Vacations are stressful. Help us find a non-cheesy tropical hotel?
January 20, 2014 6:06 PM   Subscribe

I need a recommendation for a 4-7 day tropical vacation sometime this spring. I'm thinking hedonistic amounts of lounging, drinking, napping, reading, and eating in the sun for me and my boyfriend. There are way too many options and I will keep putting it off until I can slim down the choices. I especially could use specific recommendations for hotels, as I find it basically impossible to tell whether food is good anywhere.

- Good food. I just can't do another all-inclusive with flavorless "American fare" and a "special sushi night." It's depressing.
- Sunshine!
- Minimal driving. If this means that there are walkable things, or reasonably-priced drivers, or public transit - all work. I just don't want to do a rental because it stresses me out
- Less than a day of travel from NYC. Direct flight is better than not!

- Beach! This is almost an absolute need but I can be swayed if there is other swimming/semi-private outdoor lounging
- Not a spring breakers destination nor too old-folks style. I am an old soul but I wouldn't mind meeting some people my age (30ish) at the bar
- Minimal people bothering me trying to sell stuff
- Champagne style at a microbrew budget. I'm willing to spend a few extra bucks if I'll really enjoy the amenities. I hate the idea of paying for a staff "talent show" and morning zumba or whatever.
- I am not athletic but would be happy to do some chill hiking, biking, kayaking

I've looked at various places in St Martin, Aruba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Hawaii, etc... I just can't commit. I've been to DR and Jamaica and preferred the beaches and food in Jamaica.

Outside of the Caribbean we've enjoyed traveling to Barcelona (fun drinking culture, great weather and architecture) and New Orleans (foooooood!) especially.

We can spend a few thousand each this time. I've spent a ton of time looking at Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor and my head is spinning.
posted by thirdletter to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked at Turks & Caicos? Nice beaches and not a spring break place. Anguilla is also not a spring break place.
posted by Dansaman at 6:30 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding, thirding, and fourthing Turks & Caicos. I've been there three times and I love it to death. I recommend either The Regent Palms (bigger pool, hella fantastic spa, awesome beach -- it's Grace Bay, you can't go wrong) or Gansevoort (gorgeous resort, quite good food, Exhale spa and activities, wonderful beach).

Or hell, do what I did, and split the different: spend a couple of days at one resort, the rest at the other.

If you want to know more about T&C, feel free to MeMail me!
posted by gsh at 6:41 PM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I went to the Sugar Mill Hotel on a family vacation and it's a place my father kept going back to in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Pool and beach. No people trying to sell you things. A good restaurant and places to go nearby if you want. Good bar. It's a smallish place though so maybe not a meet-people location. I seem to recall there were a few beach bars further down the beach but that ways a ways ago, not sure what the place is like nowadays.
posted by jessamyn at 6:46 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Couples Tower Isle! The food was good, the beach was nice, the drinks were plenty, the pressure to buy stuff was way minimal, and the people (staff) are just..amazing. I want to cry thinking about it. You can be as social or as active as you want, which for us was basically not at all. We're early 30s and there were couples of our age and beyond, both older and younger. Basically, I never really wanted to go there but then we did and I never wanted to leave!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 7:05 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been to a lot of tropical places, including Turks and Caicos (which is lovely), but if food is your primary concern, you might consider Sayulita, Mexico. Specifically, Playa Escondida. I've stayed there, and it ticks all your boxes. You fly into Puerto Vallarta and take a super-cheap bus for 20 minutes to Sayulita. The resort is a 20 minute walk from town, or a cheap cab ride. The restaurant onsite is very good, and every restaurant in Sayulita proper is fine, if not excellent (including the street tacos along the arroyo). Check it out!
posted by outfielder at 7:06 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Harbour Island?
It's a tiny island (you can walk all of it) with small hotels and no huge resorts. I stayed at a hotel called The Landing.

The pink sand beaches are absolutely amazing, and there is cheap and amazing local food to be had.
(there are also fancier restaurants, but they can be hit and miss in terms of deliciousness vs price)

It's a bit of a trek to get there–you have to fly to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and then take another flight to Eleuthera, and then a 20 minute speedboat ride from Eleuthera–but it's most definitely worth it.
posted by ooklala at 7:51 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Grand Velas resort in the Mayan Riviera. Awesome place, and the best food I've ever had while on vacation. Seems kinda unbelievable, but yeah, great great food. It's also all inclusive and has great bars. Guests of all ages, but not many families, though, as it is quite pricey.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:03 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going to tentatively recommend St. Martin, where I've been twice, most recently in 2011.

1. Good food? Hell yes. Lots of French chefs winter in St. Martin, and the cuisine is almost universally excellent, especially if you like fish. The restaurant competition in SXM is intense, so bad places don't tend to survive. (I mean, there are better and worse options, of course, but overall quality is quite high.) Prices are not cheap, however. At the best places, expect to pay NYC prices.

2. Sunshine. Yep. There can be occasional bits of rain and clouds, but I think that's pretty common for most Caribbean islands. It was sunny almost the entire time we were there (in February).

3. Minimal driving. This is where SXM falls down for you. It's a very small island, and everything is close, but it would be hard not to rent a car. You could take cabs, but I suspect that would get expensive, and you'd also have to actually find taxis. Don't know how difficult that is as I never tried to hail one there.

4. Non-stop flight from NYC. Looks like there are four airlines with non-stops from the NYC area these days, and the flight is only four hours. You do have to leave early in the morning (everyone flies out at around 8am), but really, it's about as easy to get to as possible.

