Sunday, February 8, 2009

All inclusive, you say?

I had never eaten a meal outside of the United States prior to my trip to Puerto Vallarta.

I expected the resort to have a lot of American fare in the mix, and it tried, but each meal was a reminder that yeah, you really are in Mexico.

The milk, what little I drank of it, tasted different somehow. The lunch buffet pizza was unlike anything I had eaten anywhere else. (It might have been decent if it didn't appear, and taste, like it had been sitting in the warmer for hours.) And their nacho chips weren't the light, crispy Tostitos I love so much. Their nacho chips were thicker, and for me, less appealing. The chicken nuggets: not white meat, that's for sure.

And forget about shredded cheese on the salad bar. A heaping pile of cheddar was nowhere to be found.

The resort had a breakfast and lunch buffet each day, and while there were subtle changes in the lunch menu, it was basically the same. There's a variety of entrees, but after three or four days the novelty of their buffet wears off.

Dinner featured a buffet that was decent, and where we had dinner the first two nights there. For dinner there are three other dinner options. There's a Japanese restaurant, a steakhouse and a gourmet restaurant that features some seafood and other dishes. The trick to these specialty dining options is that you have to have a reservation, and if you want one for that evening, you'd better be down in the resort lobby by 8 a.m. to register for that night's meal, otherwise you'll be shut out. We were, however, able to book our dinners a day in advance.

Since we arrived on Wednesday afternoon, the reservation table was done for the day. Neither my brother nor I got up early enough Thursday to secure a specialty dinner that night, but we did book dinner for Friday evening, at the Japanese restaurant.

My brother is more of a connoisseur than I am, and he's been to a fancy Japanese restaurant before. He thought the resort's Japanese restaurant would be similar, featuring food prepared on a grill that several people sit around. No such luck, it was a buffet-style restaurant. It was good, but a bit of a disappointment, especially for my brother, who places a higher value than I do in ordering off a menu. Buffets are often a bit of a disappointment, I find, so I would have been happy to have one entree prepared fresh for me on Friday evening, but no such luck.

Saturday night we ate at the steakhouse, which featured a variety of entrees for dinner, and in this case it wasn't served buffet style. There were appetizers and desserts served as part of the meal. It was decent, and the closest we came to a traditional restaurant experience. (You choose your entree, but everything else comes standard with the meal, there's no choosing your soup or dessert.)

Being all inclusive, our drinks were complimentary 24 hours a day. Alcoholic or otherwise, it's all part of the package. They resort uses a lot of rail booze, but there was some notable liquors available. The beer was pretty much Corona, on tap. The only bottles of beer were those in our room, which had a refrigerator with a few 1.5-litre bottles of water, several sodas and Coronas.

There was also a shot dispenser on the wall with four types of alcohol, including tequila, of course. (Jose Cuervo, I think.) I drank several beers over four days, and all you had to do was call to get more sent to the room when you needed it, although everything was delivered warm.

Although all inclusive, the resort had virtually no food available outside of its meal times. The only food to be had late at night was in the sports bar, the only 24-hour bar on the property. There were microwave burgers, nacho chips with unheated cheese and perhaps one or two other options. None of it sounded appealing, and reviews I read prior to the trip suggested it wasn't.

My brother stayed at an all-inclusive resort on his honeymoon and said that he could get real food 24 hours a day, with a limited room service menu. I never found myself craving a meal at midnight, which was a good thing, because Riu Vallarta isn't interested in feeding you at that time of night. There wasn't anywhere close where you could get a late night burrito.

The reviews I read varied on the grading of the food. Some people made it sound as if it was barely edible. Others thought it was the greatest dining experience they'd ever had. I'd say it was somewhere in between. My brother is certain he got food poisoning toward the end of our trip. I avoided such a fate.

I also read that a number of people would eat meals in Puerto Vallarta, and that they had spectacular meals for a relative bargain compared to U.S. restaurants. I suggested the option on Thursday night, but my budget-conscious brother wasn't too high on the idea, which was fine with me. Eating at an "authentic" restaurant wasn't that high of a priority for me. And had we opted to do so, we probably would have ended up eating at the Hard Rock Cafe in Puerto Vallarta.

The all-inclusive concept is nice. My brother said he was on a cruise where he had to shell out cash for every drink, which adds up in a hurry. I'm glad I didn't have to pay for every mug of Diet Pepsi I'd get in the morning or mixed drink in the afternoon.

Did the Riu's all-inclusive offering make me want to come back, should I return to Puerto Vallarta? Nope, not really. It sounds like all inclusive has been done better elsewhere, and unless elsewhere is going to cost hundreds of dollars more, the Riu family of resorts is out of the equation. But it's going to be a long while before I'm in a position to book an all-inclusive vacation anywhere, unfortunately.

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