My parents had to beg me to go to my first all-inclusive, a run-down Club Med in Acapulco. I was 12 years old and it was my first trip abroad. Nothing sounded worse than bunking up with my siblings in what was billed as a camp for families. But when I got there, my prejudice lifted like the Pacific Coast clouds. Within 24 hours, I was transported to a laissez-faire French lifestyle that treated young people like grown-ups and their parents like pampered hedonists. I trapezed, jet skied, sunbathed topless, met boys. I even bonded with my older (rival) sister. It was my first taste of freedom; all that was required of me was to arrive at dinner at 6pm nightly, showered and presentable. We became converts, visiting maybe half a dozen Club Meds well into my college years.
As a grown-up, I shunned the all-inclusive idea for decades, assuming I was too high-minded for such a “follow the herd” mentality. But then one Thanksgiving, we found a great deal and headed back to Club Med in Mexico. The baby went off to camp, the older ones made friends in the kids' club, and I once again swung on the trapeze. Even my taciturn Scottish husband was singing “Hands Up” with the chef de la village by week’s end—he had clearly drank the tequila-infused Kool-Aid.
So, a lesson: For all you nay-sayers with children, don’t underestimate the ease of the all-inclusive. Knowing what you’re paying for up front (which sort of makes the trip feel free once you arrive), means that carefree fun is always on the menu. Here are five of my favorite all-inclusive resorts and chains, in no particular order. Trust me, they all provide a one-click, easy-order, blissful family vacations.
Great Wolf Lodge
The dreaded indoor waterpark can actually be a killer bonding experience for families, especially when it’s just a drive away. Great Wolf Lodge has a dozen locations nationwide, and whether it’s 120 or -20 degrees outside, it’s always 84 in the chain’s expansive parks. Each location has about a dozen slides and rides to splash in, plus a few memory-creating features: nightly story time, a MagiQuest treasure hunt, and a handful of restaurants so you don’t have to venture outside. Also, no one can enter the water park unless they are staying at the attached hotel, so security is not an issue. We usually opt for the Wolf Den or KidKamp rooms when we travel with other families; the kids love sleeping in the bunk beds. One word of warning: Walk quickly past the video arcade and ice cream parlor if you don’t want to indulge your kids in Super Mario Brothers and a loaded cone. (But it's more fun to give in.) Luckily, there is a the fully loaded gym, if you care to work off the burgers and pizza you will inevitably ingest.
Rooms from $199, including waterpark passes for up to 6 guests; greatwolf.com.
The renowned Caribbean family resort (it makes many "best of" lists) Curtain Bluff also happens to be all-inclusive. This means the full-service Ceebee Kids Club is complimentary (Hello, crab races!) as well as kayaking and snorkeling—even cocktails. This is beach-luxe, so a Wellness Concierge is on call to map out your week of water skiing, paddle boarding, sailing, and dining at the two delicious (and somewhat decadent) restaurants. The new Hulford Collection suites come with a private infinity-edge pool, but you don’t need to totally splurge to get the most out of this family-owned retreat with two sugary beaches. In fact, you can spend a blissful week doing pretty much nothing: shell-hunting, swinging on a hammock, sunrise yoga, reading a book, and reconnecting with your kids (even if that means playing video games in the computer room).
How genius that a resort company finally tapped into the multi-generational travel trend? Generations specializes in making everyone from the 8-month-old to the 80-year-old happy, with unlimited butler service, spacious living rooms for hanging out together, and many suites with private plunge pools. The beachfront resort isn’t massive, with just 144 rooms, so you won’t lose your kids or parents. But there’s still loads to do—at the bars, upscale restaurants, spa, and theater (and that’s just for the adults). Kids get access to scheduled team sports competitions and environmentally themed adventures. Parents with babies can also travel light, thanks to the “Gourmet Inclusive” baby amenities, which include bottle warmers, sun tents, baby monitors, changing tables, you name it (plus, affordable nanny services). Also…wait for it…grandparents stay free! So maybe you don’t need that nanny service after all.
The Ranch at Rock Creek is a serious splurge, but if your kids have no concept of the Wild West—or just how big this great country of ours is—then maybe it’s worth breaking the piggy bank to give them a view from a new perspective. In person, the 6,600 acres seem even bigger than they sound, traversing creeks, mountains, valleys, and working ranch land all the way up at 5,200 feet (that’s a mile, folks!) above sea level. Sprinkled across this private range are 29 accommodations that can house at a maximum 125 guests. You’ll see them on horseback, at the fire pit, fly-fishing, reading Kindles on their front porches, on the ropes course, and maybe learning how to shoot a crossbow. The vibe is festive and familial, so don’t be surprised if your kids wanna grow up to be cowgirls, or at least grow close with a kid from across the country who becomes her newfound bestie. And remember: There are few better ways to bond with eye-rolling teenagers than while mountain biking down a 45-degree incline after a skeet shooting lesson.
This is the resort that will convert you to the all-inclusive-lovers club. Cheesy as it may sound, Club Med has family happiness down to a science—as it should. It’s been around since 1950. There are now eight “villages” in North America, all along the Atlantic and the Caribbean, with prime waterfront locations. But the beach is just a tiny fraction of what makes these all-in villages so much fun. For one, parents are encouraged to interact with their kids in public. The best times are during the competitive sand castle building competitions, or on the trapeze, or during the kids’ circus show that takes place weekly. (Parents: Be warned if you’re called on stage!) Even cynics leave knowing the name of the chef de la village (the manager) and all the words to “Hands Up,” the brand’s theme song, by the end of a week. And you know what? They almost always come back next year.
All-inclusive stays from $125 per person, per night; clubmed.us
A recent transplant from New York City to Chicago, Heidi Mitchell has writes about travel, health, and trends. Her writings frequently appear in the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Vogue, Departures, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @heidismitchell