and Max look forward to most and where we allocate most of our vacation budget.  We research, inquire of friends and family and read as many reviews as possible before making our selection.  All of the information we gathered on the Hard Rock Hotel in Punta Cana was very positive. Thus, we had high hopes for our week in the Dominican Republic.  After all, it was a resort that had everything we wanted and everything we needed to please our diverse group of four – beautiful white sand beaches, Caribbean waves to jump over, beautiful pools, many restaurants, well appointed rooms, a casino and a well-equipped spa and fitness center.  

  
Let me start off by saying the property is beautiful!  Absolutely stunning.  The pools were amazingly clean, the beach well maintained and the gardens perfectly manicured.  Similarly, the room accommodations were acceptable by most all-inclusive resort standards although a little worn out and in need of a good deep cleaning (definitely needed to wear my flip flops in the shower) and a few repairs (one of the plugs in our room was a fire hazard waiting to happen as it was sparking and they had the TV plugged into it.  There was also a broken jagged corner on the spa in the middle of the room that if not taken care of could have caused a horrible injury to a toddler or drunken 20-something). 

  
 After three reports (the last via Twitter), management jumped in and addressed my safety concerns within hours (tub repair shown above, they had swapped out the outlet before I could grab a picture, but the one in the hallway outside of our room is the same mangled mess of exposed wiring). 

Likewise, the beach, pool, mini golf, security, first aid, spa and housekeeping staff deserve kuddos (with one exception that I will get to shortly…Laura – the one that made my Bella cry and then sneered at me behind my back that’s right, I’m calling her out by name!).  We truly enjoyed our daily stretching, dancing, water aerobics and pool games with the man they call the “Dominican Brad Pitt” and his lovely female counterpart “Chocolatta” (we love stage names).  The entertainment and music was just right, the hotel security and housekeeping staff of Building 4B was always pleasant and helpful and our one encounter with the lifeguard at the kids pool when Max slipped and skinned his knee and was in need of first aid was calming, despite our language barrier and inability to read the bottles he was using to clean and treat the bleeding wounds (I so want to learn Spanish).  

    
    

BUT as I said, there is one event I cannot just set aside.   We understand that at times, whether for construction or private events, things may need to be closed down.  Heck, we spent a week at Club Med Turks & Caicos when they were literally renovating half of the buildings and amenities and not once felt as though we missed out on the beauty of the island or excellent hospitality.  Yet during our stay at the Hard Rock, we decided to go for an afternoon swim at the pool closest to our room, which I believe they refer to as the Sax Pool.  There was no sign that said the pool would be closing early for a private event, nor did the towel clerk or bartenders inform us of this fact upon our arrival.  We set Bella and her cast in a lounge chair in the shade and then headed to the water for a game of catch with Max.  Not ten minutes later Bella is a the pool’s edge holding all of our belongings completely in tears because Laura told her she needed to take her stuff and leave immediately because the pool was closing for a private event.  Who addresses a ten year old directly and tells them to leave?  Would she really be there alone?  Why not ask where her parents were so that she could advise them of the status of the pool?  There is a right way and a wrong way to handle a situation and we found that th is particular Hard Rock employee did everything the wrong way!  

After I calmed Bella, I went in search of Laura to address her directly and suggest that perhaps she should not frighten a child sitting alone in such a manner.  I was cordial as I always am.  However, she had the audacity to make faces when I turned around which were observed by fellow guests of the hotel.  How RUDE!!! I asked for her name so I could address her behavior with management, but frankly, short of giving her a black mark on her record, there was nothing management could do or would do to makeup for that sinking feeling and since most of these folks are not working for additional tips, there is little incentive to go beyond the minimum required to get through the day and back home to their families.  I prefer the cruise model where minimum gratuities are included, but you are given the option to add additional gratuities for service that goes above and beyond.  We did this anyway for those that deserved it, but I can honestly say, most did not!  

Thus, our stay was not all roses and rainbows and at times I felt more like a neglected roadie than Rock Royalty.  I certainly had my share of constructive criticism for the management (most of which I believe they took to heart as anyone in the service industry competing for tourist dollars should and well…we’ll just say it must be hard to find good help these days).   I hope y’all appreciate my blunt honesty and pick up a few tips and tricks that may be helpful for anyone planning on booking a trip to the Hard Rock Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.  

First off, if your looking for that Vegas or Atlantic City type casino that lures you in with $10-$15 tables and then takes your cash slowly after you’ve had a really great time cheering on your fellow degenerate gamblers and leaving you smiling at the price of entertainment, you’re not going to find that here.  The minimum craps table is $25 which requires you to have $50 at a minimum on the table for one roll and that’s just the odds!  Forget about it if you like to play the numbers beyond the point.  My husband may throw around cash like that, but I work too hard to donate that much to the house.  I’ll save my gambling dollars for Vegas.  You’ll find similar bet minimums at the other table games, but if you’ve got the stomach for it, the casino was empty so there is a seat with your name on it.  

Second, let’s talk food.  The food was actually rated pretty high by other guests; however others had tempered expectations by saying the food was…”ok.”  We live very close to New York City and have had many an amazing burger and hot wings at our local Hard Rock over the years.  My first experience there was for my friend Jen’s 16th Birthday Bash – my first taste of bean sprouts on a juicy medium rare burger with perfectly melted cheddar cheese.  Delicious!  Since then we have visited Hard Rock Cafés all over the US and in Puerto Rico.  Each time the food was as expected and synonymous with the Hard Rock name.  Well…If you’re expecting these staples to be perfect at Cafetto, don’t.  They are unfortunately not the same.  Why the recipe changes from New York or Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic I’m not sure, but it does.  Now we recognize this is not a small resort and they are feeding a massive amount of people every day, but seriously, why mess with a good chicken wing????? They were burnt as were the chicken tenders (unlike the ones we got from room service later in the week).    

