April 5, 2022

Thoughts on Dreams Punta Cana (And Why I Hate All-Inclusives)

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Before I dive into this post, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I am well aware of the privilege I had in being able to travel to a beautiful, but economically poor Caribbean country. My abundance is not lost on me. I’m not going to apologize for traveling; part of my authentic code is expansion through travel. But I do want to acknowledge my opportunity in this and hopefully provide some valuable insight if you are planning to travel to the DR and support tourism there.

This is a lengthy post and it’s kind of all over the place (ADHD ) so I’m going to break it down in case you want to cut to one section or are revisiting: 

All guests at Dreams Punta Cana get a free photo session which we took them up on and we ended up purchasing the photos.

Dreams Punta Cana Review

Ryan and I went to the DR with my whole family including our two toddlers (Forest, 18 months, and Marina, 3), my parents, my brother and his girlfriend, and my parents’ neighbor and her boyfriend, so we wanted a place that would be easy for us all to be together and relatively inexpensive. We stayed at Dreams Punta Cana Resort and Spa which is a modestly priced but beautiful all-inclusive resort set in Uvero Alto Beach, about 40 minutes from the Punta Cana International airport. 

This is the view of the upstairs main lobby where you check in.
Another view of the entrance of the resort – this was taken from the lobby.

The resort itself is exceptionally beautiful and clean with lush greenery everywhere you look. They take immaculate care of the landscaping and it shows. The staff is incredibly attentive and service is impeccable. There were never any long wait times (we actually never had to wait for a table at all). For the most part, we ate on the earlier side every day since we were traveling with kiddos, so that may have played a role. For breakfast, we always got there before 9 and for dinner, it was usually 6:30 or 7. 

The pool was a massive lazy-river style expanse that weaved throughout the entire resort. You have a 50% chance of getting a poolside view. Bonus: I never felt like anyone was on top of us. Quite the opposite, there was often no one around, and I was there over spring break! Plus there were lots of areas where it was shallow enough for the kids to play and where you didn’t feel super nerve-wracking anxiety. Obviously, we still had to be with them the whole time, but it’s just nice to have a spot where they can be in the water but still be able to walk around and play without being held. 

The view of the pool was beautiful — the huts were so

The regular rooms were pretty standard, but if you upgraded to be a Preferred Guest (which my parents did) you got a wayyy bigger room. My parents’ room was huge, like a small apartment – complete with walk-in closet and separate living room area apart from the bedroom. In retrospect we probably should have switched with my parents so we could have more room with the kids and all. That’s the only real reason to upgrade to Preferred because the other “amenities” that come with it aren’t worth it.

Either way, a regular room is plenty! We had a king size bed that Ryan, Marina, and I slept in together and enough room for a crib for Forest to sleep in. Request a view of the beach if available at check-in. That was one thing I wish I did! 

Food Options on the Resort

Not a fan of all the fried foods, hot dogs, or hamburgers that were staples at the resort. I was expecting to eat more authentic Dominican food!

So here’s where I sound like a total a**hole: the food at this resort was pretty disappointing for the most part. There were definitely some outliers and some healthy options which I talk about below, but I wouldn’t ever consider visiting Dreams, Punta Cana for a foodie experience. You’re there to enjoy the gorgeous beaches and the weather, but the food is not their forte. 

It being a resort and all, there were lots of different food options, including:

Barefoot Grill: Grilled staples served beachside. The shrimp ceviche and Greek salad were delicious. I combined them to make one big salad for lunch one afternoon. It was so nice to have a big healthy salad on the beach! Definitely pass on the hot dogs, I’m not sure what they were made from but they were the mushiest dogs I’ve ever had. The burgers were also meh. Always overdone and lacked any flavor.

Bordeaux: This restaurant was only open every other night for dinner and was adults-only (18+). We ended up not getting a chance to go, but I wasn’t super bummed about it because my parents went and said it was their least favorite meal (which is saying a lot because again, the food in general wasn’t that great.). 

Coco Cafe: Small coffee shop open 24 hours stocked with apples, bananas, and baked goods. It was convenient to stop here for fruit, which we did often when the other restaurants were closed. I wished they had other healthy snack options, and other fruit options besides apples and bananas would also have been nice. They did have pretty good lattes, though.

Himitsu: À la carte restaurant specializing in Asian cuisine. We only ate here once and weren’t super impressed. They basically had two options: a beef dish and a chicken dish that both ended up coming in the same sauce. The fried rice was pretty good but it’s hard to mess up fried rice, ya know. Definitely pass on the sushi unless you love cream cheese (it was in every roll).

