Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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My wife and I just returned from spending 2 weeks (February 26- March 11/2000) at the Allegro Bavaro Grand Resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. This was our first trip to the Dominican Republic. We are seasoned Caribbean travelers, so when reading this review, please keep in mind that we have been to Jamaica 5 times, Antigua, Mexico so many times, we have lost count, St. Martin, Aruba, Bahamas, Venezuela, etc. We booked with Air Transat Vacations out of Toronto and everything was okay. Flights left on time and service was adequate. We booked the Club Transat Class seats ($170 each round trip), which are good, because you don't have to wait in line for check-ins and the seats are larger with open bar. The food was slightly better than coach but not that much better. To sum up the vacation for all you readers, who want the quick summary, the resort was worth the money we paid. When and if we do return to the Punta Cana area, we would probably stay near the Riu hotels because of the beach area (see below for more explanation). Ownership/Management Issue The major immediate issue facing the Allegro Bavaro Grand Resort is the change of ownership that occurred in early February. Allegro did not own this property but was managing it for the original owners who offered it to Allegro to buy but Allegro refused to buy it. Hence it was sold to a small Spanish group who own 5 hotels somewhere. Rod Gahr, the General Manager and an Allegro employee, was immediately transferred (early February) to Puerto Vallerta, Mexico to manage another Allegro resort. When we were there, the new owners came to the property and decided that they needed some assistance in learning how to run an "all-inclusive" property, so they worked out some kind of "franchising" agreement with Allegro to handle the marketing, but with no Allegro staff on the property. The Allegro staff were to stay for a while to train their subordinates to take over for them in the future. The current Executive Chef, Gerald Blay (from Toronto), has been offered the Executive Chef position with the Antigua Allegro Pineapple Beach property. This may cause a major problem in the future with the quality and presentation of the food as the new Executive Chef is from the Dominican and may not be as in tune with international and in particular North American cuisines as Gerald was. The rooms division manager, Saskya Carrasco, has been offered the St. Kitts property and the Famous Pastry Chef, Armando Mercado, has been offered the Executive Chef position in the Allegro Playa Grande property in Puerto Plata. It seems that all Allegro employees will be re-locating and that may cause some problems as under Rod Gahr's leadership, this resort was progressing very well for only being open for 4 months. Saskya was the acting GM when we were there and she was "invisible", so she knew she was leaving. Both Gerald and Armando were always around and very visible. I can not say enough good things about Gerald and Armando. Both were always visible and would go out of their way for anything that we wanted. Staff and Service We found the staff at the hotel to be very friendly and polite. They seemed very shy but by trying to speak a little Spanish to them, they opened up very quickly. The service in general was good considering the newness of the resort. Being polite goes a long way in getting issues resolved. Food and Beverage Selection Food The food at the resort was some of the best we have had at any "all-inclusive" resort in the Caribbean. Definitely better than the Sandals properties (Antigua and Negril) and on par with Couples and Ciboney in Jamaica. We met a lot of people who had stayed at other Punta Cana resorts such as the Melia Bavaro, Bavaro Palace, etc and they said this was by far the best food that they have had in the Punta Cana hotels. The only restaurant that you needed reservations for was the Chef's Table, however, there was no problem getting into any of the other restaurants. Da Marios was the most popular but the worst case was that you signed up when the restaurant filled up at 6:30 and then waited for an hour and then they seated you. People seemed to complain a little about this system, but we never had a problem eating at any restaurant and it beats the hell out of the lining up process that you get at all the other resorts. The following is the summaries for all the restaurants: Chef's Table This restaurant was the Garden Café during the day and was the only restaurant that was open air. The tables were very spread out so the non-smoking section was not an issue. For the first week we were there, it was open every night and the menu changes on Thursdays, the second week it was only open on Thursday and Saturday (resort occupancy was less this week). The first week's menu was Caesar salad with calamari with the romaine lettuce "bunched" standing on the plate which was rather unique; followed by creamed wild mushroom soup served in a pumpernickel rye bread bowl; followed by sherbet to cleanse the palate; followed by seared tuna with flavored mashed potatoes; finally followed by a Japanese vanilla biscuit dessert. The second week started with guacamole rolled in smoked salmon (lox); followed by Duck soup consome covered in puff pastry; followed by jumbo shrimp rolled in spinach and bacon with coconut flavored rice; follow by a strawberry vanilla dessert. Both meals were excellent but the smoked salmon seemed to turn a few people off but not me! Can't get enough of that Lox! We ate here twice the first week and once the second week. Da Marios This restaurant was 100% Non-smoking! The menu was very large with at least 6 appetizers such as Caesar salad, muscels, etc, followed by your choice of soup or pastas, then the main courses. The main courses included shrimp with linguine in a marinera sauce, veal with garlic mashed potatoes, grouper with mashed potatoes, chicken breasts stuffed with flavored polenta, breast of duck with pesto linguine, calamari in a spicy marinera sauce with linguine and a mixed grill. Then, the DESSERTS! Wow! Cannoli and Tiramisu to die for. We dinned here 4 times during our stay. American Grill This restaurant was the steak house for the resort. They offered items such as rib-eye steak, BBQ chicken, ribs, shrimp, South American type steak, fajitas and any combo of the items. We had the South American steak and fajitas one night and both were very good and the other night we had the ribs and the fish which was good also. The beef was different then at home so be prepared. We ate here twice, so it was our least favorite restaurant of the resort and there was no non-smoking area. Windows Buffet Restaurant We ate most of our breakfasts here as well as lunches. The selection was very good for lunch with many choices of entrees including roast turkey, chicken, beef, pork, Tex-Mex, etc. The salads were plentiful with lots of choice. We are not big breakfast eaters, so I can not comment on the hot breakfast items. We always eat fresh fruit and cereal and there was lots of this. Just a note that you