Caribbean Travel Roundup
Paul Graveline, Editor
March 1 1996
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COZUMEL BY MIKE KORFIATIS
We have made several day trips to Cozumel from Cancun. We have also taken 4 separate 1 week vacations to Cozumel. We have made day trips to Playa Del Carmen and the ruins at Tulum. These are my recommendations for a Cozumel trip. Keep in mind, the dress code is strictly casual. Shorts and T-shirts will work (and expected) at 98% of all locations on the island. Pack light on the warm clothes, usually unnecessary. Bring one light jacket or sweatshirt, and one pair of jeans. If you dress "up", you stand out, unless you are off a cruise ship. It is OK to dress "up" if you are from a cruise ship. Easier for shop owners to recognize you.
For hotels, we liked the Plaza Las Glorias. The hotel is walking distance to downtown. All rooms are Jr. Suites, ocean front with a million dollar view. The rooms have a king size bed, or 2 doubles, wet bar, in room safe, AC, refrigerator, bottled water, cable TV, telephones, separate vanity area with sink and mirror. The bathrooms and all floors are marble. Beyond the bathroom and bed, there is a step down to a sitting area with a couch and furniture. The deck or balcony is very large. The pool area is very nice, also with a swim up bar. They provide entertainment (by pool) and hold weekly managers party on Monday evening (free cocktails and treats) for whoever shows up. The restaurants and lobby bars are very nice, but somewhat expensive. There is reasonable snorkeling right out front. The dive boats pick up right at the hotels pier. Because the shoreline is ironshore, there is no beach (per say). But, there is sand that has been hauled in and they have formed a limited beach area with chairs and Palapas. There is easy access to the water for snorkeling. The units cost per week (for 2 people) should be approximately $850. They also have a limited number of 2 BR units available. These may be part of a timeshare program. Those units are multi level with lots of glass, ground level, and a Jacuzzi on your own patio. Cost?? Can't say. But, call 1-800-342-AMIGO. Or, a wholesaler that has reasonable prices 1-800-749-DIVE. You don't have to be a diver. Also, Trans Global and MLT have handled this property through local travel agents. (in Minneapolis area) I have seen units discounted through Quest, Travelers Advantage, and Entertainment Coupons.
For a hotel that is a little less expensive, try the Fiesta Inn. They are also close to downtown, with a great pool area. They are across the street from the water. I have never seen the interior of their units. But, the restaurant and lobby areas are nice. The hotel is fairly new. If I was going on a tighter budget, I would stay here. They are also listed in the Entertainment 50% off coupon books. It may be possible to use a coupon and get a price on these units.
For us, because of kids, and that need for more than a hotel room, I highly recommend the Coral Princess Club. This is a timeshare property in the northern hotel zone, that also rents to non-members. They offer studios to 3 BR penthouse suites. We rent a 1 BR with a pullout couch for the kids. The building is a 9 story (single) building. They have recently added onto the building, expanded the pool, lobby, swimup pool bar, and added banquet facilities. The condo is less "busy" than a lot of places. The units are very nice, marble floors, lots of space, kitchens, dining area, living room, cable TV, central AC, ceiling fans, phones, in room safe, large furnished balconies, (and a small balcony off master BR), lots of glass, bottled water, and a super staff. The pool area is nice, no real beach, just canned sand. The snorkeling is great right out front. There is very easy access to the water. Kids love it! They provide entertainment, (live music) cookouts and activities by the pool. There is a good restaurant, but the cookouts by the pool are more fun. The food and service are excellent. They also provide a Monday night party with free treats, drinks, activities and prizes for whoever shows up. Everyone has FUN. You are a short (readily available) cab ride from downtown (approx. 10-20 pesos, 1 way). The rate for a 1 BR was about $1200 per week. Call 1-800- 253-2702. Or, there is a broker that deals with non members at 1- 800-833-5971. The broker is At Home In Cozumel. They also deal in homes on the island. They are reputable and have good information. I rented through them the first time we stayed at the Coral Princess. We liked the Coral Princess so much we bought a timeshare there in 94. Great spot! They offer everything we look for in a very personable resort.
For restaurants, our all time favorite is Ernestos Fajitas Factory, the downtown location. Great food, great atmosphere, the best waiters and service, excellent salsa, and reasonable prices. They have a super view, across the street from the water, near the pier and the plaza downtown. We would split two orders of fajitas for the four of us. The price with drinks and tip was approximately $30 in January, 96.
Our second favorite is El Moro. El Moro is located way back in the neighborhoods on about 75th Av. The only way to find this restaurant is to take a cab. Be forewarned, do not to be discouraged by the location or outward appearances. It is way off the normal restaurant circuit, but well worth the trip. They have an extensive menu with local flavor, reasonably priced. They are a small restaurant, catering more to the locals than the tourists. They don't do much advertising, but they are priced right (inexpensive) and they know how to cook. When you order garlic, you GET garlic! Meal prices were probably in the $3-6 range, beers were about a buck. Closed Thursdays.
There is also a restaurant we found (while looking for El Moro) called Los Moros Del Morito. Another great little restaurant located off the beaten path. They serve excellent seafood, chicken and steaks. The salsa also has a good bite to it ! Nice little spot. Also, best to take a cab to find them. They are 3 blocks south, and 2 blocks east of the one gas station in town, easier to find than El Moro. We ate there twice on our last 1 week vacation.
Carlos N' Charlies is an absolute zoo. Great fun, loud music, volleyball, hoops, dancing, drinking and eating. The later you go, the wilder it gets. As long as you are in the restaurant section, kids are OK. The bar area is borderline out of control. Food is very good, reasonably priced. Another great spot for local flavor is LaChoza (2 locations). We ate downtown. Was more money than I expected, but the food and atmosphere was very good. We had whole red snapper, comes grilled, head and all....The 4 of us left happy and full. Another restaurant with local flavor is Santiagos Grill. Very small, will probably have to wait in line. Worth the wait. Reasonably priced, excellent seafood, grilled foods.
