Still under construction: A review of the Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic
Like Oreos and vanilla ice cream, some concepts just fit together. For me, blue water, soft sand and a new all-inclusive points-friendly hotel are the beginnings of a beautiful friendship ... or at least, have all the makings of what should be a great family vacation.
To say that I have anxiously awaited Hyatt's newest duo of all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic would be an understatement. After enjoying our time at the all-inclusive Hyatt properties in both Cancun, Mexico, and Jamaica, we've looked for an excuse to try out another Hyatt Ziva (family-friendly) or Zilara (adults-only) resort.
The excuse we were waiting for came in the form of an entirely new-build project in Punta Cana. Playa Resorts wants Hyatt Cap Cana to become the new crown jewel in the Ziva and Zilara portfolio, and it was set to open in early November 2019, the perfect time for a preholiday getaway. We excitedly booked rooms to be among the first guests.
Using points to stay at an all-inclusive property feels amazing, since you get not only a room but your meals, drinks, activities and entertainment. A standard room for two at the Hyatt Ziva or Zilara Cap Cana goes for 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night, which can be a solid deal.
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However, if you travel with kids ages 3 and older to Hyatt's Ziva all-inclusive resorts, the points deals may not always make sense. Though double occupancy is 25,000 Hyatt points per night, children 3 and older add 12,500 points per child. That means that booking two adults and two children in one standard room is the same price as booking two rooms.
Instead of spending 50,000 Hyatt points per night (which TPG values at $900), we booked during one of the property's frequent preopening sales and paid $538 per night for an ocean-view, club-access junior suite with two queen beds and a queen pullout sofa. That's not cheap, but factor in the value of three meals per day, drinks, snacks, kids club and entertainment for four people and it's less than, say, a Disney vacation. Tack on the $250 in savings for using the Hyatt credit card and the double elite-qualifying nights promotion, and we were feeling good about the trip.
Punta Cana and Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ), are on the easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic. By air, that's about 900 miles southeast of Miami (MIA), or in our case, four hours in the air from Houston (IAH) on United's once-weekly service.
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The Hyatt Cap Cana resort grounds are on Juanillo Beach, a 10-minute drive from the airport.
This was my first trip to Punta Cana, but we set up our transportation before landing, and I recommend you do the same. We used Dominican Plus and paid $139 round-trip for a private SUV with an installed child car seat. You could spend just half that price for a private van, but I have a preschooler who occasionally gets car sick. Since she does better in a SUV than van, we ponied up for the Lincoln Navigator. Note that the payment for the car had to be in cash and all paid on the trip to the hotel. There was a lot of confusion about this at first, but it all worked out in the end. Fair warning: Don't just accept the offer to pay one-way, as that is 90% of the round-trip rate, and then you'd owe that amount again.
The arrivals line at the airport was long, and there was a plethora of drivers trying to get us to ride with them once we cleared customs and immigration. Skip the madness of the airport and get right into your arranged transportation.
At the hotel, I walked out of the SUV more than ready for a drink and ready to start the vacation. Thankfully, a drink was waiting at the check-in desk.
A quick catch-up: We'd booked a stay at the family-friendly Hyatt Ziva Cap Cana but learned four days before our arrival that the Ziva wasn't opening on time. Instead, all families were being moved to the normally adults-only Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana, which would reportedly open on time. There were no discounts or compensation provided for the changes and delays, but we were assured that Zilara was ready, that the resort's waterpark was functional and that everything would be the same or better than what we booked.
It didn't all work out that way. At all. I'm going to try and not get into the opening issues too much in this review other than where relevant, but I strongly encourage you to read Part One of this tale. Suffice it to say, the resort was not ready to open and did not communicate with complete transparency and accurately with guests.
When we arrived, our room was not ready until close to 90 minutes after the official 3 p.m. check-in -- and when I say not ready, I really mean I don't think it was fully assembled until then. This was Day Two of operations, and many rooms were still under construction. Still, we were assured that the multilevel upgrade we were receiving was worth the wait, and we were excited to see what was in store.
Spoiler alert: The upgrade we received was not exciting. We booked a double queen ocean-view, club-access room and received essentially the exact same thing. Sort of. There was no club access, and the advertised pullout sofa wasn't there. Perhaps the view was upgraded from ocean view to oceanfront, but on the fifth floor, you weren't walking right out to the sand either way.
The room was advertised as a 600-square-foot junior suite, which sounded great for a family of four. But their math was fuzzy. The 600 square feet almost certainly counted the balcony, as the living space in the room seemed like the standard 350-to-400-square-foot hotel room. There was nothing suite about the room at all, so calling it a junior suite was confusing at best.
