Submitted on 09-07-2016
I've always been skeptical of all-inclusives. I had never done one before, because it seemed to me that they have many of the downsides of cruises (mediocre food, cheesy activities, crowds) without the upside of allowing you to see several destinations in a short amount of time. But Live Aqua made me realize it's all about choosing the right AI. This upscale resort has really good food and a relaxing, peaceful atmosphere, and is situated on one of the prettiest beaches in North America. We came ...
I've always been skeptical of all-inclusives. I had never done one before, because it seemed to me that they have many of the downsides of cruises (mediocre food, cheesy activities, crowds) without the upside of allowing you to see several destinations in a short amount of time. But Live Aqua made me realize it's all about choosing the right AI. This upscale resort has really good food and a relaxing, peaceful atmosphere, and is situated on one of the prettiest beaches in North America. We came here for relaxation and, other than a whale shark tour one day, didn't leave the property during our five days here. It was the perfect destination for what we wanted, and I would go back in a heartbeat.
ROOM: We had an ocean view room, the second cheapest category of room (above only the garden view). I was initially disappointed when we were put in Room 1401, which is on the mezzanine level, the lowest level that has guest rooms. But our room had a large terrace that looked squarely at the beautiful turquoise ocean. This isn't the kind of "ocean view" where you'll see a parking garage and a small sliver of ocean. It was pretty much ocean in all directions. We didn't have a great view of the pools (you could glimpse part of them, but not all of them, from one end of the balcony) but I would much rather look at the ocean anyway. I do wish that our balcony had had an umbrella, since it didn't get any shade until the late afternoon. We checked in on a Sunday of a holiday weekend, and noise was not a problem until the very last night (a Thursday) when there was some fairly loud music until 11 pm or so from the bar area below. I do recommend requesting a room on a higher floor if you're sensitive to noise or like to go to sleep early.
FOOD: Food is very important to me, and was what I cared about most when reading TA reviews before our visit, so I'll go into quite some detail here.
My favorite restaurant by far was MB. This is the only restaurant with a dress code (although it's not an onerous one, just that men must wear long pants and closed toe shoes), and has an elegant, upscale atmosphere comparable to nice restaurants in NYC and California. The food is really outstanding, in both presentation and taste. The much-discussed habanero cream soup more than lived up to the hype and was my favorite thing I ate during our stay here, and I also loved my cornish game hen entree. The service here was really outstanding as well.
One of my biggest regrets of our time here is that we didn't have a full dinner at Varenna, the Italian spot that was my second favorite restaurant. There were so many dinner-only restaurants that they filled up our five dinner slots and since Varenna was open for lunch we came here for that, where we enjoyed their delicious pastas (tasted homemade) and calzones. I especially loved the chicken fettucine Santa Maria, which was creamy and rich without being greasy. Although we didn't have a real dinner here, we did come here for a snack after a disappointing dinner at Hidden Garden. I ordered a caprese salad and the chocolate opera cake, and both were outstanding and made me really regret passing up the chance to have a full dinner here. Chocolate lovers cannot miss the opera cake, which is the only really intense chocolate dessert on the property (as a chocoholic, this was one of my few complaints about Live Aqua - at least half the restaurants don't even offer a chocolate dessert and a few offer something that has "chocolate" in the name but is surprisingly lacking in chocolate. Verenna's opera cake is the happy exception to this. It's REALLY chocolatey and really excellent.)
Azur has a gorgeous location directly overlooking the turquoise water, with both inside and patio seating. Most of the tables for two in the restaurant are set up so both seats face the water, which is really nice. We had lunch here twice and dinner once. I didn't like the food quite as much as MB or Verenna (although it wins big points for atmosphere), but it is definitely very good. I especially liked the salmon with orzo and the pita they serve with different, unique kinds of hummus (carrot, broccoli). There were always lots of iguanas on the deck here.
Sea Corner is a good option for a light Mexican lunch, although the very limited menu (three varieties each of tacos, tostadas and ceviche) meant that we only ate there once. I thought this place had the worst service in the resort, slow and bordering on surly.