can have room service continental breakfast if someone lets you know that it is offered. We did this 3 mornings and it came exactly as ordered! The issue with this is that Allegro always offers this in their resorts but with the change in ownership, the cards on your room doors seem to vanish quickly. This may not be offered in the future with the new owners. The dinner buffets were quite good as far as buffet "dining" goes. Every Friday night is "Gala" night where they upgrade the buffet to include items such as fillet mignon, shrimp, etc. Every Thursday night is "Dominican" night where you can sample Dominican food as well as they bring in some vendors to sell you the usual Dominican stuff that you can buy on the beach or in the so called "plazas" in town. We ate dinner 5 times at Windows and found it more than adequate. They had limited bar service here and the wait staff were the least experienced of the resort. Windows must be the training area for the staff as the better they get, they are then transferred to one of the other restaurants. Garden Café We ate a few lunches and snacks here and food was very good for typical American style fast food stuff. Good burgers, fries, pizzas, Caesar salads, chicken burgers, pastas. It was a lot better than we expected. Beverages First, the house wines were literally "undrinkable". It had a slight vinegar taste and I let the Food and Beverage Manager know of the poor quality. They had Chilean wines by the bottle, which I think they wanted to sell you (Santa Carolina Cabernet and Conch Y Toro Cabernet/Merlot blend). They are worth about $7-8CDN back home and they wanted $350DR, which is $35CDN. I found out very quickly that by being very polite to the maitre'd in the restaurant, that the bottled wine would appear for no charge. These bottled wines should be the house wines! I never tried the white wines. The other little annoyance was that all their "Top shelf" liquors were hidden at the bars so that unless you asked for them by name you got Dominican brands. The bar in Da Marios had the best selection of liquors including JW Black, Grand Marnier, Drambuie, etc. So if you want to drink the top shelf stuff, just go into the bar area at Da Marios and ask for the brand you want. The beers served were Presidente (draft) and Bohemia(out of bottles) and both were very good. The Bohemia was always colder because they stored the bottles on ice. All soft drinks were "Coke" products and they always had a problem with Diet Coke for some reason. It tasted "off" most of the time. Concerning the tropical drinks (pina coladas, etc), we don't drink that stuff, so I can't comment on them as to how good or bad they were. Rooms The rooms at the resort had a lot to be desired. Pretty hard to believe that this resort is only 4 months old. When we first checked in, we were given room 3329, which is on the top floor and was ocean front/view. Well, we soon found out that all top floor rooms have no sound insulation due to the tall ceilings and poor construction. Whenever the children next door decided to turn the TV on, it was like the TV was on in our room. Also, when the people next door spoke, it was like they were in our room! The dresser was falling apart and more importantly, when the wind starts to blow outside (which it does all the time) it sounds like a wind tunnel in the room. Where the roof meets the walls, there are gaps that you can see daylight and obviously the wind whistles through there. This room had a King-size bed, which was all right. We changed rooms 7 days later and were moved to room 2120 which was ground floor, ocean view/front with 2 double beds of which only one of the beds was really comfortable. They showed us another room, which had the "connecting" doors between the rooms, and you can imagine what we said about those rooms. It was the same issue of having no sound insulation between you and your neighbors. We don't spend a lot of time in the rooms, but it would be nice if it was quiet enough to sleep at least. In summary, request a ground or second floor room with no connecting doors and a king bed. Beach/Water/Chairs The beach and water in front of the resort left a little to be desired. The sand was "white", but was never raked where the chairs were and contained broken glass and tons of cigarette butts! There was sea weed everywhere in the water in front of the resort which was very disappointing even though they raked it everyday. We checked out the beach in front of the Riu hotels (20 minute cab ride) and the beach was much better with very fine white sand (no butts or glass) and no seaweed in the water. The resort could use a few extra chairs but for most days there was no problem getting chairs as long as you put your towels down before 9AM. The first week when the resort was near capacity, there were a few outbreaks of stealing chairs. When will these resorts realize that by buying a few extra chairs to go with the number of rooms in the resorts, this would NEVER be a problem. The resort probably needed an extra 100 chairs and then everyone would be happy. At the Riu properties, there were hundreds of chairs available when we visited. Tours Taken We took the all day tour to La Romanna which included a tour of the sugar cane farms, a cigar factory, lunch and a tour of the town of Alto de Chavon. Alto de Chavon is a part of the Casa de Campo resort and is a small artisan town built in the 1970s to look like a 16th century roman village. The cost of the tour was $55US and was well worth it. Conclusion This was our first time to the Dominican Republic and we were very pleased with our vacation. Very good bang for the buck at this resort. We spoke with many Americans and Canadians who were not as pleased with the resort as we were, but I said to them to look at what they paid for the vacation and put it all in perspective. We have paid twice as much to go to Sandals and other "all-inclusive" resorts and for us, this was great. When we go on vacation we always rate it on the quality of the food/service and this resort was very good from that perspective. As I had said earlier, when and if we do return, we would stay somewhere around the Riu resorts because of the beach issue.
(Ed Note: Jim Jordan is the well known Jamaica Jim who has been a fixture on Compuserve for many years. He was extremely helpful in the formative years of the Caribbean Travel Roundup before the advent of the WWW. Jim is rightly considered an expert Hedonism resorts.)
