Cruise vs All-Inclusive: The Pilkington Perspective

 

This post is inspired by my recent visit to El Dorado Royale in Cancun, Mexico. It was my first visit to an all-inclusive resort. I discuss check-in, the property, entertainment, meal times and food, as well as entertainment and activities. Hopefully this helps, and feel free to reach out if I can help you decide what is best for you!

It is no secret, I love going on cruises, whether is a 3-day cruise or a 15-day cruise. I first started going on cruises when, as a single college professor, I was looking for somewhere to travel solo during spring break. I was able to afford a decent trip, but all of the “deals” I found required a single supplement (the fine print would say something like “$250 supplement for solo travelers”), or I would have to pay double. With a lot of internet research, I found out about Norwegian Cruise Line’s studio cabins, which are specifically for the solo cabins. I decided on the NCL Epic, which was one of the first ships to offer the studios. They also have the “Studio Lounge,” which hosts a daily solo meet-up. This is not a match making thing. It is simply to encourage people to mingle, make friends, and go to dinner and events together.

I had no idea whether or not I would love or hate the cruise, whether I would be bored, whether I would make friends, or what would happen. On the first night, I went to the solo gathering and ended up having dinner with three people who became my friends for the rest of the cruise. We had a fantastic time. There is a general understanding among solo travelers that there is no pressure to hang out. Solo time is respected, but if you want to interact, there is a place for you. At the end of the 7-day cruise, I didn’t want to leave. It was the most fun, relaxing vacation I had ever had. That was in 2015, and I have been on eight other NCL cruises since then, as well as one on Holland America and another with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. Even my worst cruise wasn’t bad, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

Now that I am a travel advisor, I feel a bit of a need to experience different locations and ways of traveling. As I travel, I try to see the big picture, but I also see myself as an advocate for the solo traveler. In the past year, I was unusually aware of several friends going on vacation in Cancun, so when I found myself with a few free days at the end of the summer, I decided on a quick visit to El Dorado Royale. Since they offered a rate for one person, that seemed like a good sign.

I flew direct from Atlanta to Cancun and then took the shuttle (paid for with my reservation) from Cancun airport to the resort. From the start, everyone was very friendly. However, check-in was annoying and lengthy. All I cared about was lunch since it was 2:00 EST and I hadn’t eaten. I was told that my room was not ready, but I was able to enjoy the property, eat lunch, etc, and return at 3:00 CST for my room. I had learned from cruises to pack my swimsuit in my backpack so that when my suitcase is taken, I can change. I did not realize that the same would apply here, so I was stuck in the clothes that I had flown in.

I was directed to a restaurant overlooking the ocean and had a nice, light lunch. I then checked out some of the property before going back to the lobby to see if my room was ready. It wasn’t, so I walked around some more and returned at 3:00. It still wan’t ready, and I showed obvious disappointment. About 30 seconds later, a bellman came and told me that we were going to go to my room, and hopefully it would be ready when we arrived. As we arrived, they were putting the finishing touches on the room, so that was fine! For comparison, a cruise is similar in this way. An announcement is made giving an estimate of when cabins will be ready, and then a final announcement is made when they are ready.  I appreciate that on a cruise, there is no need to keep checking, unless you choose to do that. Next time at a resort, I will be prepared with a change of clothes!

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The property was beautiful and well maintained. The pools were plentiful, with bars and restaurants scattered about conveniently. Of course, this was a beachfront property, but I didn’t see a lot of people in the ocean or on the beach. Also, my room, which was described as a “beachfront suite,” was not really beachfront. I had a view of palm trees and had to duck and squint through the branches to see the beach or the ocean. That was a bit of a disappointment.

Resort Beachfront palm trees
View from my room

At mealtimes on an NCL cruise, you arrive at the restaurant and are asked for your keycard, and they will ask how many. If you are dining alone, there is no issue made of it. I should mention that sometimes you will be asked if you would like to be seated with other people, and on certain days, that could be nice. At El Dorado Royale, when I showed up at a restaurant alone, I was usually asked if I would like a table for two. I would look around awkwardly at the otherwise empty lobby and say, “No. I am only one person.” This was so annoying to me, and when I provided feedback about it, their response was that since it is adults only, they are trained to assume that people are in couples. Ugh, that is an old-fashioned, unhelpful response! While I don’t mind dining alone anywhere, it is best if dining alone is treated as a non-issue, as it is on cruises.

Speaking of mealtime, I should discuss food. I chose El Dorado Royale because they advertise their “Gourmet Inclusive Experience.” Based on reviews I read, my expectations were cautiously optimistic, and I was pleasantly surprised. On my first night, I went to the Fuentes Culinary Theatre, which is basically a cooking show. It was fun, and the food was interesting and delicious. Also, after googling the wines offered in the wine pairings, I decided to pay for the pairings. While I didn’t necessarily feel that the wines were perfect pairings for the courses, I enjoyed all of the wines offered. Another outstanding meal was a lunch at the Asian restaurant, Kampai. The Korean beef was delicious. Also, the steak dinner I had at Santa Fe was delicious! Although it can vary in quality, I always enjoy most of my cruise food as well, so in the food category, cruise vs resort are quite even.

