Eden Roc at Cap Cana (Dominican Republic) – Value Play?

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Overview: A reasonably priced, near-luxury beach-adjacent Caribbean property
Strengths: Beach, climate, quality of F&B (mostly), on-property activities, service (mostly)
Drawbacks: Limited F&B venues, speed of service at one F&B venue, closeness of villas, haphazard property development
Of Note: Close to the airport (a positive; no noise issues)

Background

In mid-2015, we took advantage of the JAL first class availability glitch and booked four low miles first class awards to Tokyo for February break this year.  Two thirds of the way home from Cape Town after our Christmas Safari Trip (flying Emirates First), my wife and daughter announced that they would not be going to Japan in February.  Simply too much flying and time away from home made the prospects of a 14+ hour journey to Japan a non-starter for them.  (It was sad to cancel those seats – but it was the right decision.)

The late change in plans also put some short notice pressure on me to find an alternate destination for February break.  This involved finding reasonably short non-stop flights from New York (or Newark), a property with good service and a good beach, comfortable accommodations for a family of four and wouldn’t break the bank – with a little more than a month’s notice during a peak travel period.  Lay up, right?

I’d previously been apprehensive on the Dominican Republic, as until recently, I hadn’t heard much (if anything) in the way of positive feedback on service there.  Last summer, while staying at Castiglion del Bosco (review to come eventually!), we met another couple that enjoyed their time in the DR so much they ultimately purchased a residence there.  They said there had been some real progress in the hospitality industry over the past five years and strongly suggested giving it a try.

I considered a number of options in the DR and ended up making preliminary bookings at Eden Roc at Cap Cana and the new Amanera property.

A few friendly folks over on the FlyerTalk Luxury Hotel Forum also gave positive recommendations for Eden Roc.  Others there reported than Amanera was still new and working out the kinks.  That feedback, coupled with a meaningful difference in price, pointed me towards Eden Roc at Cap Cana.

I’m pleased to say that, noting a few imperfections, I was pleased with our stay.

Arrival into the Dominican Republic

The Punta Cana airport (IATA: PUJ) is unambiguously a key component of the Full and Unnecessary Employment Act of 1997.  Arriving planes pull up in front of an open-air airport.  It is perhaps a 30 yard walk from the plane to the terminal.  However, the airport maintains a fleet of buses that carry you on a long and circular route from the plane to the airport.  Thankfully, there were several airport staffers who stand at the bottom of the steps from the plane to usher you ten yards to the waiting buses (one third of the way to the terminal itself!).

For international arrivals, once inside the terminal, you first stop at a counter and pay a small ($10 per person?) arrival fee and get a receipt.  Then 20 feet later, you stop at another counter and give a copy of your receipt to someone else who simply collects receipts.  Then, another 20 feet later, you stop and present your passports.  These sort of procedures went on for some time, such that we interacted with at least ten different people during our arrival process.

At baggage claim, Sky Caps were very aggressive.  Though not necessary for us, we enlisted the assistance of one of the Sky Caps.  Then, a different Sky Cap took one of our bags off of the baggage belt before it made its way around to us.  I had to go over to get the bag from him, which took a bit of effort as he was clearly also looking to help us.  Happy to hire one fellow – but two wasn’t going to happen.

We finally cleared all of the various procedures and check-points and our Sky Cap took us to where the arranged transportation comes.  Our room rate included round trip private transportation to the hotel from the airport.  Alas, while there were plenty of drivers waiting, none appeared to be from our hotel.  A gentleman standing near us (who appeared to be affiliated with a different hotel) kindly offered to call our hotel to track down the driver.

Our driver turned up within ten minutes of that call.  Having paid a $20 tip to the Sky Cap and a $5 tip to the guy who called the driver, we were on our way.  (Another $20 tip was paid to the driver one we arrived at the hotel.)

The hotel van was a white van which was manufactured in Asia.  Nothing fancy, but it was in perfectly fine condition.  The hotel’s logo was embroidered onto the seats, suggesting the van was owned or leased by our hotel, and not a hired service.

