Don’t snarl at the beach resort – Sandals is a great way to experience Jamaica
On his show Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain spoke of the “Two Jamaicas”. There’s the Jamaica where citizens “live, cook and struggle” — what he calls the “Real Jamaica”. And then, he says, there’s the Jamaica “you’re probably more familiar with”. As he says it, we see a sunburned tourist, cocktail in hand, splashing in the turquoise sea.
I touched down in the second Jamaica recently. I was relieved to be there: London was freezing and bracing for Omicron. I was also curious, having never been on an all-inclusive holiday before. Childhood visits to grandma in the Costa del Sol had prejudiced me against “resorts”. But the UK was miserable. A trip to the States had fallen through. So, when offered the chance to visit Sandals Royal Caribbean, I grabbed it.
The all-inclusive experience began, to my surprise, at the airport. Once through passport control, Sandals guests are guided into a large colonial-style reception built into the Montego Bay arrivals lounge. Plump pillows and lacquered furniture tempt you to sit while drinks are served and drivers are summoned. I could get used to this, I thought, as I nibbled on a plantain chip.
It’s not just me. Business is booming at all-inclusives. Tourists, scarred by two years of travel chaos, are embracing the comfort and security of resort chains. Sandals went generous with their covid policy, offering free onsite testing and free accommodation in case of a positive test. It paid off — in September the New York Times reported Sandals’ 2021 bookings were up 151 percent on 2019.
Royal Caribbean is one of two Sandals resorts in Montego Bay and six in Jamaica. 200 rooms, nine restaurants, a private island, and several pools cluster around a beach facing north east toward Cuba and the US. It is famous for the twelve suites held up on stilts over the ocean, the first of their kind in the Caribbean.
It’s an incredible operation. Staff not only cater to guests’ needs but telepathically preempt them, seemingly appearing from nowhere with towels, drinks, snacks throughout the day. There is an atmosphere of pure abundance that’s a little like being at a wedding, which is appropriate given the amount of vow-renewing and honeymooning going on.
Romance is serious at Sandals. Kids are forbidden. Rooms come pre-scattered with rose petals. Photographers mingle among the couples, armed with long lenses, primed to capture memories. At first my girlfriend and I resisted, but by the end we were holding hands by the fire pit like Love Island contestants.
Bourdain would surely say this is not the “real Jamaica”, but the truth is a little more complex. For Sandals itself is as Jamaican as Red Stripe. Founded in 1981 by Butch Stewart, a Kingston native who came from nothing to build the biggest resort chain in the Caribbean, it employs thousands, and adds more foreign exchange to the exchequer than any other company.
When Stewart died last year the New York Times ran an obituary. Aged 12 he would go fishing in a makeshift canoe and sell his haul to local hotels. He made money in air conditioning before buying a massive dilapidated hotel in Montego Bay, which became the first Sandals resort. Today, pictures of Stewart’s family adorn the restaurants. In the office of Island Routes, the tour operator adjoined to Sandals, his business philosophy is emblazoned on the wall: “Find out what people want, give it to them and, in doing so, exceed their expectations.”
My expectations really were exceeded. Our room (one of the least expensive) was huge and luxurious with a vast bed. Bombay Spice, the Indian restaurant, served fare to rival my local in Tooting; rich butter chicken, fluffy-but-crisp naan and subtly spiced tarka dal. We had a similar experience at Soy, the sushi restaurant whose rich yellowtail nigiri and delicate slivers of eel were more refined than anything I expected to find at a “resort”. Proper stuff, from a Japanese chef. The local food was delicious, too. For breakfast, heaps of nourishing callaloo and plantain. For lunch, sticky, spicy barbecued chicken from the jerk shack on the beach.
I told the waiter I was impressed, and she informed me the two head chefs are from India. We had a similar experience at Soy, the sushi restaurant whose rich yellowtail nigiri and delicate slivers of eel were more refined than anything I expected to find at a “resort”. Again, proper stuff, from a Japanese chef.
Several pleasant surprises about Sandals added up to an alarming surprise about myself: I’m not the intrepid tourist I thought I was. I’m a sucker for all-inclusive. The endless comfy loungers. The jacuzzis and fire pits. I’ll take it all. One day we went swimming at dusk. The sea was empty as most leave the beach when the afternoon heat fades. I noticed waves lapping against a man-made sandbank 100 yards from the shore. So that’s why the water is so calm. A flicker of protest rose in me as I wondered if an artificially calm sea is an artifice too far. But then I look down. In the perfectly still water I see small silver fish shimmer around my feet. Who am I kidding: I love it.
Need to know:
A seven-night stay for two people at Sandals Royal Caribbean Resort & Private Island staying in a Crystal Lagoon Hideaway Jr. Suite with Balcony Tranquility Soaking Tub starts from £2,179 per person. Price includes Luxury Included® (all-inclusive) accommodation, return economy class flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow Airport, resort transfers and more. Price is date specific and is valid for a 12th September 2022 departure. For more information on Sandals Resorts or to book, visit www.sandals.co.uk, or call 0800 597 0002. Prices are subject to change and availability.