We're a couple in our late 20's/early 30's who stayed at the Secrets Vallarta Bay between Feb 9 to Feb 16 2013. Since my fiancé and I were travelling with her parents we did a lot of research before booking at Secrets PV. In this review I will focus on answering the questions I had before leaving that I wasn't able to really answer by reading other reviews from those that stayed there.
1) The pools - Most of the pools are not heated and therefore quite cold during this time of year however the most important pool, the one by the Manatees swim-up bar is heated so we spent most of our time there.
2) Beach merchants - Contrary to what I've read by others they were not at all harassing, there also simply weren't that many of them. They are also prevented from getting too close to where the beach chairs are by a very small but symbolic rope fence. There is also staff present to keep them from getting too close to guests areas. A simple no gesture or no thanks will make them go away.
3) Children - Not once did I see a child on the Secrets side of the resort. This is largely due to the design of the resort which essentially makes it very difficult to wander to either side inadvertently. On the ground the only way to get between the Now (child friendly side) and the Secrets (adults only side) is by walking right out on to the beach. Even when a mother with her child tried to come up to the Secrets side the staff kindly told her that her child could not enter. I appreciated this as I chose Secrets in part for the adults only factor. It's good to see the staff are cognizant of this. The only other way to move between the two sides is on the 3rd floor lobby level and even there it's very clear which side you're on at any time. I won't waste time explaining this any further as it will be obvious when and if you go.
4) Pool Towels - There's no official policy that I could find however it works like this. When you proceed out to the pool areas there are purple towels rolled neatly and stacked at a number of tables all over the place, no towel cards needed and you can take more than one if you like. The staff, early in the morning also put towels on most of the more desirable pool chairs. Now this is the key part, if they look all neatly rolled up and nicely placed on the chairs that means those chairs are free for the taking. If they are all unrolled and laid out that likely means someone has claimed that chair.
5) The Drinks - They have a very good selection of alcohol overall. By that I mean if you like vodka you can choose from Grey Goose (regular and Orange), Ketel One, Smirnoff, Finlandia, Absolut (multiple flavours like Peach, regular, Razberry to name a few). They also had Crown Royal, Jack Daniels, Captain Morgans Spiced Rum and of course various regular rums. The gins were Bombay, Tanqueray, Beefeater etc, again top shelf choices. They also had a big selection of Tequila which I personally don't care for too much but if you like Tequila you'll have some choices. Basically their bars (especially the lounge bar) are well stocked with a good selection comparable to most bars or restaurants I've been to in North America. Now the beers, this is where this resort differs from other All inclusives I've been to before. They have Corona on tap but that's not all. They also have Pacifico in cans, Modelo Light in cans (this beer is very similar to Coors Light), Bud Light and regular Budweiser in cans too. For all you Canadians like me out there they serve Caesars (they call them bloody Caesars) but they actually have them. I'm a big Caesar fan and this is the first all inclusive I've ever seen where they serve them so I was very impressed with that. Now for the wine, they actually have a decent selection of wines (mostly all from Chile) which are part of the all inclusive and are not extra $$. They have both a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds (both decent and comparable to a basic house red you'd find in most casual restaurants). They also have a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for their stock whites (again both are decent and what you'd likely get as a house white in a restaurant). Now you can order other wines but it costs $$. At every restaurant they will provide you with a wine list however I would recommend you try the free house choices I just mentioned before buying any as these are much better than the mediocre "grape juice" most All Inclusives try to pass off as wine. One thing I will mention is the juice, it's very good, especially the orange juice. It definitely tastes fresh squeezed and well worth a glass in the morning. The coffee on the other hand isn't great in my opinion. One thing that would've put this resort over the top would be if they served Red Bull, but unfortunately they don't. You can buy it for $5 a can in the lobby shop near the coffee shop but that's it.