Trip 10/99 Runaway Bay, Jamaica - As our plane was winging its way between Cuba's south coast and its final approach into Montego Bay, I couldn't help remembering my first trip to Jamaica, all those many years ago. The view from the windows of the plane was the same -- the sea was the same deep azure blue, flecked with tiny whitecaps blown by a sea wind far below. But, our US Airways jet was far larger than the Eastern Airlines plane of yesteryear. And we weren't headed for the venerable old Shaw Park Beach Hotel that had been our home- away-from-home in Ocho Rios on our first trip to the Caribbean. Instead, this trip we were headed for an eleven-day stay at the all new Hedonism III resort in Runaway Bay. The resort's parent company, SuperClubs, was hosting a gala weekend to celebrate both the opening of the new resort and the company's own twenty- third anniversary with a golf tournament and banquet for four hundred travel agents and a few invited guests. ARRIVAL AT MONTEGO BAY Our plane made its final approach into Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport, landed and taxied from the single east-west runway to a stop at the terminal, where the passengers deplaned. As I reflected again on my first trip to the Caribbean and Jamaica, I couldn't help but remember the huge, hanger-like building that served Montego Bay back in those earlier days and compare it to today's huge new terminal building. In complete contrast to its earlier existence, Sangster International is now modern and well equipped. The only constant was the same sauna-like heat and heavy humidity that always assails visitors to Jamaica as they exit the forward door of their plane. It provides that all too familiar warm welcome to this tropical vacation destination. BUS TO RUNAWAY BAY Following clearance by Jamaican immigration, retrieval of our checked bags, passage through customs and check-in at the SuperClubs' counter in the Transportation Hall, we transferred to the bus for the ride to Runaway Bay. It was then that I had another instance of Jamaican travel "deja vu." As the driver exited the main gate and the bus veered left at the roundabout onto the A-1 highway, one of the main thoroughfares on the island, I was again back in the mid-1970s again. The traffic, though, was definitely 1999 -- though the condition of the road had not improved much in the intervening years. Our bus traveled through the beautiful Jamaican countryside and the all too familiar towns -- Falmouth, Duncans, Discovery Bay -- and I was once more transported back in time. Following a not necessary stop at the rest area, we quickly arrived in Runaway Bay. There I saw that time definitely hadn't stood still. There was the golf course situated across the road from Breezes and the town had grown far beyond the boundaries that I remembered. Just past the center of "town," the driver made a left turn and within thirty seconds, we arrived at Hedonism III -- our vacation home for the next eleven days. TIME OUT! We flew to Jamaica on Wednesday, September 22, 1999, for an eleven- day trip. But, before I expound on what we did and where we went during this trip, let me explain a bit (actually a BIG bit) of exactly what we found at Hedonism III. This may be of benefit to others who are contemplating a visit to Jamaica -- and they may glean enough here, hopefully, to enable them to decide if Hedonism III is the place for them to go for a vacation. IT IS LIKE -- BUT NOT EXACTLY LIKE -- HEDONISM II! Now, I have been to this resort's sibling property in Negril -- Hedonism II -- more than twenty-five times. I've always felt that resort combined just the right concoction in its completely causal concept, blended with its amiable atmosphere of lighthearted fun and frivolity, suitably salted with the friendships we have made over the years and simmered by the tropical sun to perfection. I was therefore eager to see if this newest SuperClubs resort could measure up to its notable namesake, both in atmosphere and in ambiance. And, as I was to find out in the days ahead, SuperClubs has again added yet another jewel to its undisputed Caribbean crown of all-inclusive resort properties. Hedonism III is all I had hoped it would be -- and more. "HEDO LIDO" At Hedonism III, it is apparent that little or no expense or effort was spared to create what some people on the internet are already calling "Hedo Lido" -- a reference to its world class sibling resorts that SuperClubs calls its "Grand Lido" properties -- Grand Lido Negril, Grand Lido Braco and Grand Lido Sans Souci. Personally, I found the nickname most apt -- it does have a Lido- like ambiance about it in the newness (as I remembered back to the initial opening months of Grand Lido Negril) and the now scarcity of tropical plants and trees. WHY HEDONISM III WAS BUILT Hedonism III was obviously conceived to capitalize on the popularity of the resort in Negril, while providing some new aspects to guests who love the original resort. That property has always enjoyed a nearly constant core of repeat visitors -- the highest ratio of any resort in the Caribbean. It is also highly profitable for the company -- it was rumored that SuperClubs used the profits from Hedonism II for one year to build the Grand Lido Negril resort. THERE NEVER WAS A HEDONISM I (As an aside, there was never a "Hedonism I." The name was chosen by John Issa, the current Chairman of the Board of SuperClubs, when the decision was made to rename Negril Beach Village -- the forerunner of Hedonism II -- one of the first large resorts in Negril. It was also one of the first ventures by the company that later was to become SuperClubs. It should be noted that Hedonism II was really one of the first resorts to incorporate what became known as the "all-inclusive concept," since it was Issa who took the best of the Club Med concept and improved on it.) HEDONISM II STAFF At Hedonism III, SuperClubs has assembled a staff that any resort would be proud to have. The General Manager, Kevin Levee, is a prime example of the SuperClubs approach to resort management of hiring and promoting its own managers from within. This approach insures that each individual embodies a thorough knowledge of how resorts should be operated the "Super-Inclusive" way. Levee, with his broad background as a versatile hotelier, is a classic example of how well that policy works. He served at one time or other in the various management positions at other SuperClubs resorts, prior to being assigned to Hedonism III. Levee has likewise been careful to select the best of the best for his staff at Hedonism III. From his assistant managers and department heads, to the administrative and the clerical support staffs, to the housekeeping and grounds maintenance personnel, all are well trained and do excellent work. It is also apparent that the sports and activities staffs were likewise carefully chosen to provide that certain something that has been the hallmark of Hedonism II for close to twenty years. HEDONISM III'S GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION Hedonism III is situated within sight of another SuperClubs resort, Breezes Golf and Beach Resort. The new resort is located on what is known as Palm Beach, on a point of land just east of the main area of Runaway Bay - a quickly emerging Mecca for tourists along the North Coast. It is a distinct possibility that Runaway Bay may soon rival Ocho Rios for prominence with visitors to "The Land of Wood and Water." ARRIVAL AT THE RESORT >From the moment the bus arrived at the main gate, we quickly became aware that SuperClubs had created yet another world class resort. It's easy to see that it embraces all the best aspects and none of the worst of it's illustrious -- or "infamous," depending to whom you talk -- predecessor. It is also immediately apparent that this resort is intended to stand on its own two feet