Fresh off the heels of my last post, Beating the Winter Blues on a Budget, I wanted to follow up with a review on an all-inclusive hotel I stayed at in Jamaica last fall. I went during low season from September 26-30 (right in the middle of Tropical Storm Nicole), so it was just under $150 a night (after taxes) for double occupancy. But since all food and drinks are paid for up front, you might be able to get a good deal during the high season.
The resort is a $30, 20-minute taxi-ride from the airport, on its own little stretch of land that juts out into the bay. For those of you who are concerned about safety, the entire resort lies within a gated beachfront property that even my cab driver had a hard time getting into. There are 430 guest rooms spread out among two towers and a low-rise “Beach Wing” in a much more private setting. The main lobby is situated between the two towers, where you’ll find the front desk, a concierge, photo pick up, a bar, an Asian restaurant, and 2 pricey gift/convenience shops. Seriously, $22 for a disposable underwater camera. Remember to pack your own!
Upon entering the open-air lobby for check-in I was greeted with an ice cold tropical drink, garnished with a wedge of juicy pineapple on the rim. Check-in was fast, and I was able to upgrade to an oceanfront room on the seventh floor of tower B free of charge (probably because it was off-season, and I told them about this website). The room was exactly what you’d expect from your basic Caribbean hotel: tile floors, a frigid AC, and a basic old-school television. The beds were average with those gawdy floral quilted blankets that every standard hotel has. My room had a sliding glass door that led to a balcony overlooking a gorgeous view of the pools, mountains, and the seemingly endless Caribbean Sea. The bathrooms were clean and stocked with a liquid shower gel and shampoo dispenser reminiscent of a YMCA locker room. The rooms could use a bit of an upgrade, but I’ve read that they are finishing some renovations right now. Tower A was under construction while I was there and it in no way affected my stay.
Right past the main lobby, en route to the stage area for live entertainment, is the main pool area. There are two pools joined by a swim up bar in the middle, and a jacuzzi right behind those overlooking the ocean. The hotel didn’t seem to enforce a closing time for the pool or ocean since I found myself swimming at 3am the first night I arrived. That or I just didn’t get caught.
The main entertainment area is lined with 2-person cushioned wicker seats for a more intimate setting overlooking the ocean. But this is not the place to stay if you’re looking for a quiet, romantic retreat. It’s very family-friendly with plenty of activities including a water park, daycare, fitness center, miniature golf, tennis, shuffleboard, and giant games of chess and checkers (though some of the pieces appeared to be missing). For the most part the kid’s areas are comfortably situated away from the adult areas. But as I found out, it can be tremendously fun to join the kids and climb the concrete spiral staircases over and over again in order to glide down the 2 water slides. Once the kids have worn you out, try to snag a raft and float around the lazy river that winds throughout the castles and underneath waterfalls. I’m not sure how abundant these rafts would be in the high season since there were only a handful available as I floated around in the rain that was finally starting to let up. There is also a fourth pool with a volleyball net nestled between the water park and entertainment area. The resort is certainly big enough for every kind of traveler to find their own nook. Due to the storm and constant flash flooding, I rarely went over into the low-rise side of the resort, which was spread out across a lush green lawn with a gazebo fit for a wedding that I didn’t even know existed until my last day.
The resort has three beaches, each separated by a small stretch of rocks, with a good amount of marine life scattered along the shore. The beach closest to the towers is mainly for swimming and sunbathing, and is just a few steps away from the main pool area. The main (center) beach is lined with chairs and grass hut-style umbrellas, and allows free use of non-motorized water sports such as snorkeling, sailing, kayaking and paddle boats. I definitely recommend the snorkeling since it’s free. I was surprised at just how many colorful fish were in those shallow waters where I had been swimming. Unfortunately I didn’t get to try out any of the other activities because I was by myself for the entire hour that the sun came out during my trip, and they require two people to use the boats. There’s also a small bar just a short walk down the main beach, bordering alongside the secluded clothing-optional beach. Overall the beaches were nice—soft sand and clear, bath-warm Caribbean water. There was a lot of plant life in some areas just off shore which made for great snorkeling but not the best swimming.
They also have photographers running around the resort to capture all of your fun moments (for purchase, of course). I thought that was pretty cool, because 1) who wants to carry a camera around the beach all day, and 2) if you’re like me, you’re always the one taking pictures, only to get home and realize you’re not in any of them. I actually got a few pictures to prove that I was in Jamaica this time around!
There are 5 bars and lounges throughout the property including a billiards-style nightclub, each with a pretty good selection of drinks on hand. The only kind of beer I saw was the local Red Stripe on tap, but they seemed to have all kinds of off-brand liquors. All-inclusive was completely new to me. It was hard to believe that I could walk up to the bar 25 times a day and order whatever drink I wanted and not even have to leave a tip! And really, when you’re in Jamaica during a tropical storm, what else are you going to do but enjoy free drinks all day long? I quickly learned that alcohol, jacuzzis and water slides can make the rainiest vacation fun!
