Written on: 26/03/2008 by DJM (21 reviews written)
Location, friendly staff
Over priced, over hyped, a bit run down
I have included a lot of information below, and know that some people just want a recommendation so I have put this first. If you want Butlins in the Caribbean and you get this at a discount, or can afford the Sandals inflated prices, then this is worth it. If you really want 4 or 5 star luxury and seclusion then choose somewhere else. This is not a bad place and we had a great holiday, but Sandals is vastly overpriced and with an inflated view of its quality rating.
Sandals sell their holidays as Sandals Luxury Included Vacation represents an unprecedented new level of supreme perfection. Revel in some of the world's most breathtakingly romantic beachfront settings. Choose from an unparalleled array............etc
Well that's the sales pitch so what's the reality? Sandals Royal Caribbean is not a 5* or even a 4* luxury resort. It would sit comfortably at 3* with hot spots of 4* and cooling waters at 2*. This is an aging and run down resort which appears to be undergoing major renovation (significant building works on site which were not mentioned on booking and dismissed on arrival). Even when complete I doubt this will truly reach 4*. Most of the larger things are done adequately, but there are so many smaller things done badly and hidden costs. Don't misunderstand, this is a nice place for a holiday and it's easy to have a good one, but based on Sandals hype to justify the significant over-pricing, you could easily be much poorer and disappointed as we were. We still had a great time, but were expecting more based on the Sandals promises and were left thinking it was poor value for money.
ACCOMMODATION, Well the room types are at best confusing 9 different grades - but I suspect that's intentional. From what we saw the rooms were all functional but not especially luxurious more Holiday Inn than Hilton. We booked a Grande Luxe Beachfront Room and we think we got a Honeymoon Concierge Beachfront Walk-out Room but without the Concierge component. If we had paid the extra for this and had been on honeymoon we would have been back to reception ASAP. The room was adequate, but very run down obviously one of the older rooms yet to be updated. Drawers didn't shut, doors were broken the shower curtain and grouting had mould growing. The back of the bathroom door had obviously had mould and had been badly painted over so it could never look clean even when it was. The taps leaked and the marble countertops were faded and pitted. Housekeeping was sporadic and the aircon noisy. We were heading straight back to Reception to get moved, until we did a tour of the rest of the complex. One group of sea view rooms was right by the major building works (noisy and dusty). Another was at the very far end of the property toward the storm drain and looking more at the pool than the beach. These rooms were done up to a better standard but still nothing special. So we got the worst bits in our room fixed and stayed put, and we chose right. Location was great and the room served the purpose, but obviously Luxury was an overstatement so not value for money. Still, better than the new exclusive River Suites though. The Sandals photos are brilliantly taken so that they hide the fact that these suites are in the worst spot on the resort. There are currently only 4 or 5 of them and are sandwiched between: the boutique; the building site; the main walkway to the beach/pool bar; and the gift shop. The lazy river is in fact a small pool running in front of the suites between the boutique and the building site about 25 yards max. To add insult to injury, the suites themselves act as a parasol and leave the suites extended patio in shade for most of the day.
BEACHES - In the Sandals photos the beaches are shown as a number of long near deserted sweeps of sand into a clear blue sea. Whilst not exactly a lie: the beach is sandy and very well kept, and the sea is definitely blue and clear; it is misleading as they are certainly not deserted. The reality is tiny strips of sand with regimented row upon row of sun loungers set cheek by jowl marching into the sea. If you have been to Benidorm in the high season, then you have some idea of how close these sun beds are. You will get friendly with your neighbours. The main beach is further disrupted by the volleyball pitch. This means if you are on a bed near that when the regular daily games are on, expect to get hit with the ball at some point. The same pitch does have an upside though. The beach on the side by the water sports is therefore less crowded and if you get a lounger there, it does feel more secluded. As this was directly outside of our room we used this all the time and would recommend it. Of the 3 usable strips of beach, the main beach (closest to the island) is the busiest, but least windswept and closest to the bars and food. Drinks are served in sturdy plastic glasses so you can take them on the beach with reasonable safety. Empties are regularly collected by the Sandals staff and the beach is constantly being raked and cleaned. Also worthy of note is the Sandals website pictures are old and out of date. On one of the smallest beach strips, there are some cabanas (for use at an expensive additional cost) and the gazebos on the jettys are in disrepair or missing completely. You will also have to suffer the men if you venture onto the beach or particularly the jetties. Whilst they are not technically allowed on the Sandals property, they use small boats or canoes to patrol the edge of the beach and hold onto the jetties. If you pass then they will constantly call and talk to you until you buy or get fed up and go somewhere else. In itself not a major issue, but a pain if you go for a romantic stroll to look at the ocean and end up with a number of these guys jostling to sell expensively priced cheap tat to you.
