Anne and Stephen Ueker — Jamaicans on a Mission at Sandy Haven Negril
What would possess Anne and Stephen Ueker to open a hotel in the midst of a global recession? Around the world, hoteliers and tourist aficionados have complained until very recently that both the number of tourists and spend per tourist are down. What's more is that Negril beach is overrun with dilapidated properties sought after by rockbottom bargain seekers. Throw in ambitious hookers, drug peddlers, lost hippies and incessant touting and one doesn't exactly think pristine boutique hotel. But pristine boutique hotel is exactly what the Uekers are after, and if they can hold on through the tough time they might actually pull it off.
Normally, when I go to Negril, I head to the cliff, specifically Rockhouse, where I make several important pilgrimages a year to revive and rejuvenate. The cliff feels like a different world altogether. Sure, you can still find all manner of decadent indulgences on the cliff but you have to actively seek it out. On the beachside it comes at you like a tsunami. As one beach side tout explained: “Man cannot live by bread alone but needs a likkle tendaness and herb to get through de day.” Jamaicans are born philosophers, and Negril is our Athens.
I was not exactly looking for a new hangout in the West End since Rockhouse usually satisfies my Negril cravings at the right price point but the reviews for Sandy Haven on the travel bible Tripadvisor.com — “piece of heaven”, “sliver of paradise,” — were so compelling that I had to break sacred rituals and check it out. In its short life, Sandy Haven has already risen on Tripadvisor.com to be one of the top 15 most desirable properties in Negril. No mean feat considering that Tripadvisor lists a whopping 98 hotels in the area.
The interiors of Sandy Haven have that clean simple South Beach styling. Heavy on whites and browns accented with light greens and blues. The straight line furnishings and spacious layout have a natural balance, easy on the eyes. If you are comfortable at places like the Delano, the W, Soho House or Spanish Court, then Sandy Haven feels right — understated, elegant, and cool.
The beach set-up is superb with comfortable lounge chairs, a few cabanas and the well-stocked Sandyz Beach Bar. Sit alone with your electronic reader or rub up sweetie pie in a cabana — as you wish, this is Negril. The setting stands out as you walk along the beach, partly because there is no hideous commercial signage and offerings like so many of the other establishments. Here, less is more. Stay awhile, linger.
The cleverly recessed positioning of the lounge chairs and the very visible security guard keep touts at a minimum. They have miraculously managed to ensure that you are not bothered while on their section of the beach. This makes it possible for those seeking tranquility to contemplate staying beachside.
The restaurant Bongos is nicely decorated, modernist chic. Once a crowd builds it could be a first-class place to chill. There is outdoor and indoor seating, an impressively comfortable bar and a large piano for the Friday-night groove. The only problem is that the dining space is too large for the size property so you feel lost in the empty space. Plans are afoot to build out an independent restaurant business but until the anticipated wave of customers arrives, it behoves them to carefully section off the room so that the restaurant doesn't feel haunted. Atmosphere can never be created in an empty cavern.
The food is a mixed bag, but with loads of upmarket potential. The Jamaican breakfast of ackee, callaloo, plaintain and fried dumplings is the best I have had in a long time. There is none of that nasty greasiness that we have all become accustomed to. The callaloo is more crisp than soggy, the ackee softer and more textured than oily. Even if you are not staying at Sandy Haven, it is worth going there for the Jamaican breakfast.
The lunch offering is sparse, made up mostly of a variety of burgers and fries. While the burgers are mouthwateringly delicious and filling, a more robust lunch offering on the beach is required for a hotel of this calibre. The more extensive dinner menu has some real gems like the multi-flavoured vegetarian wrap (why can't I get this at lunch?) and some real duds like the pumpkin soup, which lacks the rich deep flavour one usually associates with a good Jamaican pumpkin soup. Negril is not known for its fine cuisine; Rockhouse and Ivan's are the best in the area but Sandy Haven could join that heady group if they keep revamping the menu until all the dishes are spot on. All the right ingredients for a good start are already there.
Watery and insipid is the cocktail norm in Negril. Even at my famed Rockhouse you have to buff them up to get a decent drink. Why does our major party town suffer from such a paucity of decent cocktails? Out the gate, Sandy Haven seems to be bucking that trend. The charming bartender Andre made me a margarita from scratch that rivalled some of the best concoctions in Miami or Ibiza. His jovial demeanour and skilful cocktail hands kept the gathered guests enthralled.
In general, service at Sandy Haven is more personable than professional, which is part of the charm of the small hotel. However, the basic processes still have to be right to be able to fully enjoy the charm of the staff. For example, check-in is painfully laborious. You would think that since they know someone is arriving they would prepare the paper work from the night before and have you inside your room and on the beach within minutes of your arrival. My favourite hotel in Jamaica in this regard is Geejam in Portland, whose staff on arrival take you straight to your room and leave you the check-in forms to be filled out and dropped off at the bar at your convenience.
The check-out process at Sandy Haven was equally cumbersome with many items consumed at the beach bar missing from the final bill. Add to that the sometimes snail's pace restaurant service and you have real operational challenges to solve.
Still, I chalk these up to growing pains. These procedural and process issues can be improved by drilling a detailed training manual into the very eager-tolearn staff. But they have to be addressed aggressively soon because they just cause guest aggravation and mar an otherwise wonderful experience.
But the best thing about Sandy Haven is the active involvement of the owners, Anne and Stephen. It is rare that you get engaged owners in any hotel, even small ones. In fact, in all my travels, Spirit of the Knights hotel in Rhodes, Greece and the Aegean Gate Hotel in Bodrum, Turkey are the only other places where I have seen the owners so actively engaged in making sure the guests are having a great time. Most the guests I spoke with appreciated how wonderful the Uekers were in mingling and making them feel at home.
Sandy Haven is not for everyone. It may not even be for most of the people who tend to frequent Negril. There was a very young couple the weekend I was there who had sourced a deal on Groupon who found the property too dead. They wanted more excitement by the pool. Where was the wet T-shirt, big-boobiloobs party? Not here! Others, like me, find the entire set up appropriately serene. You can go out to the excitement of Negril but return to a sanctuary.
And once the kinks are worked out, that's what Sandy Haven seems destined to become: a serene sanctuary in the midst of the chaos of Negril beachside. Sandy Haven Resort is almost ready for prime time. I will return