Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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Anyone going to Montego Bay Sandals (or thinking about going) read the review below I had a fun time, but if you looking for excellent food and great service, stay far far away from this place. This place is OK on food and service (sometimes both are terrible!) but a great place if you like to drink and do different activities. Also the beach and island are beautiful, but little if any waves. Here are some of my comments you won't read in the glossy brochure or see on the jazzy video: (1) Want to call home during your stay? Don't forget your VISA card. $9 for 3 minute call. Want to use your calling card? $3 surcharge for every call. I didn't mind the money--but you must go to the front desk and give them a copy of your VISA card before they turn on your phone. (even if you use your calling card.) This is total crap. Five star hotel? No, I don't think so. (so you say, use the pay phone...sorry, no such thing in Sandals) (2) I didn't have hot water in my room for 36 hours. I called 4 times. Every time they said "No problem, mon"..... "Your problem, mon." The fourth call was to the general manager, who took care of it. Remember, most locals make $1 US an hour. (According to one employee I spoke with... He showed me his pay stub to prove his point.) Half of the people who work have a positive attitude...the other half couldn't give a shit. (I don't blame them) You say $1/hr is probably a lot for the workers relative to the cost of living in Jamaica....but food and necessity items cost about the same as in the US. This is a very poor country with little if any economy. You'll come back to the states and appreciate want you have (even if you have nothing!) (3) Don't forget any toiletry items. Good hotels have common courtesy toiletries. Remember, this is Sandals where "Love is all you need...and your wallet" I paid $5 for shaving cream in their gift shop. Also, don't count on getting a local paper while you stay on Sandals property. I wanted to get a flavor of what happens on the island (and also check the weather forecast) The reason (I think) they don't sell them? I picked the Kingston, Jamaica newspaper up at the airport on the way home---stories about the water you shouldn't drink, economy in the shitter, and a couple of murders here and there. Don't want to scare the vacationers. But hey, this stuff happens everywhere. (3) I didn't like sitting on the beach when locals on surfs boards would harass you to buy stuff (shells, necklaces...). "Hey mon, come here in the ocean I want to show you some stuff" Hey, I'm on vacation, leave me alone. (this happened to us several times a day...the Sandals security can't do anything (so they say) because the peddlers stay in the ocean. Neutral property. I'm telling you...this is a poor island. Guys did this all day in the ocean! (4) I had lots of ants in my room. Called housekeeping several times. "No problem, mon" was the response.. Never corrected....but not a big deal..you learn to check your water glass before drinking. Half the time, there were ants in my glass. I thought this was a five star resort? No way, mon. (5) Many capital improvements needed. Some pools, fences, and buildings show definite age. If you compared the piano/bar pool picture in the brochure to the actual place, you would get a good chuckle. Lots of creative work have gone into blending pictures together (to make everything look larger than actual) and pictures have been touched up. (Sandals should commend their ad/creative agency for great work! But I'm sure they paid big $$$) (6) Lots of cats (wild) around the complex. They didn't pose a huge problem--but they beg for food when you eat lunch and dinner. I can't believe they let these run wild. (7) If your a beer drinker, be prepared to drink Red Stripe. This is the only beer available on tap and sometimes the ONLY beer period...The beer is a light reddish beer, I grew to like it...but some people dislike. When other beer was available in cans (Miller Lite, MGD) sometimes it was served luke warm! If you've already booked your trip, don't let this message discourage you. We both had a great time, but was overpriced for the quality. (suggestion: book the all day bus trip to Dunn's River Falls...$110 US for two but well worth it! About 80 miles away from Montego Bay and the Falls are awesome....the drive is neat. The company that does the tour is not affiliated with Sandals, but you can book the tour inside the hotel.) Also, I think the majority of the people who stay in Sandals Montego Bay have a blast...but know the pitfalls... complain immediately to the general manager when there is problem...ask when the problem will be corrected (they hate this, they have no sense of time or urgency)...request an upgrade on your room when there are multiple problems (upgrading is very very common). Also, during their slow periods of the year, you can upgrade your room in some cases for $99. Ask. They upgraded our room upon arrival for no apparent reason. Others we talk to said the same. Why do you hear so many great things about Sandals? Most people who stay there are not familiar with truly five star resorts and dining back in the states. Most are newlyweds ready to unwind after a big wedding. Sandals is two and half stars at best. FUN, but not want I expected.