6) The Food - Ok so this is usually one of the biggest ??? when going to any all inclusive so I'll do my best to provide some valuable commentary on it. First off, no reservations is absolutely correct and rarely will you have to wait to be seated. We usually went for dinner early (around 6-630pm) at which time most restaurants are pretty much empty. If you go around 8 you might have to wait a bit at any given restaurant but just try another and you should have no problem getting seated right away. There are 5 different restaurants plus a buffet option. We never ate at the Buffet other than for breakfast which is quite good, especially the omelette station. In the Now side are the following restaurants: Himitzu (Japanese/sushi/Tepanyaki), Tamarindo (Mexican) and Capers (Italian). Both Himitzu and Tamarindo are kind of hidden away, the only way to access them is to go to the Now lobby (3rd level) and go down the middle hallway (away from the ocean side between the lobby bar and reception and either take the lone elevator or the stairs just to the right to go down to the 1st floor where Tamarindo is on the right and Himitzu is on the left. As these restaurants are a little less easy to find they don't seem to get as busy.
The sushi at Himitzu is decent, nigiri is ok as are most of the rolls and you do get a good selection (about 10 types of rolls), nigiri is limited to salmon, tuna primarily. The tepanyaki can be had a la carte as well so you don't need to reserve a spot at the big grill tables where the chef prepares in front of you (that requires a reservation). The miso soup as well as the tempura was quite good. Now keep in mind the sushi isn't going to be as good as a good restaurant where you pay $40-80 so keep that in perspective.
Capers is located on the 1st level as well but on the pool side of the resort so you'll walk right by it when you go down to the pool from the Now side. We quite liked Capers, food was decent and service was very good.
On the Secrets side 1st floor on the pool side is Bordeau and the Market Café (the buffet). Bordeau is also quite good, especially the desserts which I normally don't eat but hey I'm on vacation so I indulged. One thing to note is that most of the food portions as with all of the restaurants aren't big by north American standards so if you're a big eater get at least one app, a soup and a main entrée. They have no issue with anyone ordering multiple items each.
Out by the pool just above the Manatees bar is Oceana (seafood/steak grill). All but the buffets and Oceana (which is the same as Castaways on the Now side) are only open for dinner (6pm to 11pm). The breakfast buffet is open until 11:30am. If you want to eat after that but before the lunch buffet which opens at 1pm you can go to Oceana/Castaways for lunch as they open at 11:30am. The food there is decent but not mind blowing. They have some decent apps, burgers, club sandwich, onion rings, wings, nachos etc. They always give you taco chips with salsa, guacamole and a hot sauce regardless of what you order. The guac is especially good.
There's also the Barefoot grill which is very basic burgers, hot dogs and a few other choices that vary daily. You can also ask for nachos there even though it's not outside for you to help yourself to. If you're feeling lazy by the pool you can also ask the serving staff to grab you a burger or nachos or whatever and they will bring it right to you.
One thing that's worth mentioning is that all restaurants have numerous vegetarian options (all marked on the menu with a symbol) so if you're not into meat you'll have multiple choices wherever you chose to eat. The other thing I would like to mention is that Secrets has an Iphone/Android app that you can download from Apple's app world and Google's app market which when you select your Secrets resort you can view all the menus for the various restaurants on your phone. They aren't always exactly correct but it will give you a very good idea of what items are on each menu at the various restaurants. We found this very useful when trying to decide where to eat any given night.
7) The Internet - There's free Wi-Fi throughout the resort (we didn't opt in for the Preferred club) but you still get free wifi. We were on the 13th floor (room 2307) and the wifi wasn't very good in our room but throughout the resort, in the lobby, by the pools, in the restaurants and shops the wifi was quite good.
8) Phone calls - Again, not well advertised but you get (again with just a standard ocean view room) free phone calls to anywhere in the US or Canada from your room.
9) The Rooms - Now here's another area where getting a good idea of what you're going to get is hard to determine from the Secrets website. Now as far as we could tell the main difference between the Preferred club (the building on the farthest right when looking at the resort from the beach with the ocean behind you) was that all those rooms have a Jacuzzi or tub on the balcony. Preferred club also got access to a private lounge with snacks and drinks but it was always pretty much empty since most people go to the main areas drink. Who wants to go to an empty bar to drink right? Views from any room above I would say the 3rd or 4th floor is spectacular. There are no rooms that don't face the ocean period. This resort is shaped like a boomerang that hugs the beach so you won't be disappointed with the view.