Another fun thing to do for lunch is to stop at one of the rotisseries that are on the street that runs next to the gas station (30th Av) and pick up a whole spit roasted chicken. They are cooked on rotisseries over a wood fire. They cut them up and offer you a package of shredded cabbage, noodles, and tortillas for under $4. Great picnic lunch ! Faster than takeout at McDonalds.
For breakfast, try the Waffle House, on the waterfront, about a block south of Ernestos, near the Vista Del Mar hotel. Wonderful restaurant, reasonably priced, excellent service. Very good for breakfast or lunch. Las Palmeras is a tourist favorite right at the pier downtown. Great people watching, good food, great for breakfast and lunch. But because of its location and the amount of cruise ship customers, the prices have gone up quite a bit. Tough to beat the location though. Our favorite spot for breakfast is the Museum. You can take the museum tour in the morning, and then have breakfast upstairs on the verandah overlooking downtown and the water. Great food, also great for cocktails at sunset. If you go to this restaurant, your friends will think you know what you are doing because it is not very well advertised, and it is such a nice little "find." Karens Pizza and The Sports Page for American food. Pizza Prima (upstairs, pasta, pizza, plus) and Pizza Rolandi are highly recommended. The island is getting American fast food. YUK! Although I disdain American fast food "joints" on the island, my kids forced us into Pizza Hut late one night for a slice of pizza. Surprisingly, the pizza wasn't too bad, but the upstairs view on the waterfront and the pina coladas were tough to beat.
The water is supposedly safe to drink. We only drink bottled water, beer or pop. I also recommend brushing teeth or making ice cubes with bottled water. The ice cubes in restaurants and bars are supposed to be made with purified water. The water in the restaurants should be bottled. Ask, if you insist on drinking water. Do not buy food off the street unless you can peel the skin off like a banana. Lettuce may cause problems. That is from personal experience. Salsa in the restaurants could cause problems, but it is sooo good, you should live a little dangerously to fully enjoy the Island. We feel the restaurants and hotels can't afford sick customers so they are doing a better job of food preparation and handling. We did not get sick at all last year. This year we were perhaps a little "looser" than normal but we ate everything placed in front of us, especially tons of salsa. Bring Pepto Bismol from home, (liquid and tablets) or Lomotil, Imodium AD, Rolaids, etc. It is easier (and cheaper) to bring from home. Whatever you would normally use for an upset stomach. You will be eating (and drinking) lots of different foods. Better safe, than sorry... or looking for Pepto Bismol at odd hours or locations. I was looking for Pepto in the airport, cost me $5 for a tiny bottle, and then it tasted "odd." (as in worse than normal)
Cabs are available everywhere. Even if you go to the far side of the island to spend the day on the beaches, there will be cabs available to return you to your hotel. If not, they are a radio call away. Prices are reasonable and pretty much set by the government. You should always ask what the fare will be prior to accepting a ride. The ride from the airport is a flat fee of about $5 per head. The airport "cabbies" use Suburbans and haul groups to the various hotels. You cannot get a regular cab out of the airport (union rules). You can rent a Jeep and pickup at the airport (my preferred method). The return rate to the airport is also higher, although you can "negotiate" that fee. If you don't like the price of the first cab, refuse and wait for the next cab to see how bad he wants to take you to the airport. The rates to the north and south hotel zones from downtown is 10-20 pesos one way, depending on number of passengers . To San Francisco Beach or Chankanaab should be about 40 pesos one way.
Rent a Jeep for at least a day and tour the island. We really like having a vehicle. Hertz has given us the best rates 3 years in a row, about $50 per day. I prefer to reserve in advance. You could shop around while you are there. Depending upon the season, you may or may not be able to find something. The rental agencies whose names you recognize generally provide a more reliable vehicle. The "el cheapo brand rent a wrecks" are just that...you're on your own. As I noted, Hertz has done an excellent job 3 years in a row. In fact, they have earned letters to the corporate headquarters all 3 years for the excellent service and attention to their clients needs. Scooters are usually easy to rent for about $25 per day. Use extreme caution with scooters. Rent one that looks new, you will be a lot happier. We heard an honest scooter horror story. You don't want to need an ambulance on the far side of the island because of a scooter accident.
The North/South streets have the right of way. East/West streets are usually one way, with stop signs on every block, be careful with these. The directional signs are posted on buildings, and they are small blue arrows, not very visible. Just watch the parked cars, the oncoming taxis and gringo tourists. Do not be afraid to drive in Mexico. Unless you are a poor driver in the states, you shouldn't have any problems. Just be careful and alert, watch the one ways. Check with your insurance or credit card company for the extra insurance (CDW) in Mexico. One of my gold cards covers foreign countries, so the Mexican insurance is unnecessary. The CDW may cost up to $15 per day.
You will not end up in jail unless you are dealing drugs or commit murder. There is no real crime problem on Cozumel. If you are caught with any drugs at all, I just read the mandatory sentence is 10 years. It also may take up to one year to go to trial. Concentrate on beer, this is my recommendation. Most everyone is employed. Do not buy items from children on the street. They are encouraged to stay in school, by making money through street sales we are keeping the kids from their studies or school.