and not simply "copy cat" the Negril property. OPENING DELAYED Hedonism III was scheduled to open for guests on September 1, 1999 and it made that schedule. As Levee said to me months before the opening, "It may take some twenty-four hour days to meet the schedule -- and I already see that I will be putting in my share of those, to accomplish meeting that goal." However, the resort experienced some minor start-up problems with lightning striking the electrical system and quickly had to close. The registered guests were transferred to other properties and received a voucher to return at a later date for a free stay at Hedonism III. LAYOUT AND GROUNDS The layout of the resort somewhat follows the earlier geography of two of the Lido class SuperClubs properties -- Grand Lido Negril and Grand Lido Braco -- to some extent. It has the room accommodation set in building "blocks" three floors tall, with the central main building -- containing the lobby, offices, restaurants, piano bar, along with the kitchen -- located at the front of the property. The three swimming pools are spread around the property, handy to the areas where the guests will spend most of their time. The grounds at Hedonism III are still brand new, with plenty of evidence of the new sod throughout the property. There are numerous newly planted palm trees, which will quickly provide shade since everything seems to grow so rapidly on this tropical island. ACCOMMODATIONS Accommodations at Hedonism III consist of a total of 225 fully appointed, air conditioned double rooms -- each with either twin beds or a king size bed. The rooms are classed as ocean front, pool front, ocean view or pool view. (One block of four buildings even has the first ever "swim-up" rooms in Jamaica.) All rooms contain a large marble bathroom with its own in-bath Roman Jacuzzi, direct dial telephone, television set, clock radio, compact disk player, in-room safe deposit boxes, coffee maker, hair dryer, ironing board and iron. Rooms are either for two guests traveling together or on a "shared basis" -- guests who are traveling alone are assigned to a room with a same gender roommate or they can opt to have a guaranteed single room with payment of a single supplement. DINING Dining at Caribbean resorts has always been a matter of much interest to many visitors to the islands. Some resorts strive to provide haute cuisine, while many more simply serve good, appetizing food -- and plenty of it. Young Canadian chef Jeff Wright, has already set his style with super dishes that please the palate as well as the eye. Meals can be taken at the large dining area, where everything is served buffet style. For those guests who prefer their dining to be a cut above buffet fare, there will be three sit-down restaurants (two of which were already open when we were at the property), each with its very own unique theme -- Jamaican, Japanese and Italian -- as well as the Continental cuisine served in the main buffet dining area. There are also grills located at each of the swimming pools serving burgers, hot dogs, authentic Jamaican "jerk" and sandwiches, for those guests who prefer not to miss a single second of their time in the sun. ACTIVITIES Activities at the resort include sports, a complete circus workshop, entertainment every evening and most important to sun worshipers, two beaches -- one an 'au naturel' beach where guests can shed their swim wear and get an all over tan without getting tan lines. CIRCUS WORKSHOP The circus workshop consists of a complete high wire and trapeze set up beside the main beach, which would be the delight of a Barnum and Bailey circus. There are two trained coordinators experienced in high wire and acrobatics to provide instruction for guests who want to experience actually swinging from the trapezes or learning the art of the high wire. There is also a huge trampoline for guests to enjoy. LAND SPORTS The sports and recreation programs at Hedonism III run the full gambit of both land and water sports. The land sports include facilities for most any sports aficionado: there are tree lighted tennis courts with pros providing tennis clinics twice a day. The resort has basketball, volleyball and shuffleboard courts, table tennis, billiards and plenty of bicycles for guests who desire to cycle into town. There's a complete fitness center with rubber floor tiles to absorb the shock of exercise workouts, brand new Nautilus-type exercise equipment, including lifecycles, stair climbers and free weights, plus aerobic classes and reggae classes, and a games room. Golfers can enjoy use of the nearby Breezes championship golf course. WATER SPORTS The water sports program will delight those guests who go to Jamaica for its proximity to the sea. There are daily glass-bottom boat rides, windsurfing (with daily classes), Sunfish and Hobie Cat sailing, water skiing, snorkeling, ocean kayaking, as well as a complete scuba diving program. SCUBA DIVING The water sports manager/dive instructor, Ann Marie McNeil, has an ambitious program of diving, both for certified divers as well as those guests who wish to experience the thrill of diving. Guests can get full instruction in PADI certification course classes, pool work and certification dives. (Full certification is not included in the regular all-inclusive rate.) For those guests wanting to try diving, there is a "resort certification" course that takes a day, following which, guests can make shallow dives. The dive boat -- one of the largest and fastest on the island -- is a forty foot long "Performance 40" with a 9 foot beam, and twin 250- hp Yamaha outboard engines. It can seat up to twenty divers. It has a "cigarette" shaped hull, allowing the boat to reach speeds up to 45 miles per hour. There is a fly bridge that provides easy observation, both while underway and to watch for the divers at the end of the dives. It carries full US Coast Guard required safety equipment and a ship-to-shore radio for two-way communications with the dive shop ashore. BEACHES The main beach is wide and well manicured. It is sheltered by a man- made jetty of rocks, with a two level pier constructed on top of it were the Hedonism III dive boat is tied up. The au naturel beach is situated along the north shore, and has three stone jetties that protect the swimming area from waves, The beach itself has two levels and soft sand, plus there are wooden piers built atop the side jetties to provide additional space for those guests looking to "bare it all" to the sun. Water recreation facilities include three large, fresh water swimming pools: - a main pool with a "swim-up" bar and a Hedonism exclusive -- a fabulous four story high, one-of-a-kind water slide that flows from the top of one building and right through the disco into the main swimming pool -- it even has a see-through section in the disco, so that partying guests can watch merry-makers slide through to the waiting water below; - a pool located inside the quadrangle formed by four buildings with the first rooms in the Caribbean which are "swim-up" and where the guests can literally go from their room directly to the pool; - and an au naturel pool facing the Caribbean with a swim-up bar and grill. There are four Jacuzzis, including one that even has a glass bottom and is "see-through." ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENING ENTERTAINMENT The house band on the stand -- Ecstasy -- provides some super jazz each evening during dinner. Following dinner the entertainment coordinators stage a different theme each evening -- Toga Night, a Jamaican cabaret show, etc., for the delight of the guests. The entertainment was in the main dining area, which has a full stage and elaborate lighting, including laser lights. One night there's a Pajama Party held at the disco -- it's a "come in your sleep wear" - - and the "bare as you dare" approach always seems to take the prizes. Following the completion of the scheduled evening's entertainment, the piano bar opens as does the disco. Both are popular places with those looking for music and fun -- and the disco doesn't close until the last guest leaves or until 5:00 o'clock in the morning -- whichever comes first. The entire resort still shows its newness but it does it well. However, as time goes by, I expect the resort will continue to mature and provide guests with yet another superb SuperClubs experience. It will also provide SuperClubs with one more super property in its ever growing domain of Super-Inclusive Caribbean resorts. TIME IN!! While we were being bussed to Runaway Bay, much of the time our bus was inundated by a heavy rain or by splashes from the runoff water that drained right along the road. It sometimes appeared that we needed a cruise ship instead of a bus! While the A-1 highway is a bit better than the Negril road, it isn't all that much better. It just has fewer potholes, though there were more than enough. I did ask our driver if he knew where all of the potholes were, to which he gave an emphatic "Ya, mon!" I suppose that driving the same road day after day -- and sometimes multiple times a day -- a driver would have to end up knowing every little eccentricity and all of the bad places where care has to be exercised. In addition, it looks as if the agency that oversees the roads on the island pays scant attention to the drainage along the roads. In many places we encountered huge puddles and the water was washing from side roads all along the way. It often looked like we were driving in a deep, swift moving river rather than on a road! I was anxious to get to the resort, since we had been up since early that morning. But, as I had expected, our driver just had to make the obligatory "rest stop" at the roadside rest area on the west side of Rio Bueno. I'm sure that the passengers making their first visit to the island were happy to have an opportunity to hit the rest rooms and then get a cold drink. The thing is, the rest area is so close to Runaway Bay that it's only delaying their arrival -- and the remainder of the ride is less than ten minutes drive! However, it seems that all of the bus drivers have an arrangement worked out with the operator of the rest area -- the driver receives a commission on all the purchases made by his passengers! Following the not nearly short enough stop, we were again on our way and as noted above, within a scant few minutes we passed the "city limits" of Runaway Bay and were at Hedonism III! OUR ARRIVAL AT HEDONISM III I sure was happy that we had arrived -- it was like old home week, with the people from Hedonism II on hand to assist with the initial startup of the new property. Our reservations had specified ground floor, but in the rush we had been assigned to a second floor room. Nina asked if we could be moved to a first floor room and the staff quickly made the necessary change fairly quickly, since the resort was scheduled to be at full occupancy starting the following day. While the staff took care of making the room change, we had a chance to quickly get a cool drink from the main bar. I also took time to see Kevin Levee and give him some things that I had brought down for him -- both from me and from my dear friend Doug, who had asked that if I'd "smuggle" in a CPR training device for use by the staff to learn how to diagnose a heart attack and what to do if a guest showed the symptoms of one. ROOM ASSIGNMENT, ACCOMMODATIONS AND AMENITIES -- OR LACK THEREOF We were assigned to room 616, facing right on the nude beach. It was just a short few steps to the beach, the nude pool and the bar and grill. I can't think of a better location anywhere on the property. I've already covered the amenities that the rooms have. However, due to the newness of the property, there were a "few" things that were still in need of being installed -- window shades in each bathroom over the tub (some of the guests assigned to rooms in the area thought that the lack of something to shield prying eyes was simply due to their being on the nude beach and that the resort wasn't planning to provide any modesty shades for those rooms!); shower curtains in each bath; hair dryers in each room; and in our room a rod in the closet on which to hang clothes! The shades were installed about a week after we arrived, but I had already found that a beach towel exactly fit the window -- and within a day it looked as if every room in our building had a beach towel covering the bathroom window! The shower curtains had not been received when we departed -- soon come, Mon! The hair dryers also hadn't appeared when we checked out -- it seems that they were delivered prior to the opening, but it turned out that they were the wrong voltage for the electrical system! And the rod in our closet was installed within thirty minutes of my call to the front desk! (As aside, all of the room doors, both front and rear, have the new key-less locks, which use a card to unlock the door rather than a key. The thing is, when you are on the beach or at the pool on the nude side, you don't have pockets to carry the card! When the maintenance personnel arrived to install the closet rod, I found that they had an electric drill -- and I was easily able to drill a hole in each of our door lock cards! That enabled me to attach them to the plastic wrist rings that we always use at Hedonism II. For the rest of our stay, people kept asking me how I had gotten a card with a hole punched in it!) FACILITIES I was personally pleased with the nude pool area, as well as the bar and grill that is located there. It does appear that the designer had never been to such a pool, in that the bar can only be accessed from the pool. That keeps the guests, who aren't actually in the pool, from easily getting drinks, though with some stretching by guests and bartenders alike, accommodation can be worked out. Also, the bar and grill are at the far end from the nude beach itself. At Hedonism in Negril, the bar is a prime place for beach people to congregate but at Hedonism III the beach is about as far from the bar as it could be. I think this was an error in planning but it's now too late to make any actual change to the location. I would think that at some point, the resort management will consider placing something -- even if it's only a self-serve drink dispenser -- down on the nude beach itself. SUNNING During our