[3/21/13 – 3/26/13] I had gotten engaged and the big day of nuptials was fast approaching when my mom decided we needed “one last girls’ trip” before I was officially wed; so she generously offered to sponsor a four night getaway with my sister to explore a slice of paradise where none of us had previously been… Punta Cana.
The Dominican Republic would add a new item to my list of visited countries which was exciting enough… but 5 days of fun in the sun with some of my very favorite people? …Unbeatable. And that’s exactly what it was. From the minute we got on the plane, the fun began with generously poured mimosas to boot, and views of jungle mountain terrain below. Six hours of flying and one layover later we had arrived in a seaside paradise on the easternmost coast of the DR, a chunk of island [east of Haiti] almost 2,000 miles southeast of snowy Chicago. We checked in to our all-inclusive (yes, it was that kind of low-maintenance, turn off your brain trip) hotel in the luxurious lobby and explored the perfectly tamed grounds. Narrow paths framed with lush foliage, vibrant island flowers, and palm trees standing tall led us to the large pool area teaming with American, European and South American tourists alike. Just a few paces out from the pool and our toes met the pure white sand, (some of the very best I have seen), and aqua blue ocean crashing in waves to meet the land. This was exactly what we came for.
Even though it was late in the day, the sun was still teasing us through the clouds so we immediately hit the pool and got our first celebratory daiquiris. The swim up bar was soon calling our names and our friendly bartenders kept them coming which led to our tipsy demise. We changed up for the night in a stupor and headed downstairs to our conveniently located all-you-can-eat dinner buffet offering a plethora of ethnic choices. The food and alcohol at all-inclusive resorts is not exactly 5 star, as to be expected with the all in one price tag… but it was enough to keep us fat and happy. We taste-tested the options and decided to wind down from the long day with some intense games of travel Scrabble… a favorite on this trip. We played into the night enjoying the warm night air and intoxicating smell of the neighboring sea.
We rose surprisingly early the following morning and took a quiet walk down the long stretch of refreshingly empty beach before the hungover tourists claimed their chairs. We beat the system by grabbing two sets of towels and saving both poolside and beach chair options for our lazy day ahead… the perks of choosing Scrabble over partying the night previous.
After a hearty breakfast we laid out by the beach and welcomed the Vitamin D. Several hours of sunlight, ocean swimming and one photoshoot later, we dried off for an espresso break in the café lounge bar and competed in another concentrated game of Scrabble. A highlight came next as we traversed the seemingly never-ending beaches and explored several of the neighboring resorts, concluding that they are pretty much all amazing… Punta Cana is quite the place! As the sun set on our walk back to our resort [the Riu Palace], we showered up for a lovely Italian dinner at one of the resort’s specialty restaurants, complete with wine in the plaza and another Scrabble extravaganza. Live music at the resort stage concluded the evening.
The following day was by far my favorite. We awoke early and prepared daypacks for our anticipated island adventure. Outside our resort we were greeted by a comfortable bus which transported us across the island (an unexpected 2 hour ride). I looked out my window in a sleepy state to find that the real DR was unlike our Disneyland paradise on the coast. Marble floors and cobblestone sidewalks were replaced by dirt roads. Limousines and luxury tour buses were replaced by mopeds carrying three passengers at a time. Decrepit storefronts selling everyday items were lazily lining the streets teaming with locals living their less than glamorous lives. Just by observing the main roads and zooming past the dilapidated shacks and homes, the poverty in this country was evident. Still, every single person we came across during our time on the island was genuinely kind and carefree. Those of the Dominican Republic seem to be a proud, laid-back people.
Now back to our adventure: For just $100 per person, we would spend the entire day island hopping in the surrounding waters on the opposite side of the Dominican Republic off the southern coast. The equally beautiful water and white sand beach came as no shock as we found the coast and boarded a speedboat vessel to take us a short ride to our main schooner for the day with about 20 other tourists. Our 60 foot catamaran was an idyllic way to transport us over pristine waters to the unchartered islands calling our names.