Money exchange rates are fairly consistent amongst hotels and businesses. To make a better rate on your exchange, you should go downtown and shop the many banks and currency exchanges centered around the plaza. The rates vary day to day, bank to bank. Make the loop and shop everyone for the best rate. The hours of operation are sometimes difficult to catch, morning is your only bet. There are always lines. If you are going to stand in line to exchange dollars, go to the banks, they have 4-5 tellers working and the lines move much faster than the Currency Exchange windows. I will usually exchange several hundred US dollars and then always use pesos for our purchases. I prefer to take cash, they charge extra for travelers checks, and they want all sorts of information on each check. Always carry a calculator to keep your money straight. If you use your charge card for purchases, you will generally get a better exchange rate. Also, your ATM card will give the best commercial rate, with no line at all! Do not bother exchanging money in the US. The US banks will steal your money faster than a shopkeeper in Mexico. You will get a better rate from the shopkeeper, without the additional "service charge."
In Mexico, they used to have old pesos, but they replaced them with Nuevo Pesos. The difference between them is substantial. You must remove the last 3 zeros of the "old pesos" to equal the new pesos i.e.: 7000 old pesos= 7 new pesos= about $1 USD. The exchange bank rate in early 96 was 7.3N pesos to 1 USD. The hotels and shops were using about 6.5 or 7 for their rate. I did not see any of the "old" pesos in 96.
For a day trip, take the ferry across to Playa Del Carmen. Make sure you take the "fast boats." The price is the same, about $8 RT, (kids $4) but the ride is much better (and faster). At PDC, you can go North to Cancun, or South towards the ruins at Tulum. Or, if you so desire, you can just hang out at PDC and enjoy the beaches, small restaurants, and limited shopping. The beaches at PDC are very nice, some beaches north of the plaza are topless. It is a quiet, lazy little town. There is a great little restaurant at the base of the ferry pier called Los Molcas. Sit there and have a beer and watch the world go by. The Continental Playacar is my recommended hotel for this stretch of the Yucatan. It is located next to the ferry pier on a SUPER beach.
There is a park called Xcaret just south of PDC. Bus trips or cabs can be arranged for transportation, or rent a Jeep. We rented a Jeep, that made it more fun because we could pull off and inspect hotels or beaches along the way to Tulum. Tulum has ruins that are interesting. They are built on a cliff overlooking beautiful beaches and that blue green water that makes those great travel pictures. The Jeep cost was about $75 USD for an afternoon in a junk Jeep. That Jeep earned a letter of complaint to National . On Cozumel, another day trip is to Chankanaab Park. Good snorkeling, shore diving, botanical gardens, huge iguanas, nice restaurant, bar, full facilities, showers, and rentals. There is an entrance fee of about $5 per person, kids are free.
San Francisco and Palancar beach are the best, very nice. Free, much quieter, but not much snorkeling from shore. There are boat trips available for excellent diving and snorkeling. Snorkeling trips run about $35. The restaurants, bars and facilities are great. In fact , the restaurant at San Franciscco Beach is probably one of the best spots on the island for lunch and beers. The scenery, beach, and activities are as good as it gets anywhere on the island. They are quite a ways out of town, nothing around except white sand beaches, and jungle. Best if you have a vehicle, but cabs are readily available. These 2 locations will bring back very favorable memories for anyone who ventures this far from downtown. Just the kind of spot we like to picture when thinking of great little out of the way "finds." These two beaches are day trippers. Leave mid morning and spend all day there. Take your camera, sunglasses, hat, lotion, and a little cash.
At the Southern tip of the island is a lighthouse that is a couple of miles off the main road. There is a rough dirt road that is best navigated with a Jeep. You can climb the 130 odd stairs to the top for a spectacular 360 degree view. There is a family that lives at the base of the lighthouse. They maintain it, and collect about a buck a head to climb it. I "negotiated" a free beer with the $3 "fee" for my 2 kids and myself. Ice cold beer and pop are available.
The beaches on the "far" Eastern side of the island are deserted and there is surf and possibly lots of currents, including undertow. Swim at your own risk. We liked Chen Rio beach, located at about the middle of the islands Eastern shore. There is a small restaurant and bar. If waves and surf are what you are looking for, the Eastern shore will fulfill that requirement. The Eastern beaches are generally deserted for miles in either direction. There are places to pull off and park your vehicle.
Try snorkeling from shore off the beaches from either side of Chankanaab. Save the $5 per head, and find a spot on either side of the park that suits your fancy. No beach, though, just rocky ironshore. Although difficult to enter the water, you are there on your own. Park your vehicle along the many spots to pull off the road, stake your claim to your own little section of "beach." No matter where you swim or snorkel, watch the currents. They are generally quite strong, and will carry you a great distance up the beach. We use this to our advantage. Let the currents carry you as far as you care to walk back (or catch a cab back). Also, look for "markers." Buoys (plastic milk jugs) are tied off at spots where there is snorkeling from shore. If you swim out towards these buoys, you will usually find something of interest. Not very easy to see, but they are usually placed there for a reason. A good spot just beyond Chankanaab, is Playa Corona Beach. There is a bar and restaurant, and the snorkeling boats stop about 2 00 yards north. So, you can swim and snorkel right there with plenty to see. In 96, we (4 adults and 2 children) spent all afternoon there, had lots of beer, pop, chips, salsa, and lunch. The total bill came to about $40.
All the beaches are public. There is good snorkeling at the Sol Caribe, nice beach facilities (open to anyone). Although the hotel is closed because of hurricane damage, the beach was open. They have a crescent shaped beach that is protected for young children. There is a sunken airplane about 75 yards offshore in about 30 feet of water. It was purposely sunk for a movie and left there for the reef fishes. It is fun to see, as it is a pretty good size twin engine airplane. There are lots of fish and some coral. The facilities at this beach are very nice, and close to most of the major hotels. It is better to take your own snorkeling equipment if you own it. It costs about $5 per day to rent. The rental stuff is marginal, well used.
