The variables involved in planning a Caribbean family vacation can be daunting enough to send the weak scurrying back to a condo in Sarasota, Fla. Ideal for honeymooners or stressed-out grown-ups, many Caribbean resorts are designed for those who need to get away from it all. Yet children seem to need something to do other than lounging on sunny beaches. Picky teenage travelers need something to do other than sneaking into casinos. (At least, their parents think so.) And the deal-breaker is that many remote Caribbean destinations require changing planes.
The Dominican Republic, known as the DR, is gaining traction as a family destination. One reason is a growing number of family-centered resorts with activities ranging from windsurfing to world-class golf to snorkeling to teenage-only lounges. Another lure is that there are now numerous nonstop flights from the New York area.
Emily Greenberg, a mother of three and a nursery school teacher from Mamaroneck, N.Y., just spent her fifth consecutive winter holiday in the Dominican Republic and finds it the ideal place for a yearly family reunion. "Our extended family includes 16 children, ranging in age from 7 to 25, and we've found that the Dominican Republic has something for everyone. The younger kids enjoy a busy day of sports and beach activities, and for the older kids, the night life of nearby casinos and discos is most important," Greenberg said.
At 19,000 square miles, the Dominican Republic is not a pipsqueak island with one airport, so picking the right spot takes thought. Most of the Dominican Republic's resorts and white beaches lie along the southern coast east of the capital, Santo Domingo, and stretch to the country's eastern tip at Punta Cana.
For families who like to stay put, there is an array of all-inclusive resorts from which to choose. Largest among them, the 7,000-acre Casa de Campo resort in La Romana (casadecampo.com.do or 809-523-3333) is the site of the famous Teeth of the Dog golf course and two additional courses. An elaborate equestrian center, 13 tennis courts (with lights for night play), skeet shooting, water sports, children's programs for all ages and a marina with shops and restaurants are among the amenities. Double rooms start at $353 per night in the winter season (packages including meals and activities are additional). Two-bedroom villas start at $840 per night; three- and four-bedroom villas come with breakfast and maid and butler service and start at $1,057 and $1,253, respectively.
Teenagers are catered to at the recently renovated Club Med Punta Cana (809-686-5500 or clubmed.com). There are programs for children ages 2 to 13, to be sure, but only guests between the ages of 14 and 17 are allowed into the Ramp, a new two-story open-air lounge. The Ramp has an area for inline skating, skateboarding and playing foosball, telescopes for stargazing and plenty of places to just hang out. Seven-night all-inclusive rates start at $840 per adult, $385 per child ages 4 to 15, and $231 per child ages 2 to 3.
There is plenty of space to wander at the brand-new Paradisus Palma Real in Playa de Bavaro, Punta Cana (809-686-7499 or solmelia.com), a 554-room all-suite, all-inclusive resort that opened last month and provides a family concierge to coordinate activities, a children's camp for ages 5 to 12, six restaurants and three swimming pools. All-inclusive rates for two start at $1,100 and at $337 for children ages 4 to 12 in the winter high season. And for the child who dreams of becoming the next Sammy Sosa, an action park with batting cages, archery and a climbing wall awaits at the nearby sister resort, Paradisus Punta Cana, Playa de Bavaro, Higuey (809-687-9923 or solmelia.com). All-inclusive rates for two start at $750; $187 for children ages 4 to 12.
Plans are under way for the new 315-room Westin Roco Ki Beach and Golf Resort, Punta Macao (305-792-1500 or westin.com/rocoki), set to open next year. Aside from its 18-hole championship golf course, two-mile beach and Westin Kids Club, the draw is likely to be the 20 Jungle Luxe Bungalows, which will look as if they are floating over man-made lakes and will have panoramic views of the ocean.
Families seeking smaller hotels and closer access to adventure may prefer the northern coast near Puerto Plata. Also known as the Amber Coast because of its large amber deposits, the north is one of the world's top windsurfing destinations. Set at the base of a mountain range on a private beach, Casa Colonial Beach and Spa, Playa Dorada, Puerto Plata (809-320-3232 or slh.com) is an all-suite hotel with Spanish colonial architecture. Hotel guests have access to the Playa Dorada Golf Course, ranked last year by Golf Digest as one of the best 100 courses outside the United States. Although there are no organized programs, children are welcome. Doubles from $350.