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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Montego Bay, Jamaica / Sandals Royal Caribbean

December 2014, 7-nights--Christmas Day to New Year's Day, Caribbean premium room #1219


I want to provide a little background about our prior visits to Jamaica, to help readers understand my point of view. We have been to Jamaica at least six times--by cruise ship and in resorts, and even though this visit was not 100% perfect, it was by far our best Jamaican experience! The service at Sandals Royal Caribbean was exceptional. The servers and bartenders work hard (as did everyone we observed), and I was impressed with how well they always knew who was next, and who wanted what. I never observed an incorrect food or beverage item served, and there was only one time I observed a bartender ask who was next because he was not sure.

Sunset over Thai restaurant and private island
I do not have reviews for all of our previous visits to Jamaica because some of them occurred before I started this blog. Here are links to reviews of our previous experiences in Jamaica: Hilton Rose Hall Montego Bay, Holiday Inn Sunspree Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios from Freedom cruise ship.

This is a lengthy review with a lot of detail. Additional photos are posted on my Facebook travel page.

Arrival experience

We had first class seats on our flight, and it was a breeze entering through customs and getting our luggage and such. This was our first experience with electronic kiosks in Jamaica. Sandals lounge is the first room on the left inside the arrival area after picking up luggage. Here is a link to the airport map: MBJ. When we arrived, we passed Sandals representatives outside of the lounge and did not realize it. We looked around a bit after we did not see anyone at the desk inside. When we stepped back out of the lounge, we realized that the people standing outside were Sandals representatives. We provided our name, left our luggage, and then sat down inside to wait.

There were comfortable seats and restrooms inside Sandals lounge. We observed beer tap dispensers and an empty plate of snacks. My husband helped himself to a beer (as did other guests who arrived when there was not a representative present), and a few seconds later a staff member greeted us. He offered me champagne, and a bit later, we observed sweet snacks on the table in the room. We probably arrived in the lounge area rather quickly since we had first class seats; however, this did not get us to the resort any quicker. I assume we had to wait for other guests, possibly even from other flights, because we waited almost an hour and a half. Our flight landed at 1:16 p.m., and we did not get to our room at the resort until after 3:00 p.m. It got very busy in the lounge after our arrival, and we observed many guests coming and going. We looked outside a couple of times and saw that our luggage was still where we had left it. After about an hour, we observed our luggage on a cart, so we went out to talk with someone. After this, we followed the porter to a bus where two guests were already waiting. We did not learn how they had arrived or how long they had been sitting on the bus. A few more people boarded, the luggage was loaded, and we finally departed for the Montego Bay area resorts.

Our bus stopped at Montego Bay first, where everyone got off except for us and one other couple. We then proceeded to our resort where the rest of us got off. The bus ride was less than 15 minutes total. One reason we had chosen Royal Caribbean over Negril is because we did not want to deal with the hour and half bus ride to the resort. Since guests going to Negril were departing on their buses right after we arrived in the lounge, I assume they arrived at their resort about the same time we did.

Check-in

I spoke with someone at the front desk when we arrived because I wanted to ask if we could upgrade to Club Sandals amenities. I knew that this room type was sold out; however, we thought maybe we could enjoy some of the club amenities as an upgrade or for a modest fee. The agent checked on this while the bell captain got us registered. I was surprised when he gave me a sheet to fill out with our information, since I had already completed pre-check-in online twice. I filled out the check-in form the first time I received it via email several months before our stay. When I received more notices, I decided to fill another one out a couple of weeks before our stay (there is no way to check online to make sure this has been received by Sandals). I told him I had already done pre-check-in, and then I proceeded to fill out the form because he made it sound like we needed to. I did not fill in the information for our departing flight because I did not have it handy. At the end of our stay, we found out that Sandals did have our information from my pre-check-in because the departure envelope we received had all of our correct flight information on it.

