The Miami Herald

Rambling all-inclusive near Puerto Plata, D.R.

On a sun-drenched afternoon in the Dominican Republic, a young bride stood under a cloudless sky, draped in lace and her dark hair covered in a wisp of veil. The groom was dapper in a light linen suit, his fingers interlaced with hers. The woman said ''I do'' in Spanish; he responded in kind. Family and friends toasted the union with champagne; I raised my Happy Happy cocktail, wishing them well despite not knowing their names or their love story.

Such is the all-inclusiveness at Lifestyle Hacienda, a rambling resort on Cofresi Beach near the town of Puerto Plata, where boundaries blur and strangers fleetingly bond. I arrived alone, yet at different points during my four-day stay I was a (surprise!) guest at a wedding, a member of a 21-person posse from Wisconsin and a paddler on a two-person kayak team. I also traded Spanish words -- la playa, la piscina, donde esta? -- with a staff member-cum-language teacher, and volleys with the tennis pro. I was even a VIP member, for a split second, before getting tossed out.

By design, the property can be somewhat exclusive. Guests fit into one of three categories, depending on their package and accommodations: Vitalis Garden Club, which has the most limited access to restaurants and pools; Crown Residence Suites and the Tropical Beach Resort and Spa, which have more amenities but still some restrictions; and Crown Villas, whose VIPs have total run of the place.

My cream-on-white hotel room was within splashing distance of the various watering holes -- the drinking and swimming kinds. The room was spacious but a bit sterile, with three photos of shells, a fridge, a coffee maker and a tile floor I frequently wiped out on (bring shoes with grip soles if you care to stay upright).

The bedding was of Days Inn quality, with a flimsy flat sheet barely covering the mattress. The sizable bathroom had good counter space and a nice doorless shower that somehow defied flooding. There was no dresser or real drawers, so that iron stashed in the closet came in handy. My back terrace had seating for two and a kaleidoscopic view of the buttercup yellow hotel, healthy green lawn, pool and sliver of ocean.

As a Tropical, I could dine at nearly all of the buffets and a la carte restaurants, imbibe at any of the four bars, play any of the proffered sports on land or sea. But I could not luxuriate on the swinging beds that overlooked the beach and ocean, despite my best efforts.

''For members,'' barked an employee named Pasqual, pointing at my resort-issued bracelet and shaking his head. He then showed me the staircase out.

Yet overall, I experienced few velvet-rope moments in this virtual village, which required a map to navigate and had a grocer and health-care facility on site. I easily bounced between groups, befriending Gardens and VIPs alike.

I allotted Sunday as excursion day, my one chance to see the world outside Lifestyle's gates.

Puerto Plata, which boasts Victorian homes, an amber museum and a tram ride up the 2,640-foot Mount Isabel de Torres, is a $30 cab ride from the resort, and taking the public bus is not advised. In addition, apparently on the day of rest, people in D.R. really do rest: The rum factory and museum are closed, and many shops are shuttered. Yet the fish were still on the clock, and so I dropped in -- or rather down -- to see them.

Our scuba group included Phil Meier, the Swiss dive master who works at the Aqua Center, the resort's watersports outpost, and two Garden guests from the United Kingdom. During the 35-minute drive to Sousa, a palmy beach area with 25 dive sites in a compact bay, we played Gardens vs. Tropicals. The Garden accommodations are Hobbit-cute bungalows with ''inland'' views and bugs that creep under the door. Their buffet is the same as ours -- when we had Spanish night, they had Spanish night -- yet they have free admittance to only three of the restaurants and must pay $15 a person to dine at the others. They have two pools but can flop around any part of the private beach. By the time we arrived at the boat launch, I was coveting my yellow band.

We spent 45 minutes underwater per dive, first at Three Rocks, a trio of coral clusters, followed by a 65-foot descent to the Canyon. I swam through a cloud of boldly striped fish and over coral formations resembling modern art vases. Meier teased a moray eel, whose mouth opened and closed like a baby bird begging for worms. When we came up for air, the sky seemed like an extension of the water, the blue almost an exact match.

Back at the resort, I later saw the Garden couple lounging on our side of the property. And from the color of their beverage, I guessed they were drinking a Happy Happy, the unofficial drink of the Tropicals.

DETAILS

Lifestyle Hacienda, Cofresi Beach, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, 809-970-7777, www.hacienda-resorts.com.

BEST FOR: Couples who like to pool/bar/restaurant hop without straying too far from their chaise longues; parents with water babies in tow; travelers who can find culture in a frozen cocktail.

WHAT WAS INCLUDED: Three nights' hotel room; unlimited drinks; three meals a day (plus afternoon and late-night snacks) at two buffet and four a la carte restaurants (Asian, Tex-Mex, pizza/pasta, seafood); gratuities; nonmotorized watersports (kayaking, windsurfing, snorkeling, etc.); land activities (tennis, biking, pool tables, one round of golf, etc.); day and evening entertainment, including stage shows and a shuttle to Ocean World casino; some lessons (tennis, golf, Spanish); bottled water in the room. Current pricing: from $144 per room per night.

WHAT WASN'T: Safe-deposit box ($20 a week), round-trip airport transfer ($60), drinks at the disco, Internet ($5 for a half-hour, $8 for an hour), Metamorphosis spa, off-resort excursions.

EXCURSIONS: Optional day trips include marine mammal shows/encounters at the Lifestyle partner Ocean World Adventure Park, deep-sea fishing, a monster truck adventure, horseback riding in the forest, whitewater river rafting, a full-day catamaran sail and snorkel, etc.

BEST FEATURE: The variety and expanse of pools. Whether you want to float, enjoy cocktail hour half-submerged or play water volleyball, there's a swimming hole for you.

WORST: It's a tossup between the timeshare/VIP reps who skulk around the property shoving their business cards at you, and the obnoxious tunes at the pool. The music was ear-splitting, and I wanted to shield the children's ears when the Black Eyed Peas started singing about humping.




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