Size aside, the room had mostly nice bones and clean lines. The linens weren't all in yet, so only sheets were available.
The mattresses on the beds in our first room were extremely firm, though the mattress on the king bed in our second room was noticeably softer. The pillows were flimsy in both rooms. In fact, at first, there were no pillows in our second room. However many pillows you typically require for a good night's sleep, multiply by at least two and ask for extra.
This was an all-inclusive resort, so the goodies in the minifridge were included. Perhaps this was a byproduct of the rushed resort opening, but all that was in the fridge at the Zilara Cap Cana was bottled water and soda. Our second room also had two boxes of juice.
In my previous Hyatt Ziva and Zilara stays, there were packaged snacks and alcohol, along with nonalcoholic drinks, in the room. (And it's not my faulty memory: Check out this 2019 TPG review of the Hyatt Ziva Cancun.) So manage your expectations.
There was, however, a welcome amenity waiting in the room on the first day.
When the water was working in the room (it wasn't always), the shower had good water pressure, and the hotel used individual sized toiletries. The bathroom itself was oversized, with two vanities and ample counter space.
The toilet was in its own room, with a door that scraped the floor
On the final night or our stay, and after several requests and promises, we were given another room. This room was a swim-out room the same size as the first.
It was ground-level with access to a swimming area. Ideal for the girls to swim while we watched from our own patio, right? In reality, the water was far too cold for swimming, even for my cold-tolerant kids. Mosquitoes were also a big, big issue out on the patio.
This room also only had a king bed and a pullout sofa, which was a tight fit for four but fine for one night.
The biggest concern about the room, however, was that the sliding door out to the pool didn't lock from the inside or the outside. We decided to just put up with it for one night, and I'll admit it was handy when our keycard stopped working but the 9-year-old was willing to swim through the water to open the sliding door and let us all in.
Food and beverage
First I'm going to tell you about the food and beverages the resort will have one day. Then I'll tell you what was really available during our stay.
Like at the Hyatt Rose Hall in Jamaica, the Hyatt Ziva and Zilara are right next to each other. Hopefully, if you are staying at one you can also enjoy the restaurants at the other, though I can't say that for sure until both resorts are up and running. Also remember that, eventually, kids will not be allowed on the Zilara side, though with Ziva still under construction, kids were welcome at most of these restaurants while we were there -- though that varied from night to night.
The restaurants and bars at the Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana are scheduled to be:
- The Pier: buffet, breakfast, lunch and dinner
- Shutters Beachside: casual beachfront dining, lunch and dinner
- Brando's: fancy French Polynesian restaurant, dinner
- Journeys: Indian restaurant, pretty fancy, dinner
- Waves: casual outdoor grill near the pool, lunch and dinner
- Presto: casual, pizza
- Deja Brew: lobby coffee bar with pastries, open all day
- One Eyed Cat: martini bar, open nights
- Gabriellas: lobby bar, open starting at noon
- Pool bar: in the pools, open during the day
- Bongos club lounge: open to club-level guests
Presto, One Eyed Cat and Bongos were not completed or open during our stay.
By the end of our stay, the other main restaurants were open, and we sampled them all.
For a buffet, this one had some nice selections. The menu rotated throughout the day, but we saw crab legs, sushi, lobster and ceviche, with dinner playing host to the highest-end choices. Unless you love buffet-style eating, I wouldn't recommend more than one meal here per day most days, but there was good stuff to be found all day long.
There were also massive cinnamon rolls, pizza, pasta, fantastic roasted peppers (seriously, try them), plantains and multiple cases of desserts including ice cream, baked goods and cups of some sort of mousse.
The buffet was self-serve, but you were seated by a host, and drinks were brought by a server.
The buffet was convenient and plentiful, but there was a real issue with flies and mosquitos. Hopefully, the resort has rectified that situation now that construction is complete and the doors are shut.
As for the desserts, there were no complaints about those.
This casual restaurant right on the beach was the only full-service restaurant open to families the first night we were there. The menu wasn't kid-focused, which wasn't surprising given this was the adult side of the resort, but the service was friendly and accommodating.
I ordered everything on the menu that sounded coconutty, and though it wasn't the best meal of the trip, it was enjoyable. If you've been to the Park Hyatt St. Kitts, the style reminded me of that resort's main restaurant.
