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Travel Weekly heads to the Caribbean to test three refurbished resorts at Spanish-owned all-inclusive brands.

Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar, Dominican Republic

Tested by Rachel Roberts

The Piñero family knew they were taking a risk when they closed the doors of the Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar resort in the Dominican Republic for six months last year, to carry out extensive renovations.

It’s something Pablo, founder of the Bahia Principe brand and late father of the family which now runs the business, always vetoed because of the effect on repeat bookings. However, the gamble – by sisters Encarna, Isabel and Lydia, board directors in the Grupo Piñero portfolio – has certainly paid off.

The property’s $26 million refurbishment dovetails with a rebrand of the Bahia Principe portfolio. Its hotels and resorts are now segmented into collections called Treasure, adult-only Escape, and Family and Friends.

As part of the Escape brand, the Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar – part of the seven-resort Bahia Principe complex – is a standout example of a five-star all-inclusive.

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Swim-up suites

Located in Punta Cana, the complex overlooks the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean and offers guests private use of the impeccably maintained Bávaro beach.

Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar has 528 rooms housed in chic three-floor buildings in grounds abundantly planted with palm trees and rainbow-bright flowers.

We experienced one of the resort’s most marketable features: a stay in one of 144 brand-new swim-up terraced suites. Set on the ground floor of each building, the swim-up pools flow into the same narrow waterway, a clever set-up that means clients can have privacy or – as we did – the opportunity to get to know their neighbours with a leisurely swim-by chat (a serious luxury when temperatures soar).

Beyond the regular selling points, the concierge service is worth highlighting to potential clients. A team of on-call butlers cater to guests’ every whim – from excursions to complimentary laundry and a ‘room scent’ menu.

There’s also a handy app, offering up-to-date information on the day’s activities, from foam pool parties to silent discos, Spanish lessons to yoga classes. It can also make table reservations at one of the five restaurants around the resort, with buffet and à la carte choices. We rated the intimate Limbo restaurant for its high-end gourmet menu and inventive cocktail list.

Unlike comparable resorts, the Luxury Bahia Principe Ambar seems to have space to spare; real thought has gone into the layout and there are plenty of private little spots to be found away from other guests. The large swimming pool (with swim-up bar, obviously) is surrounded by enticing loungers for sun-worshippers, or there’s a chill-out zone for those who prefer to relax on a Bali-style bed. The spa offers a full range of treatments plus a hydrotherapy circuit.

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Out and about

Many clients will happily stay in-resort for their entire holiday, but we ventured out and were enchanted by the country’s geographical diversity. The rural landscape features palm tree-covered mountains, coffee and cacao plantations, and colonial architecture, not forgetting those made-in-heaven white beaches.

And as part of an ongoing commitment to social and environmental responsibility, Bahia spearheads a year-round island clean-up initiative and co-funds local school-building projects – which should keep eco-aware clients happy too.

Safari Chocolate Adventure: This half-day tour packs in highlights including a visit to El Caño, a tobacco, cacao and coconut eco-plantation, where we sampled cigars and mamajuana, a drink made by soaking tree bark and spices in rum, wine and honey. We also looked around a traditional home while the owner serenaded us with island music on his guitar ($47).

Day trip to Samana: Get a new view of the Dominican Republic on a journey across the country, followed by a short speedboat ride to the charming island of Samana, where a horse ride up to the spectacular waterfall at El Limón and typical Dominican-style lunch await.

Book it: Prices for a Junior Suite Deluxe Swim Up at Bahia Principe Ambar start at £197 per person per night, based on an all-inclusive stay in August.


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Riu Palace Tropical Bay Hotel, Jamaica

Tested by Katie McGonagle

The sun was blazing, the palm fronds swishing gently in the breeze, and the waves lapping at the shore of Jamaica’s Bloody Bay, just moments from the spectacular Seven Mile Beach. But there was no lying back on a sun lounger just yet – the Beach Olympics were about to begin.

Lining up against an American family and a young couple from Italy, I joined a team of Brits to represent the UK in this impromptu international event. Admittedly, our sport of choice happened to be throwing bean bags into a goal a mere 15 feet away – not quite worthy of the real Olympics but exertion enough for a sunny day.

I lined up, took aim and – missed (more than once), but finally managed to redeem myself on the last throw, albeit too late to secure a podium place for the Brits.

Yet with a few cheers from our fellow guests and the promise of a cocktail to come, our lack of success didn’t seem to matter too much.

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