By Kara Williams, on April 10, 2014

All-inclusives in Puerto Vallarta

For a relaxing beachfront family vacation in Mexico, you can’t beat the ease and convenience of an all-inclusive resort. With all meals, drinks, and many activities included in the room rate, all-inclusives allow families to kick back and enjoy spending time with each other.

On my family’s recent spring break vacation in Puerto Vallarta, we had the chance to overnight at two family-friendly, all-inclusive sister resorts: the luxurious Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit and Velas Vallarta in Nuevo Vallarta, a marina community north of the Puerto Vallarta’s downtown center. As an added bonus, on one of the best date nights I’ve had in a long, long time, my husband and I savored a decadent, delicious meal at Casa Velas, an adults-only boutique hotel just a five-minute walk from Velas Vallarta.

I’d recommend all three of these hotels in the Puerto Vallarta area for different reasons, occasions, and pocketbooks. Here are the highlights of each.

Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit

Immediately upon pulling up to the expansive, open-air, thatched-roof lobby at Grand Velas, I felt welcomed. Friendly bellmen whisked away our luggage, we were offered juice on ice and cool washcloths, reception staff checked us in while we sat on a comfy rattan sofa, and spa staff gave us neck and shoulder massages before we headed up to our master suite (with the kids in their own master suite next door).

A wonderful array of snacks (peanuts, chips, candy, breakfast bars) plus a fully stocked mini bar (sodas, juice, water, beer) had the entire family in smiles after a long travel day. And before we’d finished exploring our spacious, modern rooms—compete with lounging beds on the balcony—our personal concierge knocked on our doors to check on us and confirm dinner reservations I’d made online.

Viewfinder Tip: Vendors hawk silver jewelry, sunglasses, ceramics, and blankets on the Puerto Vallarta beaches. Bargain with them for your souvenirs.

The dining options at Grand Velas are quite good. Three AAA Four Diamond restaurants are sophisticated and the food is excellent. At our first meal at Frida, offering gourmet Mexican cuisine, I deemed the buttery Chilean sea bass the best seafood dish I’d ever eaten—no hyperbole here, really! Dinner at the Italian restaurant, savored by candlelight on white-linen tablecloths and accompanied by a talented pianist, was equally delicious. We took our buffet breakfasts and lunches at the casual oceanfront restaurant, and all four of us—including my vegetarian teen—found plenty of yummy options. I liked the pint-sized buffet area just for younger kids, where they could select their own pizza, chicken nuggets, and fries at lunch, and pancakes, sausage and (mostly sugary) cereal at breakfast. Fruit and veggies also were available, along with yummy freshly pressed juices such as pineapple and cactus.

Multiple swimming pools, including an infinity pool facing the ocean, an adults-only hot tub, and a children’s pool, allow for lounging outdoors. Cabanas provide a touch of shade on the beach, which is free of rocks and great for sandcastle building and long walks. From the beach, the view of old town Puerto Vallarta and the mountains surrounding Banderas Bay is impressive.

The Grand Velas kids’ club is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and children can attend for as little or as long as they’d like—all for free, which is a boon for parents who might like kid-free time to enjoy a snorkeling excursion or a quiet, romantic dinner for two. The fitness center is well equipped, and I had fun joining one of the group fitness classes, also complimentary, offered a couple times a day.

Awesome infinity pool at Grand Velas

The spa at Grand Velas is serene, with its waterfalls flowing into hot tubs and pretty fresh-flower designs floating in bowls of water. My deep-tissue massage here was quite good, namely because my therapist began the treatment with a seated “transformation ritual” that set the scene for relaxation. However, I recommend the spa with a few caveats. First, treatments are very expensive; I spent US$210 for a 50-minute deep-tissue massage. Second, guests really aren’t allowed free reign to enjoy the amenities in the locker room. A spa attendant followed me from steam to shower to hot tub, and made sure I was on a lounge chair 10 minutes before my scheduled treatment. I much prefer to call the shots before my treatments and spend my time enjoying amenities without anyone “looking after me.” Finally, we were required to wear bathing suits in the steam, shower, and pools, which I found odd. I like to steam in only a towel!

Still, I recommend Grand Velas overall for its attention to service (my spa attendant certainly was attentive!), spacious rooms, lovely beach area, and excellent food. This is a AAA Five-Diamond luxury resort with a luxury price tag attached.