Arrival at the Hotel

We were greeted at the front porte-cochere by Hugo, a member of the management staff, who escorted us in.  Our bags were moved from the hotel and placed on one of their stretch (four rows of seating) golf carts while Hugo assisted us with the check-in formalities.  Though we booked a Virtuoso package, he explained how our American Express FHR program worked.  Breakfast is included with all rooms, so the only substantive FHR benefits for us were a free dinner at the higher end restaurant one night and the one-hour late check-out that we needed.

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Hugo drove us to our suite in a separate golf cart, while our bags followed closely behind in a second cart.

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Hotel Layout

The Eden Roc hotel itself is, at present, a small enclave of stand-alone villas within a much larger gated community called Cap Cana.  Cap Cana is principally a residential community and was reminiscent of the Peninsula Papagayo development that the Four Seasons Costa Rica (and Hyatt Andaz) is within.  Cap Cana was not as high end as Papagayo, but the concept was similar.  Cap Cana had some houses built, some under construction, some partially built and abandoned and some completely built and abandoned.  (You needed to look a bit to find the abandoned built homes, but there were clusters of them.)

While the Cap Cana development is on the beach, the part of the Eden Roc hotel which is open presently is not on the beach and offers no beach views.  It was about a 5 minute ride in our own golf cart to get to the beach and beach club area.

Each villa within Eden Roc (and seemingly each house) has one or more private golf carts that you can use to get around within the Cap Cana development.  While our room was not on the beach, getting to and from the beach was very easy with the golf cart and was roughly a 5 minute ride.

Woven throughout Cap Cana was a Nicklaus-designed golf course.  Though I didn’t play, the course itself looked to be in excellent condition.  Though the holes I saw were generally wide (not tight) helping to make the course appeal to higher index players, there appeared to be a number of risk-reward shot opportunities to even challenge low index players.

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In more remote corners of Cap Cana, there was a large activity center called the Scape Park.  This was open to visitors from outside of Cap Cana and it appeared the vast majority of visitors were from outside of Cap Cana.  The Scape Park offered some activities which were really quite enjoyable, which will be covered below.

There was also an on-property equestrian center.  We were told by the Eden Roc staff that we could go and visit.  The equestrian center itself had its own guard and entryway (within Cap Cana) and didn’t seem inviting for non-members.  We never tried to visit.

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Our Suite

We reserved a one-bedroom lagoon-view suite but were assigned to a one-bedroom garden-view suite.  When I pointed this out, Hugo immediately said, “you’ll like this much better; it is much more private.”  The price of both room categories was the same.

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The currently open part of the hotel is a series of very close, but stand-alone, small villas (or little houses?) built around a road which is shapes as a “9.”  Indeed, those rooms on the outside right part of the 9 are much more private than those on the inside of the 9 or the top left portion of the 9.  While at first I was doubtful of Hugo’s position (garden view being better), throughout our stay, I agreed more and more with his perspective and would book garden view if returning.

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View of a less private Lagoon View room
View of a less private Lagoon View room

Our one-bedroom suite would have been ideal for traveling as a couple and was sufficient for us traveling with two children.  The bedroom was fully separated from the living room and both rooms were large.

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The bathroom was also reasonably large, with a separate toilet room and a full, enclosed walk-in closet.  The shower area did not have a door, but was still reasonably private from the broader bathroom.  There was an unusually large and deep soaking tub and a separate, private, outdoor shower.

The tub was so large that it literally took an hour to fill.  There was even a placard next to the tub advising how long it would take.  While a large tub can be a nice treat, needing to plan your bath an hour in advance isn’t ideal.  The water jets in the tub didn’t work.

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The bed in the bedroom was very comfortable.  Not Capella-comfortable, but very nice.

The sofa in the room unfolded to a sofa bed.  I found the bed uncomfortable, and some of the support bars from underneath the mattress could really be felt.  The frame was so old and slanted that the bed would be best compared to an angled lie-flat seat on an airplane.  My son, 12, was immune to the issues and said he liked sleeping on an angle.  Lucky break for us.

