Family Vacation at the Barcelo Palace

All-inclusive.  The phrase causes some people to shudder in disgust (“how will you get an authentic experience if you don’t leave the resort?”) and others to sigh in relief (“I won’t have to worry about a thing AND there won’t be any hidden costs!”). I love a good DIY adventure, but I also believe there’s something to be said for an all-inclusive resort. And I particularly like an AI for a family vacation more geared toward having fun and relaxing. Enter the Barceló Palace.

 

After hours of scouring the internet and speaking with friends and fellow travel agents I finally decided upon the Barceló Palace for my family’s inaugural Mexico vacation (hubs and I had visited before, but it was the 10 YO boy child’s first visit). My most recent AIs were both Iberostar Grands so I knew I wanted to stay somewhere with a posh reputation otherwise I’d spend my entire vacation kicking myself. My secondary criteria was a good beach and plenty of things to do to keep a boy busy. The Barceló Palace promised all this and more. And they delivered.

 

Did I mention I wanted posh? I’m a total sucker for beautifully manicured grounds.

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And a beautiful buffet.

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Can you tell I’m extra interested in pastries?

And a gorgeous beach. Note that some of the trees have electrical outlets!

Even the rinse stations between the beach and the rest of the resort are pretty.

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As you can plainly see, the resort is beautiful and well kept. It’s also massive. We stayed in the Palace and generally did not feel a need to visit the other parts of the resort though a Palace wristband will gain you entry and access to all the other parts of the resort AND top shelf liquor AND reservations at an à la carte restaurant for every evening of your stay at no additional charge (non-Palace guests must pay $20 per person to dine at these and are limited in the number of reservations they can make).

FOOD.

There are three à la carte restaurants at the Palace: Rodizio, Brasserie, & Caribe. Reservations need to be made at the Guest Services desk around the corner from the check in desk. Do this as soon as you arrive because you cannot do it in advance and spaces fill up fast! I tried to make reservations at Rodizio (churrascaria), Brasserie (French), and La Trattoria (the Italian restaurant in the mall). La Trattoria was booked, but I was able to secure reservations at the other two.  The woman at Guest Services gave me printed receipts of my reservations which I brought with me when we checked in at the restaurants.  While this is not required it did seem to facilitate the process.  A couple checked in after my family without their receipt and some time was spent looking up the reservation.  No big deal, but the receipts made life easier for everyone.

Rodizio. This was a meat lover’s paradise.  My husband chose to have the churrascaria service and was presented with 7 different types of meat. My son chose the enoteca (NY strip) and loved it. I had the spinach lasagna which was very tasty (and I may have helped the boy with his steak). No photos were taken as we were too busy eating.

Brasserie. I was a bit concerned about this one because none of the adult options appealed to the boy. He ended up with a ham and cheese sandwich with fries. Mike and I both had the burgundy escargot which was fantastic (even the boy enjoyed it once we convinced him to try a bite). My beef wellington was pretty good though the pastry was a bit gummy in the center (still a much better job than I could have done). Mike had the duck. he said it was a little overcooked but added that maybe he should have ordered it differently. His crème brûlée was not very good, but the surprise chocolate boxes were.  I really thought we’d receive a box with a few chocolate truffles, but this is what we got instead:

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Yes, the box itself is made of chocolate. Sorry to ruin the surprise. It was so pretty we hated to eat it, but we did it anyway and enjoyed every bite. And it more than made up for the so-so crème brûlée. The Brasserie menu is below (my apologies for the terrible glare).

 

In addition to the three à la cartes, the Palace has two buffet dining rooms (El Mirador and La Hacienda). They share an actual buffet though there are different things on both sides so don’t be afraid to cross the threshold or you may miss out on something delicious! There are different theme nights (i.e. Mexican night or Seafood night).  We dined in El Mirador on the seafood night and discovered that there were plenty of options besides seafood. These buffets are for when you’re dry. When you’re wet, head to the Coral Grill (literally next door to La Hacienda so there’s no missing it). This is a much smaller buffet, but a good place for late breakfast or a snack. Oh! And did I mention that the buffets have serve yourself beer and coffee? I didn’t utilize these, but I did see some people do it.  The waiters were plenty quick with carafes of coffee in the mornings so I didn’t see the need. And speaking of the waiters, never did I see any of them with anything but a smile.  Our service was fantastic at every meal, in every restaurant, and even at every bar. Bring plenty of tip money because the staff works hard and deserves it.

