MACAO, Dominican Republic -- Chris and Carrie Smith of Philadelphia planned to spend their wedding anniversary in the jungle of Costa Rica unplugged from the outside world.
But concerns about being out of touch from their two young children brought about a change of plans, a move they don't regret a bit. A week's stay at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana turned out to be a great decision.
The Hard Rock, a sprawling all-inclusive resort just 35 minutes from the Punta Cana International Airport, delivered the best of both worlds for the Smiths -- an adventurous vacation filled with zip-lining and horseback riding on the beach and the chance to relax. Chris played golf at the nearby Cana Bay Palace Golf Course twice, including once while his wife zoned out at the Rock Spa. The resort's policy of free calls to anywhere in the United States and Canada and free Wi-Fi allowed them to keep tabs on things at home, too. This peace of mind helped them enjoy themselves even more.
"We would come back," Chris said.
Cana Bay Palace Golf Course
The golf at Cana Bay Palace, an inland Jack Nicklaus course, resides conveniently inside the gates of the resort. The fairways at Cana Bay Palace start out wider before shrinking as the round goes on. The 453-yard ninth is both the hardest and the prettiest hole with water seemingly everywhere.
"It was real nice," Smith said of the 7,253-yard resort course. "One day, I played by myself. It wasn't crowded. I finished really quickly. The fairways are real generous for tourists, nice and wide."
Should the Faldo Legacy Course at Roco Ki open up again (it opened in 2008 and closed earlier this year), it would create a spectacular 1-2 punch for golfers staying at the Hard Rock.
If you're planning on playing the two must-plays of Punta Cana, both the Punta Espada Golf Club at Cap Cana and the Corales Course at Puntacana Resort & Club are about 45 minutes away, requiring a $55 cab ride one way. There are a handful of courses closer to the Hard Rock, notably the P.B. Dye course at Iberostar Bavaro Golf & Club and the Nick Price-designed Punta Blanca Golf Club.
A partnership with Hard Rock International transformed the former Moon Palace Casino, Golf & Spa Resort into a hip, cool vacation paradise. The resort, one of 11 all-inclusive properties in the Caribbean and Mexico owned by Palace Resorts, had a soft debut in early 2010 before the rebranding led to its official grand opening Jan. 29, 2011. The Hard Rock touts a five-star, all-inclusive experience.
Everything at the resort feels supersized. There are 1,787 rooms and suites spread among several dozen buildings. The shuttle system can be a bit unpredictable, so I suggest walking to enjoy the lush outdoor landscape and soak in the sheer scope of this amazing playground. It will take more than a day to get your bearings.
The Caribbean Suite I stayed in showcased the "bigger is better" mentality. A two-person Jacuzzi tub anchors the middle of the main room. The dual-headed shower in the bathroom was big enough for eight people.
There are 15 pools, three with swim-up bars and others with their own theme. The adult-only pool, Eden; the children's pool with a water slide and lazy river, and the pools near the beach tend to be the most popular. Kids will also love the mini-golf, rock climbing wall, arcade and the kid's club.
Nine restaurants (choose from Italian at Ciao, Chinese and Japanese food at Zen, Caribbean cuisine at Isla, Mexican at Los Gallos and Brazilian at Ipanema) offer plenty of choices. The breakfast buffet at The Market in the main building can be overwhelming. Toro serves prime cuts of meat and ocean views. The Smiths swore the food was better than the two Ritz-Carlton hotels they stayed at in the Caribbean.
"The quality was great, and it was never-ending," Chris said.
Don't feel guilty about eating too much. You can work it off at the fitness center.
"You have to check out the gym. It's the nicest I've ever seen," Carrie said. "I thought this would be another Jamaica, but this was way better."
The Rock Spa next door can make you feel like a rock star with 60,000 square feet of healing power, consisting of 35 spa suites, 11 couple suites and two VIP suites. The Caribbean’s most complete hydrotherapy center houses lagoons, two whirlpools, color therapy steam rooms, a clay steam room, sauna, food creek pathway, hydro-reflexology, sensory expertise pool and a cutting edge ice room.
The large sandy beach can be a bastion of activity -- try kite boarding, horseback riding, volleyball and wave hopping -- or a place to lounge in the sun.
After the daylight fades, there are nightlife options galore. The 45,000-square-foot casino is the largest in the Dominican Republic, featuring a Sports Book to bet on games, 386 slots and 40 table games. There are nightly shows and performances, too.
Live music lovers flock to the Moon Lounge and its rowdy acoustics. A karaoke bar attracts those wannabes singers who crave the spotlight. The Sun Bar has a pub feel with pool tables. The Oro Nightclub is scheduled to open Nov. 18 to showcase the "first" Infinity edge bar and a two-story wall of LED TVs.
For a more laid-back pursuit, guests can just wander to explore the resort's vast collection of memorabilia. A car driven by Madonna sits near the casino. Inspiring lines from the history of rock 'n' roll line the walls. The words, "Two tickets to Paradise" (can you guess the artist?) greet those checking in. The bed frame in my Caribbean Suite told me, "Sweet dreams are made of this."
Even The Eurythmics can't argue with that.