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.

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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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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!!!

Paradisus Cancun – Review Time!

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This year’s “5th Annual” Girls Getaway took us to the Paradisus Cancun, where we enjoyed 4 nights of¬†“Royal Service” in the Adults Only section of this all-inclusive resort. Located in the heart of the Hotel Zone, the Paradisus is a quick 15-minute ride from the airport and an easy cab ride to shopping, restaurants & plenty of activities. ¬†This narrow strip of land features the Caribbean Sea on one side (for beautiful sunrises) and a lagoon on the other (for picture perfect sunsets). ¬†Having stayed at the Melia Caribe Tropical in Punta Cana last year, we were familiar with this Spanish hotel chain and looked forward to a few days of well-deserved, adult pampering.

This resort was definitely a winner for us.¬† Despite the weather being a little cooler than we like,¬†everything went smoothly and we were well taken care of.¬†¬†Not sure it would satisfy the requirements I have for a “family” trip, but for an adult getaway, it was perfect. ¬†There’s a lot to share, so I’ve broken this review down into categories…

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The Royal Service Lobby

CHECK-IN: ¬†Quick & easy, once we were escorted to our beautiful, “Royal Service” lobby.
This Adults-Only section is located in Pyramid 5 at the northern end of the complex and can only be accessed (by room key) to those staying there. We¬†checked in, enjoyed a glass of champagne,¬†had a quick snack from the meat, cheese & fruit bar that was available daily, and taken to our room. ¬†In addition to being child-free, Royal Service guests are also assigned their own personal “butler.” ¬†We lucked out with “Tony,” who took the time to explain the services available to us, gave us a rundown on the restaurants & booked our “Bail Bed” at the pool. ¬†During our stay, he took care of most everything we needed (including our daily wine delivery). ūüôā

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The breathtaking view from our room.

THE ROOM:  Large, with everything we needed PLUS an amazing view.
We booked a “Royal Service Ocean View Junior Suite” and ended up in¬†a spacious, 2nd floor room with 2 double beds, a sitting area with a couch, coffee table & another round table with 2 chairs. There was a flat screen TV (that we never turned on) & a fancy coffee maker which actually turned out to be an espresso maker that we couldn’t¬†figure out. ¬†The closet was good size but there were only 3 dresser drawers which seemed odd. The bathroom was large with plenty of counter space, a separate “toilet room” & a big tub/shower. ¬†They also supplied a full array of toiletries. ¬†The real highlight, however, was the huge balcony. ¬†An unbelievable view of palm trees and aqua-blue water provided the perfect backdrop for coffee, reading or wine.

beach-cocoPOOLS & BEACH:  Gorgeous!!!
The Royal Service section has its own pool area, complete with Bali Beds (which are included, but require a reservation), an outdoor restaurant for breakfast & lunch and its own bar. The private beach was very clean (minus some daily seaweed) and offered plenty of palapas & chairs. This strip is great for walking and you can go a long way in either direction (which we talked a lot about doing, but never did). ¬†The ocean, despite being at “red flag” status for our entire stay, was clear and inviting. ¬†Definitely not the normal calm waters of the Caribbean, but fun waves to jump around in as long as you were paying attention. ¬†Waiters serve drinks both on the beach & by the pool for true “royal” service. ¬†There are several other pools within the resort complex, but I can’t comment as we only stayed in our special section. ¬†The only place we did venture out to was the beach bar, Coco’s, where we found a warm, sunny, wind-shielded spot on the deck to enjoy our cocktails and the beautiful view.

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My daily lunch from the buffet ūüôā

RESTAURANTS:  Overall, good & very fresh.  Really impressed by the main buffet!
There are technically 11 restaurants here, but with only 4 nights, we chose what we thought would be our favorites. ¬†Breakfasts & lunch are served mainly at the buffet (definitely get a table outside), and offer plenty of variety… absolutely no complaints here. Made-to-order omelets, fresh juices, meats, breads & Mexican entrees are just some of the items available in the morning. ¬†For lunch, we feasted on fresh seafood, pastas, vegetables and much more. The “Market Grill” which is at one end of the open-air section is available for lunch & dinner and offers pizza, salad & grilled meats off an a la carte menu. ¬†For a sit-down dinner, you need reservations. ¬†In Royal Service, they can be made up to 2 days in advance at the reception desk or thru your Butler. ¬†We ended up at the buffet on our 1st night and were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the offerings. ¬†The next night, we tried “Vento,” the Mediterranean & Tapas restaurant, which was good, but not quite as good as I had hoped – the selections were just average, nothing too exciting. We went to the Latin-themed, “Fuego,” which was also good, but we experienced very slow service. ¬†Our favorite was “Mole,” the traditional Mexican restaurant, complete with a live, wandering Mariachi Band. ¬†“Bana” is the sushi spot and was highly recommended but we ran out of nights. ¬†There is certainly something for everyone and for the most part, the quality, presentation & selection were above average for an all-inclusive.

