Take it from me, first impressions aren’t necessarily the best impressions when you arrive at an all-inclusive resort after a long day of traveling. After a seven-hour trip on two flights from our home in Boston, my family and I were famished by the time we got to the Riu Palace Tropical Bay Resort in Negril, Jamaica. We headed straight for the snack bar, where the pasta was far past the al dente stage, more like al soggy. What looked to be busloads of Canadians stood in the water at the swim-up bar, drinking gallons of alcohol in oversize mugs they’d brought from home.
Oh no, I thought to myself, not another generic tourism experience where local culture is replaced by vats of alcohol and mediocre American food.
But at the sublime beach, there were signs that my thinking was wrong. A jerk chicken hut prepared the Jamaican specialty and local reggae musicians serenaded beachgoers. The sand sloped gently into a protected bay of aquamarine water. We changed into swimsuits faster than Clark Kent spinning into his Superman outfit and dashed into the soothing salt water, a warm salve to any winter-weary body. There we stayed until the reddish-yellow orb of a sun melted into the horizon, a ritual we would savor daily during our week-long vacation.
As an intrepid traveler who strives for an authentic experience, I’d never been keen on all-inclusive resorts, where you step through the gates and are treated to all the food, drink and entertainment you can handle. I’ve visited more than a dozen all-inclusives since the birth of my first child 15 years ago, seduced by the comfort of not having to search for restaurants every day and night with toddlers in tow. Yet by the third day of a week-long visit, I’ve usually found the gluttonous buffets lacking in inspiration and spice, the pool-dwellers singing Saskatoon ditties tiresome, the youthful entertainment urging relaxed beach loungers to put down their novels and dance the merengue to be loud and obnoxious and, well, the whole experience devoid of local culture and intrigue. Much like a cruise ship, it’s a sanitized version of travel.
Then I visited Jamaica’s Riu Ocho Rios with my extended family several years ago and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of American fare, there was a barbecue hut on the beach featuring grilled chicken doused in spicy scotch bonnet pepper sauce, creating some of the best jerk chicken I’ve ever tasted. At the buffet, there was a sampling of other Jamaican specialties, such as oxtail stew, ackee and salt fish, curried goat, yams, breadfruit and purple-colored dasheen. The nightly entertainment included local reggae bands that played on the beach. Indeed, the Spanish-owned company seemed to embrace local culture.
“Was it a fluke?” I wondered. But this past February, I decided to give the company another go and try the Riu Palace Tropical Bay on the drier western end of the island. And it confirmed my suspicion that perhaps every all-inclusive doesn’t deserve the bum rap I’ve been giving them.