The Year of the All-Inclusive

With its new Palafitos bungalows, El Dorado Maroma has introduced luxury overwater accommodations in Mexico.

Sandals Confirms Plans to Expand to Mexico

It wasn’t long into the year when the first big splash of 2016 hit the all-inclusive world. That came in January when all-inclusive giant, Sandals Resorts International — whose virtual empire has remained within the Caribbean since the first Sandals opened in 1981 — announced it would be expanding outside of the region for the first time in the company’s history.

After more than a decade of speculation, Sandals Resorts International will officially be entering the Mexico resort realm. During Travel Agent’s January coverage of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace in the Bahamas, we chatted with Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals, and learned that the Jamaica-based company will be building outside of the Caribbean for the first time in the form of a new-build Sandals resort in the Riviera Maya.

Stewart told us he expected ground to break by the end of this year. When asked if it would be in Playa del Carmen, he said it would be “further north.”

This was the first time Stewart shared specifics on the expansion following his father’s announcement a month earlier at the 14th Annual Sandals Travel Agency Recognition (S.T.A.R.) awards at Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa in Jamaica.

It was at that show that Gordon “Butch” Stewart, Sandals Resorts International chairman, told attendees that Mexico was the future.

New Nickelodeon Brand Debuts in the Dominican Republic

In June, Travel Agent was among a media contingency invited to the opening of the first Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts property in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. It represented Nickelodeon’s first-ever international property, a 208-suite hotel built by Karisma Hotels & Resorts. After our visit, we concluded that the best aspect was that the Nick theme of the hotel can be as big or as little as a guest wants.

Nickelodeon Punta Cana’s Pineapple Villa is a delight for fans of SpongeBob SquarePants.

Contrary to what we originally envisioned, Nickelodeon is not thrown in your face. Instead, there were just subtle reminders. We were expecting to enter a room with Sponge Bob Square Pants wallpaper and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pillows. That was not the case. In fact, there are hardly any company logos here. Instead, the Nick touches are basically subliminal.

The network’s signature colors of green and orange are sprinkled everywhere in the resort, from the pillows in the rooms to the glasses at some of the hotel’s restaurants. Perhaps the biggest Nickelodeon presence in the rooms are the replicas of its iconic orange blimp placed in front of the beds, but even those did not say Nickelodeon on them.

While the room decor has very subtle Nickelodeon touches, the Character Breakfast is where all that pent up love for the network comes pouring out. This was by far the most interactive activity that we saw during our visit. Now, this is not a played-down theme, but rather all the Nickelodeon you can handle — and it will most likely be one of your clients’ children’s favorite parts of the experience.

This was also one of Travel Agent’s favorite aspect of the resort. Clients should expect appearances by such famous characters as Sponge Bob Square Pants, Dora the Explorer, Boots, Marshall, Paw Patrol and others. And there is no need for clients to rush for a photo, as the hotel’s Nickelodeon team members will take each character to every table, one at a time.

The hotel’s Vassa Spa includes an herbal steam room, a dry sauna, chromo therapy showers, bubble beds, a whirlpool, and arctic and warm-water pools. There are five treatment suites, one for couples, a luxurious bridal suite, and five “al fresco” outdoor treatment areas for those craving a little sand with their spa. Vassa Spa’s signature “perfectly pink” treatment program is available for young visitors.

Agents should note that there is a $35 per day fee for clients looking to use the spa facilities without booking a massage.

In June, Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana introduced Nickelodeon Place, which houses the hotel’s water park and other interactive activities for children. It opened well ahead of the scheduled August target date.

Nickelodeon Place is where children can expect full-blown Nick love. Areas here include the Aqua Nick; Plaza Orange, a showcase for entertainment and events; Character Central, where guests can meet their favorite cartoon stars throughout the day; Just Kiddin’ hang out for do-it-yourself fun, including daily supervised activities and programs for children 4 to 12 years of age, plus meet-and-greets with Nickelodeon characters; the “NICK kNACKS” retail shop; and a Sports & Entertainment Center for teens. The latter includes fun activities such as basketball courts, tennis courts and even archery.

