We did it. For this trip, the ultimate budget ATB team of Lyn and Mady didn't have a budget. Mady was celebrating a significant birthday and was dreaming of a week of pampering and celebrating. We had just returned from our first international travel in years (France posts here) and were both itching to return to our travelling ways. An all-inclusive posh resort was chosen, plane tickets booked and soon we were heading from our homes on opposite sides of Canada for a full week at a posh, 5-star, adults-only, all-inclusive Mexican resort in Playa del Carmen. Soooo, what's the verdict? Is this kind of splurge going to become a regular part of our adventures?
Mady chose the resort. She found a package deal online that included airport transfers and (what seemed to be) generous credits towards massages and a "romantic dinner" on the beach. The image of sitting watching a sunset on a beach while enjoying a fabulous dinner for her birthday dinner seemed like a perfect plan. We stayed at the Valentin Imperial Riviera Maya.
About a week prior to our arrival, we sent the resort a message to confirm our inbound flights and to get instructions on the process. We were informed that the transfer would only be arranged for one trip. My transfer, several hours later, would be an additional cost. Both of us found the transfer company, Feralter booth outside the airport easily and were quickly taken to the hotel. Both of us had pleasant drivers who pointed out different attractions, offered advice, and encouraged us to try out our limited Spanish during the 30-minute drive. Upon arrival, I sent Mady a message that I had arrived. In the meantime, fully-masked porters whisked my bags away, discretely scanned my temperature, and escorted me to the lobby where I was greeted by a concierge (and a welcome drink), and led to a comfortable upholstered chair in the beautifully air-conditioned lobby. I was soon joined by one of the receptionists who added my information to Mady's in the database and began to explain the layout, facilities, and event schedules. Mady soon arrived in the lobby and we followed our fine tradition of enjoying a welcome drink before we were informed that a shuttle was loaded with my luggage and ready to take us to our room (ha! I only had a carry-on and a tote bag). As we rode toward our building, the driver pointed out the facilities. Each building has a concierge with an office at the entrance. He carried the bags into the room and pointed out the well-stocked mini fridge, coffee station, and pool towels.
Our room (a Golden Superior Junior King Suite) was beautiful. We had two balconies overlooking "The Lazy River" (the quiet pool), a huge sitting area, and an enormous bathroom suite with two sinks, a separated shower, toilet/bidet areas, a large jetted bathtub and more open floor space than whole rooms in my townhouse! Double closets (with fluffy bathrobes and slippers) had drawers, plenty of hangers, and a guest safe. The room came with a TV (never turned it on) and a screen that displayed the day's events, weather information, and excursion ideas. (We were constantly trying to figure out how to turn it on or off... the way the power and lighting switches were linked was a mystery we never solved.) The bed was huge and very comfortable.
I never got rid of the feeling that I was a total fraud. Mady had less difficulty adjusting as her natural love of luxury took over. As she says "having someone hand you an icy pina colada as you recline under a palapa never gets old." There are two pool areas. The huge main pool is a hive of activity. There are two swim-up bars, hot tubs, volleyball nets, many float mats, a bridge, and water features. There was some kind of fitness activity daily including in-water cycling, yoga, and volleyball games. There are also smaller pool areas and canopied sun beds that can be reserved by the members of the resort's Privilege Club. (We didn't go that posh!)
Along the pool's edge are many padded lounge chairs for guests to sit in the sun or under shade. Waiters circulate and will deliver drinks and food right to your deck chair. Mid-afternoon performances at poolside included a belly dancer, a drumming group, and a synchronized swimming team.
Other activities included ping-pong, various games, pellet rifle target-shooting (Mady won!), and "educational" workshops in local culture. We enjoyed a tequila-tasting, pico de gallo/guacamole making class, and checked out the Spanish class (it was for very beginners and only covered about 5 phrases).