Sushi Station was great, if you understand that the term "sushi" is used loosely and means very Americanized sushi (examples included Texas rolls with flank stank and Caribbean rolls with mango and banana). It was really tasty though, and I really wished it was open for lunch instead of just dinner. We couldn't really eat three full meals a day, and a single sushi roll would have been the perfect thing to have between breakfast and dinner (ok, maybe a sushi roll plus a chocolate crepe...).
Siete is the buffet restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner and also serves upscale Mexican food a la carte at dinnertime. It's the only real breakfast option most days (I understand MB serves brunch on weekends but we arrived Sunday at noon and departed on Friday, so we unfortunately missed that), and we ate breakfast here daily and lunch here once. Breakfast has an outstanding selection and the quality of food is generally very good, much fresher than what I've experienced on cruise buffets and most hotel buffets. There are all the standard things you would expect (omelet station, hot breakfast foods like waffles and pancakes, breakfast meats and an expansive pastry display), but there are also many more unique items, including a made-to-order smoothie bar, a mimosa bar, Mexican foods like empanadas, tacos and fried plantains, and a chocolate fountain with homemade churros for dipping. I was really impressed by the quality of the breakfast items, although the pastries were occasionally a tad on the stale side (still tasty, though). Lunch was fine but didn't impress me as much, but I'm really not a buffet person and almost always prefer to eat a la carte when it's an option.
I normally wouldn't spend extra money to eat at a premium restaurant, especially when so many of the included options were good, but we had a $200 resort credit, and my husband really wanted to try InLaa'Kech, the steak and lobster grill that charges $65/person for dinner, so we used the credit to eat there once. It was alright, but certainly not worth $65 and even if it had been free, I don't think it stacks up favorably to MB and Varenna. My husband enjoyed the lobster, although it's Caribbean lobster, which is not lobster to anyone who has spent time in Maine. My porterhouse steak was alright, but quite tough. I enjoyed the lobster bisque appetizer, but wouldn't have wanted to pay $5 of real money for it, let alone $65.
Hidden Garden was by far my least favorite restaurant. Any restaurant that claims to cook Indian, Chinese, Thai AND Indonesian food inevitably won't do any of them very well, and this place was no exception. My chicken tikka masala bore no resemblance to the Indian dish of the same name, and as mentioned above we ended up going to Varenna for a second meal for me afterwards (my husband really liked his orange chicken, but he also loves Panda Express, so...). I also wasn't a big fan of the "romantic" atmosphere here. It's outside but not open to the breeze, so bugs and heat are a really big problem (we ate after 8 pm, and still sweated through our meals). I will say I really liked the welcome drink we were given there - it tasted like watermelon and was very refreshing.
In addition to all of these restaurants, there are lots of options for snacks or lighter meals: the coffee shop, the crepe cart, pool food and bar service, a poolside meat grill, a hot dog stand, and room service (no additional charge for any of these). Of these, we only took advantage of the first three. The coffee shop's chocolate truffles and the nutella crepes from the crepe cart were both really good and helped me get my chocolate fix since the restaurants were so lacking in chocolate desserts. We also ordered chips and dip and quesadillas by the pool one day and they were pretty tasty. The poolside meat grill looked good, but one day my husband saw a bird land on the bins of food put out for people and eat some of it, so that kind of put us off eating there.
I will say that I found all the free coffee, both in the restaurants and in the coffee shop, quite terrible and bitter. I'm not really a coffee connoisseur, but it tasted like airplane coffee, which is famously awful. There is premium coffee that you have to pay for, but I didn't try that. I ordered drinks at the pool with Kahlua instead ;) Speaking of drinks, I'm not a big drinker, but I did have some sweet drinks (mudslides, strawberry daiquiris) at the pool and didn't really taste any alcohol or feel any effect from it, and since I drink so rarely I imagine that means they are quite weak. I ordered a drink called a banana sexy (not on the menu) after seeing some other TA reviews mention it and it was SO good! I highly recommend that drink.
Although we stuck to bottled water (available for free all over the resort) for drinking, we drank juices and coffee and drinks with ice (including smoothies and other blended drinks) and ate raw fruits, veggies and fish (all things you're generally advised to avoid in countries where you shouldn't drink the tap water) and had no stomach problems whatsoever. I assume they have their own water filtration system and/or use purified ice.