stay, there was little use made of the nude beach and I expect that will change. it may have been the fact that work was going on there and sun seekers just weren't all that comfortable with being there at the time. However, extra effort has been made to make this a place where guests will find a welcoming beach. I hope that happens because it does have all the aspects that a sun worshiper is searching for -- plenty of available lounges, soft sand, a sheltered swim area and all the sun that anyone could want. SHADE I hate to give away secrets, but we quickly found that the prime place for reading a book, relaxing or napping is the wedding gazebo located between the nude pool and the Jamaican restaurant. It's situated almost over the water -- a few times waves broke on the rocks and the easterly trade winds actually blew a bit of sea spray up and onto the floor. It is probably the quietest place along the nude side of the resort. We would place two lounges under the canopy and they were completely shaded until the sun set far enough that it shone in from the west. MEALS Some folks seem to believe that they absolutely must eat their way through a vacation. Personally, I want the food to be good -- I don't feel the need for haute cuisine -- and I want it to look, smell and taste good and be reasonably presented. As long as those criteria are met, I'm a happy camper! I'll say this for the new resort -- the food looked good, smelled wonderful and tasted superb! The buffet presentation was above reproach -- and while I don't mind buffets, they aren't my favorite sort of serving of meals - this one was a definite cut above any I've ever seen in the Caribbean! (I always hated it when my parents decided the family should "go to the cafeteria" for a meal!) I especially enjoyed the deserts -- and I'll say this for a buffet, you can go back again and again -- and nobody seems to care or even notice! I'd like to include one additional comment that involves meals here. I've had the pleasure many times of eating at Cosmos Beach Bar and Restaurant in Negril. When Hedonism III was being designed, somebody did something very right and an authentic Jamaican resort was built right on the property! I can tell you now that the food prepared and served there is definitely something to write home about and to tell others who are going to Hedonism III! We ate lunch there a few times and were delighted with our meals. SPECIAL ACTIVITIES We happened to be staying at Hedonism III during a special weekend - the last weekend in September, 1999. SuperClubs was hosting a "gala weekend" for more than four hundred travel agents from all over! The weekend was slated as the twenty-third anniversary of SuperClubs, the opening of the new Hedonism III, the annual golf tournament and an awards dinner for the travel agents. Many of the agencies represented were "diamond agencies" meaning that those had produced a certain level of business with SuperClubs by booking clients as guests to the various SuperClubs' resorts. We were delighted to see some old friends -- Gennie and A. J. Hutchinson of Go Classy Tours, Inc. (the travel agency that Nina and I always use for our Caribbean travel arrangements) and Bill Fox (of All Inclusive Vacations). I also ran into Tiffany Wentz and got to meet Shantini Ramakrishnan (the gals work for Spring O'Brien, the firm that does public relations for SuperClubs, and they see to it that Yours Truly receives all of the press releases for SuperClubs!). It was nice to see the old friends and renew acquaintances. King Neptune On Thursday evening, there was a "happening" at Hedonism III to end all blow outs! The resort had scheduled a "King Neptune Party" for all of the travel agents and guests at the resort. During the weekend a professional dance troop to perform and they, along with a huge assortment of talented people from both Jamaica and the United Sates, staged an outdoor extravaganza that was very well choreographed and most professionally presented. The resort had buffet tables located around the area beside the main pool and it was again one that surpassed the name "buffet" by a long shot! Reception On Friday, the golf tournament began. That night there was a catered, outdoor reception for all of the travel agents held at the Breezes Golf Course -- and I must say, SuperClubs DOES know how to throw a party! The area directly behind the clubhouse had been completely decorated with flowers, tents, a full stage, strings of tiny lights hung among the branches of the trees and the entire area was softly illuminated by subtle lighting. There were a number of bars located around the grounds serving liquid libations. They had strategically placed tables serving different foods, consisting of meats (turkey, ham, roast beef, authentic Jamaican jerk pork and fried chicken that would rival anything the Colonel could offer, etc.), scrumptious seafoods (big boiled shrimp, succulent scallops, etc.) and delicious deserts. The entire atmosphere was that of an elegant garden party and was something to behold! Following an abundance of time for the guests to "mingle" -- and I'm sure to engage in establishing business liaisons between their respective agencies -- there were some remarks made by the coordinators of the tournament and by Joe Issa, executive vice president of SuperClubs (and the son of John Issa). There was a band that provided music, both for those hardy souls who wanted to dance and for those of us who were simply satisfied to listen! Just as the party was breaking up, the skies again opened up and it started to rain! But nothing could dampen the spirits of the partygoers, certainly not a mere rain shower! Golf Tournament Not being a "duffer," I obviously opted not to participate in the golf tournament, but we did take the provided shuttle over to the golf course on Saturday morning. Each of the individual SuperClubs resorts had set up a tent at the various tees and we had decided to "walk" the course, in order to see what the resorts had provided for the golfers' to enjoy. Grand Lido Negril was providing massages and wet, cold towels (to dispel the heat and humidity), Hedonism III had set up a "Arabian harem" (complete with dancing girls in costumes that were right out of "Arabian Nights") and Boscobel Beach Resort had a tent that sported a putting green! (Nina won a Boscobel Bear -- I didn't win anything!) I was hot and tired and we didn't make it to any of the other resort's tents but instead headed back to the clubhouse for a ride back to the resort. VISITING BRACO A newly-met friend, Deb (a travel agent from Maryland), wanted to go to Braco Grand Lido to see somebody, so we tagged along. It provided me an opportunity to again see Braco, the first time I had been there since SuperClubs had taken over management there. It was also an opportunity for me to see the clothing optional section that was new since I was last at the property. We took a van for the short thirteen mile ride to the resort and had an invitation from the general manager at Braco, Anil Sud, to have lunch there. I must say that I was most impressed with Braco -- it has fully "matured" into what I consider a tropical resort. The