BARS: ¬†Little disappointed here…
No central, spacious lobby bar, where everyone congregates (and where we normally like to hang out before dinner). ¬†And nothing right on the beach, like a casual “snack shack” where you can just hang out & grab a beer. ¬†There is “The Avenue” which faces the water from inside but was weirdly spread out and usually quite crowded, with very little seating. There is a small bar outside called Coco’s (mentioned above) which was nice during the day, but too cold at night to enjoy (at least during our stay). ¬†wineThe bartenders at all venues were friendly, but only seemed to offer up the standard drinks (Pina Coladas, Cosmos, etc) and there were no “drink menus”. ¬†I had seen some unique cocktails posted on the hotel’s Instagram page & was disappointed when the bartenders had no idea what I was talking about. ¬†The Royal Service lobby¬†had its own fully stocked bar every evening, where you could make your own drinks or be assisted by a staff member, with all top shelf liquor. ¬†This is also where I discovered my favorite red wine, a delicious, Tempranillo – Cabernet blend!

NIGHTLIFE/ENTERTAINMENT: ¬†Not too exciting…
We usually seek out a little nighttime activity, but didn’t really find it here. ¬†They had an evening show outside The Avenue Bar each night (right on the floor, not in a theater setting and again with little to no seating) and there is a bar called the “Red Zone” that apparently had a DJ but it must not have started until well past 11pm. ¬†There was an amazing “trio” one night in the Royal Service lobby, singing the likes of Josh Groban & swooning the ladies with glasses of champagne but that was all we found. ¬†Our main goal on this trip was to relax so this wasn’t a biggie, but it’s nice to¬†hit the dance floor on at least one of our nights on this annual trip and it didn’t happen here.

SPA/GYM:  The Spa was beautiful and the staff were very friendly.
We did a “Chocolate Scrub & 50 Minute Massage” that was awesome & very reasonably priced. ¬†We also tried the complimentary “Water Experience” which was an interesting compilation of showers, pools & stones. ¬†Unfortunately, every body of water in this spa was FREEZING. They called it Room Temperature but we called it torture (even the shower where we rinsed off from our body scrub was bone chilling). ¬†Not sure what’s up with that but it was definitely a disappointment. ¬†As for the gym, they have a full set up, including a variety of fitness classes. ¬†I only made it once, apparently at prime time (9:30am), as all the treadmills were taken & I ended up on the dreaded elliptical for my workout.

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What we LOVED:
– ¬†The daily spread of food, wine & cocktails in our “Royal Service” lobby.
Р The fresh guacamole, salsa & chips from the Royal Service restaurant by the pool.
–¬†¬†The Internet¬†was available everywhere, even on the beach.
– ¬†The Ocean… I’ve never seen more shades of blue in one body of water.
– ¬†Tony. ¬†Butler service is where it’s at!

What we LACKED:
– ¬†Needed more outdoor access. ¬†Within the common areas of the 5 Pyramids, there is very little view of the outdoors. ¬†The walkways in between each section offer stunning views through the windows and the insides of the towers themselves are flowing with vegetation, Koi ponds, lanterns, etc, but the feel was that of a big mall¬†or a standard Hyatt anywhere in the US. ¬†When I escape to a tropical destination, I need to be able to see &¬†feel it at all times. That’s why I’m there!
– ¬†Live, local music. ¬†Other than the mariachi band in the Mexican restaurant, we really didn’t come across any other local-feeling performances during our stay. ¬†When in Mexico, I want to hear Spanish!¬† Our pool area played wonderfully serene, spa-type selections, but maybe in the afternoons they could¬†jazz it up with a bit of local flavor.
– ¬†Lounge chairs on our balcony. ¬†It’s a HUGE space out there and they only offered 2 regular chairs & a small table. ¬†Plenty of room to stretch out…
– ¬†A regular coffee maker in the room. ¬†Our espresso maker didn’t function properly & honestly in the morning, I just want several big cups of the real deal.

