10 Things You Wouldn’t Expect From An All-Inclusive Resort


I’ve never considered myself an “all-inclusive resort” type of person. Sprawling grounds filled with “vacation activities” always seemed disingenuous to me and from the snippets of reviews I had heard or read online, they seemed filled with buffets of terrible food and children running amok.

So when my husband and I found ourselves exhausted and at our wits’ end last year in the Yucatan, we decided to take a chance and stay at an all-inclusive resort for the first time, one that was purportedly not at all like the others. If the reviews were right, that was just what we needed — a place to decompress before our flight back to New York.

That less-than-48-hour stay at Grand Velas Riviera Maya taught me an important lesson: do not judge an all-inclusive resort by the reputation of all-inclusive resorts. When I found myself at a Grand Velas property again recently, this time it was Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit on the country’s western coast, just north of Puerto Vallarta. My stay there was also short but it confirmed for me that all-inclusive resorts aren’t always the culture-less play areas they are made out to be. Between the two properties, Grand Velas proved several assumptions of mine wrong.

Here are 10 things I didn’t expect from an all-inclusive resort:

1. Gourmet Vegan Food
I try not to expect gourmet vegan food from anyone anywhere –- it’s just too tall of an order for most restaurants. So I was ecstatic when I found that an all-inclusive resort could whip up vegan food for me on a whim while keeping it as classy as the other dishes on the restaurants’ menus. Yemaya, a new luxury resort on Nicaragua’s Little Corn Island, also offers exceptional vegan food.

%Slideshow-99762%2. A Welcome Massage
Massages are luxuries you almost always have to pay for, but at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, masseuses from the resort’s spa welcomed me with a neck and shoulders massage as I was checking in.

3. Exceptional Emergency Care
My husband hurt his ankle while trekking the Appalachian Trail just a few days before our trip to Riviera Nayarit. He left his cane at home and by the time we arrived to Puerto Vallarta, his ankle had swelled to size of a baseball from all of the airport walking throughout the day. I mentioned this in passing to our driver and when we arrived to resort, a medic and a team of employees immediately worked to alleviate his pain. They rubbed an anti-inflammatory salve all over the ankle, wrapped it and proceeded to stock our room with a cane, crutches and a wheelchair so that he could navigate his way around the resort as easily as possible. All of this because I simply mentioned his hurt ankle in the airport shuttle to our driver.

4. 5-Star Fine-Dining Restaurants
One of the most surprising things about my all-inclusive resort experience was that all of the restaurants on site were five-star. In fact, Grand Velas Riviera Maya is now the first all-inclusive resort to have a restaurant receive the AAA five diamond award. People who weren’t staying at the resorts came here to eat at the restaurants. And all of the beverages were included –- from the impressive wine list to top-shelf liquor options. Similarly, Curtain Bluff in Antigua, another all-inclusive resort, boasts a 25,000 bottle wine cellar.

5. A Micro Spa In Every Room
All of the rooms at these resorts included jacuzzi tubs and a selection of soaking and exfoliating salts and other spa basics.

6. A Well-Stocked Minibar That’s Actually Included
I’ve made a habit of never even looking in a minibar. I don’t like the idea of mistakenly purchasing a $5 soda, so I try not to temp myself. But at this resort, not only was the minibar included in its entirety, but its entirety was pretty impressive. Excellence Resorts also include a well-stocked minibar without any additional charge.

7. 24-7 Room Service
All that gourmet food I mentioned above? They would also bring it to you no matter what time it is. Add some nice champagne to your order. It doesn’t matter. It’s all included. Although you might not expect it, if you dig through information on luxury all-inclusive resorts, you’ll find many who offer 24-7 room service with phenomenal food.

8. Exhaustive Attention To Detail
The thing that struck me the most about these resort was their attention to detail. Every guest was assigned a personal concierge. The workers knew and remembered our names. Delicious evening chocolates were available at the end of the night. Presentation was never overlooked and it always felt as though they thought of everything.

9. Devoted Activity Planners
When I really wanted to find a way to get to Marietas Islands while I was at Riviera Nayarit, the resort staff really wanted to help me get there. The hotel’s travel agent made a lot of calls for me until she found a private boat owner who could take me out with last-minute notice for just a couple of hours, which was all the time I had. Unfortunately, his rate was far out of my budget, although understandable considering the inconvenience.

