by Candyce Stapen
The Caribbean has some of the best sands and the friendliest family resorts. At these six diverse properties, you and your children can encounter dolphins, ride horses in the surf, snorkel through schools of tropical fish, learn sailing and simply sit and chat.
The Bahamas: Atlantis Paradise Island
This mega-resort has 3,414 rooms spread out in six locations on its sprawling property. Not just for families, Atlantis attracts gamblers to its casino and foodies to fine dining at Nobu and Mesa Grill. These items also play well for parent date nights and for multi-generational families with twentysomethings who want nightlife.
Atlantis’ show-stoppers are the marine life and habitats (among the largest open-air aquariums in the world), and the 141-acre waterpark. Both are free. More than 250 species and 50,000 critters live in the 14 lagoons and the 8 million gallons of salt-water tanks. View spiny lobsters, spotted eagle rays and schools of tropical fish in the Ruins Lagoon or dive (for an extra fee) the habitat with scuba-certified family members. Hammerhead, blacknose and reef tip sharks zig zag above you as you walk through an acrylic tunnel in Predator Lagoon. At The Dig indoors, ogle lionfish, 6-foot-long Moray eels, iridescent jellyfish, tiny seahorse and groupers weighing hundreds of pounds. Special experiences (get out the wallets) include petting stingrays, interacting with dolphins or sea lions and becoming a trainer for the day. Kids won’t get bored at the water park — home to 11 pools and 20 swimming areas. Young kids like the tube slides and water cannons at just-for-them Splashers and the mini-slides at Ripples. The Mayan Temple pool attracts families with its waterfalls and the Baths pool has a large deck. Don’t bother saving a lounge chair for your tweens and teens as they’re likely to be too busy plunging down the slides: Leap of Faith is a 60-foot nearly vertical drop, and the Serpent Slide is a twisting ride of dark moments and descent through a clear tunnel cut into the shark lagoon. At the Atlantis Kids Adventures Club, ages 3-12 engage in a variety of activities that include cooking classes, creating virtual postcards and directing and acting in their own movies. The caveats for this Bahama behemoth: cheap eats are hard to find and some of the wished-for experiences can be costly.
Dominican Republic: Club Med Punta Cana
Club Med was there in the beginning, both as a pioneer of the all-inclusive concept and as an early devotee of the Dominican Republic. That accounts for the well-executed concept and for the Punta Cana resort’s ample setting on 75 beachfront acres along the eastern tip of the country. As the chain’s flagship in the Caribbean, the Punta Cana resort draws praise for its wide and long stretch of sandy beach, its reasonably good food, its comprehensive children’s program and its family suites. In August 2013, Punta Cana enhanced the Mini Club (ages 4 to 10) with three new themed rooms. At the Music Academy kids dance using Wii video games and play Dominican-inspired instruments. The Art Studio is the place for crafts and paintings and the Game Factory adds a digital and creative play space. Younger kids romp through the splash park’s fountains and slides. Ages 4 and older try the trapeze, play tennis, learn Zumba moves and — at week’s end — put on a show for parents. For an extra fee, nannies care for tots 4 months to 23 months at the Baby Club. With Club Med Passworld for teens, this hard-to-please group has its own hang-out. They can try island dancing, learn video editing and find out how to be a scratch DJ. Teens also keep busy sailing, windsurfing and playing tennis. All of Punta Cana’s 553 rooms can accommodate two adults and two kids under age 15. Some offer a separate bedroom off the main bedroom for the kids. For more space and service, consider one of the Tiara rooms — a two-bedroom, beachfront unit with 753 square feet. Guests have their own check-in area and a separate pool.
Jamaica: Half Moon
In 2014, Half Moon, a 400-acre upscale property in Montego Bay, celebrates 60 years of operation — a testament to its combination of charm, service and setting. Managed by RockResorts since 2011, the resort exudes a British jewel-in-the-crown feel. The staff is welcoming, pools anchor the low-rise buildings, and the lush grounds bloom with bougainvillea and hibiscus; palm and seagrape trees shade the beach. Half Moon offers much to do without going off-property, an advantage for work-weary parents. You and your tweens and teens can swing through a round of golf on the 18-hole course and horseback ride along the beach — an outing highlighted by heading your mount into the surf for a swim. Young kids can go on pony rides (not in the water). For more animal interactions, get to know the resident dolphins at a beach encounter, best for little kids, or swim with the friendly critters at group or private sessions. Half Moon’s beach, although not wide, stretches for 2 miles. Kayaks and pedal boats are free; windsurfing and sailing on a Sunfish cost extra. At the grassy and gated Anancy Children’s Village, 3- to 6-year-olds go on crab hunts, have their faces painted, do gardening and get kissed by the dolphins. Seven- to 12-year-olds snorkel, make s’mores and learn reggae dancing. At the Hype Zone, teens sing karaoke and dance at the disco. Activities outside include mini-golf, water polo and tennis. After busy days, parents and college-age progeny can relax at the Fern Tree Spa, a 68,000-square-foot oasis with indoor and outdoor pools and treatments that employ coffee, herbs and other Jamaican elements. For families wanting more space and privacy, ask for the villas along the beach or the two-bedroom, oceanfront Hibiscus suites. Only some of the Royal Villas at the far end of the property have been recently renovated. Half Moon’s food is good and the service attentive at its several restaurants. Meal plans and packages are available. Families looking for a bit of luxury in a gracious setting with plenty of activities will enjoy Half Moon.
