Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego -- June 2005

A business trip for my husband, on which I tagged along.

2 nights Sheraton Gateway Hotel LAX
3 nights La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta (in the Palm Springs area)
1 night Hyatt Regency Islandia in San Diego

Photos: http://tinyurl.com/2ykhq6

Sheraton Review:

We spent two nights here in June, on the first and last days of a weeklong trip. We actually booked the room through Priceline for $100 a night, which was a great deal! The hotel has been very recently renovated, and as a previous reviewer stated, it is indeed “surprisingly cool”! There’s a Starbucks in the lobby, which is very convenient for that early morning caffeine fix. Overall, I would definitely recommend this hotel if you need to stay by the airport.

Rooms A
As Starwood gold members, we hoped for an upgrade, but there were none available. However, the standard guestrooms were actually quite nice. They are not large, but well decorated and very comfortable. Standard Starwood heavenly beds, but with a dark blue duvet instead of the usual stark white. The rooms look exactly like the ones shown on the website, which is rare! The windows are triple paned, and we did not hear so much as a whisper of a plane taking off or landing. Both rooms we had overlooked the pool, though, so I can’t say how the noise would be on the other side of the building.

Service A
The valets were quick, the bellmen did not complain one bit about the insane amount of luggage we had with us, and the woman who checked us in both nights was very quick and courteous. Our wakeup calls came right on time, which is always good—I am always surprised at how many hotels can’t seem to get this right!

Bar A We came here for dinner and drinks both nights, and enjoyed it. The mojitos were great, and the food is pretty impressive (taste-wise) for bar fare. The first night we ordered nachos for an appetizer, which were so enormous we didn’t need any dinner! Don’t remember what else we ordered, but it was all good. The service is fast and generally friendly, and it is nice to be able to take your drinks and wander out by the pool to relax on a cushy chaise lounge 

Business Center A The woman working at the desk in here was very helpful and friendly, and they seemed to have anything a business traveler could possibly need. Free coffee, too!

Pool A There are lots of lounge chairs, and well as padded benches and several cabanas. You can get bar service out here as well, which is nice. We saw several planes fly overhead, but somehow could just barely hear them!

La Quinta review:

coming soon...

Hyatt Regency Islandia review:

We spent one night here while on a business trip for my husband. We booked through Priceline and paid $100 a night (darned per diems!), which was fair, but I would say that the hotel is not worth any more than that. It was very quiet, and not bad, but not the 4-star property they claim to be either.

Rooms B
The room itself was okay, a pretty standard 3 star room, with a very tiny bathroom. The bathroom did have marble countertops, but that does not a 4-star make. I do have to say that they did a great job with the lighting—so often hotel rooms do not have enough lamps and/or overheads, but our room here was very well lit. There was a very small balcony with a couple of metal chairs and a tiny plastic table. We did enjoy the fact that we could see the fireworks (put on by neighboring Seaworld, I believe) from the balcony. We did not enjoy the fact that our room (we were either on the 3rd or 4th floor) was directly over the area where they have the dumpsters, making being on the deck hard on the olfactory glands! ). I normally would have asked to switch rooms, but we were exhausted by the time we got there, and it just did not seem worth the effort for one night. If you are planning to stay here, I would recommend asking for a room on a high floor, with a view of the marina (we had a bit of one, but it was heavily obstructed by HVAC systems or similar equipment

Service A
The valets were very friendly, check in was quick and courteous, and the bellhops were also nice as can be. We had dinner at the Blue Bay California Bistro at the base of the main tower, and our waiter was quite friendly and brought our food out very quickly. There were only about 2 other parties in the restaurant at the time, so not sure if it would always be that quick, but hopefully so!

Restaurants B+
I was disappointed to see that the Islandia bar and restaurant was closed during our stay. We asked and were told that it is only open for dinner Wed-Sat, and for Sunday brunch (we were there on a Sunday night). It is the more upscale of the two restaurants at the hotel, and looks out directly onto the marina. The dinner we had at the California Bistro was actually delicious, though, so we were pleased with that  They have a pretty basic menu of sandwiches, burgers, salads, etc, but very fresh ingredients are used, making the sandwiches we had quite tasty.

Bars C
If the Islandia Bar had been open during our stay, this category would probably have gotten a much higher score. It looked spacious and pleasant, with (I believe) a seating area out on the deck where you can relax and enjoy the sunset or the lights of the marina. But, again, this was closed, so the only other bar option was a very small, dark, depressing one at the base of the tower. We walked in and pretty much walked right back out—it just had sort of a grim atmosphere.

Pool/Grounds B-
The grounds are kept clean, there’s a small koi pond, which was nice, and the landscaping is well maintained. But nothing particularly spectacular here. The pool itself was not at all impressive—small and very basic, surrounded by a fence which tends to take away from the overall look of the grounds. I’m sure they have to have the fence up for liability purposes, though, since many families stay here. There is also a tiny (maybe 20 feet by 15 feet) manmade “beach” right off the marina. Be forewarned: this is not an actual beach, but more of a dirty sandbox. If you want to lay in some sand, I would recommend the Hotel Del Coronado or even the La Valencia in La Jolla (just up the hill from a bit of beach) instead.

Location Depends
If you are planning on spending a lot of time at Seaworld, the location probably cannot be beat! The location is also pretty much equidistant to La Jolla and Coronado, among other areas, so if you want someplace where you are 30-40minutes from nearly everything, this may be a good choice for you. If you are just planning on spending most of your time in downtown/Old Town/Coronado (for example), though, this hotel is probably not the best option. There are also no restaurants within walking distance, which can be a problem when they only have one restaurant open. If you want something different, your options are to order room service (pretty much the same menu as the Cali Bistro) or to get in the car and drive a little ways away (not always appealing when you are exhausted from traveling!)