PRIVATE OFFSHORE ISLAND Sandals Cay is a small natural island expanded by dumping tonnes of sand and planting vegetation. Boat transfers are every hour approximately on the hour. Although the Thai restaurant is on the cay, no food is available during the day, so you either: starve, take food with you, or come back to the mainland to eat. However, there is a bar there and well maintained toilets so no need to sit cross-legged all day. Clothing is optional on the rear beach, but it's not exactly inviting - a few sun beds hidden behind a wall on scrubland. The island looks as if it was a popular key part of the resort at one time. A party area with a jerk chicken stall is in the middle, but obviously not used for some time. Pictures on the website show seating with cushions and torches etc, but although the seats are still there, it looked pretty unused. On a busy day the sun beds would be filled quickly and without other comfortable seating and food, I can see the island losing its charm quickly. We were lucky to be there when it was near deserted and had the small beach to ourselves (and a diminishing supply of cakes and cookies gathered from the beach grill before we left mainland). A real shame this is underutilised, but if you get over on a quiet day, it really feels special.
POOLS - Royal Caribbean is listed as having 4 pools, 2 swim-up pool bars plus 5 whirlpools (though we only found 4). All pools are 1.2m (4ft) deep and are: the main pool (with swim up bar and whirlpool), the off-shore island pool (with swim up bar and whirlpool), far beach pool (with whirlpool), and pool next to the reception driveway. The other whirlpool is near the beach grill. All were clean and well maintained, but fairly small. The main pool is the centre for entertainment (water volleyball, aquarobics etc) and so is not fully available. The surround is choc full of sunbeds, but they will be reserved (though often not used) early in the morning. The music played here is very loud and constant, though it rarely drowns out the loud guests playing drinking games by the bar or having shouted conversations across the pool. This is not an area for those looking for quiet or romance. The far end beach pool or even better the somewhat forgotten pool by reception are much better for that. Both of these pools are a little further from all the bars and beach grill so the heavy drinkers are less interested in frequenting them. The downside is that there are few available sunbeds, as those in the rooms close to these pools know how good the locations are and have often got the beds reserved early. The pool on the island is also clean, but as it's raised is a bit windswept and even on a hot day is pretty chilly. Although we used the swim up bar, we soon moved to the hot tub to enjoy our drinks.
RESTURANTS Having experienced a range of gastronomic eateries ranging from the Greasy spoon on the A3031 to London only Michelin 3* restaurant I can safely say that Sandals claim of 4 world-class restaurants on property is unlikely. No half decent restaurant would serve cold food and warm white wine as Sandals managed consistently the worst being the Regency. You also need to take the photos on the website with a pinch of salt. They show flamboyant table layouts and fancy runners when you actually get a white table cloth and a small flower in a vase. The pianos in the Regency and piano bars appear to be for show as the lid was not raised once during our stay.
BREAKFAST is a buffet in the Regency which is OK. Service was pretty good and the food a little boring but good quality and a reasonable selection.
LUNCH can be taken in the Regency again or the anytime Beach Grill. Lunch at the Regency is another buffet (Themed on a daily basis) which was a little disappointing. None of the food was poor, but just limited in choice, uninspiring and certainly not world-class. Other all-inclusives we have staying in the Caribbean are far better. We were disappointed to find so little fish (local or otherwise) on an island menu. The Beach grill is very American centric with burgers and fries with everything, but the Jerk Chicken was pretty good. This also had the advantage that you could take it away to the beach or your room to eat on the patio if you wanted. The Beach Grill is open most evenings as well. The cookies are brilliant and we put on pounds from these alone.
TEA Afternoon tea was (badly) served in the Coffee room between 16:00 and 17:00. Service was so poor it was better to get it yourself as you have to for the rest of the day. Coffee from the machine was however pretty good and the coffee room comfortable and relaxing. Coffee and teas are available all day and night from here- as were cookies, assuming we hadn't already eaten them all.
DINNER - Evening meals were a little different, with 2 restaurants needing advanced booking (suggest you book at least a day in advance) and the other 2 you simply wait for a table to be free. All start and finish serving very early, so don't linger in the shower. Not all restaurants are open every day so you need to check the room info pack to ensure you don't find yourself left hungry. Although there is variety, it is obvious the majority of guests are American and the menus appear to have an American influence. Not a bad thing, just an observation.
Be aware that although the resort is all inclusive, they will hard sell the additional cost "Managers Special" wine list at all of the restaurants. If you use this I suggest sticking with red as the white was never cooled, let alone chilled. Complaints brought little response other than a little more ice into the ice bucket. By the end of the meal, the dregs of the wine were at a reasonable temperature but why should you have to wait. This would be unacceptable in a cheap cafe, but in a supposed luxury resort in a "world-class" restaurant with the cheapest wine at $30 this is unforgivable. The inclusive white wine by the glass was no better chilled.
THAI PAGODA start with the best. The Thai restaurant on the island has 2 sittings at 18:00 and 21:00. Food was fabulous and well worth booking. This was really the only restaurant that lived up to the billed quality. Food was hot (temperature and in the case of the shrimp soup spicy) and really tasty. It is a well rehearsed and presented experience with a set menu giving a flavour of a number of Thai dishes. The downside is that with 2 sittings, and a boat ride, the whole thing felt a little rushed. The wine as usual was not chilled either by the glass or the very expensive bottles.