About a month later, Karisma and Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN), a division of Viacom Inc., announced the debut of the Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana’s unique Pineapple Villa, the world’s first and only such accommodation modeled after the undersea home of the resort’s most popular employee, SpongeBob Square Pants.

The Pineapple has 2,292 square feet of indoor and outdoor living areas, including a garden, patio, signature infinity pool, and private butlers. The two-bedroom / three-bath playful presidential suite is a one-of-a-kind experience that allows affluent families to step inside SpongeBob’s world.

Karisma and VIMN announced recently that Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Riviera Maya would be the follow act to the Punta Cana property. Slated to open in December of 2017, the Mexico property will have 288 swim-up and infinity suites, each with its own pool on a private terrace or balcony. It will be nestled on a secluded white-sand beach facing the Caribbean Sea.

The first floors of both main buildings will be composed of swim-up suites with direct access to swimming pools and swim-up bars, while floors two through six will host the infinity pool suites with unobstructed ocean views. Accommodations will include one-, two-, and three-bedroom suites, each with shared living spaces and private pools.

AIC Hotel Group Launches New Hotel Concept in Mexico

Back in June, AIC Hotel Group announced the launch of UNICO 20°87° Hotel Riviera Maya, a new adults-only, all-inclusive hotel. It is scheduled to open in March of 2017.

Signature guest experiences will include an in-room gallery with art to purchase from local artisans and the Esencia Beauty Bar located in the Esencia Wellness Center where guests select their own beach gear and personalized in-room amenities sourced from local craftsman. Food and beverage offerings foster a sense of regional celebration, from an Executive Mixologist infusing local flavors and ingredients to craft speciality cocktails through the hotel, to a rotating chef restaurant concept, with a focus on emerging talent and innovative flavors.

Embracing a more local approach, UNICO 20°87° will provide all guests with a unique “Host” for their stay, replacing the traditional butler service.

Other amenities and services range from arriving in a custom-scented lobby where guests are introduced to the UNICO Experience App, which features information on each week’s activities, to gastronomy and libation mixology that foster a sense of regional celebration.

Now Resorts & Spas Opens Third Dominican Property

In November, AMResorts, an Apple Leisure Group subsidiary, opened its newest resort, Now Onyx Punta Cana, the brand’s third in the Dominican Republic. Set on the beaches of Uvero Alto, the 502-suite, family-friendly resort provides guests with AMResorts’ signature Unlimited-Luxury all-inclusive offerings.

When it opens in the spring, UNICO 20°87° Riviera Maya will add to Mexico’s growing roster of adults-only all-inclusive resorts.

Now Onyx Punta Cana offers a host of lively activities and entertainment for all to enjoy. Clients can take in the sunshine at one of the resort’s five shimmering pools, including an infinity pool, children’s pool and salt-water pool. Young travelers are kept busy with two dedicated areas, the Explorer’s Club for Kids and the Core Zone Teens Club, where kids of all ages can participate in fun games and activities.

Additionally, for guests looking to enjoy some alone time while the kids are at play, the resort’s Preferred Club offers a relaxing adults-only section. The French restaurant, Mercure, is also an option exclusively for adults.

Beyond the nine restaurants and 10 bars at Now Onyx Punta Cana, guests can take advantage of the amenities at neighboring AMResorts properties with the exclusive “Sip, Savor & See” program. With this program, guests are invited to enjoy additional family-friendly dining options at nearby Dreams and Now Resorts & Spas. Guests over the age of 18 can experience even more with access to facilities at neighboring Breathless Punta Cana Resort & Spa, which include a casino, the After Dark nightclub, the Spa by Pevonia and a fitness center — all included with “Unlimited Luxury.” 