 

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At the resort, there would be a few entertainment options each evening. There was a guitarist who sang some songs by one of the bars/restaurants, and there were different shows each night. I would say that the entertainment was good enough. On a cruise, the same is true. The shows are on a grander scale, though. On a cruise, though, you will find musical acts throughout the ship at any time during the day. At the pool, music will vary throughout the day from a DJ to different live bands, and inside the ship, there will be different small acts scattered about at different times. At the resort, you would only find recorded music at the pools during the day. I found that different pools had different music, though, and I liked the chill “house” music that was played at the pool by the Health Bar that served smoothies, salads, etc.

Mexican Fiesta show at El Dorado
Mexican Fiesta show at El Dorado

On a cruise, you can walk for miles going from one thing to another. If you have trouble walking, you either walk less, or you take a motorized scooter with you. You also have the option of stairs or elevator to go up or down. At a resort, the property is very spread out, and you can also do a ton of walking. However, at this resort, there were golf carts everywhere ready to shuttle people about. It is just like taking a taxi, and you tell them where you want to go. To get to some restaurants would be a 20 minute walk, or a quick ride on a golf cart. I generally prefer walking, but at the same time, when you choose to walk at the resort, you arrive sweaty. There is no escaping the heat! On a cruise, when you walk, you can escape the heat by going inside.

Golf Cart ride at all inclusive resort
Golf Cart Ride

I suppose some people like a change of scenery, and some people like to be at the same place for a while. If you are at a resort, you are just at the resort, unless you pay a lot of money to leave the resort. You have to arrange for a taxi and go through security as you come and go, and the taxis are not cheap. I visited a different resort that I chose because it was nearby, and the taxi was $20 each way! There were a lot of British people at this resort, and some told me that they were there for two weeks. If that’s what they like, that’s fine, but I was ready for something different after 3 days. Of course, on a cruise, you either have a sea day or a port day. Sea days are fun for enjoying the ship, but after one or two, you are ready for a port day, and then you end up on a different island, usually in a different country. That is fun and fascinating to me! I have heard of people who fear feeling stir-crazy or claustrophobic on a ship, but I actually felt more that way at a resort.

Finally, as far as activities, there were some good ones offered at the resort throughout the day. I did the 8am yoga class each day, and they were fantastic. Other things, such as cooking classes, water polo, bike ride, and rifle shooting were all available and free of charge. There was a weekly schedule posted, and it appeared that the schedule would remain the same for the season. On a cruise, there are also many different activities on board, such as language classes, fitness classes, dancing classes, and game shows. Most are free, but some have an extra charge. I feel like there is typically a greater variety of activities on a cruise, but I was pleasantly surprised by the variety offered at the resort.

Yoga class at El Dorado Royale
Yoga class at El Dorado Royale

To sum it all up, each type of vacation has its own set of pros and cons. For me the cruise wins, especially Norwegian Cruise Line, because of how solo travelers are treated. Maybe other resorts are geared toward the solo traveler (I need to find them), but it seems that couples are generally happier at a resort. I enjoy seeing a new place each day but having the comfort of my cruise cabin; however, I understand that some people like to stay put and do nothing but drink cocktails by the pool all day. Another important thing is that I love on a cruise is getting up to see the sunrise and then seeing it set in the evening. At this particular resort, I found that near impossible. Maybe I could have seen the sunrise on the beach, but the sunset was behind the trees. I will try other resorts in the future, but the cruise has my heart for the overall experience!

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My Day in Havana

As usual, I woke early, and I’m glad I did. It was before sunrise, and I went up to the observation deck (I was on a cruise–Norwegian Sky) to see what I could see. When I first got up there, it was still pretty dark, and you could see lights in the distance. As I made my way to the front of the ship, I found a good place to hang out to watch the sunrise as we approached Havana. There were probably 20 people out there, and typical for the sunrise crowd, it was pretty quiet. There was a different mood as we approached Havana, though. One man standing near me seemed reflective, and I’d say it’s possible that he was originally from Cuba. For me, it was somewhat surreal to be approaching this forbidden island that I’ve heard of my whole life. As I prepared for my trip, I did quite a bit of research to understand the history of what had happened there. That made me more excited to actually be there. Norwegian Cruise Line could not have planned the approach to Cuba better, and I don’t really believe that they did plan to arrive precisely as the sun was rising. It was absolutely stunning to see the dramatic colors of the sky along with the dramatic architecture of Havana.

