Choosing an All-Inclusive Resort

I now can say that I have stayed at, visited, and toured several all-inclusive resorts. My last trip when I stayed at a great all-inclusive on the Mayan Riviera was fantastic, and it may have even nudged its way up in rank over a cruise. In my opinion, this is the best vacation choice when needing some downtime and relaxation.

El Dorado Royale Resort
El Dorado Royale Resort, Mexico

I have learned that all-inclusive resorts are not all the same. Although their structure is basically beach, swimming pools, food and bars, they really can be very different. Just like cruise ships, they have been evolving and updating too. Some can feel very garden and jungle-like with birds and iguanas, while others have a young South Beach Miami/Las Vegas ambiance. I’m also noticing more resorts focusing on health and wellness featuring smoothie bars, California lite cuisine, quality fitness centers, and outdoor training circuits.

Jewell Paradise Cove Jamaica
Jewell Paradise Cove Jamaica

Some questions to ask yourself and to relay to your travel planner when choosing a resort –

  • Swimmable beach or swimming pool, what’s more important?
  • Beach shade (from cabanas or palm trees)–nice for sleeping, reading, or keeping kids out the direct sun?
  • Room location? Ocean-front or garden view each have benefits. Ocean-front is great, but remember direct sun can make it hot in your room and on your balcony, plus you better have good dark curtains/shades for keeping out the morning sun. Garden view is obviously cooler (temperature-wise) and you have birds and flowering bushes for a setting. Some people prefer a location downstairs near the pool, usually if you have kids going in and out, and need to lug baby supplies.
  • Large or small resort? In a small resort the staff knows your name, and restaurants and pools are near. Large resort– the choice in activities, bars and restaurants is abundant. Also, if you like to go for morning or after-dinner walks, it’s like taking a stroll along the paths of a small village.
Lunch at Generations Resort Mexico
Lunch at Generations Riviera Maya

Restaurants

The a la cart restaurants that I have encountered in most resorts have been superb. Most resorts have some specialty restaurants that require a reservation. These can be steakhouses, Mediterranean, and Japanese with sushi. One resort I know of has an open-air thatched-roof lobster house where you can have lobster prepared every way possible. One evening we tried out what was called “culinary theater”. We dined slowly on a four-course meal while watching the chef on stage being projected on big screen monitors as he prepared each dish.

Excursions off-premises
If you think you’ll want to participate in some activities outside of the resort, again resort location is key. Some resorts can be 2-3 hours from zip-lines, ATV rentals, and waterfall hikes. For instance, in Mexico, Riviera Maya around Playa del Carmen will be the better location than Cancun for being near the adventure parks, and cenote swim and snorkel areas. The same is true for Jamaica–the Ocho Rios area is where the bulk of jungle adventure tours are as opposed to the Negril side of the island.

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Adventuras Mayas cave snorkeling

Here is a list of some of the unique offerings and amenities I have seen in some of the all-inclusive resorts I’ve toured —

  • Heated bathroom floors
  • Jarred baby food offered at the buffet
  • Room scent and pillow menu
  • Adult au naturel beach areas
  • Beachside outdoor movies
  • Family rooms with minibar to include juice boxes and milk
  • Specialty coffee shops
  • Free shuttles into town

Escorted Tours Designed for Families

Escorted tours for families are a fairly new market concept. In the last few years several leading tour operators have begun to reach out to families traveling with school age children, as well as to grandparents who like to travel with grandchildren. Escorted tours have also become known for attracting retired folks.
Tour operators have taken escorted tours and made them kid-friendly, involving them in cultural activities, and introducing them to natural wonders in an active, learning, and doing way. Some of the most popular destinations are Australia, Europe, China, and the U.S. National Parks. As an example, Disney Adventures has even added long weekend trips to cities such as San Francisco, New York, and Nashville.
Some of the unique activities you’ll see in a European itinerary are speedboat rides on the Thames River, Harry Potter castle tours, and a scavenger hunt at the Louvre museum. Family tours at other destinations include hikes in Yosemite, a pizza party with s’mores at a campfire on Lake Powell, or a visit to a Dude Ranch outside of San Antonio, Texas.
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For busy parents with not a lot of time to plan, escorted tours are stress-free and can feature:

  • Experienced guides
  • Tours which are all-inclusive of activities/excursions and most meals
  • Pre-paying the trip in advance
  • Traveling with other families so that kids have built-in new friends

…because after all: Happy kids on vacation mean happy relaxed parents.

