Our One Big Holiday

One Big Holiday (or, as we cool folks say, OBH) got started some years ago as a way for fans of My Morning Jacket to spend some time in a nice part of the world while listening to MMJ (and other fine bands.) Our excellent Seattle friends Andreas and Connie have been to several Big Holidays in Mexico and have raved about them. Andreas is definitely a Jacket-head, but claims that the real pleasure comes from spending the time with so many friendly and like-minded people. This year, the venue was switched to the Hard Rock Hotel in Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic. Andreas suggested that Louise and I sign up for it, but we dithered around until it was almost sold out. Then we decided to go, but the only rooms left were the presidential suites, with about twice the square footage of a regular room and a significantly higher price. So we signed up for a presidential suite from March 2 through March 6. We also booked two nights before the show starts, as did Andreas and his friends, although in our case we booked a regular room for the first two nights since these were available, requiring us to switch rooms on March 2. You can see all the music events here.

The hotel is much more than a hotel. The property covers many acres of land, stretching back from the road to the beach on the easternmost point of the Dominican Republic. The main building, closest to the road, is enormous and includes the area to check in and out, meeting rooms, six restaurants, a bunch of shops, a spa and a 24-hr casino. Out back are twelve buildings with rooms for the guests, three more restaurants, a dozen swimming pools, mini-golf, a real golf course, a bike path and numerous other features. Plus, of course, a huge stage for the music. You young folks can get around on foot; we oldsters can take the Tren - a people-mover like the ones in airports.

Overview of the resort The stage The beach

Staying at Hard Rock entitles you to resort credits, which sounds great. All food and drink are included in the price of a room, but there are other activities that are not included in the basic charge but that you can pay for with resort credits that you earn from just being there. For example, the hotel has an elaborate spa, with mud baths, steam rooms, massages and a zillion other things. There are also activities outside the property that you can pay for with resort credits - like the snorkeling trip we took on March 3. Free money, right? Well, not exactly. In one store, all their merchandise - watches, jewelry, art, etc. - can be purchased with resort credit. Louise was looking at a watch - the salesman said "That watch usually costs $500 but today is on sale for only $250. If you pay with resort credit, you just have to pay an insignificant service charge of 20%, which comes to $50." Hmm, sounds like a deal. Then I saw a fancy bar of chocolate (of normal size) which carried a price tag of $50, meaning you just have to pay an insignificant service charge of $10. But I'm not sure I ever saw even the fanciest bar of chocolate for as much as $10, so maybe not such a deal after all.

Pretty much all the guests are American. The staff, all Dominicans and Spanglophones, sometimes struggle with English, but always with a smile on their face. Wow! - we said - these Dominicans are so friendly! And so they were, although we suspected that it was a job requirement; perhaps the other people on the island are all the surly ones who flunked that requirement. (Note: we have absolutely no evidence about the rest of the Dominicans.)

Our flights out there went without incident, although we had to change planes in Minneapolis, where there were great piles of snow outside the terminal which made us shiver but also reminded us of why our trip is scheduled for February. It was very different when we landed at Punta Cana - a welcome gust of warm air greeted us as we left the plane. That day was somewhat cloudy, but skies were clear for the rest of our stay. We checked in and went to our room, which was large, with a huge jaccuzzi in it and a lovely balcony. (And this was our small room, not the presidential suite.) There is a consistent rock 'n' roll decorating motif, and we had a photo on the wall of what looked like Elvis Presley getting married.

Our first two days were primarily to check the place out. We took the Tren. We wandered on the beach, which was gorgeous but flew a red flag all week to indicate no swimming. We visited some of the restaurants, which served decent but not fancy food. We planned additional activities for later in the week. We lounged by the pools.

On March 2, we moved into the presidential suite. (I nearly got turned away for not being born in America. I took up twitter. Stormy Daniels showed up in the bed.) Holy mackerel! Bedroom, huge master bathroom, separate kitchen and dining area, second powder room and lounge area. Two large flat screen TVs. Bluray player. Of course all this excess was wasted on us - we had no lavish parties while we were there - but it still felt good to have it.

Our presidential bedroom Presidential bird The TV room

March 2 was also the start of the music festivities. By 7 p.m., everyone had relocated to the stage. Then the bands started - Broken Social Scene, MMJ, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The last of these didn't start till after midnight, so I had gone to bed long ago, although we could hear them quite well from our room. In fact, TOO well, since sleep was generally impossible until after the last band ended, around 2 a.m.