However, it is here we learned that though mixed drinks and beer were included, wine cost extra. That surprised the heck out of me, but it was consistent at every restaurant we visited. (Update: Another guest has now informed their was a house wine option that was included, which was very different than my experience, but worth asking for using the term house wine.)
On the menu at Shutters were items such as ceviche, grilled octopus, tenderloin and snapper in coconut sauce. (When in doubt, ceviche is always a good idea.)
The fanciest restaurant at the Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana was Brando's. Here, multiple servers and assistants looked after you in a dark restaurant with ambience. The food was really good, but there was a huge and very real safety issue that needed to be addressed: As beautiful as the sleek, dark walkway across the water was -- and it really was -- during our 90-minute dinner, we saw not one, but two different men fall into the water about 30 minutes apart from each other.
And that wasn't all. After publishing the story about the resort's opening (where I did not mention this water situation), a man who was also at the resort the same time as me reached out to tell me that he knows of at least four people who fell in during the opening days. The resort apparently did not make immediate changes after it was clear this is was a safety hazard.
If you decide to visit this resort, be careful walking in and out of Brando's.
Assuming you didn't slip into the water, the food was excellent for an all-inclusive and really pretty good even if you were paying per bite. That was the dichotomous thing about Cap Cana during our stay. We saw and experienced nice elements of the resort right up against something dangerous or outright unfinished.
The Moorea salad, served in a coconut, was a standout for me.
Sticking with the coconut theme, the grilled shrimp in coconut was also good, and my husband's crispy pork breast all disappeared, so that is a good sign.
Journeys opened on the final night of our stay, and we were pretty happy to try this Indian restaurant that had been covered in plastic just a day earlier. The Ziva and Zilara resorts typically don't skimp on theming, and Journeys oozed theme.
I'm not gonna lie, we were all disappointed not to be seated in the train car.
Despite that, we loved our meal at Journey's. The signature Journey martini didn't hurt either.
My favorite was the naan, because warm, fluffy bread is amazing, always. The sampler platter of basically all the appetizers was also fully devoured. It may not look the part, but it tasted pretty great.
The butter chicken was good but mostly served to be soaked up by the naan.
The offerings at Waves seemed to be in flux, with no menu appearing until the third day and their items were coming from the buffet in part or in full for most of our visits. However, I think that the pizza and pasta we got on our final meal was more in line with what will ultimately be offered there -- maybe.
My understanding is that dinner will feature higher-end offerings like steak, but that wasn't available while we were there.
Deja Brew had muffins, donuts and iced coffee with almond milk, so they were winners in my book. Sometimes the drinks were served in real cups, and sometimes they were served a bit overflowing in small paper cups, but the coffee was good either way.
Beer and mixed drinks were plentiful during our stay. The server-to-guest ratio was really, really low, and I almost felt guilty when I didn't order drinks, as so many people were within earshot to take my order around the pool, at the beach, in the lobby and, of course, at the pool bar. I later learned that staff from the unopened Ziva was at the Zilara, which explains the abundance of people ready to get your next round.
There was no menu, but the mixed drinks I ordered (piña colada, rum punch, mojito) were all no problem. There was only one beer on tap, Presidente, and the tap wasn't actually working, so it was more like one beer in can. Well, technically two, as there was also Presidente Light. You could order drinks without alcohol, which my girls loved.
The resort said there was 24/7 included room service, so we tried it out for breakfast two days. One day, it took over an hour to arrive though we'd been quoted 35 minutes, but at least it did arrive. There wasn't a printed menu, but there was an American breakfast, a continental breakfast and a local option. We tried all of them (for research purposes, of course).
The American breakfast was the favorite of the three, but all of them tasted just fine with a little ocean breeze.
However, the next day, we waited about 75 minutes for a breakfast that never arrived, which was time wasted with hungry littles in the end. So we'll file room service under "work in progress."
OK, this is where things get a bit harder to review, as the amenities weren't all fully up and running or weren't what will be offered at the Zilara once the Ziva is open. So bear with me here.
Eventually, there won't be a kids club at Zilara. It'll be at Ziva. But for now, the kids club was in a regular hotel room at Zilara.
There were various children's activities at the club throughout the day and into the evening. There was no added fee -- you just brought your kids and signed some forms. We were never actually told what the age requirements were, but our 4- and 9-year-old were admitted without a problem.
Though the room was temporary and there wasn't a lot to do in there, the staff was warm and sought out the kids to come and join them for meals in the buffet and fun dancing at night.
The boat races at the pool put on by the staff were also a big highlight.