WATER ACTIVITIES

There are plenty of included activities at the Barceló. We did not take advantage of any of the pool slides or the miniature golf, but they are options if you’re so inclined.  We really wanted to take out the water trikes (who even knew that was a thing?) but the water was too rough when we wanted to go. Single person kayaks are also available, but that felt too much like work. Mike got a refresher course in the use of a Hobie cat and took the boy and me out for a ride. Lessons were free of charge, but once again the staff is amazing and should be rewarded, so plan to tip. No payment was required for the use of the non-motorized equipment.

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water trikes. seriously how cool is that?

 

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If you have your own snorkel gear then bring it because you won’t want to miss some of the resident wildlife.

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ROOMS

All the food and swimming had us going to bed before 10 every night (which is a shame because the shows all start at 9:30).  The rooms were pretty and the bathroom divided in such a way that someone could use the toilet in privacy while someone else was in the bathroom.

The only thing I did not like at the resort was the bed. I despise these beds. They are hard and the sheets are noisy. Yes, you read that correctly. Noisy sheets. After two nights I discovered that if I slipped the mattress protector to the side by releasing two corners, removed the loud sheet, and lined up the pillows to create my own pillowtop mattress, the bed was acceptable. My husband did the same (less the pillows) on the other double bed which was free because my son begged me to sleep on the couch because it was more comfy than the bed. A five star resort should not have a one star bed. So while it’s my only complaint it is a big one.

 

DOLPHINARIS

Right. So I struggled with this one a bit. There is a daily show at 11:30 for no charge and you can pay to interact with the dolphins.  The pool seemed quite small to house 5 dolphins thought it is approved by some European dolphin regulatory group or something.

MISCELLANY

Wifi.  Wifi costs $12/day for one day. The more days you purchase the less the cost per day. Only one device can be logged in at a time. At first I thought this was bordering on a disgrace, but I found that I really didn’t miss it.  We did purchase it so my husband could do some work and my son used it a bit, too. If you use Apple devices you have to go to a special web address to log on and off. Unfortunately one of our devices got “stuck” logged in and we couldn’t free it so Mike was forced to work from his phone. He states he wouldn’t go back unless they fixed the way they handle the internet.

Airport transfers. I purchased a package from Funjet with a private transfer through Lomas Travel. Finding them at the airport was easy peasy. They have a cooler in their vehicles with cold drinks including beer available for purchase at half the price of the kiosk outside the airport.

Included wine. Not a big deal for most of you, but I enjoy red wine with dinner. There was only one included red wine and I never thought to get the name. It wasn’t awesome but it was drinkable (I generally prefer malbecs, blends, & riojas if that helps). Non included bottles can be purchased for 3-4 times what you’d pay at a store in the US.

Excursions. There are several travel companies at the ground floor of the Palace. You can purchase an excursion through them or directly through the resort. We purchased the Tulum Express through Lomas and found ourselves on a bus with guests from another part of the Barcelo who purchased directly though the resort. I did not ask what they paid but I will tell you that I was able to negotiate our price down. I guess the lesson is to shop the price or just pick whoever makes you feel comfortable.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. I will reward you with the most important advice I have to give about travel in Mexico. When you arrive at Immigration and present the form you’ve been given to the officer, he/she will tear off the bottom and give it back to you. YOU MUST NOT LOSE THIS OR YOU CANNOT LEAVE THE COUNTRY. Seriously. I have a friend whose wife misplaced his and he had to sleep at the airport (until they kicked him out because they close every night) and he had to complete extra paperwork for some government official and pay extra money the following day during business hours. Hungover. With a broken toe. Don’t let this happen to you. I attach a paperclip to the back cover of my passport and store my government papers there. You should, too.

Interested in learning more? Any questions I neglected to answer? Leave a comment or contact me directly at amanda@designmytrip.net.

 

 

 

3 Days in Puerto Rico

 

Hola friends! Have you ever thought to yourself “Self, let’s go to Puerto Rico”? No? Well maybe it’s time you had that conversation. I recently spent about 72 hours in PR and this is how it went:

Day One

Mike and I landed around 4, grabbed the rental car (all car rental companies share one building and it is directly across the street from baggage claim- no need for a tram, bus, or anything but your own two feet), then headed straight for the San Juan Water and Beach Club on Isla Verde. They were packing away the beach loungers by the time we checked in, changed, and made it to the the beach so naturally we headed up to the rooftop bar. We had to try the local brew (Medalla) and decided it was fine.  Nothing to write home about, but it was cold so we were happy .  And the views from the top didn’t hurt.