Food choices are vast. There are 7 main restaurants each specializing in a certain cuisine: French, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Steak & Seafood, and the breakfast/lunch buffet. There is a dress code for evening dining but it is fairly loosely written and seems to be written to discourage beach wear. We noticed a wide range of evening wear from sequins and jackets to pantsuits and button-ups.
There is also a coffee bar, food trucks, and room service. Small bars are located everywhere as well as the lobby bar, the Plaza España bar, a cigar lounge, a sports bar, and a magical martini and mixology bar. The evening theatre show included a Michael Jackson review, a circus performance, and a multi-media Mexican extravaganza. Alcohol is served all day and until late in the evening. We were soon recognized as the crazy women who ordered all our daytime drinks "sin alcohol"
Most of our days were spent on resort. We soon developed a routine of morning coffee and a light breakfast at the coffee shop, we would check out day's activities, wander to the beach to see if the red flag was still up (we only got one real beach day), and make our way to the Lazy River pool where we would find a couple of lounge chairs under a palapa, seek out a float mat, and parked ourselves. We often frequented one of the food trucks at the main pool for our lunch (the golden chicken tacos were delicious!) We took in some of the performances and activities, returned to the Lazy River, and whiled away our days until it was time to get ready for dinner.
We enjoyed walking everywhere around the resort but for those who were less mobile, one of the constantly circulating golf carts can be flagged down and you can be driven wherever you want to go. We ate at a different restaurant every night, trying all except the Indian restaurant and eating twice at the Japanese restaurant. The quality of food and service was amazing. Great care was taken with the presentation and made each dinner an experience.
The best dinner was at La Hacienda, the Mexican restaurant (same building as the breakfast/lunch buffet) where we put ourselves in the hands of our server who made sure we sampled all the best dishes on offer. The plates just kept coming and coming and we just kept on eating and eating until we literally could not eat another bite.
The Good The resort and staff were wonderful. We enjoyed the location, activities and facilities. It was nice to see how vacationers spend their time and to have the opportunity to be pampered and to experience that level of 5-star service. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed being able to swim and laze around in the water with little concern for the day. I was surprised at how easily I slipped into a very lazy state of being once I got it in my head this was a vacation and not a trip. I enjoyed seeing the wildlife who make the resort their home. I loved seeing and listening to native birds.
The bands of coati (we counted nearly 40 in one!) were seen everywhere.... including on our balcony rail and stealing someone's leftover lunch at the pool.
Lizards. Iguanas, and big insects are common. We kept a lookout for the local giant iguana, nicknamed Kevin. We even watched a pod of whales from the beach.
Once we discovered the martini and mixology bar, we made a point of visiting for a before-dinner drink. This is an elegant piano bar atmosphere where the drinks can be a true performance. We had drinks that smoked, drinks that came with a dome needing to be burst before consuming, and our Spanish coffee made with flames right in front of our table.
I had a minor medical issue and was able to get a consultation with a doctor and antibiotics at the medical clinic on the resort. This was an additional cost but I was grateful that I didn't have to go into town. It was expensive, but that's what travel medical insurance is all about. My claim has already been approved and is being processed. Most of the entertainment was top-notch and had enough variety to please every taste and energy level. I enjoyed having the opportunity to "dress up" and to have an entire week of delicious dinners. I enjoyed the many small services that were included: from the evening turn-down service with chocolates, extra coffee and water, and the personalized service from many staff members, including a "Mexican Water" ceremony performed by our two favourite Lazy River servers, Giovanni and Jessica. The ceremony takes place in the pool with 4 shooters of tequila and coloured syrup: one is a triple... drink to find out which while being splashed with pool water. It was mine... as I spluttered, the rest of the people in the pool area laughed while Mady gave a wee prayer of thanks.
Each night a different restaurant closes to allow staff time off. For most guests, there are no reservations (Valentin Privé members can make reservations). Restaurants open at 6pm. By 6:30, the wait for seating will be at least an hour; by 7pm it will be even longer. Guests are given a device that will alert when a table is open and are encouraged to sit in the Plaza España to enjoy some drinks and the evening entertainment.