BACKGROUND: Lucie and I (Darin) got engaged the weekend before our trip to Jamaica so this was destined to be a wonderful trip. Our only previous Caribbean experience was this past May at Club Med in Turks and Caicos. We are newly certified scuba divers and like the all-inclusive resorts for their watersports/sports, among other things. DAY 1: Preliminary Note: Don't stay at a Susse Chalet unless you've been there before and can deal with it. I would much prefer to spend another $10-15 in the future and stay at a nicer place. At any rate, our Air Jamaica flight was a pleasure. Great food, free movie and champagne, nice service. We had no problems at the airport and didn't really mind the supposedly dreadful ride to Sandals. The ride is about an hour and a half to this property, with a stop half way through, and you pass plenty of other closer resorts along the way. Upon arriving at the property, we had a friendly welcome, but our room was not ready and despite the fact that lunch was ending, no one was in a rush to either get us a room or lunch. We were able to grab the last bit of lunch and readily learned that coming near the end of a meal was a bad idea and that the buffets don't really compare to our Club Med experience. More on this later. We also found the Playmakers were not quite as friendly as G.O's at Club Med. We tried a water tryke and thought it was fun, but a pedal was broken which made it a little bit uncomfortable. We immediately signed up for a scuba check out dive for the next day from a rather unfriendly scuba guy. The pool was fantastic and the drinks were great. Too bad there is only a limited number of floats in the pool, but I guess too many wouldn't be great either. We weren't too impressed with the welcome orientation as it was not quite so personal or informative. Dinner was outside by the pool because it was Olympic night. The ambiance was fabulous. Nice service of beverages and carrying your dishes to the table, but the buffet was not comparable to Club Med and you need to eat early. We found this true through the rest of our stay -- items were missing and not re-filled, so you had to come at the beginning of a meal to get the most out of it. There was a nice pasta station. Lucie liked the shrimp stir fry and I liked the chicken saute kabob. There were also pretty ice sculptures. The setting of the meal, outside by the pool, was spectacular and romantic. We skipped the toga party. Quickly learned that the drink purple rain was pretty good. Had a purple rain and blue frozen drink by the Piano Bar area which was beautiful. Lucie was tired by this point -- it was a long day. We had to prepare for our 8:45 a.m. (not our choice of time) checkout scuba dive. DAY 2 - JAMAICA DAY: We began early, around 7:30 a.m., and showered (cold spurts in hot water) and went on to the breakfast buffet, which was only served in one place. I had French toast, fruit, bacon, and juice. Lucie had poached eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit and coffee. Breakfast was OK, but the fruit was not very fresh. Our check out dive was at 10:00 a.m as it turned out. Good equipment and nicer people. Played pitch and putt. Fabulous fun on a 9-hole 3 par course. Don't have to be good to enjoy. We're not golfers. Next, Lucie learned exactly how to make a Banana Daiquiri at the piano pool bar. It was her favorite drink. This was the big beach party night. It was confusing and did not seem organized for dinner. Also, it is especially important to come early for dinner. Not a great selection of food and no helpful drink service. The entertainment was good. Snake charmer, nail board dancer and fire dancer. We played shuffleboard and rested in a hammock after dinner. DAY 6: We made plans to leave to the Royal Jamaican hotel today since it is so much closer to the airport. Don't do this. If inclined, go to Montego Bay and party there. We looked at Mo Bay and thought it was nice, but a step below Ocho Rios, which was a step below Dunn's River. Royal Jamaican is below all of the above and is depressing or sedate. Did snorkel trip at Royal J and found it to be really nice. Great coral, lots of fish, thought he water was not perfectly clear or even that clean. Came back to room to change for dinner. Lights went out for about 30 minutes. People at the front desk said it was unusual and they did not know how long it would last -- not real helpful. Finally got changed and ran to boat dock to catch the cool dragon boat to the authentic Bali Hai Indonesian restaurant on a remote island nearby. The island, in the daylight, is not too impressive -- a few pools, 1 bar, some nude areas (we were told), and lots of dirt and bugs. But, in the evening, surrounded by lights, the restaurant is beautiful with a wonderful view. Dinner was served in tables of six. Each person was given a traditional Indonesian wrap to wear. We were given three drinks -- water, wine, and an alcoholic concoction of some sort. We had 1 appetizer (like a