Author: Lee LaFrese
Date of Trip: May 2012
Over the last 6 years, we have become serious cruise addicts. Nearly all of our vacations have been cruises over that time. This year we wanted to do something different – a vacation on terra firma at an All Inclusive (AI) resort. After doing some research we decided to go to the Gran Bahia Principe in Akumal, Mexico. Akumal is about 100 km south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula. It is fairly close to Cozumel.
“We” consist of my wife and I (both 54), our daughter (24) and son (20). The Gran Bahia Principe (GBP) is a huge complex of four different resorts called Coba, Akumal, Tulum and Sian Kaan. We stayed at Tulum but had access to facilities at Coba and Akumal as well. Sian Kaan is more exclusive. If you stay there, you can use the facilities of the other three resorts but nobody can use Sian Kaan facilities except their own guests. The resort runs a nice little transportation service between resorts to make it easy to go back and forth between them.
Before going on our vacation, I mentioned to someone on Cruise Critic that the GBP complex had around 3000 rooms so it was about the same size as Oasis of the Seas. That got me thinking that a review comparing the GBP to Oasis would be interesting, especially to “cruise people” that may want to try an AI. We were on Oasis in 2011 so I believe I can draw fair comparisons. So here goes!
Comparing rooms on a cruise ship to a hotel is a little like comparing apples and oranges so I will try to make it as fair as possible. Obviously the standard rooms at the GBP are considerably larger than a standard cabin on Oasis. On overall comfort I would have to say they were about equal. The AC in the rooms at the GBP was a little weak but the ceiling fan helped compensate for that. Both venues had nice beds, good lighting, and sufficient storage space. There were a few tiny bugs in the rooms at GBP but that is not unexpected in a tropical location. The rooms had safes, just like ship cabins.
You won’t go hungry on a cruise ship and the same could be said for an AI. I believe the buffet at the GBP was about the same quality as the Windjammer but the variety of food was better. All of our breakfasts and lunches were at the buffet so you don’t have the choices you have on Oasis. We were there for 8 nights and with our golden upgrade we were entitled to 4 a la carte dinners. The other four nights we had to have dinner at the buffet. Certainly the main dining room on Oasis is far superior to the dinner buffet at GBP. The four a la carte restaurants were pretty good but not as good as Chops or Giovanni’s Table on Oasis. I would say that the a la carte restaurants were comparable in quality to the main dining room on Oasis. Also, Oasis has room service while GBP does not.
The biggest disappointment in terms of food was the very limited availability of snacks. This may not seem important but sometimes you may not want lunch but prefer an afternoon snack. Late at night the snacks on Oasis can be very handy. Or if you sleep in and miss breakfast you might want to get a snack before lunch opens. This was not possible at GBP. They claim to have 24 hour snacks available. We actually never even made it to the snack bar, although my kids did. They said all they had for late night snacks were hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs and french fries – not the kind of snack they were looking for at that time!
Of course one of the big attractions of an AI is unlimited beverages. The bars served a large variety of mixed drinks that were all very tasty. You could also get non-alcoholic drinks if you wished such as virgin Pina Coladas and such. Beer was limited to Dos Equis but it was quite good. House wines were generally not so good although I did have a decent cabernet one night. You could also get some really nice cappuccino and specialties like Mayan Coffee either in the restaurants or at the main bar at no charge. The one negative I experienced was when I tried to get morning coffee to bring to my room. They had to-go cups but no lids! I had to use a napkin for a lid and it was soaked with coffee by the time I got back.
Of course you could argue that you can have all these things on Oasis but somehow knowing it is already paid for makes it seem much better! And having a swim up bar at the pool was a huge plus.
The entertainment on Oasis was world class – Hairspray, the Aquatheater, the ice show, comedy club, piano bar, etc. At GBP, they tried but it was not even close. The best shows we saw there were an excellent acrobat show and a fairly good Michael Jackson impersonator. Those two were likely “Oasis worthy”. The others ranged from OK to just plain bad! They had one show with three couples from the audience. I thought it would be like the Love and Marriage game show on Oasis but instead of answering questions the couples were asked to perform embarrassing physical tasks together. The final task involved popping balloons in compromising positions which was actually quite funny. I am sure you get the idea!
Although GBP did have a disco it was only open from midnight to 2 AM. My adult children enjoyed it a few times but they were a bit disappointed that there were not more options at night. Once the main bar closed at 11:30 PM there was not much to do other than the disco.
The public areas on Oasis are quite amazing for a cruise ship but GBP is an absolutely beautiful resort. The grounds were well maintained, the pools were fantastic and of course a wonderful beach is right there. The lobbies, bars and restaurants had high thatched roofs which were nice to look at but tended to leak a bit in the rain. One meal at the buffet it rained pretty hard and our table was right under a leak. We had to scramble to find a dry spot but it all worked out in the end.
