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9 Reasons We Love All-Inclusives (And Why You Will, Too)

There's never been a better time to take an all-inclusive vacation, even if you're not the resort sort.

Flamingo floaties

Flamingo floaties included.

1. Local culture is also included

At the new Unico 20˚87˚ Hotel Riviera Maya our writer discovers Mexico in the details.

By Doug Wallace
 

“You suck,” my friend says as she leans in to assess my painting. I’ve drawn myself in a “Kiss Mayas” trucker hat riding the rainbow-maned blow-up unicorn I commandeered at a pool party the day before. Paint brush in hand, I squint at the canvas. She’s right, but the glass of wine in my other hand is incredible.

It’s a Cosecha Tardia – or Late Harvest – chardonnay, one of three wines from Casa Madero, an award-winning vineyard in the Parras Valley near Monterrey, that the resort sommelier has poured for us to taste as a local artist teaches us to paint (badly).

I didn’t expect the pairing – local crafts and sommelier-picked wine with an all-inclusive vacation. But at the adults-only Unico 20˚87˚ Hotel Riviera Maya in Mexico, which opened last March a half hour’s drive south of Playa del Carmen’s packed beaches, the aim is to give you a sense of where you are in the world, whether you set foot outside the property or not.

Unico 20˚87˚ Hotel Riviera Maya pool

Lounging by one of the Unico 20˚87˚ Hotel Riviera Maya’s three pools.

I feel it as I unlock the door to my suite, and an earthy but floral scent hits me. A mix of grapefruit, lavender, leather – and rope? My hacienda-styled room is kitted out with locally made décor pieces, such as a giant sisal knot to use as a Do Knot Disturb sign, a nod to the agave-fibre ropes used by the area’s fishermen. I spy a notice telling me about a 24-hour butler-slash-insider who can dish on the best nearby bars and hard-to-score restaurant tables. There’s also a bottle of mezcal on the bar, numbered as a limited edition, that I pop as I get dressed for dinner.

At the hotel’s Cueva Siete restaurant, I start with chili- marinated raw tuna, followed by pork stew spiced with achiote and sour orange. I actually shut my eyes after the last bite of a stewed pineapple dessert, dished up with coconut sorbet and Xtabentún, a local anise and honey liqueur. The meal is prepared by Christian Bravo, a former Top Chef Mexico contestant who brings Mexican traditions to his modern menu, which basically sums up the ethos of the Unico.

Unico 20˚87˚ Hotel Riviera Maya lobby and pool

Left to right: Locally designed furniture and fixtures bring character to the Unico’s lobby; one of the Unico’s many perks? Plentiful lounge chairs. (Photo: The Leading Hotels of the World (lobby))

But not even a top chef can compete with Mexican home cooking, which I taste after a morning of cliff-jumping into fresh-water cenotes at Tankah Park near Tulum. My group canoes to a Mayan village of about 40 residents for an al fresco lunch prepared by our hosts in their thatched-roof homes. I line up for what turns out to be the most succulent chicken I’ve ever tasted, slow-roasted pibil-style in clay pots over open coals. I inhale it and go back for seconds. Sometimes tradition doesn’t need a modern twist.

Akumal, Mexico, vacations.aircanada.com
Photos: LM Chabot; styling: Sabrina Deslauriers (TEAMM); makeup & hair: Zoë Elizabeth; model: Lena Bergeron Rousseau (Next Canada)

2. Suites on stilts

Last year, Palafitos at El Dorado Maroma in Riviera Maya became the first spot this side of the South Pacific to offer suites on stilts, complete with glass floors for the perfect pop of aquamarine. Sandals has since followed suit with overwater bungalows in Jamaica and Saint Lucia, so you can live your private-island dream for an all-inclusive price.

El Dorado Maroma Resort, Sandals’ various locations, vacations.aircanada.com

3. Plunge pools for all

From couple-sized dunk tanks (at the year-old Now Onyx Punta Cana) to full-fledged infinity pools (at the Hideaway at Royalton Saint Lucia, which opened last January), room-side swimming holes are becoming the norm at new all-inclusive properties, which means you won’t be flash-mobbed, mid-dip, by a jazzercise class again.

Now Onyx Punta Cana, Royalton Saint Lucia, vacations.aircanada.com
 

The Ranch at Rock Creek

Photo: Courtesy of the Ranch at Rock Creek

4. Winter resorts are going all in

Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana

Holidayers whose idea of paradise bears no resemblance to a Beach Boys song head to the 6,600-acre ranch for skating, snowmobiling and hot chocolate-warmed sleigh rides.
 

Skywatch Lodge and Spa, Yellowknife

If you can wait, this 36-suite retreat is set to open next summer, with excursions like heli-hiking and fatbiking, Indigenous dining (bannock and reindeer) and a chance to watch the Northern lights from the comfort of an infinity hot tub.
 