Like the kids club, the spa itself was not yet ready. Also like the kids club, they were using regular rooms for treatments. I got the 75-minute scrub and massage for $145, which was listed as an opening special. The waiting area in the hallway had lots of mosquitos lurking around the sitting area, but once we got into the treatment room, the service was quite good for the price.
Evening rain seemed to be a thing in Punta Cana this time of year, so some outdoor performances often stopped and rushed to the lobby in the middle of shows, but it was still fun to watch singers, acrobats and performers just feet from your room.
Gym and outdoor activities
The gym partially opened at some point toward the end of our stay. It wasn't fully operational, but there were lots of cardio machines ready to go, along with art on the wall. There was also water yoga, beach volleyball and similar activities offered throughout the day.
The Club Lounge, Bongos, wasn't open during our stay, but it appeared to be close to operational by the time we left the resort.
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Here's a view through the window into the lounge.
There were a few different pools and hot tubs, all of which were beautiful. My understanding is that when the dust settles, the main pool will be, well, the main pool. There will also be a smaller club-level pool.
Both pools had a variety of chairs and cabanas surrounding them, with the cabanas available for a daily rental fee that seemingly wasn't collected during the opening.
I am a Texan, and we are spoiled when it comes to warm weather, so I don't like cool pools. Blessedly, the main pool here was OK for me to get in without freezing. It was a touch cool for the first few seconds, but it wasn't bad.
Pool towels were available until 6 p.m., but there were no sunscreen or water stations.
The beach here was Mother Natures's gift to the island and all who visit. It was gorgeous.
There were waves, but it was swimmable and stayed shallow for quite a long ways out.
Seaweed was an issue here, but staff was diligent about keeping it raked up as much as possible.
During the day, there was drink service and plenty of chairs and umbrellas by the water.
At night, you could pay extra for a meal by the water.
This is the Caribbean, and there are indeed bugs. Some resorts do a better job than others in managing the pests, but it can be an uphill battle against nature. This resort had both mosquitoes and something else that left a longer-lasting red itch behind, perhaps sand fleas. I'm sensitive to bites and left with about 15 red, lingering bites, and that's even after being cautious during morning and evening, when these sorts of critters are most active.
There were mosquitoes in the buffet restaurant and hiding around furniture in other open areas of the resort, so take precautions if you're sensitive or susceptible. Rooms may also be hiding mosquitoes as they are finished and the doors are shut.
The opening of the Hyatt Cap Cana resort was rocky, at best. More accurately, it wasn't ready. But the front-of-house staff was trying very hard. The servers, bartenders, kids club employees, spa staff and, of course, Big Papi Jr., (if you go, you'll meet him) were all trying very hard and deserved huge thumbs up.
But here's a weird thing I noticed and then had verified by someone who reached out after the first story went live: Sometimes, when talking to staff, you felt as if there were either a massive translation barrier or you were talking in circles. This was evident when we checked in and I was told the waterpark was never closed but also not yet finished or open. It was bizarre.
Reportedly, the staff have been trained not to say no to guest requests. But this meant you simply talked in circles or were brought something you didn't ask for. For example, a request for orange juice might've turned into a delivery of orange soda if they were out of juice. This isn't just a translation issue, as the person who had the same experience as me speaks Spanish.
Speaking of communication, while many staff members know English, I ended up using every Spanish word I have in my vocabulary, and at times Google Translate apps had to come out. This is the Dominican Republic, not Florida, so that wasn't a bad thing, and it was almost fun to try and recall the limited Spanish I knew, but it did result in interesting situations for my kids. My 4-year-old scared the kids club staff by saying she was allergic to ants (she's not really), but the word "ants" must have not translated well, and my 9-year-old had to come to the rescue with the translate app to explain this wasn't a real food allergy or anything serious.
Overall impressions for the Cap Cana resort are hard to discern because our stay was filled with peaks and valleys. Some parts, like the views, were excellent. Some were OK. Others really weren't good. The resort wasn't in a soft open at first, it wasn't ready to open and the management didn't manage the situation well. Charging full rates for a very in-progress resort is questionable. Add in the incorrect information being passed on to incoming guests and it was a situation that was both unfortunate and avoidable.
That shouldn't be relevant to guests visiting a few months from now except that whatever led to those choices being made may last longer than the wet paint on the walls.
Would I come back to this resort even if it were free? I don't know. My husband would rather not. My kids, however, would return in a heartbeat.
I guess I'll just see how things pan out over the longer term. There's potential, but with so many great destinations in the world, I'm yet not sold on returning somewhere that overpromises, underdelivers and places guests in an active construction zone, even if that construction site is in a perfect corner of the earth.