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Hotel Review: Moon Palace Resort, Riviera Maya, Mexico

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Lifestyle Editor Shayne Benowitz and Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne attended the annual TBEX North America conference held earlier this month at the Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Here’s Shayne’s review of the all-inclusive resort.

I’m a firm believer that where you stay while traveling has a profound impact on your impression of a destination. I recently checked into the all-inclusive Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya to attend the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) annual conference with TPG Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne. For this trip, staying at Moon Palace was a no-brainer for convenience to the conference.

Cancun International Airport (CUN) is the hub to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula servicing a cluster of nearby tropical destinations. The options for accommodations are virtually unlimited, from sprawling oceanfront resorts in Cancun, Riviera Maya and Cozumel to bohemian bungalows in Playa del Carmen and Tulum, with many affordable choices to sift through. Coincidentally, this was my third visit to the region in a matter of a year (and the fourth in my lifetime).

The lagoon-style pool at Moon Palace's Sunrise building
The lagoon-style pool at Moon Palace’s Sunrise building

Part of a group of seven all-inclusive resorts across the Yucatan, the massive Moon Palace consists of three separate sections: Grand, Nizuc and Sunrise for a total of nearly 2,500 rooms. TBEX attendees stayed in Sunrise, which was the closest building to the spacious conference facilities.

First Impressions & Check-in

The resorts along the Riviera Maya are typically fortified by massive facades, security gates and long roads leading to the property far from the highway. Once you pass through the gates, you’ve entered a world of the resort’s creation. This is certainly the case at Moon Palace as you wind your way down a palm tree-lined street to Sunrise’s formidable valet and lobby.

The Tiffany-style glass ceiling conjured a feeling of antiquity in the resort's lobby
The Tiffany-style glass ceiling conjured a feeling of antiquity in the resort’s lobby

Your best bet is to wait for a bellman to guide you to the front desk and then to your room with your luggage as there are no elevators to access the three floor buildings flanking the lobby. The layout is a confusing maze (at least at first) with no apparent rhyme or reason indicated through room numbers. I was in room 2012 on the first floor of a building outside of the main lobby (that still required climbing up and down stairs). Since I opted to venture to the front desk on my own, check-in was slightly cumbersome, but I eventually found my way with the assistance of a bellman.

Angular lighting accents brought a modern touch to the lobby.
Angular lighting accents brought a modern touch to the lobby.

The two-story lobby is grandiose and sprawling with marble to spare, rich wood columns, gold accents, Tiffany-style overhead windows and angular electric yellow lighting accents across the ceiling. The front desk is stylish with a backlit natural amber desk and Oriental wooden cutouts. However, the pastiche of styles and outdated architecture (there’s a distinctive ’70s/’80s retro vibe) misses the mark of true modern luxury. There’s an abundance of silk plants used for decor, and while the air is lightly perfumed, it doesn’t exactly mask the scent of an old building mingling with too many people and food wafting from various buffets.

The glowing front desk is an alluring natural feature
The glowing front desk is an alluring natural feature

The Room

The first thing you’re confronted with upon opening the door to your guest room is a massive ensuite Jacuzzi tub. Perhaps a sexy addition for honeymooners, but in nearly every other travel situation I can think of, it’s awkward and slightly comical. Then again, I’m not much for baths – especially when the tub is visibly flecked with black sediment. (A friend staying at the hotel who actually used the tub, shared a picture with me after it drained and those black flecks – whatever they are – were tenfold).

A view of the room upon entering
A view of the room upon entering

With an uninspired brown on beige color palette and generic art, the room lacks any true wow factor. It wasn’t dirty, but it wasn’t entirely spotless either. The dresser and table had a light film with visible rings from glasses used by a former inhabitant, and the plastic pages of the room service menu were sticky. The room smelled of generic cleanser diluted with too much water that eventually gave way to a mildewy smell over the course of my four-night stay.

The ground level courtyard view from the spacious patio with hammock
The ground level courtyard view from the spacious patio with hammock. Note the caution tape to the far left.

The ground level Deluxe Garden View King room’s view was none too inspiring, featuring a courtyard with caution tape partitioning off what appeared to be a defunct fountain, especially when ocean views are spectacular and relatively easy to come by in this region. Although the patio was spacious with a hammock and chairs, I never actually utilized it.

However, the room wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. It had plenty of space, with a modern bathroom and a large marble shower that I enjoyed. Bath products were created exclusively for the resort by CHI, the brand behind the iconic hair straightener – and indeed, CHI hairdryers and straighteners were found in the bathroom drawer with a warning not to steal them lest you want to be charged an additional $300 for your gently used tool. (Ironically, though, no amount of CHI-ing was going to smooth this naturally curly haired girl’s locks in Cancun’s humid climate, which was fine by me.)

The spacious marble bathroom vanity. Note the CHI products.
The spacious marble bathroom vanity. Note the CHI products.

I love a good hotel robe and slippers, and these were provided in the spacious closet. The bed was also wonderfully comfortable, allowing for solid nights of sleep (even though the mattress top was weirdly uneven creating two different elevations depending on what side of the bed you slept on).

Food, Drink & Nightlife

This was the first time I’d stayed at an all-inclusive resort (i.e., all food, drink and gratuity is included in the price of the room, including mini bar items). I didn’t exactly know what to expect as I’ve heard of all-inclusives with stellar menus, but I also suspected that the food might be prepared with the cheapest ingredients possible.