After some negotiation (both during the booking process and upon arrival), they brought in a rollaway bed for my daughter.  This bed was very comfortable.  (More on the roll-away below.)

Other than the sofa-bed, the quality of the fixtures and furniture in the room were generally of a good quality, though showed signs of wear.  Nothing was over the top, but none of the furniture was of low quality or in need of repair.

Heavily scuffed door latch
Heavily scuffed door latch

Our suite had a private pool in the back yard.  The pool had a nice shallow end (about one foot deep), where you could lay in the water or have young kids play.  The deeper end was about 5 feet deep.  The water was cool, but not cold and was generally refreshing – though you needed to keep moving to avoid getting cold.  Even though they spent lots of time at the beach and shared pools, the kids were in the private pool at least once daily, too.

In addition to some sun loungers, there was also a shaded sitting area near the pool.

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Some smaller challenges in the room included that two of three phones in room weren’t programmed (and therefore not usable).  The bed-side lamps were gigantic, rendering the bed-side tables nearly useless.

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We had one substantive mechanical issue with our room.  A pipe burst above the toilet room on our second night (around 3am, I think).  (We had a pipe break in our room back during our stay in Tasmania, too!  Hopefully two is not a trend.)  It wasn’t gushing, just flowing slowly, so, owing to the hour, I put towels down and created a dam so the water wouldn’t leave the bathroom.

The next morning, I advised the front desk about the break and they sent someone out immediately.  The team of two had the pipe replaced, ceiling patched, taped, somewhat sanded and painted within three hours.  Impressive from a timing perspective – though painting wet sheetrock tape is not advisable.  The tape was already separating before our stay was over.  I hope they re-repaired this before the next guests took the room.

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Painting wet sheetrock usually doesn’t work!
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Remnants of flood and repair work (which was cleaned later in the day)

Each villa had its own golf cart and a little car port.  Some of the larger villas had two carts.  From our villa, we could walk to the hotel’s central building easily, though the cart was handy for riding down to the beach and to the Scape Park.  Occupants of some of the farthest villas might consider taking the cart even to get to the hotel’s central building.

Hotel staff seemed to have no problem with our children (or others’ children) driving the carts.  There were some long, wide cart paths around the Cap Cana property that we used for daily driving practice for the children.  Needless to say, the children loved the driving opportunity.  I’m pleased to report no damage was done, though hedges were hit twice (once by each child).

Beach and Pools

The hotel has a “beach club” which is about a 5 minute golf cart ride from the villas.

When you arrive at the beach club, it is as if you are arriving at a hotel.  And, indeed, while there are no hotel rooms open there at present, beach-front rooms are under construction and the beach club reception area will also serve as the reception area for those rooms.  It appears that anyone staying within the Cap Cana development (including houses) could make use of the beach club.  There also appeared to be a $50 “day pass” option for those not staying on the property, though I overheard one of the staffers say passes were only available on quiet days.

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The beach itself is in a somewhat protected cove, though still had pleasantly strong (but not too strong) waves.  During our visit (in February), the water was ideal.  Cool at first, but quickly very comfortable.  We ended up spending hours each day in the ocean.  The hotel had a handful of body boards that the kids (and even some adults) used to ride in on the waves.  We liked the beach here better than at the Four Seasons Costa Rica.

The water wasn’t crystal clear, but was fine for swimming.  The sand was very soft.

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Towel service at the beach was very good.  There were several fellows on hand who would set up chairs and towels for you.  Unlike the beach-side waiters, the chair/towel staff were really on their game and hustled.  Of note, one of the attendants, Boris, was particularly attentive.  This attentiveness was night-and-day different from the attentiveness of the drinks waiters.  (More on that below.)

There were more chairs than guests, which compares favorably to my Halekulani experience, where we sat on the grass most days.  Here, you could turn up any time and get a group of chairs.

One day (out of seven), there were two ladies sunbathing topless on the beach.  There was a sign behind the towel stand prohibiting topless sunbathing, though it clearly wasn’t enforced as the topless guests were looked after (keenly, I might add) by the beach attendants.  No other guests appeared to complain.