Overall, this is a decent hotel, just not quite up to the standards of a 4-star property, in my opinion. If you can get it for around $100 a night, and don’t want anything fancy (or want to be very close to SeaWorld but not anywhere else), it is worth considering.

Rainy Days in Jamaica--1st Anniversary Trip

Sans Souci Review




For more pictures of our trip, go to:
http://share.shutterfly.com/osi.jsp?i=EegOGjFo2ctnGQ


Overview:
All in all, we had a great time. There were a few things I was disappointed in, but having done a lot of research, I was pretty prepared for what we experienced, and in general the hotel met my expectations. The resort itself is beautiful—spread out over 27 lush acres, there is a lot to explore, and the setting is gorgeous. Unfortunately, we were there during a week (April 14-21, 2005) in which there was pretty much a constant torrential downpour, which did put a damper on some things. Because of that, we did not get great tans (though we did both manage to become bright red that first morning!), were not able to go snorkeling, sailing, or out on the glass bottom boat, which was pretty disappointing. But we made the best of it, and still managed to fit in shopping (albeit in the rain), horseback riding, sea kayaking, spa treatments, and a whole lot of drinking.  We also made a couple of wonderful new friends—Jells1107 and her husband, who definitely made the trip a lot more fun!

One thing I do have to say is that this is definitely not a 5-star resort as advertised. Even for the Caribbean, there are some kinks that need to be ironed out before they reach that level. I would give it a 4-star rating, though, and we felt like it was worth what we paid (rain notwithstanding, as I understand that is not Sans Souci’s fault!) Would we go back there again? I doubt it—but that’s because there are too many other places I would like to visit first! For someone interested in a Jamaican vacation, though, I would absolutely recommend Sans Souci. I think it is a great place for honeymooners—very romantic. I do think singles would probably get bored there, though, as nearly all of the guests are couples.

Here are my overall impressions of the resort’s amenities. Please keep in mind that I have been very detailed, and have noted many things that may seem very nit-picky. My intention is not to be negative, but just to be very honest about everything we experienced. As I said before, we did have a wonderful, fun, and relaxing vacation at Sans Souci!

Flights:
B+ We used Delta FF miles to get from Atlanta to Montego Bay. Because we booked so late (less than 2 months before we wanted to go), and the fact that apparently we wanted to go at the tail end of “high season” in the Caribbean, the only flights we could get were on Continental (a Delta code-share airline), connecting through Houston. This was a huge mistake—we should have just bought tickets! The flights between ATL and HOU were about as long as direct ATL-MBJ flights would have been, so going through HOU was a huge time-waster. Oh, well—you live and learn!

We were actually quite impressed with Continental. Usually, we fly Delta, as all our FF miles are through them, we like being able to earn points via Amex, and they seem to have the most ways to earn points. However, we have really become disillusioned with their service, and would like to start branching out. Continental’s service was overall excellent, very friendly, and they even still serve food on the flights, which Delta has pretty much cut out entirely.

When we landed in Montego Bay, we had to wait forever for our luggage, but at least got through customs pretty quickly. But one piece of advice—if you have to use the ladies room when you get off the plane, don’t wait until you get to baggage claim/customs—there’s no bathroom there!

Shuttle: B+ / C-
Sans Souci has a small alcove at the airport right near the door leading outside. We were greeted by a rep who took our names and got us into a van for the 2.5 hour trip to the resort (it usually takes about 2 hours, but it was raining). We were the only two in the van, which was nice, but we sat there for 45 minutes waiting for the driver to get some kind of paperwork done. Since it was after 5 by the time we even got into the shuttle, we were obviously ready to get going! But once we got on the road, I didn’t think the ride was too bad. The ride actually wasn’t too bumpy, and the driver was very friendly, pointing out lots of sights and telling us various facts about Jamaica. We stopped at a small jerk restaurant a little more than halfway there for a bathroom and Red Stripe break.

The ride back was very different. The resort informed us that we had to take the 8 am shuttle (our flight was not until 1:30). This time, the van shook the whole ride like it was about to fall apart. Our driver was a bit surly, and worried us at one point by picking up a hitchhiker (who in fairness, actually turned out to be another resort driver, but it would have been nice if we were told that when he was first picked up!) Once again we stopped at a small restaurant, right on the water. I am blanking out on the name, but it also had a small gift shop. We grabbed a couple of cokes and looked around for the driver, who was nowhere to be found. Finally, we discovered him sitting outside enjoying a large lunch. So we sat…and sat…and sat. We were tired, hot, and ready to go, and he just kept sitting there eating and laughing with another guy. This was a bit irritating (not saying he doesn’t have the right to eat, but he was enjoying a VERY leisurely lunch while we very obviously wanted to get moving). Anyway, We ended up getting to the airport still with several hours to spare. So my advice? Figure out what time you REALLY need to leave for the airport, and insist that the resort provide a shuttle for you at that time.

Rooms: A-
We had suite B29, which is a recently updated beachfront Jacuzzi suite. The location itself was excellent—we couldn’t have asked for anything better! It was on the third floor, looking directly out onto the beach! We also had a great view of the pool, Pallazina restaurant, and the cliff where the other room blocks are located. The only potential issue I could see with this location is noise from the gala and beach party—but since they were rained out during our stay, we didn’t have to deal with this. The tropical flowers placed all around the suite when we arrived were a nice touch.

