“All-Inclusive” is a term that too often conjures images of never-ending cheap booze, buffet lines that lead off into the sunset, and hoards of drunk spring breakers. People think of Cancun, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic. Places often billed as “too dangerous” for young independent travelers, places that cater to the patent non-traveler.
As an independent traveler, I had always overlooked all-inclusive resorts in favor of private rentals, small hotels, scrimping and saving and always looking for the most unique accommodations for the least amount of money. I have quickly perused websites like Apple Vacations and whimsically thought about endless buffets and bar tabs, but my experience with Occidental was the first time I took the plunge.
One of my oldest friends decided on a destination wedding, and an all-inclusive option in Costa Rica seemed like the easiest solution to the ever-growing complications of modern American weddings. The wedding itself at the Occidental Grand Papagayo was wonderfully simple: the resort took care of the setting and set up, a fitting display of tropical flowers and flowing whites and purples, an ample champagne toast, a marimba band and delicious buffet dinner near the pool. The guests enjoyed bottomless, tropically-colored drinks and excellent service during the reception and ceremony. The resort provided anything we could need for the festivities.
The hotel itself has a comfortable, open-air lobby on top of the hill above the bay that catches the ocean breezes as they drift inland. The views are stunning, and the grounds are immaculately kept. You can chill out with wildlife — iguanas, coatimundi, capuchin and howler monkeys — from anywhere on the property; we even heard reports from some in our party that they had some early morning visitors on their patios and porches. As many reviews indicate, however, the guest rooms are tired and need some updating. In the tropical heat and humidity, it can be hard to keep the mildew, soft woods and crumbling corners at bay. The Royal Club rooms are definitely nicer and provide better views of the surrounding bay, and with some of the extra perks, it’s definitely worth the extra money. But the dark bathrooms and peeling paint in the regular rooms are really only an issue if you plan to spend time in your room, and let’s be honest: why? There are patios on each room with comfortable Adirondack-style chairs, ample porch space at and around the bar and swimming pool, a beautiful, Pacific beach that’s as private as you can get in Costa Rica, and a whole slew of excursions you can take advantage of (try heading down to the beach to find Johnny D. for better deals and more personal service). With so much to do, there’s no need to spend time fretting about the little things that don’t work in your room.
This all-inclusive resort also manages to skirt the Playboy stereotype, providing a calmer, more adult atmosphere. You won’t find all-night ragers or rooms full of drunken college kids. You’re more likely to find a friendly, late-night water volleyball game than 20-somethings doing shots. There is a disco, but it’s generally quite quiet. Mostly, guests mull around the romantic lobby sipping on cocktails (slip the bartender an extra couple of bucks for better drinks), talking and playing board games.
Food at the buffets is fine; many who have stayed at all-inclusive resorts said that it was pretty on par with other hotels. Meals include ample fresh fruits — perfect for days spent outside in the sweltering heat and humidity — as well as gallo pinto, American favorites and fresh seafood. The make-your-own Bloody Marys at breakfast are worth getting up for. There are also two a la carte restuarants at the resort. L’Oriental is an Asian fusion eatery, where the dishes are extremely flavorful but not very spicy-hot. The Italian is right next door and offers typical Italian fare, a step up from the buffet. In both restaurants, the romantic ambiance in the small spaces is a nice change from the buffet and snack bar, and the service is relaxed but attentive. Many people complained about the slow pace, but we found it to be delightfully unhurried. Our drinks were quietly refilled without asking, and finished dishes were swept away immediately. The pauses between courses were, we found, the perfect times to digest, sip our wine and talk. One of the great criticisms of the resort, however, is that both restaurants require reservations — made day of — and guests can only reserve one dinner for every three or four nights stayed (though we did hear of people finagling an extra reservation).
The entire resort is decidedly un-rushed, and laying around enjoying the pool or the beach or the sun or your tropical drink seems to be the order of every day. The staff is extremely friendly and concerned that you have a good time there, despite some of the resort’s other shortcomings. Throwing in a little bit of Spanish, whatever you know, helps a lot, and though some of the employees are not native Spanish speakers, some don’t speak any English at all. Some appliances, notably light fixtures and air conditioners, are old and worn and could probably use replacing, but the staff answers complaints as quickly and quietly as they can. They tend not to refill your mini-fridge, but you can always head to the bar and get some drinks to go (or order in-room dining if you’ve upgraded to the Royal Club).
If you’re looking for an uncomplicated, worry-free vacation, the Occidental Grand Papagayo — starting at $230 a night, all-inclusive — offers a great deal (check out other resorts in the area, which start at around $230 per person, per night). This might be the perfect place to get to know your friends, your partner, or yourself just a little better. Don’t expect dance parties or drama; leave the spring breakers at home. What you can find here is calmness, a retreat from loud noises and constant action, something a little slower than you’re used to.
Oh, and watch out for the magpie-jays, who will happily relieve you of your nachos, mojitos, or bathing suit top, the cheeky devils.