Luxury hotels with good food are one of life’s great pleasures, but I don’t have money to burn. Neither does my longtime pal Belinda. When we meet up at the Cancun airport in July for a carefully budgeted vacation, she’s seething. Her airline wanted to charge her for a glass of milk.
“And then they wanted me to pay to watch TV,” she’s saying as we ride in a cab down Highway 307, south toward Playa del Carmen. “I refused and drank water the whole trip.” I’m not feeling much better, after paying extra on an already-expensive flight from New York City for a bulkhead seat. So when our cab (an alarming $70) pulls up to an elegant wall of solid wood at our first destination, the Blue Diamond Riviera Maya, it’s none too soon for either of us.
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“Bienvenidos,” a guard says. The wall opens and we find ourselves in a vast thatched-roof lobby surrounded by water. A manager gives us tropical juice in champagne flutes and puts bracelets on our wrists.
“This is for everything,” she says.
“What about the Internet? Is that included?” Belinda asks.
“Yes, of course,” the manager says. “And calls anywhere in the world are free, too.”
A golf cart whisks us through the jungle and lagoons, past 128 low-rise limestone villas. The 36-acre property was formerly a Mandarin Oriental, designed with minimalist restraint, and it has the feel of a posh, private enclave. At the Ceviche Bar on the Caribbean Sea, where we watch slender couples sip cocktails and lounge by a horizon pool, we order a trio of ceviches and a round of margaritas.
“Make it a double,” I tell a solicitous waiter, reacting to the nerve-racking food and drink charges at the hotels I’ve endured in recent years (a breakfast consisting of a croissant and coffee in Paris had cost $30). “Let’s try to get the most that we possibly can for our money this week,” I say.
“For me,” says Belinda, who spends her life in pursuit of barters, upgrades, bargains and free samples at supermarkets, “that goes without saying.” Three dishes of tangy ceviche—octopus, grouper and, oddly, tofu—are presented on a long plate and seasoned with local cilantro, red onion and ginger. They’re all delicious, and we order seconds, even though dinner is not far off. Why not?
All-inclusive resorts like this one are reinventing themselves for more discriminating guests. In particular, food and beverages, once considered a necessary evil at such places, are finally getting due respect, with imaginative menus and not a salad bar in sight. It’s easy to see the appeal in not having to worry about costs at every turn.
Actually, we won’t even be thinking about our wallets for the next five days. At Blue Diamond, in the off-season (through December 23), rates start at $501 for two. With such low prices, the game to get our money’s worth seems stacked in our favor. “If you prefer different drinks or snacks, let us know,” says the man stocking our minibar, which has four healthy-size bottles of top-shelf liquor, along with juices, sodas, nuts and chips.
“Can we have more M&M’s, please?” Belinda asks. Why, yes, of course we can.
We have dinner that night at Ambar, a circular restaurant with a jazz guitarist. I order a cognac-flamed quail with chile risotto, which might have been heavy for some, especially in the tropical heat, but to me tasted satisfyingly rich. Typically, I’d skip dessert, but tonight we order unflinchingly. Belinda loves her “Picasso’s Guernica,” a masterpiece of cocoa biscuit with dark-chocolate sauce and coconut ice cream (but no horse heads, thankfully). I adore my “Miró’s Jester’s Carnival,” an homage to the playful artist, with bold orange half-domes, hazelnut sand and blue-Curaçao gelée. The calculus of our stay is adding up in our favor—unless you include the calculus of calorie counting.
After dinner, we have few activity options (Blue Diamond takes pride in being low-key, adults-only and full of discreet honeymooners), so we drop by the rooftop cigar bar (cigars cost extra), and go back to our suite to make free calls to the States and to a mutual friend in Papua New Guinea.
Of the activities at Blue Diamond, the Temescal spiritual cleansing ritual, conducted by a Mayan guide under a steamy stone dome, is our favorite, and a terrific value ($100 per person at other spas in the area). We also avail ourselves of free bicycles, a ceviche-making class and a snorkeling trip a mile or so offshore with an excellent guide. “It was wonderful,” Belinda tells her husband on yet another free call from our suite. “We must have seen at least $20,000 worth of fish.”