La Trattoria: An Italian-inspired “ristorante” serving gourmet pizza at lunch and a wide selection of gourmet pasta and pizza at dinner. Coming from the northeast, the pizza was pretty underwhelming (we have high standards!), but the gorgeous location made up for it. 

Oceana: Best view out of all the restaurant options. Open every other day for dinner (alternating with Bordeaux) for fresh, grilled seafood specialties. It was also open for breakfast and lunch for preferred members. If you’re a Preferred Club member, you have special access to Oceana at breakfast and lunch, too, but honesty I don’t think it’s worth it just for the food upgrades considering the food is exactly the same in both locations. You do have a much better view of the beach at Oceana, though. But you have that same exact view of the beach… at the beach haha.

Portofino: Italian gourmet à la carte dining in an elegant atmosphere. I got the “Osso Bucco” here which was probably the worst meal I’ve ever had.

World Cafe: Huge buffet featuring everything from a smoothie station to a sushi bar. 

We ate here most often since it was the easiest to get to, had the most options, and we were always able to get a table outside so the kids could run around without bothering anyone.

Every morning we hit up the omelet station and loaded it up with veggies and sometimes steak. Make sure you befriend Yahaira on day 1, she will hook you up! Some days we made our omelet into a burrito because they were too dang hard to resist. We usually paired that with some local in-season fruits like papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, or banana. 

Every morning we got omelets and fresh fruit! It was the best option for breakfast by far.
A typical breakfast for my 3-year-old at World Cafe: a fried egg and local fruit.
A typical plate of food for my kids.
My 1-year-old preferred scrambled eggs. As long as they got some sort of egg and fruit I was happy!

We always got their coffee – it was delicious! Ryan drinks his black, but I like a little milk in mine. The milk option wasn’t the best, they only offered 2% milk, it wasn’t organic, and it had some additives in it, but again, we did the best we could.

Pro tip: In the morning, grab a paper cup from Coco Cafe next door (or better yet, bring your own reusable bag) and fill it with almonds from the granola station at World Cafe so you can snack on them later! I was bummed I only saw these on the last day of our trip, but they came in really handy as a snack on the plane ride home.

For lunch and dinner, World Cafe always had AMAZING grilled chicken so we had that for at least one meal a day. Just do yourself a favor and get the grilled chicken every single day. It was honestly the best option in the entire resort. Sometimes we paired it with rice or potatoes for the kids. Sometimes we paired it with salad – there were lots of veggie and fruit options to make a really hearty salad. The dressing options were sad so we always just did olive oil and fresh lime juice (they have lots of cut-up limes).

I got in the habit of snagging some chicken and storing it in our mini-fridge for the kids the next day (because they were napping during the lunch window)

They also had a panini press which was pretty dope. On our last day, Ryan made our WHOLE family giant sandwiches (they were embarrassingly huge) and the staff was kind enough to wrap them for us! Super convenient and saved us from buying $20 airport sandwiches or being stuck with a super unhealthy option. 

Vacation Parent Hack

Since World Cafe (and most of the restaurants in the resort) was closed from 11-12:30, it never worked out for us to bring the kids anywhere for lunch before their naps. We needed to put them down around 12 or else they would get overtired. 

So I figured out that I could head over to World Cafe the night before and pick up some of their delicious chicken and some sides and ask one of the staff to wrap it for me. I would store it in our mini-fridge in our room and give it to the kids the next day. They were always so wiped from playing at the beach all morning they never minded that it was cold, and they just really loved that chicken. Then they’d take a nap with full bellies and sleep for 2+ hours! 

A typical lunch we ate in the DR — grilled chicken, hard boiled egg, bananas, chomps beef jerkey, LMNT electrolyte packs, and Pique Tea
I'd usually have some of their leftovers, too! When all else failed I gave them some fruit pouches and beef jerky we brought from home.

It gave me peace of mind knowing they’d have at least one healthy meal and they were less distracted because we were alone in our room. Dinner was always hit or miss! 

What the Kids Ate

It was definitely challenging to navigate Marina’s diet (she’s three). With Forest (18 months) we could get away with it more, but the little lady is well aware of how tasty pancakes and donuts are. I will never deprive my kids of certain food groups or of making their own choices (even if I don’t like them), because that will only lead to them wanting it more. With Marina, I always explained the benefits of making certain choices and sometimes had to give her limits. 

