Huge, even among mega-resorts, the 846-room hotel is more about quantity than quality: seven restaurants, six bars, three pools, a nightclub, a private beach surging with water sports, and hordes of guests raring to party. Rooms are mediocre, and a bad a la carte restaurant reservation system means most guests get stuck at the buffet.
Cruisers stretching their sea legs, blushing brides in Barbie-pink gowns, families at the kiddie pool, and singles drinking on the beach turn the 846-room Riu into a nonstop party.
The Riu is composed of two six-story buildings and one five-story building, the enormous purple complex stretching along the water like an overgrown dollhouse. On the left-hand side of the property (facing the water) is the 371-room deluxe wing. These rooms are all suites, and they're closer to the water and adjacent to the quiet adult infinity pool. They're also on the opposite end of the property from the main activities pool, swim-up bar, and kids' club, meaning the deluxe wing is by far the quietest spot on the property.
The large, ornate lobby complex (which includes four restaurants, three bars, two conference rooms, a disco, and gift shops) is between the deluxe wing and the other standard guest-rooms, which are on the far right of the property, behind the activities pool.
The serious partiers -- those who take full advantage of the all-inclusive bar -- can be identified by the insulated, nearly quart-size mugs permanently attached to their hands. Nothing quite beats watching men built like offensive linemen trying to synchronize swim while holding frozen drinks. "I've seen enough skin engraved navy blue and green to last a lifetime," grouses one TripAdvisor reviewer, pretty much nailing the heavily tattooed crowd.
Most daytime action takes place at the activities pool (and swim-up bar), where an enthusiastic entertainment staff leads guests through water aerobics, beer Olympics, and other typical all-inclusive games. This is all set to a techno-heavy soundtrack, though a lot of guests have expressed a desire to hear more actual Jamaican music around the pool during the day.
The Riu also does an incredibly brisk wedding business; brides pass through the wedding gazebo like dolls on a conveyor belt. And one of the conference facilities can hold up to 1,000 guests for those extra special blow-outs.
The Riu is a two-hour ride from the airport and 10-15 minutes ($5-$10 cab ride) from downtown Ocho Rios.
Since the Riu is located alongside a great stretch of beachfront, it's not surprisingly bordered on both sides by hotels. A number of gift shops are about 2.5 miles down the road, while downtown Ocho Rios and its many attractions are 6.2 miles (10-15 minutes) away. Rather than obtain a taxi through the hotel (which will quote you $30 to get into town), walk outside the resort gates and hail an officially licensed cab with a red license plate. Most drivers will only charge around $10 this way.
The Riu has a gorgeous stretch of beach overlooking shallow turquoise water protected by a great snorkeling reef; only aggressive peddlers disturb the calm.
The beach has clean, white sand and, despite the hotel's hugeness, it doesn't feel overly crowded. It's easy enough to find a lounge chair, though seeking out shade can be tough since there are only a few trees, and no umbrellas. The water is calm, shallow, and extremely clear. The comprehensive water sports shack also offers free non-motorized equipment like kayaks and snorkel masks, and there's also a popular scuba center on site (with a free lesson in the pool included).
A few guests complain about windiness on the exposed beach, while another frequent complaint focuses on the aggressive vendors who hang out just over the resort property line. Multiple guests complain on TripAdvisor about men on Jet Skis who catcalled female guests, dealt drugs, or tried to rip off potential Jet Ski renters. (One reviewer even laughs off multiple drug offers from hotel employees, a fairly normal occurrence at Jamaican hotels).
Rock-hard beds and pillows, a mildew stench, and a tiny shower outweigh the benefits of a partial ocean view and a minibar stocked with free booze.
My excitement about a free upgrade to a junior suite in the deluxe wing -- 371 suites out of a total 846 rooms -- fizzled when I entered the room. My attention quickly turned from the four bottles of free alcohol (generic-brand vodka, rum, gin, and brandy) to the overwhelming smell of mold. Not musty, bathroom mold, but seep-into-your-clothes-and-the-polyester-coverlet mold. Everything basically smelled like damp soil. (Admittedly, I was cursed with rain throughout my stay, which surely contributed to the dampness problem).
Rooms also come with a balcony that includes a little plastic table and two plastic chairs.
The top complaint about this hotel on TripAdvisor concerns the beds. They are rock hard and the sheets are pretty low quality. "If have you the space in your luggage, I would suggest you take your fave pillow from home," advises one recent guest. Yeah, they're that bad. As at other Rius, the king beds can sometimes be two doubles pushed together.
The bathrooms are new-ish and have granite counters and two sinks, but the shower was so dark that I could barely make out if I was using shampoo or body wash. Full-fledged suites do include Jacuzzi tubs, though.