LE JARDINER This has recently been converted to a French menu (though the only thing particularly French on the menu is snails) and Sandals info still shows it as the Courtyard Mediterranean. The setting is very romantic and service was good. The food used quality ingredients, was of a good standard but was not outstanding. The two French restaurants in our little High street are better and have a more interesting menu. That said you will have a enjoyable meal in very pleasant surroundings. We must be suckers for punishment as we tried more white wine here and it was Jamaican beach temperature.
PAVILION We were really looking forward to this as it claims to be a Jamaican speciality. Well we were disappointed again as this is sanitised Jamaican food. It's the sort of thing you get in the Disney Epcot world village. Well presented good quality cuts given Jamaican sounding names served to an American audience as the real thing. Nice enough meal, but!
REGENCY Oh dear what can I say. The food (Thai excepted) at all the restaurants was not very hot, but the Regency was simply cold. The first time we sent it back it took an age to return with one dish marginally warmer and the other colder. This was a shame as the food itself was quite good and it had the widest menu of the site.
A point worth noting is that on Saturday night is the Beach Party. Sounds good and it wasn't bad the bits we saw. The noteworthy fact is that this is the ONLY place to eat on Saturday as all the other restaurants shut. Be prepared or book to go to MoBay or the Inn.
You certainly wont go hungry and the food is generally good, just not as good as Sandals make it out to be.
We also ate at the Italian at Sandals Montego Bay. This requires booking and a shuttle service which is free. The food was pretty average and it was as if they had a challenge to see how quick a 3 course meal with coffee could be served. Our table was booked at 21:30 and we were hustled through the meal so quickly that we were able to have a look round the resort before catching the 22:45 shuttle back to Royal Caribbean.
ENTERTAINMENT Billy Butlin what have you started. It would appear Sandals have used your 1960s camp entertainment guide and followed the formula religiously. The only changes they seem to have made is to wear fawn shirts and shorts, and ditch the censorship. So with the Mr & Mrs competition the questions are not how many sugars does she have in her tea, but how many toys!! she has in the bedside drawer. No longer the time to eat 3 cream crackers, but the time to chugalug 3 rum punches. Not a knobbly knee competition but well you get the idea. Daytime activities (volleyball, waterobics, canoe races etc) are rigorously imposed with the supposed incentive of earning participation points.. And what do points make? Well in this case really pathetic cheap and tacky Sandals leather necklace or bookmark or t-shirt.
It's not all bad, some of the acts brought in especially the Jamaican drummers, dancers and some of the singers were really good. The trouble is these were rare gems in a sea of discarded plastic bags, and were allowed to sparkle for such a short time. Thankfully the worst acts and audience participation quizzes were on in the 19:00 to 22:00 time slot and we were able to miss most of them by being at dinner or going to another bar. The later slots were usually filled by the better acts, but even then they finished by 23:00. After that it was the piano bar or the Cricketers pub till 01:00 and onto the Beach bar till 03:00 if you were still standing or desperate.
The tennis courts and basketball court looked well maintained and did not seem very busy. The free non-motorised water sports were reasonably busy but the winds were either too high or too low for most of our stay to really determine their availability. However the boats are well looked after and the staff were very helpful.
BARS All of the bars were well stocked and well run by staff that knew what they were doing. Thankfully brand name wines, spirits and beer were used throughout meaning it was an enjoyable drinking experience. Considering the amount of alcohol available and included I was pleased that there seemed to be little really bad drunken behaviour or late night noise. Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves without the need for hassle and aggravation.
I did despair at the theme makers idea of a British pub, complete with shelves of old Cadburys coco and Birds custard tins mixed with empty Guinness bottles and the odd stone mead jar. The differences to a British pub continued with attentive staff serving drinks quickly and with a smile I certainly wasn't going to complain.
MISC Sandals have on site photographers who will photograph you whenever you let them. This is free, and they do get some good shots but the prints are expensive. A 5x7 print is $15 so you can see how they quickly add up. Whilst expensive, it might be worth considering one of the packages as on average these work out much more reasonable. If you go for that, then you need to get that sorted early on to make sure you get the shots you want.
The gardens are well maintained, but reasonably small as the site is fairly small.
With the exception of the reception desk staff who were curt and mostly disinterested, in general the staff were polite, friendly and very helpful. This is a reasonably well run operation, mainly let down by its age, attention to detail and underinvestment. Although it may not seem it from my descriptions above, I liked the place, but felt the Ultra luxury claims are vastly over-rated and the price Sandals are charging beggars belief. On the whole you could go to a Greek island have as good a beach, clear water, all the luxury accompaniments, more varied and better day and night time entertainment all for a quarter the price. With Sandals Royal Caribbean you are paying for the brand name and Caribbean dream, which unfortunately Sandals fail to deliver. This is a nice place to stay if you can get it at the right price and forego all the additional cost extras or cope with the hidden extra costs.