A few minutes after I had completed the form, the front desk agent told us she could not meet our request for club amenities, and then the bell captain escorted us to our room. He initially escorted us to a bottom floor room, and we had requested a higher floor room. Back at the front desk, we were told that our request was not in our reservation. After a bit of conversation at the front desk, we were reassigned to the guestroom above the first room we had been assigned. A different bellman escorted us to room 1219. The bell captain who assisted us first was one of the only employees at this resort that we did not think was very friendly. We often passed through the front lobby because it is the main path from our room and the south pool to the rest of the resort. Everyday we said something like "good morning" when passing through, and all of the other employees always smiled and offered a similar greeting--including the security guards. The bell captain never acknowledged us until our last morning when he smiled and offered a greeting. After six days of silence, we were shocked! He did not treat us rudely; it was more a demeanor of aloofness or disinterest.

Caribbean premium guestroom 1219

Caribbean premium room #1219
This guestroom is located on the second/top floor at the end of the Arundel building. Other than the beer, wine, and alcohol items included in Club Level guestrooms, this room contained the same amenities we had in our guestroom at Sandals Halcyon Beach: ice bucket, glasses, small coffeepot with supplies, 3 oz. Red Lane spa bath amenities, and a mini-fridge filled with water, juices, and soda.

The bathroom near the entrance was a basic size with a tub/shower combination and toilet. The vanity was located outside of the bathroom, and the beverage center (coffee, ice bucket, glasses) was located at the end of the vanity. The door under the coffee display in the photo opened to empty shelves.



A flatscreen TV was located on an armoire at the foot of the bed, and the mini-fridge was located in the armoire.

A large closet between the vanity and armoire contained hangers, an iron, ironing board, folding luggage rack, extra pillows, and a large safe.

A desk with chair, lamp, and telephone was next to the king size bed on one side, and there was a nightstand with a lamp and clock on the side by the balcony. There was not any seating in the guestroom except for the desk chair.

The bed, pillows, and bedding were extremely comfortable. I had read about other guests wanting to know what kind of beds are in Sandals resorts, and after two excellent sleep quality stays, I have researched this also. The information I found out can be found in my Sandals Sleep Quality blog post.


The balcony was private and contained a table, two chairs, and a wooden clothes drying rack on the wall. The view from the balcony overlooked gardens and the Caenarvon building to the side. The south pool and tennis courts were partially visible.

A peacock was often in the garden area, and if we were in our room before dusk, we watched the bird walk by very close to us on the rooftop. We were later told that peacocks sleep on the roofs at night.

I have included a couple of pictures of the view from our balcony, although I do not have one with a view of the pool. The south pool is located in front of the Caenarvon building, which I have labeled in the photo.

The wireless Internet connection speed in the guestroom was decent, and it was quiet in this room for the most part. This room is located at the end of the building, and the sidewalk around the end apparently leads to the staff entrance/exit and a work area. In the afternoon, we sometimes heard quite a bit of activity and conversation behind the building. On New Year's Eve day, we heard an air nailer and a lot of commotion as last minute preparations for the evening were being done. The noise did not bother us, as we were typically only in the guestroom briefly to shower and such around that time. The noise did not keep us awake on the afternoons that we did nap.

One reason we like the higher floor rooms is that they have a front entrance door and a balcony. The bottom floor room below us had an entrance door from the patio only, and there was no window or door on the other side. I suppose it would be quieter inside that guestroom without the second window or door. The patio is also less private since it is at ground level.

Pools & Beaches

South Pool
The South Pool near our building was very quiet. We were always able to find loungers in the shade no matter what time of day we stopped there. The whirlpool tub was usually hot, although one day it was quite cool. We never had any trouble with overcrowding in the pool or whirlpool. The view in the photo is from a lounge chair in front of the Caenarvon building. The Caenarvon building contained premium rooms on the bottom floor and Club rooms on the top floor.

The Main Pool was usually the busiest pool. It has a swim up bar and whirlpool. We did not usually stay in this area because it was quite sunny and hot. We stopped there briefly one day and played a couple of games. We did not have any luck winning a bottle of rum, although my husband did win a small wooden turtle.


