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

Marietas Islands: The Mexican Government’s Bomb Testing Created This Unreal Hidden Beach

The Marietas Islands (Islas Marietas) are located off of the coast of the state of Nayarit on Mexico‘s west coast, just above Puerto Vallarta. The islands are uninhabited and flush with marine life since hunting and fishing is forbidden on the islands. While staying at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit over the weekend, the manager of the resort’s restaurant, Lucca, relayed his appreciation for the hidden beach located on one of the islands to me. A quick Google image search left me jaw-dropped and eager to get over to the Marietas Islands at the next possible opportunity.

The travel agent at the hotel would have been able to assist me in getting to the island if my schedule had allowed, but I unfortunately didn’t have enough hours left on my trip to make the island visit dreams come to fruition. I’ll go back to Riviera Nayarit, though –- even if for the sole purpose of spending some time on this hidden beach.Originally formed by volcanic activity, the islands are entirely uninhabited. The Mexican government began military testing on these islands in 1900 and continued testing for more than half a century. Large explosions and bombings of different kinds took place on the Marietas Islands and as a result, many unusual cave and rock formations decorate the already innately dramatic landscape. The hidden beach looks particularly peculiar with a giant hole seemingly cut out from the earth, revealing a sandy beach and lapping turquoise waters below.

The footage of the island is like nothing I’ve ever seen and I look forward to one day seeing this hidden beach in real life.

A Travel Guide to Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

Know Your Spring Break Legal Rights

Spring Breakers, did you know that anyone boarding a plane is covered by a “passenger bill of rights?” Or that in Mexico you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent?

Lawyers.com’s editor in chief, Larry Bodine, has some legal insights that Spring Breakers should digest well before their first Jello shot – particularly the 120,000 students heading to Mexico this year.

What can I do right this instant to be safer on Spring Break?
Sign up for the U.S. government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It’s free, and in the feds’ own words, “It allows the State Department to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements.”

What’s another thing?
Look up the U.S. consulate or consular agency closest to where you’re staying. At travel.state.gov, check under Country Specific Information for a list of agencies in your destination. Print copies for you and your travel mates and enter the information in your cellphone.

Is there an app for that?
Yes! There’s a Smart Traveler Program app for iPhone and Android.

American laws apply to me everywhere, right?
Wrong. Bodine says many college students think American citizenship grants them immunity from laws in other countries. This isn’t true. If you’re in Mexico or Jamaica or the Dominican Republic or anywhere, you are subject to that country’s laws and punishments. “There are a lot of semi-innocent things we do the U.S. that are crimes in Mexico,” Bodine says. “Walking on the street with an open alcohol container is a crime. Getting off the bus without paying. Taking off your clothes on the beach.”

In another country you can’t count on something like Panama City’s Spring Break Court to minimize the repercussions. “The laws in Mexico are very different,” Bodine says. “If you’re charged with a crime, you are presumed to be guilty, and you have to prove you are innocent. If you are arrested, you’ll be held for 48 hours before you get to make a statement. If they want to charge you, you can be held for a year without bail.”

Check the most recent edition of a reputable guidebook for laws.

How can I find out about open-container laws?
In Mexico, it’s illegal to walk on the street with an open container of alcohol. Costa Rica made it illegal last year. The law varies by country, so ask a bartender, a hotel manager or concierge or a security officer about your destination’s law once you arrive. Ask about public intoxication laws, too. And research them before you go.

Why do the police seem cool with the “anything goes” thing?
Police might let the good times roll – but they often crack down when there’s a car accident, a fight breaks out, someone gets belligerent with the cops or danger otherwise looms, Bodine says. You don’t want to be anywhere near these incidents. Find someone fun and rational to hang out with if you want to make sure to stay out of jail.

I’ve been arrested. Whom should I call?
Bodine says your first call – and only call, if just one is allowed – should be to the U.S. embassy or consulate in the area where you’re staying. Consular officials can provide information on the local legal system and help you find a local attorney, but they can’t get you out of jail.

What will happen if I get caught smoking pot in Mexico?
The U.S. State Department’s website says: “The importation, purchase, possession or use of drugs can incur severe penalties, including imprisonment without bail for up to a year before a case is tried, and imprisonment of several years following a conviction.” Don’t even risk having some in your pocket.

I’m 18 and can drink legally in Mexico. Can I also bring home alcohol?
No. Once you land in the U.S., it’s illegal for you to have it. Chances are it will be confiscated when you go through Customs after you land.

What should I do if I am the victim of a crime?
“Notify the authorities,” Bodine says, “but don’t let the hotel or tour company or restaurant make the report. You should also call the U.S. embassy.”

