Continued from part 1...
Food and Drink
All food and drinks were included in the price of our stay.
Breakfast was served from 7am each morning in the buffet restaurant. The choice of food was extensive and the quality was very good. The buffet included 4 or 5 choices of cereal (with ice cold milk stored in the fridge), a large selection of yoghurts, tropical fruit (pineapple, melon, pomegranate, mango...), a variety of breads, boiled and scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, French toast, hash brown potatoes, fried plantains, salami, fried chicken, salad items, cold meats, cheeses, sticky pastries, cakes, muffins and biscuits. There was also an egg cooking station where you could fill up a bowl with ingredients (cheese, onions, mushrooms, ham, peppers...) and ask the chef to prepare you an omelette or simply some fried eggs. The choice of drinks included fruit juices, coffee, tea and hot chocolate.
Lunch could either be taken in the buffet restaurant or the beachside restaurant. The buffet restaurant included delicious soups and a selection of dishes that rotated daily. There was always rice, beans, french fries and pasta available, as well as a good choice of meat and fish dishes (BBQ ribs, meat stews, chicken wings, pork chops, sausages, chilli con carne, fried squid, fillets of fish...), vegetables, plantains and pizza. The dessert selection was always impressive, with fruit, ice cream, gateauxs, cakes and biscuits. The beachside restaurant largely served fast food; burgers, hotdogs, pizza slices, fish and chips, toasted sandwiches and nachos.
Dinner could either be taken in the buffet restaurant or, if booked in advance, one of the a la carte restaurants. We ate in the buffet restaurant on our first evening and then booked for the various a la cartes; Octopus (Caribbean Gourmet), Sapore di Mare (Italian) and Ocean Grill (Seafood and Steaks).
I understand that at busier times guests are limited to one visit per week to each of the a la cartes. However, the hotel was fairly quiet during our stay and no such restrictions were in place. We visited the reservation desk (open from 8am til noon at the entrance to the buffet restaurant) on our first morning and made a number of reservations. Tables can be booked for 6:30pm, 8:30pm and 9pm.
As the hotel was fairly quiet at the time of our stay, the a la cartes were not all open every night. Instead, they operated on a rotating basis. Sapore di Mare was open Monday and Tuesday, Octopus was open Wednesday and Thursday and Ocean Grill was open Friday and Saturday. Furthermore, the building in which Sapore di Mare is usually located (next to the Beata building) was closed, so both Sapore di Mare and Octopus used the same building (the Octopus Restaurant building upstairs from the buffet restaurant) but on differing evenings. The Ocean Grill restaurant was located next to the beach in what was the beachside bar and restaurant during the day time.
Our first evening was spent in the buffet restaurant. At first we thought it looked a little sparse (compared to the buffet restaurants that we enjoyed in Cuba and Cape Verde), but we found that there was actually a reasonable choice of food. The selection was similar to the lunchtime choice in that it consisted of soup, rice, beans, french fries, pasta and a selection of local and international meat and fish options. Waiters brought around jugs of red and white wine, as well as cold Presidente beers. There was also a self-service beer tap and soft drink machine. I enjoyed the beer, but Emma wasn't very impressed with the white wine!
The menu at Sapore di Mare was largely dominated by pasta dishes, but also contained steaks, shrimps and other meat and fish options. The waiters brought a dessert trolley around with a selection of gateauxs. The wine at Sapore di Mare (no extra charge) was much nicer than the wine in the buffet restaurant.
The menu at Octopus included a good selection of local dishes. On our first visit, I started with the "Caribbean Shrimp and Chicken Soup" and on our second visit I started with "Mofongo" (a Dominican dish made from plantains, garlic and vegetables). On our first visit, I had "Shrimps Tropical Style" (shrimps in coconut milk with garlic, leek and plantains) and on our second visit I had "Sea Bass Fillet in Saffron Sauce". Other mains included chicken curry, salmon steak, beef tenderloin, pork fillets and spaghetti. The wine and the desserts were the same as those on offer at Sapore di Mare.
We spent our final two evenings at the beachside Ocean Grill. In keeping with its name, the menu featured two sections: "From the Grill" (chicken breasts, BBQ spare ribs, striploin steak, mixed grill, chicken fajitas, grilled vegetables, cheese quesadillas) and "Fish & Seafood" (grouper fillet, mixed seafood grill, surf and turf). For an extra charge, you could order grilled lobster. On our first visit, I started with "Fried Squid in Passion Fruit Sauce" and on our second visit I started with "Soup Country Style" (a chicken and vegetable soup). On our first visit, I had the "Seafood Mixed Grill" (shrimps, squid, conch and octopus in a creole sauce) and on our second visit I had the "Surf & Turf" (beef tenderloin and a skewer of shrimps). The desserts were the same as the other a la cartes, but the wine didn't taste as good to me.
