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Sandals aims to be the American Idol of resorts

By Debbi Kickham

Friday, April 26, 2019

Now, I'm spoiled for life. I don't know how I can ever go back to staying at any other kind of luxury beachfront property.

That's because I just spent time at Sandals Montego Bay, a top-notch all-inclusive, luxurious, adults-only property that offers its guests everything you've ever dreamed of in a beach vacation.

And more.

Despite the fact that Sandals has been in business since 1981, the laudable hospitality group remains a game-changer that yes, if you're a first-time guest, will change your mind about beach resorts, hotels, and well, vacations in general. Especially at all-inclusives, which sometimes get a bad reputation for being too-mass-market.

Sandals is anything but that.

I interviewed Adam Stewart, CEO, who told me that Sandals resort in Montego Bay was their original location, founded in 1981 by wildly successful entrepreneur “Butch” Stewart, Adam Stewart's father. Sandals Montego Bay has recently been upgraded and updated, resulting in an ultimate property to exceed all of your expectations.

“We've perfected the all-inclusives,” Mr Stewart told me. “We are fixated on the consumer experience. We are obsessed with customer care and aim to be front-and-centre of the best trends.”

“We're The American Idol of hospitality,” he added. “Everything we do is so that we are the best.”

And indeed it is one of the best resorts I've ever stayed at. So the question is — Why would you ever go back to paying cost-plus at a luxury beach hotel when everything you crave is included at a first-class, posh Sandals resort on the water?

 

What Don't You Love About Jamaica, Mahn?

Personality plays a huge factor in hiring, as Sandals seeks to hire individuals who are enthusiastic and excited about what they do at Sandals. The impact on you, the guest? An immensely pleasurable experience, from a staff that genuinely cares and graciously attends to your every need. Of course, the Jamaican people themselves are the epitome of graciousness, and their gratitude for life — and their tourists — overflows out of them like a beautiful waterfall at Dunn's River Falls, one of the island's top attractions. (Yes, we hiked it and it was wonderful.)

So it's no surprise that Sandals properties have a HUGE return rate — averaging about 55 per cent of all guests. My husband Bill and I are not surprised. Just about everyone that we met at the Montego Bay resort raved about the Sandals organisation, and were loyal, dedicated customers. One man, from Canada, told me that he has been visiting all of the Sandals resorts, everywhere in the world, for the past 30 years. Another couple said that after they discovered Sandals, they couldn't go anywhere else. After they stayed 70 nights over a period of several years, they earned a free week's stay, and they were thrilled beyond belief.

Other guests arrive and simply request to be put in the best room in the house. At Sandals Montego Bay, in high season, that would be the Beachfront Millionaire one-bedroom butler suite with an outdoor soaking tub, at US$1,259 per night/per couple. (Next door at Sandals Royal Caribbean are the dreamy overwater bungalows with butlers and infinity pool: US$3,331 per night/per couple.) So now, you don't have to hightail it to Bora Bora to get the world's best bungalows. They are a lot closer at Sandals.

Sandals has 19 total resorts in the Caribbean, including its family-friendly, all-inclusive Beaches Resorts, and when you're staying at the Montego Bay property, you can also hop over to the Sandals Royal Caribbean next door, as well as the nearby Sandals Inn, to take advantage of their superb sands, cuisine, and much more. It's called the “Stay at one, play at three” programme, and a shuttle provides a quick ride between the properties every 45 minutes.

Your Louis Vuitton Wallet Will Like This

With all that it is included at Sandals, and all the incredible value that you get for your money, most other luxury hotels pale by comparison. Who wants to pay for everything as you go along, from a mere coffee to a five-star dinner? Sandals eliminates all that — and with aplomb.

At Sandals, in a (coconut) nutshell, you receive five-star service no matter what category of room you book. There are no resort fees, no hidden fees, no upcharges, plus a variety of high-end restaurants that you can enjoy on property, along with premium spirits, unlimited watersports, and for some of the suites, English-trained Jamaican butlers to make your trip even more memorable. Righto — Sandals is the Aston Martin of unforgettable experiences.

As far as beach vacations go, Sandals has thought of everything to pamper you. The Millionaire Suites, for example, are beachfront, allowing you to access the soft sands and azure waters faster than you can say “Splash.” Orange rafts float in the water, so you and your significant other can laze together and enjoy the sunshine while you stay soaked.