We had originally booked a veranda suite, but then decided to add on the Honeymoon/Anniversary upgrade package, which is a very good value IMO (more on that in the next section). The room was very clean, and reasonable spacious, though not huge. My biggest complaint about the room was that there was just not enough/bright enough light. Nice marble bathrooms, although the cheap vinyl shower liner used as a curtain did not seem to go with the rest of the d├ęcor. The bedroom area had a comfortable king-sized bed with decent sheets and a white mattelasse bedspread, as well as an armchair and dresser. The sitting area features a loveseat, armchair, coffee table, two side tables, minibar, and television. The loveseats at the resort are covered in nubby plaid fabric, which bothered me. The room would have looked fresher if they had used a lighter fabric with a more “tropical” print. Yes, I know that’s nitpicky. I think this is what happens when you grow up with a mother who redecorates the house every other year!


The price for this package is $250, The main reason we booked it was for the upgrade to a Jacuzzi suite which would have been about $700 more had we just booked one in the first place! It also includes 2 extra spa treatments (an exfoliating scrub and a foot massage), your choice of activities--horseback riding (best deal @$160 value for 2 people), shopping ($20 value), or rafting (not sure how much $ for this). Also a private candlelit dinner, flowers on arrival, a $50 gift certificate for logo merchandise from the gift shop (we got a couple of t-shirts and a hat), and a $100 gift certificate. for a return visit. The package also includes a bottle of champagne on arrival, which we did not get, but you can order this free from room service anyway. But all in all, this package is definitely a good deal!

Service: B
After reading about the friendliness of the Jamaican people, I was a bit disappointed in the actual service we received at the resort. While some was very good, much of it was average, at best. The people working at the front desk were cordial, and reasonably helpful. The bellmen/drivers were as a whole talkative and friendly. The housekeeping staff was very kind and helpful, happy to quickly answer any request for extra towels, to find us matches, or to make up the room whenever we were ready.

The wait staff, while generally nice, could use a lot more training as far as producing more of a fine dining experience. They always tried to hurry us out at dinner, which struck me as a bit odd. That’s something we have encountered at many restaurants in the states, ostensibly because servers want to turn over tables quickly in order to maximize tips. But since there is no tipping at Sans Souci, I didn’t really get the rush. The room service guys were all great—the food always got there quickly, and was always hot (or cold, if it was supposed to be!) Actually, in that respect, it was probably the best of any resort I’ve been to—for some reason, even the best hotels generally seem to have trouble getting food to your room in a timely (and edible) manner.

The bartenders were about 50/50 in terms of being friendly and quick with the drinks. Some were great, refilling our cups before we even asked. Others seemed to get caught up talking to other guests, while we sat there with our buzzes wearing off…lol. I have a feeling that many of the bartenders expected to be tipped before giving good service.

Grounds: A
Beautiful—so lush and green, and extremely well maintained, while still keeping that wonderful “natural” jungle-y feel. Everywhere you look, there are amazing flowers, big bunches of bananas, waterfalls, carved wooden animals, fountains, etc. Because the resort is partially built on a cliff, there are lots of steps to walk up and down. But we really didn’t mind them a bit, as they wound through such a lovely setting (and served as a great workout!) Really no matter where you stay in the resort, you will have to contend with the stairs, as the A & B room blocks, the beach, Pallazina and Beach Grill restaurants, and regular pools are down, and the C-G blocks, lobby, Cassanova, spa, mineral pool, Balloon Bar, and shops are up. The whole time we were there, though, we did not hear anyone complain about the steps! If you can’t do stairs for any reason, you can always call for a van to take you up and down the hill (although, you would still have some to contend with to get to the spa/mineral pool/exercise facility area).

There are several talking birds on the property (in cages, of course), whom we enjoyed stopping to talk to. Anita the parrot especially amused us with her laugh. And definitely be sure to take a look at Charlie, the gigantic 95-year-old sea turtle with his own special grotto next to the mineral pool and spa. Next to the grotto, there is a “doorway” with a couple of steps leading right into the sea—walk down and you’ll find a great place to hunt for tiny shells. There is also a large pond with dozens of small turtle, as well as fish and ducks. We had quite a time feeding them the remains of our pastry basket each morning (we don’t get out much…lol).

Beaches: C-
There are two beaches—one “regular”, one clothing optional (called Sunset Beach). Neither is particularly spectacular, but I guess they do the job. The regular beach is manmade, and the sand feels suspiciously similar to dirt. The sand on the CO beach is a bit better, but we noticed that when it rained on that beach, the water turned foamy and dirty, which was a bit gross! The major complaint I have about both beaches was the amazing amount of broken glass we picked up. Luckily, neither of us stepped on any (we were VERY careful as to where we stepped), but we saw someone else who had. I am surprised that this is not a bigger problem for the resort, as it is somewhat dangerous, and I think they would be well advised to figure out a way to fix this issue. One other thing I noticed was mismatched beach loungers—which again, is quite nit-picky, but it would be a nicer look to have matching furniture, IMO. The beach towels could also do with an upgrade—they are all sort of small and worn out, not what you would expect at a “5-star” hotel.

Pools: B
Nothing wrong with them, they were just a bit boring aesthetically. We did enjoy the mineral pool, though—the real health benefits are a bit dubious, but it was nice and warm! The hot tubs seemed to be broken for most of our stay, which didn’t bother me (I don’t like sitting in what is basically used bathwater!), but annoyed some of the other guests.

Spa: C+
We each had 2 massages a manicure and pedicure (my husband’s first ever!), and I also had a foot massage while my husband had an exfoliating scrub. The first massages we had were in a hut overlooking the ocean, which was great-very relaxing! The massages were not that great, but they were free, so I didn’t really expect them to be amazing. It just didn’t seem like the masseuses (we had the same ones both times) had any training—more like they were just sort of making it up as they went along! Still, it is always nice to have someone massage you for 25 minutes 

The second massages were even less impressive. When the masseuses were finished and left the hut, I looked at my watch and realized they had worked on us for less than 15 minutes. I though about saying something, but we were both a little sunburned from our one morning of good weather, and I did not want an angry person rubbing my red flesh! I did think that was kind of obnoxious of them to cut it so short though. Both times after our massages, the women were waiting right outside the hut when we left. My impression is that they were waiting for a tip. I think that when we did not give one the first time, they figured they weren’t going to bother giving the full 25-minute treatments the 2nd time around.

