All-inclusive resorts lose low-budget image with chic decor, luxe spas

"Even people with a lot of money like knowing what the bottom line will be," says travel veteran Arthur Mehmel, whose TourScan agency specializes in the Caribbean. He says some "very rich" clients have spent Christmas at Occidental's Royal Hideaway Playacar on Mexico's Riviera Maya, one of only two all-inclusives anointed with the top five-diamond ranking from AAA. (The other is the Grand Velas All-Suites and Spa Resort near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.) They're both members of The Leading Hotels of the World consortium, as is the Punta Cana Paradisus Palma Real.

All-inclusives tend to be outside the USA because "the model is labor-intensive and only works in certain places" with cheap workers, Berman says. Lots are in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Jamaica's all-inclusive heaven, too, and the home base for Sandals and SuperClubs (which includes swinging, go-naked Hedonism Resorts).

In the Dominican Republic, workers from neighboring Haiti rapidly construct Vegas-style fantasies for wages under $15 a day. About three dozen gated resort compounds line the 20-mile stretch of spectacular white-sand beach in the Punta Cana area.

Paradisus Palma Real is one of the best, Mehmel and Veith say.

It certainly looks the part of a deluxe resort, with scuttling bellmen and immaculate open-air marble lobby with sweeping views down to the blue Atlantic. Check-in has two sour notes: a bracelet worn until snipped off at stays' end to prove you're a paid guest (a staple at most all-inclusives) and an introduction to a "vacation concierge."

Instead of suggesting restaurants and activities, he launches into a rhapsodic sell for a resort "vacation club," with model suite available for viewing. Not a timeshare, he insists, as his charges resist the pitch to buy fractional use of a unit. (This is not a facet of most all-inclusives.)

On a pleasanter note: Even low-level accommodations are up to prestige-hotel standards, with cushy mattresses, bathrooms with jetted tubs and separate showers, flat-screen TVs, balconies or terraces, minibars stocked with complimentary water, soft drinks and beer. There's a sophisticated spa, where you do pay for services.

Service here — as elsewhere in Punta Cana — is notably friendly, if not always efficient. That request for a glass of water may get a "con mucho gusto (with much pleasure)" response from a server, but take a couple of tries to obtain. Room-service trays may sit in corridors all day, leftovers on unappetizing display.

Eats are plentiful, but chefs' reach often exceeds the grasp. A dinner at the Japanese teppanyaki bar is disappointing — from boring rice that grows cold while diners at a counter surrounding a giant griddle wait for the cheerful Dominican chef to sauté steak, chicken, shrimp and scallops, with unremarkable results. A Continental restaurant called Passion delivers some succulent fare, including a tender veal chop washed down with a selection of decent (and included) house red wines from Chile and Argentina and decadent desserts.

Faulting the food

Families and incentive groups love the all-inclusive concept, Veith says. But gourmets and super-sophisticates likely won't be thrilled with them, save for non-chain choices such as Curtain Bluff on Antigua, she says.

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