Friday, 18 November 2016

Jamaica Mon and Sandals Resorts

Sandals Royal Carribean Private Island
It's been awhile since we went to Jamaica but like pretty much everywhere we have every travelled, we absolutely loved it.  We read and heard much about Jamaica and their people and had come to the conclusion we would either love it or hate it.  We are definitely part of the former group but there are a few things one should be prepared for on their first experience.

Jamaica has a very active drug culture; and the pedlars can be aggressive.  The drug culture seems to be flourishing but no more so than in most Caribbean countries where unemployment is high. But contrary to other experiences we have had, Jamaica seems to be taking somewhat of a different approach to addressing it:  rather than ignoring or hiding the issue, it attempts to educate its visitors and provide very sound advice – a position we applaud. 

Generally, we found the Jamaican people to be warm, friendly and easygoing.  We also found them to be assertive but always respectful, demanding respect in return.   In our travels, we have often witnessed tourists being rude and condescending to the locals and resort staff and, naturally, the staff become cautious and perhaps a little less willing to shoot the breeze.  We did not have this experience anywhere in Jamaica.   We plied them with questions about their country and their culture and they willingly shared their knowledge.  But, most of all, when they say “no problem, mon”, they actually mean it!

housing is often humble
Unemployment is very high but Jamaicans seem to truly understand the concept of taking care of their own.  Homes are often generational.  The “haves” share with the “have nots” and only seniors who are not being properly cared for end up in what are called “poor homes”.  Churches of every denomination are everywhere (usually right next to a bar).  We found facilities throughout Jamaica to be clean, even when humble.  Drinking water is safe and we heard no incidents of the typical traveller’s woes aka Montezuma's Revenge. 

We enjoy traveling to areas which challenge our foreign language skills and were a little disappointed that we would not be learning aspects of a foreign language.  Our fears were unfounded; while the official language may be English, the language of choice is (Jamaican) Patois. And, try as we might, we came home with very little of its vocabulary.

One should be aware, however, that Jamaica is also very intolerant of homosexuality.  While the majority of locals we met had spouses and children, none that we asked were married.  50% of all weddings in Jamaica are apparently for tourists. 

YS Falls
Due to the high crime rate, while we were advised not to wonder off resort outside of a tour, the country is beautiful and it's well worth your time to seek out a few tours and get off the resort.  We did the Chukka Canopy, and the Black River Safari and YS Falls Tours.  We had wonderful guides and drivers who did their best to entertain and educate.  We LOVED the canopy tour in the hills but discovered a second tour at YS Falls. It looked incredible as the zipline follows the falls but there's always a trade-off and it was not quite as expansive. There is also a sunset canopy tour which might be fun.   We were somewhat disappointed in the Black River Safari, though we did see a number of crocodiles and egrets.   For us, the opportunity to see some of the country during the 2-hour drive made up for it. 
Our zipline guides:
guaranteed to keep you safe and keep you laughing

In other Caribbean countries we have witnessed the poor condition of livestock. We even declined horseback riding when one individual got on a horse which literally folded to its knees. They are often malnourished, diseased, unhappy animals.  In Jamaica, we were impressed with health of the livestock and were told all livestock and produce is grown naturally (organically).  A couple of the locals told us this is the reason why Jamaicans are so healthy.

Sandals Resorts:

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We have been to some very nice exclusive resorts, however, there are a few things at Sandals Resorts we have yet experienced at others.  In each of the rooms there is a book about the history and culture of Jamaica as well as one about the history of the Sandals chain – both well worth the read.

At Sandals we found not only beer, pop and water in our bar fridge, but an assortment of fruit juices; a selection of hard liquors, white and red wine and champagne.    We also enjoyed turn-down service. We didn’t experience butler service; I’m not sure we would enjoy this but some people really soaked up the attention.

