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

Archaeologists Discover Lost Mayan City In Jungles Of Mexico

A lost Mayan city is uncovered in Mexico
INAH Reuters

Hot on the heels of the news of a lost city being discovered in Cambodia comes word that another ancient city has been unearthed, this time in the Yucatan region of Mexico. A few days back, a team of archaeologists announced that they had located a large site that has been covered by thick jungle foliage for centuries. Underneath all of that growth sat a city that was once a part of the Mayan Empire.

The team, which is led by Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Sprajc, call the city “Chactun” and believe that around 600 to 900 A.D. it was one of the largest in the Yucatan. So far, the site stretches out across more than 54 acres and includes 15 pyramids, the tallest of which is 75 feet in height. At its peak, the ancient city was likely home to as many as 40,000 people, although its population likely declined very quickly as the empire crumbled.

The city was first spotted in a series of aerial photographs and an expedition was eventually organized to travel to the site to examine it first hand. The team spent three weeks cutting their way through the dense jungle, carving a 10-mile trail in the process. Although they’ve only just begun to uncover the various buildings and other structures, what they’ve seen so far leads them to believe that Chactun will be an incredibly important find.

Historians and archaeologists have long struggled to explain what exactly happened to the Maya. At the peak of their civilization their empire stretched across the entire Yucatan, into southern Mexico and continuing on to Central America, all the way to Guatemala and Honduras. But at the height of its power, the empire suddenly and unexpectedly fell into a speedy decline, becoming just a footnote in history. This lost city could hold clues that can help unravel that mystery, as well as provide important insights into day-to-day life of the Mayan citizens.

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 Dzilbilchaltun Ruins: We Come In Peace

It’s nearly impossible to avoid Maya culture in the Yucatan, particularly during the month of December in 2012, when conspiracy theories detailing the “predicted” Maya doomsday were running wild like a pack of wolves through the Internet, dirtying websites with their footprints. When you can’t beat them, you’re instructed to join them. And so I went to Mexico in December alongside the wolves and I followed their trails, which of course led, in some divergences, to Maya ruins. The Dzibilchaltun Ruins, small and unassuming, were the ruins I liked best from the trip.

Located just 10 miles north of Merida, where I stayed for a few days, the Dzibilchaltun Ruins aren’t as popular as other ruins in the Yucatan, but they were popular enough for me to have heard a Texan woman tell her guide, “We Texans are very familiar with rattlesnakes.” I lived in Texas for two years. I’m happy to report that I am still not, nor do I hope to ever be, familiar with rattlesnakes.

%Gallery-179972%Modern researchers speculate that this relatively small group of Maya ruins sits on a site that was probably chosen for its close proximity to the salt-producing region on the cost, which is around 30 minutes by car from the ruins. That coast, which welcomes the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, hosts the beach town of Progreso. That coast is also the spot where the meteorite that possibly killed off the dinosaurs first made impact. You can’t see a crater at the modern day coast, but the effects are seen in the soil and rock beneath the surface – effects that just might have been apparent to the Maya community that once thrived within the walls of Dzibilchaltun.

Dzibilchaltun was occupied for thousands of years. The city expanded and became a mid-sized city as well as contracted down to a small town on more than one occasion throughout its extensive history. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, which was filled with stones and covered by another building around 800 A.D., is the most famous structure at the ruins. I climbed the wall leading up to the elevated structure that once encased seven small effigies, unearthed only when the site was discovered in the 1950s. The Maya stones at this site are sometimes sharper than you might expect; I sliced a part of my finger open while approaching the temple through what I assumed to be a shortcut. As I stood at the temple’s entrance and studied its interior, I couldn’t help but wish to have scheduled my visit during the spring equinox, when the sunrise shines directly through one window and out the other of the small building.

I descended the stairs and continued exploring the remaining ruins spread out across the open field. It was my husband’s birthday. I spotted him in the distance atop a tall and wide staircase formation, crouching down to snap a photo. As I made my way toward him, sparkling turquoise waters glistened through shading tree branches and the voices of fellow travelers became clearer as I approached the spot. A small path through the trees yielded a wonderland of a clearing; a lily-ornamented cenote holding crystal-clear, blue-green water. A couple donned their snorkeling gear and submerged themselves beneath the surface, emanating tranquility with each smooth stride. They call it Cenote Xlakah and, like many of the other cenotes in the Yucatan, it’s a vision to behold.

A 16th-century Spanish church was built in Dzibilchaltun after the conquest. I approached it in awe, stunned by its perfectly rounded ceiling and entranceways, wondering if, even with the tangential engineering and architecture knowledge I have solely from living in our modernity, I could ever carry what I know from this age back in time and apply it with any success. I doubt it.