Visiting Jamaica…Ya Mon!

I have just returned from a few days in Jamaica, where I attended a travel agent tour of resorts. I would like to share a couple of tidbits on what Montego Bay and the Ocho Rios area have to offer.

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Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort

The Lay of the Land—
Sangster International airport in Montego Bay is the major airport, where 95% of passengers arrive.
Montego Bay has several resorts and from there you can go west about 1 ½ hours to the Negril area or about 1 ½ hours east to the Ocho Rios area. The one big difference I learned about these two areas is that Negril area resorts are all about the white sand beaches. I didn’t see Negril, I only toured Montego Bay and the Ocho Rios area. I heard someone say the two can be compared to the difference between Cancun and the Mayan Riviera. The resort beaches I saw at both Montego Bay and Ocho Rios were coves with quiet waves (good for swimming with children), although a little jagged and rocky, with landscapes that are tropical with trees and flowering bushes. Cruise ships dock on this east side of the island and there are many activities for excursions.

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Mystic Mountain

 What To See and Do

  • Dunn’s River Falls and river tubing
  • Horseback riding, swimming with dolphins, night kayaking in the luminous lagoon
  • Mystic Mountain–chairlift to the top of the hill above the tropical rainforest and bob-sled down and/or zip-line
  • Whitewater rafting on the Rio Bueno River, or a tranquil raft down the Martha Brae River
  • Many beautiful golf courses

Renting Villas
Besides the gorgeous resorts, the other accommodations we toured were several beautiful villas. Some were standalone with very private waterfronts, and some were high on a hill overlooking the ocean and golf course inside of a resort. All had private pools, some came with golf carts for tooling around, all came with up to 5 house staff to cook, clean, and arrange for anything you might need. I was most amazed by the value of these.  Some were 5-7 bedrooms that felt like staying in your own private resort. To rent one of these and split the cost for a family reunion or a group of golf friends would be ideal. The total price would end up being very reasonable.

Villa overlooking Tryall Golf Course
Villa overlooking Tryall Golf Course

I will definitely be back again. If I had to pick one personal favorite of the resorts we toured, mine would be the Half Moon Resort—golf, spa, tennis, dolphins, quiet, villas, cottages, beach, and superb restaurants.

Half Moon Resort
Half Moon Resort
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Lunch at Half Moon Resort

 

Reinventing Family Reunions

Have you been on a cruise lately and seen all the groups of families (wearing matching t-shirts) and having a fantastic time together? They’re on to something fun. Kids spending a week playing with cousins and sharing quality time with grandparents. A week on a cruise ship with family, no hurry, no worry, and plenty of time to just … hang out together.
I personally have immediate family in six different states. Needless to say, my husband and I spend a lot of time traveling over the course of a year to visit family. And I know of many others who are doing the same thing.
Families today seem to be more spread out across the nation. It is becoming rare that kids grow up living in the same area as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
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                                 This is why Pickwick Travel is branching out— and focusing more on family reunion vacations.

                   We all try to take vacations periodically anyway. So why not every year or two get together for a multi-generational family vacation?  it’s the new family reunion! Many of us may have grown up attending Saturday afternoon family reunions in a park or church basement with a pot-luck dinner. They were fun, lasted one day, but only the people who lived nearby attended.

Why not reinvent family reunions, make them young and fun?! Families are more active and grandparents are more youthful than ever before. Happiness for all is centering family time around camping, boating, national parks, and beaches.