plants and trees now provide it with a lushness that one expects to see in a Caribbean resort property. Nina and I walked over to the clothing optional side of the property and "sampled" the nude swimming pool, one that I personally think is beautiful! We had a drink at the swim-up bar, and chatted with an assortment of international guests. We then walked down on the nude beach. Nina walked the beach, a stunning strand, while I talked with a German couple and an English couple. We went back to the pool, donned our duds and went to the main dining area for lunch with Deb. Lunch was excellent, though since we weren't staying at Braco as guests, we were somewhat unfamiliar with how the buffet there worked. But, the food was good and provided us a chance to cool off from the sun's rays and to regather our strength for the rest of the day. We next checked out the preparations for the awards dinner. The resort had erected a number of tents in one of the parking lot to house the dinner that evening -- a wise move, considering that the end of September is a time when rain can be expected most days. Deb spoke to Anil Sud and introduced us to him -- he's a gracious individual and is obviously an excellent hotelier. Then it was back in the van and the drive back to Runaway Bay. Would I recommend Braco Grand Lido to others? You better believe I will! I found it a class resort operated by a world class hotel company! MEETING A "LEGEND" As we were returning to Hedonism, I asked our van driver if it would be possible to make a very short stop at FDR Resort. This property was originally created and is operated now by Frank Rance, one of the general managers of what would become SuperClubs. He had been an early manager of what became Breezes Runaway Bay, was the first general manager of Negril Beach Village (now Hedonism II) and the first general manager at Couples (formerly the venerable Tower Isle Hotel east of Ocho Rios). I had read much about this hotelier and wanted to take this opportunity to personally meet him! Frank was as genial as I expected and, although we chatted only for a few minutes, I quickly felt that I had known him for a long while -- and I had, through my reading of his hotel exploits! He told me about his new property - Pebbles Resort -- is being built currently just west of the Trelawny Resort, close to Falmouth. It is due to be opened within not too many months and as we were driving on an excursion and also heading back to the airport, I made a point of looking at it. The location is ideal -- it will be closer to Montego Bay, it will be situated on sheltered White Bay and will be close to the Martha Brae River for guests who wish to enjoy bamboo rafting down the river. I also promised Frank that I would send him a copy of the university case study that included much of the information about him that I'd found to be enjoyable reading. After leaving FDR, we were back at Hedonism III in a just a matter of minutes. AWARDS DINNER Earlier that afternoon, we had wondered how in the world the resort could possibly get everything pulled together in time for the dinner that evening! It seemed hordes of staff members had been scurrying about, trying to do everything at the same time! But upon arrival that night, we were totally taken aback to see that everything had come together and it really was a beautiful setting for the dinner. The previous evening's party menu was only surpassed by that of the awards dinner at Braco! (Did I say that SuperClubs knows how to throw a party? Well, Braco Grand Lido out "SuperClub-ed" SuperClubs' party the night before!) I can't say enough about the Braco party -- there was virtually every imaginable dish available - - and plenty of each! The awards presentations were made and the recipients had their pictures taken with their regional sales representative and the Florida sales staff. It was most gratifying to watch as Gennie and A. J. Hutchinson received their umpteenth award for Go Classy Tours! VISIT TO SUPERCLUBS' SANS SOUCI I was asked if we would like to go over to Grand Lido Sans Souci in Ocho Rios for lunch on Sunday. I jumped at the opportunity! I'd always heard of the beauty of this resort and this gave me the chance to see it for myself. Becca and Bill joined us and we had a van take all us to Sans Souci and back to Hedonism III. We were expected and had the pleasure of being escorted to lunch and on a guided tour of the entire resort by Dujaughn Brown, a young, eager Manager Trainee. Dujaughn did a superb job of showing us all around the property -- and therein are the reasons for my reservations about it -- for me! Let me preface my slightly negative comments about Sans Souci by saying it is without a doubt, one of the most gorgeous resorts I've ever seen in Jamaica -- and probably in the Caribbean. It's a lush garden of tropical plants, trees, pools and beaches and it encompasses some of the most beautiful acreage in Jamaica, and certainly the most beautiful in and around Ocho Rios. Formerly the Plantation Inn, SuperClubs again worked its magic and added more rooms, more amenities and recently added a clothing optional beach to this property. Since Sans Souci is built on a sea-facing, virtual cliffside. That means that the beach is down a long flight of steps from the older accommodations -- the newer wing is at sea level. Likewise, to go to the dining room from the older buildings involves a long walk down -- and hike back up! There is an area that is served by an outside (enclosed) elevator. But, I must admit that -- at my age and in my physical condition (the former is high and the latter is not all THAT good!) -- the thought of being a guest at Sans Souci and being faced by all those steps is more than daunting! Would I recommend Grand Lido San Souci to others? You bet -- it's a given that it's a world class resort and another in the long line of class resorts operated by a class oriented hotel management company! OTHER OUTSIDE ACTIVITIES River Rafting The only other notable tour off the property during our trip was one that I had long wanted to do -- but I just never had gotten around to doing it. That is to do a bamboo rafting trip down one of the rivers on the island. I had decided even before we traveled to Jamaica this time that river rafting was something that I would do this trip! Therefore soon after we arrived, I talked with the folks at the tour desk (actually a part of the main lobby check-in desk) and signed up for us to take this tour. Let me explain how this modern attraction for tourists came into being. In the early days following Jamaica being "discovered" by Chris Columbus and after the English had conquered the Spanish for the island, noblemen received royal grants and established plantations primarily to grow sugar cane. These huge land holdings were often somewhat remote from the coast. That made it difficult to transport items to the sailing ships for shipment to England. That was where the bamboo rafts came in. The slaves used long rafts constructed of native bamboo to as rafts to move the cane down river to the waiting ships. In recent years, somebody suggested that river rafting might be something that would