Punta Cana = Paradise

This LGBT-friendly slice of heaven in the Dominican Republic is the perfect Caribbean winter getaway

For anyone plagued with a fear of flying, landing can often be the scariest part of a flight. But on descent into Punta Cana International Airport in the Dominican Republic, it’s hard to feel anything but blissful contentment and excitement as you take in the beauty of what lies below. While descending, the aerial view of the Dominican Republic gave me a glimpse into the splendor of this remarkable country. I was transfixed and fell a little bit in love.

Situated on the Dominican Republic’s easternmost tip, Punta Cana is a wildly popular year-round tourist destination. Vacationers flock from all over the world to enjoy miles of pristine beaches and lavish, all-inclusive resorts. Not surprisingly, Punta Cana is fast becoming a preferred queer-friendly destination.

Although Dominican law does not expressly prohibit homosexuality or cross-dressing, it doesn’t address discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. With its conservative public attitudes and a predominantly Catholic population, certain areas of the country are not advisable to venture into—that is, if it’s important to live as you are and present as openly queer or lesbian. If you’re traveling with your partner, it’s better to be more discreet with the PDA than you would be in the States. That being said, Punta Cana is a popular tourist stop year-round and has become much more progressive than other parts of the country. Within resorts and tourist areas, you should not have a problem.

Speaking of resorts, there are so many options for accommodations available, it can be overwhelming. After a quick 15-minute drive from the airport to Sanctuary Cap Cana (La Altagracia Province, 809-544-4343, sanctuarycapcana.com), I realized that I’d hit the resort jackpot. This spectacular hotel is one of four LGBT-friendly properties owned and operated by AlSol Hotels & Resorts in Punta Cana—and it is, in a word, amazing. Sanctuary Cap Cana features 176 suites and villas on a 30,000-acre property overlooking the sparkling blue Caribbean. My seafront villa included a living room, two bathrooms, a gorgeous master suite and a deck facing the water. Even if you’re not an early riser, you’ll want to wake at dawn to take in the breathtaking views of the sun rising over the Caribbean. The resort boasts three pristine swimming pools and a Jacuzzi, along with a gym, spa, disco, five restaurants and an adults-only “castle” (one of the resort’s lodgings—a building with incredible views, designed to look like an authentic Spanish castle).

Each dining venue on the property has something unique to offer, but the Blue Marlin, Sanctuary’s seafood restaurant, is exceptional. The oceanfront eatery features local fare, much of it caught in the waters off the resort, so it’s always fresh and perfectly prepared. Eating a fish off the bone with its face still intact was a first for me, which turned out to be a rewarding experience: lightly fried, impeccably cooked and delicious.

After dinner, if you fancy some pampered alone time, the spa provides a tranquil setting in which to unwind—and, if so desired, enjoy one of the best massages of your life in a private hut. The massage therapists and other staffers at Sanctuary Cap Cana are among the resort’s highlights. Kind, attentive and helpful, they always offer a friendly greeting.

Being a masculine-presenting woman, I felt some trepidation about how I’d be received by locals (as I do whenever traveling somewhere new), yet I did not have a single negative encounter at the resort. The one scenario in which my appearance came into play was a humorous misunderstanding with the waiters. They served me last, along with my only male companion, after all the women at the table had received their food. Serving women first is the custom in many places, so I completely understood that they assumed I was male, and that they were doing what they thought was correct. Once they realized their mistake, they quickly rectified it and served me first at every meal thereafter.

The Dominican Republic has a wonderfully welcoming culture, and every person I encountered seemed friendlier than the last. I asked Juan, the marketing manager for AlSol Resorts, what he found most special about his country. “The people,” he replied, without hesitation. While my interactions with locals were mainly limited to resort staff, I had no trouble agreeing with him. Dominican hospitality is first-rate.

Being the trendy tourist destination that it is, Punta Cana’s lodgings aren’t restricted to one fabulous resort family. Another superb choice is Zoetry Agua Punta Cana (Uvero Alto, 809-468-0000, zoetryresorts.com). A secluded resort featuring 400 yards of beachfront, exquisite suites, gourmet dining and a top-tier spa, it also offers wellness and fitness/adventure opportunities, giving the feel of a wellness retreat combined with a relaxing vacation. Just an hour from the Punta Cana International Airport, no woman on earth would turn up her nose at a stay in this little oasis.

The award-winning Sivory Punta Cana Boutique Hotel (Playa Sivory, Uvero Alto, 809-333-0500, sivorypuntacana.com) sports a “Hetero and Gay Friendly” banner on its website (rainbow flag and all!), and this lovely resort currently ranks as one of the best in the Dominican Republic. Their website introduction sums it up best:  “As the wonderfully last and most secluded of hideaways on a stretch of Punta Cana shoreline, Sivory Punta Cana Boutique Hotel is a place to be gloriously alone.” The hotel staff is attentive and will indulge you and your partner while you spend your days reclining by the infinity pool or soaking up rays on the beach. With holistic spa treatments, epicurean restaurants and other luxurious amenities, you’ll revel in an atmosphere of “gentle solitude” and total relaxation.

Sample more of Punta Cana’s excellent cuisine at Playa Bianca (809-959-2714 ext. 2234, puntacana.com/assets/play-blanca-menu-2015.pdf), a local favorite situated right on the beach. Delight in the fantastically fresh seafood with the gentle sounds of Caribbean waves washing up along the shore. There’s an expansive menu of mouthwatering dishes to choose from, but I’d be remiss not to recommend the filete de pesca del dia (catch of the day).

