Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
Exclusive to couples (18+), the lively, 529-roomis one of Jamaica's most popular . It's fun, but the loud, high-boozing setting isn't ideal for low-key romance.
Michael Scott, from NBC's The Office, perhaps best summarizes the resort: "It was sooo good! Awwwwwh! Hey mon! At Sandals, Jamaica, when somebody says 'Hey Mon!' everyone says 'Hey Mon!' back." Though his Sandals gush could easily pertain to any of the eight resorts in Jamaica -- the Ocho Rios Grande is often considered the worst -- the sentiment mirrors the response of virtually every guest I spoke with. Functioning like an adult summer camp, the same guests come year after year -- most under the Sandals "Soon Come Back" discount program -- and swap resorts each year if merely for variety. For returning guests, it feels like they're being "welcomed home." But for the outsider, the resort is a bit jarring: Check-in happens in a group setting; hotel policies -- like the restaurant reservation system -- are never really explained; getting around the massive property requires a , a compass, and a lucky rabbit's foot.
Exclusive to couples, the resort is namely geared toward married couples and honeymooners (the reservations paperwork presupposes "Mrs."). It strives for the kind of romance that comes with tequila shots and staged game shows. It's fun. On the two-hour free Sandals shuttle from Montego Bay International Airport, our bus stopped at a roadway station and 90 percent of the passengers were holding cocktails by the end of the 10-minute rest stop (at 10 a.m.). By the pool, couples pair for organized scavenger hunts, the entertainment staffers (the "Playmakers") even scold inebriated guests for running on the pool deck via microphone. While their Web site sparkles with photos of private hammocks and candlelit dinners (which they do have), you're also likely to hear over breakfast: "Hey freaks! What happened to you last night? I fell asleep in the again!"
In 2011, the resort underwent a massive $60 million renovation. The lobby, all guest rooms and suites, and main pools all got a serious facelift, and the amphitheater and most of the restaurants were revamped. Also included in the update was the addition of the Ochi Beach Club, a private observation deck with fire pits, cabanas, grotto, and beach dining area.
By design, the tip-free service is incredible -- programmed "welcome home" greetings and compulsory guiding around the property, but that's pretty much the case anywhere in Jamaica (including cheaper resorts).
Despite claims to the contrary by other reviewers, I found the staff to be much less attentive and friendly than at most Jamaican resorts. Restaurant servers were often curt (Me: What's the chef's special? Server: Shrimp. Drinks?). My girlfriend and I waited longer for a drink here than anywhere else (still, that's only about two-five minutes). But to criticize the service anywhere in Jamaica -- a famously friendly country with doting service anywhere and everywhere -- is next to impossible.
Check-in is a bit confusing. Guests are brought en-masse from the airport, and they're greeted with cold, lemon Lysol towels. They must then check to ensure their luggage is off the bus, after which they're ushered into the lobby, given check-in paperwork, and a five-minute welcome speech from someone who then moves everyone to the buffet. We felt a bit like herded cattle. At the end, we had no idea we were even checked in.
The hotel has one swim-up bar, but aside from that, there is no pool or beach service. Not all room categories have room service, but those that do are available 24 hours and also have butler service. And only two of the 15(Kelly's Dockside and Kimono's) require reservations.
Two hours from Montego Bay International Airport, 10 minutes from downtown Ocho Rios. Sandals even has its own lounge inside the airport, and provides free shuttle service.
Located 10 minutes from the central port in Ocho Rios, where local like Mom's are only five minutes away. Dolphin Cove and Mystic Mountain, which has its own bobsled turned roller-coaster, and Dunn's River Falls are only a short drive away. But in the immediate vicinity of the hotel, there's nothing to do.
Like anywhere in Ocho Rios, the water is especially clear -- better than Montego Bay, slightly less clear than in Negril -- with gentle waves. But the Sandals swimming area is fairly limited, and beyond the docks, there are coarse rock shards and droves of parasailing and Jet Ski salesmen.
Lounge chairs are wedged shoulder-to-shoulder, so if you don't like what you're reading, just read your neighbor's paperback.
