I had never stayed in an all-inclusive resort. That is until last month, when I visited Punta Cana, the easternmost region of the Dominican Republic famous for its all-inclusive resorts. There are several options in the area, but I was staying in the biggest and brightest of them all: the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana.

The lush, 121-acre property boasts over 1,000 rooms (each with their own double Jacuzzi tub in the living room), 15 pools, nine gourmet restaurants, a handful of night clubs, the biggest casino in the Dominican Republic and one dazed budget traveler. If you’re thinking it sounds like a hike to get anywhere, it’s because it is. (My room was a half mile walk to the main building.) But there are complimentary shuttles running every 15 minutes to take guests anywhere on the property.

At first I was suffering from sensory overload. (It’s not really this big is it? Nowhere can really be this nice, right?) But I have to admit, after the initial disbelief, I started to feel comfortable in this unparalleled luxury. I was sleeping in and ordering a huge plate of French toast and a pot of fresh coffee from the resort’s complimentary room service.  I was lounging by the pool and continuously getting lost in the labyrinthine rows of rooms.  And it was especially lovely to be treated in the hotel’s sprawling, 60,000 square foot Rock Spa.

 

But if Dominicans treated their guests this well, I wanted to see how locals on the island really relax.

I decided to step outside the enclosed luxury of the Hard Rock and head to the only public beach in the area, Macao beach. With the shoreline’s towering palms, fresh fruit stands and a beach full of people smiling ear to ear, Macao Beach gave me the feeling I had stumbled upon an authentic slice of Dominican life. (And to think I was only a five-minute cab ride from my all-inclusive resort.) There was also a fairly busy surf school that I wanted to check out—the Macao Surf Camp—where visitors can take lessons anytime of the day or just watch in awe at Jack, Macao’s very own surfing dog.

After a long day in the sun, I took another short drive to the small Corticito neighborhood Captain Cook’s Seafood for some authentic Dominican fare. The no frills restaurant, nestled right on the white sand shores of El Corticito beach, boasts an incredible view of the Caribbean and the seafood–including Captain Cook’s famous lobster–is caught daily before being fried or grilled to perfection in the enormous open-air kitchen.

 

 

I watched as the sumptuous smells wafted over the lackadaisical beach side diners staring out at the sunset. In comparison to a buffet of international cuisine back at the all-inclusive resorts, it seemed I had stumbled upon Dominican luxury at its finest.