Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
The kingdom of Sanctuary Cap Cana still stands. And it's thriving.
The five-star, all-inclusive, adults-only property in one of the Dominican Republic’s most exclusive neighbourhoods – gated Cap Cana – officially reopened this month after shutting down for four months due to damages caused by Hurricane Fiona last September.
The high-profile storm, which slammed into the region on Sept. 19, caused significant destruction, battering local neighbourhoods and tearing away infrastructure at hotels – with ocean-facing Sanctuary being among the hardest hit.
But the 324-suite property, which is managed by Playa Hotels and Resorts, used its downtime wisely, rejuvenating areas that were hit hard by Fiona’s ferocious winds with new décor concepts, eye-catching art and fresh furniture.
READ MORE: Sanctuary Cap Cana – the castle that made health & safety protocols look chic
PAX, in a Canadian trade exclusive, was invited to spend a few sun-kissed days in Cap Cana (which is also home to the Jack Nicklaus-blessed Punta Espada Golf Club) to inspect Sanctuary’s new and improved look, and mark our words: this cozy compound (which has its own castle, PS) has upped its hospitality game.
As Dean Sullivan, Playa Hotels and Resorts’ senior vice-president, sales and marketing, told us at Sanctuary’s outdoor relaunch party on an elegantly-decorated terrace last Tuesday night: “The team did a magnificent job. I won’t say they put [Sanctuary] back together, but they used the storm to further things that were already being planned.”
“There are recovery efforts, but there’s also flat-out renovation work that the owner moved mountains to make happen.”
The calm before the storm
There’s never a good time for a hurricane, but in Sanctuary’s case, Fiona crashed the party just as it was getting good.
A couple of days before the storm made landfall, it was announced that Sanctuary Cap Cana would become the first all-inclusive property to join Marriott’s “Luxury Collection,” a coveted portfolio of high-end, destination-defining hotels and resorts.
It was a big deal as the partnership would effectively promote Sanctuary to new audiences – specifically, some 170 million Marriott Bonvoy members who previously may not have considered staying at an all-inclusive resort.
Leisure travel, coming out of COVID, is also making the biggest comeback, Sullivan said, which is why power brands, like Marriott, are “really turning up their effort” to crack the market with new alliances.
VIDEO: PAX unpacks luxury at Sanctuary Cap Cana in Dominican Republic
It was a big opportunity – unveiled weeks before the winter holiday rush, no less – so you can see why spirits were crushed when Sanctuary was forced to close as the team, instead, turned their attention to cleaning up Fiona’s mess.
But every cloud has a silver lining, as the saying goes.
“What the property went through, I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Sullivan said. “But it was positive in that the team was able to step back with an empty hotel and make the kind of improvements that needed to be done in order for it be successful in Marriott’s Luxury Collection.”
Defining the destination
This is where the enhancements come in. One of the first things guests may notice is that Sanctuary is a tad more colourful.
To be clear – the property, with its brilliant gardens, sparkling pools, fountains, lush palm trees, whimsical pathways and yellow, pink and peach-coloured Spanish/Mediterranean-inspired buildings, was always vibrant.
But one stand-out, post-Fiona (and post-Marriott) change is in the villas – one of four dreamy sections at Sanctuary (which has 19 room categories).
The exteriors of some villas now boast a fresh coat of paint, ranging from sky blue and playful pink to calming yellow and lime green to cool mint – bright colours you’ll find painted on real homes in parts of the Dominican Republic.
This is what being part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection is all about. Hotels in this portfolio must somehow reflect the destinations they’re in and this was Sanctuary’s way of meeting Marriott’s requirements.
(The property was already 80 per cent Luxury Collection material when the Marriott partnership was formed, we were told).
Sanctuary’s Villa Collection, with beach and ocean-facing accommodations (luxury cottages, if you will) exist within their own quiet neighbourhood.
The new colours, if anything, enhance the residential feel, reminding guests that they truly are in their own sanctuary. And some villas were untouched, maintaining their stone-like exterior.
Guests can also expect to see more local food and drink offerings. Once a week, the property’s brightly-lit buffet, Casabella, serves a special menu of items native to the Dominican Republic, like beef-stuffed plantain cups.
Local coffee and cacao tastings at pop-up stands are also now available.
And there are structural additions, too, such as new (and very chic) fire pits on the outdoor terrace beyond the main lobby, as well as a newly-built beach bar and beach shack, where guests can rent equipment for surfing or kayaking.
Sanctuary's late-night discotheque has been renovated and enhanced. There's also a new library, located in the main lobby, which features a collection of Dominican culture books and more.