Velas Vallarta

This property is a 20-minute drive from Grand Velas, and only a quick 5-minute taxi ride from the Puerto Vallarta airport. This resort isn’t nearly as upscale as Grand Velas, the dining experience isn’t as extraordinary, and the beach here is rocky, making it difficult to take long walks from the resort. (However, the pebbly rocks didn’t stop us from playing in the ocean every day we were here.)

Lush grounds and lazy river at Velas Vallarta

Velas Vallarta is an RCI Gold Crown Resort, which means timeshare-owning guests are plentiful. The timeshare units aren’t necessarily a bad thing, since a one-bedroom suite attached to a studio—each with its own full kitchen and bathroom—create ideal lodging for a family. Our children had their own separate area for sleeping, but we’d often gather in the master suite’s large living room for afternoon of TV when we needed a break from the sun. Provided snacks here included oatmeal, popcorn, and Ramen noodles we could cook in our kitchens.

I also liked the beautifully maintained and lush grounds, filled with bougainvillea, philodendron, palm trees, and koi ponds. Large iguanas and loud peacocks also roam the grounds. Multiple pools are linked by a lazy river and bridges. The pool scene definitely had an upbeat party atmosphere, with spirited entertainment staff organizing ping-pong tournaments and lively water aerobics daily. Also fun: yoga on the jetty every morning. The gym is tiny here–just two treadmills, two bikes, and two eliptical machines, and the spa is no-frills (take your massage inside or in a cabana on the jetty), but Velas Vallarta guests can use the better equipped gym at the Casa Velas boutique hotel (see below), and also book a treatment at the Casa Velas spa, where the treatment menu is much more extensive.

The kids’ club at Velas Vallarta is in a newly designed, brightly painted area with cozy spots for arts and crafts, video-watching, and game-playing. Kids also can play on a swingset outside, and scheduled activities include juggling, painting, bingo, kickball, soccer, and musical chairs.

Dining options include a casual oceanfront restaurant, where we could order off a menu or from the buffet—I loved the made-to-order breakfast omelets and the lunchtime design-your-own Mongolian stir fry. Salads are plentiful, and pizza and hamburgers are always available for picky palates. The “fancier” restaurant has rotating menus—with Italian, Mexican, Asian, and French cuisines, to name a few—and a more sophisticated feel, during our visit entrees included grilled salmon, shrimp tamales, and pork sirloin.

With a lower price point than Grand Velas and the flexible room configurations, Velas Vallarta is a good choice for families with teens or multiple families traveling together. The all-inclusive dining plan is optional, so you can rent a room without meals included, and use the full kitchen to cook group dinners on your own.

Elegant tables at Casa Velas’ Emiliano restaurant


Casa Velas

Inland and across the golf course from Velas Vallarta is an exquisite adults-only boutique property, Casa Velas. The evening meal I enjoyed here with my husband (no kids!) was oh-so romantic. The fine-dining restaurant, Emiliano, with its elegant, outdoor, candle-lit tables, offers gourmet Mexican cuisine with nightly specials that focus on a different region of the country. When we visited, we sampled Yucatan favorites such as papadzules (hard-boiled egg tacos with pumpkin seed salsa) and cochinita pibil (pork roasted in banana leaves). The highlight of my evening: Watching our friendly server make me flaming Mayan coffee with Frangelico, Kahlua, and Xtabentun, a Mexican honey liqueur. Served in a cinnamon-sugar rimmed wine glass with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, the fancy after-dinner drink was the perfect way to top off our romantic meal. Although a dinner here is not included in the all-inclusive rate at neighboring Vela Vallarta, anyone can book a reservation at Emiliano and pay regular menu prices.

I also toured the grounds by day a bit when I visited the property to use (for free) the Casa Velas gym, outfitted with free weights, treadmills, bikes, and strength-training machines. Set on the edge of the golf course, this resort is especially lush and green, with lilypad-dotted ponds, colorful flowered bushes, towering palm trees. The pool scene was extremely peaceful—no one was on a microphone here announcing the next round of poolside bingo. Casa Velas isn’t on the beach, but guests are a short, complimentary shuttle ride away from the exclusive Casa Velas Ocean Club, with a pool, lounge chairs, beach cabanas, and restaurant.

With its chic feel, outstanding gourmet restaurant, and pretty tropical surroundings, Casa Velas earned top marks from me, even after I’d spent only a few hours on site. I’d be happy to return for an overnight stay without children!

Where do you like to stay when you vacation in Mexico?