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I thought I'd hate all-inclusive resorts. Then I went to one.

The author stands in front of bungalows at the Thatch Caye resort in Belize.
The author stands in front of bungalows at the Thatch Caye resort in Belize.Monica Humphries/Business insider
  • I visited a resort in Belize, where I challenged my preconceptions about all-inclusive stays.

  • I thought all-inclusive resorts didn't foster experiences unique to a destination.

  • Thatch Caye's bungalows, communal dining, and activities proved me wrong.

With a piña colada in hand, my friend and I crawled onto a bungee-cord hammock hanging above Belize's strikingly clear waters.

Two couples were nearby as we all watched the vibrant orange sun sink below the horizon. It was one of those sunsets you're convinced you only see on vacation in a destination like Belize.

In less than an hour, the couples around us, along with about 20 other guests, would sit together for a communal dinner of lobster tails, rice and beans, and salad.

It was peaceful, quiet, and far from anything I envisioned when it came to staying at an all-inclusive resort.

Well, besides the piña coladas.

Before arriving at the Thatch Caye resort, I thought all-inclusive resorts were synonymous with long lines of sunburned tourists snaking to metal trays overflowing with shrimp skewers or waiting for bottom-shelf tropical cocktails. And I definitely thought the all-inclusive experience had to include chlorinated pools and a battle over the last open lounge chair.

This February, those stereotypes were challenged with a stay at Thatch Caye, an all-inclusive resort off the coast of Dangriga, Belize.

I left sunburned and with a new favorite way to vacation.

A grouping of hotels and resorts in Cancún, Mexico.
A grouping of hotels and resorts in Cancún, Mexico.Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

All-inclusive resorts never appealed to me

For years, I've listened to friends share their all-inclusive experiences. I heard stories about hopping between restaurants with bellies full of food and their first time at a swim-up bar.

To a degree, I get it.

Everything you could need is in one location — food, drinks, entertainment, activities, spas, and a place to sleep. There's no stress over logistics, no need to plan how you'll fill your day, and no worries about budgeting once you've arrived.

But as I listened to story after story, the experiences felt identical. I had no clue whether my friend had traveled to Jamaica, Mexico, or the Dominican Republic. Instead, I heard about the trip from their room to the breakfast buffet to the beach each morning.

My friends weren't the only ones. In places like Cancún, Mexico, a hot spot for all-inclusive resorts near one of the world's seven wonders, only half the guests venture beyond the comforts of their lodgings, the Ministry of Quintana Roo Tourism reported last year.

As experts focused on sustainability and travel told me, staying at a property owned by a major corporation isn't the most eco-friendly way to travel. If a traveler never leaves their resort, locals don't receive benefits from tourism.

"Many large resorts are owned by foreign multinational companies — and often most of your holiday cash goes to them and leaves the destination," Justin Francis, cofounder and CEO of Responsible Travel, said. "Jobs available to locals can be limited to entry-level and seasonal. They can take a lot out of local communities — cutting access to beaches and wild spaces, generating more waste and pollution, consuming precious resources — while giving very little back."

I travel to explore natural landmarks, wander through museums, and try local cuisines, and I do my best to support the locals living in the destination I'm visiting.

While I can't blame someone seeking relaxation and booking an all-inclusive stay, I ruled them out for a long time.

A view of Thatch Caye from the water.
A view of Thatch Caye from the water.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Then, I came across a private island resort in Belize

At the end of last year, my friend Katie and I started planning a scuba diving trip.

We narrowed down our destination to Belize, and as I eyed different hotels, resorts, and properties across the hundreds of islands, Thatch Caye caught my eye.

Several overwater bungalows sit on a private island off the coast of Dangriga, Belize.

The pictures left me convinced it was an experience I craved. That is until I noticed those two words I'd always avoided: all-inclusive.

After learning a little more about a resort, I realized that if I could ever get behind an all-inclusive, this was the one.

A view of the overwater bungalows at Thatch Caye resort in Belize.
A view of the overwater bungalows at Thatch Caye resort in Belize.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

It isn't owned by a major corporation, and with a maximum of 30 guests at a time, there wouldn't be crowds. Some all-inclusive resorts welcome hundreds of guests at a time. The Sandals Ochi Beach Resort in Jamaica, for instance, has 529 rooms, 16 restaurants, and 105 pools.

Instead, Thatch Caye's accommodations weren't expansive hotel rooms but thatched-roof overwater bungalows. Dinner wasn't served at a dozen different restaurants; instead, there was a communal table and a single buffet each evening.

And when it came to activities, it fostered the experiences that lured me to the country in the first place.

While the island resort was tiny, it had enough room for its own dive shop, offering excursions to the world's second-largest barrier reef at additional costs. After a dive, we could grab the resort's complimentary paddleboards and snorkeling gear to continue our water explorations.

Plus, free drinks throughout our stay wouldn't hurt.

Between the picture-perfect accommodations and excursions, I was willing to challenge thoughts on all-inclusive resorts.

We booked two nights at Thatch Caye. After fees and taxes, a night in a premier overwater bungalow at Thatch Caye costs about $950 for two people. As far as all-inclusive resorts go, this was on the higher end. According to US Travel and News, an affordable stay can cost as little as $150 a night. Meanwhile, expensive all-inclusive resorts can charge $3,000-plus for a single night's stay, The Points Guy reported. (Business Insider received a media rate for the stay at Thatch Caye.)

The volleyball court at Thatch Caye.
The volleyball court at Thatch Caye.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Not every all-inclusive is built the same

A boat picked us up near the Dangriga Airport, where we sped across the ocean for 25 minutes before reaching Thatch Caye.

The palm-frond roofs came into view, and before we could reach the resort, one of the island's dogs greeted us with friendly barks. We stepped off the boat and into an entire resort cast in golden hour.

As the island's staff welcomed us to Thatch Caye, one worker passed out cool towels soaked in eucalyptus. Another handed us watermelon juice and cherry-soaked rum.

What I saw was far from what I visualize when I hear the word resort. The island was filled with nature — not towering buildings, loud music, or buffet lines.

A view of the pavilion at Thatch Caye.
A view of the pavilion at Thatch Caye.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Instead, there was one main lounge, an overwater pavilion for relaxing, and a beach. We were told to meet at the outdoor dinner table at 7 p.m.

Sure, Thatch Caye missed some elements of many all-inclusive resorts. There weren't multiple dining options to choose from, food wasn't served 24/7, and there wasn't a gym or on-site waterpark to explore.

But I did discover why people pick all-inclusive resorts. We booked scuba diving in advance, so the logistics of our trip were set by the time we reached the island. Neither of us needed to think twice about our budget before ordering a piña colada or mojito. I'll confess that I happily devoured three lobster tails during the first night's buffet.

With a small island feel, I connected with guests and the staff. Plus, the excursions immersed me in Belize's cherished underwater landscapes.

For me, it was the ideal balance of adventure and relaxation. As I left the island, I thought back to what many of the sustainability travel experts said, and I felt a little better picking Thatch Caye.

Thatch Caye reduces food waste with set meal times instead of a never-ending buffet. What isn't consumed by guests, the resort composts. Additionally, the island uses solar power and catches rainwater for its showers and sinks.

I left Thatch Caye with a new understanding of what an all-inclusive can entail. And while I still plan to steer clear of many of the major all-inclusive resorts, I'll no longer shudder when I see those two little words.

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