Dominican Republic Kosher Restaurant & Hotel in Puerto Plata – Part II
The below article is from 2015. See the 2019 update here.
In this article, more details about a trip to the Lifestyle resort with kosher restaurant and synagogue will be explored. If you haven’t read the first article, you probably should go over there now and read it.
A map of the resort is available here with the landmarks spoken about below. Here’s a small embedded version. Zoom in to the cluster of pointers in the upper left to find the resort itself:
[Click any image to enlarge.] The resort breaks up its beaches into fairly deep and narrow strips. Depending on the beach, there are various beds with mattresses, canopies, hammocks, swings, and so forth on the beaches along with a bar and non-kosher food at almost every beach. (More on the bars in the below section.) There’s no way of getting around this issue: tznious [modesty] is an issue at the entire resort including even in the kosher restaurant. Even the synagogue itself has windows along both sides, though it’s away from most foot traffic. Back to the beaches – we never found them empty but the VIP beaches were usually less crowded and in the morning there were few people on the beaches, and by about 4pm they began to clear out again.
The pictures on the right were taken about 10:30 in the morning … if you look closely, you’ll see the one person I covered up, but as you can see, it was mostly empty. No one at all was in the water in this section (NV Beach) so we had some nice swimming. Serenity beach was the same way, except much, much wider so there was room to be alone there as well. Most of the people who were at the beach tended to hang out by the bar. If you want a drink, you can also go to the bar … or staff comes to you.
Pools also ubiquitous at the resort. If you want a private pool, rent a house. If you want your own time in a public pool for reasons of modesty … again, morning hours or late afternoon is best. If there are people in one pool, you can simply find one of many other pools by walking around. Many also have cabanas where you can have privacy.
Bars are situated near a lot of the pools and most of the beaches. The staff is very friendly but Spanish is their first language. My suggestion is to bring with you a list of approved kosher alcohol, such as the Star-K kosher alcohol list so you can figure out what you can drink. You don’t pay anything extra to drink as much as you want (or your wife lets). The beer on tap was quite good, the rum is local (so long as it’s unflavored, it doesn’t need certification), Jack Daniel’s is good anywhere, but their mixed whiskey drinks … eh. (Cold sodas and water are also available . . . but we all know the soda is better when you add rum.)
About a ten minute walk away is “Ocean World” which is owned by the same group. It’s included with your “VIP bracelet” ($25/person) and it’s sort of like a minature SeaWorld without the killer whales which hasn’t been attacked by lawyers and government over regulation. You can go snorkeling in their artificial reef (equipment cleaned with Listerine between each use), go in the parakeet cage and have the birds swarm all over you, watch animals shows, and for $10 extra, go down their water slides. The place isn’t so large, but again, very friendly and you can have a great time. It’s maybe about a 3 to 6 hour activity.
After our next trip, I fully intend to expand this section. However, as we found out most excursions run midweek and you need to reserve the day before. If you’re going to spend a whole week, go Sunday to Sunday. If you’re going to spend part of a week, go Sunday to Thursday. For obvious reasons, Shabbos isn’t an option and on Sunday a whole lot less is available to do outside the resort. In fact, many of the excursions are Tuesday, Wednesday, and/or Thursday only.
First, find yourself a reliable taxi driver. Sometimes you can find one just outside the entrance to the resort or you can use the tourist directory in a drawer under the Gideon’s bible next to your bed. For about $60/day, they’ll take you wherever you want to go. This might include the fortress (if you’ve seen one fortress, you’ve seen them all), the rum factory ($4 for a 750 ml bottle), and of course, the cable car to the top of the mountain. [Again, click on pictures for a larger view.] You can get a ‘city tour’ for not much more, but most of the time is spent taking you to gift shops while you wait for an American tourist to ask how much every little idol costs, all of them being within 10% of each other while having no idea how to bargain. On that note, Larimar is a rock found only on the island and is used to make jewellery if you want to find something nice from the island.
Other more adventurous excursions include horse back riding, swimming and hiking at the 27 waterfalls (Las Cascadas de Damajagua), and ATV riding. The ATV is best for one reason – you leave the tourist area and go riding in rural areas where you see how actual people live. While there are plenty of “middle class” houses, out in the rural areas we passed many shacks like the ones to the right. Incomes in unskilled workers are about $6/day!
It is highly recommended to get the VIP wrist band. The lifestyle resorts have many different classes of visitors. At the lowest end were the locals who rented rooms in the not so nice section of the resort for $30/night to fill up space during the down season when we were there. At the highest level are those who own property at the resort. Somewhere in between are the “members” and guests of those members. Different classes of people get different wrist bands. My wife managed to collect four on one wrist. Make sure you have a VIP wrist band. This gets you: a) pick-up / drop-off from the airport at no extra charge, b) shuttles around the resort, c) access to the nicer, more private, and more secluded beaches which are a must to mitigate the tznious problems in such a place, d) more respect from the staff.
