Two takes on pampering by Excellence in D.R.

The cascade pool at the Excellence Punta Cana.
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Excellence Resorts offers two distinctive flavors of five-star, all-inclusive luxury on the increasingly popular east coast of the Dominican Republic. The first (and older) of the pair is Excellence Punta Cana, where the Dominican village aesthetic is defined by the traditional colors and architecture of the island. The second is Excellence El Carmen, which sits just a few miles from its sister but a universe apart in terms of its ultramodern design


Of course, both make the most of the island's sun-drenched sand beaches and tropical ambience, and both live up to Excellence Resorts' reputation for delivering an indulgent experience at any hour of the day. Two general levels of suites and services are available: Excellence Club is somewhat higher-end than the nonclub facilities. Among other things, club level includes access to a private part of the beach and to the Magna Club restaurant.

My wife and I recently stayed at each of these two Excellence resorts for several nights as club-level guests of the company. As we compared and contrasted the two properties, we encountered similarities that evoked a single brand in terms of quality, character and service, especially when it came to cuisine. Yet the differences in tone and ambience served to differentiate the two resorts very clearly.

We started our visit at Excellence Punta Cana and a late-night feast at its Lobster House, one of the resort's 11 restaurants, most of which allow casual dress during some or all of the day. The exception is Chez Isabelle, a high-end French dining venue, but even there the dress code is a relatively relaxed "elegant casual," defined as long pants and a collared shirt for men and, for women, just about any attire except shorts and flip-flops. At El Carmen, the same dress code applies to the Basmati restaurant.

Other dining venues at Excellence Punta Cana include Agave, an excellent Mexican restaurant; the Kitchen Table, a vast buffet that offers both international cuisine and an excellent selection of Dominican food; the Grill, which serves up steaks, chops, sandwiches and burgers under a giant thatch-roof palapa; Flavor Market, a cozy tapas venue; an Italian restaurant known as Oregano; and Spice, which offers pan-Asian cuisine. Las Olas, offering snacks and grilled foods on the beach, and the Sports Bar round out the eatery options.

Both Excellence resorts in the Dominican Republic offer wedding chapels, superior spas and more than a dozen suite selections. At the low end are junior suites with or without plunge pools or swim-up access. At the top are oceanfront terrace suites and honeymoon/anniversary suites. Among suites still available for early October, the beginning of the high season, prices start at $258 per night for a junior gardenview suite and rise to $466 per night for a honeymoon suite without a private pool.

Excellence El Carmen has a larger footprint than its Punta Cana sister resort, which allows for a quiet park with a pond.

Next, we ventured down to El Carmen, where things took a quick turn from Dominican traditional to sleek ultramodern. Here, we stayed in a suite with a swim-up patio and an indoor/outdoor hot tub overlooking the pool, which featured a swim-up bar on the other side. While most of the dining venues were the same restaurant selection we had enjoyed at Punta Cana, El Carmen replaces Oregano with Basmati, featuring "dishes of India's northwest frontier," and it adds the Food Shark, a Volkswagen microbus turned food truck that peddles burgers, hot dogs, fries, tacos, nachos, etc. It's a fun, funky attraction plunked down among all the high-end luxury.

One thing that impressed us about both resorts was the remarkable service culture. The staff, from housekeepers to groundskeepers, servers, chefs and bartenders, were at all times caring and attentive without being intrusive. In fact, we often didn't even realize they were there until we needed something, at which point they sprang into action, seemingly out of nowhere.

El Carmen differs from Punta Cana in several ways other than architecture. For one thing, it has a substantially larger footprint, which means the buildings are farther apart, replacing Punta Cana's village atmosphere with an upscale campus feel. The extra room also enabled the incorporation of a quiet park featuring walkways through a large garden and pond area that is home to pink flamingos, a pair of macaws and countless other colorful tropical birds and other fauna among the exquisite tropical flora.

On our first night in El Carmen, we dined at Basmati and were again impressed with how well Excellence has tapped cuisines from around the globe and yet has managed to maintain a remarkable authenticity with each.

One last note: Whichever Excellence resort you choose, do not leave without sampling the Miile Spa, which offers a hydrotherapy circuit that has to be experienced to be believed as well as an intimate couples massage. Whatever therapy you choose, you will leave wholly relaxed, feeling pampered and pain-free.

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