shrimp spring roll) and about 5 cold dishes to share (marinated veggies, cabbage, corn fritters, etc.). We also had 5 or 6 hot dishes along with white rice. Two of the dishes were fish (1 shrimp), 1 beef, 1 pork, and 1 chicken. They were very good. Lousy dessert (mango mousse in a pineapple sauce). Jasmine tea too. It was a fun and different experience. We met lots of nice people at dinner, all of whom were honeymooners. Next, we came back, had a drink, played some backgammon and checkers, and lounged in a hammock on the dock. We had to come back inside to escape the bugs - they were eating us up alive on our last night after having no problems all through the trip. DAY 7 - OUR LAST DAY: We slept in later because we asked if we could check out later than they had scheduled for us to do. Good idea. Had breakfast. As we were waiting for our shuttle to the airport, another couple was having quite the spat. They had gotten married on the trip, but she was screaming at him and asking the hotel people to get them on different flights. I think security was called. Bad scene. Anyway, Air Jamaica was terrific again. Wonderful trip. In short, the food and sports were superior at Club Med, but the ambiance could not be beat at Sandals Dunn's River.
There were many changes since my 1996 trip. Some for the better and some for the worse. The new nude beach complex is definitely a plus. The pool with a swim-up bar is a refreshing alternative to the ocean. The overhang of the roof provides just enough cover to provide a shady respite from the sun or cover from the occasional tropical shower as one enjoys a drink mixed by Delroy or Scumba, the full time barkeeps. Also, Cris did a fine job of conducting water arobics during the week of Thanksgiving. At the back end of the pool is a elevated cold Jacuzzi which overflows into the pool and a misting pool on the other side. The jets are invigorating and powerful. (Some of the women made friends with a couple of these jets). The misting pool does not really mist, instead it sprinkles. This is due to a flaw in the construction where the sprinklers were placed above the level of the water. However, this pool is none- the-less refreshing in the hot sun. Just watch your step, the smooth ceramic tile floor is very slippery. A couple of people fell. To the side of this pool is the Grotto. This was designed to provide couples a semi-private place to romance. Most still use the hot tub. Debate continued among guests as to if the hot tub is smaller. The hot tub was redone. I personally think it is the same size, but just dwarfed by all that was built around it. On a negative note, with all the work that was done to the hot tub and surrounding area, the jets on the beach side of the hot tub still do not work; the water temperature is still erratic, and the steps and handrails are gone. Glass is a problem at night. People are still walking up with drinks in glass from the disco. However, the plastic cups and guard to see that people use them are not in sight. Before someone is severely cut, management needs to ensure a supply of plastic cups are available at night at the hot tubs and should post a guard to make sure the cups are used. Or better yet, they should just eliminate glass in the disco. A building has been constructed to the front and side of the bar(where the guard shack use to be) which houses the new nude beach grill. The grill offers all the old time favorites (Nachos, hot dogs, popcorn, burgers, etc.) plus jerked chicken and fish at 5:30pm. The burgers at the grill are now prepared over charcoal. Both the nude beach bar and grill are open till 11pm. Hedo has come a long way from the days of walking to the prude beach bar for a drink. Speaking of food, this has to be one of the disappointments. The food was never anything great; however, they have cut back on the quality of both the selection and preparation. For example; there is no more lobster night, and many of the cakes taste like they came from the same mix. There are several other subtle cuts in the dining room. I hope that with the upcoming rate increase, they will return some of the things they cut-out. However, the Italian restaurant is still good and the service is greatly improved over prior years. Lenworth (Ultimate) is doing a great job in the piano bar. He had it rocking most every night. It would be nice if the coordinators would let the guests continue instead of taking over the mike as they did on some evenings. Some of the entertainment staff, although very talented, just do not know when to take a back seat. If the room has momentum and the crowd is having fun, there is no need for them to take the room over. The guests go to the piano bar to sing along with other guests; not to watch the coordinators perform. The negative points I point out are made in a constructive fashion with the hope that management will address some of these issues. Overall, I had a great time and will still make it Hedo II again and again!