The key was to repeatedly explain to her that we need a balance of nutritious foods as well as junk foods throughout the day. Even at home, I always explain to her why we need a balance of carbs, protein, and fats. I try to put it into language that a three-year-old would understand: We need to eat some protein to help build our muscles so we can play in the pool longer! Let’s eat some healthy fats like avocado to nourish our brains so we can dance and play without getting crabby! Ice cream is so tasty! But if we eat too much, we’ll get a tummy ache later we’ll feel super crabby. We won’t be able to play nicely with Forest!

My kids love fruit so that was easy. I tried to load them up on that as much as I could so that I felt better about other things they were eating. They didn’t like the omelets, but we were able to ask for just over-easy eggs and they ate that. 

Fruit was always a big hit, especially mango and pineapple.
You could get fruit anywhere on the resort, all the restaurants carried it so you could just walk in and grab some. They also set up a fruit stand by the pool in the afternoon.

Seed Oils PSA

Being at an all-inclusive resort like that for the first time in probably a decade really showed me how far I’ve come in my food journey. As soon as I saw all the different variations of pizza, danishes, and bread, images of 12-year-old me gorging on cookies and pasta came flooding back to me. There were also some really stark reminders of progress I’ve made more recently, in my ADHD journey. The more wholesome protein options were things like omelets and chicken, which were all cooked in inflammatory seed oils. 

Side note: I’m merely a layperson, but health is one of my biggest priorities and I spend many, many hours geeking out over it. It’s how I spend a large chunk of my free time. After doing extensive research on this, I’ve cut industrial seed oils out of our diets completely (with the exception of when we go out to eat, which we try to limit to 1x a week.) Linked resources for your own research: 1, 2, 3, 4. It’s fascinating stuff.

Let me be clear, no shade to people who use these oils, you do you! But in healing my ADHD I’ve made a choice for me and my family to avoid them. The evidence is stark: industrial seed oils are incredibly inflammatory and medical research now shows that the gut-brain connection plays a critical role in mental disorders such as ADHD. Consuming seed oils regularly is linked to ADHD symptoms as well as Alzheimer’s, depression, and other mental disorders, so I try to stay away as much as possible. 

On this trip however, they were impossible to avoid. I tried not to stress about it too much and just did the best I could. (Another reason while I’ll opt for apartment-style vacations whenever possible from here on out is you have the freedom to cook your own food.) 

What We Brought From Home

With that being said, we didn’t stress about it too much considering we’re on vacation and don’t eat like this all the time. But we did plan for it and brought lots of snacks from home, although I wish we’d brought more! I ran out of Kion bars pretty early on the trip, for a 7-day stay I should have brought 10 or 12 bars because Ryan ended up eating some too… even though he claims he doesn’t like them. Weird.

We also brought organic grass-fed beef sticks, Hu gems, Simple Mills crackers (we should have brought 2 boxes for a week), applesauce, Mamma Chia prebiotic pouches, and Cerebelly bars.

We came well-stocked with snacks! We probably could've done with one more box of crackers and a few more Mamma Chia pouches.
These little Chomplings are so cute!! And came in really handy. My kids never finish a whole one.

I was so grateful I packed some electrolyte packets and dissolvable tea packets! Those were clutch. I thought maybe this would be excessive, but I brought a bag of Chia seeds and I’m SO glad I did!! Chia seeds are amazing for digestion and when you’re on vacation, especially one where you don’t have much control over food choices, you need all the help you can get in that department, ya know what I mean?

Hospitality at the Resort

I have to acknowledge the staff at the resort. Top notch. Every single person was incredibly helpful, courteous and accommodating (especially considering we were a big group and came with two toddlers in tow!). Simon and Yahaira at World Cafe were all-stars, but everyone was truly so amazing. We never had a bad experience and service was always super quick! Even when they didn’t speak English or understand what we were saying, they were the nicest, ever. 

There was a really funny incident early in the trip where I unknowingly walked into World Cafe as they were shutting down breakfast. (I was there looking for the famous grilled chicken to give the kids before their naps!) One of the staff saw I looked confused and asked if I needed help (in Spanish). I asked if he had any grilled chicken but he didn’t speak English so he didn’t understand. I tried asking him in Portuguese since it’s so similar to Spanish, but I said something like “Can I please have some grilled chicken? Not fried please, just grilled.” The guy nodded emphatically and headed into the kitchen. Sweet.

