“Surprise!” That’s a word rarely used in a conversation about all-inclusives. But look what we found. A place where they toss us a room key — and a boat key. Where room service is by Mini Moke. We also test two Hard Rocks — are they cookie-cutter resorts, or as different as the islands they call home?
Moon Palace Resort, Cancun: Mind-blowing Entertainment
Moon Palace Resort may have four swim-up bars and in-room double jacuzzis, but what we like most are the surprising entertainment inclusions. Some stays get you free tickets to rotating concerts and Cirque Dreams Rocks —a non-stop sensory overload. After, kids can learn tricks of the trade in performer-taught classes like “Explorabatics” at Cirque Dreams Kidstime. How’s that for a souvenir? Plus, don’t miss the resort’s ultra-lux nightclub, Noir, where the sleek, cutting-edge design, inspired by the film “Tron,” rivals any of South Beach’s hottest offerings. And yes, that’s included too.
Fowl Cay, Bahamas: Free Boat
It’s clear that i need at least one good pocket. I’ve been given the key to a villa on this private Exumas island (gorgeous), a key to a golf cart (look out), and a key to an 18-foot boat (are you mistaking me for someone important?). And what’s this? The boat has a cooler stocked with drinks, including Kalik? With that, I’m free to head out and see if the Exumas really have 365 cays and islands, as advertised. But before I start idling away from the dock, an islander suggests I focus the boat compass on Guana Cay. “Feed the iguanas,” he says. “And take some lunch for yourself.” Which I do, courtesy of the Fowl Cay chef. But along the way I’m drawn to a string of islands with easy beach-up access. I motor along until I find one that’s totally empty, and mine.
Iberostar, Punta Cana: No-worries Relaxation
A seemingly never-ending string of mega-resorts, this stretch of Dominican Republic coastline hasn’t evolved into an authentic, culturally rich experience, but rather touts a pretty simple concept: relaxation. And the Iberostar’s complex of four resorts makes that an art form. Example: Under my thatch palapa on golden Bavaro Beach, with the sweet rustle of swaying palm trees and a continuous supply of cold Presidentes, it will be a struggle to stand up and find La Cana, the steakhouse in the sand, and Discoteca DC-6, the disco with a real DC-6 airplane inside. They make everything too easy.
ME By Melia, Cancun: Polished Posh
Cancun’s party-hearty gringo culture hasn’t earned it much street cred among travelers as anything more than a giant, slushy college bar on the beach. But not all fiestas fly the same flag. At this all-inclusive (it’s actually called ME by Melia), South Beach crosses with South of the Border for a sleek retreat right in the sand. Sculpture installations by Mexican artist Yuri Zatarain fill every open space, and clean, modern lines lead to views unobstructed by rail-free glass panels. It’s easy for me to relax on a daybed while a Latin-infused beat carries on — and these partiers surrounding me are professionals.
Club Med, Punta Cana: Unexpected Activities
I actually forget I’m on the stretch of Punta Cana that has made this region of the Dominican Republic home to the biggest concentration of all-inclusives in the Caribbean (at 40-plus). In the shadow of a coconut plantation, I sit at Club Med’s beach — a grotto that’s protected from the sun and rife with endless coconut trees. I’m so relaxed, but sometimes traveling awakens a need for extremes. A meandering path separates the beach from the big lawn, where I join in on a class to learn the art of trapeze. OK, enough of that. Now back to the beach.
Grand Velas, Riviera Maya, Mexico: Next-level Extravagance
There’s no way this is an all-inclusive — that’s the thought that runs through my head from the moment I open the door to my sprawling modern suite. Every surface is clad in stone. The furniture is right out of a designer showcase. And there, on the veranda, is a plunge pool — could it be mine for a few days, really? Before cooling off I think I’ll partake of that mini bottle of Don Julio tequila with a fresh-cut lime and sea salt first. You know, I’m starting to get hungry. All-inclusives are made for moments like this. Half-expecting a lukewarm all-inc buffet, I instead get a taste of made-to-order Chilean sea bass in smoked pasilla chili salsa, with crispy fried chapulines, mussels, grilled chorizo and black rice. And there’s that thought again: Are you sure this is all included?
Couples Tower Isle, Jamaica: Grown-up Digs
We love kids. Really, we do. Mostly, we love our own, if you know what I mean. So you’ll understand what I’m saying about Couples Tower Isle near Ocho Rios, a resort where I hardly hear anything louder than the clinking of a fork on a dessert plate. It’s actually a little strange at first. The place is, as the name suggests, for adults only. Which means it’s absent any exclamation points, at least until the martini hour begins. Yet I’m inspired to cut loose. I’m jumping off the high dive before swimming over to the pool bar. I’m telling snorkel stories over a dish of mango vodka sorbet. And after splashing around in the evening surf, I sit on the beach and listen to steel-drum music. It’s a sound that anyone could love, no matter the age.
Sandals, Negril, Jamaica: Swim-up Rooms
The concept of a swim-up bar has been a favorite of all-inclusives for decades, as it reduces the oftentimes lengthy commute between liquor and lounging. My Crystal Lagoon Suite at Sandals Negril notches up the concept with a swim-up guest room. The larger pool narrows into smaller pools, which flow right up to my suite’s veranda. Hop out and here I am, just steps from my plush four-poster bed and marble-clad bathroom — all kept private by mahogany plantation shut-ters. A Sandals butler makes sure I have everything I need (what could I possibly need besides a swim-up room?) and leaves me to enjoy my paradise. Just when I start wondering where the swim-up bar has gone, I realize the mini bar is well within reach.
Hard Rock, Punta Cana: Options Galore
The pool selection at Hard Rock Punta Cana is as long as a wine list. There are 12 pools, three with flume water slides, one for peace (the Library) and one for exposure (Eden Pool). The spa includes 35 suites, an ice room and hydrotherapy treatments. Eating the same thing twice would be absurd. There are nine restaurants on the property, and that doesn’t include improv food orders at the pool, on the beach or in a room.
Hard Rock, Cancun, Mexico: Cool Pool
The lagoon-style pool with a DJ is at the heart of the Hard Rock Cancun resort. There are two swim-up bars and setups for basketball and volleyball. The Rock Spa has 16 rooms, but we prefer the outdoor treatment in one of the air-conditioned palapas.
Petit St. Vincent, St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Perfect Privacy
It takes almost a full day to reach this place. The long trek to the tiny island of Petit St. Vincent guarantees I’ll be secluded among the tiny isles near the Tobago Cays. I arrive to my stone villa perched on a hill overlooking the beach. Yeah, there are other villas around here, probably with other guests, though I can’t be sure. They wouldn’t know I’m here, and vice versa. I’m not even sure if the staff knows I’m here, until I find a little yellow flag next to a note box. When I raise the flag, someone arrives by Mini Moke to take my request. A little while later a tray with conch and mussels tossed with pappardelle and herb pesto arrives via the same funny-looking buggy. It’s as close to having a genie as I’ll ever experience.