One warning / the worst part of our trip – the have guys who work on commission who try to sell you “membership.” If you want it and you’re into that sort of thing (pay fees for cheaper room rates in the future), go for it. Otherwise, they act just like timeshare salesmen with free “gifts” and gimmicks to get you to pay. When you check in, they ask you to choose free bottles of alcohol. Then they tell you “okay, go pick it up at the ‘VIP’ building.” Then there are the overly friendly staff with khaki button down shirts and Indiana Jones hats . . . one offered us a “free tour” to welcome us. The tour took us directly to the building in question where he sat us down in front of a screen and said, “fill out this form so I can get my commission.” We walked out as soon as we realized what the “free tour” really was. Side note – this same guy gave me us a ride later in his golf cart. I didn’t realize it was him. I tipped him a dollar for the ride … it seemed like the right thing to do.
Our recommendation – come with a stack of dollar bills and give one to everyone who provides good service. They appreciate it and it’s a kiddush Hashem (I think). A worker at this resort makes about $6/day or less than $200/mo. Most workers I spoke to (after asking me if I was from Israel … I was way back, but…) were traditional, meaning they value marriage and have children. It’s very difficult for them to live on this salary. Seriously, rather than a key card entry system or some other form of electronic gate and cameras that we see in the United States, there are fifty different gates manned at all times by a guy whose job it is to manually raise and lower it. The guy in the picture smiled for me as he’s required to do, but that could be his son in the shack eating mango on the street.
In “ocean world” it was like this with the workers … “the resort says $30 if you want your picture with a lion or macaw [glance to see if anyone is looking] … or just come with me and I’ll take your picture.” Right next to them was a conspicuous tip box with a $5 bill … we saw this same box and same $5 in it multiple times. The only place where they will actually outright ask you for a tip is at the airport with the baggage handlers.
This is one area which leaves something to be desired. Outside our room were three plates when we got there … a few days later, it was about 15 plates and a glass. We just watched the pile grow. In our room, they have this strict towel policy (towels are great for bartering with in the Caribbean . . . a relative of mine once got a nice wrist watch in exchange for a cruise ship towel). We had to fight to get our towels returned after the first day and then only got some of them.
The jets in our tub didn’t work and the people at the table next to us told us how theirs shot across about a 6′ expanse, over the night table, and soaked their bed. Our air conditioner leaked destroying part of the ceiling tiles. To their credit, they did come and fix the leak right away … but didn’t fix our jets. We also heard stories about the front desk hanging up on people and ignoring all complaints made.
Our travel agent’s info after we booked said to notify them if there’s a problem and they can help. They seem to be aware that the local staff isn’t so quick to help. We didn’t go that far, but …
Here’s a total breakdown – Airfare: $600/person + $25/bag from New York. Hotel room: $110 – $140/night for rooms that hold between 2-6 people. Kosher food: $150/day ($75/day child). Safe: $3/day. Alcohol at all bars: included. Transportation: included. VIP usage: $25/person. Onside beaches, sports courts (including tennis racket usage), entertainment, and Ocean World: included. Water slides at Ocean World: $10/person. Tipping: <$35.
This section is obviously subjective to our experience. First, according to the Rabbi, most who go are Sephardic, and more specifically, Bukharian. Since they raised the price, the percentage has switched to more Ashkenazi. Make of that what you will. Second, tznious is a huge issue. The frum Jews who go tend to be ‘to the left’ for this reason. The Rabbi told me of some of his own relatives who won’t visit him there any more, took off their glasses while there, and used side paths. (The use of side paths is relatively easy in many places, e.g. to avoid the pool area when going from your room to the kosher restaurant and synagogue.) When on transportation, you can also sit in the front row … the mode of dress there is pretty immodest. However, at other times, such as in the busy “Tropical Lobby” where excursions leave from, it’s impossible to avoid. We did our best to mitigate the issue.
The resort has nightly entertainment. The only “kosher entertainment” according to the Rabbi is the magic show. Other entertainment includes a “VIP party” – there were literally women standing in high heels and white dresses (some actually fairly tznious) on white pedestals. As people walked in, they got their pictures with women on either side of them. No comment.
On the other hand, everyone was very respectful and very relaxed. There’s no anti-semitism and most tourists, whether Jewish, hispanic, or you know… plain old white guy, seemed to be from New Jersey. If anyone thought anything of my wife’s tznious bathing suit and hair covering, no one said a thing and we felt quite comfortable.
The bottom line is if you want a “proper” vacation which includes: a) three kosher meals a day of a quality where you wouldn’t be ashamed to invite your non yet kosher relative, b) a synagogue, c) a plethora of fun out door activities, there aren’t many choices. This is one of those choices and is one which we will probably revisit.