There are several bars around the complex. The pool bar (swim-up on one side and a terrace on the other side) was the one we used most often. It opened daily at 10am; the swim up side closed at 6pm while the dry land side stayed open until midnight. The beach bar opened daily from 10am until 6pm and stayed open until midnight on the evenings that the adjoining Ocean Grill restaurant was open. The lobby bar opened from 4pm until midnight. The "Tiki Bar" next to the quieter swimming pool in the Beata building was never staffed during our stay, but there was a self service soft drinks machine on the bar. It may be fully functional at busier times.
The hotel's cocktail menu stretches to several pages and includes many international favourites (Pina Colada, Sex on the Beach, Long Island Ice Tea, Margarita, Black Russian, Screwdriver...) and a variety of unique concoctions. As all of the alcohol was locally produced, I tended to stick to the excellent rum-based cocktails, particularly the Cuba Libre (rum and coke), the Santo Libre (rum and lemonade) and the Rum Sour (rum, lime and sugar). I also braved a "Dominican Margarita" (containing the 75% proof 151 Rum, Triple Sec and lime juice) one evening. The barman warned me that it was strong and I knew that one was enough (especially after an afternoon drinking Cuba Libres in the swim up pool bar!).
The hotel was pretty quiet in late November. We were told that it would likely be busier in January and February. In fact, the whole Playa Dorada complex was quiet and gave the impression that it had seen better/busier times in years gone by when the global economy was in a better state. As such, the hotel wasn't fully operational; one of the blocks (the Beata building) wasn't being used at all. All guests could comfortably be accommodated in the Saona and Catalina buildings. The Beata building is located furthest from the beach and main pools and, as such, seems to be the building that guests least enjoy staying in. If you do get a room in the Beata building, don't worry, it's only a few minutes walk through reception to the pool and then onto the beach. (Some of the reviews I read before our visit gave me the impression it was a lot further away!)
The in-room safe cost 584 Pesos (£10 / $US 16) for the week. Upon making our payment at check in, we were presented with a locking mechanism and a key. There is no code system or anything like that. If you choose not to pay for a safe, you'll just have a safe with no lock on it.
Prior to our visit, the main complaint that I read in the reviews on Tripadvisor was that the hotel became flooded with locals at the weekends. Apparently, excess rooms are sold to locals at low prices and large families turn up en masse, crowding the buffet and taking over the pool bar. I read lots of reviews from disgruntled holidaymakers that felt their holiday had been spoiled by the volume and behaviour of the locals that descended on the hotel between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening. I can honestly say that this wasn't the case during our stay. The hotel did get a little busier at the weekend (but not much) and I think the new arrivals were locals, but it didn't cause any problems at all for us. The breakfast buffet was a little busier (we still had dozens of tables to pick from and didn't have to queue at the food stations), but there was no real change around the pool or on the beach. It may be more of an issue at other times of the year – but it was no problem at all during late November.
The various tour operators that bring guests to the Gran Ventana offer a variety of excursions. Our holiday rep (or "Holiday Advisor" as First Choice now refer to their reps) recommended that we should only book excursions through them and not be tempted by other companies offering lower prices for the same trips. It's your choice of course, but we disregarded her advice and made our way to "Tours by James" in the nearby Playa Dorada mall to book our excursions. James gets rave reviews on Tripadvisor and significantly undercuts the prices offered by the tour operators. We booked 3 excursions (Puerto Plata city tour and cable car / Paradise Island / Outback Safari) and saved $US 140 compared to the prices offered by First Choice for the same trips. You can add us to the long list of people who recommend booking excursions through "Tours by James". (You'll find him next to Pizza Hut in the mall).
Unique Quality: We were able to exchange currency in the hotel. The bureau de change opens until late afternoon and after that you can change money at the cashiers desk next to reception. The rate (£1 = 58 Pesos) was comparable (and slightly favourable) to that of the exchange places in the nearby Playa Dorada mall.
In late November, the hotel had begun to decorate for Christmas. There was a large Christmas tree in the lobby area and further trees were decorated in the dining room during our stay. The entrance was decorated with wreaths and lights.
One morning we saw a gardener/maintenance man climbing palm trees in the hotel's gardens and trimming off the leaves. We asked him if he was able to get us coconuts to drink. With the use of just a rope (and plenty of experience no doubt!), he scaled a large tree and cut down dozens of coconuts. He then made a show of slicing them and peeling them with a machete, before offering them to us to drink. He didn't want any payment, but we gave him a decent tip anyway (I think that's the unwritten rule in these circumstances!).
Overall, we really enjoyed our week long stay at VH Gran Ventana. The beachside location is excellent and there is plenty to see and do in the local area. The rooms are clean, cool and spacious and the food and drinks are plentiful, varied and good quality. The entertainment is low-key and the atmosphere is quiet and relaxing – just as we like it! We'd happily recommend this hotel to anybody considering a visit!
Directions: Located within the Playa Dorada complex, between Puerto Plata airport and the town centre.