On the bright side, all room buildings have elevators, and I didn't have any problems with them. In addition to the uncomfortable beds, guests tend to have two other complaints about the rooms, and both relate to keys. On the one hand, the electronic keycards can sometimes malfunction, causing guests to be locked out of their rooms and forced to trek back to the lobby for assistance. Secondly, rooms don't have electronic safes, but instead guests receive an ancient-looking lock and key at check-in. A number of guests on TripAdvisor complain about theft from their rooms at this massive, anonymous hotel (and just about all of them say management was no help at all after the fact). Be extremely cautious with valuables at this resort.
The Riu has two large pools, one on either end of the property, each with a swim-up bar and Jacuzzis around the edges. The quiet infinity pool in front of the deluxe wing attracts mainly adults. The sprawling activities pool, on the other side of the property fronting the beach, is the place where partiers congregate for daytime entertainment. The kiddie pool is also nearby, so this is definitely the loud, family-friendly side of the property. Finding a free lounge chair can be tough after 9 a.m., but is by no means as cutthroat as some other resorts.
The hotel's spa and gym share a building, and are set a bit further back from the water, between the kids' club and the standard room buildings. The large spa includes a hair salon, and offers typical treatments like massages, pedicures, and facials. The gym is pretty mediocre, and not particularly popular with guests. It offers three treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines (but according to guest reviews these are sometimes out of order). There are just a couple of weight machines, a few exercise mats, and no free weights.
The tennis courts and basketball court are at the back of the property, to the side of the front entrance. The resort provides equipment free of charge.
Wi-fi is available in the lobby area only. The rooms have no internet access.
Nightly entertainment rivals many off-Broadway acts in choreography and costumes, making the Riu seem like a cruise ship on dry land.
The hardworking entertainment staff is extremely popular with guests. Staffers run daytime activities like water aerobics, water polo, and crazy games in the pool area, and perform a variety of shows in the evening. Most nights a reggae band will warm up the crowd around 8 p.m., followed by audience participation games ("After a week of them calling rum a bottle of Viagra, I had had enough," grouses one guest). There's also themed shows like " Jamaican Night" or "Michael Jackson Night." Occasionally outside performers like steel drum bands or dance groups will come through as well.
The resort's bumping disco, Pacha, is open every night except Monday from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Guests who want a change of scenery also have plenty of club options in nearby Ocho Rios.
With a kids' club, playground, and pool, plus enormous buffets, the Riu calls itself "Jamaica family vacation heaven." That actually seems pretty accurate.
In addition to its many kid-friendly features -- and an activities staff that earns raves from parents on TripAdvisor -- the Riu also has rooms that can sleep up to four people, as well as connecting rooms for larger groups. Furthermore, the beach's calm, shallow waters are ideal for small children.
Room surfaces are clean enough, but a pervasive moldy smell taints spacious junior suites. Fortunately, common areas and restaurants seemed much cleaner.
The hotel has a large, hardworking housekeeping staff that seems to keep things in order as much as possible. If only the staffers had a way to prevent dampness, especially since the mildew smell in my room only worsened every time I turned on the AC. Most reviewers on TripAdvisor advocate tipping $2/day to the housekeeping staff to ensure fresh towels and restocked fridges, though even those who didn't tip generally have only positive things to say about housekeeping and cleanliness.
Seven restaurants ranging from Jamaican to French to Japanese make the Riu a culinary Epcot Center, though the reservation system requires guests to show up at 7 a.m.
St. Ann is a football field-size dining room and continental-style buffet. It serves breakfast from 7:30-11:30 a.m. and dinner from 6:30-10:00 p.m. Getting there toward the end of the dining hours will ensure a more peaceful dining experience, but the food selection isn't as great. Guests are generally pleased with the buffet's variety, but it grows understandably old after a week (since the annoying reservation system makes it quite difficult to get into the à la cartes for dinner).
Perhaps the resort's most universally acclaimed restaurant is the jerk chicken beach grill, which serves up lunch each afternoon till 3. Occasionally there will also be tender pork available as well.
Plantation and Mammee Bay restaurants serve buffet lunch with a heavy emphasis on local specialties. The enormous -- I'm talking the size of a small coffee table -- pan of curry goat cooking at Plantation produced aromas wafting all the way out to the pool, and seemed to lure many away from tanning. For dinner, Mammee Bay becomes a reservations-only steak house satisfying carnivorous urges with beef tenderloin, pork chops, chicken and seafood, though most guests seem to think it's nothing special.