We stayed at Breezes (formerly Jamaica Jamaica) in Runaway Bay, Jamaica for seven nights from Dec. 8-15, 1996. My husband and I traveled alone (the resort actually does not allow guests under the age of 16). It was our first time at this resort. Pros: 1) Lots of activities included. We snorkeled, kayaked, horseback rode, took a horse and buggy ride, took a ride on a catamaran, went on a shopping trip and played ping pong and croquet. Things we could have done but did not do: sail, scuba dive, windsurf, golf, tennis, go to Dunn's river falls (we had done this on a previous trip to Jamaica), flying trapeze (honestly), trampoline, billiards, giant chess ("Jamaican" pieces like Rastafarians, goats, etc.). 2) Overall we thought the food here was good. The buffet is in the Terrace restaurant. The buffet breakfast was probably the weakest meal. Nothing terribly exciting and not always well prepared. However, the grapefruit juice was delicious and the breakfast breads were yummy. The lunch buffet was quite good. Lots of variety of both "American" and more exotic fare, including Jamaican, Chinese, Mexican and Indian. Nice salad bar, good cheeses, a pasta bar (which we didn't try) and sometimes pizza (mediocre). We ate at the reservations only restaurant (Martino's) almost every night for dinner. Never had any trouble getting a reservation (however, the hotel was not full the week we were there). You can make a reservation as early as the day before, but we also had no problem getting one the day of the meal. We always were able to get in to whichever seating time we wanted. Dress is no shorts but jacket is not required. Saw several people in shorts anyway, and no one was kicked out. Food was very good more than 50% of the time. The antipasto bar is a main feature of the restaurant and has around 30 different choices. We especially liked the palm hearts. The ravioli was good (overcooked one night but still tasty), a seafood pasta dish I had was good with scallops, squid and shrimp, and my husband enjoyed the beef dishes he got (prime rib, etc.). Dishes that weren't so good were usually too salty (veal), too peppery or just tasted run-of-the-mill. Oftentimes the dishes didn't match the description in the menu very well. Service was excellent- someone is always refilling your wine glass (white wine was mediocre, red was a bit better). Desserts were appropriately rich. Soups were usually not so great (except the pumpkin). There's a piano player every night who is not too obtrusive but does effectively butcher a wide variety of popular tunes. We wish there had been one more restaurant option, but the menu at Martino's changes completely every night, so we didn't really get tired of it. There's a beach grill open in the afternoon, and the pork prepared here is quite tasty. We had the "room service" continental breakfast once. It consisted of the breads you get in the buffet. You have to specify the night before what time you want it, and we didn't like having to adhere to a schedule like that so we didn't get it again. 3) There are three outdoor Jacuzzis. One is right near the lobby and was the most popular- pretty large. One was more secluded under a tree in the gardens with a deck and wrought iron chairs. Very nice setting. The first half of the week it was lukewarm and not too popular. By mid-week, it was hot but still not too popular. We enjoyed this about two times a day (daytime and late at night) and were always alone in the tub. The other is on the nude beach. We tried to overcome our inhibitions and go at night, but it was too popular for our tastes. :) 4) There are hammocks in a grove of banana plants and large banyan tree. Nobody ever went in these so again it was something we could enjoy alone. They're a cool escape from the heat of the midday sun. 5) The rooms are decent. Ours was of average size and had a loveseat. The bathroom was lovely- large, all marble, tons of mirrors, the shower is around the corner from the sink and the toilet is up a step from the sink. 6) The staff is friendly and the general attitude about your vacation exemplary. There aren't many rules or schedules you have to adhere to (we have found rules and schedules at some other resorts we've been to which have limited our fun considerably). For instance, we asked if there were hours that the pool and Jacuzzi were "open". The woman just laughed like we were being ridiculous and said, "No, mon!". We didn't have to wait in lines to sign up for activities or dinner reservations. It was really quite stress free. We were even able to change our dinner reservation to a different time at the last minute one night. Some of the staff members were quite genial and even eager