There are other rooms where you can emerge from your room and plop yourself right into a swim-up pool, where more floats are available. Hammocks and in-water swings are placed all around the property. Everything is designed so that you're waterlogged — in a good way — the whole day. Staying here is like being on a luxury cruise ship, where you stash your wallet in the safe and forget about it.

Yet at Sandals resorts, you have the added advantage of land-based access to the beach 24/7. Just get up in the morning, put on your bathing suit, and hit the beach — and the beachside, barefoot-allowed, restaurants and bars. Plus, there's a no-tipping policy (except for your butlers). With all of this, it's no wonder, then, that “We earn multiple wows per day,” says Mr Stewart.

One of the little things that impressed us — and I'm not easy to impress — was that the in-room amenities by in-house brand Red Lane are all sulfate-free. That means no harmful additives in your shampoo and conditioner. My stressed strands were thankful, and it was one of those tiny things, and great attention to detail, that added up for a superb stay.

Ah! Spa! And Cuisine!

The spa itself, Red Lane, is another winner. “We look at our spa menu like a chef looks at a culinary menu,” says David Erlich, the corporate director of all the Sandals spas. “We look at our environments, and our menus are unique, with a lot of tropical curation.”

Indeed, I enjoyed a deeply relaxing facial with Red Lane products that including a cleansing milk and oil application, exfoliation with a papaya pineapple enzyme mask, an antioxidant firming mask, Vitamin C serum, deep pore cleaning, plus an illuminating serum. I emerged lightened, brightened, and tightened!

As far as the cuisine goes, we were extremely pleased with the high-end restaurants and the variety and quality of food available. I interviewed Paul Bauer, the group manager of food & beverage standards, and he emphasised and underscored just how important cuisine is to the Sandals group as a whole. “We are always pushing the envelope… We have to ensure that our standards are in place from hotel to hotel. Modern all-inclusives have to up their game, and we pay attention.”

For example, you can dine — with no added upcharge — at Butch's Steak and Seafood, where you can enjoy first-class lobster, shrimp and other delectables, as part of the all-inclusive package. By comparison, such a dinner-for-two at a non-inclusive resort would cost around US$250, while a cruise ship would most certainly charge you an added US$35 fee. Throughout the Sandals resorts, you can experience simply great food — everything from Thai to French, to Indian, or just goodies from the donut shop. Why not partake of a frozen yogurt or soft-serve ice cream? And you know what's coming soon? Vegans, take delight — a plant-based restaurant is right on the horizon (literally), along with a juice bar and even Greek food.

When it comes to alcohol, you'll find that Sandals offers six varietals of Robert Mondavi pouring wine, says Mr Bauer, along with super-premium-spirits that include Glenlivet 12, Glenfiddich 12, Maker's Mark, and Remy Martin VSOP. Yes, there is a Manager's Wine List for an upcharge (the only upcharge at the resort), but chances are, you won't need it.

At Sandals Royal Barbados, you will thrill to the Sky Bar and its unprecedented smoked cocktails. You read that right — how about a pineapple margarita filled with Jack Daniels smoke? In all, says Mr Bauer (whose nickname is “Hawkeye” as he can spot a culinary problem from 40 miles away), company-wide Sandals offers 35 types of beers and 24 types of restaurants. And, for a little more wow factor, here's something else: When you are wearing your little black dress, the staff will exchange your white napkin for one in black, faster than you can say “Chanel,” so that your outfit doesn't get covered in lint. All these small advantages add up for a remarkable experience.

OK — now down to the nitty-gritty. Was our trip perfection? No, and there are a few things we would like to see changed. For example, the luncheon deli meats in the Bayside restaurant were not of the high-quality we would expect at a luxury resort. At lunch one afternoon, they also ran out of most meats and had to go to room service to obtain tuna fish for my wrap sandwich. At the beach grill, the service occasionally was very slow at lunchtime, which was frustrating, as you spent time waiting around when all you wanted to do was to be in the water.

Yet, we're not deterred, and urge you to enthusiastically embrace Sandals for your next vacation.

I'll have to stop writing now. I'm impressed beyond words. And I'm dreaming about the little French cafe and its authentic Nutella crepes.

 

— This article was published on Forbes.com. Debbi Kickham is a luxury travel writer and a luxury marketing expert. She is former editor of Robb Report Magazine, loves to report on luxury, and has never met an overwater bungalow she didn't like. For more information on Debbi, visit www.GorgeousGlobetrotter.com, and follow her at @SATWgal