Food: B
Conde Nast has recently rated Sans Souci’s food the best in Jamaica. This makes me wonder about how bad the food is at other resorts on the island, as we were really not impressed. That’s not to say there weren’t some exceptions—the room services pizzas were great, the beach bar French fries the best I’ve ever had, delicious jerk pork, great snapper at Casanova, etc. But on the whole, the food tended to be pretty average. Do be sure to try the made-to-order omlets at breakfast, though--they were delicious!


Bars: B
The bars all seemed to be well stocked, although since I drank mostly fruity frozen things, I didn’t really notice whether they actually served top-shelf liquors as advertised. The beach bar was a nice place to hang out. It did get pretty crowded at certain times of day, especially since it was sheltered from the rain, but we enjoyed the lively atmosphere. The swim up bar at the pool was fine, as were the bars at the CO beach pool and the mineral pool—not as crowded, but still usually relatively busy. All seemed to have pretty much the same selection and level of service. The Balloon Bar was a bit of a disappointment—sort of dim and dull, but still a decent place to grab a drink before or after dinner. I believe that they usually have entertainment right outside. But due to the rain during our visit, there was no band or dancing, so perhaps that accounted for the lack of liveliness there. Overall, though, the bars serve their purpose, and it is certainly nice to have 5 of them!

Weather: D-
Once again, not the resort’s fault. Still, more than 4 hours of sun in a week would have been nice. If we did not have photos of the trip, I think people would think we were lying about having gone to Jamaica, since we were as pale when we got home as when we left. 

Activities: B+
- Sea kayaking- Sea kayaks can be rented from the activity hut on the main beach, along with hydro-bikes, windsurfers, and snorkeling equipment. All you have to do is sign it in and out, grab a life jacket, and go! We had a great time kayaking around the ocean off the resort shore.

- Manager’s cocktail party- Not a fun or lively activity, although it did provide us with several hours of laughter. I think it lasts an hour or so, with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and a band. The appetizers were quite honestly the worst things I have ever tasted, and the atmosphere was a cross between a 6th grade dance (people sitting listlessly in chairs placed against the walls) and a hospital waiting room (complete with bright

- Fashion show—unintentionally hysterical, especially when my husband decided there was no reason he shouldn’t get a turn to sashay down the runway. The clothes modeled were from the resort gift shop (except for my husband’s clothing, which was by Arizona State University and Levi’s…lol). The highlights included the male model walking out in nothing but a towel and a hat, as well as his turn in a very tiny Speedo. He wasn’t my type, but the group in front of us who apparently just finished long sentences in a woman’s prison were wildly appreciative!

Shopping: D
We went to Soni’s Plaza, which is a large outdoor shopping center, and to the craft market across the street. I have never seen that level of aggressiveness in my life—it was scary as well as annoying. I understand that the people in Jamaica are very poor, but I think there are better tactics than screaming at people and physically dragging them to your booth. We lest the craft market after a matter of moments, which was a shame since I had actually wanted to buy a couple of things. But it was just too overwhelming—and apparently other people felt the same way, as there were almost no shoppers, and those who did wander in left very quickly.

Aggression was also high in the shops at Soni’s—but bearable. We had about 2.5 hours or so there, which was MUCH too long—I enjoyed looking in the stores, but they all seemed to have very similar merchandise. There are really just two types of stores there—souvenirs and jewelry. We bought a few trinkets and t-shirts, and looked at some jewelry, but I would be wary of purchasing anything expensive there. I saw a lot of knockoff Tiffany, Cartier, etc. being passed off as real—with prices to match!

Horseback riding: C
Um, yeah, this was dangerous. And a little scary. Not to mention painful. But an interesting experience, I suppose (and one never to be repeated). A rather long and bumpy bus ride took us through several other resorts (mostly Sandals properties) on the way to the stables. It was interesting to see some of the other resort options in Ocho Rios—and reinforced my thoughts that we had definitely picked the best place for us! Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with the other places we saw—they were all just MUCH larger and more crowded than Sans Souci.

Anyway, we reached the stables (also the drop-off point for biking, ATV, and canopy tours). There is a tiny snack hut, and one of the most horrific bathrooms I have ever been in. The swarms of flies were so bad I’m shocked I did not end up with malaria. But the tour itself seemed pretty organized, and the staff competent, which was reassuring. Unfortunately, first impressions can be misleading. Anyway, we got on our horses (mine was named Super Shy, which was a complete fallacy—she should have been named Super Scary) and began the ride by going around the ring a couple of times. There were 8 or 10 people in our particular group, most of whom were beginners. I used to ride, but had not done it in ages, so I count myself in the beginner group.

From there we started off on the 45-minute trip to the beach. I could say that the ride was lovely and peaceful, and filled with beautiful scenery, but that would be a lie. It was uncomfortable to the point of being rather painful, and the scenery was not particularly inspiring. When we rode along the water, I was shocked at the amount of garbage everywhere—it looked as if every piece of trash produced in the country had been dumped along that shore. For another portion of the ride we were on a trail lined with razor wire, which seemed to be irresistible to the horses. I just barely managed to avoid having my legs sliced to ribbons several times. There were also several steep hills, which would have been fine on a different horse. Unfortunately, I don’t think Super Shy liked me very much, so as other horses calmly walked down gently sloped paths, she would run down the steepest part of the hill, presumable in an effort the get the whiny American off her back. But I am proud to say that though I had a couple of close calls, I did make it through the ride relatively unscathed!

