While I never quite fit the definition of a backpack traveler, when I was both single and child-less, my only requirement for a great place to stay was a small room, a bed and access to fabulous food finds. Because, as one friend put it, I really travel to eat, I looked down on people that actually stayed at all inclusive resorts. Why, I thought, would you choose to stay somewhere where a)the food is probably not that good and b)you have few reasons to actually go and immerse (and eat) in the town you went to visit in the first place! And then I had two little boys 22 months apart. And I realized why, in fact people go to all-inclusives: because it is as close to a vacation as you can get with the kids!!!So, after much research (Trip Advisor was far more helpful than the Iberostar website), I decided to turn my cheek on my previous scorn and take a chance on the Iberostar Tucan and Quetzal in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. On paper it sounded perfect: built into the jungle, with a spectacular beach and animals galore. Through TNT Vacations it was (gasp) only a 4 hour direct charter flight from Boston, with only a one hour time change. And, more importantly, from the opinions on Trip Advisor and from friends, it offered some of the best food of any resort. In fact, many visitors noted that the food, especially at breakfast was quite fantastic, as the resort offered many fresh fruits, fruit juices and cheeses. And here is the truth: while my 2 year old will eat anything, my 4 year old is spectacularly picky. So the thought of having one week where I didn't have to cook or think about food or do dishes was simply too good to pass up. And since both kids love fruit, this sealed the deal.
I am almost embarrassed to confess this, but I loved it. I loved every. single. minute. And I am a picky traveler. While I could wax eloquently about this place, I will be clear-they didn't pay for me to say this. Heck, they didn't even pay for my trip. It was that good.
So here is the short list of all that we loved:1. Our room on the beach. We splurged and got a good sized room with one double bed and two day beds. There was ample room for a crib, as well as room to play. Best of all, this room had a lovely "porch" that faced the water and essentially created a play room for the kids. 2. The fabulous pools. There were 2 pools. One was a walk in pool that went on endlessly. For my fearful swimmers, it meant that they could step in and play or have us hold them. But even better was the toddler pool that was about 1 to 2 feet deep. My children finally fell in love with swimming in this setting. It was adjacent to the "camp". My sons were too young to attend, but we were able to take part in their craft projects. On the other side was a playground. And while we watched the kids, we were served any drink (from delicious cappucinos to the icey, frothy kind) that we wanted.3. The spectacular beach. It really was this color. And this soft. And this fun. It offered gentle waves that my kids could play in as they held onto us. The sand was perfect for building sandcastles. And at nap time I could stroll to the quieter end (with no resorts) and beachcomb.4. The incredibly staff. Every person we met was not only kind, but in a very genuine way. The staff clearly knew how to talk to children, and were always helpful. One of the joys of the trip was that I tried to speak exclusively Spanish with the staff who were then kind enough to respond in Spanish. My boys ate it up and are still talking Spanish at home, and even asking, "Mommy, how do you say, 'snow' in Spanish?" I noticed a number of staff babysitters on the grounds, and they all seemed lovely, though we chose to skip that option. (It is only 10$ an hour, though.)5. The breakfast. Oh, how spoiled we were. Each morning we enjoyed breakfast in the dining room that was essentially a very large screened-in porch. The breezes came in as we drank our freshly made watermelon or banana or pineapple or melon juice. My children ate fresh plums and the biggest bananas I have seen. I ate so many passion fruits that I can't keep count. We had warm churros with thick chocolate. I drank cup after cup of cafe con leche and chocolate redolent of cinnamon. We enjoyed made-to-order omelettes with salsa and guacamole, 5 kinds of eggs, queso fresco and queso blanco. It was heaven.6. Access to so many animals. On the grounds were agoutis (think oversized guinea pigs), macaws, tucans, peacocks, egrets, monkeys, flamingos, guinea fowl, koi and iguanas. We saw pelicans flying overhead. My sons never got enough of our morning "safari" as we headed to breakfast via the jungle.7. The spa. This alone will bring me back. Honestly, the whole place had a spa-like feel. There are waterfalls throughout. The Mayan carvings, the