Pranama (Plaza El Dorado Local 103, 809-552-6767, facebook.com/Pranamapc) is one of Punta Cana’s most fashionable restaurants, earning rave reviews from tourists and locals alike. Serving up inspired Indian fare (some of the only Indian food on the island), you can dine under the stars while sharing small talk and a drink or two.

For outdoor adventure, head to Scape Park (Cap Cana, 23000, 809-469-7484, scapepark .com), a natural theme park with lush grounds providing varied activities, ranging from hikes along culturally and historically rich walking trails to ziplining through the jungle. Ziplining over the treetops in Scape Park is a breathtaking experience, one in which you fly from small platform to small platform, unable to see the forest floor below you. You know you’re safe, thanks to the experienced team who are with you, but it is still outrageously exhilarating (and quite a good workout) climbing higher and higher through the forest until you reach the next departure point. There are few better feelings than zipping above a jungle with a mountain to your left and a view of the Caribbean Sea on your right. I was in the company of a number of first time zipliners, and while we were all nervous at first, at ‘zip’s end’ all we wanted to do was go right back up.

Book a tee time and hit the links at the 18-hole Punta Espada Golf Club (Cap Cana, 23000, 855-374-4653, golfpuntacana.com/golf-courses/ punta-espada). This 7,000-yard Jack Nicklaus-designed course is ranked as the best golf course in the Caribbean and Mexico by GolfWeek. Eight holes are positioned right along the ocean, which you can see from every hole. World champions may play here, but you’ll get to appreciate the same spectacular views while attempting this extremely challenging course.

From $95 per person, booked on Viator.com, learn to surf in Punta Cana from surfing specialists at the world-renowned Macao Beach. Skill level doesn’t matter. With one-on-one attention from an instructor, you’ll be riding those waves in no time. And if you’re already an experienced surfer, you can get help in refining your techniques.

No trip to a Caribbean island would be complete without snorkeling! Swim with nurse sharks and stingrays on a Marinarium Snorkeling Cruise (Cabeza De Toro, Bavaro, 809-468-3183, marinarium.com). Excursions include a cheery tour guide, a comfortably air-conditioned bus ride from your Punta Cana hotel, access to a fully appointed beachfront lounge area, a private pier for embarking/disembarking, snacks, bottled water, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, English-language entertainment, snorkeling equipment and tons of fun aboard a glass-bottom catamaran. Once in the water, you’ll swim and snorkel at an exclusive 40,000-meter marine park.

The highlight of any trip to Punta Cana, however, is a daylong excursion to Saona Island, hosted by the outstanding Baya Tours (809-710-7336). Saona Island, or Isla Saona in Spanish, is a 42-kilometer paradise off the Dominican’s southern tip, and it’s the most popular tourist destination in the country. Baya Tours’ mission, is to offer eco-friendly, off-the-beaten-track activities that provide “an enhanced and genuine experience”. Baya Tours delivers all that and more. My tour included a boat ride to the island and a visit to Canto de la Playa, an unspoiled private beach with bone-white sand and turquoise waters. I also enjoyed lunch on the beach and a tour of Manojuan Village, a traditional Dominican village in Saona, followed by a swim in a natural sand bar and swimming hole. The whole experience was unbelievable and a beautiful way to explore Dominican life, nature and culture firsthand.

Nightlife for tourists in Punta Cana, queer, straight or otherwise, exists primarily in the clubs and bars located in the island’s resorts. If you’re seeking out queers to party with while on vacation, regrettably, there’s no real established gay scene. Nevertheless, there are plenty of spots for drinking and dancing at the hotels and resorts, frequented by LGBT travelers and locals. Riva Bar at the gay-friendly Eden Roc at Cap Cana (Provincia la Altagracia 23000, 809-469-7469, edenroccapcana.com), inspired by 1960s Monte Carlo, is a charming spot for cocktails, signature drinks and live piano music while overlooking the gardens and sparkling pool. It’s open until 1am and has a resort elegant dress code. In the mood for a Vegas-style show with dazzling lights, acrobats and dancers? Head to Coco Bongo, Punta Cana’s trendiest club with a nightly performance from midnight until the wee hours of the morning. It’s crowded, so reserve a table if you don’t want to stand all night. (Otherwise, wear comfy shoes.)

If you’re staying at the Sanctuary Cap Cana or Zoetry Agua Punta Cana, you can enjoy nightly entertainment—including live music, karaoke nights, movie screenings, disco nights, beach and cocktail parties—without ever leaving your hotel. Zoetry offers a “Sip, Savor and See” program, giving its guests access to dining, drinks and entertainment at nearby resorts.

It’s always important, especially as LGBT travelers, to be aware of your surroundings when traveling. Remember to gauge the climate in which you find yourself.

My trip was limited to Punta Cana and Saona Island, but I left the Dominican Republic with a great appreciation for this beautiful nation and a determination to return soon to explore much more. It’s the picture-perfect place for a romantic escape. As an out lesbian, I felt safe and welcome, both in my accommodation and during my activities, and I would recommend a trip to Punta Cana to anyone looking for a peaceful, tropical getaway. A trip to Punta Cana is a chance to step outside the box and experience a different, diverse and rich island culture.