The steep inclines and small windows of the structures at Dzibilchaltun mesmerized me. The open field, resembling that of the National Mall, allowed the sun to beat down on my bare shoulders as I made the trek from one end to another. There may have been as many as 40,000 inhabitants in this city at one time – an estimate that would have made Dzibilchaltun one of the largest cities of Mesoamerica. With each stone sculpture and engraved rock, I became entranced by the legacy of this site. Curious and sweating, I made my way into the Museum of the Mayan People, which is on the grounds and included in the entrance fee. Unearthed works of art stand erect in the museum’s garden and behind protective glass. In contrast to the quiet of the grounds that day, these collective images of a once-bustling Dzibilchaltun seemed out of place.

As I made my way out of the museum and toward my car, I remembered the three young Korean men I had briefly met while standing in line to purchase my ticket. One of them had asked if he could take a photo with my husband and me. His fingers formed a peace sign as the picture was taken and, unable to say much else in English, he said, “thank you.” He was studying us and we were all on our way to study them – the ghosts of the Maya who once inhabited Dzibilchaltun. It’s circular, it seems, our fascination with those from whom we differ. We take notes and learn from them, no matter where or when they are from and, if we do it well, we come in peace.

Visit Altun Ha in Belize

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

The Beaches Near Merida: Progreso And Chicxulub

The nearest beach to Merida, Mexico, is Progreso. The ancient Maya frequented Progreso to collect sea salt from lagoons near the coast. Salt was a valuable product for trade for the ancient Maya – so valuable that many Maya made the trek frequently, despite its semi-arid obstacles. And so, after walking around on the beach via Google Street View for a while, I decided to make the 30-minute or so drive to Progreso while staying in Merida. With bottled water in tow, I hit the straight-shot road that connects the two cities and arrived to the port city of Progreso just in time for lunch.

When I noticed the shirtless, drunk man pacing back and forth on the sidewalk behind my car, which I’d parked where the pavement meets the boardwalk, I hesitated and made sure I’d locked everything up. Reminding myself to hope for the best, I tucked my anxiety away and began my leisurely walk down the boardwalk. The sky was mostly empty of clouds revealing a crisp blue canvas. The ocean water’s color changed like Ombre hair – a deep, midnight blue yielded a bright sea-green at the sand. Progreso‘s famous pier, the Terminal Remota, protruded out toward the horizon, spanning a full four miles. Although it was a Saturday afternoon, the beach town was sleepy, which worked out well because I was sleepy, too.

%Gallery-175115%I weaved my way through stores selling Mexican tchotchkies. A charismatic young man offered me “unbeatable” deals on each item I touched in his store. He spoke to me in English with an unidentifiable accent. He was a student of the world and a speaker of many languages. It wasn’t easy to walk away from his melodic tongue, particularly where the French and Spanish accents merged into an indecipherable, charming blur, but I was hungry. I left only with his suggestion of where to find a vegetarian lunch.

As I strolled leisurely down the boardwalk with the Gulf to my left side, restaurant owners emerged out of their shaded corners, reciting their most popular dishes for me as I passed. But I had my sights set on what had been recommended to me and when I finally found it, a restaurant called Flamingo’s, I initially doubted my devotion to the local’s direction.

In line with the sleepy atmosphere of Progreso that day, I sat at the table awaiting service for 10 or 15 minutes. But when service arrived, it came boldly and warmly. An order of just-squeezed orange juice yielded an overflowing pitcher. Guacamole, refried beans, salsa, vegetable soup, lentil soup, fajitas, tortilla chips and fried bananas proved to be more food than my husband I could consume, but not for lack of fresh flavor.

My car was still parked and in tact when I returned for it, as was the shirtless drunk man, who was sitting curbside and rambling. I decided to make the 10 minute drive over to Chicxulub after lunch. Chicxulub is located at almost the exact geographical center of the Chicxulub crater. The crater, although unobservable, is an impact crater that extends into the Gulf. Created by the impact of a comet or asteroid around 65 million years ago, the Chicxulub crater is believed by many to be evidence of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event – the event that destroyed the dinosaurs.

I wanted to see this place for myself, although there was nothing to see (the remnants of the impact crater are buried far below today’s topsoil.) I walked out to the beach, which was littered with boats and debris from the sea. The sand smelled like cat urine. I stood there for a moment, thinking about the scientific importance of the ground on which I was standing, and ignoring the putrid scent.

Stray cats scurried away from my car as I approached it and I considered for a moment the delight these cats must take in the fish to be found in a port city like Chicxulub. I thought about the impressive degree to which mammals have evolved since this crater was formed. I dodged stray dogs on the way back to Merida and found myself back in my hotel room and preparing for a night out on the town before the sun began to set.

Read more from my series on the Yucatan and the Maya here.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]