Some Marriott magic
Playa has always been about top-of-the-line experiences, but the Marriott/Luxury Collection influence is “giving us that extra push we needed,” said Angie Diaz, director of sales and marketing at Sanctuary Cap Cana, who is confident the changes will offer that “next-level” experience.
Playa’s strategy, in recent years, has been about teaming up with major hospitality players (Hilton, Hyatt and Wyndham, notably) that not only have a loyal customer base, but also global brand awareness.
Sanctuary, until recently, was a standalone. “We were missing that last name that had brand recognition,” Diaz explained.
In the end, partnering with Marriott and the Luxury Collection “was a perfect fit for us,” she said, and the deal has done wonders in getting guests back into the hotel – and quickly.
The team was expecting a slow start upon reopening (while they had high hopes of finishing the renovations before Christmas, the nature of hurricane repairs demanded more time).
Instead, the opposite happened. Since Sanctuary reopening on Jan. 20, the bookings have been rolling in, Diaz said, citing a fierce pent-up demand.
It’s also partly thanks to Marriott Bonvoy’s membership of discerning travellers.
“It’s helping us a lot with very high occupancy,” Diaz said. “We’re already hosting a lot of top-tier members who are so meticulous when it comes to where they go. We're so proud to be part of that.”
Fountains, murals & healing crystals
Luxury Collection hotels must have “Destination Discoveries” – things that make a property unique.
This is something Sanctuary already had. In addition to its many calming fountains, there are also “healing crystals” (selenite minerals) utilized everywhere, appearing in lamps and tables and, notably, in crystallized columns in the main lobby. (Wellness is a reoccurring theme).
Sanctuary (which, by the way, is only 15 minutes from Punta Cana airport) also has its own Spanish-colonial “town” near the main lobby, where restaurants (like the renovated steakhouse), a charming courtyard and the “Colonial Suites” are located.
This is where guests will also find Sanctuary Town, which has retail shops and eight mini eateries that serve everything from burgers to sushi.
Sanctuary is a fabled property, too. Before it was built, the land was home to a lone chapel, which was preserved and made into the lobby bar – “Love Bar” – that you see today.
(Word is that you can still confess…to the bartenders).
One “discovery” we made was a new and gigantic mural depicting one of Christopher Columbus’ ships sailing on a rocky blue sea (the Dominican Republic was colonized by the explorer on his first voyage in 1492).
The piece was recently installed on one side of the “Luxury Building,” a twin tower that holds oceanfront luxury junior, premium suites and a sprawling penthouse (which PAX, back in 2020, experienced first-hand).
The artwork was a gift to Sanctuary’s owner and effectively blends in with its tropical surroundings. It’s a sky-high centrepiece that can be seen from various angles, either from the swimming pools (there are six, on multiple levels) or the flowerful gardens.
Sanctuary’s gastronomy is also worth noting – the hotel imports its meats and cheeses from Spain for its six restaurants, which offer a mix of indoor and al fresco dining.
There’s sushi/teppanyaki at Wok, fresh seafood at Blue Marlin (built on stilts, overlooking the ocean), The Steakhouse, Capriccio (Northern Italian cuisine), canoe-shaped La Yola Snack Grill and beautiful Casabella, an indoor/outdoor international buffet restaurant.
But let’s not kid ourselves – the star of show at Sanctuary Cap Cana is The Castle.
Castles with rectangular battlements, wooden bridges and medieval-like towers are a rare find in the Caribbean, but this mini kingdom at Sanctuary is the real royal deal.
The Castle is where Sanctuary’s swim-out and honeymoon suites are located – and this includes a two-level, 5,500 sq. ft. “Island Suite,” which has three indoor plunge pools and, yes, its own private island on the sea. (All luxury suites, by the way, come with butlers).
This section also holds the 20,000 sq. ft. Sanctuary Spa (now with brighter interiors), which has an idyllic outdoor pool and relaxation area (with massage cabins) that’s hugged by green foliage and peaceful tranquility. (Believe this spa rah-rah. It’s the epitome of wellness).
Other Castle corners include the fitness centre, Wok restaurant, a rooftop pool and the “Ocean Club” bar and restaurant, which has been reimagined with light pastel blue, pink and cream tones with coral and wicker furnishings.
This sip-and-chill space, we were told, was destroyed by Fiona, but with the enhancements, it looks brand new – in a magazine-ready kinda way.
Finally, surrounding the Castle is a “moat” (a sparkling saltwater pool), which serves the swim-out suites.
Think Game of Thrones…the luxury resort edition. Playa has many brands, but still only one Sanctuary, making this Caribbean jewel all the more exclusive.
And Canadian guests can expect to be treated like kings and queens.
“We love Canadians,” noted Diaz. “We welcome them with open arms and we hope they come and rediscover the extraordinary.”
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