There's no wonder Helen Harper went to the Dominican Republic with a boyfriend but returned home with a fiancé...
Zooming along the forest track with clouds of dust being whipped up in the air was one heck of a way to spend a holiday.
But as we turned the corner, there it was – crisp white sand, palm trees and bright blue sea.
We were spending a week in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, and a ‘dune buggies’ tour was a must for us. And it was here we found yet another stunning picture postcard scene.
We had opted for a half-day tour around Scape Park and, after a swim in the sea at Juanillo beach, it was back in the buggies and on to Hoyo Azul Lagoon, which nestled down in a cave at the other side of the park.
Cue another swim, albeit a chilly one.
While the adventure was a highlight of our holiday it was the country itself which blew us away.
We stayed just a short drive from Punta Cana airport at the Riu Palace Macao in Bavaro – a five-star adults-only hotel in the Riu complex.
Stepping into the hotel lobby, guests are greeted with a clear view through the hotel, its grounds and pools, out onto a beach laden with palm trees – and the impossibly blue sea beyond.
Not forgetting the perfect warm sea breeze which hits you as you make your way from the hotel down to the ocean.
The Riu Palace has recently undergone a major £9.5 million refurbishment inside and out.
We stayed in a Jacuzzi suite (with the bubble pool on the balcony) complete with separate living room and stunning bathroom which had its own whirlpool bath and big separate shower.
Outside, there were two pools, one of which has sun loungers in the water on which you can lie back with your body under the surface of the water whilst you sip away on a Cuba Libre. The second pool has a swim-up bar.
Need I say more?
The hotel is 24-hour all-inclusive, meaning you can eat as much or as little as you like. Be warned that trying to do the latter is nigh on impossible. There is some amazing food to try.
A buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner are available every day, but if you fancy something different there are four al a carte restaurants – Pancho grill and steakhouse, Kabuki (Japanese), Volare (Italian), and the flagship Krystal fusion.
Banish all stereotypes from your mind.
There were no chips or onion rings to be found at the steakhouse, just perfectly cooked meals bursting full of flavour. My boyfriend opted for the ribeye steak while I went for the BBQ ribs.
While he loved his dish, he could see I had made the perfect choice.
However, it was in the Japanese restaurant (which he was a little anxious of, not being a lover of fish) that he discovered what he described as one of the best meals he has ever eaten – beef sirloin sautéed with vegetables served with four sauces.
Then, for a very special meal, there was Krystal fusion situated down on the beach. Simply beautiful.
Even at the buffet there was a huge selection of food to suit every palate.
By the third morning I decided I wasn’t going to overload my plate at breakfast, but then found myself saying “I’ll just have a little bit of this” and “Oh I like that one”. By the time I sat down, I had a mountain of food on my plate.
Then did exactly the same thing at lunch.
If relaxing on the Bali beds or soaking up the sun from the loungers round the pool or down on the beach is your thing, then enjoy. But if you get a little bored of sun worshipping, the hotel’s entertainment team is on hand.
We had a go at archery and darts on the beach (I won both times!) but you could try anything from aqua aerobics to learning Spanish, from scuba diving to throwing horseshoes. You could even enter the ‘throw a pineapple’ competition.
Then there are the day trips, from swimming with dolphins or travelling out by speedboat to Saona Island or going on an outback safari. There’s lots to choose from, all of which can be organised through your Thomson rep.
You get five per cent discount for a second trip and 10% off a third. We opted for a shopping tour around Punta Cana and a trip to the capital, Santo Domingo, one of the oldest cities in the Americas.
On that tour we visited the home of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego, and the first cathedral in the New World.
It was, however, a very, very long journey. Had we known it was three-and-a-half hours both ways we might have had a rethink.
The half-day shopping in Punta Cana, though, was great.
You’re taken to four shops and if you intend on buying gifts or perhaps stocking up on rum and cigars – or jewellery bearing the island’s own Larimar stone – this trip is not to be missed.
The first shop included gifts typical of the area at reasonable prices.
From there the minibus took us a few minutes down the road to a cigar factory where you can see how they are made before visiting the shop.
Then it was onto the Pirate Rum Factory, where our guide was the very colourful and entertaining ‘Johnny Be Good’.
He offered us an array of flavoured rums to try (perhaps surprisingly, coffee is amazing) and showed us how their intricate bottles are all hand-painted before taking us down to a cave where the Taino people – the original inhabitants of the island – hid from the invading Spanish.
After a stop at the mall (again, with lots of real bargains to be had) it was back to the hotel for lunch and a dip in the pool.
If you prefer staying on the complex there’s still plenty to buy at the onsite Caribbean Street.
Evenings are spent trying different cocktails – I can highly recommend Caribbean Orange – enjoying the entertainment on offer, or trying your luck at the hotel’s casino. There’s also a nightclub.
There were so many highlights to our trip, from walking along the beach, swimming in the sea, and relaxing in the glorious sunshine surrounded by palm trees, to the days out and the lovely people we met.
There was also the little matter of arriving on holiday with a boyfriend and leaving with a fiancé. Yes, he popped the question.
So when it was time to leave it was with a heavy heart.
Helen Harper and her boyfriend stayed in the Dominican Republic as guests of Thomson and Riu Hotels, flying with Thomson from Manchester.
A stay at the Riu Palace Macao, Punta Cana at the moment varies from £1,219 to £1,331. Speak to your local Thomson agent or go online at www.thomson.co.uk to see what offers are available.
For general tourism advice, head to www.godominicanrepublic.com
NEED TO KNOW
CURRENCY: Dominican Pesos, although US Dollars are widely used and often preferred. Tipping is expected ($2-$5 a day for the maid; $5 for your evening waiter; $1 for your first drink at the bar and another as you leave – but don’t tip for every drink).
BEST TIME: Helen travelled at the end of April but high season is during the winter. Prices peak mid-March to early April, and mid-July to the end of August. Temperatures are on average 30°C-32°C during the day, but the evenings can be cool. The rainy season lasts from May-October.
DON’T FORGET: Mosquito spray and suncream. A local Dominican plug adapter will be needed but these are available at the hotel for a couple of dollars.
JABS: You will need to visit your GP well in advance of your trip to make sure you get Hepatitis A and Typhoid jabs. You may also want to consider taking malaria tablets.