Just as the U.S. was announcing mandatory Covid tests for border reentry this year, I arrived, family in tow, at a small, locally owned resort in the middle of Puerto Vallarta's coastline. Deep discounts and easy access made Mexico, one of a dozen or so countries still open to Americans, an irresistible beach vacation escape, and although there were plentiful bargains among newer all-inclusives, I was intrigued by an older property called Las Palmas by the Sea.
Although this beachfront resort isn't for everyone -- more on that later -- it was, for us, perfect. About the only things this tiki-inspired hotel lacked were modernity, resort fees and foreign tourists.
We plan to return as soon as possible.
Less is more
The danger of recommending a circa-1971 all-inclusive is that it might appear not just ancient, but tired. And yet, unless you knew the year Las Palmas was built, you couldn't guess by walking the property. Grounds were perfectly manicured, walkways were ornate, and the bamboo-lined bridges, two pools, the beach and the tiled rooms were immaculate. Even the high, massive thatched roofs, often characterized by dust and spider webs, were spotless.
But more than just being very clean -- which is, in Covid times, the baseline -- age has added an authentic retro charm to this property that's missing in a newbuild. Had the Brady Bunch vacationed to Mexico instead of Hawaii all those years ago, I imagine their hotel would have looked something like this. We found it endearing.
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And we found the scale of its footprint to be just right. With 325 standard rooms, it's about a quarter the size of many modern Mexican all-inclusives. It had the amenities we wanted, without the crowds. We were never too far from the beach, bars, restaurants, food, pools and rooms. (While the last all-inclusive we stayed at was wonderful, it often took five to 10 minutes to trek to where we wanted to be. At Las Palmas, it often took five to 10 seconds. Over the course of a week, that time savings adds up, paying dividends in relaxation.)
Las Palmas' target market is domestic, which meant most of our fellow guests were Mexican families; I'd estimate that international visitors made up only 10% to 15% of the guests. This, too, was to our liking. It's a great place to "do as the locals do" while improving your Spanish. (And if you don't have any Spanish to improve, no worries: the staff speaks English.)
Upon arrival, we were greeted by two chatty, friendly resident macaws (in addition, of course, to the bellman). Our all-inclusive wristbands securely fastened, we headed to the snack bar to get an early taste of the earnest hospitality we would enjoy for the rest of the week. Although the restaurant was closing in five minutes, our waiter, Guadalupe, made sure we were well taken care of before he left his shift -- just a little bit late, as it turned out.
He wasn't the only one to go out of his way for us during our stay. By the end of the week, several servers, bartenders and support staff knew us by name and seemed to take a genuine interest in helping us get the most out of our stay. Although the kids club, spa and daily activities were suspended due to the pandemic, the event director did all he could to accommodate us, filling in as a ping pong opponent, finding sand toys for my kids at the beach and providing general encouragement to my daughter and me as we swam laps.
We met several staff who had spent years working at other resorts before settling into positions at Las Palmas, attracted by its more personal approach. Indeed, it seemed as if everyone made it a point to make us feel special: an upgrade to an Ocean View room with a balcony, the admittance to the seaside restaurant even though we missed the cutoff for a meal.
It wasn't only us who seemed to receive special attention: that level of service seemed to be ingrained in the staff. In the bars, servers walked around to make sure everyone's glass stayed full.
And then there were the serendipitous delights. Over the course of several Pacific Ocean sunsets, we saw humpbacks breaching and slapping their fins within 50 yards of the beach. We came across attractive and affordable souvenirs en route to the malecon boardwalk. And lanterns, still hanging in the Romantic Zone (aka old town) after a local fiesta, added to the feeling of authenticity in a city built on tourism.
Not for everyone
I wouldn't say a decision to visit Las Palmas is a binary choice, that you'd either love it or hate it. But I understand why it's the only four-out-of-five-star property I've encountered that is also recognized with a TripAdvisor "Traveler's Choice" award.
Not all international guests want to vacation with locals. "There weren't enough Americans," one negative reviewer griped on TripAdvisor. "Nearly all of the TV channels are in Spanish," said another. If mingling with fellow citizens or watching English-language TV is important, Las Palmas will disappoint.
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My only quibble was the smaller-than-normal "queen"-size beds, which are somewhere between a standard U.S. full and queen. That said, guests seeking something larger would want to opt for a room with a king-size bed, though that doesn't include a second bed for other guests.
Despite the smaller-than-anticipated queen, however, we slept well. And despite the complaints of those desiring more touches of America in Mexico, we, on the other hand, envied guests we met who said they return every year or stay for several months each winter.
Las Palmas by the Sea is located 10 minutes south of Vallarta Airport, near the middle of the hotel district along the main corridor.
Las Palmas (like many other resorts) is now offering free rapid Covid testing to satisfy new American reentry restrictions. The resort works with travel advisors and pays commissions. For reservations, call (866) 432-4605.
Blake Snow has previously covered adventure and family travel for CNN, USA Today, National Geographic and others. This is his first story for Travel Weekly. To learn more, please visit blakesnow.com.