Another nice beach is in the north hotel zone at the Melia Mayan. The beach is close to town, very nice, sandy. If you walk several hundred yards to the south, there is some snorkeling, near the Playa Azul. The restaurants at the Melia are on the beach with a million dollar view. Of course they charge for it. In 94 we had lunch consisting of 4 burger baskets, 4 beers, 2 cokes, and tip for $50. We did use their pools, beach, and facilities, and got the free timeshare goodies from them. They are now somewhat restrictive because of their all inclusive program.
There are lots of people hawking timeshares and activities, especially downtown near the square. They have become very aggressive, almost to the point of pure annoyance. They will offer everything and anything to get you involved in their presentations or products. No gracias should suffice.
If you are interested in a timeshare program, I recommend the Coral Princess Club. They are totally flexible on a coupon system with their unit size, and when you use your coupons. This is also an RCI Gold Resort, very marketable for exchanges. If you are interested, contact Michael Whitehead at the hotel, and please tell him that Mary and Michael Korfiatis sent you. This is not advertising, I don't expect anyone I send this letter, to go out and buy into this timeshare. But, if you were interested, and mentioned my name, I could end up with an upgrade coupon next year when I go back. They will buy you a great breakfast or lunch, beers, free Jeep, and give you a short tour and "pitch" for their program. They are not pushy, and if you say "no thank you," they shrug their shoulders and don't hassle you. They realize people are going to buy into this program. I had NO intentions of ever buying any timeshare. I went to them on the last day of our 94 vacation and asked for the specifics. I liked the numbers, and I already knew they had one of the greatest facilities on the island. I figured with the amount of cruise ship passengers seeing our little slice of paradise, within a few years the added tourists would price me out of trips to the "enchanted isle." Similar to Grand Cayman, I refuse to pay their inflated prices.
We have attended 3 of the 4 timeshare presentations on the island. With the Melia Mayans program, we got a great free breakfast for 4, free beers, and a "free" Jeep that ended up costing me either 34 Pesos or $34 USD (I forget which). For an hour or 2 of your time, kind of interesting. I didn't like the Melia's hotel rooms. The facilities are first rate though. We didn't like the Sol Caribe, only their beach and pool. The Plaza Las Glorias was discussed earlier, although we have never attended their program. Friends attended the PLG, and didn't feel the program or units were on par with the Coral Princess.
There is lots of shopping downtown. If you go one block from the main square, the prices drop noticeably. Also, there is some pretty good shopping at the International Pier. These shops are open only when the cruise ships are in. It was hard to believe, but some of the better prices were to be had here. Also the teenagers doing the "spray painted" artwork were great to watch. The booze prices were also good here. The International Pier is south of town near the LaCeiba or Sol Caribe Hotels.
For a good grocery store/liquor/pharmacia, I like La Tranga on the corner of 10th Av Sur (south) and Calle 3. Southeast of the plaza a couple of blocks.
For a good T-Shirt/Mexican art/Junk etc., go to Unicornio. 5 Av Sur #2. Just
Good Luck, Have FUN!
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: PUERTO PLATA REPORT BY RONALD FAVERTY
Just returned from a week at the Playa Dorarda, part of the Occidental chain. We have traveled throughout the Caribbean and Mexico and have never been so appalled in our lives!
Briefly, the highlights: most unfriendly people we have ever encountered, service was non-existent! Dirty glasses were being picked up off the beach and tables by staff, then handed to a bartender who dipped them in a sink of filthy, standing water, filled them with your drink and handed it to you. GROSS! Dishes at the buffet were still caked with dried food and glasses stained with residue and lipstick, ever heard of dishwashers? Dirty dishes were being hand washed in basins of standing water beside the beach, then the dirty water was being poured out where it would run down to the beach and people would walk barefoot through it all day. Opened a supposedly clean, nicely folded towel...this is not for the weak stomached...and found dried feces inside.
Periods of no hot water forced several cold showers. Worse, periods of NO water at all...so how are all those people preparing food washing their hands after rest room use. Perfect conditions to transmit Hepatitis, E-Coli and numerous other bacterias and diseases!
Three out of 4 of us are sick on return. I did not hear one good comment on the plane ride home. Lots of unhappy people returning from that island. Many, ourselves included, writing formal letters of complaint to GWV International and the Occidental chain of hotels. This is one place I would never return to again. Have never been so happy to see home!
One more note of concern...learned about island politics during a tour. If the current 95 year old president is re-elected in May of this year, our tour guide stated there would most likely be a revolution. Not a good place to visit under any of these conditions.
Have to say the weather was sunny and hot all week but that doesn't always make for a good vacation! Sorry the news isn't better but maybe it will help someone else not to be disappointed.
GRENADA: FLAMBOYANT HOTEL BY ALICE BRICKNER.
We spent 8 days starting on January 28, 1996 at the Flamboyant Hotel overlooking Grand Anse beach and St. George harbor in Grenada. The hotel is perched on the side of a hill with a really spectacular view. The rooms all have balconies and many have kitchens. [Ours did at $135 per night.]
