I am as susceptible as anyone to a fantasy. Words like “gourmet” and the name of a fancy chef flying into town were peppered throughout the email invitation. I was in: sign me up for a week of relaxing at an all-inclusive resort by the sea, eating desert fruit and fresh Caribbean seafood, and interviewing the star chef. Was this real life, I wondered, as I dug out my bathing suit from its winter hiding spot? Or was I counting my freshly caught mahi-mahi before it came anywhere near the line? The answer, I’m afraid, comes with the reality that I just now had to Google what kind of fish might be caught and served off the coast of the Yucatan in order to write that sentence.
I convinced my husband to come with me. In hindsight, I’m sorry to have subjected him to the food, and even sorrier that there was nothing separating the bed and the toilet in our room besides an open-topped clear glass panel, nice as it was to have someone with whom to commiserate. But I did wonder, scanning the faces of all the honeymooning couples we met on the trip: was this romantic to them? Did lifelong bonding and the starting of a family come with reminders that yes, in the paraphrased words of the children’s book, everybody does poop? (Had I wasted our honeymoon staying in places where the bathrooms had doors?)
I contemplated this the night we arrived, when we thought we’d start with a bang: the resort’s fancy Italian restaurant. The first sign of trouble at dinner was not the elaborate but bland Caesar salad, nor the crouton that garnished it, which seemed to have been fashioned from the type of foam rubber used to make the cheap mattresses on the beds at summer camp. It was the waiter coming to crumb the table.
Yes, I’m complaining about the food and service at a place that crumbed my table. It’s just gilding the lily of my terrible-person reputation, since there’s simply no way to complain about a free stay at an all-inclusive resort on the beach in Mexico without sounding like a complete ass. So let’s just clear that up right away: I am an ass.
All-inclusive resorts are famed for their lackluster buffets, but this, this was going to be different—I thought naively from my couch in Seattle. This gourmet spot served each meal individually (at least in the dining room—I have my doubts that it wasn’t pulled from a buffet back in the kitchen). Perhaps it was the lingering chill of winter clouding my brain, but I truly believed I was headed to Mexico to uncover a gem of resort dining, a place where food-lovers and drunken honeymooners alike could down endless glasses of bottom-of-the-barrel pinot grigio.
The waiter got there between the grainy melon soup—so sweet that I suspected it was last night’s melon sorbet, melted and garnished with shrimp—and the oddly flat pear tart, and whipped out his table crumber. It quickly became obvious someone taught him how to make the motions of crumbing the table, but he either didn’t understand or was not motivated to actually remove any crumbs from the tablecloth. He skimmed over the surface with the fancy metal tool, the few crumbs he actually touched barely rearranging themselves.
It became a metaphor for the resort: the food would look or sound like something you might want to eat, but the reality was that it appeared to have been cooked by someone who had, perhaps, never eaten. The spaces seemed designed by someone who had seen a nice design, but never been taught the principles of design. Or, at the very least, not by anyone who ever had to spend an evening with his or her significant other in a room where not very much separated bowel movements from bedsides. (When I brought this up to the hotel’s PR rep, she said I was not, in fact, the first to mention their distaste at having no visual, olfactory, or aural barrier from their partner’s toilet time.)
On the second day, we found slight improvement at the open-air Caribbean restaurant—I watched a whole fried fish special walk by and could tell instantly that it was going to be the way to go. As my husband scraped some sort of sickly-sweet guava sauce off his (otherwise decent) steak, I knew I’d made the right move—especially when it struck me that my fish would go well with hot sauce. We flagged down a server and asked if there was any hot sauce. This prompted a conspiratorial smile and an increase in service level—it was, if nothing else, a secret handshake. The server joked with us as we dipped the fresh-fried fish in the lip-searing habanero-spiked sauce. Sure, it was still served with the vegetables that looked like what you’d serve a sick person in Edwardian Britain, but for a few bites, my taste buds were awake again. However, given that hot sauces were never mentioned on the menu anywhere, never discussed, and ridiculously hot, our assumption is that they are something the staff kept around for their own meals.
For dinner, the Mexican restaurant had finally opened up. This, we thought, would be the ticket to good food: the cuisine of the people actually cooking the food. The Mexican restaurant was at the far end of the resort—a full ten-minute walk from our room. Walking, however, seemed to be frowned upon. Perhaps it detracts from the sated and sedated feeling of fullness from gorging themselves on free food that keeps the guests from noticing the poor quality?