to strike up a conversation. For instance, we were in the Terrace restaurant one windy afternoon and a waitress asked "wouldn't you like some rum punch to warm you up?" 7) There are many little things here which are included that just add a nice touch to your vacation. For example, there were postcards of the resort (4 different ones) available in the lobby for free. They're pretty nice postcards so we didn't have to shell out any money for the ones in the gift shop. You can make yourself a laminated luggage tag with a Superclubs card. I know these things are really just advertising for them, but it's a kick to discover them here and there around the place. Neither pro nor con: 1) While not the nicest beach we've been to, it wasn't the worst either. There are just a few trees around to sit under if you want to avoid the sun. The sand was quite soft on the beach and more coarse in the water. There is a coral reef just off-shore with a rope around it prohibiting access. This is a con as it definitely limits the swimming area, especially at low tide. On the other hand, it's interesting to snorkel on the edges of it (we saw a couple varieties of fish including bright yellow ones with black stripes) and also to kayak over. The actual snorkeling trip takes you further from shore to a nice piece of reef where we saw pretty coral and several varieties of fish including triggers, a trumpet fish and a sting ray. Some other folks on the trip saw a puffer fish. 2) We missed out on much of the entertainment as it took us a few nights to find the nightclub (it's upstairs over Martino's). We saw a show of dancers, balancing acts and limbo in the Terrace restaurant the first night which was fairly typical island entertainment. We did see the Talent Show in the nightclub which was fun (staff and guests performed). We never went to the disco (except for the Welcome Party). 3) We found the clientele was somewhat international. The largest percentage were American but there were also Canadians, Germans, Egyptians, South Americans and Jamaicans, to name a few. The age was either youngish (20's to early 30's) or approaching senior citizen. There aren't very many of folks in their late 30's or 40's (presumably because many this age would want to bring kids). It seemed to be mostly couples the week we were there, but there were a few singles around. 4) We had cloudy, windy weather for three days. It didn't actually rain (except at night), but we couldn't do any watersports because the surf was a bit rough. This was disappointing, but obviously not the resort's fault. We went on the shopping trip one of these days to Ocho Rios. They take you to two of the tourist shopping plazas, one of which is near a "market" if you want to barter with the locals for crafts (seen that, done it, didn't do it again). We found cheap T-shirts and a decent deal on Blue Mountain coffee. If you're interested in purchasing souvenirs, there are also craft market stalls a short walk down the beach. Cons: 1) Too many party activities all day long. If you were passing by the pool area at the wrong time, you could get hassled by the coordinators into joining in the "fun". We learned to avoid this eventually (and they learned to quit bugging us). If you enjoy things like beach Olympics, crab races, drinking games (speciously called "Rum Mixology"), etc. then put this in the pro- list. If you aren't into it, it can get tiring after awhile. 2) The swimming pool was on the small side and not very inviting (a bit cloudy). The beach and Caribbean water were just much more appealing, so we only took one quick dip in the pool. This isn't a major con-, but we have enjoyed relaxing in and around the pools at other resorts. 3) The safe deposit box in the room was too small. 4) The grounds were not as nice and green as the other resorts we have been too. Nothing offensive, there just isn't as much vegetation or interesting landscaping as we've seen elsewhere. We would certainly consider a return to this resort. I would recommend it to friends. We like the excitement of trying a different place each time, but many people do return here year after year. If you like the party games or, even more importantly, like to golf, this is a great place to go. The golf course green fees are included (but not caddie and cart fees), and we were told it's one of the nicest courses in Jamaica. Unfortunately, we don't golf, but I was tempted to learn. There's a golf pro ( a "Jamadian", i.e. a displaced Canadian) who encourages novices to try it, so maybe next time! There's driving range (no charge for anything there) and, I think, some putting greens as well.
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