 

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A quick discussion with our bartender about local food and drink led us to the conclusion that we needed to leave the hotel and head to Mi Casita (a 5 minute walk down the street) to try their famous mofongo.  Rumor has it that tourists and locals eat there and it did appear that way once we arrived. Mike had the pork mofongo with a Magna (the other local beer) and I had the shrimp mofongo with red wine. Mine tasted better than his, but that was just my opinion. (But I was right)

After dinner and a bit of wandering we ended up back at the rooftop bar for  nightcap. I desperately wanted a mudslide but they were completely out of chocolate syrup so I had a Kokok instead (vanilla, cinnamon, and coconut).  It totally satisfied my dessert craving.

 

 

Day 2- Beach & Old San Juan

We started the day early with an awesome breakfast at a place we’d seen the night before- Playa Papaya. Mike had some sort of eggs and vegetables and I had the biggest most beautiful parfait ever.

 

After breakfast we made a quick walk over to Walgreen’s for important stuff like sunscreen, bug spray, and wine. Then we headed for Playa de Isla Verde (the beach at the hotel).  The sand and water were perfect- no debris on the beach or in the water and the surf wasn’t rough.

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Playa de Isla Verde

Around 11 we left the beach (sad face) so we could shower and check out by noon. We opted to leave our luggage at the hotel with the car and catch an Uber into Old San Juan so we wouldn’t have to deal with parking, etc.  That turned out to be a great idea. Our Uber driver dropped us at the Plaza de Armas and off we went.  We meandered along the Paseo de la Princessa Calle Shumberg toward El Morro stopping to take pictures of the multitude of statues and giant trees along the way.

 

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Plaza de Armas

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El Morro

 

Entry to El Morro is $5/adult and there’s plenty to explore. Bonus is that it’s on a hill with a great breeze.  In fact, the grounds in front are popular with kite flyers and we saw several while we were there.  After our visit we walked down into the city to find Senor Paleta for fresh made ice cream as recommended by our Uber driver.  The ice cream was cheap and delicious.  Try the dulce de leche.  I would have taken a picture, but I was hot and my ice cream was melting so you’ll have to take my word about the whole thing. We passed some interesting things along the way.

 

A quick Uber trip after that took us back to the San Juan Water & Beach club to collect our car and head down the coast for the Wyndham Rio del Mar.  (Pro tips- Waze works great in PR. Download it and use it if you plan to drive. Also, leave San Juan before 4 if you want to beat the traffic).

Sixteen miles and 40 or so minutes later we were pulling into the Wyndham Rio del Mar. Check in was painless and the room was lovely though freezing (the AC worked very well). Room keys are bracelets (a la Disney World style Magic Band) and they are different colors based on your resort (The Wyndham is connected to Margaritaville). In all honesty I was concerned about the 2 resorts in one but it wasn’t a problem at all and the facilities throughout were the same with no noticeable difference from one side to the other.

We made it to our room and put on our swimsuits then headed down to the pool bar. Sometime around then I realized I’d lost my camera. After some frantic searching and phone calls we discovered I’d left it in the Uber driver’s car. So we killed time at the resort then went back to San Juan where we killed some more time waiting for our guy to get out of class. Dinner that night was at Church’s Chicken. I’m pretty sure you don’t want pictures of that which is good since I didn’t have my camera.  Anyway, that pretty much killed that evening.  We were exhausted by the time we made it back into the hotel and crawled into bed.

 

Day 3- El Yunque, Los Kioskos de Luquillo, Wyndham beach/pool

We woke up bright and early and ready to explore El Yunque! We grabbed coffee and muffins at the hotel, picked up the car, then headed across the highway to begin our exploration.

We arrived at the first point of interest shortly after 8AM. Our early arrival gave us loads of time to explore the trails, waterfalls, and towers without fighting crowds. We spent approximately 5 hours wandering the park and loved every minute of it.

Pro tips for El Yunque- bring a rain jacket, shoes with some sort of traction (my trail running shoes worked great and Mike’s hiking sandals were pretty good except for a few spots where he had to watch his toes on rocks), water, and a snack if you plan to explore as much as possible.  There is a snack shop in the park (there may even be more than one), and rumor has it that the food is good, but we didn’t stop.  Also, as mentioned earlier, arrive at the park early so you can enjoy the trails in peace and get some great photos without fighting crowds.