10. Immediate Return Shipment Of Items Left Behind
Finally, when my husband realized he’d left a new shirt in our room, I contacted a member of the staff who I had met during my stay. She not only located the shirt, but she shipped it from Puerto Vallarta to New York City with priority 2-day shipping. We were beyond impressed.

Tips for Booking All-Inclusive Vacations

Riviera Maya: An Accidental Honeymoon

I was in Mexico last December, just before the 21st of the month. The date would come and go without catastrophe, of course, but the fringe theories had brought Maya culture to the forefront of the media and I took the opportunity to learn a bit about the ancient and modern Maya myself. My time spent in Merida was grueling, but rewarding. My room at Hotel Dolores Alba, which was located near the noisy downtown center of the city, had a shower that spilled water from the bathroom into the rest of the room when used. When I swapped out that room for another, I was happy to find my luggage still dry after a shower. I propped a chair up against the flimsy door at night because the lock was wobbly. I mysteriously watched a disturbing movie starring Ashley Greene all the way to the end while taking a break from the sun one afternoon. I had black coffee and refried beans for breakfast in the hotel lobby, which was adorned with portraits of Frida Kahlo. There was something unmistakably charming about the place; maybe it was the open-air courtyard bolting the wings of the hotel together. But charm doesn’t cancel out exhaustion and I was beat.

%Gallery-186761%I had been attempting to keep a more or less vegan diet while in Merida and as one might imagine, this isn’t easy to do in any city and just plain difficult to do in most foreign countries. Guacamole, beans and fresh juice had become my sustenance and the sun was my motor, revving me out of bed each day and hovering over me from one place to the next. The streets of Merida were enthusiastically loud that weekend; they were loud late at night and loud early in the morning. I was missing sleep and calories and looking forward to the two “off” days I’d planned for myself and my husband before we flew back to New York. We’d booked just two nights at Grand Velas Riviera Maya. We would be there for a total of 43 hours.

My fingers were crossed as we made the four-hour trip from Merida to Riviera Maya. All-inclusive resorts often get a bad name – they often earn a bad name. But we wanted to detox and just stare at the ocean for a couple of days. We hadn’t ever had the chance to honeymoon and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally stop looking in every nook and cranny for story-worthy happenings or perfect photo ops while traveling and to just relax. I was depleted. I didn’t want to have to leave our room to hopelessly look for vegetarian food in town. I didn’t want to have to drive around during the two days off trying to entertain myself. Grand Velas, so it seemed through my research, had everything I needed on site and for once, I wanted that. They had kayaks and snorkeling gear, bars and restaurants, spas and shopping – I never dreamed I’d be so tired as to want this manifestation of serenity, but it was what I needed and I only hoped the accommodations and amenities would match the glowing reviews online.

We entered through a washed out fortress of a wall that stood erect behind turquoise pools of water in a man-made beach at the resort’s entrance. We were shown to our beachfront room by our personal concierge, a man who somehow anticipated most of our needs before they could be vocalized. When we asked him for suggestions of where in the resort to find vegan or vegetarian food, he made reservations for us at their French restaurant, Piaf. When we sat down to eat, our waiter informed us that the restaurant had put together a special menu just for us – it was almost entirely vegan, a nearly impossible accomplishment for a French restaurant. All of our other meals panned out the same way. Grand Velas’ website had conveyed flexibility for diet restrictions, but after eating mostly guacamole, beans and juice for four days, I was shocked at the spontaneous fluency in plant-based foods the chefs on site proved to have. We had several dishes to choose from no matter how or where we dined, whether we were in one of the resort’s restaurants, having food brought to us as we lounged on the beach or ordering from their 24-hour room service late at night. We scheduled and received some of the best massage treatments we’ve ever had at their spa. We swam in the pools. We admired the lapping waves of the Caribbean.

We saw only a few other guests while there; it felt as though we had the grounds to ourselves. The reviews were right. Grand Velas is the antithesis of the traditional all-inclusive resort where kids run amok, meals are slopped onto plates from buffets, cocktails are made from bottom shelf liquor and the beach is crowded. I wish I had stayed longer in Riviera Maya, where a much-needed break became an accidental honeymoon.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

The Beaches of Riviera Maya, Mexico

The Beach Snob’s Guide To Cancun

So you’re not the Cancun type. That’s no reason to pass up a cheap flight to its airport, a gateway to lots of anti-Cancun destinations. The area has more than 80 miles of white-sand Caribbean beaches, and only a few of those are confined to the cheesy place you’ve been avoiding.