Near the beach were two larger pools.  These were a little warmer than our villa’s pool, and the kids spent time in each, too.  Having pool options nearby made for a nice way to mix things up versus the ocean.

There was some limited construction noise at the beach coming from the development of the new rooms.  While it was noticeable from time to time, it was mostly muted by the waves and sea breezes and was not an issue.  The pace of work on the new buildings was glacially slow.  I can’t say I’ve ever seen workers moving at a slower pace than the crew here.

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Finally, there was also a large, crescent-shaped pool back at the main lobby in the villa area.  We visited this pool several times, and in all of our stay (a week – with pretty much full occupancy), we never saw anyone else actually use this pool (or even sit by it).  As the rooms by the beach are completed, perhaps the pools down there will get busier, and make this villa-area pool more of a useful respite.  Until then, however, I suspect the crescent pool near the villas will continue to see very little use.

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This crescent pool had lots of corners to hide behind, which made it fun for the kids.  There was also a basketball hoop that you could shoot to from the water – we got a lot of use out of this.

Food and Beverage

Our experiences with the F&B team started off with a few low notes, but overall, was “fine,” and maybe even good, for a Caribbean property.

Room Service
When we arrived, the kids were hungry, so we ordered some sandwiches from room service while we unpacked and got settled.  When ordering, we were told it would be about 30 minutes.  An hour later, they still hadn’t delivered the food.  I called back to room service and was assured it would be very soon.  The delivery ultimately came in about 20 minutes, some 80 minutes after we ordered.  This was not the right way to start.

Later that evening, after some time at the beach, we went to the hotel lounge (part of the villa lobby building) and ordered some drinks, some appetizers and some milk shakes (special treat!) for the kids.  The drinks took well over 20 minutes (despite only two other tables being taken), the milk shakes longer and the appetizers pushed 45 minutes.  Between this experience and our room service earlier in the day, this was the Caribbean I was fearing.

Thankfully, things generally got better from there.  Each subsequent order from room service was delivered in less than 30 minutes.  In some cases, as little as 20 minutes.  While there were consistently language barriers ordering via room service, they generally figured things out, though a few times the person working the phones at room service had to call in the restaurant maitre d’ to help with translation.

One of the trickier items to order was milk.  Sometimes, we would get a glass of milk with ice, I think once the milk came steamed, and a few times they just sent a full carton of milk, along with a few glasses.  It got to be something we could make a friendly bet on – what sort of milk would we get.  (Thankfully, regardless of what the milk was, it arrived quickly!)

Restaurants
While the food was generally good, the dining options felt limited through the course of a one-week stay.  One of three restaurants listed in the in-villa literature was permanently closed, leaving just two dining venues – the “fancy” option, Mediterraneo (in the main building by the villas) and the Beach Club restaurant, La Palapa, which overlooked the beach.

Closed restaurant
Closed restaurant

By contrast, the Four Seasons in Costa Rica had three different dining venues for hotel guests, plus a fourth with some access for hotel guests.

Restaurants – Mediterraneo (and a bar: Riva)
Mediterraneo, the higher-end dinner option, was also where breakfast was served.  We ate dinner here once (taking advantage of our Virtuoso FHR amenity) and breakfast daily.  Service for both breakfast and dinner was consistently slow – with dinner taking over three hours.  It was even 45 minutes before the amuse was brought out for our dinner.  While a leisurely meal is nice, there is a line which leisurely turns into slow – and Mediterraneo was miles past that line.

Breakfast at Mediterraneo was a combination of cold buffet and a menu of hot items.  Consistent with the pace of dinner, coffee orders typically took over 15 minutes.

The food for both breakfast and dinner was of reasonably good quality, though the quality was overshadowed by the pace of service (particularly at dinner).

Mediterraneo
Mediterraneo

Next to Mediterraneo was a bar and lounge called Riva.  The drinks were well made here, but the service was fairly slow.  The pace was not as comedic as the main restaurant, but still a 15 minute wait in an otherwise empty lounge to get drinks was typical.