The East Pool and whirlpool were similar to the South Pool. We sat in this area one day and it was peaceful, uncrowded, and comfortable. The whirlpool temperature was hot. One thing nicer about the East Pool is that it overlooks the ocean, whereas the South Pool does not. Servers regularly circulated all pool areas.

There is also a large whirlpool located near the beach grill and pizzeria, which we did not use. We only saw that pool being used one time. It looked like an excellent location for guests in the Sandringham building.

There were always plenty of lounge chairs available on the beach on the mainland; several underneath shade trees or tiki huts.

view from cabana
There are three cabanas for rent in front of the Sandringham building. We rented one for half a day (9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.), and loved it. The cabanas on the island were not available as they are more desirable we were told. We were surprised because we thought the view from the cabanas on the mainland was better. The cabanas on the island look back at the main resort and activity rather than out at the ocean.

The cost for half a day was $50 and included butler service with a phone, suntan locations, a cooler filled with beverages (we chose water and Red Stripe beer), and towels, etc. Tip was not included. Since we did not have a Club or Butler room, we appreciated the cabana even more. My husband preferred the bottled beer after having had only draft beer the previous few days.

When we made the cabana reservation, we had been told to meet our cabana concierge in the Club Lounge at 8:55 a.m. We were in the lounge before that time; however, our concierge was not there. We waited about five minutes or so because the representative in the lounge was assisting another guest. When another employee arrived, he found our reservation and then called our concierge. Apparently, the same concierge was assisting guests on the island and on the mainland, and our concierge was on the island. The employee in the Club Lounge escorted us to our cabana about 9:10, and our concierge arrived to meet us and bring a telephone less than 10 minutes later. We thought the beach sand and swimming area in front of the cabanas was the best beach area at this resort.

Sandals Cay private island has two swimming beaches, cabanas for rent on the main beach by the pool, a pool and small whirlpool, and some spa services. A small boat transported guests back and forth between the main resort and the island. I do not know if there were timed departures, or if the boat just made a run when guests were waiting. Every time that we went to or from the island, we walked to the "please wait here" sign, and someone arrived to transport us within five minutes.

island pool
We visited the island twice; both times settling in at the secluded beach area on the far side. We did not sit by the pool or main beach area, although we did walk around the island, and we went to the bar for drinks a couple of times. Servers did not come to the secluded beach area either time that we were there. This may be because the beach is "clothing optional," although I do not know for sure.
view of shuttle boat and main beach
on the island from the pool

The first time we visited the secluded island beach, we had the place pretty much to ourselves until we departed around 12:30 p.m. A few people walked over from the main beach/pool area to snorkel, and then returned to the main beach and pool area.

secluded beach
The second time we went to this beach there were several more guests, and a few guests took advantage of the "clothing optional" freedom. We had loungers at the far end of the beach near the hammock, so this was not too much of a problem for us. Other guests who had settled in near the center quickly departed after the guests who disrobed arrived. Be aware that the beach is not merely topless; guests were 100% nude--men and women.

secluded beach - snorkel water entrance



We visited both of the other resorts in the area--Montego Bay and Carlye. We found lounge chairs in the shade on the beach at Montego Bay; however, we did not stay long. The beach sand at this resort was softer than the sand at Royal Caribbean (less crushed shells, maybe), which we liked. The beach was also much busier though, and it was windy, so sand was blowing around and getting in our drinks and all over us. We walked through the pool areas at this resort but did not stay. We stopped at the water sports booth; however, we were not able to take anything out because of the wind.
Montego Bay resort - view from lobby bar
Sandals Carlye is across the street from a public beach, and we did not visit that beach. The pool at this resort resembles a hotel pool in a tropical setting. We observed a volleyball court at all three resorts, although we did not see anyone playing volleyball or an activities director at Carlye.

