All-inclusives: Resorts offer myriad of styles

08/17/2008 3:01 AM

09/08/2014 5:34 PM

Order breakfast while still in bed at the new Aura Cozumel Wyndham Grand Bay. You'll have just enough time for a dip in the private plunge pool above your third-floor suite before room service delivers smoked salmon, fruit and coffee.

Check into a suite at Sandals Whitehouse in Jamaica and head straight to the sand while a butler unpacks your luggage and presses your clothes. No need to go back to the room for the sun block and paperback you forgot; a quick call to your butler and she's on her way down with the missing items.

Spend the day climbing through St. Lucia's rain forest, then head down to the bar at East Winds Inn for a sunset libation. A glass of French Pertois Moriset Rose champagne is placed in your hand, refilled once, twice -- a perfect lead-up to a dinner of lobster caught fresh that afternoon, and one shared with a maximum of just 60 guests each evening at this intimate resort.

Never will you ponder menu prices, hand out tips or even settle a bill. At all-inclusive resorts, you've taken care of it all before you even arrived.

NEW STYLE RESORTS

If you thought all-inclusive options in the Caribbean were limited to huge, impersonal resorts short on island personality and quality dining, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

Yes, you can still find plenty of cost-wise hotels geared to travelers who want no more than a beach and a bill-sans-surprises. But today, the options also include upscale resorts with only a few dozen rooms. From the fussiest jet-setters to wallet-busted real estate evacuees, just about every traveler can find a fixed-price Caribbean resort to suit his or her needs.

As a result, all-inclusive converts are coming from unlikely places. Consider Maribeth Mellin, a Mexico expert who prefers smaller, intimate resorts. ''I always resisted all-inclusives and then I stayed at the humongous Iberostar in Riviera Maya,'' said Mellin, author of The Unofficial Guide to Mexico's Best Beach Resorts.

``I finally got it: That an entire family of several generations could vacation in the same place. The kids could play in a fabulous pool area, the grandparents could sit in a shaded bar playing cards, and that there was a wonderful spa.''

To these families, whether they were in Cancun or Punta Cana didn't matter. ``What they cared about was the price and the ability to spend a week somewhere where everyone could have a good time.''

AROUND THE REGION

Travelers who do care about location have plenty of choices. Though the vast majority of all-inclusive resorts are in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and along Mexico's Caribbean coast, set-price resorts also have opened in St. Lucia, Antigua and even Cuba. Nearly all tourist-oriented islands offer at least one.

Jamaica -- one of the early meccas of all-inclusive vacations -- once again is experiencing hyper-growth. By 2010, the number of hotel rooms will climb by 20 percent -- most at mid-range all-inclusives run by Spanish hotel chains. Established firms like Sandals -- recently known for luxury initiatives -- are countering with its new Grand Pineapple Beach Resort priced less than it's current Sandals and Beaches resorts. SuperClubs is going a step further: it just opened its second branch of Rooms on the Beach, a no-frills hotel that includes only breakfast, with rates starting at $100 a night in high season.

Still, the Dominican Republic offers the best value of the top all-inclusive destinations, says Juan Aguirre, vice president at Miami-based MK Travelplan. ``Jamaica is starting to see lower rates, but it doesn't offer the quality and value of Mexico and the Dominican Republic.''

Price -- and style -- vary significantly, from luxury boutique-style hotels charging $700 per room to sprawling campuses with basic rooms that charge less than $200. Says Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals, ``all-inclusive can mean anything today.''

And that can cause confusion.

''We're all upgrading our linens and adding flat-screen TVs. But it's no longer homogenous. The term all-inclusive covers so wide a cross-section,'' says John J. Issa, executive chairman of SuperClubs, the Jamaica-based operator of the Grand Lido, Breezes and Hedonism resorts.

''I definitely think the consumer has a hard time distinguishing between the products,'' said John Long, vice president of North American sales and marketing for the Spanish chain Iberostar, which operates 100 hotels around the world. ``At first glance they all look luxurious.''

So, how's a traveler to sort it all out?