Trend: Overwater Accommodations

Clients planning to vacation in Mexico or the Caribbean can take advantage –– courtesy of Karisma and Sandals, respectively –– of what is sure to be the next big thing in resort vacationing: overwater suites.

 

Karisma Introduces Palafitos

In September, Karisma introduced Palafitos – Overwater Bungalows at the adults-only El Dorado Maroma, a Beachfront Resort, by Karisma in Mexico. Surrounded by the waters of Riviera Maya’s Maroma Beach, the first phase of 30 811-square-foot luxury suites have ocean views, glass-bottom floors, direct ladder access to the ocean, outdoor “Aguas del Amor” showers, private infinity pools, indoor Jacuzzis, and oversized decks with lounge chairs that look out onto the ocean horizon.

El Dorado Maroma currently has 30 Palafitos – Overwater Bungalows with oversized decks and ocean views.

Other special services and amenities found at the Palafitos include exclusive beach beds, customized beach picnics and full butler service on-demand to assist with everything from pre-arrival requests, packing and unpacking, reservations, and delivery of complimentary sunscreen, reading materials, refreshments and gourmet bites while at the pool or beach.

Treatments at the overwater Náay Spa are designed based on the traditional Mayan herbal practices and richness of the region’s marine life, which highlight the benefits of “Maroma’s Sea Moss,” rich in mineral salts, boasting high antioxidant and detoxifying powers.

Rates start at $950 per adult, per night, encompassing Karisma’s Gourmet Inclusive experience of à la carte dining (at the Overwater Grill & Wine Bar and elsewhere around the resort), premium alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, concierge and 24-hour room service.

Sandals’ Over-the-Water Suites

Sandals Resorts recently announced that the much-anticipated Over-the-Water Suites at Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica, are now open. The reception for the upscale accommodations has been so overwhelming that expansion plans are already in the works. The first five villas, with rates starting at $1,435 per person per night, are sold out for the next 18 months, and Sandals Resorts International CEO and Deputy Chairman Adam Stewart told Travel Agent that (pending government approvals) plans call for over-water villas at three other Jamaica resorts as well as the Sandals Grande St. Lucian, starting with the Sandals Whitehouse on Jamaica’s south coast next year.

“Demand for the category shows no sign of slowing down,” Stewart told us. “At $1.6 million per room, [these are] the most expensive ever built in the Caribbean,” he said. “They are our next frontier ... and epitomize where we are going, the luxury direction of our brand.”

The five overwater villas at the Montego Bay resort are the first of their kind in the Caribbean, and an additional dozen such bungalows were in various stages of construction when we visited the Royal Caribbean resort last month (these smaller units, which start at $1,229 per person per night, are slated to open in March 2017). We spent three nights in the “earth” themed room #9001 (others have design elements reflecting “wind,” “water” and “fire”), giving the amenities and Sandals’ accompanying private butler service a good test run before they open to the public.

Over-the-Water Suites at Sandals Royal Caribbean Montego Bay

The 2,000-square-foot villas are connected by bridge to the resort’s private island, where a pair of restaurants, beach cabanas, a pool, and a small clothing-optional beach can be found. Glass floors looking down to the sandy seabed sit at the foot of king beds, with large sliding doors affording views of the Caribbean. Spacious baths, nearly as large as the bedrooms, have soaking tubs, oversized rainfall shower, his-and-hers vanities with lighted mirrors and Molton Brown amenities, connected walk-in closets, and toilets with bidets.

Outside, a two-level deck is screened for privacy on both sides and faces out to sea; the same is true of the other villas, although some of the forthcoming bungalows will have land views. Guests can step down from a lounging deck directly to the shallow waters for wading or snorkeling. There’s also a soaking pool, a rope hammock positioned above the water, and a pod-like hanging couch that sways gently in the breeze. A low table with chairs facilitates room-service dining.

Sandals Royal Caribbean Montego Bay has brought the Pacific islands-inspired overwater suite concept to Jamaica.