Water sports, activities, entertainment (at Royal Caribbean)

We tried sailing and paddle boarding, and we went on the glass bottom boat twice. We went on the boat twice because the first time it was kind of rough, and a passenger in the boat was scared so we did not stay out. We could not see as much that day because the water was churned up, too. The second time, we saw a couple of huge stingrays, among other things. The boat captain/guide provided excellent information. Other activities we observed included guests kayaking, tubing behind the powerboat, and snorkel and diving boat tours.

Volleyball and tie-dying activities were held on the beach. At the main pool, there were games in the afternoon, and there is a pool table in the area. Checkers and other games were available in the Tea Room, and in the area between the main pool and Tea Room.

Men and women acrobats and a fire eater/acrobat performed at the beach party. This was a lengthy and entertaining show, which we enjoyed. The same performers performed New Year's Eve. We did not stay and watch that show so I do not know if it was different. There was also music, dancing, and a piano player.

Food & Beverages

Before our stay at Sandals Halcyon Beach, we had been on 13 cruises (now 14) and dined in many fine restaurants like Ruth Chris, Iridescence, and The Chop House. The food at Halcyon was the best we have ever had, so I had high dining expectations. We had a few disappointments this stay, and we had a few excellent food items, too. I am listing our experiences in both regards.

One of the features we liked about St. Lucia was the ability to travel between three resorts, just like the resorts in Montego Bay, Jamaica. One disappointment this trip was that there were not different restaurants open for lunch, like there had been in St. Lucia, so we could only dine at places like Tokyo Jo's and Stew Fish in the evening. We missed out on some dining options (partially because we had not planned well enough, and partially because some things were changed from the ordinary for the holidays). I have inserted a couple of menu pictures, which can be enlarged by clicking on the photo.  I could not fit all of the photos that I have in this blog, so please visit my Facebook page for additional photos. I hope the following information will assist future travelers.

Breakfast
Royal Caribbean: The Regency offered a typical buffet breakfast with made to order omelets. Many items were available for the omelets, although I thought they were cooked too long. The smoked salmon was good, and there were two or three options of whole-grain/seed bread, which I liked. The buffet on New Year's Day was excellent! In addition to the daily items, there was a carving station for  ham, salmon, and fresh fruits. The ham and fruit were both excellent. Mimosas and other beverages could be ordered any day, and there was a table display with champagne, orange juice, coffee, coffee liquors, and more set up on New Year's Day.
Cricketer's - breakfast
Cricketer's Pub was open for a la carte breakfast every day except New Year's Day. Another guest had recommended the Smoked Salmon Benedict; however, I did not like it because I did not like the muffin. The rest of it was good, although the muffin is part of an eggs Benedict dish. The homemade Corned Beef Hash was excellent, and the Crunchy Banana French Toast was very sweet. The French Toast was not crunchy the day that I had it. We dined here a few times and the time it took to receive our food was kind of slow. We did not mind, although I would not recommend this restaurant for breakfast if you are in a rush.
Room service is included for Club Level guests, and I had thought other guests could have this for a fee; however, I was told no when I inquired about this. I heard from a Club Level guest that breakfast was available on the island at Royal Thai for guests with a Club Level room.
We did not have breakfast at Montego Bay or Carlye, although we wanted to have breakfast in Cucina Romana at Montego Bay. It was only open for breakfast on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and we did not plan accordingly.
Lunch
Royal Caribbean: The Bamboo Shack on the island served buffet style jerk chicken with salads and fruits, which was decent. We had lunch there only once.
We ate at The Mariner Grill and Bella Napoli Pizzeria a few times. Both restaurants are a la carte with both menus on tables in front of the grill and on picnic tables on the beach. We tried two pizzas - the seafood specialty, which we did not like, and I requested the Margherita pizza with pepperoni, which was excellent. We tried to order just a slice of pizza, and were told we could not order by the slice. My husband had a special order calzone, filled with just about everything, that was huge. He said it was delicious. We also tried the Jerk Chicken, Fish Burger, Chicken Quesadillas, tossed salad, onion rings, spicy fries, and cheese nachos. Everything was pretty good except for the fish sandwich. That was like a salmon patty, and I had been expecting a fish sandwich. I should have asked for more clarification before I ordered that.
We did not try The Regency buffet for lunch.
We did not have lunch in Montego Bay, which had similar dining options as our resort: Bayside buffet, The Mariner Grill, and Dino's Pizzeria.
We took the shuttle to Sandals Carlye for lunch one day because we wanted to see the resort. The food at Bay Window was excellent, although we must have been earlier to dine than what they are used to. The restaurant open time was 12:30 pm., which was about the time we arrived on the shuttle. We did not see anyone at the host stand, so we sat down by the pool to wait. After 10 minutes or so, I walked to the front desk to ask if the restaurant was supposed to be open, and the agent told me yes. We waited another 5 to 10 minutes, before I went to inquire again. After this, the cook came out to seat us, and then the rest of the dining room staff arrived. We are familiar with the slower pace in Jamaica; however, we expected the restaurant to be open by at least 12:45. After this, the service was excellent as was the food. The champagne tasted better than the champagne at Royal Caribbean. I was only able to get one mimosa though. I observed at least one other guest after us order one, and after I was offered a refill, I was then told that the person who needed to open a new bottle was not available, so there was no more champagne at the time. Odd, I thought.
Dinner
Royal Caribbean: The Beach Party on Friday night was decent. I would have preferred dining at one of the a la carte restaurants that we had missed, and then joining for the entertainment; however, my husband thought we needed to experience the entire evening.