Water sports, boats, and an elaborate scuba center -- with its own training pool and extended dives -- make the Sandals a bit sportier than its upscale neighbor, the Royal Plantation. Roxanne from San Diego said she had the best time diving, and found the services more attentive and safety-conscious here than anywhere else in the Caribbean (she has also been to Bermuda and the Bahamas).
All rooms were renovated in 2011 and now include flat-screen TVs, updated furniture, and new bathrooms.
The resort is basically two (arguably three) complete resorts. The rooms and the main pool, and is about a five-minute shuttle ride from the beach and the good restaurants. Behind the Manor House are private village and , each of which have a slightly shared or entirely private -- this is the only Sandals resort in Jamaica with these villas. The resort is the best bet for the price -- it comes with its own a re-done , closer beach access, better , a better and , , and a more . Which side is more beautiful -- the Manor or the Riviera -- is open for debate.has the cheapest
All rooms and villas were a part of the 2011 renovation, and now include flat-screens TVs, mahogany furniture, and new bathrooms.
Rooms and villa bedrooms are basically the same, even after the renovation -- giant king-size bed, flat-screen plasma TV, iPod docking station, marble bathroom, and balcony, a major upgrade from the previously baron, floral-pink rooms. Suites and concierge-level rooms have liquor in the fridge and four-post beds, but that's the only major difference to the rooms aside from the extra seating rooms and pools.
Great House Ocean View Rooms actually look out over the pool, with the ocean beyond the horizon. Still, this is a significant improvement from the "Mountain View" or rather, parking lot rooms, on the opposite side of the hallway. The noise from the pool scene shook the windows all day (beginning at about 10:30 a.m.), and at night I heard the muffed chorus of the piano bar with the pianist singing renditions of Buffalo Soldier a Jamaican Burt Bacharach.
Good, but slightly worn gyms and a less-than-ideal .
Aside from the massive pool, the resort has two gyms -- one on the Manor side and one on the Rivera side of the resort. The rooms and the equipment are a bit worn -- like stop buttons on the treadmills affixed with Scotch tape -- but the equipment is still functional and from quality brands, Cybex and Life Fitness. There's also a movement studio (but no regular yoga classes), squash courts, and tennis courts (only usable on the Riviera side). The Manor side doesn't have a weight room, just cardio machines.
Theis a popular outpost, and those guests who've never received massages before highly recommend the couples treatments, but this often overcrowded and underserved outpost doesn't compare to others within the Sandals chain. My girlfriend "tested" the pedicure treatment. For something that ended up costing over $55, they stuck her in a dank basement, left her feet soaking in a lukewarm 10-gallon bucket, didn't offer any sort of foot massage, and topped off the endeavor with a mandatory "Redlane" swoosh on her .
At the massive Great House Main Pool, which was given a fresh coat of paint in 2011, jams (beginning at 10:30 a.m.) range from down-tempo reggae to repeat versions of Bob Marley's "Legend" to the occasional slathering of '80s Madonna (think cone boobs) to Chumbawumba to Ace of Base -- maintaining a regiment of American wedding DJ hits that normally clear a dance floor. And the minute the bar opens at 10 a.m., folks start splashing over to the swim-up bar between the spitting . (By evening, someone is likely to stand behind said fountains and pretend that they're peeing. Classic.) At the center of the pool, there's a permanently positioned and , and the activities staff leads games -- men vs. women -- at various intervals (giving due favoritism to the ladies team).
Beside the pool, cabanas abound, but they need to be booked in advance, for an extra fee, and don't really offer anything too special. Guests can get a massage here, but it's not very popular -- what with all the thumping music.
The Sandals Web site boasts: "Seven main pools and 22 whirlpools." Basically there are two on the Manor side, another two large pools on the side, two smaller pools on the side, and a separate scuba-training pool. Each of these pools has a whirlpool somewhere near it, but I'm not sure where they get the 22 figure from.
In addition,are available in the villa suites.
Free to play -- excluding cart and caddie fees -- the 18-hole Sandals Country Club is Jamaica's cheapest championship-grade round.
Once the Upton Golf Club -- opened in 1951 as a nine-hole number designed by PK Saunders -- the Sandals Country Club (not an actual country club) quickly grew to a championship-grade course.