The staff are well trained professionals and all seemed happy, suggesting a very healthy corporate culture -- not something we have found at all resorts.  They showed no fear of management and were committed to the philosophy that good work would be rewarded by better positions.  There seemed to be a certain amount of longevity in the staff.  Sandals supports a medical plan for staff and family and any staff we talked to was not only pleased to be working for Sandals but VERY proud.  We were given the solid impression Sandals cares about and for its employees.

We thought it was a very nice touch that a number of the staff, including the general manager, gave us a bit of a send-off, including a drink and snack “for the road” as we left for the airport. 

Sandals also offers the opportunity to visit its other resorts in the area and Montego Bay actually has three to choose from: Sandals Inn; Sandals Montego Bay (SMB) and Sandals Royal Carribean (SRC). About 1 1/2 hours away is Sandals Whitehouse.

Sandals Inn:  Very small and quaint.  There is no beach with the property but there is a small public beach across the street.  We met people who were very disappointed and left the Inn every morning, spending all their time at either SRC and SMB.  We also met those who absolutely loved it as it was small, intimate and quiet but just one block off the “Hip Strip” where there is lots of action.

Sandals Montego Bay (SMB):  Immediately adjacent the Sangster International Airport (you will see it next to the runway when you fly in), the plane traffic is VERY loud.  The beach, though somewhat better than SRC, is limited.  We met many people who stayed there to party but came to SRC to eat.  We ate at Tokyo Joes and really enjoyed it.  We were also told the Italian Restaurant was very good.

Sandals Whitehouse:  Located approximately 1 ½ hours from the Sangster Airport, it looked stunning.  The beach was lovely, the lobby and pools very nice and the accommodation appeared well designed.  The few people we talked to indicated accommodations and food were very good.  Not everybody likes the long drive but we would consider it in a future return visit to Jamaica.  These photos do NOT do the facility justice.

We were told Whitehouse also has a higher caliber of entertainment than other Sandals resorts. This may have to do with its remote, rural location.  There was to be an art auction after our visit which we thought was unique.  The little bit of art we saw in Jamaica was of poor quality but the examples for the auction were very well done.

Sandals Royal Caribbean (SRC) Sandals RC is about 35 years old.  This resort is compact, well designed and never feels crowded.  It would be impossible to over-praise the management and staff at SRC.   Sandals seems to have a solidly established reputation as a very good employment opportunity.  The staff are happy and appear to work very well with management.  We formed bonds with a few which left us feeling sad to say goodbye to them.  Knowing we were at a resort that takes care of its people gives us great comfort and makes it worth considering a visit back, just to see them again.We found all of the public areas well maintained.  

The combination of the friendliness of the staff and design, from the pool areas to the pub, encourages meeting and making new friends.  For a couple traveling alone, it was a great opportunity to meet a variety of people. Located 10 minutes from the Sangster airport makes for easy access, however, it is also located within a flightpath.  Some found it annoying while others thought it was no big deal.  We were impressed to see a great number of management staff walking through, stopping to pick up an empty glass or plate, saying hello to visitors and staff alike.  It made for a very comfortable atmosphere – again, a sign of healthy corporate culture.

We found the age of the resort creeping in which, unfortunately, can not be modified without extensive renovation.  Halls and walkways are very narrow and, if you happen to meet a housekeeping or beverage cart, it is a tight squeeze by.  This is a minor comment, as we found buildings, facilities and grounds to be clean and very well maintained.

From our research before the trip, we were aware the beach is very small.  Photos in promotional material is somewhat deceptive.  If the beach is important to you, this may not be a choice location.  It points to the need to DO YOUR HOMEWORK before you book the trip.  If you like to snorkel, you need to go by boat to the reef, which also cushions SRC from any wave action.   The sea is so calm, on most mornings it is like glass.  We are told this is typical of the entire island.

While the private island is capitalized upon in the promotional material, it is not particularly user friendly.  Transportation runs on the hour; you are not allowed to take kayaks from the resort; and there was no food available when we visited.  A few snacks and better connections to the main land (a 2-minute boat ride) would go a long way to enhancing its use. 

