Hotel pool

My Five Star All Inclusive Prison

I just returned from a 5 star luxury two week all inclusive holiday and despite it being the ultimate in luxury and service, I didn’t love it.  Before you think ‘spoiled brat’ I should point out that this article isn’t a criticism about all inclusive holidays or those that love them, this is an explanation as to why I struggle with them and to help you decide if they’re right for you.

A two week adults only holiday in Montego Bay Jamaica, ‘How amazing!’ you all think.  Well, yes it was beautiful and I am very lucky to be able to afford such a wonderful trip (well my credit card paid).  However, I soon realised it challenged my idea of idyllic, a far cry from the simple life I crave.  It came with an unexpected uneasy feeling that I couldn’t shake – one where I felt like a prisoner being guarded and protected from the real beauty of Jamaica.

I should start off by telling you why I travel so this all makes sense.  I travel to improve my wellbeing on my quest for contentment.  That comes from making my world bigger, new experiences, spending time with people who live different lives to my own and making memories with people I love – simple things.

Our flight in from the UK was the first warning this holiday may not be for me.  Not used to flying with holiday airlines, our Thomas Cook flight was filled with raucous families sinking enough beers between them to quench a football stadium crowd.  After 9 hours of someone playing Super Mario on the screen behind my headrest, with only a sad looking chicken Kiev arriving to give me respite, I was ready to kill someone.

Our Montego Bay hotel was just 20 minutes away.  All of the hotels in the area are secluded behind high fortress walls, forests of trees and steel gates. Once behind those gates, Jamaica seemed to disappear. Well, not all Jamaica. The sea was there, and the hills, and bartenders, housekeepers and porters speaking English salted with patois, exclaiming, “Milady, milady, welcome!”

Hotel pool

Hotel – Idyllic before the guests descend

We picked a beautiful known brand hotel,  famed for their impeccable service and gastronomy which I couldn’t wait to sample.  As soon as we were branded with our all inclusive wristbands (and possibly chipped in our sleep) we became property of the hotel.  We were now obligated to be sold to, spoken to, cajoled to exercise, flattered and ego stroked by order of the management.

Our room was oceanfront and utterly sublime with champagne and bourbon chilling on arrival.  Within five minutes of entering the room three butlers and two concierge dropped by, desperate to help us with anything from dinner reservations to marijuana choices.  These people, however wonderful would soon be referred to as ‘Guards’ as they seemed to know our every move – we were inmates 3027 (our room number) rather than guests.

Iberostar seafood buffet

Stuffed full all day every day

In the past I always wanted nothing more than relaxation from a holiday but my husbands’ wanderlust has infected me over the years. He finds it hard to stay in one place longer than a few days, needing fast paced injections of culture and excitement at regular intervals so staying in one place, however luxurious was going to be a struggle unless we planned plenty of activities.

On a narrow stretch of the hotel beach, a Canadian couple who had been there for three days were running out of things to do, had gone to the Blue Mountains and to Port Antonio’s Blue Lagoon (site of the namesake movie starring Brooke Shields) and to Dunn’s River Falls and Mystic Mountain near Ocho Rios. Now they were wondering if they should make the long trek to the Appleton Rum estate in the distant inland southwest.  Uh oh, this didn’t bode well.  Like this couple, most of the guests/other inmates staying at the hotel were Canadian or American and on four day celebration benders.  We seemed to be the only ones there for two weeks.

Iberostar grand suite

My room – faultless

Lets get this straight, the ‘facility’ was beautiful and the ‘guards’ polite and friendly however by day five going to the same bar each night, having the same jokes from the staff, the same day entertainment i.e. shrieks from overly keen workers to play volleyball were wearing thin.  The Butlers/Guards also possessed ninja style vigilance.  A bath would be ready when we were back from dinner, a wine I’d enjoyed the day before was waiting in my room or someone waiting for me after yoga with water – it was exceptional personal service that boarded on stalking that freaked me the hell out!

