Not that long ago, people went to the Caribbean in spite of the food; not because of it. But along came the wellness movement, the Food Channel, celebrity chefs and dining as sport. Expectations rose, so resorts, including many all-inclusives, hired better chefs, opened new kinds of restaurants, offered more fresh produce, upgraded their wines, and trained the servers better. The result: Dining has become a selling point and a competitive edge, especially at adults-only resorts. So, I asked some savvy travel agents and tour operators which all-inclusives are the culinary stand-outs.
“Sandals comes right to mind,” says Beth Skypeck, Virtuoso agent, senior travel advisor for Direct Travel, and Caribbean, weddings and honeymoons specialist. “As the all-inclusive market grew, Sandals upped travelers’ expectations with its Gourmet Discovery Dining.” It’s not just the variety of restaurants at Sandals resorts; it’s the quality, she explains. “If Sandals decides to put in an Indian restaurant, they’re not just going to tell their chef to do Indian food. Instead, they hire a real Indian chef for an authentic experience.”
In addition to offering Robert Mondavi wines as house wines, Sandals has a Culinary Ambassador—Emmy Award-winning chef Walter Staib—and dining concierges who make it easy for agents to book clients who have dietary restrictions. Skypeck offers an example about a booking at Beaches Turks & Caicos, which isn’t adults-only, but the same Sandals principles apply. “I had a family going there, and Mom had to avoid gluten, sugar, and some other ingredients. They were so nervous, they thought they shouldn’t travel. I e-mailed the dining concierge about their concerns, and shortly after they got there, the client e-mailed me. ‘We met with the dining concierge; I feel so much better.’ More e-mails like that followed. The concierge even arranged for a chef to make gluten-free blueberry cakes for the flight home.”
Jeff Clarke, president and CEO of Travel Impressions, also notes the trend toward healthy food. “You can’t find a better all-inclusive for gourmet wellness than Zoëtry Agua Punta Cana. Locally sourced ingredients at four internationally themed restaurants make eating right, easy and guiltless,” says Clarke.
Its four restaurants are “Amaya’s (Caribbean cuisine), Olena (European fusion), Piragua (Creole-Latino), and beachfront Indigo (light international fare),” explains Diane Crisman-Race, manager at Valerie Wilson Travel in Clinton, NJ. “My husband and I found the seafood fresh and wonderful at every meal, and the local beef was very good. Our favorite night was a candlelight dinner on the beach. The wild-caught shrimp and lobster were excellent; all the local ingredients they used were over-the-top delicious. The coffee shop, Coco Cafe, had the very best latte.”
Tina Iglio, sr. v.p. at Delta Vacations, cites two other adults-only all-inclusives in the Dominican Republic for their cuisine. One is the Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro, where “the level of service at lunch says a lot about the overall food quality within the resort. The lunch buffet and a la carte choices are the best I’ve seen, including cooked-to-order filet mignon and lobster.” The Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado Don Pablo Collection has also impressed Iglio. “Throughout the resort the food quality and service is exceptional,” she says. “My favorite was Don Pablo’s [candlelit dining with wandering musicians] for a charming, romantic dinner.”
Carlos Castro, travel research specialist in the Caribbean and Latin America at Bayside Travel Bureau Inc, a Virtuoso agency, singles out Excellence Punta Cana. He cites Toscana, its Italian restaurant, for the pollo al peperoncino, “chicken breast flavored with garlic, rosemary, crushed chili pepper, basil, oregano, and olive oil along with grilled vegetables.” Another of his favorites is Barcelona, the Mediterranean restaurant, whose entrees include “mahi-mahi grilled with a creamy tomato, onion, capers and roasted garlic sauce.”
And that’s why visiting the Caribbean in spite of the food has been replaced by visiting it because of the food.
Excellence Punta Cana: excellenceresorts.com/resorts/excellence-punta-cana; excellenceresorts.com/footer/travel-professionals/
Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro Grand Collection: thegrandcollection.com/en; iberostar.com/en/travel-agents-hotels
Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado Don Pablo Collection:
Sandals Resorts: sandals.com; taportal.sandals.com/landing/
Zoëtry Agua Punta Cana: zoetryresorts.com/agua; amrewards.amragents.com
Selling Clients on Cuisine
Travel Impressions’ president and CEO Jeff Clarke points out that resorts with superior cuisine appeal to “affluent travelers who… are more likely to be swayed by your specific knowledge than a token discount. You can influence foodies…by painting a gastronomic picture of their dream vacation one tastebud at a time. This is where it pays to get to know your clients’ interests. Do they like Asian cuisine, and if so, what kind? Are they fans of tapas? Is one of them an ovo-lacto vegetarian and the other paleo?
“By making an effort to tailor your recommendations, you build trust because they know you’re not just pushing the product that gives you the highest commission. When a client trusts you on that level, they take your advice to heart. They know it’s been personalized just for them.”
Moreover, nowadays cuisine matters even to clients who say it doesn’t. “People will tell me, ‘We’re not big foodies; we’re more interested in the room,’” says Beth Skypeck of Direct Travel. “However, if there’s a beautiful suite but lousy food, they won’t be happy.”