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Resorting to relaxation in the Dominican Republic

I peeled away from my luxury resort to tour the island because I knew I should. But it wasn’t easy.

Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

BAVARO — The oceanside argument started something like this: “I’m not leaving this beach. Stop pestering me. Can’t you see I’m trying to get a tan?”

That prompted the stinging retaliation: “Listen, Gramps. You’re on an island with more to do than consume mango rum smoothies and bury your nose in Mary Higgins Clark mysteries all day.”

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Sadly, this bickering took place entirely in my head as I tried to extract myself from a Sunbrella-upholstered beach bed under a thatched palm sun shelter. The task was proving impossible. My beach towel smelled of lilacs, the warm ocean was travel-brochure blue, and the breezes felt like soft hugs.

Don’t judge me on that “soft hugs” sentence. I was working on my third mango rum smoothie when I wrote it.

I thought I would be antsy after a couple of days at the all-inclusive Paradisus Palma Real resort. But it seemed the 554-suite luxury compound possessed the power to turn me into a human slug.

Perhaps the most ridiculously opulent part of my stay at the Paradisus was my personal butler. The butler was a benefit of reserving a room in the adults-only (minds out of the gutter, please), Royal Service section of the resort. When I checked in, I was given a cellphone to call Johnfi the butler whenever I needed him. I felt like the Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey” with Mr. Carson at my beck and call. The only difference is that Johnfi was about 50 years younger than Mr. Carson and showed fewer nose hairs.

Bavaro is in an area of this island nation called Punta Cana, which includes a town of the same name. It’s best known for white sand beaches dotted with mega-resorts. European chains have moved in to buy up land. US and Canadian tourists dominate (JetBlue offers direct flights from Boston).

The Paradisus Palma Real Resort in Bavaro, Dominican Repubic.

Stephen Rose

The Paradisus Palma Real Resort in Bavaro, Dominican Repubic.

I avoided all-inclusive resorts for years, picturing mediocre buffets and watered-down pina coladas. My resort had buffets, but it also boasted a restaurant from seven-star Michelin chef Martin Berasategui. The idea of leaving the resort also became more challenging after the butler drew a bubble bath for me in the jacuzzi tub, delicately sprinkling the bubbles with rose petals in the shape of a heart. To be clear, the butler did not join me in the bath.

Originally my plan was not to come to the Dominican Republic exclusively for parasailing and suckling pig. I was curious about the country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Friends expressed dramatically different opinions about it. I talked with one woman who traveled to the DR eight times, although she spoke so harshly of it I couldn’t figure out why she came back so many times.

“Do not leave your resort,” she said. “It’s a dangerous country, and the insects are terrible.”

My guidebook made the DR sound like a place where driving was a nightmare and ruffians were everywhere. But other friends spoke of the country lovingly, dismissing the dangers that lurked outside my gated resort.

Which brings me back to that daybed on the beach. I was fighting the urge to do nothing more than sit and be wooed by the scenery. But here I was in the place where Christopher Columbus first landed, and if I returned home with pictures of nothing but my aqua spinning class, I was likely to be ostracized by friends.

I wanted to avoid the canned chatter of a group sightseeing tour, so I found a driver and a guide to take me and my partner, Alex, to Santo Domingo, the capital, with the hope of seeing smaller towns along the way. Unfortunately, I hired a man who normally gives bus tours. Our one bonus stop was a town called Higuey to see the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia. It’s an oddly-out-of-place concrete church constructed in the early 1970s and a mecca for religious pilgrimages.

Thankfully we also had a chance to drive through the dusty roads of Higuey and a few surrounding towns. I finally felt as if I was getting a better look at the Dominican Republic beyond my scrubbed and manicured resort. Sausages hung from racks on roadside stands and one man peddled his bike with a string of crabs dangling from a rope in one hand.

Thanks to a new highway, Santo Domingo is now a little more than two hours from Punta Cana (previously it was about four hours). The Zona Colonial, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a district in the city filled with most of the need-to-see churches, homes, and museums. Our guide, Juan, dutifully brought us to all the tourist hot spots. Santo Domingo is a charming city with colorful stucco homes filling narrow streets. The Zona Colonial is home to the oldest cathedral, castle, and fortress in the Americas.

I had little luck persuading Juan to take us to places that were not designed for tourists. After he brought us to the yawn-inducing Amber Museum, where we spent 20 minutes looking at ants trapped in pieces of the honey-colored gemstone, I suggested we walk around town and do some shopping. Juan brought us to a Walmart-sized gift shop filled with T-shirts, shells, and shot glasses.

There, the inebriated store owner asked Alex and me if we were married. The Mama Juana — the local hooch he was liberally consuming — must have destroyed this shopkeep’s gaydar because he was asking if we were married to women. And then he started asking us if we were interested in spending time with a lady of the evening.

The statue of Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo.

Christopher Muther/ globe staff

The statue of Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo.

This was a persistent theme outside the resort. Every time I was in a cab, the driver would ask if I was looking for a woman, or looking for a good time. My good times consist of looking at pictures of cats on the Internet while drinking riesling, but I don’t think he was referring to that.

It was upsetting to hear of the prostitution, but I never felt as if I were in danger when I was in the city or outside the resort. In fact, people were particularly friendly after I told them I was from Boston.

“Ah, Boston. Big Papi. He’s the best.”

I’m surprised there is no monument honoring David Ortiz in Santo Domingo alongside the Christopher Columbus statue, although I’m sure one is coming soon.

Eventually I stopped feeling guilty for not leaving the resort as often as I had intended. I was staying at a place that mastered the art of relaxation. Heck, there was a pillow menu in the room and a swimming pool around every corner. It took me a few days to grasp, but I needed to stop fighting the urge to stay put. I finally set aside the travel guidebook, picked up a trusty mango rum smoothie, and headed back to that bed on the beach, ready to finally unwind.

The Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia. It’s an oddly-out-of-place concrete church constructed in the early 1970s and a mecca for religious pilgrimages.

Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

The Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia. It’s an oddly-out-of-place concrete church constructed in the early 1970s and a mecca for religious pilgrimages.

At the Paradisus, the beach towel smelled of lilacs, the warm ocean was travel-brochure blue, and the breezes felt like soft hugs.

Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

At the Paradisus, the beach towel smelled of lilacs, the warm ocean was travel-brochure blue, and the breezes felt like soft hugs.

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_
Muther.
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