Mexico: Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Mexico
The Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort is for those who like all-inclusive resorts and, especially, for those who don’t. Situated on more than 80 acres in the Riviera Maya — not far from Playa del Carmen — Grand Velas is a rarity: an all-inclusive property that’s earned AAA’s highest rating of Five Diamonds. The accommodations, located in three areas called “ambiances,” rank as suites, not for their multiple rooms but because of their size. At 1,000 to 1,200 square feet, the rooms are larger than some city apartments. The adults-only Grand Class is beachfront. Of the two family options, the Zen units, set amid the tropical trees and mangrove thickets near the spa, require a shuttle ride to the beach and main buffet. The oceanfront Ambassador section is much more convenient. At the supervised children’s program, ages 4 to 12 make piñatas, fly kites, fashion jewelry and pair up for Wii tennis and bowling. Outdoors, teens play beach volleyball, swim and sunbathe. The new teen hangout features air hockey, foosball, billiards, Xbox and other games. During holidays and summer, the resort ramps up the teen program. Grand Velas works well not just for families with grade-schoolers, but for those with college-age and adult children and for grandparents accustomed to luxury resorts with upmarket amenities. At the 89,000-square-foot spa, among the Caribbean’s top-rated facilities, you and your family members age 16 and older relax first with a water journey. Soak aching shoulders under waterfall jets and soothe tight muscles with water sprays. Inhale calming herbal mixes in the steam room, slather on medicinal clay in another area, then shower and cool down in the ice room. Afterwards, indulge with a healing massage or treatment. Unlike at many all-inclusives, the food is not only abundant, it’s also good. Cocina de Autor, the resort’s signature restaurant won a AAA Five Diamond award. Serving Spanish fare, the chef’s inspiration for flavors and sauces comes from the items’ chemical composition. Other good choices are Frida, the Mexican restaurant, and Sen Lin, the Asian restaurant. Grand Velas isn’t perfect. While the umbrella-shaded beach stretches for 1,000 feet, the swimming area is relatively small. Most families congregate around the large Ambassador pool with its ocean view. Those wanting luxury and an all-inclusive price in Mexico’s Riviera Maya will like Grand Velas Riviera Maya.
St. Lucia: Coconut Bay Resort
Not all noteworthy family resorts are costly. Moderately-priced Coconut Bay Resort, an all-inclusive strung along 85 acres of green lawns and palm tree-lined sands on St. Lucia’s south coast, features all the components for a child-friendly beach getaway. Those vacationing without kids stay in Harmony, the adults-only area fronted with a quiet pool. Families lodge and lounge on the resort’s Splash side, whose crowning jewel is the water park — a wetscape of twisting slides and a lazy river that’s great for floating via an inner tube. In Cocoland, home to the Coco Kidz Klub, youngsters cool off by dancing through spouting fountains and getting drenched by a bucket dump. For dry play, there’s a kid-sized zipline. The resort offers programs for wee ones to those 12 years old. Nannies watch infants to tots (up to 23 months old) in an air-conditioned nursery. Two- and 3-year-olds paint coconuts, bake cookies and watch puppet shows. Four- to 7-year-olds and 8- to 12-year-olds, careen down the water slides, go on nature hikes and play tennis. Teens have targeted activities during holidays and summer. The Coco Kidz Klub staff chronicles your kid’s activities in photographs so that your child can gift you with an album of these special moments at the vacation’s end. Renovations in 2011 and 2013 freshened the décor, upped the number of Splash premium rooms to 64, as well as rehabbed the pools. Kids can now swim up to their own pool bar to order fruit smoothies and other kid-friendly, non-alcoholic drinks. What don’t you get? Marble bathrooms, turn-down service, luxury furnishings and memorable meals. Although the food is reasonably good, recycled entrees do appear. Nevertheless, Coconut Bay Resort delivers a fun family vacation, especially for those on a budget.
Turks & Caicos: Beaches, Providenciales (Provo)
The three Beaches resorts lure families with all-inclusive prices, engaging children’s programs and meet-and-greets with favorite Sesame Street characters. At the 223-room Ocho Rios, Jamaica, resort kids can practice putts and swings at the chain’s only children’s golf program. However, the beach is relatively small. The 220-room Beaches Negril, also on Jamaica, features Pirates Island, an 18,000-square-foot water park, and stretches out on a long swath of Negril’s Seven Mile Beach. Although both Jamaica resorts deliver family fun, the 614-room Beaches Turks & Caicos is best for both its location on a swath of 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach and for the choices. At the 45,000-square-foot Pirates Island Waterpark, tots can play in their own pool, preschoolers climb a pirate ship and jump through water jets, and older kids zoom down water slides, body surf and catch their breath by floating along a lazy river. If you can get your kids off the sand and out of the waterpark, they’ll have plenty of things to do at the supervised children’s program that offers care for infants to 2-year-olds, as well as activities for ages 3 years through teens. Preschoolers and grade-schoolers delight in digging for seashells with Zoe, turning trash into treasures with Oscar the Grouch, learning about feathered friends with Big Bird and baking cookies with Cookie Monster. Tuck-ins, tea time and other special one-on-ones with a favorite Muppet cost extra. Teens learn to spin discs at the Scratch DJ Academy and meet and mingle at Liquid, the under-21 nightclub. Turks also offers more lodging options: 30 categories as opposed to the Jamaica resorts’ 11-12. When the Key West Village debuted May 2013, it upped the luxury by offering butler-serviced suites and villas, just in case you want additional space, privacy and pampering amid the happy family madness of this mega-resort.
Click here to see a lot more resort pictures.