There were several extras at the GBP that were very nice. Free WiFi in the lobbies, a stocked refrigerator in your room with no extra charge when you took something. We had paid a little more to get the golden upgrade and this provided us with robes and slippers and a welcome fruit basket among other things. On Oasis amenities like this either cost extra or required a certain C&A level to receive.
I have always had excellent service on board RCCL ships. At GBP the service was mostly very good but we occasionally experienced some poor service at the buffet. The maid service at GBP was comparable to the room steward service on Oasis. We even got daily towel animals but no mints on the pillows.
Advantage: Oasis (by a nose)
Activities and Social Aspects:
On any RCCL cruise, the Cruise Compass is chock full of activities you may choose from throughout the day and night. Whether you like sports, art tours, trivia, cooking demonstrations or pool games you can find all that and more on Oasis. At the GBP, the Animation Staff did a good job with activities around the main pool. There was a published schedule of activities by day of the week but they never seemed to follow the schedule. For example they were supposed to have Spanish lessons every day at 5:30 PM but we never could figure out where they were being offered, if at all. Other activities such as trivia contests and ping pong tournaments also seemed to never go on as planned. Maybe we just did not know where to look but my overall impression was that other than near the pool, the other activities were poorly organized.
One of the things I really like about cruising is that it can be a very social experience. I always meet people on board and in some cases stay in touch with them well after the cruise is done. Perhaps the insular nature of a cruise ship promotes more personal interaction but I must say that it was more difficult to meet people at GBP. The community at the resort had a very international flavor and perhaps the language barrier contributed to this. The most social experience we had was probably dinner one night at the Japanese steak house. We were at a show table with couples from Canada, Germany, Cuba and the USA and were able to strike up a conversation with some of our tablemates. Other than that, we only chatted briefly with a few people in passing. Even my adult children who usually meet a bunch of people on a cruise could not really connect with anyone at the resort. Although there were some families at the resort similar to ours, there are many more families with adult children on a cruise than we saw at the resort. If you are looking for more social interaction, a cruise is probably the better way to go.
There are a wide variety of shore excursions you can take while on a cruise. Depending on how much you want to spend, the sky is really the limit. And of course a cruise goes to several ports which allow for more variety. However there were some really nice places to visit in the area around GBP. And you have a lot more flexibility since your resort won’t sail off if you don’t get back by a certain time! Rather than try to compare possible excursions in general I will simply mention the excursions we took on our Oasis Western Caribbean cruise and compare them to the ones we took while at GBP.
When docked in Falmouth we went to Dunn’s River Falls and tubed down the White River. It was a very fun excursion and we really enjoyed it. While at the GBP we took a cab to the Tulum ruins. We loved looking at the ancient Mayan site and even spent some time at the beautiful beach that was there. But it was oppressively hot at Tulum. I give a slight edge to Jamaica.
When docked in Labadee, we just spent the day at the beach. While at the GBP we went to Akumal beach and went snorkeling with the sea turtles there. I give a big plus to Akumal.
When docked in Cozumel we went to Mr. Sanchos for an AI beach break. It was very relaxing and fun. Food and drinks were all very good. While at GBP we went to Yal Ku lagoon. It was like snorkeling in an aquarium and it was a very memorable experience. I enjoyed both and would do either again.
Advantage: GBP (by a nose)
While researching AI resorts, I found the best deals were in the Yucatan region of Mexico. This is probably because the border violence in Mexico has scared off many tourists. However, the Yucatan is one of the safest areas of Mexico. We never felt uncomfortable or otherwise unsafe while we were there.
Our vacation at GBP was a really good bargain. Basically the cost was about the same for 8 days at GBP as it would be for 7 days on Oasis. But that cost included airfare to Cancun! We live in Arizona so airfare can be a big consideration. If you factor in all costs – transportation, tips, excursions, drinks, etc. the GBP was much more inexpensive than an Oasis cruise.
We are very glad we took our AI vacation at the GBP. If you are an avid cruiser but want to do something different I would highly recommend trying an AI. We found it much more relaxing than a cruise. There are many AI resorts to choose from. I would go back to GBP but I would be perfectly willing to try a different AI if they are having a good deal. The important thing is to do your research and pick someplace that fits your style. Tripadvisor has forums that you may find helpful when researching an AI resort.
Does this mean I will stop cruising? Heck no, I love to cruise. On balance I think I like cruising a little bit more than the AI resort experience but it was an excellent change of pace and we had a terrific time.