In the stroll from our room to the dining room, we were asked at least three times by golf-cart driving employees if we’d like a ride. And that’s by the ones that stopped—others zoomed by, bringing their precious cargo of day-drunk honeymooners to dinner as if they were driving an ambulance full of injured children. They came careening close to us, almost as if to punish us for walking: that’s just not done here.
On the third day—having suffered through two full days of meals that were something like hospital cafeteria food in a prom dress and a bit of Wet n’ Wild make up—I couldn’t face having to order at one of the restaurants. Today, we’d eat our food in our room, where we could do so without clothes (it’s actually a proven fact: the fewer clothes you wear, the better any food tastes). We’d lie about and feed each other grapes; it would be sexy—at least as long as nobody needed to use the glass-fronted facilities. In our ongoing effort to find the best of the bad food, we decided perhaps our tactic of trying to find good, interesting food had been wrong. We went with a cheese plate and Buffalo wings.
Allow me to pause here to discuss the cheese plate in depth. Have you ever wondered about the term flatbread? Perhaps it has become so overused in our world that we haven’t stopped and really considered what it means: bread that is flat. Here we are trying to remake pita breads, delineate foods that aren’t quite pizza, and increase the global appeal of naan, but really, the resort demonstrated, flatbread can be much simpler. The cheese plate came with a back-to-basics kind of flatbread that was new to me: Instead of baking an entirely new bread to be the flatbread, they simply took the same sliced toast that came with breakfast and rolled it flat with a rolling pin. Genius! The cheese, meanwhile, I was impressed to see, was served at proper ambient temperature (though that guideline may have been declared in places where the ambient temperature wasn’t 95 degrees). The selection also showed an awareness of the international clientele of the resort: the plate included both American and Swiss cheese.
When we’d arrived in our room, we’d noticed the previous tenants had kindly left us the dregs of their champagne bottle and their glasses—maybe thinking that, after our long journey we’d want some refreshment. Since our room was clean and we had been walked to the door, that meant at least two different staff members walked right by the tray of drinks, so we assumed they must have also thought we’d like to toast our new digs. I suppose that means we should have known just how great they were about making absolute sure your room service wasn’t taken away from outside your door before you were done, but still I was surprised when, hours after we’d wiped the last of the Buffalo wing sauce from our own hands, something else got its paws on those bones.
In my mind, I remember the raccoon as friendly and cute, like something out of a cartoon—napkin tied up around his neck, licking his little lips. That he was thankful that we’d so kindly left him a snack. In reality, none of the photos we took (through the peephole) of our new friend raiding our leftovers in broad daylight show either a smile or the use of a linen napkin.
That could explain why our new friend wouldn’t listen to us when we politely asked him to move so we might leave safely. My husband armed himself with a towel (which seemed alternately brave, that he was ready to fight the wild animal, and really dumb, to do so with a weapon made of cotton). I called the front desk. I am assuming that whomever they sent over to help me was also unable to ingratiate himself with the raccoon and was probably dying in the trees, well short of our room, of some sort of new instant-onset rabies.
After about an hour, Rocky finished his meal, wiped his little buffalo-sauce paw prints on our hallway (unless that was blood from the resort staff sent to help us?) and wandered off on his own. Despite what I’m sure was a sunny disposition—after all this was a raccoon wandering around in the middle of a beautifully-clear 95-degree afternoon—I’m still glad that he didn’t want to stick around our room. The only thing worse than being trapped in a hotel room for eternity by a small mammal might be my having to watch, hear, and smell my husband use the restroom for all eternity.
It was an exhausting week—defending ourselves against raccoons, deciding at each meal which cuisine we’d like to see crimes committed against, and dodging speeding golf carts as we walked around—but it had finally come to an end: our final meal. The thought of one more sweet sauce, one more goopy topping or droopy protein was unbearable, so I went with a new technique: I ordered the fettuccine with shrimp in Alfredo sauce (ironically, from the Caribbean restaurant), but hold the shrimp and the sauce. What arrived, pleasantly enough, was a bowl of noodles. Plain, ordinary noodles. They weren’t handmade, they weren’t fancy, they were not, in any way, dressed or ready to go to a party. However, at that particular moment, they were my own fantasy—especially since by the time they made their way through me, I’d be able to relieve myself in the relative privacy of the airplane bathroom.