Christmas Chalets, Lapland, Finland

Lapland’s 1:1 human-reindeer ratio and proximity to the North Pole make it an excellent spot for a Yuletide-themed escape. Sip glögi (mulled wine) by the fire in your cabin, ask the chef to cook up your ice fishing catch or pile the family into a reindeer-pulled sled for a multi-day hunt for you-know-who (hint: white beard, belly full of jelly).
 

Club Med Beidahu, Jilin, China

This ski haven northeast of Beijing opened last year with the steepest piste in the country – an 800-metre vertical drop – plus 10,000 metres of cross-country trails. To soothe your body (and ego) after that face plant you hope no one else saw, hit the Jacuzzi or curl up by your room’s fireplace.
 

Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana

Photo: Kempinski Hotels (Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana)

5. You can capitalize on the capitals

Havana, Cuba

Save one night for a stay at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, the city’s first five-star hotel with a luxury mall in its base, which opened last spring – just eight days before POTUS reinstated the travel restrictions Obama loosened. For U.S. globetrotters, this means get there while you can. For others, it’s an chance to score discounted rooms and try some of Cuba’s most creative cooking at one of the neighbourhood’s paladares (privately owned restaurants), like San Cristóbal Paladar, where the Obama family had a steak dinner during their (almost) world-changing visit.
 

Kingston, Jamaica

A freshly built north-south Highway takes you from the beaches of Ocho Rios to the capital in under an hour, so you can check out the year-old Peter Tosh Museum, dedicated to the nation’s second son of reggae, and catch the One World Ska & Rocksteady Music Festival, the best place to see the founding fathers of the two genres jam.
 

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

While everyone else skips the city on route to the Dominan’s white sands, rent a bright blue beach cruiser from Zona Bici to explore Zona Colonial, the city’s oldest quarter, which has undergone rapid hipsterfication in recent years. After you’ve whizzed past the Caribbean’s first universities, hospitals and cathedrals, sip espresso in the leafy Spanish-colonial courtyard at Mamey Libreria Café and shop millennial-friendly décor, like hand-painted succulent pots, at the artist-run studio-slash-concept shop Casa Quien.
 

Twin farms

Left to right: Some 300 acres of forest and meadowlands stand in for the beach at Twin Farms; the resort's Copper Hill farmhouse lounge.

6. Bespoke menus are the new buffets

At Twin Farms in Vermont, our writer gets served, but never the same meal twice.

By Andrew Elkin
 

If you’re visiting a hotel with a 17,000-bottle wine cellar, you could spend your entire stay choosing a first bottle from the list. So at Twin Farms, a Relais & Châteaux property tucked away down a country road in central Vermont, they’ve taken a novel approach to their epic cellar: There is no wine list. And there is no menu, either.

Which is fine by me. Though I tend to dither over a bottle list or to hover indecisively between two dishes (waiters hate me), I am really a trusting sort. Greet me with a glass of electrifying pétillant naturel – in this case, from a winery just a few hills over – and I’m yours. Or show me to an angler’s cottage outfitted with a trophy fish above the headboard, fishing-themed print by William Wegman, rod and net leaning by the door and I'm ready to let go completely.

This unlikely all-inclusive, with 10 cottages, a historic farmhouse and a lodge on 300 acres of woods, is the perfect setting to relinquish your control over the details. To ensure nothing goes unaccounted for, chef Nathan Rich and his team map out the dietary restrictions, allergies, likes and dislikes of each guest (I have none – chefs love me) on a giant spreadsheet in the kitchen. The culinary team not only fine-tunes each guest’s experience, but also tries never to offer the same dish – or drink – twice, even across multiple visits. When the sommelier pours a passito from cult producer Paolo Bea – a unicorn wine with as much zingy acidity as sweetness – to match a plate of foie gras with aged balsamic and raspberry reduction, I know it’s a pairing I won’t see again soon.

Maine lobster with with beet root, citrus, fennel and coconut milk

Maine lobster with with beet root, citrus, fennel and coconut milk.

The next day, I hike to the top of the retired ski hill to burn off a few calories and get a bird’s-eye view of the property: a farm since the 18th century, it was the 1930s getaway of Nobel novelist Sinclair Lewis and journalist Dorothy Thompson, and a Tyrolean ski lodge through the 1970s and ’80s. In the distance I can see two figures fly-fishing the naturally stocked trout pond. Before supper, I go for a soak in the Japanese furo bath across from my cottage.

Thoroughly unwound, I sit down to dinner. To accompany a freshly picked green salad with peaches, white balsamic burrata and almond crumble, sommelier Keven Ring pours a California viognier. I’m usually not a fan but the perfumed wine is the perfect complement to the almond elements in the dish. When it comes to the big decisions, it’s best to trust the people who know.