The next day, we had planned a serious schedule of activities - snorkeling in the morning and zip-lining in the afternoon. We left a little late, amid some confusion about which bus we should take. The bus took us to the dock, but before we embarked, we had some corny photo opps, posing with tropical birds, being smooched by a sealion, and fondling a sting ray. (We passed on that last one.) Then the boat took us a little way up the coast to the reef for our snorkeling. Somehow, I inhaled a significant percentage of the Caribbean, dampening my enthusiasm, but we did see a lot of colorful fish, along with some rather dingy-looking coral. Next, we continued up the coast to a sheltered bay near several other boats. We jumped out the boat into waist-deep water and splashed around, chatting with other people and grabbing drinks from wait-people. When we were tired of that, we got back into the boat and people danced. (Not me - I was still trying to drain gallons of sea-water from my nasal passages.) Finally, we motored on back, got on the bus and headed back to the hotel.

We got back somewhat later than planned and it was clear that we would have to turn around, wet and sandy, and go straight off the zip-lining adventure or go back to our room, take a restoring shower, have a bite to eat and miss the adventure. We decided we'd had enough adventure for the day and so headed for the shower.

Grooving with the birds To the boat On the boat
Jumping in Back from snorkeling Cocktail hour
In the drink Back to the boat Louise tries surfing

More fine music in the evening. We watched Spoon and MMJ and then listened to the rest from our room.

On Sunday, I started to come down with a cold - perhaps from my swim yesterday. We spent much of the day lounging by one of the pools, hoping that the sun's healing rays would work their magic. This time, we decided to just listen to the evening concert from our room - Sylvan Esso and then Portugal the Man.

On Monday, we used some more of our resort credits at the spa. First, the steam room; next the cold bucket of water; then the sauna; then the mud (I decided to pass on this one); then the jacuzzi; then, finally, the piece de resistance, the 50 minute massage. Ahhhhh! This was our last day; people dressed up in silly clothes and MMJ gave us a rousing finale.

OBH in lights Last sunset on the beach Last night dress-up
Peace, love and the Jacket MMJ The sharks
Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Although our flight wasn't until mid-afternoon on Tuesday, we had a quiet morning. Over breakfast, we talked to another couple - Jen from Boston (possibly a good friend of Andreas) and Tom from Austin, so we got to chat about favorite Austin restaurants. Jen likened the feeling of preparing to go to OBH to the thrill felt by a kid whose parents are taking him to Disneyland - one big excitement! We took a taxi at noon, in plenty of time for our flight. Things didn't go right for us, though - Louise's ticket showed that she is TSA precheck, but for some reason mine didn't, so we had to get in the big line. When we finally got to the front of the line, the official sternly points to my ticket again, which shows a code of SSSS. Although no-one told us exactly what this means, it was clearly bad. (My theory is that the code flags the fact that the name on my ticket (Peter Lloyddavies) does not match the name on my passport (Peter Lloyd-Davies).) The official then led us on a merrie chase through a huge room full of people waiting in line for some new trial. At some point, I realized that we are actually jumping this line - our official held onto our documents and bulled her way to the front of the line with us struggling behind her. She waved our documents and - presto! - we were through! She then took us all the way to the X-ray machine, causing some anguished cries from people who had been patiently waiting, perhaps for hours. To make them feel better, I explained that, after getting through the X-ray machine, we were going to be taken down to the dungeon and tortured. Our official told us to go through the machine and go to door number 5 to get back our documents; she then disappeared into thin air, like a fairy godmother whose job was done. We had a little trouble finding door number 5, but the person in charge of it gave my passport and ticket a cursory look and sent us on our way.

The Punta Cana airport had seemed a small regional airport when we arrived. Now it had become huge. We were through security and immigration so we imagined we'd be at the gate in just a minute or two. But the Dominicans had cleverly mapped out a circuitous route that kept forcing us to walk through Duty Free areas, steeped in the irresistable scent of perfume and surrounded by crates of the finest liquors. But eventually we hardened our hearts to their siren songs and found ourselves at the gate with plenty of time to spare. Then.. off to real life once more. Darn!

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