A few days catching up with my best friend over frothy drinks completely changed my mind about all-inclusive resorts.

I was lounging in the Jamaican sun, my face tipped to the sky in an effort to soak up every ounce of the vitamin D that my body had been deprived of all winter. Chicken tenders and nachos had just been delivered by a room service attendant who attempted to hide her smile at the scene of our poolside picnic. As if this wasn’t paradise enough, my best friend and I were bobbing around in unicorn and flamingo floats, drinks in hand, toasting to a reunion two years in the making. 

We had just arrived at Excellence Oyster Bay, an adults-only luxury resort just outside of Montego Bay, Jamaica, for the kind of trip I usually avoid: all-inclusives. Not that spending a few days on the beach gorging myself on limitless food and adult beverages sounds terrible by any means, but when I travel, my style is go-go-go. I like to pack in all the things, experience the local culture and cuisine, and venture off the beaten path, and my past few experiences at all-inclusive resorts had been anything but that — crowded and with mediocre, buffet-style food. For that reason, I’d always avoided them, until now. 

My best friend of 30 years and I had thrown around a few ideas when planning a trip to celebrate our 40th birthdays. Despite being long-distance friends for more years than we actually resided in the same city, we had remained close since meeting in 7th grade band practice. After almost two years of not seeing each other, we were ready to celebrate and relax, which meant I needed to let go of my usual travel planning mentality. As it turns out, the turquoise-laden shores of Excellence Oyster Bay was the perfect place to do just that.

Related: 25 Best Affordable All-inclusive Resorts for Families and Couples

I’ll be honest, the thought of spending four days solely on the resort’s property made me a little antsy. But the friendly staff and ocean view from our room kicked relaxation mode in high gear. (The welcome glass of prosecco didn’t hurt, either.) In fact, having zero plans for several uninterrupted days dedicated to catching up with my oldest friend in a low-key setting was liberating. My mind was no longer attempting to maximize every minute; instead, I was entering go-with-the-flow mode — and that called for a frozen drink with my feet in the sand. 

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On our first evening, we explored the resort grounds, which were big yet not so sprawling that reaching the opposite end demanded a super-long walk. We caught up over sunset; cotton-candy clouds mirrored in the calm Caribbean. With a smorgasbord of restaurants to choose from, dinnertime was our oyster. Over the course of our stay, we dabbled in Italian cuisine, got fancy at Chez Isabelle, tried local specialties like curried goat and oxtail stew at Caribbean Grove, and indulged in sommelier-picked wines on our final night at Zenith. Some of our favorites were the quick eats for lunch by the pool and beach; spicy jerk chicken at Jerk Hut and the Jamaican patties at Cielo Bar, washed down with a Red Stripe beer, of course. 

We spent mornings at the beach, which, contrary to my prior all-inclusive experiences, were quiet. Since the resort is located on its own private, gated peninsula, there wasn’t anyone trying to sell us anything. Afternoons were for pool-hopping, specifically in the floats I had ordered and painstakingly shoved into my carry-on suitcase, rendering it a lumpy piece of checked luggage (totally worth it). We became known as the "float girls" around the resort, dipping in all four of the communal pools, two of which were exclusive to Excellence Club guests. Excellence Club guests also get access to private beach areas, private check-in and checkout, and a laundry list of other perks.

A hydrotherapy treatment was included in our stay, so we ventured to the Miilé Spa one afternoon for the multistep process that had us both laughing so hard, our cheeks hurt. We bonded over the hot and cold water stations, one of which involved dumping a bucket of cold water over our heads.

There were plenty of activities, from stand-up paddleboarding to biking to yoga classes, and you can choose to do as much or little as you’d like. Surprisingly, I relished in not doing much of anything at all, except hanging out with my best friend and relaxing in the spectacular sunshine. The one thing we knew we couldn’t pass up was a nighttime excursion that had always been on my wish list: seeing bioluminescent water. The resort happens to be a short boat ride from this natural phenomenon, where we were able to swim in the water, creating a light show of electric blue all around us. 

The post-dinner scene was lively, with music and other performances every night. We danced to the Bob Marley cover band, and sometime during karaoke, I realized I was the most relaxed I’d been while traveling in a long time. The trip paid homage to the sleepovers of our teen years, when we had few worries and could always find something to laugh about in between never-ending chatter. Giving into the all-inclusive mentality gifted me permission to chill out and be fully present, and, as it turns out, I didn’t have to choose between a trip centered around cultural and culinary experiences — I could have a bit of both.

I boarded the plane with salty hair, some fresh memories with my best friend, and the small miracle of somehow fitting those pool floats back in my suitcase without breaking the zipper. I think I’ll do it again sometime.

Related: Best All-inclusive Resorts in Jamaica

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2024-04-17T19:29:12Z dg43tfdfdgfd