As it turns out, I wasn’t exactly impressed with the culinary offerings at Moon Palace. My first exposure to the food was at a poolside buffet surrounded by netting to keep the birds out. You could order a hamburger or hotdog from the grill and then add an assortment of oily salads and fruit. Or you could make a plate of chicken wings, nachos with cheese and chili (that looked sub-standard to what they serve you at movie theaters), plantains and grilled vegetables.

The poolside buffet of salads and fruit
The poolside buffet of salads and fruit
The unappetizing nacho cheese and chili on the other side of the poolside buffet
The unappetizing nacho cheese and chili on the other side of the poolside buffet

I opted for my first margarita instead, which had a definite kick that brought me back to my youth when drinking cheap, strong margaritas was about as good as it got. If you had your heart set on sipping a luscious añejo tequila, Moon Palace is not the place. It’s also not the place if you had any desire of even sampling authentic Mexican or Mayan cuisine.

While there are innumerable restaurants and bars in Sunrise alone, I only dined at the oceanfront Palapa Fragata (which was glass-enclosed, denying you the pleasure of a sea breeze), Gondola (for crêpes, gelato and mini sandwiches to go), room service (cheese quesadillas were a solid option) and lunches and dinners catered by the resort for the conference. The food wasn’t entirely inedible, but there was no true pleasure derived from it, save for the occasional petit four, the fresh guacamole and salsas, and the overcooked lasagna that strangely hit the spot at lunch one afternoon.

Melanie and I enjoyed an evening at the Lobby Bar where the friendly bartenders created custom spicy margaritas and kept them coming. We even had a night out at Noir Night Club just off the lobby, whose design and sound system could rival a South Beach club. We had a great time dancing the night away, and exiting the dark club to the brightly lit marble lobby even gave me the vague feeling of leaving the Fontainebleau’s LIV at the end of the night.

Pools & Amenities

The pirate's castle at the kiddy pool
The pirate’s castle at the kiddy pool

The most alluring aspect of the resort is its labyrinth of bright blue lagoon-style pools connected by various bridges, palapas and islands with lounge chairs partially submerged in the water and ample cabanas. For kids, there’s a giant pirate’s castle pool to play in, and for kids of all ages (including me), there’s a Flow Rider surf simulator to test your surfing and body boarding skills. Other amenities include the golf course, spa, gym, mini golf, playroom and teens’ lounge.

Testing my surf skills on the Flow Rider, what else?
Testing my surf skills on the Flow Rider, what else?

Sadly, the stretch of beach the resort lies on pales in comparison to the pristine powder white soft sand and electric blue sea found in Cancun’s nearby hotel zone. The beach here is narrow and feels more like a backwater than the crystal clear Caribbean.

The view at the beach
The view at the beach

Hits

  • Conference facilities are modern, comfortable and ample.
  • Hospitality is on point. Room and maid service was timely and attentive.
  • WiFi is strong and reliable (except for a few corners of the conference hall and by the pool).

Booking, Pricing & Overall Impression

While this resort didn’t exactly add up to the ideal vacation spot for me personally, it’s received the AAA Four Diamond Award for two consecutive years and it has a majority of glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. Some of the guests outside of the conference that I spoke with seemed to love it, and they’ve returned year after year for their annual vacation. Moon Palace also has impressive entertainment offerings, which in the past have included performances by Usher, Enrique Iglesias, Shakira and Ricky Martin.

The conference room rate for one person in early September was $199 per night all-inclusive. Rates are priced according to your room type, the number of people in your party and their ages. Everyone is administered a wristband to wear during the duration of their stay in order to access the all-inclusive perks.

The three-story buildings that make up Moon Palace's Sunrise section
The three-story buildings that make up Moon Palace’s Sunrise section

Curious about the true value of an all-inclusive resort versus a typical a la carte option, I did some comparison shopping online to see how the rates stacked up over the same weekend in October for a family of four. I included a couple of Cancun Marriott properties that I’ve recently stayed at and enjoyed (full disclosure: I stayed as a guest of those properties) and the nearby all-inclusive Grand Velas resort, which boasts award-winning dining. Here’s what I found:

Moon Palace Resort – Deluxe Resort View room with two double beds – From $575 per night all-inclusive

Casa Magna Marriott Resort – Resort View room with two double beds – From $149 per night

JW Marriott Cancun – Ocean View room with two double beds – From $249 per night

Grand Velas Riviera Maya – Best Available Rate for four people – From $996 per night all-inclusive

Of course, the cost of feeding four people on vacation can be considerable and an all-inclusive package offers young families, honeymooners and budget-minded travelers big savings in a lavish resort setting without skimping.

However, if you have the desire to venture off the resort to discover the destination and its culture, you’d do well to stay at one of the affordably priced Marriotts or other resorts in the area, especially if you even slightly identify with the term “foodie.”

TPG Tip: When booking a hotel room outside of your preferred loyalty program, use cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred or The Platinum Card from American Express. They offer a 1:1 points transfer with their partner travel loyalty programs. If you opt for one of the Marriott properties, use your Chase Marriott Premier Visa to maximize your Marriott Rewards during your stay. 

Have you ever stayed at an all-inclusive resort? What’s your take?

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