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Best all-inclusive holidays

By Mark Hodson, Sunday Times Travel Writer and Editor of 101 Holidays

How does an all-inclusive holiday sound to you? To some people it will sound perfect: pay a single one-off fee then indulge as and when you choose, with limitless food and drink and plenty of activities to stave off the boredom. To others, however, it will sound like a kind of nightmare: stuck in a single hotel for the whole of their holiday, surrounded by their fellow holidaymakers eating and drinking to excess.

There is an obvious appeal to all-inclusive holidays, particularly if you’re a parent. Knowing how much you’ll end up paying, and not worrying about continual requests for drinks, ice creams and snacks, is a real weight off your mind. And if that results in a little over-indulgence, well it’s a holiday, isn’t it. A week or two then it’s back to the dreary routine at home. See our guide to all-inclusive family resorts.

Tourists are cut off from the local community

However, there are some strong arguments against all-inclusive resorts. Critics say that tourists are effectively penned in a gilded cage, which cuts them off both financially and culturally from local people and businesses. With food and drink on tap, they don’t tend to eat at local restaurants or bars, and don’t interact with locals. Many will return from a holiday, learning little about the destination they visited and failing to extend their understanding and sympathy for people elsewhere in the world.

There may still be economic benefits for the destination. Local people tend to be employed in the resorts. But the jobs are less appealing: working in a kitchen or cleaning rooms, rather than running your own business and enjoying the profits. And if the tour operator that owns the hotel decides to close it down and move abandon the destination, the economic effects on the ground can be devastating.

LUX* MaldivesAll-inclusive Maldives honeymoons

It depends on the destination

The decision of whether or not to go all-inclusive depends very much on your destination. In a country such as Thailand, which has fabulous street food and high-quality cheap local restaurants, it would be frankly nuts to book an all-inclusive. However, in the Indian Ocean it’s a whole different story.

In the Maldives, for example, you will be staying on an island resort with no local restaurants within reach. You have no choice but to eat at the hotel, so booking an all-inclusive package is a very sensible option, even if you’re on honeymoon. Our recommended hotels include Meeru Island Resort and Kuredu Island Resort.

Mauritius is another good all-inclusive destination. In the five-star bracket we recommend Beachcomber while Tropical Sky has a wide range of three and four star all-inclusives.

But you can escape the gilded cage

Of course, it is possible to enjoy an all-inclusive holiday and still interact with the locals. You can book a hotel close to a town or resort and wander out to shops and bars. Rather than eat in the same hotel dining room three times a day, you can sample a few meals at local cafes or restaurants. Ask the staff where they go to eat and drink. Buy a few drinks for locals and ask them about their lives.

You could argue that a cruise holiday is the ultimate all-inclusive, as passengers have fewer chances to interact with local people and economies. The answer? Decline to sign up to the group tours and excursions and instead jump ship and explore independently. Walk into town, hail a taxi, do some shopping and sit down at a local restaurant.

Once on a cruise from Southampton to Lisbon I amazed to find that many passengers didn’t even get off the ship at Vigo in north west Spain. I strolled into town and enjoyed a sensational al fresco seafood lunch – a glorious respite after days of eating food from the ship’s freezer.

Cape Verde Islands

Our pick of the best all-inclusives

All-inclusive hotels have acquired a reputation for low-quality: bland overcooked food, cheap local spirits and unimaginative buffets. But there are exceptions. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve enjoyed some fabulous all-inclusive holidays.

Mark Warner with its Mediterranean beach clubs and ski chalet-hotels, has perfected the formula of fresh local food, good childcare and high-quality activities.

Virgin’s Limited Edition properties are not strictly all-inclusive but almost everything included – take a look at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in South Africa and Necker Island in the Caribbean.

In the Caribbean, Sandals has proved with its “ultra inclusive” packages that it’s possible to enjoy luxurious accommodation and great service (some of its resorts have British-trained butlers) in one price. Its sister company, Beaches, is aimed at families and offers a great experience for kids of all ages.

Other Caribbean all-inclusive hotels that we recommend include Turtle Beach in Tobago and The Verandah in Antigua.

For cheap all-inclusive holidays we suggest the Melia Tortuga and Ibersostar Club in the Cape Verde islands – see our editors’ verdict on this exciting destination. The Gambia in West Africa is also a great value all-inclusive winter sun destination. We recommend the Gambia Experience.

Not all cruise holidays are characterless big boats – we recommend some great alternatives (that usually offer all-inclusive pricing, including gulet cruises in Greece, Italy and Turkey, and these hotel barges in France.

Last updated: 18 November 2016

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