Los Kioskos de Luquillo

Playing in the rain forest made us hungry so we left the park and drove about 2 miles down the highway to the Kioskos de Luquillo.  In my head I pictured Oistens in Barbados- just a total warren of food shacks, but it turned out to be more of a really long strip center of food shops. Mike wanted ceviche so we stopped at the first place that advertised it and looked good. Three Medallas, one ceviche, one crab arepa, & an order of tostones later, we were full and happy. Yareh- Kiosko 43 is the place to go!

The remainder of the afternoon was spent at the beach and the pool back at the resort. We briefly considered going kayaking that night on Mosquito Bay to see the bioluminescence, but quickly discarded it as being too much work after our morning adventures (plus Mike didn’t want to drive).

For dinner we ordered a large pizza from the resort bakery (it was actually pretty good), took it to our room, and enjoyed it on our balcony. And remember that bottle of wine we bought at the Walgreen’s? Yep. We had that with our pizza. So we saved a ton of money and didn’t even have to leave the resort to do it. Pro tip- bring your own wine/whatever to enjoy in your room or on your balcony. Wyndham does have a strict no cooler policy so don’t expect to hang out at the pool with your budget beer.

 

Final Day- Day 4- Day 3.5?

Yes, I know I said three days in the title and now I have a day 4. What can I say? We spent the morning hanging around the beach and pool then gathered our things and said adios to the lovely people at the Wyndham. A few things to note- check out time is 11 AM. They’re happy to store your luggage for you if you want to enjoy the pool/beach after your check out, but there are no showers at the fitness facility to get cleaned up before you head back to the city to catch your flight.  I did ask the concierge about this and he referred me to the night manager who informed me that I could shower at the golf pro shop. I got the impression this isn’t highly publicized, so now you know. Make sure you turn in your towel cards AND your wristbands upon check out or you will incur fees. And the valet will want to see your final hotel receipt before you depart (probably to make sure you were honest and paid for valet instead of self parking). Though it’s only about a 35 minute drive back to the airport the Wyndham manager told me they usually recommend departing the resort 3 hours in advance of your flight due to increased Sunday traffic (people driving back to the city in anticipation of the work week) and to give yourself plenty of time to get through “agriculture” (a quick x ray of all your belongings as soon as you enter the airport). He said sometimes it takes 10 seconds, sometimes more. Luckily we were in the 10 second group.  Easy peasy.

A final note about the airport- you exit security straight into the duty free shops. A & B gates are to your left and that’s also where you’ll find the cheap food- Subway, Church’s Chicken, and a handful of others. C & D gates are to your right and there are limited options on this side. Most notably there’s a Margaritaville where you’ll pay $10 for a beer and $18 for a sandwich. So save yourself some $$ and go to the left.

 

Final Thoughts/ Miscellaneous Info

1- First of all, everyone speaks English- this isn’t surprising, but now you know in case you were wondering.

2- The roads are in good shape and Waze works like a charm so do yourself a favor and rent a car. We ran into a woman at the resort that had not rented a car but really wanted to go explore El Yunque at her own speed without signing up with a group. Bummer for her.  (BTW, El Yunque is part of the National Park Service and it’s free).

3- The Wyndham offers an All- Inclusive option. Skip it.  The people I spoke with on the AI plan were disappointed in their options. Apparently not all restaurants at the resort are part of the plan.

4- The beach at the Wyndham isn’t all that great. Yes, I know we spent a lot of time there, but there was organic debris all over the beach and a few yards out in the water. Maybe it’s from the river up the coast or maybe it was from recent storms? Either way, that combined with a rough surf made for a sub-optimal beach experience. The pools (adult/quiet & family/activity) however were great as was the service we received from the entire staff.

5- Bring a reusable water bottle.  The tap water is fine to drink and doesn’t taste weird so why spend the extra money on bottled water if you don’t have to?

 

 

 

Getting to Know Me

Hi everyone. As I figure out the world of blogging I thought I’d take a minute to tell you a little about me.  I’m married (to the most patient man on earth) and have an amazing son.  I prefer puppy pictures to baby pictures and I prefer red wine to white. I love to cook, read, and run. When I’m not busy doing those things I’m busy planning my next trip. After bumping around the world for the last few years, I’ve learned that the best experiences are whatever make you happy. Everyone’s got their own style and that’s ok.

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Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraíso