All-Inclusives… Yay or Nay?

20170801_063332I was inspired this morning by this great list of all-inclusive resorts published by Caribbean Journal. Some I have visited before & some have been on my bucket list for quite some time. I’m a huge fan of the all-inclusive concept & have been checking them out regularly since 1998 with our 1st trip to Sandals ūüôā They’re certainly not for everyone, but the ease with which they operate, and all they have to offer, makes them a no-brainer in my book.

Sandals Royal BahamianI’ve been to Sandals, Beaches, Excellence, Melia, Iberostar & several other all-inclusive chains, big and small. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the more laid back, less cookie-cutter resorts, without an overwhelming number of activities or the invigorating “party” atmosphere. It could just be that I’m getting old, but I like to think at this point in life, I’m more than capable of entertaining myself… lol. Don’t get me wrong, I always love some local, live music in the evening & I’ll never pass up a good snorkeling or boating excursion. But usually I’m just there to relax, read my book on the beach, do a little sightseeing & enjoy a delicious meal each night!

The beauty of an all-inclusive (AI) lies in its simplicity… one-stop-shopping if you will. Pick your resort & then enjoy everything a small beachside village would have to offer, without ever having to leave the property. You’ll have the option of fine dining from all nationalities, shops, a beautiful spa, a gym, a water sports center & more. Easy peasy.

Pineapple Beach Club

Perfect local entertainment!

With that said, it becomes more a matter of personal preference when selecting the perfect AI. For me, it’s all about the beach & the food. I don’t need a super luxurious room, a fancy spa or lots of theater-style shows, but those amenities are important to some, and widely available. ¬†I enjoy a good “adults-only” resort (or at least an adult “section”), but when traveling with my son, I need to adjust our requirements a little and include a good pool & an active kids club.

AIs are found mostly in Mexico and the Caribbean with an extreme number on the Yucatan Peninsula & in the Dominican Republic. You definitely get what you pay for, however sometimes the brand name alone, dictates a higher price but not necessarily a better experience. It’s important to read reviews & be clear on what type of resort you’re looking for. Here are a few things to consider:

Size of the resort. ¬†AKA… how far do you want to walk to the beach or to dinner. ¬†Layout plays a part here as well… some resorts lie parallel to the beach, while others form a long, perpendicular strip from the main road to the sea. ¬†Another trend seems to be combining multiple properties into one, creating a huge mecca of dining options, pools, etc. ¬† It all depends on what you need to keep you entertained and your mobility level.

Variety (and quality) of restaurants. If a buffet for breakfast & lunch and a few a la carte options for dinner are sufficient, any AI will do. ¬†However, if you want access to room service, need to order breakfast off a menu or would like a high-end French meal for dinner, you’ll need to stay on the upper end of things. Some of the smaller resorts may only have 2 or 3 restaurants, but if their focus is on quality, you should still receive an excellent variety of fresh & creative food. ¬†Some of the best food I’ve had at an AI was at the Excellence Punta Cana last year… here’s just a snapshot of the types of items available at the BREAKFAST buffet!

Room accommodations. ¬†Do you want to be next to the ocean? Do you need your own swim-out pool? Are 2 beds a requirement? ¬†As with all resorts, most AIs offer a large variety of rooms and the cost will most likely be determined by the view & proximity to the beach. ¬†Many AIs now also offer an exclusive section (usually adults only), that includes a private stretch of beach, select restaurants and other upgraded amenities – it’s up to you to determine if this extra expense is necessary. ¬†Reading resort reviews on TripAdvisor or other trusted sites, is the best way to find this out for each particular resort. ¬†Here’s a perfect example… our room at the smaller,¬†Pineapple Beach Club in Antigua wasn’t the most luxurious, but it literally sat on the water, with a huge balcony… I couldn’t have asked for anything better!


Location. ¬†Do you want to explore the town/culture/sights or just stay put? Some of the best resorts are often farther from any centralized “downtowns” or local hot spots. ¬†Consider your sightseeing needs when making our selection. ¬†Also, depending on the length of your stay, you’ll want to consider the drive time to & from the airport. ¬†In Cancun, for example, most resorts are on the main strip, with a quick, 20-min ride from the airport. ¬†If you venture out towards the Riviera Maya area, however, you’re looking at 45 mins to an hour. ¬†For shorter trips, the closer the better, but if you have the time, the ride is often worth it.

All-inclusives offer something for everyone and are often easier when traveling with kids or a larger group. It’s also nice to pay for everything up front & not have to worry about extra expenses once you arrive (other than trips to the spa, gift shop or unplanned excursions). Personally, I like to make as few taxing decisions as possible when I’m on vacation, so the concept works wonderfully well for me. ¬†The only way you’ll know for sure, is to do your homework, get recommendations from friends & try it out!