But clearly, I didn’t get the message across because the next thing I saw was this poor guy coming at me with a plate of wrapped raw chicken asking if this is what I wanted . I said oh, could you please grill it? He went back to the kitchen, then promptly returned – again with raw chicken . After a few more attempts to translate, and two more guys getting involved, he came back with fresh *cooked* chicken he had made especially for me, even though the place was closed and they were in the middle of setting up for lunch. The whole incident was so sweet and just shows how the staff truly goes above and beyond for any request. Also, my kids loved the chicken!

Side note: I do not recommend asking the staff for special requests like this, I think it’s rude considering there are so many options at the resort. Honestly, if he had told me they were out of chicken and to come back later, I would have said no problem! I had no idea he was going to come back with *fresh* chicken . Later that day I came up with my vacation hack of getting the grilled chicken the night before to give my kids the next day.

Would I recommend Dreams Punta Cana Resort and Spa?

It depends what kind of vacation you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a no-frills place with access to a beach and amazing weather, absolutely GO! 

The resort itself is stunning, with lush greenery all over the property that I couldn’t help but take 300 pictures of. Obviously, the beach area was heavenly, with tons of chairs and these cute little wooden and palm leaf umbrellas. The rooms were a good size and I don’t think it is necessary to upgrade to Preferred status. 

Dreams is not the most lavish place to stay in the DR, but it’s relatively affordable and the staff is extremely attentive and friendly. You cannot walk by anyone without them saying Hola (we heard it probably 500 times a day). 

As far as food, there were some healthy options (noted in detail above), although I wish there had been more Dominican food, which was one of the biggest things I was looking forward to. When I travel to another country, I want to experience the culture, and food is one of the biggest ways to do that. For that reason alone, I wouldn’t stay at this resort again, but instead would try to stay in a city center where I could venture to different restaurants and have access to a supermarket.  

You also don’t really get to see much of the country (unless you pay extra for an excursion) or interact with locals in their element, two of my favorite parts of visiting someplace new. They didn’t even play Dominican music at all which I was super bummed about because I’m actually a pretty good bachata dancer! It was mostly American pop, which I guess is because they are catering to mostly Americans. Side note, I was there over St. Patrick’s Day and was pretty shocked at how huge of a deal it was over there. Almost the entire staff was dressed as leprechauns which was unexpected and a bit disorienting .

Don’t hate me, but I also think that from a sustainability and ethical standpoint, there’s probably a ton of food waste that happens in a place like this, which breaks my heart. We made a super conscious effort to only put on our plates what we were actually going to eat. It’s tough to do with littles but I think having that intention makes a difference. Plus I think it’s also a great opportunity to talk about food waste with young kids. 

Would I travel to another all-inclusive resort in the future?

It depends. But likely not anytime soon. First of all, I’ve had my fill of buffets for a long time, haha! But most importantly, I really didn’t like the feeling of being in a bubble. 

To me, the beauty of travel is immersing yourself in the people, food, dance, wine, music, whatever! An all-inclusive feels a little like Disney World. I know this may rub people the wrong way, but I would rather skip a trip to Epcot and instead go and actually see the Eiffel Tower or sunbathe on a Moroccan beach. Disney lovers please don’t come @ me! I think Disney is great and I will absolutely take my kids there once, I’m not a monster. But it doesn’t align with who I am as a person.

So that was it! If you’re planning your own Dominican Republic vacation or headed to an all-inclusive, I hope this was helpful! 

Without a doubt, my mom manifested this trip. It was a dream of hers for us to all go on vacation together!

How to Support the People of the Dominican Republic

Despite being one of the fastest-growing Latin American countries and having a booming tourism industry, more than 30% of Dominicans still live in poverty. With limited access to healthcare, sanitation, and socioeconomic mobility (outside of tourism), the DR is in dire need of reform and aid.

There are many vetted organizations committed to alleviating poverty and improving the socioeconomic status of the Dominican people. Here are three of them:

The Mariposa DR Foundation

The Mariposa DR Foundation seeks to minimize both the gender gap and generational poverty through the education and empowerment of young girls. Their goal is to create sustainable solutions for holistic girls’ education.

The DREAM Project 

The DREAM Project focuses on “early childhood education, high-quality primary education and holistic youth development.” Volunteers for the DREAM Project come from all over the U.S. and are never too young; a six-year-old can donate pencils and a girl once raised funds for the project at her bat mitzvah. The project provides aid to over 7,000 children in the Dominican Republic through holistic youth development into adolescence.

Yspaniola Incorportated

Through university scholarships, a literacy center, and community development, Yspaniola Incorporated provides resources for individuals to access local networks and rise out of poverty. They are currently raising money for healthy lunches for preschoolers.

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