Islands 2007: All-Inclusives

Dominican Republic Diving in at Lifestyle Hacienda in Puerto Plata, Page 6
Dominican Republic Diving in at Lifestyle Hacienda in Puerto Plata, Page 6 (Photos, From Left: Courtesy Club Ambiance; By John Deiner -- The Washington Post; ¿ Christopher Madeira)
Sunday, October 28, 2007

All-inclusive. The words have a nice, calming effect, don't they? Just show up hungry, thirsty and lazy, and everything is taken care of for you. No need to worry about how to split a dinner bill with a group of friends or what those rum punches are doing to your bar tab. Find a palm tree, pull up a towel and take a snooze. Your work here is done.

Yes, life is good in the land of bottomless buffets and coed aqua-aerobics. But all-inclusives are not created equal. So what happens when you venture out of Beaches/Breezes/Sandals territory and into resorts that aren't exactly household names?

Check any Caribbean hotel review site and you'll be overwhelmed by the options. We were. But we narrowed our choices down to three lesser-known resorts, checking out the quality of the property, the amenities, the vibe and the overall value (room service? mambo demonstrations? top-shelf liquor?). Hard work, but somebody had to do it, and our findings may help you choose your own.

Our subjects included:

* A cozy Jamaican sanctuary that's small in size but big on service.

* A mini-metropolis in the Dominican Republic where it's still possible to find your place in the sun -- alone.

* A Cancun resort that's dwarfed by its two luxe neighbors and more boisterous than both combined.

In addition, because travel should be more than just lounging around (well, sometimes), we ventured away from the resorts on excursions that spotlighted the area's culture or natural attractions.

In case you prefer the top-brand resorts, we also compare the five best-known Caribbean chains and outline 10 steps to booking a resort, from picking a place to finding the best deal. Once you surrender your credit card number, you're free to focus on what really matters: margarita with salt . . . or without?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company