Here are a few links to some of my favorites:

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Melia Caribe Tropical – Larger, well-established resort in Punta Cana. ¬†Go for the upgraded “Level” if you’re leaving the kids at home ūüėČ
Excellence Punta Cana РBeautiful, adults-only resort.  Amazing food & my favorite stretch of beach.
Iberostar Costa Dorada РSmaller, open-air resort on the north coast of the D.R.  Great food & service.

COSTA RICA
Flamingo Beach Resort – Experience “pura vida” at this laid back, boutique resort. ¬†Soon to become a part of the Margaritaville chain… hoping that doesn’t spoil the atmosphere. ¬†Here are some pics from last year’s visit ūüôā

ANTIGUA
Pineapple Beach Club & Galley Bay¬†– Both part of the Elite Island Resorts chain… Visited the quaint Pineapple this year (here’s my review), looking to try the more upscale Gally Bay soon!

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Antigua… Another Great Getaway!

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Our 7th Annual Girls Getaway to the Pineapple Beach Club in Antigua (pronounced An-TEE-gah) was another successful endeavor! This totally relaxed resort (they actually describe themselves as “the most laid back all-inclusive in Antigua”) is full of breathtaking views, beautiful grounds and an accommodating staff. With only 180 rooms, this intimate spot provides a great getaway for those looking for an adults-only resort to simply unwind.

To start… which room???

If you can splurge just a little, the waterfront rooms are the way to go. This 2-story block provides a feeling of privacy while still being right next to all the action. The rooms themselves are fairly basic, but the unobstructed views just can’t be beat. Second runner-up would be a 2nd floor spot in the Beachfront rooms… though not as private, still a great view and only steps from the sand. You really can’t go wrong with any of the accommodations here as the resort is small and nothing is very far from the beach.

Pool vs Beach… The Great Debate

The beach here wins hands-down. We’re talking the powder white sand & aqua blue water that you travel to the Caribbean for! The surf can pick up a bit on windier days, but most times you’ll be floating carefree. Don’t get me wrong, the main pool is nice with its 2 levels and cascading water features, but it’s on the smaller side and just can’t compete with the open sea!

And of course there are plenty of water sports to take advantage of as well… you can snorkel right off the beach, paddle board, kayak, windsurf and more.

How About the Food?

You know this is an important area for me… and what I will say is that the food was fine. We ate at the buffet for breakfast & lunch and had no problem assembling a nice plate with plenty of options. There is a station at breakfast for fresh eggs and at lunch they offered custom pastas or meats/fish in the same spot. I’m sure it would get a bit repetitive if you were here for a full week, but for a 4 night stay, it was perfect.

As for dinner, we enjoyed the themed buffet on 2 of our nights, ate at the Pineapple Grill one night (reservations required 2 days in advance for this one as well as their other a la carte restaurant, Chef Pietro’s) and one night we paid a preset $35 for a very nice meal at their sister property, the Verandah, right across the street. All were good, although the service was a little spotty at the a la cartes. Overall, I found the food to be more than satisfactory, but just a little on the bland side.

I almost forgot about Mary’s Outhouse! Make sure you take the hike up to Mary’s for lunch one day & enjoy a great BBQ buffet in their rustic picnic area. It’s part of the resort & is located high up on the hill with incredible, panoramic views of the island. For fun, you can create your own “sign” to leave your mark here, along with hundreds of other guests.

Nighttime Fun?
20170125_211703Instead of the usual “shows” put on at most larger all-inclusives, the Pineapple offers nightly entertainment in the main bar area each evening. They had different singers, bands, and even a karaoke night. Most started around 8pm and were finished up by 11pm, which was fine for us after a long day in the sun. There is also a disco, that we really enjoyed one night – but I think that was mainly due to the great group of 10 Canadian girls who were there celebrating their 40th birthdays – otherwise I think it may have been on the quiet side ūüėČ

Cocktails Anyone?
screenshot_20170204-172027Upon check-in, you’re handed the most deliciously strong rum punch… and from there, you’re on your way! ¬†There is one main bar in between the pool, beach & buffet restaurant. This is the central gathering spot for the resort and you’re bound to make lots of friends here, including the bartenders. Cocktails are good (no top shelf liquor though) and the local draft beer, Wadadli, was delicious. They offer a decent white wine and both a Cabernet and a Merlot for the red drinkers, both of which were quite nice for an all-inclusive.

screenshot_20170205-122027“Must-Do” Excursion…
The resort offers its own snorkeling/sightseeing trip on the “Calypso Cat” for only $65 per person. I highly recommend this 1/2 day outing to either Bird Island or Green Island (based on the day). The boat leaves right from the beach at 9am & includes snorkeling equipment, a light lunch & plenty of cocktails. The staff were awesome and we enjoyed our day IMMENSELY! For more on this trip, check out my post with more pics on my Facebook Page.

