Puerto Vallarta: the good, the bad and the beautiful

Kerry DiotteHaving done travel writing for 30 years I’ve had my share of exotic, far-flung locales that were often in off-beat, hard-to-reach places.

Sometimes the journey there was the best and most rewarding adventure.

But there are other times when a winter-weary traveller wants to buy a package deal, hop on a charter flight, quickly get to a luxury resort and kick back beside a blissfully warm outdoor pool as temperatures soar.

That latter approach was what my travel companion and I opted for when we booked a one-week trip from Edmonton, Alberta with Sunwing Vacations to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and stayed at a Secrets resort.

The adults-only, all-suites Secrets Vallarta Bayis one of the newest resorts in the AMResorts chain, boasting 271 rooms, most with spectacular ocean views. It officially opened in April 2012, drawing then-Mexican president Felipe Calderon to do the ribbon cutting.

One side is adults only while a neighbouring side, called Now Amber resort, allows children.

I’m quite familiar with AMResorts, having stayed at or toured a few of its Dreams and Secrets properties in Mexico.

Here’s my skinny on the good, bad and mediocre of the all-inclusive Secrets Vallarta Bay resort, that’s situated on a golden sand Pacific Ocean beach on the Bay of Banderas.

GOOD: It’s on a wide beach and is close to Vallarta’s famous Malecon (seaside boardwalk) – just a few bucks by taxi or the equivalent of about 50 cents if you hop one of the blue and white public transit buses that run every few minutes. Bonus? The whole stretch of the Malecon features free Wi-Fi.

BAD/GOOD: There are lots of pedlars on the beach in front of the hotel hawking everything from T-shirts to Saskatchewan Roughrider ceramic souvenirs. (Give ’em points for knowing their audience.) But they usually don’t pester people as do pedlars in other parts of the world. If you ignore them, they’ll not ask you twice if you’d like one of their colourful wares.

GOOD/BAD/MEDIOCRE: It was a mixed bag on the food situation. You can dine in one of several themed restaurants, do a well-stocked buffet or snack by the pool. We had great food at the Japanese restaurant, but the French and Italian ones were a bit disappointing. A rack of lamb should be more than two ribs and if you order six mussels all should contain a mollusk. Secrets food was adequate, but not as sensational as I enjoyed at the Dreams Tulum resort or at other Secrets I’ve dined at.

GOOD/MEDIOCRE: Service was generally attentive and very friendly, especially from the waiters who served drinks at the outdoor pools. Occasionally, though, it seemed as if there were staff shortages and a couple of overworked waiters were forced to serve hoards of people.

MEDIOCRE: Cleaning staff had a habit of pounding on your doors at all hours even if you had put up a do-not-disturb sign. (That would be the one with the photo of the couple sleeping on it.)

GOOD: Staff were helpful anytime we asked for information.

GOOD: The room we had was sensational, with an enormous tiled shower and rain shower head, double bowl sinks, a king-bed, a large bathtub indoors and a very roomy Jacuzzi tub on our balcony. We’d upgraded the standard suite to something Secrets calls Unlimited Luxury. It’s worth it if you’d like to be extra spoiled for a week.

GOOD: The resort offered free in-room Internet and free long-distance land-land calls.

GOOD: The art throughout the resort was stunning.

Tips, tricks and other info

We watched Expedia to get the best price on a Dreams or Secrets and finally booked for about $1,600 with a travel agent friend including taxes and airfare. Deals on those properties don’t often dip lower than that because AMResorts doesn’t want to devalue the high-end Dreams/Secrets brand that’s listed as five stars on Expedia.

Public transit is easy to take and runs frequently in Puerto Vallarta, but hang on tight. Operators drive fast and don’t wait until everyone’s sitting down!

We flew Sunwing Vacations and got the two worst seats on the plane by the luck of the draw. (They were right at the back and didn’t recline). On the way back we shelled out $18 each to pre-book better seats. Well worth it for a five-hour flight.

Check your flights carefully. A couple of hours before we were slated to return to Edmonton Sunwing reps in the Puerto Vallarta airport told passengers there’d be a two-hour delay in our flight. Luckily we chose not to leave the airport. There was a sudden change within an hour and the airport screen said the flight was now going to leave on time. Miraculously, all passengers made it.

Bring lots of extra sun screen. It can cost up to three times as much in Mexico as in Canada or the U.S.

It doesn’t hurt to get some pesos or U.S. dollars ahead of time. I’ve seldom had trouble withdrawing pesos in Mexico from my personal Canadian account but on this trip I had to try seven or eight major bank ATMs before one spat out cash.

There are lots of quality places in Puerto Vallarta to get a great, inexpensive therapeutic massage. For a mere US$25 per hour, you can melt your tension away. Magestic Massage, just outside Secrets resort, was great!

Puerto Vallarta is set in a special location that affords you access to ocean, jungle and mountains (Sierra Madre range). In past trips I’ve really enjoyed exploring the area with Vallarta Adventures. Very professional bunch.

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