It’s been four weeks since I got back from the Dominican Republic.
Despairingly, my tan has faded and my post-holiday blues are at an all time high. The just-above-freezing temperatures in the mornings in London recently haven’t helped matters; after a blissful week in 33c heat at a 5 star LHVC resort (plus a couple of nights spent at Airbnbs in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital), I arrived back in Blighty with an almighty bump. I swapped flip-flops for knee-high boots, traded shorts for jeans, and my bikinis are now up in the loft with the rest of my summer wardrobe. Get me back to the Dom Rep, to the sunshine – and to the luxury I’d become accustomed to at LHVC.
What’s LHVC, you ask? It’s an acronym for ‘Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Club‘ – though if I’m honest, the letter C could easily stand for ‘Cult’. Because after a week, that’s what it felt like I was being seduced, cajoled into. And it clearly worked, because after four weeks, I’m desperate to get back there, to be waited on hand and foot, to have my every culinary need catered for, to be sleeping on a big, comfortable bed every night, back in my big, spacious hotel room (complete with Jacuzzi bath).
I’ve been brainwashed.
LHVC is an exclusive club for elite holidaymakers, for those that want all-inclusive to the max. So understandably, I did feel like an impostor when mum and I rocked up at the resort in Puerto Plata late on the Saturday afternoon. After a day that was, for the most part, spent travelling in a (cheap-yet-comfortable, and extremely air-conditioned) Caribe Tours coach, we looked unkempt, disheveled. We were clearly not the kind of people the resort was marketed towards – or were we?
Everything about LHVC has been designed for those who want exquisite, luxury, splendour, refinement. It’s designed for those who want fine dining, bottomless champagne, an endless supply of ice-cold cocktails bought to them whenever they want, wherever they are. It’s designed for those who want to relax on beautiful beaches, in well-maintained gardens or by crystal clear pools. Or for those that want to rejuvenate in the Yin Yang spa, or to play a round of golf on the resort’s private 9-hole course. It’s for those who want to holiday in the epitome of paradise.
People like me? Possibly.
The grooming for this exclusive club started as soon as we’d checked in and received our wristbands. “I’m your chauffeur this week, let me drive you to your accommodation”, said a young, handsome man wearing a safari-style linen uniform, complete with freshly pressed creases in his shorts and a khaki safari pith. He took our small case (couldn’t do just carry on with both of us and a giant flamingo pool float in tow), heaved it onto the back of a golf buggy and told us to climb on.
Having been on the coach for so long, we’d have preferred to stretch our legs – but after about five minutes on the buggy and having still not reached the illusive “accommodation”, we realised that walking just wasn’t going to be an option at this hotel. It was huge. Plus no one was walking anywhere – everyone was hurling around in golf buggies. I felt like part of a real-life version of Mario Kart, with everyone zipping in and out in front of one another, overtaking on straights, and nearly tipping as they sped around a tight corner too fast.
Looking at the map I’d received when checking in, the sheer size of the LHVC resort was suddenly apparent. It took about eight minutes to drive from the reception to our accommodation block. Once parked, the chauffeur carried our luggage up two flights of white marble stairs, then opened the door to our room with the key card. Following him in, mum and I were both in awe – it was undoubtedly the biggest room we’d ever stayed in.
“You want drink? Let me check,” he said as he opened the mini fridge. “Only water, I will get you beer.” And he did: about three minutes later, another young guy was knocking on the room door, clutching four chilled bottles of Presidente beer. Reading the tell-tale look on our faces, he knew we wanted a cold drink, but were worried about the price of these magical beers. “No problems,” he said as he cracked one open and handed it over, “all included”.
I was definitely starting to warm to the idea of this 5 star luxury lifestyle, I must confess.
That first afternoon was bliss. Mum and I sat by the pool (one of 12, but don’t ask which one) reading, relaxing and sipping on cocktails from the bar (one of 12, Pirate’s Cove Whiskey Bar – though neither of us drank whiskey). All the travelling to reach Puerto Plata had been worth it, we’d found paradise. We were slowly being lured in.
Join our club, be a part of the family.
First came the obvious, propaganda-style messages, the kind that couldn’t really be avoided.
“LIFESTYLE IS FAMILY” boomed a deep, male voice from the wall-mounted screen in our room. On the first night at the resort, each lying on our own freshly made king-size bed, my mum habitually flicked on the television. We both sat there in silence, watching the screen. Transfixed by scenes of a young, thin, beautiful (perhaps enhanced, digitally or cosmetically) couple walking hand-in-hand across the Harmony Beach, the Serenity Beach, the Deja View Beach, mum and I watched wide-eyed. Like the X Factor announcer bellowing “It’s Time. To Face. The Music”, the male voiceover paused dramatically in all the right places. The backing track was building to a crescendo, but it was a finale that never seemed to come. Just as we thought Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Club couldn’t get any better, we were shown something else, something more luxurious, more exciting, more beautiful. There was even a helicopter pad, for Pete’s sake.