What rights do I have at the airport?
If you’re bumped from a flight because it is oversold or canceled, the airline is required to give you a paper detailing your rights. The airline employees rarely offer it, but you can ask for one. Bodine says the law requires the airline to rebook you on a different flight, and if that flight isn’t scheduled to arrive within two hours of your original flight, the airline is supposed to pay you 400 percent of the one-way fare for that leg of the trip. But again, don’t expect the airline to be upfront about this. “Ordinarily, they’ll offer you as little as possible,” Bodine says. “They’ll put you up in a hotel and offer you a $300 travel voucher. If you don’t ask for [your full entitlement], they won’t give it to you.”

If your flight is canceled or delayed by weather, the airlines don’t owe passengers any compensation.

Going to Mexico? Read the U.S. State Department’s “Know Before You Go” page for Spring Breakers, and brush up one more time with this video:

[Editor's note: Got legal questions? This isn't legal advice. Try reaching out to the folks at Lawyers.com!]

[Photo credits: top, Mnadi via Flickr; bottom, Spengu via Flickr]

Great ‘Cultural’ Spa Experiences From Around The World

spasEven if you’re not a spa junkie, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a great massage or other self-indulgent treatment. I’m actually a massage school graduate, and although I ultimately decided not to pursue that career path, I’ve parlayed my experience into doing the odd spa writing assignment. Not surprisingly, I’m a tough judge when it comes to practitioners, facilities and treatments. I also don’t have any interest in generic treatments. What I love is a spa and menu that captures the essence of a place, through both ingredients and technique.

Many spas around the world now try to incorporate some localized or cultural element into their spa programs. It’s not just a smart marketing tool, but a way to educate clients and hotel guests, employ local people skilled in indigenous therapeutic practices, or sell branded spa products made from ingredients grown on site, or cultivated or foraged by local tribes or farmers.

Sometimes, it’s not a hotel or high-end day spa that’s memorable, but a traditional bathhouse used by locals (such as a Moroccan hammam) that’s special. The low cost of such places is an added bonus: think Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and parts of the Middle East.

Over the years, I’ve visited a number of spas and bathhouses that have made a big impression on my aching body or abused skin, as well as my innate traveler’s curiosity. After the jump, my favorite spa experiences from around the world.

ninh van baySix Senses Ninh Van Bay: Vietnam
Located on an isolated peninsula accessible only by boat, Six Senses (near the beach resort of Nha Trang) is a seriously sexy property. Private villas nestle in the hillsides and perch above the water, but the spa and restaurants are the big draw here, as many of their ingredients are sourced from the property’s extensive organic gardens.

The “Locally Inspired” section of the spa menu features treatments like the Vietnamese Well-being Journey: three-and-a-half hours of pure hedonism. A scrub with com xanh (Vietnamese green rice) is followed by a bath in “herbs and oils from the indigenous Hmong and Dao hill tribes of the Sa Pa Valley,” and a traditional massage using bamboo, suction cups and warm poultices filled with native herbs.

On my visit, I opted for a refreshing “Vietnamese Fruit Body Smoother” made with ingredients just harvested from the garden: papaya, pineapple and aloe vera. Other body treatments include applications of Vietnamese green coffee concentrate and a green tea scrub.

Foot reflexology: Hong Kong
Foot reflexologists and massage parlors are ubiquitous throughout Asia, and in my experience, it’s hard to find a bad one. That said, one of the best massages I’ve ever had was an hour-long foot reflexology session in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong. It cost me all of ten dollars, and interestingly enough, it also proved eerily accurate about a long-term GI problem I’d been having that had defied Western diagnosis.

My bliss was momentarily interrupted when my therapist pressed a particular spot on the ball of my foot, causing me to nearly leap out of my skin. He informed me that my gallbladder was inflamed, information I processed but soon forgot. I’d already been tested for gallstones with negative results – twice. A year later, I had an emergency cholecsytectomy to remove my severely diseased gallbladder. A trip to Honinh van bayng Kong for a foot massage would ultimately have been cheaper and far more enjoyable than three years of worthless diagnostics.

Verana: Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico
One of my favorite places on earth is Verana, an intimate, eight-guesthouse hilltop retreat located in Yelapa, a fishing village one hour from Puerto Vallarta by water taxi. Husband and wife team Heinz Legler and Veronique Lievre designed the hotel and spa and built it entirely by hand, using local, natural materials.

Although the spa doesn’t focus on traditional Mayan or Aztec technique, Verana grows or forages all of the raw ingredients for its treatments (the gardens also supply the property’s outstanding restaurant), including banana, coconut, lemon, pineapple, papaya and herbs. Try an outdoor massage, followed by a dip in the watsu tub, or an edible-sounding body scrub made with cane sugar and coffee or hibiscus-papaya.

Morocco: hammams
A staple of Moroccan life (as well as other parts of North Africa and the Middle East), hammam refers to segregated public bathhouses that are a weekly ritual for many. A “soap” made from crushed whole olives and natural clay is applied all over the body with an exfoliating mitt. Buckets of hot water are then used to rinse.