jungle, the beach-it is actually quiet. And, of course, someone offering me mango juice and pina coladas as often as I want added to this. But in addition, in the back corner of the resort was a duo of hot tubs (and another two for men). Set under a high woven ceiling, in this silent place, I was able to relax more than I have in years.8. The grounds themselves. This place is immaculate and beautiful.9. The entertainment. My kids will always remember their "mini-disco," the clown who created balloon animals, the show at the Japanese restaurant and the "aqua-gym" that took place each day. I took part in a yoga class directly on the beach and was impressed with the teacher.10. Access to a spectacular and unique part of Mexico. Near the resort are some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the world: Tulum and Chichen Itza. There is incredible snorkeling at Cozumel, Xel-Ha and Akumal. You can spend at day at Xcaret, an ecological park. Now I will admit that we did, well, none of these things! It was too easy to stay at the resort and too expensive to pay for two boys who wouldn't have been able to appreciate those activities. But we will return.11. A chance to see a part of Mexico. I went by myself to Playa Del Carmen. You can easily walk the 30 minutes there, or take a 5 minute cab ride. While the main strip of Playa is incredibly touristy, you can still find beautiful crafts if you look carefully. What I loved, though, was that just a few blocks in is a more authentic Mexico that, quite honestly, could use more tourism, having been hit by the swine flu and the recession. I ate an amazing taco at Taqueria El Fogon, checked out Dr. Taco, and hoped to return to Carboncitos. I also took a 40 minute cab ride to Akumal, which while a touristy backpacker place, also had some lovely stores with beautiful crafts from Oaxaca and the Yucatan peninsula.12. Being at an all inclusive. I loved not having to think about money for a week. It was a pleasure to have someone take care of me and ask me if I wanted water, rather than at home where I can barely eat because I stand up so often. It was a treat to have cappucinos all day. I enjoyed how many activities we could have done (from kayaking to beach volleyball to stretching to painting ceramics) or that we could just relax.
13. The weather. It was 80 degrees with no humidity each day. My sons had been sick all winter. Not only did they get healthy in Mexico, but they have been healthy since. I am sure that the warm air did the trick.
Was this place perfect? No. Of course not. I was sad that the spa closed at 7. It was a bit tricky that dinner wasn't offered until 6:30 (my kids often eat at 5:30). It was odd that the good restaurants are essentially completely booked during vacation weeks so you have to beg for a reservation. And, some of the food was mediocore. Yes, there was ample qualities. And my sons' adored it. They inhaled hamburgers, french fries, avocados, chips and cheese at lunch. At dinner, they had chicken and more french fries (I let go of any pretense of health this week.) They had ice cream cones all afternoon. We enjoyed fresh fish with salsa at lunch. Yet the dinner was very heavy. The New Year's Eve spectacular had more food than I have ever seen (which made me cringe at the excess), but like most buffet dinners, many aspects were overcooked or overdone.I suspect, though, that we are in the minority on this and I do believe people who insisted that this is the best food for any resort. I just found it odd to, say, be eating at Japanese steak house in Mexico, or that the Mexican food was some of the weakest we ate. (As was the seafood which was consistently overcooked.) That being said, it was still precious to not cook all week.The one other challenge was particular to our situation: I didn't realize that this resort is 1 hour and 15 minutes from the Cancun airport. For most people this would be an inconvenience at most. However, when we literally began our trip at Logan airport at 7 a.m. and arrived at the Iberostar at 7 p.m. (which included a 4 hour delay) that meant for a very long day. In fact, I would consider the Iberostar in Punta Cana for simply the fact that it is located right by the airport.
Last suggestion: if you go and have small children bring a very good stroller. I threw in two cheap umbrella strollers at the last minute. It was a good 10-15 minute walk from hour room to the main dining area, and my little guy simply can't do that. The strollers weren't built for the "jungle" walk. So, we often took the less scenic route around the resort. Needless to say, we got great exercise!
The hardest part of this trip? Coming home and having no idea when (if ever we can go back.) But it was truly, truly worth every single cent.
Iberostar Tucan and Quetzal, Playa Del Carmen, Mexico