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All-inclusive Mexican resort like cruise ship on land

One upfront fee pays for lodging, food, more

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An aerial view of the huge Marival Resort & Suites in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. The resort is great for family vacations.

An aerial view of the huge Marival Resort & Suites in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. The resort is great for family vacations.

Marival Resort, Associated Press

NUEVO VALLARTA, Mexico — Decisions can be tough to make at Marival Resort & Suites: Margarita or martini? Steak or calamari? Tennis or climbing wall?

All without pulling a peso from your pocket.

Marival is a giant all-inclusive resort, a sort of dry-land cruise ship where you pay one upfront fee for lodging, food, drink and entertainment.

Gasp if you will, reader of Conde Nast Traveler, but for a vacation in a foreign country with four children, this is the only way to go.

Last March, my wife and I abruptly decided our family needed a real vacation, not a short drive to visit relatives. We had been buried in work. Our teenagers had become strangers. And our grade schoolers were going stir crazy from the Spokane winter. An Internet search introduced us to the concept of all-inclusive resorts, which I initially turned my nose up at. But a look at the Web sites of some of these resorts quickly changed my mind.

Without knowing anything about the place, we settled on Marival, a sprawling 495-room Meditarranean-themed resort on the hotel-lined beach in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, just north of the famous vacation city of Puerto Vallarta. It was advertised as family friendly.

Booking a room was easy. We were also warned to make our dinner reservations at the same time, to make sure we could get into the better restaurants.

A resort shuttle picked us up at the airport, and we gazed at the Bay of Banderas as we drove along the palm-lined highway to the resort.

The place was gorgeous, open and airy. We had two rooms, which were small but functional, overlooking the lighted tennis courts (we play tennis as a family and courts were mandatory).

We immediately rushed down to the beach, well-stocked with chairs and umbrellas.

My 10-year-old preferred the huge swimming pools, which were warm and had swim-up bars. I began sampling tropical drinks, and we all got too much sun as we splashed in the warm bay.

Then we went to our rooms, showered and dressed up for dinner. Marival has four formal restaurants — serving Italian, Mexican, steak and "international" cuisine. To get into these places you need reservations, and it is too late to get them once you get there. They also ask that you dress up a bit. Otherwise there is a huge buffet restaurant and snack bars scattered throughout the grounds.

The first night we ate at the international place, located outside in a center courtyard. The service and food were good. You could order anything off the menu and anything you wanted to drink. There was no bill at the end.

Afterward, we walked on the beach, took in the evening song-and-dance show put on by the hotel, and went to bed.

We settled into a routine of taking breakfast and lunch in the huge buffet restaurant, which had a mixture of the common items you might find in a casino buffet, plus a few exotic items apparently common to Mexico. My 12-year old became enamored of Zucharitas (Sugar-Frosted Flakes), which he liked to say.

The second day it was tennis in the morning, before the real heat began, and then plenty of time swimming in the ocean. We rode boogie boards. Even though I wore a shirt, the hair was peeled off my chest and stomach by the sandy bottom of the bay.

We shared Marival with a lot of Americans, including what seemed to be entire classes of California high schoolers on their senior trip. Kids also filled the resort's disco, Cesar, which did not open until 11 p.m. each night and featured mobs of kids dancing to rap music.

Here's the thing about these giant resorts: You can't be turned off by the sight of your fellow Americans lining up for food all day long. If being in the company of sunburnt salesmen wearing Tommy Bahama shirts and sandals that leave their fat toes exposed offends you, better book a backcountry hike in Patagonia.

For me, the place was perfect. The kids didn't have to constantly beg for money. They could snack whenever they wanted. There was a gym, game room, numerous recreational facilities, kids' programs, cooking classes. We never ran out of stuff to do, even with kids who were 20, 17, 12 and 10 years old.

Our family was so overdue for a vacation that we barely left the resort the five days we were there.

One day we booked an excursion into the jungle around Puerto Vallarta for a morning of riding zip lines high up in the tree canopy. For someone who fears heights, it was quite a bit of fun. On the way back, we had the bus drop us in downtown PV (as we seasoned travelers call it), where we hit the tourist shops along the river.

I turned out to be a terrible haggler, paying 300 pesos — about $28 — for a sombrero I later found out was worth half that.

The kids tired quickly of shopping, and we took cabs back to the resort, where we spent the afternoon in the ocean again.

The little shops in the resort weren't bad for souvenirs and some essentials. The nightlife was good, with numerous musical acts in the bars of the resort.

The place also had a deal with a local golf course, and you could go out each morning to hit on a driving range and have a group lesson with a pro, without extra cost.

I realize this must sound like hell to many travelers. But being able to turn the children loose on the resort grounds and know they would be entertained and fed was a joy. Not having to fight over where to eat each night was a gift.