A few years ago, Club Med swapped chest hair for high chairs, swingers for swing sets.
After closing many of its not-so-haute locations and upgrading facilities to accommodate families, the French chain began offering infant care, kid-friendly cuisine and circus workshops à la Cirque du Soleil at many of its Mexico-based and Caribbean properties.
And, as at other all-inclusives (AIs), one prepaid amount covers the room, meals, activities, nightly entertainment, child care and taxes at Club Med.
“All-inclusives are for people who want a total break, for families who enjoy their kids but want a little alone time, too,” says Terry Shull, an agent at Seattle’s Anderson Travel. “And some kids don’t want to be around mom and dad all the time.”
So at the Beaches Resorts in the Caribbean, preschoolers can dine with Elmo and other Sesame Street characters while older kids play pirate, and teens party at the (21-and-younger) Club Liquid dance club.
At Club Med Ixtapa Pacific in Mexico, where my family stayed last spring, the kids could choose from archery or acrobatics, putt-putt on a mini-golf course or “Marco Polo” in the pool. In the evening, family entertainment featured quick-stepping Mexican dance troupes and trapeze talent shows by the kids.
Most AIs are based in the Caribbean and Mexico, Shull says, but a few are located in Central America, Australia and Fiji. Many are part of a chain, but smaller independent choices exist as well. Shull says the indies don’t have as many dining choices, but are priced more moderately.
And how about those prices? Costs range from $70 to $400 per adult per day at AIs, with many resorts offering discounts for children or kids-stay-free packages.
While those upper figures sound spendy, Shull points out that it’s the “little extras” that nibble away at the family budget on a typical vacation. A few dollars here for a snorkel board, a few dollars there for ice cream and many, many more dollars to feed four people.
In contrast, “an all-inclusive is like being on a cruise, without getting nickel-and-dimed to death,” Shull says. Many AIs even forbid tipping.
Most, however, only include activities for children older than age 3 in the base price. Care for younger kids can cost extra or may not be available.
But all ages can enjoy the digs: updated, modern furnishings in a three- or four-star-style setting, with plenty of pools to go around. Independent all-inclusives tend to run smaller, while chains with 500-plus rooms spread across acres of land.
At Club Med Ixtapa Pacific, the fanciful purple-and-green kids’ rooms (wired with a flat-screen TV and cable) offered trundle bedding, so kids could comfortably slumber side by side. Infant/toddler cribs were also available on request (ours held the enormous floor pillows when not in use). Infants were even catered to in the dining hall with baby purées, formula and milks on offer (including soy).
Meanwhile, non-baby family members could help themselves to the buffet, with tables loaded like it was Thanksgiving: dozens of appetizers, main courses, sides and desserts. The buffets were a noisy, boisterous affair. No singles giving the fish eye if a baby’s fork clattered on the tile floor, or if a preschooler screamed because a renegade tomato touched his hamburger.
Seattle mom Alodie Loney says her daughter Maya loved the buffet options at Dreams in Tulum, Mexico. “You walk in and there’s a table with desserts and a whole separate area with kid-friendly foods on a low table,” such as hamburgers and hot dogs, Loney says.
My kids ate five days’ worth of quesadillas, black beans, lime- and cilantro-spiced guacamole and fruit tarts at Club Med, covering all of a child’s basic nutritional needs.
And it was in the dining hall that we saw the most compelling reason for going to an AI. Multiple generations of families — grandpa, grandma, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins — gathered together, comparing notes on the best snorkeling spots, which dessert was best and how fast Amelia was growing. Next time we go, we’ll have to bring the grandparents, too.
Lora Shinn enjoyed her AI stay, but prefers independent travel: tiny-print guidebooks, midnight flights and memorable restaurants (even if they’re memorable for all the wrong reasons). She lives in Seattle and blogs at Little Kids, Big City.
All-inclusive a go-go
High season runs from January through April, with deep discounts during the not-so-popular hurricane season (June–October) and slower winter months (November and December, except for holidays).
Club Med. Guests can enjoy two days free when booking a seven-night holiday vacation between Nov. 22, 2008, and Feb.14, 2009.
SuperClubs. Through Dec. 22, SuperClubs offers the “Kids Stay, Play & Eat Free” promotion for parents of children ages 2–13 years.
Dreams Resorts and Spas. The Explorer’s Club for ages 3–12 includes hunting for treasure, splashing into the ocean from a trampoline, competing in sandcastle contests and a once-a-week overnight camping adventure. And if you travel by Dec. 17, kids stay free.
Beaches Resorts. Older kids and teens can play in the Xbox Game Garage. Families enjoy as much as 35 percent off regular rack rates, plus the first night free for travel between Nov. 1 and Dec. 20, 2008.