It's free, or so they say, but you'll still have to drop at least $57 for a round. Should you leave the clubs at home, anything you need is available to rent: Nike clubs, Nike shoes (including free socks). But once you throw in the required caddies and the golf cart, the "free" round of golf could develop into a $200 per couple excursion.
Being fairly short -- 6,311 yards with a par 71 and 128 slope from the blue tees -- it's great for a less golf-centric couple. I spoke to Bob and Bernadette Parkinsin from Cornwall, England, who appreciated the fact that the on-staff caddies acted effectively like personal instructors, capably helping Bernadette's stroke as the game went on (PGA pros also lead a golf academy on the course at select times of the year). But the course is far from basic. Experienced players like Keith Posser from Soux Lookout Ontario -- who has played champion courses all over the world -- didn't get bored. Given that the greens don't come with a hefty fee (as they do at, the premier Caribbean course about an hour away) some folks come out and golf every day of the week.
No kids here. The place is for adult couples only (18+).
Half the point of a Sandals vacation is to get away from the kids, so this certainly isn't a family destination.
That said, Sandals devotees looking for similar accommodations, food, and service would probably enjoy one of Sandals' sister properties from the Beaches chain, including nearby Beaches Boscobel, or, further afield, Beaches Sandy Bay and Beaches Negril. These resorts are ultra-family friendly (you'll be dreaming of Elmo for weeks afterward), and allow guests to use and earn points from Sandals' loyalty program.
There are 15 on-site dining options, but the sub-par food hardly feels like luxury, even though they require male guests to wear long-pants.
Sandals has 15 on-site restaurants, most of them opening or getting a vamp in the 2011 renovation. The only two options require reservations ahead of time - Kelly's Dockside, an International (though mostly American) restaurant on the pier, and Kimono's, which prepares "gourmet" Japanese teriyaki at the table, Benihana-style. The restort also has two buffets,(breakfast and lunch) and , which are about on-par with most mega-resorts inJamaica (the food is good, not great). But unlike most other resorts, the reservation-free a la carte dinner restaurants don't offer a significant improvement on the buffet grub -- it's all just slightly warmer, and a bit more stylishly presented. In the case of Bayside, which serves à la carte at dinner, it became clear that they just serve the leftover items from the other restaurants (as evidenced by the absence of chocolate on the dessert menu). For one example, take the tough, far overcooked snapper I had at the Valentino's Italian restaurant--a dish uniformly decent at any resort. Supposedly, this is one of the most highly praised restaurants on the property, but across the board, the food is overcooked, bland, stale, or obviously pre-packaged.
Fortunately, late-night dining is easy to come by at the snack-type Royal Plantation -- the simple fries with Cajun seasoning are a godsend after a night at the disco.. Though the jerk chicken was nothing special -- unlike next door at the
Name brand booze -- and lots of it.
Packed with twelve bars, including several swim-up bars and a late night , good drinking is top priority at Sandals. Brands are recognizable, like Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Jim Beam, and all are included at no extra cost. Cocktails, however, are of the excessively fruity sort, and there are no specialized mixtures like mojitos with fresh mint available. For the price, the Iberostar offers much, much more.
Given the couples-only rule at the resort, any guests traveling stag, or with children, will have to stay at Beaches Boscobel.
Weddings here are very cookie cutter -- you have six stock options, all styled by Martha Stewart, and it's hard to add a personal touch -- but at least it makes planning the Big Day easy. However, given the hotel's couples-only policy, any families or non-coupled guests will have stay at the hotel's ultra-family-oriented sister, Beaches Boscobel. If your wedding guests stay anywhere else, there's an extra fee for each guest visiting the Sandals property.
THIS HOTEL HAS UNDERGONE MAJOR RENOVATIONS SINCE OUR VISIT. WE WILL UPDATE OUR REVIEW AS SOON AS WE CAN. Despite claims of luxury and romance, the lively (noisy) 529-room Sandals Grande is actually just your average, no frills main pool and nearby . Its couples-only cachet comes with a big markup, but the food, beds, , and features are either no better or worse than what's offered at much cheaper resorts like the Iberostar.-- save the massive