The hotel has a lovely waterside restaurant it was good for lunch, less so for dinner but everyone was friendly and we had some good rum punch. The coffee was instant which we were presented in powder form. It was of the unpotable variety. [$64]
We had a very good meal at Canboulay ... high on a hill, great view of St. George ... imaginative use of local ingredients ... a lethal rum punch; good wine, exceptionally good food: coconut crepe with callaloo couli; vegetable terrine; wonderful sword fish baked with a pepper crust; not great shrimp [too sweet sauce but big juicy shrimp] lovely cheese cake and floating island in passion fruit couli with slices of tropical fruit [also a bit too sweet but light and good] and surprisingly good decaf that was said to be instant. [$88]
We returned to Canboulay another night and it suffered from the sophomore slump. Excruciatingly slow service, interminable waits between courses, and food not as wonderful as last time. It was their all sea food night, which in itself was all right, but they did too much in the gussying up line and have a tendency to make things too sweet. The menu last time was full of what appeared to be better options. [$88]
Tabanca, small, right on the water, recommended to us by two sources ... chintzy, [they give half a piece of butter to each person, VERY small paper napkins and the madame and her staff of one waitress were having a fight that went on all evening and resulted in extremely challenging service ... we were led to try the frozen flying fish which was a big mistake ... the fresh Grouper, on the other hand, was wonderful as was the chocolate mousse ... two indifferent starters ... good but strong rum punch ... $66
We went to highly touted La Belle Creole. It was a handsome room with attentive service and a very limited menu of basically uninteresting, or worse, food at a cost of $104! Most disappointing. Two tables of guests left after perusing the menu ... we wished we had done likewise ... although it didn't sound bad.
I've discovered that restaurants get fresh fish and then freeze it themselves ... this they still call fresh ... so one has to inquire carefully.
We had a very good dinner at Pirate's Cove. We had one callalloo soup; one interesting salad ... after discovering that the catch of the day was not the FRESH fish, we ordered what was indeed the fresh fish which was very good mahi mahi ... dessert was one baked banana flambe which was terrific and one coconut rice pudding ... also good ... I eschewed the instant decaf which allegedly, they will shortly stop serving. [$64]
By and large, it has been harder [then in Anguilla] to get wonderful meals ... but we haven't tried several restaurants that sound promising ...
Security: one night at dinner we sat in a room where there were just two tables and the other was occupied by a large man with bandages on both hands ... when the waitress inquired he said that he had been held up and robbed on the beach! We spoke and found that it was day time but on a deserted beach but still, quite disconcerting. He has been coming here for years, loves the island and was most anxious not to give us a bad impression of Grenada because of his mishap.
There were uniformed security officers provided by the tourist board on beaches, they said, to discourage 'pilfering'. Also, I was strongly advised by the tourist office to have a guide accompany us on the trails in the rain forest, for security reasons.
We were close up for one major invasion from a tour ship ... a batch of 30? were unloaded the first morning as we were finishing breakfast, followed rapidly by a variety of local entrepreneurs selling woven palm hats, baskets , necklaces, tee shirts, carved ivories, etc. The vendors still come but are readily put off ... however, I could do without them. The beach at the hotel was mostly washed out to sea but it was possible to sit on a chaise and let the water come up under it ... or, as our friends did, move a chaise down the beach a bit [something of a hassle] and sit where there is more beach ... Either way was comfortable and pleasant. The beach is about 2 miles long and nice to walk on.
We walked to the next beach, Morne Rouge. It was much less windy [it was been increasingly windy and rough at Grand Anse since our arrival] and was a large relatively unpopulated beach. It was reached via a steep downhill road, enroute passing a small apparently elegant European hotel, Mahogany Run. The beach is backed by a sleazoid hotel [the Gem] and on the beach, a beach bar night club called Fantazia. We got good sandwiches at the Fantazia and were able to rent chaises.
Another very calm and sheltered beach was La Sagesse, a bird sanctuary [viewing of which required the presence of its guide, who was absent while we were present]. We stopped there after our trip to the rain forest and had delicious Marlin fish sandwiches and fruit juice, seaside.
Compared to Anguilla [where we have been going for several years] one is more confined here in that it is very hilly and therefore has challenging driving ... wrong side of the road, steep hills, hairpin turns with dramatic drops ... so we didn't rent a car. It is less spontaneous to have to arrange for a taxi for every whim. We thought twice about touring and meandering, beach hopping etc. Although we did tour the island and visit a couple of other beaches. Food shopping is lots more cumbersome. The beach at the hotel is a trial to get to and not great when you're there. Immediately at the hotel it has mostly been washed out ... further along there are much wider stretches also, further along it is much calmer. There are many more people on the beach than I enjoy what with other hotels, cruise ships and vendors.
However, the hotel is much cheaper ... it has really spectacular views and is comfortable. The manager and staff of the hotel are unusually obliging and friendly as were most of the people we met on the island.
JAMAICA: COUPLES AND SANDALS COMPARED BY BILL FISH
Sandals vs. Couples - An Ocho Rios Comparison
My wife, three other couples, and I traveled to two all inclusive resorts in Ocho Rios, Jamaica during the last two years and found a few differences that might make deciding between the two resorts a little easier for prospective vacationers. We traveled to Couples in February of 1994 and to Sandals - Ocho Rios in January of 1996. We chose the Ocho Rios side for both vacations since three of the men are avid golfers and golf was unavailable in Negril at the time.
Rooms and Locale:
Both resorts are about an hour and 45 minute bus ride from the airport in Montego Bay. The rooms at Couples are in 3 or 4 story buildings lining the beach and in a few villas away from the beach. Sandals has their rooms in two, four story buildings and in a few bungalows scattered on the grounds. One of the larger buildings is on the beach and contains the restaurants, disco, bar, and activities center. The other large building is adjacent to the two tennis courts.
All the rooms at Couples and Sandals were a quick step from any activities and all had attractive views. Both locations had very attractive grounds but I preferred Sandals. They had small signs labeling the different vegetation, i.e. Traveling Palms, Bougainvillaea, which we found a nice touch. There was a waterfall cascading through the grounds at Sandals.
