Two-hour shuttle from Montego Bay International Airport
Quiet and classy, the colonial-style, 74-room, adults-only (18+) Sandals Royal Plantation snatched a prime patch of beach when it was built in the 1950s along with luxury icons Round Hill and Half Moon. Excellent food, service, beds, and spa -- it's Ocho Rios's best luxe for the buck, but you get more for your money at Half Moon in Montego Bay.
It's built into a bluff 25 feet up from the sea, and every room faces the profoundly soft twin set of beaches. Check out the turquoise in these photos -- that's not Photoshopped. It's actually that clear. The beach here is the major draw, and it's in the running for best beach in Jamaica. But there are plenty of stairs down to the water and no elevators -- not ideal for guests with mobility challenges.
Together, the delicate look brings a sincerely sober clientele after memorable romance -- unlike the Sandals next door. Expect uninterrupted quiet and don't-lift-a-finger service -- not beer-chugging contests on the pool deck, like at most all-inclusives.
But being a small-scale property -- about one-sixth the size of most all-inclusives -- Sandals Royal Plantation has less impressive features than, say, the comparably priced and equally classy Half Moon resort. The pool gets less attention than the two-tier Jacuzzi, and most guests are content reading. The only activities involve occasional yoga or flower arrangement lessons in the lobby.
Though the all-inclusive package isn't mandatory, virtually every guest opts for it -- it comes highly, even insistently, recommended.
Unbashfully doting, easily on par with some of the most luxurious resorts in Jamaica. But there are a few slipups.
"Sure, whatever you want" gets infectious. By the third day, the thought of getting my own drink, lifting my own bag, or adhering to any rules or provided options felt absurd. For a 2 a.m. snack, room service was at my door within 20 minutes with an order of french fries (not on the menu). I spotted some Brooklyn honeymooners in the gift shop looking for Newport cigarettes. They didn't have any but promptly sent someone over to the store to buy some packs. By all measurements -- whether it's beachside drinks service, the personal check-in with welcome "mangosas" (mango and champagne with a slice of sugar cane), or drinks service on the beach, in the lobby, or anywhere else on-site (save the pool) -- the staff are polite, professional (no offers for drugs here, which is rare in Jamaica), and friendly without being flirty.
But the attention can be a bit much -- we were interrupted every dinner by someone asking us to sign up for their members club ("no pressure!") and solicited several times at the beach by spa staff who clearly had nothing better to do (recession-level occupancy).
Restaurant service was hit-or-miss. At the Terrace, we were left asking for bread three times (none arrived), correcting the server multiple times on our preferred wine, and our room service order was flat-out wrong: I ordered a grilled chicken club without bacon; I received bacon, ham, and no chicken.
It's located 10 minutes from the central port in Ocho Rios, where local restaurants like Mom's are only five minutes away. Dolphin Cove, Mystic Mountain (which has its own bobsled-turned-roller-coaster), and Dunn's River Falls are only a short drive away. But there's nothing to do in the immediate vicinity of the hotel.
Hotel guests can use the free shuttle to and from Montego Bay International Airport.
In a word: superb. Incredibly soft sand, clear water, and a lush, deeply exotic setting -- it's about the best stretch in Ocho Rios, and it rivals the best in Jamaica.
Bested only by Frenchman's Cove in Port Antonio and arguably the public beaches in Negril, the hotel's two short inlets of beach are among the few all-inclusive beaches where you can actually relax. No reggae tunes, no impromptu dance classes, no beach volleyball -- just the slight lapping of water against the shore. Even with a little seaweed, this beach still bests some of the best in Negril, due in large part to its privacy and prompt drinks service. The only vendors you'll find work for the resort. It tops the more expensive luxe digs elsewhere in Jamaica, namely Round Hill and the Ritz Carlton (and for far cheaper!). Unlike in Negril, though, don't expect long, romantic walks -- there's no space for it.
Beachside drink service calls merely for a wave of a "RP" (Royal Plantation) flag. In our case, it was merely the casual unfurling and slight lifting of the flag in preparation for a slight wave. In minutes, we had fresh fruit and bottles of water.
The water-sports shack supplies all the essentials -- kayaks, windsurfing, and the giant boat bikes -- though no one seemed to be using any of these. Lifeguards are on duty, however, should you try something active.
There are eight room types, all of which come with an ocean view. On the bottom level, the Deluxe Oceanfront Junior Suite, there are no balcony and no frills, but the slight upgrade to the Premier Oceanfront Junior Suite (my room) comes with sliding French doors in lieu of a balcony. Come evening, when you open the doors to the sound of waves crashing against the shore, you'll know that the extra cash was worth it (no screens, though, so beware the bugs). All the other rooms have a much larger bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub, and they can get huge -- up to two bedrooms, a 200-square-foot private veranda with a telescope, and plenty of other perks like a bidet or a separate powder room. Unlike at the similarly styled Round Hill or Half Moon resorts, however, private villas are not available.
All rooms come with an excellent, four-post, canopy bed -- down comforter, down pillows, cotton pillows, a thick mattress pad, and even, by request, specialized pillow menus including memory foam, five-foot body pillows, water-filled, or a slight piece of foam to rest between the knees.
All rooms come with an extensive mini-bar with full bottles of Appleton rum, Skyy vodka, champagne, red and white wine, and all the necessary chasers (but no snacks), and a small wooden table that can be extended for in-room dining (a sleeve folds out).
Unlike at most all-inclusives, the Sandals Royal Plantation pool isn't meant to impress. It's big enough for laps and has a tiled hibiscus at its floor -- evidence of the pre-renovation style still exists in the bathrooms -- but there's no swim-up bar or infinity edges, and its compact locale just off the restaurant terrace is a far cry from the massive, blasting pools found at virtually every other resort. To most guests, this is a good thing. Beside the pool, there's a big, free-form, two-tier hot tub, with a little waterfall for your shoulders.
