Here’s what a getaway to the Dominican Republic looks like in the age of coronavirus.
The fine line between brave and stupid has become more pronounced during the global pandemic. Walking around Target without a mask to make a “point” falls squarely into one category. Flying away to the Dominican Republic for a vacation? Well, that’s up for debate. Last month, my immunocompromised wife and I did the latter, with masks on, and lived to tell the tale.
We’d just gotten hitched, but as it was the second go-’round for each of us—and we’re both in our 40s—neither her nor I were looking to rock and roll all night or party every day at the Hard Rock Punta Cana. Instead, as COVID surged, we left a crowded Philly airport on a Jet Blue plane weeks before they’d 86’d their empty middle seat scheme, in search of an escape, a beach we didn’t have to share, and food I wasn’t buying before sunrise with the hope of also snagging rolls of TP before they vanished again.
What we found is that TP flows as freely as the piña coladas unlike, sadly, the lazy river which remains closed (nearly impossible to regulate distancing). What we also found were employees stoked to see us. Because of restrictions prohibiting non-essential travel, the hotel’s marketing plan focused on enticing locals to take staycations. This explains why the receptionist was ecstatic to be checking in a couple of foreigners. She asked how busy the airport was and got as giddy as a pre-teen at a Harry Styles concert when I replied, “Very crowded, took almost an hour to clear customs.” I mean, who gets excited about that?
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Obviously, not everyone arriving will head to this hotel but that didn’t seem to matter. Her life may not depend on tourists returning to the D.R., but her livelihood sure does.
But should they come as infection rates balloon back home?
The Rooms Are Sealed Shut
We were both legit nervous traveling, in the airport more than in the air, but after getting settled in, I heard my wife exhale freely for what seemed like the first time during this nightmarish year, and say that she feared nothing. This freedom was in no small part thanks to the seal on our door that we cracked open like the film atop a fresh jar of peanut butter. Combined with housekeeping’s daily mopping of the floors and detailed disinfecting of everything else, she spent five days more chill than a Sadé album. The in-room hot tub (every room here has one) didn’t hurt either. After grueling days spent doing absolutely nothing, sinking into bubbles with a bottle of bubbly in the safety and privacy of our room made the hot tub the real rock star. It’s like we were flushing 2020 down the drain after every bath.
Back to that seal on the door: the hotel says, “It certifies that no other team member has entered the room prior to the guest’s arrival,” then adds that their, “enhanced cleaning protocols put an emphasis on high-contact surfaces [like remote controls (which were wrapped in plastic), light switches, and thermostats].”
We felt cocooned but also famished. It was time to venture out of our bubble to get some grub.
A Puzzle to Solve Every Day
At first glance, aside from the ubiquitous masks—some even being worn correctly by fellow guests!—and the Hard Rock’s “SAFE + SOUND” signage (including QR code menu placards) which encourage distancing and sanitizing, not much seemed demonstrably different in the resort’s common areas.
But then you head to breakfast at the same place as yesterday and, welp, nope—no breakfast there today. The pandemic caused a reduction in guests and staff, so the restaurants are open on a rotation. Instead of solving the food puzzle each morning, we got room service because 1) it’s free; 2) the omelets came quick, and 3) the hash browns were still crunchy! Oh, but forget about lunch in the Mexican joint. You’ll have to wait until dinner for another tres leches cake.
After grueling days spent doing absolutely nothing, sinking into bubbles with a bottle of bubbly in the safety and privacy of our room made the hot tub the real rock star. It’s like we were flushing 2020 down the drain after every bath.
Making dinner reservations early is key, but you can always belly up to troughs of hummus, baba ghanoush, and falafel at the Mediterranean bistro as I did. There’s another COVID precautionary food alteration, and it’s a big one: the buffets. The hotel confirms that they’d replaced buffet service with a-la-carte dining, but says now that their region has moved through reopening phases, the buffets are back, baby! Well, sort of: “We’ve reimplemented buffets in a modified way, through ‘assisted buffet service,’ allowing guests to have their indulgent food experience…and stay safe.”
Alone in the Water
The pools were uncrowded, with lounge chairs spaced out appropriately. And there were times while standing on the beach, feet in the surf, beneath the bright but not oppressive mid-autumn sun, when we couldn’t see or hear another soul. It was serene—not quite hot tub serene, but close.
We didn’t have the whole of the beach to ourselves, or run of the entire resort, but it sure as heck felt like we did. After months of trial and error catering to locals, the Hard Rock seems to have hospitality during COVID sorted.
Should We Have Traveled?
When not on the beach or reading poolside, we spun records and flailed around doing something that vaguely resembled yoga in our room. But mostly, we basked in the glow of not worrying about much of anything. After a brutal year, four nights of that was enough.
Should we have traveled to Punta Cana during COVID? Maybe not, but mental health, like physical well-being, is crucial to living a good life. We felt that a quick getaway to a safely sanitized island spot literally wouldn’t hurt us or our families back home. Thankfully, we were right. We only wish we could sink deep into that super sanitized hot tub one more time.