The beach at Couples seemed larger and more attractive but there had been severe rains prior to our arrival at Sandals and much of their beach had been washed out. There were more hot tubs at Couples including some two person tubs in the "jungle" in front of the main buildings and it was easier to find a tub without someone using it. Sandals had two hot tubs which were usually in use. The pools were nicer at Sandals but there was a diving pool at Couples with a high board.
The rooms at Couples were more dated than those at Sandals. The water pressure was variable at Couples and the hair dryers in the rooms did not function. Sandal's rooms appeared cleaner and there was never a problem with water pressure and all hair dryers functioned properly. Both Couples and Sandals had king sized beds in each room and either a balcony or a patio. Couples also had CD players in each room.
There were phones in each room at Sandals which was convenient when traveling in a group and when calling the dive shop, etc. There were no phones in the rooms at Couples but there advertisements state they now have them. There is cable TV in each room at Sandals, if you are so inclined. Both resorts gave out a safe to install in the room for valuables.
Check in and check out:
Both resorts had quick check in procedures and champagne during the process. Check out was also easy.
Definitely superior at Sandals. Each room in Couples was given two small bath towels and ONE wash cloth. It was a battle to try and obtain more. There were small towels available near the pool but they were frequently gone. At Sandals each room is given two large bath towels 3 wash cloths, two hand towels, and two beach towels. Room service changed the towels in the morning and again in the evening when they turned down the beds. The beach towels could be traded for a fresh one at any time and they were always available.
Tennis and squash:
Couples was superior to Sandals in tennis and squash facilities and instruction. There were four tennis courts at Couples and two squash courts, all in excellent repair. The tennis pros at Couples were attentive, instructive and in abundant supply. Couples kept coolers with premium bottled beer and sodas at court side at all times. Sandals had two tennis courts which were a little slow in being squeezed in the morning after a rain so were unavailable at times the should not have been. There was only one pro who had too many participants during the tennis clinics to be of any use. He was a very nice guy but he needs more courts and more help with tennis instruction. Squash courts and squash instruction at Couples was also excellent and none were available at Sandals - Ocho Rios.
There is none at Sandals - Ocho Rios and it was quite a lot of fun at Couples. You could take a scenic ride into the mountains or a quick ride around the corral.
Both resorts suffer from their windward location and water sports were canceled most of the time during our stays at both resorts. When water skiing was available at Couples, it was a lot of fun with adequate slalom skis and a kneeboard. They also took people out on a 6 person banana that was a great time. Sandals - Ocho Rios had no water skiing but you could take a bus to Sandals - Dunn's River (10 minutes) and they had nice equipment including kneeboard, skis, and wake boards.
Instruction in wind surfing, sailing the sun fish and hobie cat were superior at Couples. There was again a shortage of staff in the water sports area at Sandals.
Scuba diving was about equal at both locations. The dive master was great at Couples but he has since moved on to Enchanted Gardens. The dive master at Sandals was not as friendly or helpful, but this was made up for by one of their dive leaders, Daniel. Daniel was always out front of the dive shop with a smile on his face and was very friendly and helpful. I was sorry the weather didn't allow more dives with Daniel.
Both resorts had top notch equipment and both were attentive to safety. Sandals expected certified divers to be able to hook up their own equipment so review your dive manual before you go.
Fitness Center and Body Shop:
The fitness centers were comparable at both resorts with stair steppers, life cycles, treadmills and universal or nautilus equipment. The fitness director at Couples (Rocky) was more enthusiastic and had much more participation in his aerobics classes.
The massage and manicure area was nicer at Sandals though it was managed by a private firm. A 30 minute massage was included at Sandals and it was wonderful. They were well staffed at Sandals and it was no problem getting an appointment. Couples had one masseuse and a massage was not included in the price unless you were a repeat visitor. Our entire group had massages at both places and all agreed the massage was superior at Sandals. There were also two nice saunas at the fitness center at Sandals.
Both resorts had nice courses available. The golfers in our group gave a slight preference to the Sandal's course over the course at utilized by Couples. It was a long bus trip from Couples to their course at Jamaica Jamaica resort. The bus trip was occasionally very uncomfortable with too many golfers in too small a bus without air conditioning. The Sandals course was 10 minutes away from the resort and the course was not crowded and you were not required to sign up in advance. Our group finished 18 holes in under 3 hours one day.
The caddies were superb at both locations. The green fees and transport were included at both and both required a caddie or cart. Caddies were 10 dollars for 18 holes and 7 dollars for 9 holes and whatever you chose to tip. Clubs could be rented for 7 dollars as could shoes. Our group had brought their own clubs and there were very limited shoe sizes for rent. (Read that as bring your own shoes). At Jam Jam, ask for Melbourne or Narlis as caddies and at Sandals, ask for Alfred or Early. The caddies reads of the greens were almost always reliable.
The activities director at Couples was one of our favorite parts of our stay at Couples. He was fantastic and we were pleasantly surprised to see he had moved over to Sandals - Ocho Rios to be their manager of group activities. I'd call this a toss up between the two resorts.
Both resorts had outstanding social directors. Eladio (known as String Bean when he was at Couples), was outstanding as were his associates, Tracy, Kurth, and Stephen.
Activities at both resorts included things like beach volleyball, water polo, beer chugging (Couples), drink mixology (Sandals), pool, tennis, ping pong, and basketball tournaments, pirate and Caribbean dress up contests, reggae contests, etc.
Couples and Sandals both include excursions to: Ocho Rios shopping, Glass bottom boat snorkeling trips, and tours of Dunn's River Falls. Couples also includes a Plantation Tour. The Dunn's River trip is far superior at Couples. They had a big beach party including drinks, reggae dancing, limbo contests, etc. Sandals just covered the bus trip and entrance fee.
