FTF's guide to getting your money's worth at an all-inclusive resort, whether it's the cheapest or most expensive option available.
Many parents looking for total relaxation and a break from the workaday world dream of a stress-free vacation where they can concentrate on fun, adventure and recharging their batteries. As “money” is one of the life’s most stress-inducing topics, lots of families choose to vacation at “all-inclusive” resorts, where they never have to open their wallets for food, beverages, activities, entertainment or tips, as everything is covered by the upfront price of the vacation. (However, keep in mind that guests often do offer tips to helpful staff to show appreciation for their efforts.)
As a result of this trend, the number of all-inclusives has multiplied, often leaving families in a quandary as to how to choose their vacation spot. They all tout “gourmet food,” “excellent service,” “kid’s clubs” and more, yet prices can vary from $1,300 to $6,000 for a family of four for a one week vacation. What accounts for the difference, and how do the resorts actually measure up? On a recent press trip to the Riviera Maya, I had the chance to sample several such resorts and learned that while each has its own appeal, there are limitations as well.
We stayed at the Blue Bay Grand Esmeralda, located 35 minutes south of the Cancun International Airport, and 10 minutes from the charming town of Playa del Carmen. Inspired by the local Mayan style, two and three-story thatched roofed buildings house the 984 rooms, restaurants, bars, and fitness center, and tiki huts provide shaded areas around the free-form pool. There is a 1,500-foot white sand beach with lots of lounge chairs, plus palm trees and palapas for shade, but, as with many budget resorts, the large size means that facilities can get crowded. As expected, the rate includes all meals (at 3 buffets as well as specialty steakhouse, Mexican, Italian, French and Asian restaurants), domestic alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (excluding champagne, bottled wines and premium beers), poolside beverages, in-room minibar, 24-hour room service, taxes and gratuities.
Pros: On the positive side, this resort has local flare and delivers a relaxing vacation at an economical rate. Guests are free to use the swimming pools and beach and participate in non-motorized watersports such as sailing, kayaking, windsurfing. Additionally, there are tennis and volleyball courts, a jogging trail and a fitness center with aerobics, stretching and spinning classes, all for free. The Kids Club offers a complimentary daily program of activities and a pool/playground area for children from age 2 to 12 years. Finally, nightly shows are offered for entertainment. Other activities, such as golf, snorkeling and scuba diving are available for an additional fee, as is the use of the stunning spa. This too, is typical of most all-inclusives resorts. We saw laughing children in the Kids Club, many families frolicking in the pool, playing tennis and happily chowing down, and while the Esmeralda is not perfect, I think it offers good value and that families can have a really nice vacation here.
Cons: The food at the buffet, while plentiful and of decent quality, is pretty basic, and quite repetitive. The food at the specialty restaurants (we tried Mexican and Italian) was only a tad better. Getting a reservation (required) for these restaurants is difficult, yet they were not full while we were dining, creating a mystery amongst the guests. The staff was very friendly and accommodating, but the coordination of services was uneven, as both of the elevators in our building were not in service for a good part of our stay, and there was total confusion about the availability of room service for breakfast and wireless internet access in the rooms. We sat on the beach and enjoyed the view, but the sea can be muddy and full of seaweed. Finally, the sewage system created an unpleasant odor, most noticeable around the reception building.
Value: Like many budget all-inclusives, this is a very large resort with close to 1,000 rooms and suites. It’s quite spread out, but golf carts are available for transportation throughout the property, especially useful for grandparents, and tired little ones. On the price scale, the Blue Bay is the “best for the budget” of those we saw, with an average rate of $250/N for a family of four in a double-bedded room — less in the low season (c. $185/N) and more in the winter, high season (c. $360/N).
Photos for this story by Ralph Spielman
Moderate Priced All-Inclusives
We toured and had a buffet dinner at the highly regarded, moderately priced Dreams Tulum Resort, located one hour and 15 minutes from the Cancun Airport, very near the Mayan ruins at Tulum. This property, a member of the Preferred Hotel & Resorts, promises “Unlimited Luxury” to its guests. Located on a two-mile stretch of white sand beach, Dreams Tulum offers 238 rooms and suites, making it cozier than some huge resorts. The architecture is Spanish colonial style, a bit glitzy for my taste, but typical for these places, many of which strive to be seen as “international” in style. Food and activity offerings are quite similar to most all-inclusives with a few improvements.
Pros: There is only one buffet and the five specialty restaurants (Italian, Pan-Asian, Mexican, French and Steak) do not require reservations. Some of your vacation fees go towards the premium beverages served in the restaurants and bars; 24-hour room service is also available. In addition to the standard resort activities, there is an on site natural cenote mineral pool (in addition to a large, free-form pool, a “Quiet” pool and a children’s pool), a movie theater, and organized bicycle tours to Tulum. Spa services are available for a fee.
At Dreams Tulum, the buffet was much more appealing, varied, and tastier than at budget places, and the rooms were very nicely appointed with marble floors and bathrooms. The Explorer’s Kid’s Club (for ages 3-12) facilities were impressive and included an extensive indoor and outdoor playing area and a climbing wall. The counselors seemed very engaged, but I found their hokey, quasi-military uniforms strange in this sunny environment. The beach setting is lovely, and we saw a wedding taking place.