POOLS/BEACH: The beach is absolutely beautiful, with that gorgeous turquoise Cancun water that is the prettiest I've seen outside of French Polynesia. The water is rough, and there were red flags every day we were there (accompanied by a single yellow flag some days). Many people, including us, swam anyway, and although it's definitely a body-surfing beach and not a snorkeling beach, I didn't think it was rougher than many other places I've body-surfed, including Hawaii. The waves are big but we didn't notice crazy currents or anything, and I don't see any reason why you wouldn't be able to swim unless you're really a beginner swimmer.
There are a bunch of interlocking pools, including a round infinity pool that overlooks the ocean. The stories of having to claim a pool chair at 7 am seem greatly exaggerated. The resort was clearly not at full capacity when we were there from July 3-8, but I routinely went down to the pool around 9, and saw that 90% of the chairs were still open. Even around 3 pm, you could usually still find an open chair or even two together, although you might not be able to get a shaded chair at that point.
The pools are beautiful, but I really wish they had a pool that was in the shade for a greater part of the day. The pool area did not get any shade until about 5 pm, and I'm pale enough that I can't really be in the Mexican sun in the middle of the day, or I will burn even with a high factor SPF on. This lack of shade at the pool is one reason I decided to use the rest of my resort credit to rent a cabana ($70) one day. It was nice to have a shaded place to lounge and I enjoyed the included 20 minute foot massage, but it kind of boggles my mind that there are people who would pay cash to do this every day. To each their own, I guess, but the value wasn't there for me.
SERVICE: I found the service almost uniformly pleasant and professional, but I'm not as gaga about it as many TA reviewers seem to be. I regularly stay in luxury hotels where excellent service is the norm, so perhaps I have higher standards than some. I do want to give a shoutout to Freddy Morales, who was hugely helpful in corresponding with me beforehand about a special situation and was incredibly welcoming to us once when we were on the property.
ACTIVITIES: It's definitely not a party place (which was a plus for us!), and the focus is on food and relaxation, but there are a few scheduled activities during the day including yoga, beach volleyball, and wine and tequila tastings and cooking classes. There's also a gym, a spa and a billiards table, and of course the beautiful pools and beach. I really can't imagine being bored here unless you're the type that has to be doing something super adventurous every day. There's a really high end shopping mall (Fashion Harbor) right across the street, if you're into that, and the backside of that mall that faces the lagoon is also a great place to watch sunsets.
-I wish they would have a better tipping policy. Either they should clarify that gratuities are included and staff are not supposed to accept tips (like Sandals and many other AIs) or they should allow you to leave a single tip at the end (and perhaps suggest an amount) like cruises do. I wasn't really sure when or how much I should be tipping, and I hated having to carry cash around the resort, and shortchanged some deserving people because I had forgotten the cash in the room.
-I definitely would have preferred no aromatherapy, but it didn't bother me hugely and I have allergies and am pretty sensitive to perfumes, so I would imagine most people won't mind it too much. If you're very sensitive to perfumes, it may be a reason to book elsewhere though.
-I would have loved it if they had a library with books or DVDs that could be borrowed. If they had that, we never found it (I did see some coffeetable books, but no novels or anything).
-I liked the "no reservations" policy at the included restaurants, since it allowed us to choose where we wanted to dine spontaneously. We never encountered any wait at all, even at peak dining times like 6:30-8 pm. Certainly if we had experienced having to wait (as some other reviewers have mentioned), that would have detracted significantly from our experience.
-When I went to check out, the resort credit was not applied to our bill, which was surprising since I had confirmed it multiple times, including after arrival, and had specifically discussed the use of the resort credit when booking the cabana and InLaa'Kech. It was corrected without argument (but also without the profuse apology I would have expected) when I pointed it out, but do check your bills carefully, especially if you have a resort credit.
-I know they're inevitable at AIs, but I hated having to wear the bracelet all the time. It's uncomfortable and tacky. And apparently my body agreed with me, because by the end of the week my wrist with the bracelet had broken out in a really spectacular rash.