Cleveland to Punta Cana in 4 hours: New Frontier flight offers easy access to island paradise (2023)

Cleveland to Punta Cana in 4 hours: New Frontier flight offers easy access to island paradise (1)

Beach fun near the Iberostar property in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic – I woke before sunrise on my last day in Punta Cana, hoping to squeeze a few last hours from this tropical paradise.

I strolled the beach as the sun came up, passing few other early risers. Then I returned to my room, stuffed my still-damp bathing suit into my luggage and headed to the lobby for my ride to the airport.

A new flight from Cleveland to Punta Cana on Frontier Airlines makes it easy to get to this tropical paradise. But I can’t imagine it’s ever easy to leave.

Story and photos by Susan Glaser, Plain Dealer Travel editor

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In case you forgot where you were...

Fifty years ago, this place didn’t even exist. A group of investors changed the name of the land on the far eastern tip of the Dominican Republic from Punta Borrachon (Drunken Point) to Punta Cana (after the Cana palm leaf). Originally the name of a single resort, Punta Cana evolved into a new moniker for the region.

The first hotel was built in 1971; the first all-inclusive resort, Club Med, opened in 1978. The airport opened in 1982, and has been expanded numerous times since then.

Today, Punta Cana is the top destination in the Dominican Republic, which is the most-visited island in the Caribbean. More than 6.2 million visitors arrived in 2017, about one-third from the United States.

Why? Because it’s an accessible, inexpensive, tropical destination, with some of the world’s best beaches.

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Cleveland to Punta Cana in 4 hours: New Frontier flight offers easy access to island paradise (3)

The Iberostar Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

That said, this place is not for everyone. Travelers who like to explore on their own and eat in a different place every night may be frustrated by Punta Cana.

All-inclusive resorts line the beach like tropical fortresses, with security guards out front controlling access. Most trips outside your resort area are on highly structured, formal excursions, with transportation and meals provided.

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Walking the beach in Punta Cana.

Partly because this area was developed for tourism, there aren’t many towns nearby, and those that are don’t have much charm or tourist appeal (in contrast, for example, to the beach towns south of Cancun in Mexico). The communities here are quite utilitarian, designed to serve the employees of the tourism industry.

I like to explore an area when I travel, so I felt a little stymied by these restrictions.

But then I got over it when I saw the beach, which is among the most gorgeous I’ve seen.

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Cleveland to Punta Cana in 4 hours: New Frontier flight offers easy access to island paradise (5)

The pool at the Iberostar Punta Cana.

Planning the trip

I started planning my January trip a few months ago, by first looking at airfare on the Frontier website, and then perusing places to stay.

Overwhelmed by the by the number of resort choices, I called travel agent Kathy Yarian with Travel Leaders in North Olmsted. She strongly recommended I buy a tour package with Apple Vacations, which includes lodging, airfare and transportation to and from the Punta Cana airport. Buying the trip as a package saved me hundreds of dollars.

Before this year, Apple’s vacation package to Punta Cana included flights on Swift Air, a Phoenix-based charter company. Apple now contracts with Frontier for the flight (as does Funjet, which is owned by Apple). You don’t have to buy a package tour, however, to fly Frontier – independent travelers can book lodging and airfare separately. The flight runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays year-round.

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Oversized chess at the Iberostar Punta Cana.

As for lodging, Yarian recommended several resorts she thought I would like, and I chose the Iberostar chain, because I had stayed at one in Mexico years back, and loved it.

It’s a Spanish company, so the resort draws a large number of Europeans. During my first day here, I heard visitors speaking French, German, Italian and Russian.

The official language of the Dominican Republic is Spanish, of course, and though many workers and locals do speak English, not all do. (At dinner one night, I inquired how the grouper was prepared, and my waiter could only reply: “It’s fish.”)

Most resorts here, including the Iberostar, offer several levels of hotels within one huge complex. My husband and I stayed at the Iberostar Punta Cana, one of four Iberostar options spread across vast beachfront acreage (others include the Iberostar Dominicana, Bavaro and Grand Bavaro). The resorts are priced differently, based on their level of luxury.

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Soccer on the beach at dusk.

The Iberostar Punta Cana was the least luxurious in the complex, though it was plenty lovely for me (a glitchy air conditioner was my only complaint). All of the resorts have all-you-can-eat buffets, numerous specialty restaurants (seafood, steak, French, Mexican, American and Asian at ours), plus a bar around every bend (alcoholic drinks are included at these resorts). There’s also nightly entertainment, programming for kids, a small casino, spa and more.

I paid just over $1,800 for two for five nights, which included airfare, all meals, drinks and lodging. That is an amazing deal, fueled, unfortunately, by the very low wages here.

Yarian suggested we take $50 in single bills, to pass out as tips to resort employees, which we did.

She also told me not to worry about converting money to Dominican pesos for this trip, so I didn’t. U.S. dollars are accepted nearly everywhere tourists go.

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Footsteps on the beach.

Around the resort

Upon arrival at the resort, we met with a representative from Amstar, an Apple subsidiary, who gave us some tips for our stay:

* Don’t drink the tap water, but water and ice in the resort restaurants are safe, as is all food, including fruits and vegetables. Brush your teeth with bottled water, provided in every room.

* Use the safety deposit box in your room for passports and other valuables.

* Exercise caution with vendors on the beach, especially those selling excursions. Some offer inferior products, others don’t show up when they’re supposed to.

* And go easy on the tropical drinks. Too much coconut milk, he said, can lead to an upset stomach, which many visitors mistake as food poisoning.

I followed his advice, eating and drinking pretty much anything I wanted, in moderation. I have a sensitive stomach and never felt queasy, even when we were dining off the resort property.