Both resorts had some type of entertainment each evening. Entertainment at the two resorts included fire eaters, limbo experts, local dancers, reggae bands, Elvis impersonators, comedians, etc. I think Couples entertainment was a little better but I preferred Sandals because they started and finished earlier. Sandals entertainment started at about 8 p.m. and finished by 11 p.m. You could then move on to the disco which was open until 3 a.m. At Couples, the entertainment got cooking about 10 p.m. and lasted until the wee hours of morning. The bands played longer at Couples and there was far more crowd participation in the dancing at Couples. I participated in so many day time beach activities and sports that I was usually too worn out to stay up that late at Couples.
Both resorts have piano bars with sing alongs. Couples served premium liquor and bottled beer but had a musty smell that prevented us from staying.
Both facilities had a variety of restaurants and served buffets for breakfast and lunch. Food was wonderful at both locations but service was superior at the restaurants at Sandals. The biggest difference was in the breakfast and lunch buffets.
Sandals won hands down with their terrific service. It seemed there was a staff person for about every table in the buffet restaurant at Sandals. Each table was set with decorative napkins and table cloths. As soon as your plate was filled it was taken by a Sandals employee and they seated you and pampered you from then on. There was always someone filling the water glass or asking if you wanted another drink, coffee, etc. When you finished your first plate it was whisked away and you were encouraged to help yourself to more. At Couples you had to search for a fork and napkin at times and you served your own drinks. Sandals was very non Jamaica like when it came to service while dining yet they were fun and friendly while doing so.
Clothing Optional facilities:
There are none at Sandals. Couples has a C/O island with a swim up bar, a pool table, and some isolated hammocks. The crowd on the C/O island were partiers with their own activity board and included many repeat visitors.
I would favor Sandals-Ocho Rios slightly over Couples because of the superior service in dining and room preparation. If golf is a priority I would favor either Sandals-Ocho Rios or an alternative resort like Jamaica Jamaica. If racket sports, horseback riding, or late night dancing are priorities I'd favor Couples. If access to a nude beach is important Couples is definitely the way to go. If slightly inferior maid and food service are unimportant, Couples is probably a step up for sports instruction and entertainment.
We also paid a visit to Sandals - Dunn's River. It had a few superior aspects from Sandals - Ocho Rios. It had a 9 hole pitch and putt golf course in addition to close access to the same course as Sandals - Ocho Rios. It had four tennis courts. They had water skiing available. It's pools were massive with two swim up bars. It's fitness center was more built under a large gazebo and was open air. The buildings and grounds appeared a little nicer than Sandal's Ocho Rios. The only drawback might be that all of the rooms were in high rise buildings but they all were adjacent to the beach.
Where will we go on our next trip?
If the golf course is completed in Negril, we will try Sandals - Negril because of it's location on the leeward side of the island. Both of our weeks in Jamaica had winds or rough surf which prevented diving and water sports much of the time. If we could avoid this and still have the excellent service we experienced at Sandals - Ocho Rios, I would feel we had the best of both worlds. Sandals - Negril also has 4 tennis courts, racquetball and squash courts, and water skiing.
JAMAICA: BRACO VILLAGE RESORT BY KARIN THOMPSON
We've stayed at Braco Village Resort in July 95, Nov. 95 and Jan. 96. All visits were delightful! We have another trip already planned for March, 96.
After you have cleared customs at the airport, you are funneled through an exit door and directed to Caribic Tours the supplier of transportation to Braco. Check in with the tour desk, enjoy a Red Stripe, soda, or the delightful warm Caribbean breezes. The porters will take your bags to the bus. I usually tip the porter as I would in the states - .50 - 1.00 /bag USD (depending on how heavy my bags are for the trip!). You'll notice the relaxed atmosphere of the island, you aren't rushed and everything is "No Problem".
Braco Village Resort is located in Rio Bueno, Jamaica - approximately a 50 minute drive from the Airport in Montego Bay.
When you arrive at the property, you will be greeted by one of the coordinators and provided with registration forms by the front desk staff. There are in-room safes and you can secure a lock when you check- in. When you receive your room assignment, identify your bags and start wandering through the lovely paths to your room.
All rooms on the property have the same basic layout and amenities. Hairdryers are in each room and you are provided with shampoo and bath gel each day. The rooms are immaculate and you are provided with fresh towels twice a day and turn down service at night. All are large and have Garden or Ocean views or you can book an Ocean front room. If you are in blocks 1-6 you will be oceanfront, 2 story buildings with either patio or balcony. Blocks 5-6 are at the Clothing Optional beach end. Blocks 7-12 are the garden view/ ocean view rooms - Blocks 10-12 are 3 story buildings, and the other 3 are 2 story buildings. There are 12 - 18 units per building as I recall.
Hammocks are hanging around the property just to relax in and enjoy the day!
Orientation takes place at 5:00pm each evening in the TV room just off the Main Bar. You will learn about the property, activities, meals and also be provided with the optional tours you can book with Cheryl if you so choose.
Activities - At 6:30am on several mornings you can join in for the power walk or hiking, bike tours later in the am, patois lessons, Jamaica trivia, board games, pool, table tennis, fitness area with weights, steppers and bikes, bikes to take around property, historical and shopping tour to Falmouth, nature walks, and they just started fishing - they have a small pond that is stocked, - whatever you catch they will cook for you that night.
The golf course will be open on 22 February (last word). Several holes currently up and all are seeded, planted, being rolled, trimmed, watered, fed and whatever it is that they do to golf courses to keep them looking so beautiful.
You can take in soccer, or tennis also if the above is not enough.
They also offer off property tours through Caribic or you can get a driver for the day - rates very so check with Cheryl in the tour office.