The beach is spectacular. It has a couple of bars, palapas, and bali-beds. Staff are on hand to organize games or deliver drinks. Unfortunately, while we were there, the conditions were not great. The beach was raked every morning to remove the mounds of seaweed that collect on the shore throughout the day. The wind and waves were strong and red flags were flown to let guests know that conditions were dangerous. The beach conditions can not be blamed on the resort, of course, but it was a disappointment.
Mady was very disappointed by the beach conditions as she doesn't have a beach culture in Montreal. Sitting on a beach was a major factor in picking a resort destination. She says "there's nowhere to lay the burden of blame, however, so I'll just have to shrug off that sadness... it still bothered me. Le sigh"
The privileges of the "Privé Club" are clear and unabashed. Members sail past the regular guests in restaurant line-ups, have access to special lounges, concierge services, private pool areas, and reserved sun beds. Other privileges such as fresh flowers, bespoke mini-bar selections and premium WIFI is not as obvious but I'm sure valued by members. (Regular guest WiFi throughout the resort is available but weak). For Mady's birthday dinner, we asked if a reservation could be made for our preferred restaurant and we were obliged. The staff gathered to sing Happy Birthday at the end of the evening. The resort went the extra distance by decorating our room with a towel birthday cake and rose petals. There was also a decadent chocolate dessert left in the room with birthday greetings.
We were completely coddled by the resort. We were surrounded by English-speaking people and had few and shallow interactions with locals. Our experiences were carefully curated to wrap us in comfort. While many would say this is not at all bad, I found I missed the interaction with locals, the language struggles, and the dust of regular life. I don't feel like I "know" this area of Mexico.
Mady also felt this lack and believes a lot of that feeling had to do with "the transactional nature of most of our interactions. For better or worse, we were always "the customer" and the people we met and interacted with were mainly in service roles. Because of the class difference (for lack of a better term) many of our interactions lacked that authenticity that we seek."
Remember I mentioned those generous credits for massages and dinner? Well, the credits come with limitations that required additional and fairly hefty payments. We felt that we had been led to believe that the credits would cover the costs and that a fancy beach dinner and massage would be part of our vacation experience. We struggled with the decision but ended up not using the credits. We often felt that we "were perceived as a money tree, and tips/upgrades were the ultimate goal in these interactions... there was always a figurative palm outstretch for MOAR MONEY. Everything from the expensive room upgrade offered by reception, up to the annoying extra privileges those Privé people got (grrr). It was tiresome, and irritating, and made me feel somehow that the warmth and friendliness was somehow insincere (with clear exceptions like our friend Giovanni who obviously just liked to chat)" says Mady. Mady's Verdict
"It's a lovely type of vacation if you want R&R, less so for cultural immersion which is what we like to do as travellers. I doubt the expense was worth it and we can probably find something equally nice for half the price, but it was also an eight-day splurge. Would do it again but only for special occasions like a big birthday or family reunion. I'm clearly too antsy to lie around doing nothing for very long."
I am much less into vacationing than I am into exploring and learning... especially since I retired. I no longer need a vacation from the grind of daily work. For an equal amount of money, a longer historical or cultural trip could have been arranged where I had more contact with the area and the locals.
If I win the lottery, I might consider spending my travel dollars at an all-inclusive resort but it will have to be a big win for me to decide to choose a 5-star again. There are less expensive options that offer similar activities and facilities at the 3-star level that would leave me with the same feeling of pampering. I don't drink or eat enough to make "all-inclusive" a big draw, although I did enjoy being able to put my credit card in the safe and leave it there. I am very unlikely to consider it as a solo traveller.
This post is dedicated to Uncle Benji Virgona: a man of many tales, who lived a long and much-loved life. Cheers Benji... I hope you and Tony are enjoying a good argument about the details of a story from long ago.