Gone are the cheesy salad bars of years past. At these all-inclusive Mexican resorts, the food is as exciting as the luxurious surroundings.
Back in the ‘90s, all-inclusive resorts were notoriously cheesy: bloated, land-locked cruise ships, rife with ice sculptures and limbo contests, and infamous for their penny-pinching cuisine—from sneeze-guarded buffets and ice cream sundae bars to watered-down liquor. I remember going to one about fifteen years ago, around Christmas time. There was a huge gingerbread house in the lobby; guests walked by and helped themselves to the thing all week until it was a heap of stale frosting, gumdrops, and broken graham crackers, just sitting there for all to see. Anthony Melchiorri, host of the Travel Channel's hotel-turnaround show Hotel Impossible, remembers the old days, too: “They’d put the bread at the front of the buffet so you’d fill up and wouldn’t eat twenty-seven steaks. That was your typical, old-school all-inclusive,” he told me during a phone call.
In Mexico, which is among the three most popular all-inclusive vacation destinations (along with the Dominican Republic and Jamaica), all-inclusive resorts have proliferated in recent years, as the American economy rebounds and U.S. tourism to Mexico increases. According to STR, a data and analytics specialist that tracks the global hotel industry, the number of rooms available in Mexican all-inclusive resorts has increased by 5,000 since the end of 2010. More rooms, more guests, and more competition mean more demands from travelers. “Especially high-end clients,” said Arleta Cosby, owner of Cosby Travel Consultants in Washington, D.C. “They want top-caliber cuisine. They want gourmet dining. They prefer a la carte over buffets. They don’t want to wear wristbands. They want fine wine and top-shelf liquor.”
“People don’t eat the way they used to. People don’t want to stuff themselves anymore,” said Melchiorri. “Now all-inclusives know to impress you with healthy ingredients. They have Pilates classes at these places! Who’s going to eat white bread until they want to throw up and then go to a hot yoga class?” Consequently, in the past five years, quality has triumphed over quantity at Mexican all-inclusive resorts: Diluted Smirnoff has given way to Grey Goose; chef hats have replaced hairnets and plastic gloves; and wilted salad bars have morphed into sushi bars with the freshest fish and vegetables.
At Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Resort in Cabo San Lucas, executive chef Octavio Hernandez Dario, an expert in Mediterranean cuisine “with a Mexican touch,” said he was hired in early 2016 to create a more elegant dining program. The resort’s flagship restaurant, Siempre, offers unusual fusion dishes, including chocolate fettucine (homemade pasta with Oaxaca chocolate, pear, grilled asparagus, and roasted garlic sauce) and risotto cooked in beet broth with white wine, blue cheese, and truffle oil. Even Siempre’s steaks are served with unexpected ingredients, including amaranth crunchy toffee and Canadian sweet potato flakes. But the coolest “included” perk at Pacifica is Hook & Cook, the chance to go fishing with the chef on the beach. Once you’ve caught your dinner, the chef will make you ceviche.
At Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun, you can book a cabana on the beach for a private dinner, but the resort also has six restaurants, including Lumiere, a French-International fusion restaurant that offers a seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Think escargot ravioli with a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and beef tenderloin with an Italian Syrah. Throughout the resort, the restaurants are all about mixing and matching different cuisines: For example, Le Blanc’s new pan-Asian restaurant (complete with a Zen garden) includes Latin American influences: There’s green tea shrimp with spicy mango chutney, salmon tartar with crispy avocado tostada, and Chilean sea bass with miso-teriyaki and jalapeno strips.
But nothing tops Grand Velas Riviera Maya, an all-inclusive resort where, depending on the room and season, a night can run you upwards of $1,300. When you step inside the grounds, you realize that every other hotel you’ve ever stayed at is a lie. Eighty acres of mangroves create a jungle-like ambiance. In the lobby, swirling creamy marble unfurls beneath your feet and the ceilings arch high in the air. Outside, turquoise swimming pools harmonize with the ocean. The Grand Class Suite in the adults-only section opens onto a terrace that overlooks the palm trees and groomed white beach below, where attendants spread thick towels on canopied lounge chairs. Throughout the resort, there’s a gently pulsing quiet I’ve experienced only in the desert and once in a Japanese ryokan. Everything is perfect – most of all the food.
Grand Velas’s most interesting offering is a picnic on the beach. All you have to do is make your appointment with the concierge, apprise him of any dietary restrictions, and then drag yourself out of the warm ocean when the time comes. My picnic was set for 1:30 on a Monday afternoon. At 1:15, a team of waiters rolled out an Oriental rug and set up my table, chair, and umbrella on the sand. At 1:30, the French executive chef, Michel Mustiere, opened my wicker picnic basket. “Muy sencillo,” he said. Very simple. Well, maybe for him: smoked salmon sandwiches on baguette, along with grapes, strawberries, and glass jars of coleslaw and pickles. There were desserts prepared by the pastry chef, a choice of red or white wine, and a cheese plate. The Grand Velas picnic is an emblem of what all-inclusive resorts have become. Gone is the era of yellow wristbands and cheap chandeliers. The best all-inclusive resorts in Mexico are bastions of mezcal cocktails and scallop ceviches.
Unfortunately, however, paradise can only exist alongside its opposite. All-inclusive resorts sprawl out along the Mexican beaches, doing little for the local economies (for guests, venturing out to spend money would defeat the whole purpose of pre-paying for everything). Many resorts’ fine dining options tend to overlook the local cuisine, and the prohibitive prices ensure that the clientele are primarily wealthy foreigners. Meanwhile, the resource-sucking hotels cause environmental problems in the communities.
Melchiorri, however, predicts a positive change: “I see what’s on trend in the world,” he said. “People who grew up watching the Food Network want ‘real.’ People are demanding local ingredients. People are demanding farm-to-table.” He thinks that once Mexican resorts catch on to the fact that their guests want local ingredients, they'll stop importing their food and start engaging the local communities. But in the meantime, why not set aside your last few vacation days to chuck your pre-planned itinerary and do some exploring outside the resort? Rent bikes and ride to the Mayan ruins. Crash in a cool boutique hotel, like Casa Violeta in Tulum, or in a bungalow on the beach. Do a molé tasting. Sample some chapulines. Yeah, sure, they’re grasshoppers, but this is Mexico.