Travel | January 31, 2022 10:42 am

In Barbados, A Grand Experiment in Luxury All-Inclusives Is Underway

Elegant Hotels is converting all seven of its properties from a previously a la carte model. Will it work?

Enjoying a sundowner at the Waves Hotel and Spa
Enjoying a sundowner at the Waves Hotel and Spa
Elegant Hotels

“All-inclusive” has been a dirty word in the travel industry for decades, often associated with cheap, uncultured snowbirds looking for an affordable stay where they can get drunk and fall asleep on a beach. And hey, if that floats your boat, that’s (mostly) totally fine. More recently, though, an increasing number of properties have made the switch to all-inclusive in an attempt to elevate the category beyond watered-down mixed drinks and stagnant buffets.

Curious to learn whether this movement is a sincere one, I recently visited Barbados, where a group called Elegant Hotels manages a collection of seven properties that recently converted to an all-inclusive model (or are about to, in the case of one property). Gayle Talma, GM for Elegant on the island, tells me that over the years she has seen a steady increase in demand for all-inclusive vacations. The challenge for Elegant, she says, is feeling like they can offer guests the same top-notch culinary and cultural experiences while ditching a la carte pricing.

Before arriving, I envisioned a compound with different properties that all catered to different travelers in their own unique way. What I encountered was rather different: the hotels sit up and down the west coast of the small island, in their own unique locations. The effect of this is that you don’t feel like you’re at some mega resort with different housing options, but rather at your own small boutique destination.

They have the idyllic names you’d expect of a Caribbean getaway: Crystal Cove, Treasure Beach, Turtle Beach, Tamarind, The House, Waves Hotel & Spa and Colony Club (the last hold out in the group still on a traditional model, but switching over soon). Each place has its own distinctive aesthetic and personality, from modern luxury to chill neighborhood island vibes, but they are all intertwined.

The mazy pool complex at Colony Club in Barbados
The mazy pool complex at Colony Club
Elegant Hotels

I stayed at both Treasure Beach and Waves Hotel & Spa on the all-inclusive side of things. Treasure Beach is a small, homely property with a convivial atmosphere and huge, high-ceilinged rooms. It embraces the cultural side of the island and provides art tours of nearby towns to shop and chat with local artists.

The main attraction of Treasure Beach, though, is the executive chef, a 20-something upstart by the name of Javon Cummins who has represented Barbados while cooking for the James Beard Foundation. His restaurant, Tapestry, is known for gastronomic takes on Bajan cuisine. They do things like deconstructed souse, a slow-cooked pork dish popular on the island, as well as flying fish and coconut stews. 

The restaurant is a big destination for travelers, and is accessible to anyone staying at an Elegant Hotel via the “Dine Around” program, which allows guests to pop around to test out the fares at other member hotels in the group, regardless of where they’re staying. There are regular water shuttles as well as vans to transport guests from property to property.

A water taxi at Waves Hotel transports guests to other Elegant properties
A water taxi at Waves Hotel transports guests to other Elegant properties
Elegant Hotels

Waves Hotel & Spa, meanwhile, featured a sprawling, modern design with a huge open lobby the led directly to a deck and the beach just beyond. The spa is on site and gets the job done, but it isn’t going to completely blow you away. The property itself features multiple pools, plenty of watersports (I took a sea kayak out for a bit) and a beach with incredibly attendant staff who plied me with drinks from sunup to sundown. One of the big triumphs of Elegant is the quality of the cocktails; I probably had the best mojito of my life there, and it was made — obviously — with Barbadian rum. 

The various other establishments in their portfolio all feature their own quirks and design flourishes. Turtle Beach and Tamarind are both geared towards families; The House, probably the highest end of all the properties, is adults-only and features things like a romance concierge and limited rooms; Crystal Cove is the most affordable option. They all fit together like a puzzle depending on who you and what you want of your vacation.

Which brings us to Colony Club, the last member of the group, and the only one yet to go all inclusive. It is a sprawling property with a labyrinth of pools and lagoons and greenery throughout, a large beach and most importantly, a rum vault. 

You can’t talk about Barbados without talking about rum. They invented it, after all — a few other Caribbean nations may debate that, but I have now been proselytized in the ways of Bajan rum, and am contractually obligated to sing its praises. At Colony Club, there is a private dining room featuring more than 150 different kinds of rum from all over the world. Many of them are from Barbados, including run-of-the-mill Mount Gay expressions and commemorative anniversary bottles from Foursquare, the most renowned distillery on the island, if not in the entire Caribbean. They also house many a rum from their Caribbean neighbors, as well as more surprising and esoteric rum producers like Japan and Mauritius. 

The Rum Vault at Colony Club
The Rum Vault at Colony Club
Elegant Hotels

At the vault they offer various tasting-menu dinners with another top chef on the island, Wayne Maynard, who creates menus based on the cocktails and rum flights prepared by The Colony Club’s Rum Ambassador, the ironically named Corey Sobers.

“Rum makes everything better, if it didn’t, you didn’t drink enough rum,” he told me multiple times throughout the evening. It wasn’t all jokes, though: the various meals on offer are not simply a rum tasting with food, they are a journey into the history of the all-important spirit and a masterclass on the complexities of rum and what makes it so delicious. You’ll learn the exalted role that Barbados holds in the rum world and the methods employed to evoke different flavors and sensations. Sobers says that Barbados makes the best sugar cane in the Caribbean because they have limestone instead of volcanic soil — a feature you’ll notice as you tour the island, which is far less mountainous than most of its neighbors

The Rum Vault also offers rum flights across a variety of styles and types, from individual Bajan distilleries like Foursquare and Mount Gay to a mix-and-match “Best of Barbados” to Spanish- and French-style flights. Or you can taste different rums a la carte. According to Sobers, the most coveted rum in The Rum Vault  is the Foursquare 2005, which is aged for 12 years in ex-bourbon casks and was among the big winners at the IWSC (International Wine and Spirit Competition) in 2018. Prices for an a la carte sipper can range from a few dollars to a few hundred, and the full vault experience can be booked as a private takeover (it houses about 12 people) or just by the seat, which is a great way to socialize with other guests. 

And that’s really one of the boons of Elegant’s Dine Around program, and its broader move toward all-inclusivity (the Rum Vault’s exalted place outside of the model notwithstanding). The hotel is essentially making an entire Caribbean island one giant all-inclusive experience, with guests stationed at individual hotels but free to range around as they please. It makes for a more culturally authentic experience than you’d ever find at one of region’s many big-box resorts, while maintaining the convenience and accessibility that is unquestionably appealing to most travelers.