The Easy-to-Budget Beach Escape
All-inclusive resorts in Mexico
and the Caribbean offer terrific values
By Elizabeth Armstrong
Occidental Hotels & Resorts
Rise with the sun and join an early morning yoga class, or sleep in and indulge in a room-service brunch. Head to the water-sports kiosk and grab a kayak for a paddle through crystal-clear seas, or borrow snorkeling gear to investigate underwater panoramas.
For the midday meal, should you sample a pizza from the wood-fired oven, browse the expansive buffet or visit the beachside grill that specializes in Jamaican jerk chicken? Later, you might participate in a mixology or merengue dance class, take Spanish language lessons or join a game of beach volleyball. Or, stretch out in a hammock for a nap, while breezes ruffle the palms overhead.
That evening, contemplate your dinner options as you watch the sunset from your perch at the swim-up bar. Perhaps you'll try the Brazilian steak house, the French bistro or the Japanese restaurant that serves sushi and teppanyaki-style grilled dishes.
Before turning in for the evening, have a nightcap in the piano bar, hit the disco or check out the show of live music and dancers.
At an all-inclusive resort, you can do all this without ever opening your wallet. For one rate that's paid up front, you'll receive accommodations, meals and snacks, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, water- and land-based activities and nightly entertainment. Gratuities are typically covered as well, so there's no need to carry cash with you.
All-inclusive resorts are popular along Mexico's coasts and in the Caribbean, where they're especially abundant in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic; the Bahamas also is home to a few. You can find a full gamut of activities and amenities: kayaking, snorkeling, windsurfing, paddleboats, tennis, volleyball, basketball, miniature golf, bicycling, fitness centers, saunas, multiple pools and Jacuzzis, for example. Breezes Bahamas offers a rock-climbing wall, and Breezes Curacao boasts an ice-skating rink; both also have circus workshops where you can learn to fly through the air on a trapeze. Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau each have private offshore islands reserved exclusively for their guests.
The degree of inclusion at these types of resorts can vary. Depending on the property, scuba diving and motorized water sports may not be included in the upfront rate, although free scuba lessons in the pool are sometimes offered. And while many resorts have a wide array of dining choices, there could be a small surcharge to dine at the most upscale restaurants. Top-shelf liquor brands also may incur an additional charge.
Spas are a big feature of many all-inclusive spots, with treatments that range from hot stone massages and seaweed wraps to anti-aging facials and body polishes. These services cost extra as well. If you're a golfer, look for resorts that waive green fees, but be aware that you might be charged for cart and club rentals, and sometimes caddy services are required.
If you want to take any off-site tours, perhaps to Dunn's River Falls near Ocho Rios, Jamaica, or the Mayan ruins of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, you'll likely need to pay an additional fee for those as well. There are exceptions: Couples Resorts, with four Jamaican properties, offers sunset catamaran cruises, glass-bottom boat tours and shuttles to shopping areas in its all-inclusive packages. The company also provides free daily scuba excursions for certified divers, and beginners can get a complimentary lesson and introductory dive.
Dining options are numerous and diverse at all-inclusive resorts -- in some cases you'll find as many as eight or 10 restaurants at a single property. Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resort in Cancun, Mexico, provides 14 restaurants and 12 watering holes, including six swim-up bars.
The eateries at all-inclusive properties can range from poolside snack bars where you can dine in your swimsuit to reservations-required restaurants with candlelight and casually elegant dress codes. In between, there might be restaurants specializing in Caribbean, Asian, Mexican, French, Southwestern and Italian cuisines. Buffets are ubiquitous, though the selection of buffet items at three-star places may not be as varied as the spreads offered at deluxe properties.
With so many choices, guests rarely have a reason to venture off-site for their meals. (If you enjoy sampling an array of local restaurants when you travel, an all-inclusive might not be right for you.)
When it comes to accommodations, choices can be just as wide-ranging. Garden-view rooms are the least expensive. They overlook tropical landscaping and perhaps a pool, but not the ocean. If you want to see the limpid blue waters of the Caribbean first thing in the morning, book an ocean-view room. And if you desire the shortest walk to the beach, go for an oceanfront or beachfront abode.
For the ultimate in pampering, the Caribbean resorts of Sandals and Beaches offer butler service with the highest level of suites. Your butler can unpack and pack your luggage, draw a scented bubble bath, restock your private bar or orchestrate a romantic gourmet meal in your suite.
Make sure you select a resort that matches your personality and vacation desires. If you enjoy socializing, ask your travel agent about spots that offer a fun-filled, active environment. At these locales, activity directors organize a full day of games, contests, talent shows, informal classes, theme nights and get-togethers, often acting as cheerleaders to encourage guests to participate. You'll find this type of lively atmosphere at Club Med and some Breezes resorts.
If you're planning a romantic getaway and prefer a little seclusion, look for something that offers a tranquil ambience and caters to adults. Resorts designed just for vacationing couples fit the bill, such as the Sandals and Couples properties. The adults-only Excellence Punta Cana is a serene hideaway on a white-sand beach at the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic. At El Dorado Seaside Suites and El Dorado Maroma, two kids-free retreats tucked along Mexico's Caribbean coast, guests can snuggle into oversize, waterfront beach beds attended by butlers.
Vacationing families should seek out an all-inclusive property that indulges the kids. The Beaches resorts in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos are especially attractive, with children's camps, teen discos, interactive Xbox gaming centers and, for an additional fee, baby-sitting services.
At Dreams Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa on Mexico's Pacific coast, the Explorer's Club entertains guests ages 3 to 12 with daily activities based on science and nature, as well as movies on the beach and weekly campouts. The 98-room Azul Beach Hotel, about 20 minutes from the Cancun airport, meets the needs of families with infants and toddlers by offering baby equipment and Fisher-Price toys on loan.
At Franklyn D. Resort in Jamaica, families are assigned a "vacation nanny" who will look after the kids, perhaps taking them to the pool or to the Yellow Bird Kids' Club. Nanny service is free during the day, and evening baby-sitting is available for an hourly fee after 4:40. At resorts like this, even the youngest tykes enjoy a pampered beach vacation.
For more information and rates at all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico and Bahamas, visit Vacations To Go or speak with an agent at (800) 998-6925.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2011.