There is always something to celebrate—

  • New babies
  • New spouses
  • Graduations
  • Anniversaries

Pickwick Travel invites you to visit our newest family member—Branching Together, which specializes in family reunion vacations.  www.branchingtogether.com

Italy–Among Beauty and Ruins

Italy…. It exceeded my expectations. Everyone says they love Italy, everyone says they love the food. Well, I am joining in the songs of praise for Italy. I am won over.
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Rome, and I’m sure it was because of our hotel location, never felt like a lived-in city. I didn’t  see people out walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, or carrying groceries. Our location was great for walking to most of the main attractions, but I did feel as though we were inside a tourist bubble. Looking around, I only saw other tourists. If I were to spend time in Rome again, I’d like to stay in an area were the locals live and work. Another nice memory of Rome was the abundance of orange trees and the smell of orange blossoms, mmmmm.
The crowds at the Vatican were a nightmare. Although I have to remember, it could have been worse if we hadn’t had a private guide and skip-the-line entrance tickets.

Oddities around Rome
Oddities around Rome

The high point of this trip for me was the 4-days we spent in Siena, rain and all. There was something about the dark skies and thunder as a  backdrop for the medieval architecture, narrow cobble stone streets, and Duomo, that gave the city ambiance.

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Siena
Siena

The best meal of the entire trip for me was the night of our cooking class at Scuola di Cucina in Siena. Pork loin roasted in spices, olive oil, broth, and wine… then quartered potatoes  tossed and roasted in the same pan of pork drippings. Oh….my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Scuola di Cucina, Siena, Italy
Scuola di Cucina, Siena, Italy

One day we took a drive to Montepulciano and walked through some fascinating wine cellars. They were like tunnels and stairs winding through the underground, with room after room of wine barrels. Another day was a trip to the Chianti region to visit Castello Vicchiomaggio Castle and Winery. It was a beautiful drive through the lush green hills with dark rain clouds and slices of blue sky above.
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Contina de Redi, Montepulciano, Italy

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Montepulciano, Italy
Montepulciano, Italy

 

Florence, Italy
Florence, Italy

After several quiet scenic days of Tuscany we moved on. Coming into Florence after Siena felt like entering a third world country. I was shocked back into city life–crowded, dirty, and loud. To be fair, it was an Italian holiday weekend (Labor Day). For sure the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore was impressive along with the statues and ruins. Florence city center is overwhelmingly a shopping area. It’s too bad that the crowds in a shopping frenzy seemed to me to drown out the ancient attractiveness of the city. Compared to our stay in Rome, this was a living city, there were people walking dogs and carrying groceries. Florence felt like a town of young people and artists. It reminded me a lot of Barcelona and the Las Ramblas area.

Vacation-Packing Day High!

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For me, packing for vacation is an adrenalin high. How else can you explain that euphoria right before LEAVING TOWN. The long-awaited escape is tomorrow morning and I’m dancing around the house with my I-pod loud — fuel for my gathering and cleaning frenzy.

  • Washing, drying, ironing, and folding.
  • Eating all the perishables out of the fridge (munching on celery and yogurt as I write).
  • Constructing piles–shoes, hat, and umbrella. Then there’s the carry-on pile of electronics, magazines, pretzels and candy.
  • Load the Kindle with books and movies, and the I-pod with new music and podcasts (my latest binge). And get those babies plugged in and charged.
  • Oh yeah, pharmaceuticals, I’ve learned my lesson. In the past buying Sudafed in Argentina and China has not been an easy thing to do.
  • Drag the suitcases in from the garage. This needs to be orchestrated just right, Lupey (dog) needs to be outside when this takes place. The sight of luggage coming down the hall causes some anxiety.
  • Now she’s in the car and we’ll be off to the “country club”, she prefers the sound of that to the word kennel.
  • And at the end of the day I will change the voice mail message on my phone, and I’ll set up the email responder to say—“I will be away from the office……”

 

It’s A Spa World After All

My spa experiences while traveling are a fairly recent phenomenon. I have to say it all started the week that I overindulged–too many in 1 week, I just couldn’t take anymore. We were staying at La Quinta Resort just outside of Palm Springs. The fantastic hotel package that included unlimited daily golf (for you know who), and a daily spa treatment for me. What a way to sample the menu of treatments, some of which I’d never heard of before. The La Quinta Spa is a wonderful place and I made my reservations for the week, with a line-up of things like sacred hot stone, reflexology, an orange blossom wet scrub, and a facial. By the 4th day I was feeling like it was a little too much and I even tried to cancel the last one, but there was a penalty so I forged on to one more massage. Somehow, after (mostly enjoying) a week of excess, I felt I had evolved into a spa expert. And that is how I became more adventurous in the world of Spas.