The bed in our room was really good as was the huge shower which has both a standard detachable shower head and rain shower heads. The shower is easily big enough for 2 people. The tub is also nice but we hardly used it. Lighting in the room is also good as there are a number of different lights you can turn on and fade etc. The rooms in general were the best I've experienced in my dozen or so all inclusive vacations. They really make the stay more comfortable.
The TV is a new flat screen with cable channels like HBO etc. Nothing in HD unfortunately but hey, who's going to Mexico to watch TV right. Channel 36 is 24hr porn in case that's your thing. Mini fridge has Coronitas (small corona bottles) and pop and water. The fridge keeps everything nice and cold. The thermostat is digital so you can program it. The AC is whisper quiet so it won't keep you awake at night. One thing to note is that the AC will only work when the hotel door and balcony sliding doors are closed (there are sensors built into each). In the standard Ocean view room you get all the basic amenities like shampoo, conditioner, lotion, shower gel, soap etc. In the preferred I think you also get toothpaste and spf 15 sunblock. That plus a slightly improved mini bar don't really seem worth the additional cost for the preferred club option. I would also not recommend the swim out rooms here since you lose the amazing view by being on the ground level. Also, the swim outs on the Secrets side get virtually no sun all day so you probably won't want to hang out there anyway. Given the layout of this resort it doesn't take long to get anywhere from your room to the pool to the beach etc so having a small pool outside your terrace doesn't seem worth it to me. The only issue we noticed with the room was that since we're near the elevator you could hear the ding sound each time it opened on our floor. Again, this is a very small thing and almost not worth mentioning and unlike many all inclusives the walls don't seem like they're paper thin so quiet is usually what you get at any time.
10) Room Service - It's not bad. You can order 24hrs a day and it's free so if you're feeling lazy one morning or late at night give it a try, the longest we waited was about 25min after ordering and the menu selection is quite good. Each room has a "Secrets box" which until I got there I didn't really understand what it was. It's basically a cupboard that's accessible from both within the room and outside your room so room service can leave your food if you don't wish to be disturbed. You can also put your finished plates etc in there and it will be out of sight and will be picked up when your room is cleaned next.
11) Tipping - Now you don't have to tip but if you have any class at all you will as the staff there work much harder than anywhere else I've ever been. Everyone is friendly, they generally understand English quite well and they really do make the vacation much better. We tipped all the time, mostly at the restaurants and bars etc. I usually gave $1 for each drink and tipped $5-10 after each dinner. Again, the service in the restaurants is pretty much better than almost any restaurant I've ever been to and my fiancé and I eat out often and we love to try good restaurants. Given how much more actual value $5 or $10 USD has to a Mexican local be generous and keep the service top notch by tipping. All in all I think we spend about $200-250 in tips for the entire vacation including $20 we left for the maid on our last day when we checked out. One thing I really noticed and appreciated is that service didn't really hinge on if you tip like other All Inclusives I've been to. This alone made me more inclined to tip as well as they seem to pool the tips and then divide it afterwards. Staff don't generally pocket the cash themselves. Having worked in the restaurant industry when I was young I appreciate this more professional way of handling tips.
12) Timeshares - When you get there you will be approached to sit through a quasi time share presentation where they spin it like joining their points club or whatever. Now if you've ever been to Las Vegas and you know how the MLife and Total Rewards points clubs work etc work it's not the same at all. Essentially what they want to sell you is a multi year discount to visit their various resorts including Now, Secrets, Dreams, Zoetree etc. What they want is for you to commit $15K (50% up front then the rest in monthly payments) to get permanent hotel room discounts (about 25-50%) off regular rates. We met people that opted in and they seemed to be pleased with it as you get a couple of free weeks to sign up but overall it wasn't for us. Personally I don't think the somewhat marginal discount you get on booking rooms will really offset the big up front financial commitment. I'm also not convinced that the savings will be very much when you consider how travel site aggregators like Expedia, Travelocity, Itravel 2000 etc give discounts when you book entire packages through them.
In conclusion I would highly recommend trying Secrets Vallarta bay as it's definitely one of the best all inclusives available in the area. Having been to about a dozen all inclusives throughout the Caribbean and Mexico this resort has been the best so far and I've been to the Grand Bahia's and Riu's etc. Give it a try as you won't be disappointed.