However, the main problem with the ride was not equine, but human. The guys leading the ride were barely out of their teens and not exactly responsible. They would constantly gallop up behind the unsuspecting riders in our group and whip the horses’ rear ends with sticks, causing the horses to suddenly begin galloping. This was disconcerting for us, to say the least, as we struggled not to fall or be bucked off. Even after I asked them sweetly to stop doing that to my horse (honestly, I am usually not such a complainer, but I was fairly worried about falling off and breaking something!), they continued to do it.

Finally we reached the beach, and dismounted for a nice cup of rum punch (bring some cash—this was supposedly included , but was actually about $5 a drink). There were dozens of other riders at the beach, and groups of about 20-30 at a time would be riding in the water. When it was our turn, we were given different horses, which I was happy about, and led into the ocean. Here, the guides continued their whipping trick, which was even more frightening when surrounded by a couple of dozen horses in the sea. Everyone was packed together, so if anyone were to fall off their horse, they would likely be trampled underwater. Bob and I made sure to hang on tightly! I think that if much smaller groups went in at a time, and riders were more spread out, this would definitely have been a much more enjoyable experience. I do realize that I sound like a worried old lady here, but I am very protective of my bones and head 

At any rate, it was an interesting experience, but not one I would recommend to anyone. And, yes, you will be sore for several days afterwards. I couldn’t figure out why people kept assuming Bob and I were on our honeymoon, until I realized that I was quite literally walking like I had just gotten off a horse….

Tipping:
We really didn’t, except for the shuttle drivers (because we were not sure if they fell into the “no tipping” category or not). I know many people do, but we did not for a couple of reasons. First, there is in theory not supposed to be any—the workers will get fired if caught accepting tips. Secondly, if we have received really stellar service at any point, we may have tipped a bit, but I did not really want to tip for average service in hopes of it getting better.

Candlelit dinner: B-
This is pretty much an overblown way of saying “we’ll come and set the room service up on the table for you”. However, it did provide my husband and I with some laughs. One suggestion I would give SS is that they consider having a special menu for this dinner—even if it is only a few choices—rather than having it just off the standard room service menu. The waiter for our dinner was nice, if young and obviously very inexperienced. Our dinner was scheduled for 7, and they let us know that someone would be there at 6:45 to set up. The waiter arrived right on time to set our balcony table and place some candles around the balcony.

He left and came back with our appetizers, and placed them in front of us. Then he just stood there-two feet away from the table, staring at us. He started asking questions about where we were from, whether we were having a good time, etc. Nice, but not exactly conducive to the romantic dinner we had envisioned! My husband and I looked at each other, not really sure what to do. Finally my husband asked the waiter if we could have a moment to do a private toast. The guy looked confused, but left our room to go get our entrees.

So anyway, we get our entrees, he leaves to get our dessert, serves that, then just stands there again, watching us taste our desserts. My husband asks about 3 times how my dessert is, because we can’t really have any kind of personal conversation with the waiter standing right there. Finally the waiter decided he is going to go take our dinner dishes out, and he exits. Honestly, I felt bad that he probably felt like we didn't want him there, but for heaven’s sake, man, give us a bit of space! I think he was probably just standing there to help if we needed him, but really, I imagine that would have made most people a little uncomfortable. Again, though, I think he was young and somewhat unsure of what to do—in my opinion, SS just needs to give better training to some of their wait staff.

Honeymoon in Paradise--Moorea and Bora Bora

Honeymoon Review 4/11/2004-4/22/2004
Photo link: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AcNGLRs5bMJI



Hotels:


Intercontinental Beachcomber, Moorea:

Although everyone seems to like Bora Bora better, my husband and I actually preferred Moorea. We loved the dramatic setting with the lush mountains in the background, leading down to the stunningly beautiful beaches!

We arrived at the resort around 9 PM, after many long hours of traveling. The lobby is open-air and very large, with a gift shop and a pearl shop. There are Tahitian paintings (many for sale) decorating the few walls. Off the lobby area in the same very large building, there is also a large, airy bar/lounge opening onto the pool area, and with a view of the beach just beyond the pool. Every day, local artists set up shop in the lobby, and we enjoyed looking over their handicrafts. The lobby also has a hidden closet filled with books (just ask the front desk)which was great for me, since I love to read, but had somehow forgotten to pack a single piece of reading material.

While we checked in, we were given tall glasses of the most wonderful cold fruit juice, which were very welcome, considering the heat. Checking in took no time at all, and we were taken by golf cart to our beach bungalow. Inside, we found a platter of fruit and chilled bottles of champagne and mineral water waiting for us. We also found a pareu and t-shirt wrapped in shell bracelets on the flower-strewn bed.

The bungalows are lovely inside, decorated with dark tropical woods and Tahitian artwork, with a separate bedroom and sitting area with a sofa, chairs, a large desk, television, etc. The bathroom was not huge, but spacious enough, and very pretty. It had a huge bathtub and an open shower, so you never have to lose the view, even while soaping up! (Another bonus to our particular bungalow was that no one ever walked past the front of it, so it was always very private!) Every bungalow here has air-conditioning, which was very important to us! I love the way the bungalows are constructed. There were shutters on either side of the bed, which could be opened to let in the fragrant breezes. The one time it rained during our trip (very late at night), we woke up to the sound of the downpour hitting the thatched roof, a very unusual sound, but also romantic!