It’s so incredibly beautiful here… with so many things to see and do. Unfortunately, 4 nights were just not enough. We never made it into St. John’s to go shopping (a 30-minute trip by taxi) or over to Devil’s Bridge (a 20-30 min walk from the resort) which had been on¬†our list, but it only gives us a reason to come back, which I definitely plan to do!

Pura Vida in Pictures

 

20160130_172633Our Girls Getaway to Costa Rica was a complete success! ¬†Perfect weather, an incredibly¬†relaxed¬†resort & the discovery of “Pura Vida” – the simple life at it’s best.

We really enjoyed the Flamingo Beach Resort & Spa, as it was a change from our usual “stock” all-inclusives. ¬†The intimate atmosphere made everything so accessible… just a few steps from the pool, to the restaurant to the beach. ¬†The service was excellent & the staff was friendly & knowledgeable, offering helpful advice on what to see & do. ¬†We loved the open-air feel of the resort & enjoyed all of our meals & drinks outside in the beautiful, tropical setting.

For a full review of this resort, check out my latest article on Trip101.com: ¬†“Discover Pura Vida at Costa Rica’s Flamingo Beach Resort”

But for the “Photostory” – just keep scrolling ūüôā

I’m starting with my favorite thing to do on vacation… ¬†Morning coffee on the balcony. Here it came with a great view & a strong Costa Rican brew.

Here’s our actual room from the inside & out. ¬†Basic accommodations, but with everything we needed. ¬†And our 2nd floor “Poolview” room was a winner as we could see both the pool AND the ocean – jackpot!

I loved heading over to the beach early in the morning and enjoying this long, beautiful stretch all to myself.  And I mean EARLY as the symphony of tropical birds had me up every day by 6am!20160130_0618302016-01-30 06.44.57

The sun rose from behind the resort, so the ocean lit up before the sand… so pretty to watch!

This the main Arenas Restaurant, with air-conditioned seating inside and this awesome screened-in patio outside, looking over at the beach.  Drinks & dinner were also available upstairs at the open-air, Sunset Lounge.
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We did make a few friends during our stay… ¬†this guy crawled right up onto my chair to say hello one afternoon!PhotoGrid_1454433100894

Here are a few more shots from around the resort… As you can see, it’s all about the water. ¬†The covered pool is for the kids – such a great idea!

We did venture out and took a Sunset Catamaran Cruise on the 47′ “Panache” –¬†a beautiful boat, manned by a super fun crew. ¬†We stopped to snorkel, had some snacks, enjoyed the complimentary cocktails and ended with an amazing sunset…

Speaking of sunsets… staying on the Pacific side of Costa Rica guarantees some breathtaking views every night. ¬†These were taken as we walked down the beach to¬†“Coco Loco” – a restaurant/bar that sits right on the sand.

Costa Rica is famous for its surf… Unfortunately the only wave I “caught” was this one, just as the sun was setting.

This really was a perfect destination… totally relaxing, friendly people and a great place to reconnect a little with nature. ¬†The “Pura Vida” lifestyle certainly is amazing!

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Last but not least… for the Foodies: ¬†Two delicious ceviches, fresh fish tacos (at the airport of all places) and my favorite cocktail – The Green Monster! ¬†Cheers!!!

 

Next Stop… Costa Rica!

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One month from today, I will be waking up here… at the Flamingo Beach Resort in the Guanacaste area of Costa Rica. ūüôā

This year’s “Girls Getaway” was booked faster than any other. ¬†We found an AWESOME deal on the airfare… an unheard of $275 for round-trip, non-stop flights from Newark on United. ¬†This made the destination a no-brainer. ¬†Then we quickly selected this resort based on it’s beautiful beach, the all-inclusive option, a full range of amenities (including ¬†a spa) and the stellar reviews we read online.

This will be my 2nd trip to Costa Rica, the first being a cruise stop on the Caribbean side where we explored the city of Limon, zip-lined through the rain forest, ¬†and came up close & personal with a 3-toed sloth who had ventured down from the trees to do his weekly “business” (my highlight of the trip). ¬†But now I’m heading to the Pacific Coast, to this fairly new tourist destination where people are scooping up properties, surfing the many beaches and living the “Pura Vida” lifestyle.

Flamingo Beach is considered one of the nicest in the area, featuring white sand, gentle waves and that gorgeous Pacific sunset. ¬†The resort itself, however, is a little different than where we usually stay. ¬†It’s much smaller, the pool is fairly basic (although it does have a swim-up bar), the rooms look very nice but not overly luxurious and there’s only 1 actual restaurant, compared to the 5 or more we’ve been spoiled by at our previous resorts. ¬†But we’re looking forward to trying something new and everything here sounds amazing. The area looks gorgeous, the service sounds top-notch and the food should be a real treat as the resort utilizes its own organic garden & meals here feature fresh, local specialties.