Le Jardinier beef filet
The food at Le Jardinier was okay. The scallop appetizer was fabulous (one of the only items I did not take a picture of!), and the remaining food was merely satisfactory. We both had the filet of beef entree.
Le Jardinier crepes










squid salad
We had a similar opinion of the food at Royal Thai. The squid salad was excellent, and the remaining food items were merely satisfactory. We had some type of shrimp stir-fry entree, although I do not recall the name.

shrimp entree at Royal Thai
The atmosphere at Royal Thai was pleasant, and we sat on the beach around the fire for a while after dinner. The pool bar re-opened in the evening, so several guests also sat at the bar afterward.


We dined at The Recency New Year's Eve, and the meal was very good. We had the shrimp cocktail and seafood ceviche for starters, and we had surf and turf for our entree. Pictures of these food items are on my Facebook page.

We attended the Manager's dinner and the Sandals Select dinner. The Manager's pre-dinner gathering was nice, complete with entertainment from the local school marching band. The buffet dinner was mediocre, and I wished we had gone to one of the a la carte restaurants for dinner that evening. I was excited when I saw the beautiful sushi display; however, none of the items had good flavor.

Sandals Select beef entree
The Sandals Select dinner was amazing! We were served red champagne cocktails (Chamberry, I think the beverage was called), and small canap├ęs at the pre-dinner gathering on the lawn. After this, we went to round tables set up around the pool where dinner was served. A staff member sat at each table. Our guest of honor was Chase from landscaping. The grounds at the resort are beautiful.

Sandals Select dessert
The photographer took photos, and we had the option to purchase the picture and frame for a special price of $20. Each couple received a 1-liter bottle of Appleton Special rum. This entire event was classy and impressive, and I definitely recommend attending. I enjoyed every food item this evening--it was delicious.

We had planned to attend this dinner, and then the day of the event we were somewhat undecided because this was our second to last evening, and we had not had a chance to dine at Elenors. Even though we did not get to dine at Elenors, I am glad we did not miss this event.

We dined at Cricketer's Pub our first evening, and the food was decent.

Montego Bay: We had a reservation for New Year's Eve at Oleander Room; however, on New Year's Eve morning we heard the shuttle was not going to run that evening. We were then told that the resort would arrange and take care of cab service to take us back and forth. After this (when we were napping in our room), we received a call and were told we could not leave the resort. I was half asleep when the phone rang so we had to go down to the desk later to find out what was actually happening.