I had requested #311, and they gave it to us! It is definitely the best one at the resort. While it was very dark when we first got to the room, waking up the next morning, we were greeted with the most beautiful view imaginable. The deck of 311 is framed with beautiful tropical palms and other tropical trees and bushes. It is right on the beach (a few of the bungalows are set back a bit), allowing us a perfect view of the ocean, and immediate access to the beach. There was a hammock right next to our bungalow, which was not once (that we noticed) used by anyone else the entire time we were there.

Each morning, we would wake up about 4:30 or 5 in the morning due to jet lag, but it was actually really nice to be up so early. We would sit on our deck and just watch the sun coming up over the mountains. It was also fun to watch the big fish (and sharks!) feeding right in front of our balcony, causing hundreds of splashes as the little fish tried to escape being breakfast! Then we would go for a long walk, with the resort all to ourselves. The early morning was the best time for seeing unusual sea life, since the water would generally be very calm, and it would still be a bit dark. One morning, there was a two-foot-long shark about six inches from my foot as I stood on a tiny rock jetty. The next morning, I saw a very large eel swim right by (cool, but a little scary!)

The resort itself is relatively large and very lush. There are several different beaches, all with different and beautiful views and clear water. The beach right in front of our bungalow looked straight out to sea; to the right, we had a view of the overwater bungalows. One thing to note is that the OWBs at this hotel are really only halfway out of the water, so I would not recommend staying in them if you are looking for the true OWB experience. They are, however, very pretty, surrounded by lovely landscaping-actually much nicer to look at than the usual OWBs.

The resort is the home of the Dolphin Quest habitat/experience, which I go into more detail about in my activity reviews. There is also a sea turtle habitat at the resort. The resort also is home to a full service spa (the Helene Spa). We never made it over there for any treatments, but they all sounded wonderful! The concierge is happy to sit down and discuss the various activities with you, but we ended up just hanging out on the beach for the majority of our trip.

There are a couple of restaurants at the hotel-one is right off the pool, with indoor and outdoor seating. It has basic dishes such as hamburgers, steak or mahi-mahi sandwiches, and salads, as well as various pasta dishes and pizzas. The food was quite good, and service was excellent, very fast in comparison to anywhere else we went in French Polynesia. The other restaurant is on the second story of the main building. It has a good selection of salads and appetizers, and many different meat and fish entrees. The service here is also good, and usually the food was as well. The only complaint we had was that the tomato and mozzarella salad was salty beyond belief, and the lobster Bob ordered one night looked like something out of a horror movie. We still can't even describe what was wrong with the meat of that lobster-just don't order it!

As far as room service, we took knotties advice and ordered one breakfast each morning to share. It was delicious, and definitely more than enough food. It was always delivered quickly, was very fresh, and the room service staff was very sweet and accommodating (I am very picky about how food is cooked!) We also enjoyed happy hour at the bar. Along with the drinks, they bring a dish of delicious black and green olives and fresh coconut (I know it sounds like a strange combination, but actually was great!).

The resort was not crowded at all, which was very nice, and there also were almost no children staying there-definitely a plus on a romantic vacation! One of the only things we did not love about the hotel was the pool. It was nice, but somewhat generic, ie no unusual shape, landscaping, or other special details. It is, however, right next to the beach, with a lovely view of the water. But overall, we loved the resort, and can't wait to go back soon!

Intercontinental Beachcomber, Bora Bora:


This 5-star resort is located at Matira Point, on Matira Beach, which was recently named the best beach in the world! It is three miles of the most gorgeous sand and sea you can imagine, making the location hard to beat. The only downside is that the hotel is adjacent to some local homes, which are not exactly luxurious-looking, though they are picturesque, set against such a stunning backdrop.

We arrived by boat from the airport (as with all Bora Bora hotels), and were greeted with shell leis, then taken to the bar overlooking the pool to check in. Our check-in forms were brought to us on a silver tray, along with cool cloths and glasses of delicious fruit juice. The concierge personally checked us in, then took us on a tour of the resort, and to our overwater bungalow.

On outside the OWBs are typical-they look like every other OWB in FP. The stretch far into the lagoon, and surround stunning coral gardens. At night, the walkway down to the OWBs is lit with tiki torches, which also cast a glow throughout other parts of the resort. The resort actually underwent a complete renovation/facelift a year or so ago, so everything is very new and luxurious. On the inside, the bungalows are spacious, with a bedroom, large bathroom, and living room. The bungalows have very high ceilings and lots of windows, which makes them feel very open and airy. The bathroom was decorated to give the feeling of being outside, with vines and plants everywhere, and shutters that can be opened for a view of the water. Like in Moorea, the bungalows are all air-conditioned, and also have ceiling fans.

The living room was pretty much the same as at the ICB Moorea, but with a glass-topped coffee table that could be opened so as to feed the fish. Each bungalow has a coral reef directly underneath, so there are always tons of fish to look at. The bedroom had an enormous window, perfectly placed for watching the sunrise from bed. The porch was large, with two levels-the top level contained two cushy lounges flanking a small table, as well as a built in table and seats. Steps led to the lower platform, which had a ladder into the water. The lower level was also great for sunbathing.

Once again, we found a t-shirt and pareu waiting for us on a bed of flowers, and more fresh fruit and champagne, and they had also left a pretty carved mother-of-pearl necklace and a 'jet lag kit' full of goodies! We had a Horizon OWB, with a view of the ocean and other islands far out on the horizon. The basic OWBs are a bit smaller, and have a view of Bora Bora's mountain, and a couple of motus. Either way, you will have a lovely room and a spectacular view!