Although many hotels in the big cities offer luxury hammam treatments tailored for Western guests, if you want the real deal, go for a public bathhouse. While in Morocco, I got to experience three types of hammam: the hotel variety, a rural DIY hammam at the spectacular yelapaKasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, and one at a public bathhouse.

In most public hammams, you’ll strip down in a massive, steam-filled, tiled room. Request an attendant (rather than DIY), who will then scrub the life out of you, flipping you around like a rag-doll. Massages are often offered as part of the service or for an additional fee.

Yes, it’s intimidating and unnerving to be the only naked Westerner in a giant room of naked Muslim men or women, all of who are staring at you and giggling. Once you get over being the odd man (or woman, in my case) out, it’s fascinating to have such an, uh, intimate glimpse into an everyday activity very few travelers experience. The payoff is the softest, cleanest, most glowing skin imaginable.

At hammans that accept Westerners, the vibe is friendly and welcoming, and it’s a way to mingle with locals and participate in an ancient, sacred ritual without causing offense. Do enquire, via sign language or in French, if you should remove all of your clothing, or leave your skivvies on. I failed to do this at the public bathhouse, and increased the staring situation a thousand-fold, because at that particular hammam (unlike the Kasbah), the women kept their underwear on. Oops.

Three highly recommended, traditional, wood-fired Marrakech hammams are Bain Marjorelle (large, modern multi-roomed), Hammam Polo (small, basic, one room), and Hammam el Basha (large, older, multi-roomed). Expect to pay approximately $10 for an attendant (including tip, sometimes massage). Independent travelers can easily find a hamman if they look for people of their own gender carrying buckets, towels and rolled-up mats near a mosque. To ensure you visit a Western-friendly hammam, it’s best to ask hotel or riad staff or taxi drivers for recommendations, and enquire about male/female hours.

Daintree EcoLodge & Spa: Daintree, Queensland, Australia
The Daintree Rainforest, located near Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, is over 135 million years old. It’s home to some of the rarest and most primitive flora on earth, muchalto atacama of it traditionally used by the local Aboriginal people for medicinal purposes.

The Daintree Wellness Spa at the low-key, family-owned and-operated EcoLodge has received international accolades for both its work with the local Kuku Yajani people, and its luxe treatments. The spa relies on ochre (a skin purifier) harvested from beneath the property’s waterfall, as well as indigenous “bush” ingredients from the Daintree such as rosella, avocado, native mint, wild ginger, bush honey, quandong, tea tree and spring water. The spa also produces its own line of products, Daintree Essentials (available online).

All treatments integrate traditional Kuku Yalanji modalities and spiritual beliefs, and have received approval from the local elders. I opted for the Ngujajura (Dreamtime) package, which includes a full body and foot massage, Walu BalBal facial and rain therapy treatment (a specialty at Daintree, consisting of an oil and sea salt exfoliation, ochre mud wrap and spring water shower administered tableside … trust me, it’s revelatory). An added bonus: the lodge offers Aboriginal cultural classes that include jungle walks, medicinal plants and bush foods (try eating green ants, a surprisingly tasty source of vitamin C).

Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
This absolutely enchanting adobe property on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro is a slice of heaven, even if you skip its Puri Spa. But that would be a mistake, because then you wouldn’t be able to succumb to treatments and ingredients adapted from what’s been traditionally used by the local Atacameño people for thousands of years.

Atacama is the driest desert on earth, so on my visit, I chose the “Royal Quinoa Face Mask,” made with locally sourced quinoa (for its exfoliating and regenerative properties) mixed with local honey and yogurt. I left the treatment room looking considerably less desiccated.

The real splurge is the Sabay Massage, which uses pindas, or cloth pouches, filled with rice (used here as an exfoliant), rica rica (an herbal digestive aid also used in aromatherapy) and chañar berries (medicinally used as an expectorant and to stimulate circulation, as well as a food source) collected from around the property, which has extensive native gardens designed by a reknown Chilean ethno-botanist. You’ll emerge silky-skinned and tension-free. Dulces Sueños.

[Photo credits: Massage, Flickr user thomaswanhoff; Six Senses, Laurel Miller; Verana, Flickr user dmealiffe]

10 Essential Destinations In Mexico

mexico While many think of Mexico as a country that’s too dangerous to visit, there are actually many beautiful, safe and historically rich cities worth making a trip for.

While Tulum features one of the most well preserved ancient civilizations in the country, Copper Canyon features an extreme adventure park inside its ravine. Additionally, Guadalajara boasts magic villages, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 684 historical monuments, while Guanajuato has an entire underground road system and an active mining community. These are just some of the experiences to be had in these worthwhile cities in Mexico.

For a more visual idea of these essential Mexican destinations, check out the gallery below.

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[image via Bjorn Christian Torrissen]