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Riviera Maya all-inclusive resorts paradise for families

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  • The beachfront Azul Sensatori is about 20 minutes south of Cancun's airport
  • Azul hotels offer on-site sailboat and snorkel operations
  • Kids' clubs are available when parents need a break
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By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Spanish lessons, yoga or a snooze on the beach in an oversized casita?

Young guests have fun in the sun with a counselor at Azul Beach Hotel.

Young guests have fun in the sun with a counselor at Azul Beach Hotel.

Beach butlers hustle with tall frozen drinks while adults and kids gather at the interconnected pools' swim-up bars and restaurant decks.

A toddler sleeps peacefully in one of these spacious "beach beds" (her mom says she's so grateful she doesn't have to spend naptime in their room), a grandfather plays cards with his granddaughter in another and a dad tosses a football along the beach with his sons.

There is a beach volleyball game going on at one end of the beach and a kids' soccer game at the other. A group of adults play bocce ball on the beach. A mom goes out in a kayak with her daughter.

Welcome to a spanking new resort -- the 438-room beachfront Azul Sensatori by Karisma -- on the "Bahia Petempich" in Riviera Maya. The Azul Sensatori is about 20 minutes south of Cancun International Airport and roughly a half-hour north of Playa del Carmen.

My mission: To see if a vacation with active teens and young adults can be successful at an all-inclusive resort. When the kids were younger, I liked all-inclusive resorts for the organized kids' activities that gave parents a break. I also liked the fact that I didn't have to pay exorbitant prices for soft drinks and burgers they never seemed to eat.

Today, I'm still glad for the complimentary activities and for the drinks -- the alcoholic as well as non-alcoholic kind -- that are included, along with their food, since my three kids who are now 17, 22 and 24 and my 27-year-old nephew, who has joined us, eat a lot more these days.

"We can get whatever we want and try things," said Jen Pfeifle, a college senior happily traveling with her family from Michigan. We meet families of all ages and sizes -- a wedding group, family reunions (there were some 15 family reunions the week we visited) -- that have come from the United States, Canada and Britain to a resort that can truly deliver some family fun in the sun 21st-century style.

So can the company's two other nearby resorts. Children between the ages of three and 12 receive a 50 percent discount based on double occupancy when sharing rooms with parents at all of the Azul hotels. The 98-room Azul Beach Hotel is just a short walk down the beach and seems ideal for young families -- and we see many with grandparents in tow.

Parents of kindergartners and young grade-schoolers love that the place is small enough so that the kids can run to the bathroom or back to their room and that the staff -- who know their names by the second day -- keeps an eye on them. "They'd see us coming and have the high chair ready," said Jen Schwarz, who was from New York and traveling with her toddler and extended family. Kids love the smoothie bar.

We loved the on-site sailboat and snorkel operation, beach tree houses overlooking the ocean and, if you're too lazy to move for lunch, the beach butler will bring you a picnic. "If we were staying here, I'd sleep in the tree house," my daughter Mel says.

Another half-hour south, just outside the lively beach town Playa del Carmen, is the Azul Fives Hotel, the newest in this hotel group (set to open later this year). Azul Fives promises to work especially well for family reunions, and for those traveling with older kids (like mine) who want to be near a town. (Our resort is a pricy $40 cab ride from Cancun.)

Another plus: families get a well-appointed condo with a brand-new kitchen (that they'll stock for you) where everyone can gather and spread out. Some have decks with their own hot tubs where the chefs will cook a private BBQ. The ferry to Cozumel is nearby, as are the famous Mayan ruins of Tulum and Coba. (Visit www.rivieramaya.com for information on the area attractions.)

And though there is a kids' club with its own baby pool, the emphasis here will be on family togetherness, says general manager Enrico Lindenhaln, himself the father of a toddler. "We want to get back to the old-style family vacations where they come to spend time together, not drop the kids off all day," he explains.

That seems to be the mantra at the other two resorts as well. Kids of all ages are with their families on the beach and around the pool splashing, building sand forts and slurping frothy drinks.

Allie Falender, who is from Houston and is here with a large family group, was thrilled that everything she needed for her 10 month old -- crib, baby bath tub, bottle sterilizer -- was waiting in her room -- all part of a resort partnership with Fisher-Price. You can also borrow the latest toys and have them delivered to your room. "It's nice not to have to organize anything, that it's all here," said Falender.

Of course, when parents need a break -- and kids a time out from the sun -- the kids' clubs -- are available and impressive. At the Karisma Sensatori where we were staying, there's a room just for doll play, and it includes a theater. In the arts and crafts room, a group of little girls decorates door hangers, while at the next table boys stack wooden pieces for a game of Jenga.

Still, this new resort -- open less than two months when we visited over the holidays -- is experiencing "teething pains," guests say. There were doors that wouldn't open or lock and room and restaurant snafus. Resort officials promise they've been working hard to fix the glitches. It's frustrating, of course, but wherever you go, you can't let minor problems (like the blinds that kept breaking in our room) ruin a good time.

Especially at such a beautiful place. Oversized family rooms have a sliding door so that parents and kids get their own space; our room had a canopy bed. Every hour, the beach butlers come by at the pool offering a fruit kabob, a glass of juice, a cold towel or a sandwich in a cooler. And instead of large buffets, typical at all-inclusive resorts, there are six different restaurants here. Do we want Tapas, Mexican or Bistro fare? Mid-afternoon, we mosey over to the "taco stand" for fresh tortillas filled with meat and chicken.

Behind our poolside cabana (yes, I had to get out at 7 a.m. to snare one), the two Mullen kids jump from the pool to the Jacuzzi that comes right up to the patio of their room. "It's brilliant," says their mom Marci Mullen, who is glad for the stress-free respite from the Canadian winter.

A few beach beds away, Suzy Clode has just arrived with her husband and three kids from London. If they hadn't paid for the trip last spring, she said, they might not have come because of the economy

"But I'm glad we did," Clode said. "This might be the last big family holiday for a while."

And absolutely one for the memory books.

(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)

Copyright 2009 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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