The service was generally good, although not quite as good as at the ICB on Moorea, especially at the poolside restaurant, the staff was on island time, which can get frustrating at times. The exceptions to this were Jerome, the concierge, who spent quite a bit of time going over the various activities and excursions with us. He was one of the most helpful and knowledgeable hotel staffers I have ever met in any hotel in the world. Stephanie at the front desk was incredibly friendly and helpful as well.

The ICB Bora Bora is small and intimate, and the grounds are lush and beautifully landscaped. There are several restaurants, as well as an indoor/outdoor bar next to the pool. The dishes are similar to that at the ICB Moorea, but better-every lunch and dinner we had was excellent. We ordered room service for breakfast each morning again, but it was not quite as good as at the first resort (or we may have just been tired of it!).

The lobby is open, with a pearl shop inside and a gift shop outside. In the gift shop, you can check out DVDs (each bungalow has a TV with DVD player), which is nice on nights when you are too tired from activities to do anything but order room service and chill out! There is an ¡§activities¡¨ bungalow, with Internet access, a pool table, books, brochures on dozens of different activities and excursions, and the concierge desk. The pool is beautiful-the main pool features a rocky waterfall and infinity edge. The water pours over the edge into a smaller pool with a sandy bottom, which is fun to sit in, looking out at the ocean.

Snorkeling equipment is free, but I would recommend bringing your own, especially if you are germ-phobic. There are also canoes, kayaks, and windsurfing equipment available, all free to rent (same thing at ICB Moorea). Several hammocks hang from palm trees at the edge of the water, and there are always plenty of beach loungers and umbrellas for when you want a bit of shade.

Overall the resort was wonderful, and though the service in general could be improved, I would still recommend the hotel as a lovely option in Bora Bora.

Activities:


Parasailing:


I love parasailing, and try to do it whenever I go to the beach, but it was particularly amazing in Bora Bora! Bob had never been before, but was so excited to try it. He and I went together, which was so much fun, pointing things out to one another from such an unbeatable vantagepoint. Although the guys running the operation looked a bit shady, they were actually very professional and nice. We chose the 25-minute 'sail' which took us up to 300 meters. From that height, the peak of Bora Bora's mountain seemed to be at eye level, and the boat pulling us along was a speck in the water.

I don't know about the shorter 'flights' (there were 2 other options-15 min./100 meters and 20 min/200 meters), but we circled the entire island. One thing I always love when parasailing is being able to see what's in the water, and the water is so clear there that you can see huge fish, stingrays, etc when you are not too high up.

Our favorite part may have been when we were being pulled back down towards the boat. We looked down, and directly under us were 7 or 8 HUGE sharks (I say huge because they even looked big from hundreds of feet up!). They were all together in a group, and it looked as if they may have been mating (Bob and I disagree on this-he likes to think that we witnessed a shark fight...lol)

Overall, we highly recommend parasailing while you are in BB. As far as price, it was about $300 USD for our excursion. For the 15 min, it was around $220, and about $290 for 20 min. (By the way, I kept the activity price list from our resort, so if you have any questions about activity prices, feel free to ask!)

Lagoonarium and shark feeding:


We thought about doing the 'Shark Boy' excursion, which we had heard good things about, but ended up going on the Lagoonarium tour instead, which includes shark and ray feeding, as well as snorkeling in the coral gardens. The only complaint we had about this tour was the number of people with us-around 20 or so. Oh, and the fact that the loincloth-clad guide spent most of the time on the boat talking to the people sitting next to and across from us, with his (almost) bare crotch and rear end in my face. But we still managed to have a great time-loincloth guy has since provided us with many laughs!

First, the tour took us out to the reef, where we hung onto a rope while the guide fed sharks and rays inches from us. It was amazing, and just a little bit scary. (I am proud of myself for not freaking out so much I frightened the sharks, like one woman on our tour did!)

Next, we went to the coral gardens for snorkeling. We loved this, although the current was so strong, we almost didn't make it back to the boat when it was time to go! But the water is deep here, fish in this area are amazing, and you can see huge clams, eels, and other interesting sea creatures.

The final portion of this tour is the Lagoonarium itself, which is on a private motu. Here, there are different areas blocked off with fences (not the most aesthetically pleasing things, but I guess they get the job done!)

Each area has different types of sealife, and you can get into the 'pools' and swim with the sharks, etc. The first area has huge sea turtles. The next pool contains jackfish, which are enormous, and stingrays, including one with no stinger, which you can pet (and I did, with much apprehension).

The third pool is home to more stingrays, tropical fish, and lots of sharks! There is also a small cage containing a large and rather mean looking moray eel. The guides open the cage, and you can pet the eel, which is surprisingly silky to the touch! The final pool is quite large and relatively deep, with more fish, stingrays and eagle rays, and lots of large sharks (lemons, black tips, and white tips).

I know it seems scary at first to swim with sharks, but it is really so amazing-I am now (almost) over my lifelong fear of sharks (thanks to my brother, I was forced to watch Jaws at a young age!) To be honest, I was much more afraid of the rays, which come right up to you, as if to investigate. One actually swam up and wrapped himself around my husband's face, which gave him quite a shock! But the sharks tend to keep their distance-I guess they really ARE more afraid of us than we are of them!

In all, it was a fabulous thing to do. We did the half-day, which I would recommend over the full day. The full day does include lunch, but by the time the 'half-dayers' left, we all agreed that a full day would be too long-you will be tired and sunburned by the end of the tour!

Massages:

We never made it to the Helene Spa at our resort, but instead ended up getting a side by side couples massage in our bungalow. Both of the masseuses were amazing-we felt so completely relaxed and blissful afterwards. I would definitely recommend honeymoon massages!!!

