When it comes to writing a story about a past trip, I usually start by taking a breath and transporting myself back to the destination. What did it feel like? What were the smells? What were the sounds? What were the locals like? I reach back in time to when I was in a different place and am able to draw out of the memories emotions and vivid images of that local culture to share with my readers. Ask me about any trip I’ve taken in my past and chances are I’ll get this “faraway” look in my eyes and speak fondly of street vendors and local markets like I’m reminiscing about an old lover. I have never had trouble writing about a destination, that is until right now.
Picture this: I am at a Starbucks in New York City with my empty holiday red cup by my computer. I am trying to start a story about a recent press trip I took to the Dominican Republic but am at an utter loss for words. Any blogger and journalist knows that the currency for press trips is editorial exposure, so whether I’m inspired or not doesn’t make a different; I have to write a story about the trip–but what to write? How does one write about a country when they never set foot outside of the hotel? How does one describe the cuisine when everything served was from a resort buffet? How does one speak to the culture when the only interaction with locals was through the wait staff? I have my work cut out for me.
Staying at an all-inclusive resort is not my usual mode of travel but when an opportunity to cover culinary week in the Dominican Republic comes across your inbox, you tend to overlook details like accommodations in lieu of images of beaches and coconut cocktails. With ample free time kindly built into my itinerary, I naively figured I would find a way to leave the resort and explore the local culture. As it would turn out, I would not leave the resort until check out time and would learn some lessons about all-inclusive resorts and why I’d never again choose to stay at one.
Lesson #1: All-Inclusive resorts tend to be isolated.
As soon as I arrived with my boyfriend at the all-inclusive resort we were staying at, I eagerly looked at excursions we could take. I figured we could easily find a half day trip beyond the resort that would allow us to see the culture and bring us back in time for the culinary week dinners planned for this trip. Instead, I quickly found that our resort was very far from everything. It seems that isolation is key when it comes to resorts and this one was no exception.
Lesson #2: The “sprawling resort” becomes small, fast.
When I first arrived on my college campus years ago, I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the school as I wondered how I’d ever learn to navigate the campus with the same ease the upper class students did. When I moved to New York City after college, I remember feeling the same way about the subway system–how would I ever master this winding mass of colorful lines without getting lost? Sure enough, I got to the point I could navigate both with a blindfold. When I arrived at the all-inclusive resort, I was similarly impressed and daunted by the size of it. When our bellhop led us to our room, it felt like we has been walking for an hour by the time we reached it. The resort was so large they offered a small train to take guests around! Of course, after two days that sprawling feeling was replaced with the sense the resort was too small. I had walked by each restaurant, had seemingly explored every nook and cranny of the place–from the mini golf to the water slides to the beach. I was ready to leave.
Lesson #3: The guests are a…certain type of traveler.
Now let me tread with caution here as I would hate to offend any readers who may be a fan of all-inclusive resorts. This is by no means meant to be a sweeping statement about all resort guests, only those I came across on my trip. The fact is that the people I saw at my resort seemed to prioritize two things: drinking to capacity and then passing out on the beach. My fellow guests seemed to have no interest in exploring the Dominican Republic beyond the rum cocktails served to them by the local waitstaff. Many of the guests proved loud and obnoxious as they hung around the casinos, marinated by the pool and pounded tequila shots at 11am in the morning before lining up outside the buffet to eat their fourth meal of the day. While I can respect the coveted relaxation that comes with an all-inclusive resort, I cannot understand the point of visiting another country only to drink and pass out pool side (unless of course, you’re a college student on Spring Break in Cancun).
Lesson #4: The food is good but forgettable.
Before I became a travel writer, my focus of writing was food. Food is such an integral part to travel and the discovery of a culture as it’s reflective of the local customs. My favorite meals while traveling are always found in the most humble of places–a local choripan joint in Buenos Aires, a street cart selling arepas in Colombia, a no-name cafe selling Croque Monsieur outside Notre Dame in Paris. In the all-inclusive resort, food was good but sadly forgettable. There is no context to a great meal when it is served from a buffet line. No authenticity, no local flavor–the resort food was simply manufactured to meet the presumed wants and needs of its Western guests.
Lesson #5: Visiting and leaving a country without ever seeing it.
When my boyfriend and I were getting ready to leave the Dominican Republic he told me how his sister had asked him how the DR had been. His answer? He quite honestly did not know what to say. He had seen the same stretch of beach, the same resort water slides, the same room service meals every day. He could tell her how the resort had been but could not speak to the country itself. I remember being struck by this simple exchange because it seemed to sum up everything wrong with staying at an all-inclusive in my eyes. As a travel writer, I had visited a country and had absolutely nothing more to show for it than a few beach snapshots and souvenirs from the resort gift shop.
On those lazy beach days in the DR, I thought a lot about travel and what had initially drawn me to it. I thought about the perspective and inspiration I’ve gained from being abroad, the adventures I’ve had and the memories I’ve shared by meeting other travelers and locals on my journeys. I had strayed far from that mode of travel with this all-inclusive trip and left feeling a sense of urgency to plan another trip for my boyfriend and I that would give us an experience to remember. Travel is objective and while all-inclusive resorts may not be my cup of tea, it does not reflect poorly on anyone who prefers them. As for me? Well, I’m now in the process of planning three trips for early next year through Central America that will take me far from the all-inclusive and put me back in the way of culture and beauty.
What are your thoughts on all-inclusive resorts? Love them or hate them? Join the conversation and share your thoughts below!