All-inclusive or a la carte? Two Aruba resort experiences

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The view from a room at the all-inclusive Hotel Riu Palace Aruba.
The view from a room at the all-inclusive Hotel Riu Palace Aruba. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

In 2016, Aruba was set to make history by passing a law restricting the number of all-inclusive hotel rooms on the island to no more than 40% of the total, a move with the potential to significantly influence hotel development in the region.

The law was never implemented and probably never will. The Aruba Minister of Tourism, who had pushed for it, abruptly stepped down in November 2016, his title absorbed by the Minister of Transport, Energy and Environment, all but leaving the edict to die. 

The law might be nothing more than a footnote in history, but the concerns people have about all-inclusive resorts versus the so-called European plan hotels remain. I visited Aruba last winter, staying in both types of properties to get a sense of the different experiences.

The Hyatt: a European plan hotel

I had heard great things about the staff and service at the Hyatt Regency Aruba, and from our very first encounter I was impressed.

Upon arrival, Jacqueline, the Regency floor host who checked us in, calmed my travel-weary and whiny 3-year-old by fishing from her purse a piece of her own (sugarless) gum. A small gesture made our first few hours all the better. 

Piet's Pier Bar at the Hyatt Regency Aruba is a great place to catch the sunset on Palm Beach.
Piet's Pier Bar at the Hyatt Regency Aruba is a great place to catch the sunset on Palm Beach.

The Hyatt's tropical ambience immediately gives guests a sense of place. From its open-air lobby, a guest walks out to rolling gardens of greenery, flowers and winding paths. My son loved looking at the caged birds, the hotel's signature black swans and turtles swimming in the lagoon.

As Regency floor guests, we enjoyed the small but sufficient continental breakfast each morning. The friendly staff was quick to supply things that weren't laid out, such as plain yogurt. Our room offered a view of both the gardens and the ocean. The floor's common area had snacks on offer all day and complimentary wine and small bites in the evening, along with sunset ocean views.

I was told that the time of our visit, in mid-January, wasn't a particularly busy week for families, but there were still quite a few of them. We quickly learned that many families come back year in and year out without fail.

Members of a Brooklyn family who come for the same 10 days every year have become friends with other families that do the same. Another family that has been coming for one week every year since their kids were 4 and 6 are figuring out how to continue doing so now that those same kids are in college.

Many guests told us they wouldn't stay anywhere else. And one thing several guests said was that the hotel's access to nearby restaurants, many located on a strip in front of the hotel, is a big part of its draw.

We took advantage of this as well, eating two dinners on-site and venturing out for a third. This clearly has some impact on the hotel's restaurants. We found that they were packed on the Friday we were there, but much slower on the Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Saturday night scene on the strip was bustling, with waiting lists at some of the most popular eateries and live music outside. As the families finished eating, the bars and clubs started filling up.

Guests eat dinner on-property at the Hyatt an average of two nights, the general manager told me. He understands that, as much as Hyatt would like to keep the business in-house, their guests are more likely to want to return if they enjoy the entire island experience, not just the hotel itself.

And the property has so much to offer, I certainly found ways other than for dining to spend money. My favorite spot was Piet's Pier Bar, set on the pier jutting out into the sea off of the Hyatt beach. It's hard to think of a better place on Palm Beach to watch the sunset. 

A room with an ocean and pool view at the Hyatt Regency Aruba.
A room with an ocean and pool view at the Hyatt Regency Aruba.

Being there with a young child, we found a lot to do on-property during the day. I was grateful there were never any lines for the slide (the biggest at any Palm Beach resort) and that chairs were readily available by the pool (although I heard both can get busier during school vacation weeks).

Being able to book a beach palapa online was a great perk, especially as friends at other hotels on Palm Beach were getting up very early in the morning to stand in line to book them. Launched in 2016, the iPalapa system refreshes each day at 4 p.m. for users to reserve the palm-roofed shelters and umbrellas for the next day. If you forget to do it right at 4 p.m., the best locations won't be available, but we always got something.

The Riu: an all-inclusive hotel

The next stop on our trip was the all-inclusive Hotel Riu Palace.

The Riu has a castle-like appearance that has nothing to do with its Aruba location but a lot to do with its Riu heritage. A spokesperson said that decoration is "very characteristic to our brand," and guests would be able to "identify the style as Riu," which has been working with the same interior designer for more than 20 years.

Riu said the U.S. is one of its top three markets. During the week we were there in January, the vast majority of guests seemed to be from Spanish-speaking countries, either South America or Spain. The English-speaking guests we met happened to all be Canadian.

Catering to the majority clientele, the music playing at the pool bar was almost entirely in Spanish and included reggaeton and Spanish pop. Employees' default greeting was in Spanish.

The Riu shines in the nightlife department, with bars packed with families even late into the evening and an interesting variety of shows.

The Riu's extensive buffet is the most popular place to eat, and it literally has something for everyone. But the resort also has several specialty restaurants. I was a fan of the Sayuri Japanese restaurant. It also has a steakhouse, an Italian eatery and Krystal, a "fusion" restaurant, although it wasn't clear which cuisines were being fused.

All the restaurants and the buffet were very busy, and I noticed that few people seemed to trickle out to eat at night. However, after dinner, more guests were inclined to leave to check out the local nightlife.

Riu said it doesn't record how often guests eat off-property but did say that it usually depends on the duration of the stay. Guests staying for fewer than three days tend to exclusively eat on-site, while those staying longer usually try restaurants outside the resort.

The Riu Palace's lunch buffet is the most popular place for resort guests to eat.
The Riu Palace's lunch buffet is the most popular place for resort guests to eat. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

The 9th floor junior suite in which the Riu hosted us was very spacious, with a separate seating area and a very large balcony with awesome views of the hotel pool and beach beyond it. It was a lovely place to have a drink and watch the sunset. Being all-inclusive, the room had a minibar stocked with spirits and beer.

The room also had a very sizable bathroom with a large shower and double sink, and I appreciated the overall lack of carpeting found in most hotel rooms.

A nice perk the Riu offers is that even after guests check out, if they have flights later that day, the hotel allows them to stay on the property and use all the facilities and enjoy the food and drinks as long as they'd like. It even offers lingering guests a clean, spacious shower and changing room.

As with many all-inclusive properties, if you don't reserve a palapa early in the morning, you won't get one. Luckily, there were a lot of pool chairs available for late starters like us, even if they weren't in the most choice locations.

Locals' views of resort types vary

In talking to some islanders, I found that their attitudes toward all-inclusives varied. The taxi driver who took us from the Hyatt to the Riu told us we were "going in the wrong direction."

"The people [at all-inclusives] don't eat out, and we have so many good restaurants," he said.

But another islander offered a different perspective. The operators of a boat excursion, which we booked while walking down Palm Beach one day, said that guests staying in the all-inclusives are willing to spend more money on activities and excursions because they're not spending as much on food and drinks all week.

This was echoed by Daniele Camponovo, regional director for Aruba and Panama at Riu Hotels & Resorts.

"Our two hotels have the highest percentage of guests buying excursions and exploring the island," he said. "Aruba is a very friendly and secure country, and every day a great number of Riu guests are renting cars or using local taxis to visit the island, including local shops, restaurants, bars, discotheques and so on."

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