There are three restaurants that require reservations, a snack grill, and a buffet providing a variety of food almost all day long. There’s definitely something for every meal for even the pickiest eater.
- Just off the main lobby is Silk Road, an Asian restaurant which I never visited since it was only open one night while I was at the resort.
- The Banana Walk: an open, ocean view buffet with extensive food options for just about every meal.
- Byron: a Caribbean Fusion restaurant where I had my very first taste of jerk chicken. Very tasty, Caribbean flavor.
- La Bella Vita: an Italian restaurant offering a five course menu, is tucked away just a short stroll outside of the common areas. I ordered a glass of red wine alongside fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, a caesar salad, a side of calamari and eggplant, a cheese manicotti and snapper dish with mixed vegetables, and finished off with a cannoli. The food was good, but the cheese manicotti and snapper didn’t blend so well for me. Separately they were delicious, perfectly cooked and flavorful, but together made for a bizarre combination that my palette wasn’t quite ready for.
- The Sunset Beach Grill: a small counter that offers up the basics: burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese and fries until late in the evening. When I first ordered a cheese dog, I was a little surprised to get a hot pink dog on a toasted bun and American cheese melted on top. But something about those pink hot dogs were very tasty and very addicting, providing the right amount of a “soaking up the booze before and after dinner” snack.
The nightly entertainment included live music and dancing, talent shows, steel drums, contests, flaming limbo, and even a proposal. I’m not really a fan of Reggae and I had a great time listening and dancing to the local band, who were slightly poppy. The hotel staff was extremely friendly, especially a young man named Michael, and by the second day a good handful of them knew my name and called me out on my horrible dance moves from the night before. At times it felt a bit like summer camp, but I’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt. We probably saw much more forced entertainment than the average vacationer due to the weather. During the onslaught of Tropical Storm Nicole, they did an incredible job of keeping our minds off the weather and focused on having a good time. My favorite contest was when they blindfolded five women on stage, only to take the blindfolds off four of them and trick the fifth into thinking she was in a cake eating competition as we all watched her scarf down a piece of cake.
They charge for WiFi, and it’s restricted to use in the main lobby (although I heard you can get signal in some of the lower floors of the towers). I paid $15 and received a login name and password good for 24 hours of internet usage. Some advice: don’t sign up for day 2 until you check to see that yours has been discontinued. Mine lasted the entire time I was there, while only paying for one day. Also, do not log in on your iPhone if you plan on switching back to a computer. There’s something about the iPhone that doesn’t let you log out, so you’ll have to go back to the internet service station and have them authorize another code, if they’re still open.
For an extra fee, the concierge can help set up several excursions, including a day trip to Rick’s Cafe for some cliff diving in Negril, or over to climb the waterfalls of Dunns River Falls in Ocho Rios. Unfortunately due to the flooding and rolling blackouts, I wasn’t able to take advantage of these day trips. The hotel also offers several free shuttles down to the Hip Strip (a 10 minute ride) for daytime shopping and nighttime partying. On the Hip Strip you’ll find tourist hot spots such as the Jamaican Bobsled Cafe, and Margaritaville with waterslides that pour out into the ocean where you can jump on floating trampolines.
On the day I was supposed to fly back to New York, Tropical Storm Nicole continued rolling across the bay and flooding the island. The hotel staff worked quickly to mop up the common areas, and let us know at check out that all flights were canceled that day, and offered us a distress rate of $100/night. Luckily I had made friends during my visit, so I ended up crashing with them that last night for free (probably against hotel policy… shhh!). I spent the morning chatting up the friendly concierge about local foods and traditions, and comparing USA and Jamaican pop culture. Since we were all pretty much holed up indoors all day, the crew did their best to organize events at all times in the common areas. The entire staff managed to stay full of energy, even as we all crammed into the lobby since the rest of the resort was flooded.
All in all I’d have to give the resort a 4/5 star satisfaction rating. If you’re used to luxury accommodations, this probably isn’t the resort for you. But chances are if you’re visiting this blog, you’re looking for a good deal for your money. It was most definitely worth every penny I spent in September, but I’m not sure I would pay much more than that to return a second time. I would love to visit again during the high season, while the sun is actually shining on the crystal blue sea. If there wasn’t a tropical storm battering the beaches and knocking out electricity every few minutes, the entire trip would have been a truly carefree, unpretentious experience where I could’ve left all of my stress behind along with my wallet, watch, and cell phone. The staff was so friendly and helpful to ensure that we had every single need met during the tropical storm, I could only imagine how amazing it would have been in the carefree, gorgeous Jamaican weather. Plus I feel like I need to explore the rest of Montego Bay that I missed out on!
If you’re looking to book a room at the Sunset Beach Resort & Spa it can be a bit pricey during the high season. Try and book a week or two outside of the high season, and if you can, get a room that sleeps 4 so you can split the cost even more ways, and you’ll definitely get more than your money’s worth. Make sure to check out the website for coupons before booking, and if you’re flexible, try going during the week as opposed to the weekend to save a few bucks. Good luck and safe travels, mon!
*As always, check out more photos on Flickr.