Riva
Riva

Restaurants – La Palapa
Open to the air and overlooking the beach, La Palapa is the property’s other dining venue.  La Palapa was my personal favorite of the two choices, as much for the views as well as the promptness of service.  Across perhaps seven or so meals here (a combination of lunches and dinners), the service was consistently at a reasonable pace and the staff was quite friendly.

La Palapa
La Palapa

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The menu was unusually expansive, with easily 30 different main course options to choose from spanning a wide variety of cuisine types.  I moved around the menu, not ordering the same thing twice and found each item to be really quite good.

Proving that service can actually be quick in the Caribbean, we turned up on Valentines Day night without a booking around 7pm.  Though no tables were seated at the time, we were told the restaurant was fully booked for the evening.  After the hostess turned us away, I asked to speak with the manager.  I asked him if all of the bookings were for before 8pm.  He said no.  I told him if he could serve the food quickly, we’d be gone before 8pm.  We had a deal, though he reiterated that we’d need to leave by 8pm so he could honor his bookings.  What do you know – the food was delivered within 10 minutes of ordering!  Almost too fast – this is something I would have said to be impossible in the Caribbean.

One quite frustrating aspect of our week-long stay was that there were two private events at La Palapa during our stay.  This eliminated the on-property casual dining option, leaving only the fancy (and painfully slow) Mediterraneo or room service as the only on-property options.  Management should not close their single casual dining option for private parties.  Period.

There was an additional restaurant near the beach in the beach club complex.  It was shuttered and seemingly undergoing a very slow renovation.

Beachside Food and Drink Service
The beach features a stand-alone bar which was typically well staffed, with four to six people working.  The bar offered a limited food menu, in addition to drinks.

Despite the more than adequate staffing, service here was close to non-existent.  The staff did little more than stand around and chat amongst themselves and the small number of patrons actually sitting at the bar.  No more frequently than once an hour, a staff member would do the rounds of those sitting on the beach, offering drinks.  So many people ordered that the actual delivery time was quite slow, as all of the orders seemed to be taken in batch mode.  Further, drinks were made and sometimes sat for too many minutes in the hot sun while one of the waiters was delivering a prior order.  We ordered frozen drinks once and by the time they made it to us, they were no longer frozen.

The only functional way to get drinks was to walk up to the bar and order them yourself.  (Tip to hotel management: encourage your staff to continuously circulate through the beach chairs.  You’ll find you might actually sell more drinks!)

Walk to the bar to get drinks
Walk to the bar to get drinks

Main Pool Swim-Up Bar
The main pool back near the lobby (not near the beach) also had a swim-up bar built into the pool, as well as a land-based sitting area.  We were told this was only open on weekends.  We were there on a weekend and did not see it open.  Considering there were no others at the main pool, I guess this isn’t unreasonable.  It is a bit of a downer to see a swim-up bar unused.

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Kids’ Camp

The hotel has a kids’ camp located in a stilted building in the middle of the shallow lagoon.  The club was staffed by two very nice young ladies.  On a few days, we dropped the kids off for two or so hours to have some relaxing time for adults.  The camp staff members were very nice and were actively engaged with the children.  Language was a bit of a barrier, but they tried very hard.

One drawback was the camp hours were haphazard.  They typically opened 20-30 minutes after the scheduled opening time, and if no children were at the camp, sometimes they would close mid-day.  We turned up once in the middle of the day to find the camp doors locked.  We returned an hour or so later and the young lady working said no one had come earlier and she went to do some other tasks.  This was frustrating.

One of the camp staff members also did babysitting for us on several nights.

Gym and Spa

We didn’t visit either (though I did enjoy some early morning runs through the Cap Cana compound).  A friend was also at the property at the same time we were and was disappointed with both – which kept us away.

Gym and Spa
Gym and Spa

They also offered bicycles.

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The Scape Park

Located perhaps two miles from the hotel but still within the Cap Cana compound was something called The Scape Park.  While it looked like there were interesting activities, the set up of the facility wasn’t really clear till we got there.

The Scape Park offers six or seven distinct two-hour activities.  We signed up for cave swimming and dune buggy riding.  Each were fairly expensive (two to three hundred dollars per activity for our family of four), but each were highly enjoyable.