All in all, we had very relaxing trip with great service, respectable food & an ideal location. I’d definitely recommend this spot and can’t wait try another resort in this fantastic chain!

TAKE NOTE! ¬†When you go thru Customs in Cancun, they will give you back a little stub from one of the forms you filled out on the plane, KEEP THIS! ¬†You need to hand it back in at the airport when you check in for your flight home. ¬†Lose it & you’ll have to shell out $30!¬† I think this is a new policy as I don’t remember this from my past few trips here…

First… A Few Tips for the Perfect “Girls Getaway”

20150221_124406I’ve just returned from the Paradisus Cancun, on my “5th Annual” Girls Getaway, with my girlfriend of over 20 years. ¬†We are very compatible travel companions (highly recommended) and look forward to our 4-night escape from the cold every year. ¬†We have visited Mexico three times and the Dominican Republic twice. Selecting the resort is our toughest task. ¬†We’ve become a bit spoiled and have fallen into the trap of “upping the ante” each year. ¬†Price is still a factor, but we also take into account the following important items:

1. ¬†The resort must be all-inclusive, preferably with an adults-only section, since we’re purposely leaving our kids at home. ¬†This is simply, the simplest way to go.

2.  The reviews must be outstanding.  We will spend hundreds of hours on-line reading reviews before making our final decision.  This is the absolute worst part of the whole trip.

3. ¬†We must have direct flights and the resort must be fairly close to the airport. ¬†With only 4 nights, it’s essential to make the most of every minute at your destination. ¬†You don’t need to waste time in multiple airports or on long, uncomfortable shuttle bus rides.

4. ¬†We must have a room with 2 beds (this just makes things more comfortable but cannot always be confirmed when making the reservation). ¬†So far we’ve been lucky.

The balcony is a perfect place to enjoy your coffee or wine!

The balcony is a perfect place to enjoy your coffee (or wine)!

5.  Our room must have a balcony. Sitting outside and having our coffee in the morning (or cocktails in the afternoon!), is an actual highlight of the day for us.

6.  Speaking of coffee, there must be a coffee maker in the room.  We do not speak before the coffee, except to talk about making the coffee.  If the coffee maker is an issue (as it was on this last trip), pre-scheduled, room service delivery of the coffee is an acceptable substitution.  

7. ¬†An ocean view has become a wonderful, new requirement. ¬†It definitely costs a little more, but hearing the waves and waking up to that view¬†is so worth it. ¬†(Beware: it can also result in 800 pictures of the exact same shot taken every day because it’s just so beautiful.)

8. ¬†The food must be outstanding with a good amount of variety. ¬†We’re ok with a buffet for breakfast & lunch, but there must be at least 3-4 good a la carte restaurants for dinner. And the reservation system should be hassle-free.

9. ¬†There should be some kind of shopping nearby (this is the only time we leave the resort and it usually only happens once). ¬†I should mention that the purpose of this trip is to relax, not immerse ourselves in the culture or zip-line through the jungle. ¬†We save those for the “family” trips.

10. ¬†And the final requirements are my favorites… the sand must be white, the water must be blue and the pools better be clean.

That’s it! ¬†Pack and go… Lol. ¬†Our trips mainly consist of laying in the sun, reading, drinking cocktails, eating great food and the occasional visit to the disco (usually limited to once per trip). ¬†We also laugh. ¬†A lot. ¬†Sometimes uncontrollably… because that’s what Girls Getaways are really all about. ūüôā

Living in the Moment

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As I sat in the warm sun, staring out at this spectacular view the other day, I suddenly realized that I was truly and fully “living in the moment.” Just looking at the aqua blue water, listening to the sound of the crashing waves and feeling a total warmth on my body, I was completely engaged in my surroundings. ¬†I didn’t care to read my book or check-in online or do anything else that would distract me from the sheer pleasure of what I was experiencing at that moment in time. ¬†It was incredibly powerful.

It’s not often that I get to do this at home. ¬†My mind is always racing, full of all the things I need to do or facing the guilt of what I should be doing. I guess that’s what makes getting away so important to me. ¬†To be able to just sit, undistributed, in the most beautiful and serene places and actually appreciate that special time.

Cancun was absolutely gorgeous and a full review of our resort, The Paradisus, will be coming in the next few days. ¬†Hopefully, I have enough shots of the incredible beach to help everyone “live in the THAT moment” with me!