Cons: The rooms are nicely appointed, but typical for this price range, they are compact. There were some complaints about the quality of the seawater, as the resort is adjacent to a coral reef with rocks and seaweed present. Apparently, a walk along the beach takes you to a cleaner, swimming-friendly spot.
My overall impression was of being on a cruise on land, as I had no sense of being in Mexico. The grand European building style was out of place, and, while you could buy (over-priced) Mexican handcrafts at the mini markets set up in the evening, you missed the chance to stroll through a town and shop from the local residents. To get some local flavor, you’ll have to leave the property. The good news is that two eco-themeparks, Xcaret, just south of Playa del Carmen and Xel’Ha, near the ruins at Tulum, are highlights of this region, where you can snorkel in a natural aquarium or sacred underground river, have a dolphin encounter, float down a river in an inner tube, observe local flora, fauna and sealife, enjoy performances of folkloric dances, music and native games, and more. Visit the websites of these unusual parks to find out about their day packages, some of which also include transportation from your hotel, lockers, towels, snorkel equipment, life vests and meals.
Value: On the price scale, Dreams Tulum is in the mid-range of the resorts we saw, with an average rate of $420/N for a family of four in a double double-bedded room — less in the low season (c. $300/N) and more in the winter, high season (c. $510/N).
Photos for this story by Ralph Spielman
The final resort we toured was the deluxe Azul Beach by Karisma, located 20 minutes south of the Cancun airport and 35 minutes north of Playa del Carmen on a secluded, clear stretch of beach. This resort calls itself a “Gourmet All-Inclusive,” and, for a higher rate, offers a much more intimate environment, and more “pros” than “cons.”
Pros: A stylish boutique hotel, with a total of 98 rooms decorated in a hip and understated manner, the Azul Beach offers an upscale, but low-key ambience and is quite compact, so that the beach, pools and restaurants are all within steps of the rooms. There is a nice Kids Club for ages 4 to 12, enhanced through an association with Fisher-Price, with activities for infants and toddlers and their parents.
The dining scene here offers a different approach. There are no buffets (except an optional one at breakfast, and for the kids), and dining reservations are not required, but recommended for groups of 6 to 10 people. Blue serves Ã la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers world cuisine, as well as specialty menus such as the “All-Lobster” plus Low Fat/Low Carb and “South Beach” menus for those following diets. Chil serves Ã la carte lunch and dinner and offers Mexican and Caribbean cuisine, and Tainan serves Ã la carte dinners offering Asian specialties. 24-hour room service is also available. As for our meal, we were treated to fish, caught that day, grilled and served on the beach and accompanied by salads and other side dishes. It was extraordinary, and apparently representative of the other meals.
Premium alcoholic beverages and house wines are served in several bars, including one with hanging beds (read hammocks) overlooking the Caribbean. For those who enjoy indulging in tequila, the Agavero Tequila Lounge offers over 30 different brands and a unique bar surface, kept cool with refrigeration below, so that your cocktails or straight drinks are always at the perfect temperature. Keep in mind that unlimited beverages are included in rates, one reason real drinkers find high-end all-inclusives a good value.
As well as the standard activities and services, other included features, such as private cabanas on the beach (outfitted with a king-size four-poster bed, moveable drapes and large, comfy pillows), and the services of a Beach Butler who will bring you towels, exotic snacks, newspapers, tanning products and mist you with mineral water, are quite luxurious. While I would be uncomfortable to have someone fawning over me all day, I think parents with babies and young children do appreciate this service.
Cons: We toured the rooms and found them stylish, but on the small side. While the resort kindly provides complimentary baby items such as cribs, changing tables, baby bathtubs, strollers and other paraphernalia, they make the already small room quite cramped.
Families with older kids and teens will need to go off property if they want some excitement. Invest in a bit of adventure, with Alltournative Tours. Fully-guided, active excursions include transportation, expert multi-lingual guides, entrance fees, all equipment, meals and beverages. Select from activities such as a jungle crossing in an all-terrain vehicle, sea-kayaking to a spectacular reef for snorkeling, swimming and rappelling into cenotes (underground rivers), zip lining over the jungle’s foliage and visiting Mayan communities.
Value: Overall, this resort would appeal to upscale families seeking a tranquil getaway in a low-key environment, with an emphasis on service. As expected, on the price scale, Azul Beach is on the high end. The average rate is $500/N for two adults in double-bedded room — less in the low season (c. $426/N for the adults) and more in the winter, high season (c. $575/N for the adults). Plus, a substantial per child weekly surcharge is added.
The Bottom Line
The large, budget-priced all-inclusives work very hard to provide good value at a modest cost, but guests should be aware of probable shortcomings.
Moderate priced all-inclusives try to appeal to an upscale clientele by offering some enhancements and a more opulent atmosphere.
Upscale all-inclusives with premium fees offer a low-key, elegant environment, where service makes all the difference.
Photos for this story by Ralph Spielman
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