We are not buffet people.  It’s not snobbery or anything, it’s just our years of working in restaurants and seeing what really happens at the salad bar.  The thought of a buffet for every meal just kills my appetite.    So, we chose to frequent the eight other restaurants on property other than for breakfast which we split between the buffet at The Market and Must, the coffee bar outside of the casino.  Our appetizers often came out with, or even after, our main entrees and despite being quite clear in ordering plain pasta for Max – no salt, no pepper, no garnish – every night for a week they only got it correct twice!   I also found that there were not a whole lot of fresh sweet fruit, fresh vegetables or lean protein options for the health conscious.  Were on a tropical island!  Where is all the fresh fish???? It’s at Isla apparently, but given the sparse offerings for those that don’t eat seafood, it wasn’t high on the list to frequent more than once.   Ciao (the Italian restaurant) did offer more expensive  dinner options for resort credit and there was a fish on that menu.  However, as with all things eligible for resort credit, you need to pay 20% as a room charge so it’s not technically part of the all inclusive plan.  I did not see this option at Zen, Los Gallos,Torro or Pizzeto (and honestly didn’t look at the others), but they each had something  from the sea available it just wasn’t what I had hoped for.     I come to the islands for fresh fish!  I would eat it every night if I could, and it was difficult to find many choices here. I really don’t understand it, but it is what it is.  If we had to pick our top three restaurants they would be Torro, Zen and Los Gallos, but nothing wow-ed us.  We went to Torro twice mostly for the wonderful waiter we had both nights and the salad bar.  The filet itself was chewy but edible and the BBQ chicken was enjoyable.  

One more note about the food.  While a kids menu exists in some places, the hostess at Pizzeto filled me in on a little secret as I waited another 30 minutes to feed Max after the rest of us had eaten at Zen (one of the nights his pasta was covered in pepper).  She told me you can ask you server for anything you know is on the menu elsewhere and they will get it for you.  No more waiting for a second seating.  

Third, beware of the hard sell.  If I wanted a time share it would not be where people treat others like the gum on the bottom of their shoes.  Certainly don’t call my room at 9 am and wake up my sleeping children three days in a row just to try and sell me on a time share when clearly I’m not off to an enjoyable start to my stay.  A simple afternoon message or a welcome package left in my room would suffice.  

Fourth, beach towel and pool chairs are not endless.  Seems obvious, but beware that large groups are electing the early riser to pickup their towels and save chairs at the most desirable pools for their friends that undoubtably won’t show up till noon.  It’s a game that unfortunately needs to be played.  Not as much at the beach, but certainly by the pools.  If you have an early arrival you may want to pack your own towel and a bathing suit in your carry-on bag.  It could take some time before your bags arrive at your room and you’ll want to start enjoying the property as soon as possible.   Bonus – if traveling with kids, a brightly colored beach towel will guide them back to your location like a beacon in the sea of pale blue towels.  

Fifth, bring a flashlight.  While the main walkways and common areas are lit, there are some dark and shadowy areas that would benefit from the addition of solar lighting and a few holes in the grassy areas that can sneak up on you.  Packing a small pocket sized flashlight will get you navigate the grounds post sundown.  

Sixth, bring bug spray.  While we didn’t see them as an issue during the day (we did wear waterproof bug bands that I picked up at Harmon’s before we left), Mosquitos were certainly around in the evening hours.  If you plan on taking part in the after dark activities, a light spray of bug repellant will go along way to protecting you against nasty bites and potentially Zica virus.  We actually sprayed our bed linens as well because a few had found their way inside.  

Seventh, understand and use your resort credit.  You will need to pay 20% of all services! but this is a wonderful way to experience the spa at a very reasonable price.  Mini golf too is only $6 per adult and kids over a certain height.  However, beware of inconsistencies.  We played three nights.  The first night we were charged for all four of us, the second night only for my husband and I and on the third night, we were charged for three of us.  There was no rhyme or reason for it, but I didn’t have the will to argue the point, which brings me to tip eight.  

Brush up on your Spanish if for nothing else, ordering your drinks!  Our experience was more of a “you get what you get and you don’t get upset” kind of week.  Order a strawberry margarita at the same time you order your daughter’s virgin piña colada, yours is virgin too.  Order it on its own and don’t specify tequila…virgin again.  Order Pinot Noir….get Cabernet.  Order a Shirley temple, get Fanta with grenadine (OK that one was delicious and is now one of Max’s favorites, but they didn’t have it available everywhere).  Order a cherry coke, get a regular Pepsi with the acknowledgement that they didn’t give you what you wanted and know it to be true.  Are you catching my drift?    So, be very specific with your order Tito’s frozen lemonade or El Presidente seemed to work just fine and the Mai Tai I got at Zen was spot on but otherwise you were spinning the wheel each time you ordered.  

All in all, the kids didn’t want to leave which makes it a successful trip despite the unnecessary aggravation.  So as we always do we will remember the highlights and let the rest fade off into obscurity for life is to short to dwell on bad experiences.