I’m a certified beach snob, and Cancun-area sands are some of the best for the money and the time it takes to fly there from most parts of the United States. The scenery and beach quality rival Turks & Caicos, the most postcard Caribbean beach I’ve ever seen.

The trick is to look beyond Cancun’s strip to the broader area called the Mayan Riviera, and your options expand to include laid-back islands, secluded luxury resorts and yoga retreats that feel like they’re located at the end of the earth. Some destinations are 30 minutes from the airport, some two hours. You can be on the beach with a thatched-roof balcony and your own hammock for around $100 per night – and no Senor Frog’s for miles and miles.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Cancun type. The spas in the hotel zone are underrated, for one. But I like quieter places away from the crowds, and more placid waters than Cancun’s. If you do, too, it’s time to reconsider Cancun airfares. Snap up a deal and trust that you’ll find a place your speed; shoulder season in late April and May (and again in September, October and November) is a great time to go because you avoid high-season hotel rates and the scorching summer weather. Here are a few destinations you might not have heard of:

The Island Vibe: Isla Mujeres
A slice of real Mexico, this small island is the closest Cancun alternative to the airport. Located six miles off the coast of Cancun and reached by ferry (pictured at top), it’s anchored by a lively town that sits right on Playa Norte, a postcard soft-sand beach. The extended shallow water appeals to families with young kids. The most popular mode of transportation is a golf cart, and for such a compact place, there’s an remarkable number of restaurants and places to stay. I like Ixchel Beach Resort for a new condo (via VRBO.com), Playa la Media Luna for a tropical beachfront bargain and Casa el Pio for a cute, cheap, in-town option.

The Luxe Life: Playa Mujeres
Quietly, this upscale area has cropped up just north of Cancun, in the opposite direction of the Mayan Riviera development and therefore totally under the radar. It’s a secluded, almost untouched stretch of coastline (pictured below) with nothing else around, the kind of place where you won’t leave the hotel unless it’s on a boat to go fishing or snorkeling. The resorts are extremely posh and expensive – think marble showers the size of a car wash and in-room Jacuzzis with indoor and outdoor access, like those at Excellence Playa Mujeres.

The Soulful Escape: Tulum
This is the only place where I’ve ever picked up hitchhikers. Bumping along a dirt road lined with small, economical beach hotels south of the well-known Tulum ruins, we passed dozens of budget travelers walking to and from the highway, where they catch a bus to Cancun. We gave a lift to an older German couple with wheeled suitcases. Every year, they said, they fly to the area without hotel reservations and call around once they land.

Tulum is located at the far southern reaches of the Mayan Riviera, a good 90 minutes from Cancun and not far from the Belize border. The beaches here are some of the most pristine on the Yucatan. Traditionally an off-the-grid backpacker’s haven, it’s now attracting vacationers who like the good life but aren’t high maintenance. The New York Times called it the fashion in-crowd’s new Miami last year. There are dozens of small hotels in this area alone, including yoga retreats and chic eco-friendly casitas. Casa de los Olas gets high marks.


[Photo credits: from top, Megan Fernandez; 917Press, Scarlatti2004 and Mr. Theklan via Flickr]

Business Fuels Doomsday Prophecies In Mexico

Every other billboard seemed to mention 2012 as I drove along that famously flat stretch of road from Cancun to Playa del Carmen. I was on my way to spend a couple of days relaxing at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, but the easiest way to reach Riviera Maya is via Carretera Federal 307 and 307 is ornamented with billboards, as anyone would expect. Riviera Maya is a popular vacation destination, and popularity and advertising are two peas in the Business Success pod. It wasn’t the billboards themselves that caught my attention, though. What flashed before me memorably every few minutes was a billboard referencing 2012, or the apocalypse, or Doomsday prophecies, or the Maya calendar – and this consistency is what I noticed. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the ads approach and then disappear; marketers, when they’re good, are usually really good.

