Travel

A wave of all-inclusives sweeps Caribbean

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 sunblock and paperback you forgot; a quick call to your butler and she's on her way down with the missing items.

Spend the day exploring 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 at this intimate resort.

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

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 revelation.

Yes, you can still find plenty of cost-wise hotels geared to travelers who want no more than a beach, a swim-up pool bar and a bill-sans-surprises. But now options 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 the right fit at a fixed-price Caribbean resort.

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," with a fourth edition coming out next year.

"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 area playing cards--and that there was a huge, wonderful spa."

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

Travelers who do care about location have plenty of choices. Though the vast majority of hotel rooms in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and along Mexico's Caribbean coast are all-inclusive, set-price resorts also have opened in St. Lucia, Antigua and Cuba. In fact, few islands are bereft of at least one all-inclusive option today.

Jamaica, one of the early meccas of all-inclusive vacations, once again is experiencing hypergrowth. The number of hotel rooms will climb by 20 percent by the end of 2009, and most of the additions are midrange all-inclusives run by Spanish hotel chains. Established firms such as Sandals are countering with the new Grand Pineapple Beach Resort, priced less than its 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, said Juan Aguirre, vice president of Miami-based tour operator MK Travelplan. "Jamaica is starting to see lower rates, but it doesn't offer the quality and value of Mexico and the Dominican Republic."

Airfare to the bigger destinations such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic also tends to be lower, especially compared with islands in the eastern Caribbean.

Price and style vary significantly, from luxury boutique hotels charging $700 per room per night in low season to sprawling campuses with basic rooms that cost less than $200. "All-inclusive can mean anything today," said Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals.

And that can cause confusion. With marketing phrases such as "super-inclusive" and "ultra-inclusive" bandied about, no wonder some travelers are baffled.

Last year Sandals barred the use of the term all-inclusive, replacing it with a trademarked tag line: "Luxury Included." Stewart said the company invested $300 million in improvements into its existing hotels, which included expanding some 300-square-foot standard rooms into 1,000-square-foot suites with swim-up pool access. "We haven't built a regular hotel room in six years," Stewart added.

But "luxury" may be the most overused word in the business today, and as the chains compete ever more fiercely for an increasingly cost-sensitive market, quality often is the first item trimmed.

"I think it's better to emphasize value," suggested John J. Issa, executive chairman of Superclubs, the Jamaica-based operator of the Grand Lido, Breezes and Hedonism resorts. "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, especially with a lot of the Spanish hotels being built."

So how can a traveler sort it out?

As always, price is one signpost; less expensive typically means fewer frills. But beyond butlers, dining options 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, particularly targeting the wedding and honeymoon market. Then, Sandals launched the Beaches brand to capture the family market. SuperClubs has the infamous Hedonism resorts with an atmosphere that borders on X-rated but also has family-oriented Breezes and Starfish hotels. Most Club Meds have shifted from their earlier freewheeling incarnation to a family-friendly ambience; here, parents can join their kids in circus classes.

The smaller FDR resorts in Jamaica even include a nanny for each family checking in. She takes the kids swimming, teaches them tie-dye or travels with you on day trips to Dunn's River Falls.

The stakes are increasingly being raised. Kids may think they've died and gone to Disney World-by-the-beach come December, when the upscale Beaches unveils expansion of its Turks and Caicos resort, with 600 new rooms and 16 restaurants. Its Pirate's Island Waterpark will grow to 10 times its original size, with nine waterslides and a surf simulator with white water and surf conditions for boogie boards.

Some resorts have introduced off-season specials that offer rates for single-parent families (most all-inclusives are priced based on two adults per room).

•Euro-style: Spanish-speaking destinations have long courted the European market. So it's no surprise that if you stay at one of the midpriced, Spanish-owned Barcelo 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 its French roots, also tends to a more European style and crowd. But other English-speaking companies, long geared toward the U.S. market, offer settings and food more familiar to Americans, including 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 smaller hotels such as the Aura Cozumel and East Winds Inn that focus on intimate settings.

In Jamaica, just a stone's throw from a giant Riu resort, 65-room Sunset at the Palms is one of the few in Negril that doesn't lie directly on the beach (though it has undeveloped beachfront land with a beach bar across the road). The hotel turns its drawback into an advantage by emphasizing its 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 TripAdvisor readers.

•Dollar-wise: Showcasing options for budget-conscious travelers 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 for reservations at one of 12 tables at the gourmet restaurant Krystal.

Still, the price may be right: The Riu chain advertises off-season per-person rates below $100 a night.

•Something for everyone: North of Playa del Carmen in Mexico's Riviera Maya, the Spanish chain Iberostar offers almost 2,000 rooms scattered across a mini-city of five side-by-side hotels with shopping mall, spa, discos and a shuttle service between them. Prices and amenities are set at four levels, from the budget- and family-oriented Paraiso Del Mar and Paraiso Beach starting in November at $2,170 per week, per room, double occupancy, to the adults-only, all-suite Grand Hotel Paraiso, priced from $4,872.

The third of a three-hotel Iberostar complex near Montego Bay will be open by the end of this year.

•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, water skiing, 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 night, per room, double occupancy, 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 Ritz-Carlton to create a competitive deal. The Key to Paradise package for the fall season starts at $429 per night, per room, double occupancy and includes three meals, drinks, tax and gratuities. For a true luxury hotel with room-only rack rates starting at $299 plus 21.25 percent tax/service, the package is a great value.

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.

Where to go in the Caribbean

•Aura Cozumel Wyndham Grand Bay: 888-293-0293; www.auraresorts.com

•Barcelo Resorts: 800-227-2356; www.barceloresorts.com

•Breezes: 877-467-8737; www.breezes.com

•Beaches: 888-232-2437; www.beaches.com

•Club Med: 888-932-2582; www.clubmed.us

•Couples: 800-268-7537; www.couples.com

•Curtain Bluff: 888-289-9898; www.curtainbluff.com

•East Winds Inn: 800-347-9154; www.eastwinds.com

•FDR Pebbles: 800-654-1337; www.fdrholidays.com

•Grand Pineapple: 877-846-3290; www.grandpineapple.com

•Iberostar: 888-923-2722; www.iberostar.com

•Ritz-Carlton: 800-542-8680; www.ritzcarlton.com

•Riu: 888-748-4990; www.riu.com

•Rooms on the Beach: 877-467-8737; www.roomsresorts.com

•Sandals: 888-726-3257; www.sandals.com

•Sunset at the Palms: 800-234-1707; www.sunsetatthepalms.com

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