Photos: Twin Farms

7. You can go your own way

Break from the pack at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, where one-on-one tours of the famous ruins last exactly as long as you’d like. Or book the wine-lovers package at the company’s sister property in Los Cabos, where oenophiles can escape to the vineyards of nearby Baja via private jet. And, if you’re not the private jetsetting type, ask your resort's chef to pack a takeout dinner for a choose-your-own-adventure picnic.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Grand Velas Los Cabos, vacations.aircanada.com
 

Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana

Photo: Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana

8. Resorts have gone niche. Really niche

For Spongebob squareheads

Win the Best Parent Ever award by booking the SpongeBob-themed Pineapple Villa, a 2,300-square-foot suite at the Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana, with kid-friendly flourishes, like a pineapple-shaped pool.

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, vacations.aircanada.com
 

For self-documentarians

Torment your work friends back at the office with GoPro videos shot at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain as you hike through Arizona’s Paradise Valley. Keep the head-mounted camera rolling inside your all-white Mountain Casita, which is almost as serene as the surrounding desert. Bonus: the bragging rights and the GoPro are yours to keep.
 

For astronomy buffs

’Scopes, binoculars and sky charts are provided at Astroport Sariska eco-camp in the Aravalli hills, a five-hour drive from Delhi, where light pollution is almost non-existent and the Milky Way twinkles brighter than a billion Lite Brites. Astronomer-led workshops – from star mapping to night sky photography – let you up your cosmic intelligence, while Swiss tents with king-size beds let you sleep (almost) al fresco.

 

For bookworms

Founded by former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz, the Segera Retreat in Laikipia, Kenya, houses an epic collection of African masterpieces (it will become a companion to Zeitz’s Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opening in Cape Town this fall). History nerds squirrel away in a library that holds unpublished letters, manuscripts and photographs by authors and explorers, including Charles Darwin, Ernest Hemingway and David Livingstone, which explains the colonial Gentleman’s Club aesthetic.

 

Warrior pose

Warrior pose in the tree tops.

9. Group activities are getting the Olympic treatment

Between krav maga and daily massages, Saint Lucia’s BodyHoliday makes sure you leave in better shape than when you arrived.

By Jacinthe Dupuis
 

It’s 7 a.m. and I’m sweating profusely, jumping up and down on the damp beach, lifting my knees as high as possible, following the instructions of our coach, Jamie Baulch. The sprinter and Olympic medalist is training us to run the 400-metre dash. Just my idea of a real vacation. After an hour trying to coordinate my arms and legs and hold my head high – literally and figuratively – I manage to complete, with a convincing stride, the first two phases of the 400m: the acceleration, where you take off at full speed, and the tempo phase, where you set your cruising speed.

I’ve always been under the impression that sports activities at all-inclusives are offered only so that afterwards, you won’t feel guilty lying on the beach, sipping rum and Cokes. But BodyHoliday, nestled in a lush peninsula on St. Lucia’s northwest, is a mixture of wellness retreat and training camp, with a dose of luxury thrown in (the proof’s in the daily helping of homemade coconut ice cream).

Bike the Caribbean coastline

Swap swimsuit for helmut and bike the Caribbean coastline instead.

A waitress greets us on the terrace with a tray of chocolate protein smoothies. I grab one and head back to the beach, which is still empty except for a few locals fishing for red snapper. I slump down under a parasol with my activity booklet, a 16-page bible that lists all the physical activities on offer here. I’m overwhelmed by questions: hatha or vinyasa yoga? Will there be enough time for a krav maga session after my daily coconut-ginger exfoliation? What ratio of physical activity to relaxation should I be aiming for?

A profusion of activities is all well and good, but worth nothing without great instructors. The resort has seen to this detail, and Jamie Baulch is not the only athlete on site. Geraldine, the sprightly Pilates instructor, currently showing no mercy to the deep muscles of my core, is a member of the national rugby team. So is Mindy, the Swiss ball instructor. We’re a far cry from adolescent GOs half-heartedly getting vacationers to sing “Hands Up.” In our studio under the banana trees, the entire class is concentrating on breathing and on contracting our abdominals – even the two teenagers in basketball shorts dragged here by their girlfriends. Meanwhile, the sun is shining radiantly and the sea beckons. But it doesn’t occur to me to slip away.

Saint Lucia’s BodyHoliday

Hemmed in by tropical hills and the Caribbean Sea, Saint Lucia’s BodyHoliday is a secluded spot to get your butt kicked by pro trainers.

After three days at the resort, I take stock: I’ve coupled each training session with a stretching session (you’re welcome, quads); filled up on fresh fruit, organic vegetables from the resort’s garden and ice cream; improved my running technique; and learned some krav maga concepts from Benny, who teaches self-defence to St. Lucia’s police force. I still have time for a lesson in... let’s see now. Running shoes in hand, I walk along the beach toward the Clubhouse, where two giant blackboards list the day’s activities, as well as tomorrow’s. I suddenly remember what I have yet to try here. I head back to the beach, stretch out on a chaise longue and close my eyes for a session of intense relaxation.

Photos: Sunswept Resorts

 

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