Once you start playing the calculation game at an all-inclusive, it’s hard to stop. For sheer numbers, Paradisus Playa Del Carmen, La Perla & La Esmeralda, where we move for the second half of our trip, blows the mind. The 906-room resort has 14 restaurants serving global cuisine (Japanese, Brazilian), plus it’s one of the first all-inclusives with a Michelin-starred chef’s restaurant.
The resort creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for us. On one hand, it’s like a massive, kitschy Las Vegas behemoth: There are Jacuzzis on balconies, tropical fish murals, pools with swim-up bars and children (contained on the family side of the La Esmeralda hotel) running from video games to a chocolate fountain and then to a Michael Jackson nightclub tribute. On the other hand, the food is excellent, local and fresh, and we eat even better than we had at the fancier Blue Diamond.
On our first night, we dine at Fuego, another ceviche bar, where a chef creates dishes with the care of a sushi master. I love the shrimp with grapefruit and crunchy seaweed, and a beet tart topped with red tuna tiradito (a Peruvian, onion-free take on ceviche). Attila Gombos, the director of food and beverage, stops by. We get to talking, and he points out that of the 14 restaurants, only two are buffets, odd at an all-inclusive. We aim to try as many as we can.
Indeed, getting into the spirit, we say yes to salsa dancing, aqua-aerobics, free clothes pressing, pillow menu service from our agreeable private butler (lavender, please) and flower arranging (that bouquet would cost at least $75!).
We take each meal seriously, too. For lunch, we wander into La Palapa Grill, an al fresco restaurant with views of mangroves. The grilled asparagus with Parmesan flakes and the papillote of sea bass with carrots, zucchini and haricots verts are both impeccable. An enthusiastic manager takes us through a tasting of house wines, including a crisp Casas Patronales Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. A post-meal drink called Agavero is so intoxicating that all I can do is retire to the room for a butler-drawn bubble bath on the balcony, relaxing so completely that the therapeutic value is incalculable. The value of the Nicaraguan rum I guzzle is not: $50.
Our final dinner is an eight-course tasting menu at Passion, the restaurant of the seven-starred Michelin chef Martín Berasategui, who has an eponymous restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, Spain, where he cooks modernist versions of traditional Basque dishes. Like many all-inclusive resorts, Paradisus charges at its most upscale restaurant. But at $90, it’s about half the price of a great tasting menu with wine pairings in the United States. We start off with cod in clarified tomato juice and almond foam, paired with a white Colomé Torrontés with notes of peach from Salta, Argentina. The staff then guides us through sea scallop bites with cauliflower puree and buttery lamb chops with gnocchi in black olive oil, paired with a spicy Spanish Rioja. The food is so delicious, the wines so lovingly explained, that it releases us from our all-inclusive feeding fever for several rapturous hours.
The following morning, we come down to earth at a rapid pace. I run to an ATM to get cash for a cab to the airport. “I think we got our money’s worth,” Belinda says. Considering everything we ate and drank and did, it would be hard not to. At the airport, I’m immediately offended by the cost of a sandwich. Even worse is what my airline charges for nuts. “That will be $5.29,” a flight attendant says. They’re from a recipe by star chef Marcus Samuelsson. Still. It’s the toughest $5.29 I’ve ever spent.
Bob Morris is the author of the memoir Assisted Loving and a frequent contributor to the New York Times.
Take Cooking Classes at Blue Diamond Resort
At the ceviche bar, chef Krysia García shows how to add balls of sweet potato to sea bass, corn, peppers, ginger and chile to make Peruvian-style ceviche.
García demonstrates how to make salmon-shrimp maki rolls in the 30-minute sushi-making class she teaches twice a week.
Try Something New at Paradisus Playa del Carmen
At an introduction-to-tequila class, bartender Hector Guzman pours three kinds of tequila (including Milagro Silver), plus a mezcal.
Writer Bob Morris learned how to make a fancy bouquet (estimated value: $75), which he kept in his room for the remainder of the trip.