%Gallery-173831%The billboards along 307 were just bigger, bolder versions of what I’d already been seeing all over Cancun and Merida in the days prior. In Cancun, an employee at the car rental company tried to convince me to go to a tourist trap complete with Maya this and End Of The World that. He was moonlighting as a promotions guy for the place while I signed the forms for my rental car. In Merida, it seemed as though most businesses and individuals who had thought of a way to capitalize off of the December 21 hype had acted on those thoughts. The enterprising women and men behind these ventures, many of them holding shops at the weekly Merida market, sold Doomsday books and guides, Maya calendars, Maya calendars made out of chocolate, apocalypse T-shirts and key-chains. I ate at a restaurant in Merida called 2012 Mayan Spaces and Something Else. The food was very good, as were the drinks, especially for being one of the few vegetarian options in Merida. Nonetheless, the restaurant carried this name and thus, so did the menu. The back wall of the outdoor patio displayed Maya-based art. The hotel I stayed at in Merida offered an impressive selection of Maya-themed tours to guests and “2012” was scribbled in large numerals on their office chalkboard. The crowds at Chichen Itza were insufferable; the long lines buzzed with End Times speculations.

Of course no one else was talking about the world ending on December 21. The only people who seemed to engage in any of these theories in the Yucatan were the people who were in a position to profit from the surprisingly widespread belief. The first man I spoke to in Merida, a man of Maya descent, was quick to discuss the modern Maya and history of the Maya in Merida with me, but he didn’t comment on the 2012 prophecies until 15 minutes into our conversation and he only spoke of the prophecies as a response to my questioning. When I mentioned the lore, his eyes glazed over as if he were remembering something he’d only taken note of in the most distant, peripheral sense. Like asking a non-Christian for their thoughts on the rapture mentioned in the Book of Revelation, locals were aware that others had attached themselves to this prophecy, but they were not believers.

When Pastor John Hinkle made his D-Day declaration for June 9, 1994, my parents nervously anticipated the date. I cuddled with my elementary school friend that night, waiting for fiery claws to rip the skies wide open, and of course it never happened. But it isn’t the truth behind the prediction that matters. What matters is how much publicity the prediction can collect leading up to the date. Hinkle’s ratings for his TBN show were probably skyrocketing from the hoopla before June 9 that year. All of this is to say, the “end of the world” appears to be relevant to the people of the Yucatan in only one way for certain: business.

It’s a good thing December 21 falls on a Friday. All of the opportunistic entrepreneurs out there can take their hype-checks to the bank and have them deposited before Christmas morning.

Read more from my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” here.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Mexico’s The Tides Resort has a luxury soap concierge

soap conciergeWe’ve heard of concierge programs, pillow menus and even hand-drawn specialty baths to help you relax and unwind while on vacation. But Mexico’s Tides Resort in the Riviera Maya has taken luxury and relaxation a step further with a Soap Concierge.

You read that correctly. A Soap Concierge.

Arriving at the Tides, you are welcomed with a “Mayan Blessing” by the luxury resort’s own shaman, and are personally escorted to your villa by your mayordomo. Then the Soap Concierge arrives to explain and provide this special personalized service.

I’m pretty sure we’d need some explanation too.

The simple story: A variety of soaps are presented in different scents and types – each offering a different experience. When you make your selections, the Soap Concierge slices your personalized bars from large blocks of soap.

Very nice. They REALLY want you to be clean.

The artisanal soaps are made in local Mayan communities following ancient Mayan traditions. They are formulated with organic ingredients found on the Yucatan Peninsula. The wide array of scents ranges from lemon and chocolate to rosemary, peach and oatmeal.

Are you hungry yet? We are.

The available scents change with the seasons, from cinnamon in winter to melon during spring. Each also has a unique property; for instance, oatmeal is excellent for exfoliating, the lemon is refreshing, and the chocolate great for relaxation.

We’re still hungry.

Depending on your length of stay, the Soap Concierge generally offers two or more bars of soap, which are cut in front of them. But if you would like to try additional varieties, the Concierge is happy to bring more selections of these aromatic treats.

You ask, the Soap Concierge will give.

If you want to take the soaps home – to remind you of your time The Tides or to share with family and friends – they are available for purchase in the resort gift shop.

Because there’s no such thing as a free soap.