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Playa's many affordable small hotels give you a better feel for the town than staying in one of the resorts in Playacar. Don't hesitate to book a place that's not on the beach. Town life here is much of the fun, and staying on the beach has its disadvantages -- in particular, the noise from a couple of beach bars. Beaches are public property in Mexico, and you can lay out your towel anywhere you like. At some beach clubs in north Playa, for a small sum or the price of a meal, you have use of lounge chairs and towels.

When tourism is slow you can score some great walk-in offers. Promotional rates and packages pop up online as well. Reservations are essential around holidays, however. Rates listed include the 12% hotel tax, but not the Christmas-to-New Year's rates, which soar well beyond the standard high-season rates.

Choosing an All-Inclusive in the Riviera Maya

All-inclusive resort rooms far outnumber those in regular hotels in the Riviera Maya. And the trend continues to dominate new construction, along with vacation-ownership developments. Most folks are familiar with the AI (short for all-inclusive) concept -- large hotels that work with economies of scale to offer lodging, food, and drink all for a single rate. Some AIs offer convenience and low rates good for families with many mouths to feed. Because they are enclosed areas, they make it easy for parents to watch their children. The system works well for multiple-generation family reunions and group meetings, and seasonal deals offer amazingly cheap getaways.

This type of all-inclusive is best booked through a vacation packager or travel agent. Their air and AI packages usually beat anything you can get by booking your own flight and room, even if you have frequent-flier miles to burn. In a recent comparison of package prices with the cost of separate direct air and hotel bookings, for example, a couple could save an average of more than $100 a night through BookIt.com, which offers a particularly good range of all-inclusive resorts among its deals.

I came to understand and appreciate this type of vacation while staying at the Iberostar (www.iberostar.com) complex on Paraíso Beach north of Playa del Carmen. The enormous compound includes five hotels in all price ranges, a golf course, shopping center, nightclubs, spacious beach, and terrific spa. A tram travels between the resorts. (Guests at the higher-end hotels can use the amenities at all hotels.) Despite the size, I never felt overwhelmed and enjoyed watching families play together and apart.

With several resorts of varying quality and style, Karisma Hotels + Resorts (www.karismahotels.com) merits attention. Their Azul resorts have a partnership with Fisher Price and their Kid's Clubs are amazing. Their adults-only Dorado resorts pamper grownups with spas and gourmet restaurants. Some of the hotels have Gourmet Inclusive plans offering all the amenities you expect in upscale resorts, all included in the rate.

Another all-inclusive concept offers beyond-luxurious resorts with fabulous suites, spas, pools, and beaches along with exceptional gourmet dining. Daily rates can soar beyond $1,000 per person per day. But more and more resort companies are moving in this direction, and big spenders have outstanding options. The Grand Velas Riviera Maya excels in this category. The pricey Royal Hideaway Playacar (www.royalhideaway.com) is acclaimed as an idyllic wedding and honeymoon setting. The exclusive resorts sometimes have some odd rules, though. For example, my husband and I weren't able to enjoy the specialty restaurants at one resort because men were required to wear closed-toe dress shoes -- even dressy leather sandals were verboten. Be sure you know such things before you go.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.