All the other stuff you want is in evidence as well. There are something like nearly 40 beaches on the island, some of them very secluded and private. Zero spring breakers—the crowd does skew a bit older. (I'm in my 30s. There are some 30somethings there, though not tons. But it's not Ft. Lauderdale, either.) Didn't really do much in the way of various athletic activities, but that definitely exists on SXM, including snorkeling, scuba, etc.

I don't recall being bothered by too many vendors, etc., though there are always a few folks selling stuff on the busier beaches. There are lots of very cute hotels on the French side (*definitely* stay on the French side if you go), where they definitely do not have staff talent shows or morning zumba. We stayed at the Hotel Marquis, which was a lovely place and, as you can see, has strong reviews on TripAdvisor. It's not super-luxe or anything, but then again, no place on St. Martin really is—it's not that kind of destination. It's more about chilling, enjoying the food and the beach, and coming back to a pleasant bed at night.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:22 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Places I have been in central america that meet your criteria:

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua.
Cheap, kind of a party town, gorgeous beaches, there's also a ton of stuff to do in this part of nicaragua besides the beach (Grenada, Ometepe, Laguna De Apoyo), etc-- you can easily spend two weeks here and not run out of things to do.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.
More of a party town/spring break vibe in the town itself, but if you get outside of town to one of the 'eco-hotels', it's a lot more relaxed, and you can still go into town to get good food and party if you want.

Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Good for both seafood and snorkeling/swimming with dolphins, etc.. Fairly inexpensive. The town itself is pretty wild, but you can stay at one of the resorts nearby (Red Frog, for example), and town is just a boat ride away (or you can do what I did, and stay at a hostel in town and then take the water taxi to the resort -- it charges $3/day to go swimming on their private beach, and you can pay for stuff like ziplining if you want).

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Much quieter than Puerto Viejo, and the views are just breathtaking. If you just want to relax, check out the park and see wildlife and do some ziplining, this is what I would recommend. Also has more upscale places to stay, though you can do it on the cheap if you want.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador.

The REALLY cheap option. I was spending about $11/day there, lodging and meals included. $.25 pupusas and $1 beers and the room was like $7 a day. Surfing lessons were like $9 a day or something.. You have to really like the company of surfers to have a good time here, though.

I can get more into specifics if you like.
posted by empath at 9:15 PM on January 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

How about Bocas del Toro, in Panama? It might be a somewhat longer trip than the Carribbean islands, but it should be cheaper overall. Food was good, no one trying to sell you stuff, hotels right on the water, beaches nearby and boats to hire for visiting nearby islands. I think it meets your criteria, except for a direct flight. You need to fly to Panama City first, but if time it right, you can spend a day and visit the Panama Canal.
Here are a couple of links :1,2,3
posted by Snazzy67 at 9:21 PM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Playa Viva, near Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

The food is amazing, the beach is largely abandoned except for local fisherman in places throwing some nets, the resort is tiny and the lodging is gorgeous. You don't have to drive at all. Staying at a place with a turtle sanctuary that strives for sustainable energy and eco friendliness doesn't hurt either. Look at TripAdvisor. One thing that doesn't fit, I don't think you can go direct from NYC, I think you have to get there via connecting flight from Mexico City.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:27 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Harbour Island, or "briland" as it's locally pronounced.
Look into the Marquesas Inn in Key West also.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:04 AM on January 21, 2014

If you do go the Bocas del Toro, Panama route, we thought the Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge was really great. It's very small and intimate, and the food was top-notch (especially the seafood). Each room has a private little dock for scuba diving or lounging in the hammock.

If you fly from Panama City to Bocas, you take a 5-minute taxi ride to a dock, then a water taxi picks you up and takes you to the lodge. One potential downside is the lodge is very isolated, and you need to rely on the water taxis to take you to the beaches in the area (which are gorgeous - check out Starfish Beach for sure, ~10 min. boat ride away). We thought this isolation was a great feature, but it might drive some people crazy.
posted by Yiggs at 5:10 AM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These all are really excellent ideas that I could not have come up with myself, thank you! I'm curious about the Playa Escondida and Bocas del Toro ideas especially...
posted by thirdletter at 5:31 AM on January 21, 2014

I haven't yet been to Panama, but I have a friend who lives in Bocas del Toro and owns a little restaurant there. I have heard that it's much, much more of a party town than Sayulita. Memail me if you want details about Playa Escondida, or if you decide to go to Bocas, I'll give you the name of my friend's restaurant.
posted by outfielder at 7:03 AM on January 21, 2014

You probably will discount this, but I'm from New Zealand and a popular holiday destination from here is the South Pacific: Rarotonga / Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa. Rarotonga is a 19 hour flight from NY so it's probably too far for you but it will be so different to any tropical vacation you might have already experienced. They're all beautiful, but going to Rarotonga is seriously amazing and taking a small plane an extra hour out takes you here.
posted by leemajors at 5:45 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bocas town itself is full of party kids, but it's easy to get away from if you go away from the main town.
posted by empath at 5:50 PM on January 21, 2014

A little late to the party, but seconding masquesoporfavor regarding Couples Tower Isle. Mrs. jferg and I spent a week there a couple of years ago, and had a very pleasant, non-cheesy time. Very laid back, relaxing, and otherwise generally positive atmosphere, and still all of the niceties of all-inclusive. Food was good and didn't seem overly blandly Americanized (though there were plenty of American items on the menu).
posted by jferg at 6:52 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If anyone is looking at this:
We went to Playa Escondida and it was perfect. I am picky with food (quality-wise) and the resort restaurant wasn't AMAZING but it was solid. The accommodations were unbelievable, bartenders were hilarious and mixed good drinks, and it was a great deal all told.
A+, would recommend for other solace-seeking couples.
posted by thirdletter at 6:38 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

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