The voiceover rattled off the resort amenities like a luxurious Fortnum & Mason shopping list: 12 bars, 11 restaurants, 12 pools, seven beaches and over 1,000 magnificent “accommodations” at the Lifestyle Holiday resort in Puerto Plata. No rooms here, these were accommodations – take your pick of a 1 bathroom, a junior suite, a 2 bathroom, a penthouse, a presidential suite, a villa, a crown villa, a royal villa. Enough room for your entire party, however many you’re travelling with. You’d even get your own personal chef if you opted for one of the villas.
But that’s not all: join the club, the Lifestyle family, and VIP members will have access to the sister resort in Punta Cana, as well as the newly built resort in Cancun. Which is the “largest resort in Mexico“, I might add. Oh, and the cherry on top of the already-smothered-in-sickly-sweet-icing cake: joining the club means discounted rates at other hotels and resorts in the network, in over 120 countries worldwide.
As soon as the 45-minute programme ended, it began again. Not that mum or I minded. We were gradually getting sucked in; it was like watching the showreel of best bits from an actor begging for work, on repeat.
Under the influence.
After the obvious signals, came the subliminal ones. The ones that I didn’t really notice until I’d left the resort and was back in Britain, where I’ve been forced to make my own coffee, pour my own water and make my own bed.
Feelings of inferiority hit mum and I on the second day: we only had lowly yellow wristbands. We weren’t allowed to eat at the gourmet Azul restaurant on the fourth floor of the Tower, which offered amazing panoramic views of Puerto Plata. We weren’t allowed to eat at Rodizio – a Brazilian churrascaria which we’d heard had the best barbecued meat in the whole of the Caribbean. And we weren’t allowed to drink in any of the VIP bars, including the Breezy Blends Bar at the Harmony Beach – which I was particularly gutted about, as the frozen slushies looked amazing.
On the second day we were given a taste of the high life while on a tour of the resort with the lovely Jessica. Though she wasn’t pushy or too salesy, we were constantly told that none of this would be available to us unless we signed on the dotted line, joined the club and got a gold wristband.
I so wanted that gold band, until Jessica told us how much it would cost to get it.
Money over mind.
I’ve already mentioned that I felt like an impostor at the resort. But I also felt like a criminal, a burglar. At times during our holiday at LHVC I was suddenly wracked with guilt for not paying the full price for our stay. Though simultaneously smug and proud for putting all my money-saving skills into practice. If I’d been a bank robber, this would have been the ultimate ‘job’, the make-or-break heist. If it had all gone terribly wrong, it would have broken me, quite literally. At the usual price of £108 per night for the room, I would’ve had to file for bankruptcy if the receptionist had suddenly said “I’m sorry Ms Talbot, it looks like there’s been an error – you owe Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Club £757 before I can give you your room key”.
Fortunately nothing of the sort was muttered. In fact, as we got to the front of the queue to check-in to our one bathroom accommodation at the Tropical hotel, it was the total opposite: “Well today is your lucky day Ms Talbot, the Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Club has upgraded you to a junior suite in the Cofresi Palm Resort and Spa“. A room that should have cost £1,177 for the week, which I’d paid just £158 for.
Aside from the debate on the ethics of staying in a luxury, all-inclusive resort (a debate which I’m still on the fence for), paying less than £500 per person for a holiday in a country that relies so heavily on tourism, and was recently hit by a devastating hurricane, left a sour taste in my mouth. To overcome my guilt, I gave in to Ellery, the sales rep for the Yin Yang spa, and got my nails done by the lovely Karen. Sure, it was more than I’d usually pay for getting a manicure, but I was in a 5 star luxury resort, and I needed to look the part. Plus Ellery was quite cute (wink wink).
So, would I join the Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Cult, er, I mean Club?
If I had that kind of cash, of course I would. Who wouldn’t want to be treated like royalty, have every need and whim catered for? The staff were friendly, the entertainment team were one of the best I’ve ever met (but more on that in another post), the food was decent and the resort was beautiful. Also, the fellow guests we made friends with around the pool weren’t the elite, VIP, super-stick-thin, beautiful holidaymakers that were featured in the promo video – they were regular nobodies just like mum and I. So by the end of the week, we didn’t feel too out of place.
But sadly (for me, probably not for my bank manager), I just don’t have a spare $23,000 lying around to pay the one-off, 35-year membership fee to join LHVC. Or an additional $250 for every week I want to book a junior suite at the resort. Nor an extra $60 per person, per night for the all-inclusive service – which you have to take, as there are no other boarding options available in the resort. Sorry LHVC, you’ll not be gaining a new family member out of me, as much as I’d love to join.
Will I go back to the Dominican Republic, though? Yep – I think so. Will I be staying at a Lifestyle Holidays Vacation Club resort again? Only if I win the lottery – or find a deal at that unbelievable price again. Which kind of amounts to the same thing, really.