 “Clothing optional” is pretty popular in Jamaica and this area happens to be located on what we consider the best swimming area of the resort.  It's a well marked area on one side of the private island and, if the sight of a naked body (in a variety of shapes and sizes) offends you, it's easily avoided.  We heard many comments from other guests who apparently needed to have a “look-see” to have something to guffaw about.  If nudity is your thing, you would be better served at a resort that caters specifically to this alternative and in Jamaica, that won't be problematic; there are some very high end resorts that make this options very comfortable.

If you are looking for a bit of evening fun, make sure you hang out in Cricketers Pub for a bit, where the music is loud and the staff are charming. While we met lots of people in the 20’s and 30’s, we see this resort more appropriate for couples looking for somewhere willing to provide long lingering dinners, lazy days beside the pool, and early nights.  It does not cater to partiers.  The SMB appears to cater to a younger crowd.  SRC is relatively wheelchair friendly and would certainly be a good choice for anyone with limited mobility.

There is a huge variety of room options.  We try to stay away from ground floor rooms but, in the Kensington Building at least, ground floor would have been very nice.  Suites 116, 216 and 316 are corner suites and much larger.   We were in a Royal Honeymoon Luxury Beachfront Concierge Room and were happy. We found the balcony small but adequate in comparison to other experiences.  We (again) recommend you do your homework about the type of room you request.  While some of the rooms are right on the beach, they are also in very high traffic areas with constant activity.  If you like your privacy, most of the beachfront rooms (ground level) would not be appropriate, however, we met some who loved all the action.  We can’t comment on the river suite rooms except to say they are located in a very central and busy area of the resort.

Most of us can manage quite comfortably without perfect sunsets, a poorly equipped gym, a few less activities.   But let’s face it – most of us expect to eat very well.  The one consistent complaint we heard was the quality of the food and the limited options.  During the evening, all dining facilities are a la carte.  The menus do not vary from day to day.  While many loved the hot spicy food and atmosphere of the Thai Restaurant, anyone who doesn't enjoy seafood, (me! me) I discovered I was limited to a single dish from the entire menu, including appetizers and main courses.  There were times when the already limited choice was no longer available because they had run out.  To get the variety, you must use the two other Sandals Resorts at Montego BayWe liked having premium alcohols available and took full advantage of it but here's a little tip:  The tequila is nasty. . . all over the island!  Jamaica is “rum country”.  

On these holidays, we are often VERY lazy (think sloth) and this was no exception.  We began our days early and ended them early, spending 90% of our time in a lounge chair by the pool. If not in our lounger we were off-resort.   In the event you wish to be active, you certainly can be.  There is music, games and other activities around the main pool; beach volleyball; kayaking; snorkeling; windsurfing; scuba diving; a fully equipped gym; and spa facilities.  You don’t have to be a beach potato . . . we just wanted to be.  The entertainment was mediocre, which has been our experience at other all-inclusives.

Sandals Resorts obviously does many things right and has some very strong supporters, as can be witnessed on the “Walls of Fame” in some of the resorts.  Visitors make the Wall upon their 5th return visit; one couple celebrated a 100th visit – that’s 3 visits a year for 33 years!  There are special privileges for “signature” guests” which also sounded like lots of fun.  While we didn’t find many first-timers terribly excited about SRC, we found return visitors to be absolutely committed to SRC and/or Sandals Chain.

Would recommend SRC? The staff would be our only reason for returning to SRC.   Would we go back to a Sandals?  Maybe but we would have to carefully research before we spent two weeks at one again.  We loved the look of the Whitehouse beach and facilities and may research that resort as well as Negril and Dunn’s River.   Sandals has some stiff competition and we still need to be convinced the extra cost equates to extra value. 

Would we go back to JamaicaAbsolutely Mon!