Piccola Italia is a self-service restaurant that offers pizza, pasta, and a salad bar from 12 p.m.-12 a.m. The subterranean game room-like sports bar has movie theater-style nachos and cheese -- you assemble them yourself! -- and packaged sandwiches available 24 hours a day.
Five of the hotel's restaurants are reservation-only, but these aren't just call-the-front-desk reservations. I had to line up in the lobby at 5 p.m. with dozens of other guests to make reservations for the FOLLOWING day. Same-day reservations run from 7-9 a.m. (so much for sleeping in on vacation), and it's not uncommon for the 7 p.m. slots to be filled by 8 a.m. (dinner seatings are at 7 and 9 p.m.).
Realizing that standing in line was a poor way to spend an hour of my day, I took my chances and tried to get into the restaurants 15 minutes after either their first or second seating -- I never went hungry. A lot of guests also recommend tipping the host or hostess; this can work quite well at the late seating in particular, when there are often plenty of empty tables.
"Gourmet" Sir John and Sir Richard restaurants are basically identical, serving the same mediocre, faux-French fare in a wanna-be, upscale setting. The only difference is that Sir Richard is reserved for guests of the deluxe wing.
Japanese restaurant Tushima is the hotel's other deluxe wing-only restaurant. The sushi rice seemed like it might have been better suited to be used as spackle, and the raw fish (dull and limp in appearance) was certainly not the freshest and remained untouched on its platter. The chicken yakitori was skewered with eggplant cubes -- a combination I'd never seen before, but loved.
Mandalay restaurant has a pan-Asian menu and a salad bar lined with huge paper fans. While the Moroccan glass chandelier gave it all a Marco Polo vibe, I felt like it was a notch above mall food court Chinese fare. The true stand-out was the tamarind pork loin that was a little tough, but the combination of salty, sweet, and tangy made for a very flavorful piece of gristle.
There's Red Stripe and Appleton's rum, and a whole lot of generic watered-down booze and sugary cocktails.
With six bars spanning the property, it's incredibly easy to always have a drink in hand at the Riu. Of course, most of the booze seems pretty watered down, so getting a good buzz requires effort and concentration. Every room is stocked with a minibar that includes a bottle of Appleton's rum (the local favorite), but the vodka, gin and brandy are all generic-brand. The swim-up bars specialize in sugary blended concoctions.
Best for large weddings or couples looking to party, but the airport is a hefty two-hour, $150 taxi ride away
Wedding Size: Up to 180 people; maximum of three weddings performed daily
Extra Fees and Restrictions: Guests not staying at the hotel must purchase a $75 day pass, valid until 2 a.m. and 80-percent of wedding guests must stay at the Riu.
Wedding Packages: If you book five or more rooms, the basic wedding package is free (save for the $350 minister and documentation fee) and includes ceremony decorations, bridal bouquet, boutonniere, ceremony music, reception dinner, wedding cake, sparkling wine during main toast, and a 10-percent discount on all spa services for the couple. Alternative packages range from $795 to $2,375.
Ceremony Location: Couples can choose between the garden gazebo or beach gazebo.
Photographers and Videographers: The hotel provides photograpers, which are included in some packages. If you don't opt for a package, it costs $210 for 45 minutes to $850 for nine hours. A videographer costs $350 for one hour to $950 for nine hours. Outside vendors are permitted, but you have to pay for the extra $75 day pass for them as well.
Music Options: Reggae band, $500 per hour; steel band, $450 per hour; DJ, $150 per hour; outside bands permitted (day-pass fee applies)
Reception Options: For free, you can have dinner, cake, and drinks (beer only, liquor costs $10 extra per person and sparkling wine costs $15 per bottle) at either the Mammee Bay Steakhouse (up to 60 people) or the Plantation Restaurant (over 60), but the restaurants are also open to all of the other resort guests. Alternatively, you can book the private beach or pool area at $55 per person, which includes an open bar and a basic BBQ menu. If you don't want your party to be in full view of all the other guests at the resort, you can plan a private reception at the Plantation Restaurant for an extra $500 for two hours and $1,000 for four hours.
Spa Treatments: Packages range from the most basic $112 "Pretty Bride," which includes a mani/pedi and makeup, to the most luxurious $340 "Wedding Ritual," which includes a mani/pedi, hairstyle (and initial tryout), facial, and makeup (the bride and groom get a 10-percent discount on all spa treatments).
Airport Transportation: No airport shuttle or free transport service; taxis average $150 round-trip.
Honeymoon Suite: The Oceanfront Jacuzzi Suite includes a Jacuzzi tub, a balcony, ample living space, and a flat-screen TV.
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