punta cana

With hundreds of palm trees, clear blue waters and beautiful beaches, Punta Cana, on the easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic, is the local travel agents' pick for the next vacation hot spot.

With the holidays firmly (and literally) tucked under the proverbial belt, it’s time to step solidly into the depths of winter. In other words, put those dreams of a white Christmas away and start thinking of azure water and sugar-white beaches.

Winter travel continues to be popular in southeastern Kentucky this year, with the majority of travelers heading south to tropical climes.

“People want sun and beach,” Kathy Stansberry, owner of London’s Traveltime, explained.

And it seems they want it more badly than ever.

Joyce Hamm, owner of Somerset’s Adventure Tours and Travel, said people are traveling more this year than they have since Sept. 11, 2001.

“In fact, I think it may be the best year ever — and I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” she said.

So where are they going?

Travel agents agree one of the hottest up-and-comer spots is Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s kind of like you’ve been shipwrecked on your own island,” Hamm said. “There are beautiful, beautiful properties there and they’re building as we speak.”

Indeed the easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic is now punctuated with resorts and hotels totaling 37,000 rooms, a number that is expected to double in the next few years.

The attraction lies in the idyllic combination of crystal blue waters, white sand beaches and hundreds of palm trees that line the coast. It also helps that the temperature hovers around 79˚F with very little rain.

The area is also relatively inexpensive. Hamm estimates it is just slightly more expensive than a Mexican vacation, which also continues to be popular with American travelers.

Vickie Blevins, an agent for Global Travel International, said Mexico is among the top five countries for international travel.

“It’s the beaches, the sun, the location,” she said. “You can usually get decent flight prices — and it’s not a hassle to get there.”

The Mayan Riviera, just outside of Cancun, and Cancun itself continue to be the must-go places.

Cancun, however, is getting more expensive, Hamm said, ironically due to Hurricane Wilma that pounded the area in Oct. 2005.

“When they built back, most of the luxurious hotels are not accepting a lot of springbreakers now,” she said. “The rates have escalated some. It’s a little more expensive at some properties.”

All-inclusive resorts, made famous in Mexico and across the Caribbean, continue to be in high demand.

“I’ve had more people ask about all-inclusive trips,” Blevins said. “They want one price — for food, hotels, air and tipping.”

Sandals all-inclusive resorts, with spots in St. Lucia, Antigua, the Bahamas and Jamaica, are extremely popular for couples. Club Meds, with deluxe locations in Florida, Guadeloupe, Mexico, Nasa and Punta Cana, are a hit with families.

“Club Meds are fabulous destinations for kids,” Stansberry said. “It’s not just a daycare. They have great activities like circus acts, treasure hunts, science projects — really, really fun things kids love to do.”

Cruises also continue to soar in popularity thanks to their convenience and their palatable prices.

“You can go on a four-night cruise for $400 per person,” Stansberry said. “People love them because they can see more than one destination without packing and unpacking.”

Overall, agents are finding their customers are more educated about travel than ever before.

“They’re doing a lot of research on the Internet,” Stansberry said. “It’s a good thing because people are making their own decisions and their trips are better planned.”

Staff writer Tara Kaprowy can be reached by e-mail at tkaprowy@sentinel-echo.com.

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