When we first started to get to the bottom of this confusion, the employee at the reservation desk offered us a bottle of champagne for the trouble. My husband readily accepted this offer since I am an avid champagne drinker, and I did not think the included champagne was very good after a few days. Before this offer was completed, it was discovered that the lowest priced brand for purchase was sold out. I do not recall the brand, although I think the cost was around $38. The next available brand was Moet and Chandon, which I love; however, with the cost being over $100, they were not going to let us have that! We certainly did not expect a complimentary $100 bottle of champagne, although we would have been impressed if we had received that. The entire situation left us extremely disappointed. If we had known we would not be able to leave the resort New Year's Eve, we would have dined at Montego Bay earlier in the week.

The included champagne brand at Sandals Royal Caribbean was brut Jean Dorsene, and there is a photo in my Facebook travel album. Many premium alcohol brands were available; you just need to request what you want. I cannot say enough good things about the food and beverage staff. They were impressive!

If you like blended drinks, I thought the beverage I had at the bar at Sandals Carlye (after our lunch) was better than any I had at Sandals Royal Caribbean. I do not drink many blended drinks, although I occasionally have one. The bar menu at Carlyle had pictures of each beverage, and the beverage I had tasted more similar to drinks I have had in America than the ones at Royal Caribbean.

Spa

I had a spa credit of $125, which I used for a facial. The facial was $125, so I only needed to pay the service charge. This was a good experience, although I always wish the attendant would let me know more about what is going on during the process. I have had less than five facials, so I am by no means an expert. I had hoped to purchase a new tube of facial sunscreen; however, the cost was $49 so I did not get any. I had purchased a tube of Elemis spa sunscreen several years ago for $18, so I was hoping for something for less than $30. I went to the island to meet my husband after the facial. I should have thought to ask if I could have had my treatment on the island when I made my appointment; however, I did not think of it at the time. I was surprised that there was not a spa menu in the guestroom. I would have liked to have spent some time looking everything over beforehand.

Shuttles

The shuttle ran on time at the posted times. It only took a few minutes to get to Montego Bay from our resort, and it took almost half an hour to get to Sandals Carlye. The bus stopped at Montego Bay first, and then we sat there for several minutes before departing for Sandals Carlye. The shuttle stops on a downtown street in front of Sandals Carlyle. A security guard requested our names and room number when we entered the resort; however, no one requested this when we boarded the bus to return to our resort. When the bus returned to pick us up, more then 10 people disembarked, and half of them walked downtown or to cabs across the street. This made us wonder how many non-guests boarded the bus at Sandals Carlye for the other resorts. Our return trip was similar; we stopped at Montego Bay first, waited several minutes, and then departed for Royal Caribbean.

We were scheduled for the 1:30 p.m. shuttle to the airport for our flight at 4:10 p.m. This was about 45 minutes earlier than we needed to arrive since we had first class seats and were able to go through priority lines. I heard another guest on our flight ask at the front desk if he could leave on a later shuttle. He was told that he could do that; however, he would need to sign something stating he would not hold anyone responsible if he missed his flight.

All of the shuttle buses were air-conditioned, clean, and comfortable.

Misc. and overall

We had a Club Level room at Sandals Halcyon Beach, and the Club Lounge at that resort is about four times the size of the room at Sandals Royal Caribbean. The lounge at Halcyon had a full sized bar in the room and at least three sofas along with the chairs.

We received another guest's departure envelope on the desk in our room a few days after we arrived, so we slipped it under their door. It appeared that the same thing might have happened to our departure envelope because someone slipped it under our door when we were in the guestroom.

The airplane noise every time that we visited Montego Bay was much louder than it was at Royal Caribbean. We did not hear any disturbing airplane noise when we were at Carlye. We observed a few planes at close range; however, the flight direction did not take them over the resort during our visit.

Again, the service at Sandals Royal Caribbean was impressive. Especially the servers at Mariner's Grill and The Regency New Year's Eve, and the bartenders in the piano bar and Cricketer's. We have been made to feel like we need to tip at other all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica, and we did not feel that way at Sandals Royal Caribbean.