Redlane Spa, a staple at the Sandals and Beaches resorts (the hotel's sister properties), offers a wide variety of singles and couples massages, facials, and mani-pedis. Facilities are clean and modern -- and a huge step up from the Redlane outpost at the Sandals Grande next door.
The air-conditioned fitness center has a fair set of cardio equipment -- no private video monitors or iPod docks, but at least the buttons work. Unfortunately, there's no strength training equipment, just a spare set of free weights. Fresh apples and pre-peeled oranges wait in an ice water bath.
There are no fitness classes or personal trainers on hand, but a yoga instructor comes by a few times each week to offer classes on the pier. In addition, professional tennis classes are available on the well-groomed courts. The resort also includes free scuba diving for certified divers, and have training classes for an additional fee. They also offer kayaks, sailboats, windsurfing, and snorkeling.
There are fewer daily activities than at most mega-resorts, but the simple game room comes with some board games (including some untouched drinking games) and a more popular pool table. A TV in the background seemed to be perma-set on CNN, which no one ever seemed to be watching.
The Peacock Shop features slight designer wares, basic toiletries, a solid collection of magazines and paperback fiction, and the traditional, overpriced souvenirs.
Free to play -- minus the cart ($40) and caddie fees ($17 per bag) -- 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 P. K. 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, including Nike clubs ($45) and Nike shoes ($16, but they include free socks). Still, once you also throw in the required caddies -- $17 a bag plus tips, also required -- and the golf card ($40 for 18 holes), 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. (P.G.A. 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 White Witch, the premier Caribbean course about an hour away), some folks can come out and golf every day of the week.
Entertainment is more sedate -- flower arrangements at 3 p.m., yoga at 4 p.m., and smooth jazz for dinner.
Unlike most all-inclusives in Jamaica, Sandals Royal Plantation doesn't come with an all-day lineup of high-energy activities. The most popular -- because everyone is forced to see it -- is the low-key keyboard-and-synthesizer reggae band that performs each night during dinner. Only rarely will these folks inspire slow dancing -- but that's not to say they don't try.
Devotees of the Sandals chain might also like their family-friendly, sister brand Beaches, 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.
Unlike at the vast majority of all-inclusives, there's no buffet here. Every meal comes from a proper sit-down restaurant, without the crowded reservation mess that comes with every other resort. Though the options are limited -- a slight 24-hour room service menu, the Terrace for breakfast, the Terrace or Beach Bar for lunch, and a slightly changing dinner menu at the Terrace (again) for dinner. Le Papillon, the French cuisine standout, does require a reservation. But it doesn't cost extra, and the concierge is likely to make all these arrangements one-on-one during check-in.
The food at every one of these restaurants is fresh and beautifully prepared, and on more than one occasion it brought on a moment of delectable pause -- like the rack of lamb, the marinated beef skewers (tender enough that I could swallow it without chewing, sort of like a duck), the buttered Caribbean lobster tail, or the Bailey's Irish Cream mousse. For breakfast, the made-to-order omelets add roasted garlic, bell peppers, spinach, and goat cheese to the standard ham, onion, and cheddar combos found at every other resort. Even the beach grill (the simplest of restaurants) served some of the best (and spiciest) jerk chicken available on the island -- far better than at any of the mega-resorts, and the sauce even rivals famed local jerk shacks like Scothies or Three Dives that line the roadways. The fish and chips was good enough to ensure the Brits don't get too homesick.
And if you fancy anything special, just ask -- Le Papillon's takes menu requests.
All of the locals we spoke to agreed: The best grub in Ocho Rios is behind these walls, the lone exceptions being Mom's spare ribs in downtown Ocho Rios (about five minutes away) or the spicy fried chicken at KFC (the go-to Jamaican spot come no-cooking Fridays).
Like the food, the liquor here is better than anywhere else in Ocho Rios, and it's all free with the all-inclusive package.
Unlike the majority of all-inclusives, Sandals Royal Plantation serves name-brand liquor. Better still, the selected brands -- Skyy vodka in the room, Johnny Walker Black Label, Jack Daniels, or even Jameson's Irish Whiskey -- are virtually unheard of in the Caribbean.
Rooms come with full, free bottles of Appleton reserve rum, Skyy vodka, Chilean merlot and chardonnay, and a Californian champagne. The house wine, unlike anywhere else, was actually decent -- I'd gotten used to cabernets that taste like liquored-up fruit juice everywhere else, but this was a big step above.
As for cocktails, they're actually tasty -- including an infectious rum punch, well-done margaritas, and even a Manhattan that far outshined the mix I tried at the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall. Incidentally, the Manhattan was infinitely cheaper, too (literally).
Unlike the more conventional all-inclusive, the Sandals Royal Plantation has much better food, doting service, more private spaces, and a gorgeous beach largely cut off from strolling gawkers. But for the price, you might also consider a wedding at the equally, if not more elegant Round Hill, Half Moon, or Jamaica Inn resorts.
Sandals has paired with Martha Stewart Weddings to offer guests six packages: Beautiful Beginnings (free if you stay six nights or longer); Flutter of Romance; Vision in White; Seaside Serenade; Chic & Natural; Island Paradise. Prices vary from around $1,700 to $3,000, so check the hotel's site for listings.
Beautiful Beginnings offers multiple amenities, like a pre-recorded musical accompaniment and a two-tiered cake, but only works for smaller parties. The reception fits the bride, groom and two guests.
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