Sandals resorts: Pampering at a price

Jamaica is a scenic paradise with an image problem. It’s a beautiful place, to be sure, with many delightful people, but it also has a history of violent crime and poverty.

Canadians holidaying on the Caribbean island are frequently hassled by drug dealers. Fortunately, sidewalk dealers ignore grey-haired tourists, such as myself, preferring to concentrate on pushing their illegal wares on younger visitors.

However, the Jamaican government has made tremendous strides in its fight against crime, gaining ground with an island-wide program educating and reminding citizens to be nice to foreigners — that tourism puts money in everyone’s pockets, which means better jobs and lifestyles for every Jamaican.

A shining example of what’s good about Jamaica is Gordon “Butch” Stewart and his highly successful Sandals resorts — six luxury seaside retreats for couples-only, with absolutely everything covered in one price, including tips. Once you enter a Sandals resort, you never want to leave.

Guests are pampered the moment they arrive. They’re wined and dined with gourmet meals and fine wines. The accommodations are 5-star — and then some. And so is everything el, from the white sand beaches, clear sea water, sparkling swimming pools, stunning scenery, to the excellent facilities, including more than two dozen sporting activities.

The majority of all-inclusive resorts serve all-you-can-eat buffets and “local drinks.” Not at Sandals. It ‘s first class all the way. Feel like a French cognac after a lobster dinner? Or Italian red wine with your tender steak? How about a champagne breakfast in bed? All on the menu — everyday.

If you think all of this is laudatory, you’re absolutely right. I was sincerely impressed by the four Sandals resorts I visited in Jamaica. And I can see why they’ve won so many awards and why the 55 year-old Stewart has been heralded for changing and upgrading the face of Caribbean tourism.

Stewart is a down-to-earth Jamaican loaded with charm. He started off in the appliance business then purchased a run-down hotel in 1981 as a real estate investment — Montego Bay’s Bay Roc Hotel. So-called experts shied away from it but Stewart saw great potential in the land and the long stretch of white-sand beach, considered the best on the island. Stewart turned his vision into reality by tearing down the dilapidated old Bay Roc and creating Sandals Montego Bay, 243 luxurious rooms set within a garden paradise. Sandals Montego Bay is world-class and the flagship of Stewart’s ever-expanding resort empire.

From that small beginning, Stewart now runs six couples-only resorts in Jamaica plus four other equally luxurious resorts in Antigua, St. Lucia and the Bahamas — a total of almost 2,800 vacation rooms. His seventh resort in Jamaica — Beaches Negril — is geared to families with children.

Stewart has been heaped with honors: Caribbean Person Of The Year in 1994, one of the world’s top hoteliers in 1993, Jamaica’s Martin Luther King Jr. humanitarian award in 1992. And many more. As for the resorts, they’re also award winners, from Sandals Dunn’s River receiving the “Best All-inclusive Hotel” title in ’94 to Conde Nast Traveler magazine picking Sandals Montego Bay, Royal Jamaican, Dunn’s River, Ochos Rios and Negril for the magazine’s exclusive “Gold List,” designating them among “the very best . . . on the planet.”

Next page: But everything comes with a price tag

But everything comes with a price tag. In the case of Sandals, it’s a hefty one.

Sandals Royal Jamaican resort — in my mind the finest in the chain — weighs in at $2,129 in the off-season to $2,239 in high season. That’s per person, double occupancy, per week. At Sandals Montego Bay, the chain’s flagship, the weekly tab starts at $2,059.

Sandals started out as a luxury honeymoon destination for younger generations. But that didn’t last long. The romance and honeymoon suites are still there, but it’s the “mature” folks who are holding hands and doing the cuddling.

“The 50-plus now makes up 60 per cent of our clientele, particularly in the winter months,” explains Sandals’ executive Donna Haynes. “Seniors are the dominant group during the winter at two of our Jamaican resorts, Sandals Montego Bay and Sandals Royal Caribbean. There are plenty of over-50s at the other resorts, too, but Montego Bay and the Royal are the favorites.”

A key factor in the popularity of Sandals is safety. Even on the most tranquil Caribbean isle, violence and crime can be a problem. However, strict security surrounds all the Sandals resorts. No matter what’s going on outside, it’s peaceful inside where the only violence you’ll witness is the bashing of a volleyball. (Sandals Royal Caribbean is set in a seven-hectare plantation garden, Sandals Montego Bay is surrounded by 10.5 hectares of tropical trees and flowers.)

“Safety’s our prime concern,” adds Haynes. “We have very strong security enforcement at all our resorts, but it’s very discreet. The guests never realize it’s in place. And we have been very successful in preventing any unpleasant incidents.”

Stewart has also developed a Golden Players Club for guests over 50. The club’s activities, available at all the Sandals resorts, are geared to reflect mature tastes and include tennis and volleyball, pitch-and-putt golf competitions, plus blackjack and poker tournaments, in addition to a lengthly list of regular sporting activities.

“For the active mature traveller, there’s no end of things to do,” Haynes comments. “And for those who just want to relax under a palm tree, there’s no better spot. Our mature guests seem to appreciate what we do — our rate of returnees is 50 per cent, the highest among all major Caribbean resorts.”

One new and interesting trend: “Our older guests are coming to our sites to renew their marriage vows,” says Haynes. “Going through it all again with a minister, a few close friends and a wedding ceremony is increasingly popular. We have dozens of couples every year renewing their vows after 25 years, 30 years, even 50 years. It’s really wonderful to see.”

You want a luxury vacation? Sandals certainly is a good choice — at a price.