I got some breakfast and went back to my cabin to get ready for the day. I was scheduled to meet Ramona and Donna at 8:15. Ramona noticed that I was traveling solo when we were waiting in the cruise terminal in Miami, and she asked if I would like to join her and her daughter on their day in Havana. They had arranged a tour guide to take them on a walking tour and classic car tour. I’m so glad that I met her and accepted her offer. It was a wonderful day. My only condition was that we went to the place I had planned to have lunch!

It took a while to get off the ship and through customs. In addition to the lines of people disembarking, there was a computer problem in the immigration line. We made it, though, and we met Luis, our tour guide, right on time at the Russian Orthodox church. He was very friendly and spoke excellent English. He apologized, though, because he had been giving tours in German recently. He told us that he learned German on his own! Also, his previous career was as an English teacher. The meeting place was also very close to the Havana Club Rum Museum, so we stopped by there to arrange a tour for later. We then started our walking tour, which was necessary since cars are not allowed on many of the streets in the Old Town. Here are some of the sights along the way:

Meeting Luis, our guide

A place where Cubans go for their rations
So, the woman is kind of interesting, but the building is the actual subject
Government building
Train car that used to transport important people
I was enjoying this guy’s music. Wished I had some coins to give him.
We were told that this has something to do with women wearing the pants.
Plaza vieja
Plaza Vieja with a sculpture of the national flower

Looking into the hotel where Hemingway stayed for a while.

“Shrine” to Heminway at Hotel Ambos Mundos

Old apothecary shop
Trompe l’oeil
Catedral de la Habana

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Me with my mojito
Inside La Bodeguita del Medio (Hemingway’s place for mojitos)
Wooden street pavers

Going up the stairs at the rum museum
Courtyard at the rum museum

Tasting after the tour. Donna won a drink for answering a question

After the rum tour, we finally met our car, which was a green Oldsmobile. I thought 61 was the date, but someone told me that’s after the trade embargo. Maybe it was 58? Here it is, along with the Russian Orthodox church in the background.

Our first stop on the car tour was lunch at La Guarida. I read about this over and over as I was researching Havana, so this was the one place that I felt I must visit for a meal. La Guarida is a paladar, which is a restaurant run out of a private residence. If I had been walking, I likely would have missed it. Part of the charm is the staircase that looks like it’s in ruins. It was a fun surprise to see the linens hanging to dry as we walked up the stairs. Some photos from our experience there:

Yucca Fritters
Ropa Vieja–Yum!

The check was presented in this beautiful box

The handwashing area outside the toilets.
View from La Guarida.

I wish I knew what this wall says.

Next stop was the Hotel Nacional, which was modeled after The Breakers in Palm Beach Florida. I was excited to see that since The Breakers is one of my favorite places to visit in Palm Beach (just to visit–not to stay). It was interesting to see that it actually was very similar in design, especially from the outside. The inside was similar too, but a bit less fancy, as one might expect.

A menu at the restaurant, featuring photos of famous people.

We then went to the Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). It’s very important to the politics of Cuba (description from Wikipedia).

Luis, the tour guide, then took us to a shop to buy rum and cigars. Although I have no interest in smoking anything, I bought three cigars to give to people who might appreciate them. I also bought 3 different small bottles of rum (for research). As Donna and I left the shop, we found Ramona outside enjoying a cigarillo.

Although Havana Club is more popular, it seems that Cubans prefer Santiago de Cuba rum.

Next stop was La Floridita, where Hemingway went to drink daiquiris. It’s also known as the birthplace of the daiquiri! It was a fun experience with live music playing.

A few other sights as we ended our tour:

Bacardi Building–they moved to Puerto Rico after the revolution.
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso (Alicia was a famous ballerina)
Capitol
HUGE flea market

I went back to the ship for dinner, rested a bit, and went back out by myself. Although the streets were dimly lit, I felt more safe walking alone there than I would on many streets in Atlanta. It was great to see Havana at night! I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up, but I had a few places marked on my map. I had downloaded Havana in Google Maps, and I was very happy the the GPS worked even without cellular service. I ended up at a place called Siá-Kará Café. There were some great musicians playing, especially the saxophonist. I got a seat at the bar and ordered a Cuba Libre and flan. Both were wonderful. I had a great conversation with one of the servers, and it was very interesting to get his take on life in Cuba. By the way, I didn’t pry. He just started telling me about his life. On my next trip to Havana, I hope to visit there again!

Gran Teatro at night

Flan & Cuba Libre

A few more photos of the walk back to the ship:

Supposed to be a good place to go

The next morning, we were still in Havana until 11:30. I decided to just stay on the ship, since I had a very full day from 8:15am until almost midnight. I chose to keep that beautiful day as my Havana experience. Another thing is that I spent over $200! You could spend much less per day, but I’d say I packed about 3 days of enjoyment and exploration into one. I was eating a wonderful lunch in the main dining room as we sailed away from Havana:

Ah, I can’t wait to go back!