I can’t wait to hear the monkeys in the trees, be surrounded by tropical vegetation, paddle board in the Pacific & catch those spectacular sunsets every night. ¬†I think this is going to be a good one!!!

If you’ve been here… please share your must-see or must-do list in the comments below!!! ¬†Thank you!

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Visit the resort’s web site here: www.resortflamingobeach.com

And check out their great video:  https://youtu.be/e9E0Tz3zyCE

Guilty of a Little Self-Promotion…

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I love to travel… and I enjoy writing. ¬†But can I make a career out of it? ¬†Or at the very least, earn a few free trips? ¬†Who knows, but I’m proud to say that I’ve taken the first step by landing a freelance writing position with a new travel web site called http://www.trip101.com. ¬†They specialize in “recommendations” vs “reviews” & this, my very first article, was published this week.

https://trip101.com/article/adults-receive-royal-treatment-at-the-paradisus-cancun

Will do my best to keep them coming… Wish me luck!

– Kristin

By Land or by Sea???

Before my son started kindergarten, our vacation schedule was fairly regular… 1 week away in April (NOT Easter Week) & one week in October (to celebrate our anniversary).¬† We usually selected 1 cruise and the other trip would be to an all-inclusive in the Caribbean. ¬†Now things have changed… between school, soccer, baseball, my husband’s football schedule – I’m lucky to squeeze in one good vacation a year. ¬†And the question always comes up whether to cruise or to stay put for the week at¬†a beautiful resort.

Our Celebrity ship docked in Charleston, SC

Our Celebrity ship docked in Charleston, SC

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“Aft Balcony” view leaving NYC.

I LOVE to cruise.  To me, there is nothing better than looking out (from a large, stable, floating island) & seeing that beautiful aqua blue water all around me. The food is amazing & the ports provide unspoiled beaches & plenty of shopping.  A real win-win in my book.

Unfortunately, it’s gotten expensive with 3 full price fares, plus 3 higher-than-ever airfares. We’ve sailed on Carnival, Norwegian & Celebrity (our top choice) and usually base our trip on dates & itinerary, not so much on a specific ship. ¬†A balcony cabin has become a “must-have” (the Aft Balcony being ideal)¬†so I can take advantage of that water view the entire time. We eat & drink our fair share, make a few deposits at the Casino, see a couple of shows and my son takes advantage of the pools and¬†the Kid’s Club. ¬†It’s all good, as they say.

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The Ocean Sand & Blue Resort in Punta Cana.

All-inclusives are also amazing… pay for everything up front and then enjoy your week, wallet-free. Our introduction to this vacation style was on our honeymoon (almost 17 years ago) to Sandals in the Bahamas. ¬†It was wonderful, and we went on to try their “Beaches” resorts in both Negril and Turks & Caicos. ¬†Over the years we’ve found many comparable AIs (All-Inclusives) in Mexico and the Dominican Republic that offer the same concept for a whole lot less. The resorts are safe & beautiful, with amazing beaches, pools & activities. ¬†You can literally do everything, or simply relax & do nothing, while looking out¬†over impeccable grounds & a breathtaking seascape.

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Balcony view from the Paradisus Cancun.

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The Melia Caribe Tropical in Punta Cana – so nice I’ve been 3 times!

So how does one choose??? ¬†I love the “unpack once & visit multiple destinations” that a cruise offers, but sometimes it’s also nice to visit an island for more than 8 hours & really get a feel for the climate & culture. ¬†The food is amazing either way (cruises – guaranteed, all inclusives need to be higher end).

Both offer entertainment… although a cruise will provide a more professional showing. ¬†As for the beaches? ¬†You can sample multiple spots on a cruise or stay on one beautiful stretch that you can visit all day, every day, while at a resort. ¬†The pools will be a lot more inviting at an AI, although the newer, bigger ships are competing with wave pools, crazy water slides & even surfing. ¬†If you need a spacious room, with a luxurious bathroom and tons of closet space, you’ll be better off with an AI, unless of course you can splurge on one of the cruise lines top notch suites. ¬†You really don’t need to spend another dime once you arrive at your AI (other than a tour or 2 & some trinkets). ¬†Cruises, on the other hand, do not include soda or alcohol, and they add a pre-set, per person gratuity to your final bill, so remember to factor that into your decision.

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Our Carnival Ship docked in Nassau.

It really is a tough call…¬† I love them both! ¬†My son prefers a cruise & my husband is happy to stay put at one resort.¬† The winner this time around? ¬†I just booked a cruise for November, on the Carnival Pride, leaving from Baltimore. ¬†It became a matter of the perfect dates, a great price & a few good stops… Can’t ¬†wait!!!