appeal to tourists -- and an entire industry was born. There are now companies providing this enjoyable pastime on many of the rivers of Jamaica, including the Great River (just west of Montego Bay), the Martha Brae River(just east of Falmouth), the White River (near Ocho Rios) and the Rio Grande River (at Port Antonio). Caving(?) On the appointed day, we went to the lobby, to catch our transportation to the Martha Brae River. Just east of Discovery Bay, the bus turned off to the left and stopped in a parking lot. I hadn't realized it, but the river rafting tour also included admittance to Runaway Caves! Now, I had seen the signs for the caves before and I had even read something about them in reading about Jamaica previously. But, I had no idea that we were going to visit them this trip! Runaway Caves consists of over ten miles of caves and caverns, formed by the erosion of the soft limestone by natural ground water seeking underground. A portion of the caves is easily accessed from the broad entrance facing the parking lot and tours are conducted by knowledgeable guides. There are majestic chambers with columns formed by the meeting of stalagmites and stalactites. There are even small, green plants that can be seen -- they are caused by bats eating the plant seeds and depositing those in the cave. These plants grow completely without sunlight, but they are short lived. In the days before Columbus, as far back as the year 610, there is evidence that the caves were used by the early Arawak Amerindians for shelter. There is also evidence that pirates used the caves. And when England took control of the island, these caverns were used by the Spanish as their last hideout, finally escaping to the sea via an underground exit to the coast. It's also believe that runaway slaves used the caves for the same purpose and that the name derives from these two instances. The high (or "LOW") point was a visit down (and I do mean DOWN!) one hundred and twenty feet to the Green Grotto. The highlight there is a subterranean lake -- and there is even a boat floating on it. Now, the bad news -- once at the bottom, tourists have to retrace their steps -- UP! Yours Truly had been the first visitor to reach the bottom -- and the last to make my weary way back to the top! I was so soaked with perspiration that I looked exactly as I would have, had I simply jumped into that underground lake! I strongly suggest that anybody with a heart condition (or the better part of wisdom!) skip this portion of the cave exploration! River Rafting on the Martha Brea After my exertions at Runaway Caves, I was very much looking forward to a cool ride on a slow moving river -- and a much needed opportunity to regain some of my sapped strength from climbing back out of Green Grotto! The ride wasn't long and just before reaching Falmouth, the bus driver turned inland and drove up a shaded river valley. Upon arrival at the rafting village, we were treated to a cool glass of punch. That's when the "fun" really began! Just as Nina and I boarded our assigned raft, it began to rain -- softly! Now, we had been hot all day and at first, the rain simply cooled us. But, it continued far beyond the need to be cooled! In fact, it actually felt cold! Add to that the fact that we hadn't considered the possible need for rain protection, and that we had been told to wear clothes that we could swim in. Nina had on a swim suit! And she was getting colder by the minute - and there was no way to get off of the raft until we reached the end of the ride! While the river rafting trip was beautiful, neither of us saw much of that beauty! Suffice it to say that we heartily recommend -- in the strongest terms - that anybody contemplating rafting down a Jamaican river should take along an umbrella or some kind of protection from the elements! 'Nuff said! MEETING OLD -- AND NEW -- FRIENDS My travel philosophy has always been that there are no strangers, just friends you haven't met yet! This trip was no exception -- we made new friends and saw some old friends as well. Old Familiar Faces I can't tell you what a joy it was to again see our old friend Kevin Levee. In addition, getting to see again his beautiful and graceful wife, Cecile, and their two beautiful daughters was a real plus to us. I had a chance to spend some time with Kevin in his office and installed some neat software on his lap top computer. (If any of the old Hedonism II crowd remembers the portrait of the Mona Lisa that hung behind the main desk in the lobby, Kevin now has his very own version on his computer. When the picture is displayed and you press the space bar, it shows all that the original portrait did!) Likewise, it was wonderful to see Kevin's executive secretary, Sophie! She is such a dear and I'm confident that Kevin made an excellent decision to entice her into relocating to Runaway bay with him. Now, Sophie can make sure that Kevin does everything right! In addition to those already mentioned, we saw Kenneth (one of the dining room managers from Hedonism II) who was assisting in the dining room to see that the new staff was doing their jobs in the manner for which the original Hedonism is famous. It was super seeing Kenny and he always had his trademark smile for everybody. Paul, one of the entertainment coordinators at Hedonism II, was working temporarily to assist the coordinators at Runaway Bay to prefect their craft. He would mount the stage and holler out, "Are we happy here at Hedonism III?" I kept waiting for him to mess up and say, "Hedonism II" but he never did! Getting to Know the New Friends Being as active as I am on The Caribbean Travel Forum on CompuServe and on message boards on the internet, I routinely receive numerous e-mails and messages from folks all over the world! I had corresponded with a number of folks who had e- mailed me, asking what they could expect at the resort. I also posted responses to people on the internet asking the same questions of me. Some of the folks that I was able to actually meet in person this trip included Becca and Bill from near Dallas, Lyle from St. Louis (a close friend of my friends Teresa and Joe who live in Pennsylvania), Peter and Clay, Marcia and Chuck, Holly and Bob, Maria (of Launch Radio Networks), Diane from New Jersey, Robert (a travel agent from St. Louis) and the list goes on and on. To all those who's names I didn't list, please forgive an ol' man. While I can't recall all the names, be assured you are known and I'll look forward to seeing all y'all again! I do want to especially recognize having met Dan Leeth, a wonderful travel writer whom I had "met" via e-mail and who made a point of introducing himself to me. I had read an article of his and we had corresponded before. THE BEST TRIP EVER! There always comes a time on each vacation when it's time to head home -- and it occurred for us on Saturday morning, October 2nd. Aside from the drippingly dreary debacle of rafting on the Martha Brae in the rain, Nina agrees that this was our best trip ever to the Caribbean! Will I return to Hedonism III -- you bet your life I will! <smile> Respect -- to the max!
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