Luxury breaks: You get what you pay for – quality

Poor service and bland buffets are things of the past in the new breed of all-inclusives, says Paul Gogarty

As I lay on the sunlounger munching on the free mid-morning watermelon brought to me by a smiling member of staff, I mulled over which of the hotel's four restaurants I should book that evening. With no work to distract me, I eventually plumped for the Asian, before moving on to the far more momentous decision to dump my anachronistic view that all-inclusives are simply a smorgasbord of nasty food and resentful staff.

At the time I was catching a little late sun at the Oceania in Halkidiki, which, unlike virtually every other resort hotel in Greece, stays open year round. Alongside those four restaurants (Greek, Asian, Italian and international buffet), there are six bars, free watersports, tennis, squash and bikes for exploring the countryside as well as three children's clubs, a fitness studio and an indoor pool. As is usual with all-inclusives, treatments in the hotel spa are charged on top, but at around £27 for a 50-minute massage, it's about half the usual going rate.

The Oceania is a good example of how far all-inclusives have come. The Caribbean – which signed up enthusiastically to the 1980s value-for-money, quality-bypass all-inclusive blueprint – has perhaps needed to be busiest of all in reinventing itself.

In Cuba, I recently checked into the five-star Paradisus Rio de Oro in Guardalavaca, where two cocktails had me wobbling over the pool table. In the bad old days, a fragrance of hooch is all you got when a resort boasted "alcohol included". When they offered activities, they also tended to be a tad bullish. But at the Paradisus the choice is there – and broader than ever before – and you just sign up for whatever you fancy.

The resort, which sits on a sensational powder-sand beach, serves up an equally wide culinary selection in eight different ethnic restaurants, including Japanese, French, Mediterranean and Cuban. The friendliness of staff also comes as a real shock to old Caribbean hands used to surly service.

The Paradisus Rio de Oro is just one of a number of Caribbean all-inclusives offering far greater choice and better quality of service than was the case a decade ago. Even Sandals – the symbol of brash value for money – has introduced butler-serviced suites with private pools for a top-end programme being launched by specialist operator Complete Caribbean. It will include gourmet cuisine, scuba diving, golf green fees, unlimited premium drinks, watersports and even tips.

The all-inclusive makeover was first signalled at the turn of the millennium when the influential Leading Hotels of the World deigned to include the Royal Hideaway Playacar in its five-star portfolio. The hotel, which sits on a peach of a beach on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, continues to lead the way with six à la carte restaurants. If you can't make up your mind, your butler can help or you can always have your meal served by candlelight on the beach at no extra charge. In fact, the only extras are for spa treatments.

The Royal Hideaway Playacar remains the Mexican flagship, but Cancun's Elan Resort & Spa is now running it close following two-years of major surgery. It also includes a choice of seven restaurants as well as better accommodation in its new luxury villa-suite complex. The Mayan spa treatments are not included, but yoga, t'ai chi, aikido and pilates classes are, as well as a half-hour massage.

In Mauritius, the Shandrani Resort & Spa – already the best hotel in the Indian Ocean for watersports – has gone all-inclusive for the first time. Located in the south-east corner of the island, it has a golf course, spa and organised outings into a nature reserve. But the real magnet is the huge range of watersports included: waterskiing, windsurfing, kite surfing, sailing, kayaking, snorkelling and diving. The resort's Padi/National Geographic centre makes use of seven wrecks offshore.

Further afield, in Australia, several posh hotels recently changed their pricing structure to go all inclusive too. Among the Barrier Reef luxury islands are Lizard and Bedarra (both five-star Voyages properties, the luxury chain in Australia), while Longitude 131 at Ayers Rock and Wrotham Park Lodge in Queensland have also followed suit.

Oceania Club, Greece

From £381 with BA Holidays (0870 2433406; ba.com) in November.

Elan Resort & Spa, Mexico

From £893 with Expedia (expedia.co.uk).

Paradisus Rio de Oro,

Cuba

From £1,039 with Thomas Cook (0845 0702530; thomascook.com).

Sandals Regency La Toc Golf Resort, St Lucia

From £2,478 with Complete Caribbean (01423 531031; completecaribbean. com).

Shandrani Resort & Spa, Mauritius

From £1,448 with Beachcomber Tours (01483 445685; beachcombertours.co.uk).

Royal Hideway Playacar, Mexico

From £1,883 with Kuoni (01306 742222; kuoni.co.uk).

Australian Resorts Contact Bridge and Wickers (020-7483 6555; bridgeand wickers.co.uk).



Prices are per person, based on two sharing, for seven-nights' all-inclusive packages

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