Sails up! Perched on the trampolines of the catamaran, we began our 90 minute journey over the splashing waves where we danced to island music beaming through the speakers and sipped bottomless homemade cocktails… this was the life. Our first stop was the main reason we had ventured so far from our sandy beaches on the other side… the promised Saona Island. We had heard tales of this private island utopia from revelers at our resort and had to see it for ourselves. Upon approaching the palm-lined island with not a soul in sight, we were immediately captivated by the clear blue water and long empty beach in the distance. It was just our small crew who ventured via dinghy to this serene paradise that day, offering paramount privacy. The hours whisked by as we blissfully enjoyed our remote surroundings. We bathed joylessly in the water as the palm trees danced in the sea air, sipped cocktails from our crew, and took a myriad of photos.
We could have stayed forever, but soon had to say goodbye to Isla Saona with the promise of further adventure. We jumped on small speedboats and were driven a mile or so into the open ocean where we suddenly stopped and were instructed to jump out. We found ourselves on a natural sandbar in the middle of the ocean, where you could stand submerged waste high amongst the calm waters… insane! As if that wasn’t enough, our guides ducked into the water and came out with natural orange starfish the size of our heads, lifting them gently from the sea floor. They were all around us! One by one, we began the starfish hunt. Finding your pick of starfish was no challenging task and soon we all were passing the beautiful creatures (safely underwater, lifting them out for only for 10 seconds maximum) for photos. Wow!
Our last stop of the day was a slightly larger island equipped with huts for cooking and a bamboo bar. The drinking continued as we chatted on beach chairs nestled into the sand and our lunch was prepared. Soon enough it was time to indulge in a generous fish and barbeque chicken cookout all grilled to perfection. Yum! We were impressed to say the least. Our catamaran ride all the way back to shore was bittersweet as we knew this highlight of the trip was coming to an end. Anyone going to Punta Cana should definitely book one of these tours to Saona and neighboring islands. Back at our resort, we dressed up for another satisfying dinner and relaxing night of Scrabble before our exhaustion hit us and we called it a night. What a day…
The next day’s agenda was simple: nothing. Our threesome enjoyed a long breakfast sipping coffees in our resort plaza before leisurely hitting the beach for a few hours of cocktails and sun. My mom and Ashley went shopping while I lay in an underwater pool bench getting lost in my book. Before I knew it I was burnt to a crisp, so we took a buffet lunch break at one of the resort’s outdoor restaurants along the beach. The sun intensified as we got silly at the swim-up bar and “stayed hydrated” imbibing on fruity cocktails. Sufficiently waterlogged, we got a table in the plaza and played Scrabble with cosmopolitan martinis as the sun dropped. We fancied up and enjoyed a dinner at the specialty French restaurant of the resort.
We had yet to explore the nightlife in Punta Cana and it was our final night, so we cabbed it over to the Hard Rock Hotel where we had heard of a good casino/bar. Unfortunately, our Spanish speaking driver arrived at the hotel gates only to be turned down… the club was closed that night. Laughing out loud, my sister and I tried to drunkenly remember our high school Spanish as we negotiated a new plan. We backtracked the way we came in order to go to our second option… a nightclub/disco built into a cave. We arrived at the cave club called “Imagine” at about 10:00pm and were laughed at by the bouncers that they did not open for another half hour. Embarrassed but out of luck, we waited patiently in the parking lot, dressed to the nines and looking like complete idiots until they stamped our hands and allowed us to enter the massive cave. The place was actually very cool and worth the wait… tunnels of rock formations illuminated by colorful club lights led to the large dance floor in the middle of the rock cave. Nooks of VIP seating surrounded the place, and the dance floor lit up in an array of strobe lights. We got our first drinks and sat in the empty VIP booths laughing until almost out of nowhere, the place was packed. Suffice to say the night turned around and we danced like crazy until 4am.
Waking in a haze to our very last morning of perfect weather, we shared a bittersweet breakfast and relaxed on beach chairs for a final few hours wishing time would stop. I shopped for some souvenirs and scored a deal on some local cigars before showering up in order to catch our flight. Nine hours later we found ourselves back in Chicago to the sobering cold temperature. While I like to explore new places because our world is so big, once in a while there are undeniably return-worthy spots. For a lazy vacation and the only prerequisite being gorgeous beaches and affordable luxury, Punta Cana is a wonderful option to which I would definitively return.