La Quinta Resort Spa
La Quinta Resort Spa

In China, I had a half day to wander around by myself since my spouse wanted to take a long walk to Tiananmen Square and back. I was not interested since we were going to be there the next day on a tour anyway. I was walking around the neighborhood of our hotel and saw a massage place (I hate to say parlor). I walked in and asked if anyone spoke English–no, but the receptionist handed me a menu written in English and I chose a basic simple massage for 90 yuan — about $15. It was a really hot day and the building was not air-conditioned.  I was led to a room that was hot, humid and smelled of cigarette smoke. The girl had me put on silk pajamas for my massage, and she did a great job. It was a nice experience, no English spoken the whole time and the girls were very friendly.
Cusco, Peru: this was probably the creepiest experience. This place was upstairs over a tattoo parlor. I was a little over-anxious about being able to see my belongings while I had my head in the table. This was because the walls were curtains, so I ended up moving my stuff underneath the table so I could watch it.
Since I’m not crazy about spending top dollar for hotel spa treatments, I’ve learned you can usually go down the road for a lot less. This is what I did in Scottsdale, AZ. Again we were on a golf trip staying at a nice resort. I’m sure they had a nice spa, but before we left home I had googled the neighborhood and found a nice place with a specials coupon and made a reservation.

Serenade of the Seas- RCCL
Serenade of the Seas- RCCL

Sometimes, I indulge while on a cruise. Ships will usually have special prices on port days. The last time I had a spa treatment on a cruise was in St Croix. My masseuse was a lovely lady who told me all about her granddaughter, who called her “grand-nanny”. Grand-nanny was only 37 years old! I’ve read that when cruising and you want to know the inside scoop at the ports, ask the crew. I asked her about what to do in St Croix and she told me where to find a public free beach within walking distance of the ship where the locals and crew go. I followed her instructions and it was a quite suitable beach.
In a couple months we are going to Italy and we will have several free days in Siena. Isn’t this the land of Roman baths? Guess what I’ll be looking for?
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Anytime of year, you can find it here…

You couldn’t ask for better weather in northern California for December. A photo journal … it’s all good in Kali4nia!

Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey
Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey
Fisherman's Wharf Monterey
Fisherman’s Wharf Monterey
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The infamous "Lone Cypress" Carmel by the Sea
The infamous “Lone Cypress” Carmel by the Sea
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Rt1 between Santa Cruz and Pescadero
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Rt1 between Santa Cruz and Pescadero
Lombard Street
Lombard Street

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Sometimes, I “wander”….