As always, price is one signpost; less expensive typically means fewer frills. But beyond butlers, dining options, vintages and spas are other matters of style. Here's a look at some of the options:

Family oriented: Two decades ago, most all-inclusives were designed for couples, and some are still for couples only. But other companies offer family options, and today, parents can take their kids to circus and trapeze classes at Club Med or get their own nanny at the FDR Pebbles Resort in Jamaica. A few even offer off-season rates for single-parent families.

Kids may think they've landed in Disney World-by-the-beach come December, when upscale family-oriented Beaches -- owned by Sandals -- unveils the expansion of its Turks & Caicos resort, with 600 rooms and 16 restaurants. Its Pirate's Island Waterpark will grow to 10 times its original size, with nine water slides and a surf simulator that replicates white water and surf conditions for boogie boards. There's even a separate youth spa menu with facials geared for complexions of teens and tweens, plus makeovers and hair braiding.

Euro-style: Spanish-speaking destinations have long courted the European market. So it's no surprise that if you stay at one of the mid-priced, Spanish-owned Barceló properties in Mexico's Riviera Maya, you'll find a cacophony of languages, a breakfast buffet oriented to European tastes (lots of cold cuts and cheeses) and hundreds of lounge chairs lined up in the sand, a la the beaches of the Mediterranean.

Club Med -- with French roots -- also tends toward a more European style. But other English-speaking companies, long geared toward the U.S. market, offer settings and food more familiar to Americans, such as teppanyaki and Italian restaurants.

Boutique: If the quantity of restaurants and pools at some of these places does not spur a hunt for your passport, there are a number of hotels like Aura Cozumel focused on intimate settings.

In Jamaica, just a stone's throw from a Riu resort, Sunset at the Palms is one of the few properties in Negril that doesn't sit directly on the water (though it has undeveloped beachfront land with a beach bar across the road). The hotel turns its drawback into an advantage by emphasizing an intimate environment among lush, tended gardens away from the beach bustle. With just 65 rooms, you'll get to know both the staff and most of your fellow guests.

Despite having just two restaurants and one pool, the resort consistently ranks at or near the top of Jamaican hotels recommended by Trip Advisor readers. A one-week stay here for two in October is $1,971.

$$-wise: Showcasing the budget-wise options with big facilities is the Spanish Riu chain. Its resorts are eye-grabbing, and Riu calls all but one of its 23 Caribbean hotels ''luxury'' and ''five star.'' But pools and beaches can be crowded, and a la carte dining options limited. At the 400-room Riu Palace Riviera Maya, for instance, guests line up to snag reservations for one of 12 tables at the gourmet restaurant Krystal. Still, the price may be right: the Riu chain often advertises off-season per-person rates below $100 a night.

Something for everyone: North of Playa del Carmen in Mexico's Riviera Maya, Iberostar offers almost 2,000 rooms scattered across five hotels on its own mini-city with shopping mall, spa, discos and a shuttle service. Prices -- and amenities -- are set at four levels, from the budget- and family-oriented Paraiso Del Mar and Paraiso Beach starting in October at $2,088 per week, double occupancy, to the adults-only Grand Hotel Paraiso, priced from $4,718 per week, double occupancy.

'STEALTH' OPTIONS

Some hotels don't wear the all-inclusive badge on their sleeve. At Curtain Bluff in Antigua, ''fully inclusive'' -- a term not announced in neon letters -- includes more than almost any other hotel in the region: meals, drinks, waterskiing, diving and even deep sea fishing. What you won't find here is rah-rah theme nights, and at dinner -- served in a single restaurant -- men are required to wear long pants (no jeans), a collared shirt and dress shoes. Fall rates here start at $695 per room, plus 20 percent tax/service.

And then there are the traditional hotels getting in on the act. The dominance of all-inclusives in Jamaica prodded the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall to create a competitive deal: its Key to Paradise package including three meals, drinks, tax and gratuities, starting at $429 nightly in fall. For a true luxury hotel with rack rates starting at $299 plus 21.25 percent tax/service, the package is a good deal.

San Diego-based freelance writer David Swanson is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler and writes the Affordable Caribbean column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine.

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