Going All In

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck
It had been about a decade since our last visit to an all-inclusive resort. For years before that, such tropical escapes were our default choice for travel. We would hold out for as long as we could, wanting to savour the vacation days that refreshed every January, but by the end of that month, our bodies were aching for some reprieve from the depths of the dark winter. We would be wooed by the promise of bottomless boozy drinks, a pristine pool or beach to cool ourselves off in, and a taste of foreign culture. We’d drop thousands of dollars on an impulse to escape.

Pete and I took a handful of such vacations, but after the fourth or fifth, I found myself bored and wanting more than what these resorts have to offer. I remember talking to our trusty travel agent during one particularly frosty January and suggesting that we wanted to go away, but wanted some variety. I wanted more freedom to get out and explore, and I wanted to experience something that felt more local and cultural. She blankly stared back and fumbled for words. She presented more brochures from countries that would be new to me, but they were really all the same. Buffet dinners, nightly entertainment by fake Michael Jacksons, and offers of big bus excursions full of pasty-white North Americans like me.

In 2006, I made the decision that Pete and I were going to try something new. I bid adieu to my travel agent and booked our own flights to Costa Rica. We were going to visit three different towns in two weeks and take public transportation between them. I remember feeling very daring at the decision. I barely knew another soul that had traveled this way.

I can still recall that trip with vivid detail, especially of our first bus trip from San Jose to La Fortuna. The bus we had independently booked failed to pick us up – I called and they sent another which we then had all to ourselves. Part way through that trip the driver pulled over on a desolate road and just sat there. With no common language, we gestured and stared at each other. I suspected (hoped) that we were waiting for another bus to transfer to, but it was getting dark, and both Pete and I were getting scared. Perhaps this is why others stayed in safe resorts. Perhaps Pete and I were going to be butchered on that road for the valuables in our bags.

We weren’t, of course. We soon transferred to another bus and were on our way to La Fortuna. But then a new kind of terror took hold – my spot in the very front seat meant that I was privy to every speedy and dangerous swerve around other vehicles and people walking casually beside the road. I spent most of the drive with my face in my hands.

But it was those thrills of the unknown, and the affirmation that people in the world are not waiting just to butcher us, that sparked my enduring desire for a new kind of travel.

Perhaps this is why others stayed in safe resorts. Perhaps Pete and I were going to be butchered on that road for the valuables in our bags.

Our first big adventure in Costa Rica.

Yet here we were just last month, over ten years later, back in the realm of an all-inclusive resort. With many years of diverse travel experiences cached between both Pete and I, I wasn’t sure if this was an experience we could enjoy at all.Could we go back? I was hesitant. I knew we needed an escape – badly – but after all we’ve seen and done, the prospect of a glossy resort experience felt disingenuous. I didn’t want to listen to fake Michael Jacksons or be surrounded only by people just like us. And after a half year of sitting on the sidelines, I didn’t want to sit in the same spot for one week. I craved adventure.

Except that what my brain wanted wasn’t what my body could do. We arrived in Dominican Republic after a long day of travel – even though via the most direct route possible, and with half of our journey in business class (which was somehow cheaper than the alternative) – I was spent. The headaches caused by my chemotherapy had not quite abated and I did not get my required daily nap in. The emotions that accompanied this journey (recognizing that I was lucky to even be alive to travel again) overcame me on arrival and stayed with me throughout the week.

My stamina (and will to do anything at all) was severely limited. I was forced to surrender to the comforts of a five-star luxury resort.

(Sounds incredibly trite and asshole-ish, I know.)

I knew we needed an escape – badly – but after all we’ve seen and done, the prospect of a glossy resort experience felt disingenuous.

I guess we could make this do.

There is something to be said for shutting it all off and just letting yourself lounge in total opulence. When was the last time we did that? I honestly can’t remember. It may not have been exactly what we wanted, but it turned out being just what we needed.We had a whole week to do nothing but wander through the tiny resort – to shuffle from beach to pool to lounge chair to restaurant. We didn’t play mini-putt by the pool or partake in any of the evening shows. I took naps and wrote. He read books and lounged. We barely raised our cameras and didn’t take one excursion. And we did it all while being pampered by the most personable and caring attendants.

The Luxury Bahia Principe Samaná is a small resort – we saw the same other vacationers all week but pointedly got to know no one. I didn’t want to make small talk. I didn’t want to answer the complicated questions of what we do for a living or what brought us here. I didn’t want to talk about my cancer. (A tiny piece of me did want people to know, to excuse my unruly thick mop of chemo curls on my head, the visible scar from my PICC line, or the fact that I moved slow and deliberately given the neuropathy I developed under treatment that has stolen some of my balance. Of course, likely no one noticed such small things, and as the week progressed, I cared less anyway.) We kept to ourselves and found our own little corners to steal away in. Some might have considered us as rude or recluses, but that was okay too.

For the most part, due to it being the shoulder-season for resort travel, we had it mostly to ourselves anyway.

There is something to be said for shutting it all off and just letting yourself lounge in total opulence.

On the way back to the airport, I devoured as much of the scene outside our bus window as I could. I waved at the kids who initiated, I inhaled deeply the aromas from each pollo al carbon that we passed by. I longed to be out there, to talk to people, to pull up a hard plastic chair and taste the local cuisine. We had just finished a week in Dominican Republic but can’t say we learned anything about the tiny country at all. It is a new stamp in our passport, but feels like an undeserved one.

But I am okay with that, for now. The all-inclusive resort will never be our preferred method of travel again, but it did serve an important purpose. We, perhaps more desperately than any other time in our life, needed rest, pampering, and comfort. And that’s exactly what we got.

*****

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where we stayed

We chose the Luxury Bahia Principe Samaná for three reasons: there are less than 150 rooms, no kids allowed, and it seemed to be a good deal. While there were little aspects of it that I think were lacking (the bed was a bit too hard and we tired of the food by the end of our week), the service was impeccable and the small-resort feel definitely delivered a tranquil vacation. For a Dominican Republic all inclusive, this is a solid choice.Special thanks to friend and travel agent Des Dobson for taking away the pain of finding a last minute deal for us!

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