I recently stayed at the Moon Palace Casino, Golf & Spa Resort in Punta Cana, the largest hotel in the Dominican Republic and one of the biggest hotels in the Caribbean in terms of room count: 1,791 units (Atlantis at Paradise Island in the Bahamas tops out as the largest, with 2,300 rooms).
There were other "bigs" at the Moon Palace: 11 pools; 11 restaurants; 12 bars and lounges; the largest casino in the Dominican Republic; enough meetings space to host a political convention; and two separate lobbies connected by a half-mile, marble corridor ringed by shops that had a credit-only purchase policy.
Thirty minutes into my four-night stay, I decided that a GPS unit should be a standard amenity for all guests.
I'm not a fan of big hotels, so this one took some getting used to. On the plus side, I give high-fives to the staff, all of whom were among the friendliest I've encountered in the Caribbean.
Getting around the resort, to be rebranded as the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana this summer, not only is daunting but also exhausting.
The inspection tour alone took more than two-and-a-half hours.
Guests headed for the white sands and palm trees on the hotel's Macao Beach should arm themselves with a map, a water bottle and comfortable walking shoes.
However, there are shuttles to transport guests to and from the beach and around the 121-acre property.
The resort's layout, with guestrooms spread among eight four-story buildings, interspersed with pools, canals, a lazy river, fountains and walkways, is confusing, but better signage is one of Hard Rock's priorities.
The rebranding of the Moon Palace, which will continue to be owned and managed by Palace Resorts, will take place later this summer, and while Hard Rock's signature music memorabilia will be a component of the transformation, guest-friendly amenities also figure high on the list.
Palace Resorts built its base in Mexico with 11 all-inclusive oceanfront resorts spread from Cancun on the Gulf of Mexico to Riviera Nayarit on the Pacific coast.
Palace's Punta Cana property opened in spring 2009, signaling the firm's foray into the Caribbean and its first as an all-inclusive. Its architecture and layout closely resemble its Mexican counterparts.
So why a rebranding just a year after its opening?
"Palace Resorts is known in Mexico. We've been there for 25 years, but we are new to the Dominican Republic, and we realized we needed Hard Rock's strong, edgy brand to set us apart as a high-end, luxury all-inclusive," said Augustin Cortes, the resort's director of operations.
The agreement with Hard Rock "combines the atmosphere and guest experience of the Hard Rock brand with the Moon Palace all-inclusive experience," according to Cortes.
The weekly rate in the villas, which are expected to attract casino high-rollers, will be $25,000 a week, but the rack rates in guest rooms this summer start at $165 per person, per night, double.
"While the standard room rates will not increase under the Hard Rock brand, what will change is room decor and design, the addition of several Rock Star four-bedroom villas, and new menus," Cortes said.
Hard Rock will hang paintings, mirrors and music memorabilia in the public spaces; adults will have their own pool with bed-type lounges; kids will get an oversize water park, and bicycles will join the sports offerings that include a rock-climbing wall, all watersports, a golf course, tennis and a fitness center.
Hard Rock's designers have come up with new design features in the guestrooms, too.
Etched Plexiglas panels will border each in-room, sunken Jacuzzi-for-two to protect guests from stumbling into the porcelain pit in the middle of the night and to partially conceal the jets, drain and faucets.
A new color scheme and furnishings will soften the room's hard edges; the satellite TV signal will be redirected to pick up CNN and more programming from the U.S. East Coast.
The large 24-hour casino gets even larger with 457 slot machines, 40 gaming tables, a poker room, Sports Book and VIP Lounge.
"The renovations and design changes are taking place now and should be completed by midsummer," said Frank Maduro, Palace Resorts' vice president of marketing.
Moon Palace targets the traditional U.S. feeder markets in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast and "has had a great reception from travel agents, who bring in 35% of our leisure and group bookings," Maduro said.
Once the rebranding is a done deal, the resort will ramp up agent fam trips and site tours as well as bolster its marketing tools and expand its sales force.
"Palace Resorts has a big commitment to this destination and to our travel industry partners," Maduro said.
"We firmly believe in the travel distribution systems. We've had a good first year, and we are bullish about the future. We know this is a complex property and requires the guidance of agents to sell this resort."