For years we’ve heard friends talk about all-inclusive vacations. Tales of gluttonous buffets, endless umbrella drinks, and enough beach activities to keep them busy from sunrise to sundown—it had all become the stuff of legends.
Set largely in beach destinations, these resorts offer packages that cover your room, food, drinks, and sometimes even activities. They’re attractive for their excess—and simplicity. For the all-inclusive set, all it takes is wearing a color-coded wristband to get access to the good life, where the toughest decision is figuring out how to position your lounge chair.
This type of travel never appealed to our family, partly because we enjoy seeing and exploring many destinations in each place we visit. We’ve traveled the globe since the girls were little, preferring boutique hotels and resorts, and weren’t accustomed to spending several days at the same resort, never leaving until the return trip to the airport. We’re just not confident in that much togetherness, we told ourselves. It’s the same reason we’ve never been on a cruise.
But then we experienced two forms of all-inclusiveness that rocked our worlds. Could it be that we’d been mistaken about this vacation concept? Last summer, two trips changed our minds.
Our first foray was at the Fairmont Mayakoba resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Luxurious and beautifully designed, Mayakoba takes its all-inclusive offerings seriously, in the form of complimentary boat tours (we saw tropical birds and a baby alligator!), and experiences that nod to the Yucatán Peninsula’s Mayan roots, like chefs incorporating insects into their lavish meals (a traditional Mayan ingredient) and spa treatments that use locally sourced chocolate as a natural exfoliant. The kids were easily romanced by the beauty and zen vibe, and so were we.
Instantly our family fell in love with the all-inclusive life here—not least the obligatory buffet, which we’d previously tried so hard to avoid. Here that buffet was vast, authentic, and delicious. We loved the handmade tortillas and sopes and sheer variety of fruit, everything from berries to cactus fruit. We’d come with preconceived notions that all-inclusive deals meant run-of-the-mill platters of overcooked vegetables and mystery meats in brown gravy. Thankfully, we were wrong. The experience changed our opinions—and sent us to the gym each day to work off the calories. (As a note, all-inclusive can mean different things—some encompass just meals, while others include house drinks. If we wanted top shelf, it would cost extra.)
Just a couple of months later, we ventured to Aruba, our family’s first trip to the aquamarine waters and white sands of the Caribbean. Since tourism is the island’s primary economic engine, the resorts have been designed around maximum enjoyment of its beautiful beaches and waters. A huge portion of the land is uninhabited and inaccessible, so hanging out at the resort seems like the most natural way to enjoy Aruba. During our stay at Tamarjin Resort, we donned our wristbands and immediately wandered into the restaurants and facilities, both there and at the sister property just down the beach, the Divi Resort.
With no stress, no car rides or time constraints, our R&R levels deepened dramatically. We slept in, let the girls wake and rise when they wanted, snorkeled the warm coral reefs teeming with tropical fish, went for long walks on the beach, and drank sunset rum drinks while watching the sky change colors. It was heaven. When we wanted to go on an outing, the resort arranged for Jeep tours and more. But really? All we wanted was to stay at the resort and relax. I read three books, napped incessantly, and roused from my Caribbean delirium just long enough to walk the boardwalk to the restaurants and back again.
And yes, the irony was not lost on us: The only thing we really had to decide was where to position our lounge chairs.
Jon Bailey writes the travel blog 2dadswithbaggage.com.