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Outdoor merengue lessons are taught at the Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach resort in Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

Seth Kugel, New York Times

A Caribbean paradise for a pittance

  • Article by: SETH KUGEL
  • New York Times
  • December 22, 2012 - 1:55 PM

Sometime this winter, many of you might wonder: What's the least it would cost to skip town and head to a Caribbean resort, leaving behind scarves, snowbanks and sniffling co-workers?

The wily Internet will sense your desperation and beckon you with cheap deals promising sand and sun for a pittance.

Those packages will sound mighty good, and really cheap, but are they actually either? I certainly never believed they could be as good as promised, but in service of the shivering souls, I decided to call the Web's digital bluff, search for the absolute cheapest all-inclusive Caribbean package -- and then actually go. Any beach on any island would do. Just show me the lack of money.

I started with three sites that offer affordable packages: Groupon Getaways, Liberty Travel and CheapCaribbean.com as well as another, Travelzoo, that compiles deals from those and others. After searching and re-searching, shaving down the price as far as I could go, I declared a winner: four days and three nights for $561.86 via CheapCaribbean.com. The site of my late-October escape? The Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach in Bayahibe, Dominican Republic.

That price, I think you'll agree, is suspiciously low, especially because it included airfare, airport transfers, a standard room, meals and whatever else "all-inclusive" includes. Surely Viva Wyndham would try to nickel and dime me once I arrived. I vowed to keep the total cost under $600, even if it involved suffering.

It did not. The beach was palm-saturated and fine-sanded; the water, pastel-colored and just cool enough to refresh. The food was tolerable and certainly plentiful. Alcohol -- this was where I was sure they would get me -- was free. My room, with a king-size bed and perfectly acceptable bathroom, was maybe about Holiday Inn-level, which is better than I'm used to. Including the $14.50 it cost me to and from Kennedy Airport by subway and AirTrain, $9 in four tips I handed out to drivers and luggage toters, and a $5 bottle of Barcelo Anejo rum, my total cost came to $590.36, door to door. (It's true that I did not go during high season, and prices go up during the winter months.)

It was also all very, very easy. This was Wonder Bread travel: easy on the palate if not altogether healthy.

I was met at the Santo Domingo airport by a guy with a CheapCaribbean.com clipboard and a van. He dropped off two couples at other resorts before dropping me off at Viva Wyndham, where we arrived in about 90 minutes, just before noon. I couldn't check in until 3 p.m., but I could leave my luggage, change in a public bathroom and get onto the beach.

I made a brief stop at the poolside bar on the way, gawking at the crowd of all ages, some of whom seemed to be on their second or third bright pink Singapore Sling of the day. The sun was blazing, merengue music was pumping, children were frolicking. I flip-flopped over to the beach, which was protected by palm trees of two distinct heights to create a solid (and particularly paradisiacal) backdrop.

Then I noticed something odd -- most people were speaking Italian. I'd find out later that the resort's president is Italian, and that Italian tourists tend to dominate year-round. This made making friends -- and avoiding secondhand smoke -- a bit more challenging.

I wandered the resort, investigating what was included and what was not. Massages started at $35, snorkeling trips at $50. Both were out. Agents from outside travel companies staffed desks selling excursions, also not for me. The beach was my goal, and when sand and surf and a Kindle full of books got dull, I took out a free kayak or joined a pickup volleyball game.

As for the food, it was just fine. If you're used to surviving on burned toast at hostel breakfasts and free appetizers at happy hours, this was a smorgasbord: salad bar, cold cuts, fresh bread, rice and beans, baked fish, sliced ham, a pizza bar, a pasta bar, an antipasto bar (yay, Italians!), even a "diet corner." Coffee and fresh fruit juice for breakfast; soda and beer and wine on self-serve taps for lunch and dinner.

Sure, there were weaknesses, but anyone who expected more for the price, please direct complaints to the nearest mirror.

I had scheduled my return flight for 7:45 p.m., hoping for a full last day in the sun, but instead we got socked with the torrential rains that would become Hurricane Sandy. Aside from guest rooms, no place was safe from the rain. In fact, just as the staff moved merengue lessons to the indoor stage, the ceiling cracked and water poured (amusingly) on the dancers' heads.

The resort was awash and the day was a wash. But oddly enough, I couldn't have been happier. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, I imagined, disappointed travelers had paid $600 a night for some high-end room that maybe included breakfast. I had paid less for the entire trip.

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