Private motu picnic:

Our hotel in Moorea gave this to us as a wonderfully unexpected perk when we checked in. They took us on a catamaran to a private motu, and dropped us off for several hours with champagne and a picnic fit for a king-fresh fish, fruit, cheese, bread, etc. We went snorkeling, explored the truly deserted island, and just had a very romantic day. It was truly like being in the movie 'Blue Lagoon'. We had such a great time that we ended up doing another motu picnic in Bora Bora (see below).

Semi-private motu picnic:


Just a hint to those of you traveling to FP-unless you are dead set on having your own private island for a few hours, this is a better deal by far. We were transported by boat to an island that, while not truly deserted, was still very secluded and unpopulated. The private motu picnics cost anywhere from $500-$1000 USD, and this excursion cost around $100 USD total for transportation and our picnic lunch.

When we first landed on the motu, there were a few other couples, but they left after a few minutes, and we had the beach and jungle to ourselves for the rest of the afternoon. Again, we went snorkeling in a gorgeous green sheltered 'lagoonette', as we called it, and just enjoyed the feeling of being completely alone on this stunning isle.

Dolphin Quest:

We had planned to do this, as it is located at the Moorea Beachcomber, where we stayed, but decided against it. We spent a lot of time watching the dolphins, and you can get within a few feet of them, which is incredible. But the price was around $700 USD for an hour, and after talking to a few couples who had participated, we decided it was not worth it to us. One of the trainers let us dangle our feet in the water and play with the gorgeous animals anyway! From what we observed/heard the DQ mainly consists of standing in the water near the dolphins while they do tricks and the guides talk about them. I would recommend just sitting on the shady beach at the edge of their habitat and watching/listening to the others do the Quest. Odds are, the trainers will let you pet the dolphins anyway-this way, you'll have the basic experience, and save $700.

Bloody Mary's:

Well, the food was good. The atmosphere was fun. The service was not very polished (then again, FP is not exactly known for stellar service!). When we walked in, they told us how they have no menus, and we were led to a table piled with raw fish-much of it dead but physically intact (call me provincial, but I really don't like to see how my food looked when it was alive!). Then someone who did not really speak English proceeded to tell us what each fish/dish was. Since neither Bob nor I could really understand what she had described, we decided to go to the bar first and order later.

While sitting at the bar sipping (quite delicious!) rum punch, the host (an American) walked up to us and asked if we had ordered yet. We told him that we had not, that we had decided to have a cocktail or two first. We asked if that was all right, because he just kept standing there. Then, he had the audacity to say (and this is a direct quote) 'Well, it would really be more convenient for US if you would go ahead and order'. He then blathered on, mentioning his and the restaurant's convenience several more times. Um, oh, okay, of course we want to make things as convenient as possible for you, buddy. That's why we came here tonight, to make things easier for you. It would really be more convenient for US if you left us alone and paid for our dinner.

Well, that's what we were thinking at least. We didn't actually say that to him (hey, we were both raised in the South-we're too polite for that!) Instead, we looked at him like 'are you kidding us?' and he finally did a 180 and said that he guessed it would be okay for us to order when the next group of English speakers came through. Finally he left us alone, and we both nearly fell off our barstools laughing.

Our waitress was very sweet and helpful, though-one of the best servers we encountered our whole trip. The wine list is not extensive, but is good and reasonably priced. For appetizers, we had shrimp, steak, and veggie kabobs--yummy! We both had the special-mahi-mahi with vegetables and some type of ranch sauce, which was truly wonderful.

Shopping:


Le Petite Village, Moorea

This is a good place to but pareus, as well as pearls (see below). Lots of shops, all with basically the same merchandise, although some have a better selection than others do. The village is located a few miles west of the Moorea Beachcomber resort.

Black Pearl Gem Company
(located in Le Petite Village, Moorea)

My sweet husband bought my black pearl necklace here. They have a beautiful selection, and the staff is wonderful-very friendly, patient, and helpful. The prices are excellent, and the store itself is lovely. You are offered a cool drink the moment you walk into the store, and are welcome to look around for as long as you like, with no pressure as there often is in Tahitian pearl shops. They offer a free shuttle back and forth to the store from most or all of the major hotels.

General Tips:
1. Order 1 breakfast from room service. You'll save money, and there will be lots of food left over for feeding the fish!
2. Buy a couple of bottles of liquor at the duty free shop at LAX-sometimes it's nice to be able to relax on your deck with a cold drink, without having to wait for it to be delivered.
3. Bring your own snorkeling equipment--it's free at most resorts, but you get what you pay for--it is generally poor quality. The only exception to this is fins/flippers - as these are heavy and bulky, save the room in your suitcase and use the resort's fins.
4. The Bora Bora airport has a mosquito problem-bring bug spray in your carry-on.
5. Bring twice as much film/memory as you think you'll need.
6. Ditto with sunscreen
7. Don't forget reef shoes-the ocean bottom is full of things that cut and sting, and bite. (Note: I bought mine at Target for about $15 and while they are not pretty, they have worked perfectly and held up very well. Just be sure to rinse reef shoes with fresh water and put them outside to dry after every use, or the salt water will make them smell awful!)
8. Pack lightly and casually-you will wear mostly bathing suits and coverups, t-shirts, and the occasional sundress/similar outfit.
9. Get up early-the sun sets early, and you will have more daylight time. Plus, there is not very much to do at night, other than eat and drink.
10. Tamanu oil is amazing on sunburns-you can buy it at the hotel gift shop. It smells a little odd, but will heal a sunburn within 48 hours.

Note: I have tried to be as honest as possible about the good and bad things on our honeymoon. For everyone considering a trip to FP or anywhere else, remember to take 'perfect' reviews with a grain of salt. No one's honeymoon is without flaws, and there is no one 'best' place to go. No matter where you decide to stay on your HM, it will be fabulous, so HAVE FUN!

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