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With sure and nimble fingers, Jay selected a large supple, brown leaf, skillfully smoothing it out across his worktable. With an ease that comes from many years of practice, he continued to layer different quality leaves on top of the original leaf, which he called the wrapper. He then followed up with a handful of even smaller leaves for the filler.
The experienced hands quickly rolled and tightly packed the leaves, ever mindful of their fragile nature. Commenting that you do not want to roll too tightly, or it won’t burn properly, he continued to delicately roll the russet-colored leaves into the cylindrical shape we all recognize.
After inspecting his work, he grabbed his crescent-shaped knife and cropped the end and placed it into a wooden board template to continue molding its shape.
He chose a more complete cigar from the mold, selected a large leaf, trimmed it to size and gently rolled it onto the cigar. With a deft move, he quickly sheared off the foot or lit end and inspected the cap or the end that you placed in your mouth.
Smoking A Work of Art
He held aloft his creation for our group to admire as we exclaimed over its beauty. He then asked who would like to smoke it.
It appeared that most of the members in our group did not smoke or had never smoked a cigar, as no one offered to take up the challenge, so, the asthmatic who had given up smoking some 30 years earlier, raised his hand.
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Kathy, my wife, looked at me slightly aghast as Jay held the flame under the slim cigar while I puffed gently, drawing the smoke into my mouth and letting the flavor spread. I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised at how delicious the fresh tobacco tasted.
We were standing in a clean, well-lit warehouse filled with kiosks of locally made chocolates, the aroma of rich, blended coffee, bottles of regional rums, souvenirs and, of course, hand-made cigars.
Earnest young, smiling clerks held out samples and extolled the quality of their products. The shops were called Bella Mare, which I’m pretty sure is Dominican for “separate the tourists from their greenbacks.”
History of Punta Cana
When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the Caribbean shores of Punta Cana in 1492, I doubt he ever considered newly burnt tourists luxuriating in sprawling resorts and crowding its beaches.
He should have, instead of chasing meager amounts of gold on the island, he could have become the first all-inclusive tycoon.
Punta Cana is situated on the very eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, which itself occupies the eastern portion of Hispaniola Island while its neighbor, Haiti, lies to the west.
It is an island of tropical rainforests which climb above deserts and mangrove swamps, bumping into a range of snow-covered peaks. But we had come for the warm sun, cool breezes, sandy beaches and indigo waters.
Paradisus Palma Real
We had landed at Punta Cana International Airport after a 4 ½ hour flight. With a group of friends and co-workers, we were here for a long weekend to recharge from the Mid-western winter.
We were staying at the Paradisus Palma Real, an all-inclusive resort located on Bavaro Beach, one of Punta Cana’s most stunning stretches of sand.
Only 25 minutes from the airport, the resort had recently completed a comprehensive makeover resulting in a wonderfully fresh and welcoming atmosphere.
As we entered the spacious, open-air lobby the fresh breezes engulfed us, sweeping away the deep frostiness that we carried with us like the weight of a heavy winter coat.
Descending down the staircase onto the colonial-style plaza with its grand fountain, we could glimpse the ocean just beyond the reflection pool and a small grove of tall coconut palms. We were already beginning to re-energize.
Jose, who was to be our “butler” or personal concierge, guided us to our second-floor room past a man-made pond filled with small fish. A great White egret, who had taken up residence in the pond, eyed us defiantly.
Our oversized room was decorated in a subtle Caribbean-style decor with marble floors, sitting area and separate shower & bath. The corner open-air balcony had a front-row view of the beach and the gorgeous waters all the way to the horizon.
Waking to a Perfect Morning
The following dawn, as the sun rose across Bavaro Beach, we awoke to the lapping ocean—brilliant turquoise blue with just a hint of white as the waves rolled up against the broad stretches of linen-white sand, with swaying coco palms to frame the view.
We quickly dressed and took advantage of the warm morning by taking a 3-mile walk along the pristine beach. Walking barefoot on the firm sand at the water’s edge was invigorating to the spirit.
A breakfast of fresh pineapple, papaya & watermelon with a selection of pastries on our balcony afterward completed our first morning.
Seeking out additional pillows we found our housemaid and it soon became apparent that communication with the staff was going to be a mixed bag. Between their few chosen memorized English words, my long-forgotten public-educated Spanish and a lot of pointing and gesturing we made do.
All the while both parties were smiling and embracing the fact that it was a learning experience for both sides.
Relaxing Beach Day
Later we walked the length of the property trying to get our bearings. I tried to map out the extensive premises in my head. Too soon, I gave up as it seemed too much like work, which is exactly what we were trying to escape.
Instead, we found ourselves at the beach lying under a palapa as a gentle breeze washed over us, while a smiling Pedro handed Kathy a Pina Colada and myself a cold Presidente, the local cervaza.
After a quick dip in the warm water, I made my way back up the supple sand to the comfort of the beach lounger and basked in the pleasingly warm sun.
The late winter weather was temperate, with a welcoming low-80s during the day, 70s at night and virtually no humidity. Far more inviting than what we had left behind.
So Many Dining Options
Hours later, we traded in the beach for dinner. We were faced with the (not so hard) decision of what to eat from a choice of 9 restaurants. With the helpful suggestions from Jose, we ended up with reservations at Tokimeku, an Asian-influenced brazier.
Our chef entertained us with his adroit hand skills as he slipped us small plates of sushi, fried rice and seared meats all the while skillfully juggling his utensils across the hibachi table.
Of course, the beauty of an all-inclusive is the wide variety and options. And so we learned one of the best ways to relax was to simply indulge in the choices and an additional dessert.
The following day many of our party went off on an ocean adventure of snorkeling and swimming with rays. There were many activities to take advantage of if lying on the beach was too difficult of a task.
Parasailing, adventure parks and shopping excursions were just a few of the offerings that could be arranged through the concierge. While our companions were off chasing the local fish, we had chosen to head into town for a shopping jaunt and my experience with the cigar.
The narrow streets were choked with scooters and tiny compact cars. With gas averaging $5.50 per gallon, they appeared to be the popular and economical choice. When I spoke to Jose about it later, he confided that he took public transportation due to that very reason.
Taking an Unexpected Dip
Our final night found me clinging to the railing of the pedestrian bridge across the reflection pool with my left foot on the slanted tile support for water mattresses while stretching my arm shoulder deep into the pool for my wife’s cell phone.
Kathy had insisted on a photo memory of our last evening at the resort. While she balanced the phone on the railing, I mentioned that it probably wasn’t the most secure choice, she poo-pooed my concern as she set the timer. She ran to my side, the flash went off, the wind gusted, the phone fell, and I found myself in that precarious position.
Seeking out Jose, he was kind enough to trot to the kitchen and retrieve a bag of rice in which my wife buried her phone. Over dinner of steak and red snapper at Mina, the resort’s steakhouse, we laughed with friends over our little fiasco as my wife balanced her rice-purse in her lap. Surprisingly both the photo and phone were to survive.
After dessert, we headed to the beach, slipped off our sandals and enjoyed our last evening as the tropical trade winds tickled the palm fronds above our heads while we held hands and gazed across the darkened star-filled horizon.
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The Dominican Republic requires a current passport. A COVID test is not currently required for entry.
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