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A few years ago my husband Dan and I took a trip to Peru. We spent a couple days in Lima and then on to a few days in Cusco–the departure point for Dan’s 4-day hike to Machu Pichu. It is recommend that hikers spend a couple days in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude; the hike reaches a summit of 13,800 feet at one point. I like hiking, but this overextends my abilities.
The plan was– Dan would hike the Inca Trail and I would spend that time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, then we would meet-up on the 4th day at the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Pichu. On the morning that we parted Dan’s last words to me were, “Be careful and do not wander off from the public places.”
I stayed one more night in Cusco, spending the day at museums and exploring the local grocery stores, where I found the butcher counter stocked with pig/cow snouts, intestines, and guinea pigs (cuy, a Peruvian delicacy). I spotted a bulk bin of dog food and filled a small brown bag to feed the strays as I walked around town. Funny thing, the dogs had no interest, sniffed it and walked on.
On day two, as per the itinerary, I was picked up by a private guide and driver to take me to my next hotel in Urubamba. After a full day of fantastic sightseeing along the way, I was deposited at the Sol y Luna Hotel. Heaven on earth, an oasis full of flowering bushes, hummingbirds, lots of bees, and individual casitas spread throughout the garden landscape. I finished my day with a dinner of Alpaca steak and quinoa risotto.
Day three: after studying my travel guide I decided to search out the Machacancha Hot Springs somewhere outside the little village of Calca. I walked down to the highway and picked up a (very crowded) local bus. In Calca I wandered around inquiring in my not-so-good Spanish about a taxi to Machacancha. I was eventually pointed to a small Toyota station wagon parked next to the tienda that was full of people. I told the driver where I wanted to go and he opened up the back end of the vehicle and pointed to get in. I had to scrunch up in a ball, because—wow– it was tight. I counted 9 adults and 3 children, including purses, backpacks, and bags of groceries. It was probably a good 20 min ride up into the hills, but it seemed a lot longer and no one spoke English. About 1/2 way into the ride a couple got out and I was able to move to the back seat. The whole time I was praying this wasn’t a mistake, thinking who knows where I’m going to end up. Of course there was that little voice in my head saying “Dan is going to kill me”.
I arrived safely and enjoyed a swim with about 40 small school children. They would alternate: boys first and then girls. No swimsuits, they just stripped down to their underwear and jumped in. This place was so out in the middle of nowhere. I started to worry about how I’d get back to town, but there happened to be a taxi hanging out at the entrance when I was leaving. Word must have gotten out that there was a stranger in the place, because I did stick out like a sore thumb.
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On day 4 of my solo adventure a taxi picked me up from Sol y Luna and took me to the train station in Ollantaytambo. It’s a beautiful, tropical ride to Aguas Calientes. I then took a bus up a very steep and winding road to Machu Pichu, where it was pouring rain. We had a reservations at the Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel on the mountain next to the ruins. This hotel is pricey, but worth it. You can sit out the rain (from what I understand is often) and wait for it to clear before visiting the park. In the late afternoon the tour buses and shuttles from town leave and you have Machu Pichu to yourself. It’s the same in the mornings.
About an hour after I checked in, there was a knock at the door; there stood Dan dirty, dripping-wet, and 4 days of whiskers. 26 miles and 3 nights in a tent–he looked exhausted. I couldn’t wait to hear about his hike and I was a little apprehensive in telling him about my wandering adventure.
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Slow Travel

Slow Travel: this topic has recently caught my attention. In the past I have always been a pretty hyper traveler. Usually, travelers have a short time in one place and I try to cram in as much as possible before moving on. It was on my last trip to New York City that I started to seriously thing about going slower. During that trip my husband and I stayed in the same hotel for 6 days. It was nice to spread my stuff out, hang clothes in the closet, plug in the white-noise machine, and really settle in. After that trip I started to examine other ways to take it slow.
Hotels– Boutique hotels have become the new trend, replacing the popularity of B&B’s of the 80’s and 90’s. For the slow traveler a hotel is more than just a place to sleep at night. It is also considered part of the location experience. If you are in Inverness, Scotland, do you want to stay at a sterile chain hotel? On the other hand, it could be dangerous to enjoy your hotel so much that you don’t want to get out and sightsee. I remember staying at a hotel in Beijing, where there was a large breakfast buffet area with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a tranquil garden. Each morning there would be a Tai Chi class going on outside the window. Watching participants dressed in white and moving slowly together in unison made you want to eat slow and linger. I’m sure the hotel had that arranged on purpose.
Cruises– There is a new flavor of international cruises which feature ships staying longer in a port. I know that Azamara was one of the first to start this. Usually a ship stays in port about 8 hours during the day. More and more, some cruise lines are staying in port overnight. This way people can visit a city in the evening and enjoy the nightlife. Sometimes, the feel of a city is very different at night than in the day. Another type of cruise that fits this slow pace is the repositioning cruise, where you can be at sea for 5-6 days at a time.
All-Inclusive Resorts– To me, this is the kind of vacation that people with stressful, high-pressure, and physically-demanding jobs crave. They love the idea of falling into a beachside lounge chair and hardly moving from it for the week. This is the ultimate slow vacation. Drinks are brought to you and the restaurants are only a few steps away.
Everyday I discover more on this topic, and I plan to continue reading up on this immersive style of travel. But I will be doing it slowly…
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