Tuesday, August 23, 2005

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.

1 comment:

Chandra said...

I love, love, love your blog:) I love to travel too. We went on our honeymoon to Italy/Spain a few week ago. I just got back to Atlanta from Orlando yesterday. And I'm going to NY in the fall. We really want to travel as much as we can before we buy a home and have children. Where would you recommend to going in January?? Snow or sun??

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