Dunn's River falls is great to climb if you have never done it before - very beautiful and not a hard climb, like walking up a hill with water coming down. Shaw park gardens are beautiful, fern gully is nice. Another good one is the river raft - you go down the Martha Brae on a bamboo float - very peaceful and pretty.
Tours run from $24 - around $80 USD per person.
You can also obtain a the driver for the day and customize your own, maybe the Falls, Shaw gardens, Fern Gully, shopping in Ocho, Columbus Park and Green Grotto Caves with the blind fish!
Food choices are amazing!. To start your day you can have a continental breakfast delivered with your room from 6:30am - 10:30am. Typical coffee, tea, juice, fruit, cereal, rolls and bakery goods. After you have downed that you can go to the Victoria Market for a regular breakfast buffet style. Again, more bakery, fresh fruit, juice, cereal, Jamaican fare (callaloo - like spinach, ackee, saltfish, festivals and other assorted goodies), sausage, bacon, French toast, pancakes, potatoes, eggs / omelets any way you like them - cooked to order.
At 11:00am, Nanny's Jerk Pit opens where you can get Jerk chicken, Jerk pork, jerk burgers, stew peas, rice, cocoa bread, pumpkin soup - all excellent. Nanny's is open until 2am. At 12:30pm the Victoria Market opens again for a buffet lunch ranging from hamburgers, hot- dogs, quiche, fish, meat, salads, fruit, desserts and numerous other fare.
Lunch ends at 2:30. But not to worry, the Pasta/Pizza place and the bakery both open at 2pm. All the deserts at the bakery are good - chocolate ice cream is heaven as are the no-nut brownies, lemon sugar cookies, strawberry tartlets and the warm chocolate chip cookies that are yours for the taking. We tried all the different pizza's except the pineapple/bacon - the hamburger/artichoke was wonderful. Unfortunately we didn't try much of the pasta as we were always full... They keep the same menu at the Pasta/pizza place for 2 days, then change, The bakery has different fares each day as does Victoria Market. If that isn't enough during the day you have the coconut man with fresh coconut wandering the streets, the peanut vendor with fresh roasted peanuts, fresh fruit from the fruit lady and shaved ice fruit things much like our snow cones. Also fresh cut sugar cane!
At dinner you have your choice of Victoria Market - buffet for 3- 4 nights, menu for the others or the Susumber gourmet restaurant. On Saturday and Wednesday Victoria Market has all the grilled lobster tail you can eat. Don't miss eating at the Susumber at least once but make your reservations early - they start at 8am taking reservations and usually by noon they are filled up. 2 seatings - 7pm and 9:15pm - be prepared for a good 2 hours. Dress code is pants, shirt, no shorts, tank tops, slippers, flip flops etc. No need to get formal as we know it in the states but just not casual attire like you might wear to Victoria Market. The menu at the Susumber remains the same - only night they aren't open is on Friday.
So much for the eating......
Each night you have a different set of entertainment. 3-4 excellent cabaret singers during the week and all put on a stellar show. The Hatfield dancers appear on Wednesday for a cultural show complete with the fire dancer, limbo etc. One night a week there is a Guest/Staff talent show and you are the entertainment - go ahead and sign-up for singing, dancing, music or just to participate in one of their skits.
On Friday night they have their famous Street Dance - not to be missed and be sure to save some of your film/video for the finale of the chefs dancing their steam trays to the restaurant. They set up all the buffet tables in the center of town and you get a chance to try typical Jamaican home cooking - a wonderful 'miniature' oyster - very good sweet oil sauce for them - wonderful soup, breadfruit, baked yams, salads, veggies, potatoes, barbecue chicken, grilled lamb, red snapper and steaks - again the dessert bar!
After the dinner they play the Jamaican National Anthem and you can see the pride in the residents as they stand at attention - very moving. After that - the soca train starts and everyone is dancing everywhere. They show you various Jamaican versions of reggae, the all familiar electric slide with the bus stop variations, go through the Skye, early reggae and all the new stuff - those kids do some wicked butterflies!
This lasts for about 2 hours and then the cooks/chefs do their act - always different but always entertaining and delightful to see the talent in the staff. On Friday night you also have the Karoke after the street dance along with the disco.
Additional nighttime entertainment provides you with the local resident band (Natural Vibes). They play form 7-9;30 (with a short break) for your listening/dancing pleasure during dinner in the Victoria Market. They have listening, easy dancing, and reggae fare. The nighttime show starts at 9:30 - 10:30 and then the band picks up again until 11:00-11:30.
The piano bar is going from Saturday - Thursday - Kenneth Moore is great - That hops until 1am. You also have the disco that is open 7 nights from 11pm - 2am. The "slots" are going from around 7pm - midnight.
Well for relaxing.. the pool is gorgeous, the beach delightful - watersports of kayak, windsurf, sailing and snorkeling on property as well as the glass bottom boat.
If the weather permits, they have a free scuba class in the pool and you can go on dives. You can also take a snorkel trip off property. Check with the dive shop/staff for the current fees.
The "regular" beach is about 1000 feet of sand, as is the clothing optional. At the end of the property line on the beach (c/o side), there is a bar and grill. I think that opens at 11am and is open until around 5pm. The pool bar opens at 10am and remains open until 6pm. The main bar opens around noon (I think) and stays open until 1am. The Disco bar from 11pm - 2am. Nanny's has Jamaican drinks - again from 11am - 2am.
The pool is fantastic - the largest I have encountered on the island - umbrellas around the pool and on the beach if you wish the shade - there is also a Jacuzzi at the pool for more relaxation!
There is also a logo shop, a gift/sundry store, a duty free shop, coffee shop, artist in residence, beauty shop, basket weaver, wood carver and various other craft vendors.
All the staff members are delightful and all want to make sure you are enjoying yourself.