The kitchen may be small, but it’s provisioned with premium liquor, including local 12-year-old Appleton Estate rum. Private butlers are on-call via a dedicated mobile phone 24/7 to deliver snacks, meals and drinks as well as arrange activities, tours and make dining arrangements at the resort’s eight restaurants.

The close proximity of the Royal Caribbean to the Montego Bay airport means guests can get from the terminal to their water-filled deck loungers in less than 15 minutes, though jets flying over periodically may interrupt the sense of isolation at the villas. We
expect that the new units at the isolated Sandals Whitehouse, once completed, will be more comparable to the serene overwater experience found in Bora Bora and Tahiti, where the concept was pioneered.

Stewart says the opening is the culmination of a long process: local government officials in Jamaica had to be convinced about the practicality and environmental impact of the pricey overwater units, which only a single construction firm in Jamaica had the capacity to build.

“There were those who doubted Jamaica’s ability to support a product of this caliber, but we never had a doubt,” he tells Travel Agent. “We believe a rising tide lifts all the boats. This has been our philosophy since the very beginning. And look, we’re proving it.”

Trend: Adults-Only All-Inclusives

In 2016, a number of all-inclusive Caribbean and Mexico hotel brands opened adults-only properties or added exclusive enclaves for guests 18 and older. Here is a sampling.

Hyatt Ziva Cancun recently introduced its Turquoize adults-only area. Designed as a “resort within a resort,” the new area offers 270-degree ocean views and butler service, as well as private airport transfers and a VIP check-in and reception area. The beachfront suites, reserved exclusively for Turquoize guests, provide nearly 700 square feet of living area and oversized balconies with hot tubs. The Turquoize Sky Swim-Up Oceanfront Master Suites include a pool off the balcony. Bath accommodations offer ocean views with floor-to-ceiling corner rainfall showers.

At Club Med Punta Cana’s adults-only Zen Oasis section, couples can enjoy a VIP Spa experience in a private space that has ocean views.

Earlier this year, family-friendly Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic opened its new strictly-for-grownups Zen Oasis section. The emphasis is on wellness; rooms have spa-like bathrooms with rainfall showers as well as private gardens with plush daybeds. Zen Oasis also has a VIP Spa, an isolated beach, oversized lagoon pool, large Jacuzzi and sundeck with private cabanas. The poolside bar has a special wellness menu.

Set right on the beach and surrounded by natural wonders, the Riu Reggae is a new, all-inclusive adults-only, five-star hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, infinity pools, a gym and the Renova Spa, as well as activities and sports such as tennis, ping-pong, golf, diving, kayaking and windsurfing. Restaurant offerings include Italian and Asian cuisine and steakhouse fare, while four bars serve a variety of drinks and appetizers. For nightlife, guests can visit Riu Montego Bay Hotel’s nightclub, Pacha, just a few yards away.

Hotel Riu Palace Las Americas Cancun underwent a late summer / early fall renovation and reopened as an adults-only hotel. Just steps from Cancun’s shops and nightlife, the property has a spa with a rooftop solarium and Jacuzzi, a lavish nightclub with live shows and entertainment, an infinity pool, windsurfing, snorkeling and five à la carte or grand buffet restaurants.

AMResorts just opened the Secrets Cap Cana Resort & Spa, an “Unlimited Luxury” concept property for adults, with accommodations that include bungalow-style and swim-out suites, as well as an expansive infinity pool, eight gourmet restaurants and the Secrets Spa by Pevonia. Guests at Secrets Cap Cana can also enjoy access to the high-end surroundings, including a championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a marina, an equestrian center with stables and polo fields, and a world-class fishery.

In May, AMResorts introduced the adults-only Breathless Riviera Cancun Resort & Spa. Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the Lagoon of Bahia Petempich, it has 526 all-suite accommodations with modern designs that are divided into three separate areas. The Xhale Club section is available for guests looking for personal service and luxury; the Energy Center is designed for guests looking to socialize; and the Xcelerate Party Zone is for visitors who want to celebrate during their stay.