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Bavaro Beach Flea Market on the beach in Punta Cana.

My husband and I are big beach walkers – we spent hours strolling the sand, heading west in the morning, east in the afternoon. On our first morning, we discovered the Bavaro Beach Flea Market, a collection of semi-permanent shanties set up right on the sand, offering everything from rum to hats, cigars and jewelry for sale.

The one thing I really wanted – a Dominican baseball T-shirt or jersey – I never found.

Several of my fellow travelers lamented the overly aggressive nature of some salesmen. I didn’t find it to be a problem at all. A simple “no gracias” was accepted by all.

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Beachfront shop in Punta Cana.

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Lunch in El Cortecito, a town in the Punta Cana region.

Determined to see a bit more of the area than our resort, on the third day of our visit, we walked all the way to the town of El Cortecito, about 2.5 miles west of our hotel.

Though the beaches in Punta Cana are all public, access to the beach is not. Using my phone’s GPS to guide us, we found a little cut-through to the town behind a beachfront shop.

The town wasn’t much – a couple of hotels, some condo complexes, several restaurants and shops. We enjoyed a delicious lunch in town, fish tacos at a Mexican restaurant called Pastrata, one of the best meals of our stay.

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Carved coconuts for sale on the beach in Punta Cana.

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Musicians on the beach.

I wanted to take a boat back to our resort – my plantar fasciitis was flaring up, thanks to walking barefoot on the beach. I had read about these informal water taxis – guys with small motorboats who park on the beach and ferry tourists back and forth along the shore.

After lunch, I asked one such fellow how much it would cost to take us to the Iberostar; he offered $25, which I accepted (though I’m certain I could have negotiated him down). Unfortunately, my husband freaked out when he saw one of the captains taking the motor apart before our ride. We ended up walking all the way back.

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Sand-filled tubes work to prevent erosion on this section of Punta Cana's beach.

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The beach on Saona Island, Dominican Republic.

Exploring the region: Santo Domingo and Saona Island

We were in Punta Cana for four full days, two of which we spent away from the resort on organized excursions. We had many options to choose from: zip lining, horseback riding, a visit to a cigar factory, swimming with dolphins, ATV riding and more. (These can be booked in advance, before you arrive, or on your resort property.)

Our first excursion: a daylong trip to the capital city of Santo Domingo, the oldest European settlement in the New World, about 125 miles west of Punta Cana. (See: Day trip from Punta Cana: Columbus history and more in Santo Domingo's stunning historic zone)

We also took a snorkeling trip to Saona Island, part of Cotubanama National Park (also known as East National Park), about 60 miles south of Punta Cana.

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Snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Dominican Republic.

As with our trip to Santo Domingo, we were transported via a large coach bus, filled with tourists. We traveled about an hour to another Iberostar resort in the town of Bayahibe, where we boarded boats for Saona.

Saona is located on the Caribbean Sea side of the Dominican Republic, whereas Punta Cana is on the Atlantic Ocean side.

The water on the Caribbean side is clearer, calmer and better for snorkeling. We snorkeled for about an hour off the boat, in water that was maybe 30 feet deep (we had several scuba divers with us, as well). Among the creatures that caught my eye: yellow-and-black striped sergeant majors, blue tangs, and ballyhoos, zipping through the water with their pointy beaks.

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The beach on Saona Island, Dominican Republic.

After snorkeling, we disembarked on the island, where we had lunch and lounged on the beach. This is a popular excursion – with numerous tourist boats anchored off shore, and the beaches filled with sun-loving tourists.

The beach here was spectacular – not as wide as the strand on Punta Cana, with a calmer surf and clearer water. If you’ve ever fantasized about getting stranded on a gorgeous desert island, this is the place of your dreams.

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The Natural Pool off the coast of Saona Island.

On the boat trip back to Bayahibe, we stopped at a place known as Saona’s Natural Pool, a shallow area known for its abundance of sea stars. Unfortunately, according to our Dressel Divers guide, too many tourists have harmed too many starfish, by picking them up and lifting them out of the water.

We did see a few, even touched a couple, careful to keep them well underwater.

This place has also earned a reputation as a kind of natural swim-up bar, with visitors in waist-deep water consuming copious rum and cokes. My enduring memory of this stop is of one of my fellow snorkelers who kept his masked face in the water, looking for starfish, holding his arm aloft, hand clutching a can of Presidente beer.

(Cost of this tour was $115 per person, though we got one free because we sat through a presentation on the Iberostar Travel Club, which offers deep discounts on vacations after a substantial investment. Those are 90 minutes I’ll never get back.)

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We arrived back at our resort in time for a late dinner on our last night in Punta Cana.

The morning of our departure, we woke before dawn and headed to the beach for one last stroll.

There were a handful of visitors out, plus numerous resort workers, raking seaweed off the beach.

In recent years, large Sargassum seaweed blooms have washed up on the beaches of Punta Cana, as well as coastlines throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Florida. Large clumps of the brown plant collect on the shore, hazardous to sealife and unpleasant to tourists.

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Cleaning the beach just after dawn in Punta Cana.

Usually this algae is confined to the Sargasso Sea, in the mid-Atlantic, but it’s been pushed south and west for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to scientists, who speculate that the outbreak may be the result of rising water temperatures, changes in currents, increases in fertilizer run-off and other factors.

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I did notice the seaweed, though it wasn’t a significant problem during my stay.

Indeed, I can’t think of a single thing that was a significant problem during my stay, except that it was too short.

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Read more

Day trip from Punta Cana: Columbus history and more in Santo Domingo's stunning colonial zone

Travel tips to Punta Cana: Can I drink the water, do I need vaccines, should I exchange money?

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The lush courtyard at the Iberostar Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

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