Other activities available included zip lining, horseback riding and a waterfall expedition.

You could easily spend a few hours here on each of several days during a visit and enjoy some memorable activities.

Booking your activities a few days in advance seemed essential.

The facility was principally set up to cater to off-property guests, and there were multiple shuttle buses taking guests to and from various lower-end hotels in the surrounding area.  The Eden Roc front office had arranged for us to be picked up and taken to the Scape Park for our first activity, but their transportation never turned up.

We ended up driving our golf cart here each time.   The return trips pushed the outer limit of the cart’s range, but we made it each time.

The Surprise on the Bill

After I made the booking at the hotel, I called to pre-confirm a roll-away bed for the room.  (The kids won’t easily co-exist on a small sofabed.)  At first they said they wouldn’t bring in a roll-away, because it wouldn’t fit.  When I attempted to cancel the booking, the reservations department relented, and decided it would fit.  Upon arrival, I was again told the roll-away wouldn’t fit.  Having seen photos of the suites, I was certain there would be a way to make it fit comfortably and pointed out that a roll-away was in fact confirmed with our booking.  As luck would have it, the roll-away fit just fine.

Upon check-out, we were surprised to see a $300 per night (plus tax and service charge) addition for the roll-away!  This totaled about $2,300 for our seven night stay!  I have seen a varierty of roll-away bed fees over the years, but nothing like this.  Heck, I could have purchased a bed and had it delivered for less than $1,000.  There was no mention of the charge on my original confirmation nor did they advise me of the charge at check-in.  After two discussions with the front desk, they agreed to remove the charge completely.  It is fine to charge for the roll-away, but (a) their price was higher than I’d ever seen by several multiples and (b) I was not advised of any charge for the bed.  This (removing the charge completely) was obviously the best outcome, but such a large, unannounced charge really left a negative taste.

Notable Staff Members

While I typically don’t flag specific staff members, there were five members of the property’s staff which really stood out.  Hugo and Gabriela in the front office, Marina and Sergio at La Palapa and Boris, a beach attendant, consistently went out of their way to make our stay a pleasant one.

VIP Airport Arrivals Service

Of note, the hotel was also able to arrange VIP service at the airport for arrivals.  We didn’t take them up on this.  The cost was over $100 per person, if I recall correctly, with no scale benefit for a family of four.  The only real benefit of the service is an agent greets you at the bottom of the steps from the plane and escorts you to the terminal, avoiding the bus ride and taking you through the crew queue at immigration.  Though several planes had arrived just before us, thankfully, they had roughly ten agents screening passengers and the regular screening queue moved quite rapidly.

About half of the first class cabin on our plane had signed up for the service.  That said, all things are equalized once you have to wait for bags, and we were out of the airport sooner than any of the guests buying the VIP service.

Had the immigration screening queues taken hours (or even tens of minutes), then perhaps the service would have been worth it.  I was happy to have not purchased it.

It wasn’t clear if there was a similar service for departures.

* * * * *

Despite some nontrivial hiccups, overall, I left reasonably pleased with our stay.  The facilities were reasonably nice enough and the service was reasonably attentive – notable for me, a pretty firm doubter of Caribbean properties.  My wife, on the other hand, found some of the hiccups to be too much – and dining options too limited (particularly with the frequent closures of La Palapa) – to put the property on her “do not return” list.

The week long stay, food and beverage and on-property activities ended up costing about $14,000.  Considering this was a peak February break week, I found the costs to be pretty reasonable for a family of four – certainly when compared to the cost at Amanera or leading properties on nearby islands.  When factoring in the price (which I factor in a bit more than she may), I’d be willing to return in the future, as the property could easily be considered a value play in the lower luxury category.

Because it is on the boss’s “no” list, however, I doubt we’ll be returning.  Readers wouldn’t be crazy to give it a try.

Details

Eden Roc at Cap Cana
http://www.edenroccapcana.com/
+1 809 469 7469
@EdenRocCapCana

Scape Park
http://www.scapepark.com/en/
@scapepark1

 

 

 

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