I had admittedly wanted some body ink since I was in my teens, but knew better than to pull the trigger before I found something I was passionate enough about to display on my skin for the rest of my life. The time had finally come and I knew in my bones that I would not regret this small homage to my love of our globe and world travel. So I put thoughts into action and sketched out a design of a colorful rendition of our planet which would proudly (albeit subtly) display my inner wanderlust. It wasn't until a few weeks later [in the fall of 2013] when my friends and I spontaneously decided to find a parlor in the city and get our tattoos (it maaay have been after midnight)... the experience was full of anxiousness and joy, friendship, and late night hilarity... my result was exactly as I had hoped.
I can happily say that I am still in love with this tattoo over 3 years later... (I'd sure hope so!) In fact, I usually wish it was more visible every day than it actually is. Nonetheless, it just goes to show that you should definitely wait until you have a deep love for something before you ink it permanently on your body. My globe not only reminds me of my past travels and amazing experiences, but it tells me to hold onto my passions and continue to explore the world. Life's too short!
[Dec 2012 - Jan 2013] It was time to turn cold weather into winter fun in December 2012 as three couples braved the snow and headed to bustling Steamboat, Colorado where we would ring in the new year donning ski boots and scarves. We met up in Denver and drove our rental minivan through the gorgeous mountains toward Steamboat where our friend Meghan and her family have a condo nestled in the snow. This condo did the trick… offering a mere walk down a picturesque hill to the main chair lifts which bring some of the best skiing in the U.S. Our sunset drive offered great views and we were happy to find home, check out the digs, and play some couples Scattergories with a couple beers before getting some rest for the big day ahead.
The next day was spent getting our gear and heading up the massive slopes. Our group of six [Meghan, Jack, Molly, Joe, Tom and myself] spent this crisp, sunny day taking in the views as we skied blissfully down the hundreds of runs on this freshly-powdered paradise. Sweating through our jackets after hours of joy, we found respite at the local pub at the bottom of the mountain, sipping much-deserved pitchers of cold Colorado brew. Back at the condo, we defrosted in sweats and enjoyed a homemade pasta meal before dipping our chilled bodies in the outdoor hot tub and drinking the night away.
Day two of skiing wasn’t unlike the first, except our sunny air was replaced with mountain fog and falling flurries. We carried on nonetheless and enjoyed the backside of this glorious mountain, finding our niche in hidden runs and beautiful tree-lined paths.
Later that night we fancied up for the big night out on the town… it was New Year’s Eve! We rode the convenient bus downtown and ate seafood and burgers at a local spot before heading to the bar scene sporting festive hats and crowns. Arriving early, we scored a long table right off the dance floor and proceeded to order the infamous beer towers standing several feet high. Now this was our kind of place! Tower after tower disappeared into our thirsty bellies and our dance moves progressed accordingly. Before we knew it the countdown was on… We kissed our chapped lips and welcomed 2013 in an excited state of delight. Soon, confetti and streamers covered the place as we caused quite the raucous and moved on to the next bar. In the wee hours of the morning, we rode the bus packed with fellow NYE revelers back to our sleepy home.
Day three was planned around our inevitable hangovers… so flying down an unforgiving mountain at lofty speeds with two skinny planks attached to our feet was thankfully not part of the plan. Instead, the plan was relaxation at a beautiful oasis in the mountains. That oasis is the unforgettable Strawberry Park Hot Springs, a plethora of natural hot springs tucked deep into the forested mountain. A long winding drive up the narrow pathway was met with entry to this hangover cure as we traded coats for bikinis and tested the various temperatures in the many pools. Surrounded by the unmatched beauty of tall evergreens blanketed in glistening white snow, we relaxed in the perfectly soothing water in a state of serenity. I could have stayed for hours, but as our skin became pruned we changed back and headed home to a lovely sunset walk around the village and endless games of catchphrase before heading out to a Mexican feast at the base of the mountain.
Our final full day was another of perfect sunny weather high in the mountains. This day was probably our best skiing yet… we found amazing untouched trails and challenged the fresh powdery slopes of every size. We couldn’t get enough! We reenergized with a beer and hot cocoa break in the gorgeous mountaintop cabin lodge and enjoyed our last few hours of skiing before returning our gear and heading to the nightly ritual of the hot tub. Our last night we enjoyed one last dinner downtown and did a little barhopping to celebrate such a successful trip.