Any trips out of the hotel felt like day release.  We managed four trips but these had to be planned in a Prison Break style – tell nobody and sneak out under the cover of darkness.  If you tried to do anything for yourself that involved leaving the hotel your butler would be mortally offended.  They wanted to organise everything and anything you did which could, at times feel smothering.

iberostar grand bar

Blame it on the alcohol

Leaving the hotel was a definite ‘must’ though if only to escape the other inmates/guests (I’ll blog about the fabulousness of the island in later posts).  The other guests, as with most all inclusive hotels seemed to be there to drink and eat as much as possible.  So many times I thought I was going to see the famous Monty Python ‘wafer thin mint’ moment.  These people were on middle class benders, pretending they were elite as they had paid £250 a night at a beautiful hotel yet feeling this gave them a pass to behave like drunken teenagers and treat staff like slaves.  It was uncomfortable to watch and a true reminder that money doesn’t buy you class.

When I refer to the hotel as a prison, it’s a prison for rich people that have voluntarily admitted themselves, for those who enjoy being force fed food, alcohol and compliments for a few weeks, making them feel much more important than they actually are before returning to reality – almost like the opposite of a Boot Camp, actually the extreme opposite.  Much like any prison sentence, incarceration changes you.  You do find yourself believing you are ‘worthy’ of being waited on every second.  I remember on a few occasions I cringed at myself for exclaiming in horror that they had changed the breakfast Granola, run out of my favourite wine (there were 18 more on the wine list) and tapping my foot when drinks service took a few minutes longer than expected.  I do not want to be the sort of person this experience was changing me into.

iberostar grand foyer

Grand Foyer

Don’t get me wrong, there were so many elements of the holiday I enjoyed.  The hotel is the absolute best at doing what it does and I am in the minority to not adore it – I just made the wrong choice for me.  If you want to feel like a queen, enjoy copious amounts of food and alcohol, feel safe and stare at the same (incredibly beautiful) sea/pool every day and never walk a step more than necessary then this is for you.

I can’t blame the discomfort I felt entirely on my husbands influence, I realised that I don’t like this kind of holiday anymore and maybe I never did, I just knew no better until he showed me there is life outside of package deals, one far more enriching.  It has taken be a long time to be grateful for what I have and comfortable with myself so I don’t need to go to a place that comes with so much excess – it’s uncomfortable; the master/servant thing doesn’t do it for me.  I don’t want to pay people to be nice to me – I spent years buying friendships and I’m over it.

happiness travel quote

happiness travel quote

The absolute worst thing about this kind of holiday was choosing to be held captive away from the beautiful island I had come to visit.  So many guests were happy to never leave the hotel, meaning they never got to experience real Jamaican people, real Jamaican food and fundamentally real life.  Not spending time and money in the local economy of a country, not soaking up the culture makes you feel short changed and does the island a disservice.

I sat in the hotel bar on night one drinking my imported Spanish wine, on my Italian seating after eating at the hotel oriental restaurant, surrounded by rich Americans and stressed staff being forced to promote and appear in a pirate show thinking ‘this is as un-Jamaican as it gets’ yet everyone else there loved it.

All inclusive

All inclusive isn’t for everyone

My favourite thing about Jamaica was the people.  The hotel staff rose above the demands of the tourists and had a great attitude to any difficult requests.  Many told me they always counted their blessings and were grateful for having any job to provide for their family.  They saw tourism or ‘whoreism’ as a necessary evil and even felt sympathy for those that had to come to such a salubrious hotel to find temporary happiness rather than finding it in what they already had.  It’s this mentality which means I would return to Jamaica but I would do it lots differently and celebrate both the island and the people more than a 5 star all inclusive prison allows.

I travel for wellbeing and that wellbeing comes from new experiences.  I found it in the people of Jamaica, the natural beauty of the island and in spending time with my husband.  Wellbeing for me doesn’t come from eating and drinking all day every day and making demands – quite the reverse as that makes me feel pretty bad about myself.  Pick the right experience to boost your own wellbeing whether thats four days in Benidorm or a month trekking Peru, just choose wisely as time is precious.
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A thirty something, fifties inspired traveller with a love of home comforts and pretty things. Lives in Norwich, plays in London.

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