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13 May 2009

Azul Sensatori by Karisma - Puerto Morelos, Mexico

View of hotel from our balcony

I never penned myself as the type to enjoy an all-inclusive vacation, but having kids has changed all of that. We took our first all-inclusive trip last year, for spring break. We visited the Sol Melia resort in Puerto Vallarta and loved it. Our only complaint was the food situation. It wasn’t TERRIBLE, but it wasn’t memorable either. We vowed that for our next all-inclusive trip, we’d try to find a place with better food, but, deep inside, we didn’t have high expectations.

You can imagine how intrigued I was, then, to receive the press release from Karisma Hotels. Billing themselves as a gourmet inclusive, they promised a la carte service (no buffets!), multiple restaurants, and a top-of-the-line wine list. When they then offered us a week’s trip to one of their hotels, we jumped at the opportunity.

We were originally scheduled to go to the Azul Fives in Playa del Carmen, but due to the economy, the opening of that hotel has been delayed (it is now scheduled to open this coming fall). We were given a two room suite at the Sensatori instead.

The Sensatori has multiple buildings. There is a family building with suites specially tailored to those with kids. There is also an adults-only building, filled with guests who are more interested in partying than watching kids play Marco Polo. We were placed in the Premium building, which gave us access to an exclusive pool, free DVD rentals (guests in the other buildings pay a small fee) and aromatherapy (we were able to choose the scent of our sheets, bath products and “air” – yes, it was a little silly, but the kids were amused). We also had access to pool butlers.

In theory, the pool butlers take care of your every need at the Premium pool. They splash your face with Evian, they bring you books and sunscreen, they refresh your towels every few hours, and they convey your drink orders to the pool waiters. In reality, we didn’t see much of this service. To be fair, we spent much of our time at the beach, but while at the pool, we noticed that service was a bit uneven. (At the Azul Beach hotel down the road just a bit, ALL guests have access to beach butlers. According to Kara at Traveling Mamas, the beach butlers were super attentive, and fulfilled every bit of their promise.)

As I mentioned, we spent the lion share of our time on the gorgeous beach. Beach waiters insured that we had a drink in our hands at all times, and the kids had plenty of buckets and shovels at their disposal. Every day features a barbecue at the beach so you can eat your lunch without going to the bother of putting on a cover-up or shoes. It’s truly lovely, and I still dream about Fernando the beach waiter.

There is a kids club at the hotel for kids ages four and up. Max snuck in a few times, but during the day, the kids usually preferred to hang with us outside. The sun in Puerto Morelos is incredibly strong, so kids at the club have most of their activities indoors. While the practical mom side of me can appreciate this, my children wanted to do nothing more than play in the pool and in the sand, and didn’t want to be dumped inside the club no matter how brightly colored and exciting it was. We did REALLY appreciate the evening hours, though. This was not offered at our hotel last year, but it is something that I would insist upon on all future all-inclusive trips. We took advantage of this nearly every night (sometimes for dinner, sometimes for just a few drinks at the Mojito Bar), and loved that we didn’t have to hire a babysitter.

So, food. Let’s talk food. We were very pleasantly surprised by the food at the Sensatori. The one restaurant that I could have done without was Spoon, but even that I’d consider a success, because despite my lukewarm opinion of it, it was the kids’ favorite. Spoon is the only buffet restaurant at the resort, but as I mentioned above, Azul doesn’t DO buffets. They call the concept at Spoon display dining, because each station features an actual cook preparing the food. (It’s still basically buffet, but I can understand why they’d want to avoid that stigma.)

The other restaurant choices include Sienna, an Italian restaurant, Tapaz, a Spanish small plates restaurant, Zavaz for Caribbean food, Zocalo for Mexican food, and Le Chique, an adults-only molecular gastronomy restaurant.

Every restaurant had a universal kids menu available. For those with super-picky eaters, this is probably a godsend. Chicken nuggets everywhere! For us, it was a bit of a bummer. My kids are somewhat adventurous. If we are at a tapas place, I want them eating tapas, not hot dogs. Luckily, they were able to order off the adults menu everywhere when that was what they preferred (though Max frequently stuck to the kids menu). At the Azul Beach hotel, each restaurant has its own kids menu that is reflective of the type of cuisine being served. I would have loved to have seen this at Sensatori, but it’s a small nitpick.

We saved Le Chique for our last night at the resort. While it’s no Alinea, we were shocked to find molecular gastronomy at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. Huge, huge kudos to Karisma for taking this risk. Not every guest is going to want food featuring foams and smoke and liquid olives that burst the moment you place them into your mouth (OMG, so cool). But, Karisma has taken its gourmet moniker seriously, and is serving inventive meals that entertain both the palate and the mind. We were very pleased, and it was a terrific end to an amazing week.