The all-inclusive phenomenon has, to the dismay of many, only accelerated in recent years with the arrival of several new chains including Iberostar, Secrets, Excellence Resorts, Fiesta Group, Riu, and Principe. The well-established home-grown variety include Butch Stewart's Sandals and Beaches Resorts, Lee Issa's Couples Resorts, and his cousin John Issa's SuperClubs brands Hedonism and Breezes.
All-inclusive resorts are a great way to cap your spending, even if they tend to be expensive, and if zoning out in a fantasyland with your partner is the goal, there's no better option. It's not a good way to see or get to know Jamaica, however, and you could just as well be on any other island with sun, sea, sand, and booze. While all-inclusive packages can be cut-rate and enticing, there are less expensive ways to see Jamaica without sacrificing first-world comforts. Nevertheless, there is an addictive allure to not worrying about where to eat and how much to tip the bartender. Couples stands out among the crowd as the most inviting all-inclusive chain, with great value for the discriminating vacationer, while the high-end Sandals properties, especially Royal Caribbean, are a cut above the rest in terms of opulent splendor.
Iberostar's three hotels, located next to one another just outside Montego Bay in St. James, offer a range of amenities based on the price point. Sadly the construction at the Iberostar hotels was carried out at such a fast pace that it is conspicuously sloppy, which holds true for several other Spanish hotel group resorts built over the past several years in Jamaica, namely Gran Bahia Principe and Fiesta Group's Palladium properties.
Differentiating Among the All-Inclusive Resorts
Jamaica was a pioneer in the all-inclusive formula, which has since spread the world over. While it takes little planning to spend a week or two at an all-inclusive resort, there are certainly differences among the resorts that are reflected in the quality of service, food, and, of course, the cost. Many smaller accommodation options have started offering all-inclusive packages that make sense if you're not looking to explore the different food options in the area you're visiting, and most villas offer an all-inclusive option as well. At the right place, a package deal can certainly be worth it.
Smaller all-inclusive accommodations include the Island Outpost properties, as well as some of the island's best cottages and villas. Where small properties offer an all-inclusive plan, it is indicated in the text under the accommodation listings in the chapter. All the all-inclusive resorts offer multiple pricing options within each location, which typically start at around US$150 per person per day and go up to US$400 per person for the high-end properties in the winter season.
Easily at the top of the all-inclusive options, Couples Resorts benefits from Lee Issa's hands-on approach and the exquisite taste of his wife Jane, who has been instrumental in ensuring tasteful decor and excellent food. Couples operates under the motto, "Couples who play together stay together," and plenty of options are offered for "play," including nude beaches at the Sans Souci and Couples Tower Isle properties. The other two properties, Couples Swept Away and Couples Negril, are within a few miles of each other, on Long Bay and Bloody Bay, respectively. Lee Issa is the son of Abe Issa, who pioneered Jamaica's tourism industry in the late 1940s and founded the first Couples Resort in 1978.
If the Spanish retained any bitterness about losing the island to the British in the 17th century, perhaps it is in the 21st century when they will have their revenge, not on the queen, but on the established all-inclusive resorts. Spanish hotel group Riu aims to undercut across the island. Its owners entered the market by setting up hotels beside Sandals properties in Ocho Rios, and virtually taking over the whole of Bloody Bay in Negril. A fourth Riu Resort was built in Montego Bay adjacent to Sandals Royal Caribbean.
Riu offers some of the most competitive all-inclusive rates in Jamaica, attracting principally cost-minded American tourists. Unfortunately the quality of food at Riu Resorts leaves something to be desired in the "fine dining" à la carte restaurants, with long lines in the morning just to reserve a table. The American-style fare in the buffet dining areas is mediocre at best. Rooms at Riu are well appointed and comfortable, though.
SuperClubs owner John Issa is a cousin of Lee Issa, the owner of Couples Resorts, and perhaps the more enterprising of the two when it comes to taking his hotels around the Caribbean Basin to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Curaçao, and Brazil. SuperClubs was once a diverse holding with five different hotel brands. In 2009, however, a rebranding did away with Starfish and the two upscale Grand Lido properties, rebranding them to leave three names in the group: Breezes, Hedonism, and Rooms. SuperClubs also holds a stake in the Jamaica Pegasus in Kingston.
At all the SuperClubs properties, there is a strong emphasis on activities, although there is no pressure to partake. From volleyball and trapeze contraptions on the beach, to nude bathing at many of the properties, SuperClubs knows how to excite and entertain.
The Breezes properties are open to everyone, from families to couples to O. J. Simpson, who reportedly stayed in Runaway Bay on a recent trip to Jamaica. Breezes properties can be classified as mid-range in terms of amenities and quality of service, with good buffet-style food as well as better à la carte service for dinners served in the specialty restaurants. Liquor is mid-range, with no premium brands offered.
The Hedonism properties, Hedonism II in Negril and Hedonism III in Runaway Bay, need little explanation. Nevertheless, it's worth mentioning the abundance of nude beaches, mirrored ceilings, private whirlpool tubs, and notoriously naughty guests. Hedonism also engages special-interest groups like swingers (couples who exchange partners for a bit of a change) with theme weeks interspersed throughout the year. It's therefore best to be aware of the planned happenings when booking a stay, lest you should be expected to swap spouses with the next couple.
Sunset Resorts has three properties: Sunset Jamaica Grande in Ocho Rios, Sunset Beach in Montego Bay, and best of all, Sunset at the Palms, a boutique property across Norman Manley Boulevard from Bloody Bay in Negril. Sunset Resorts make an attempt to appeal to everybody, with its motto, "Always Jamaican, always for everyone," but the mass-market feel is palpable at the two larger properties. The rooms cover the basics nonetheless, and compared with other all-inclusive resorts the price point is attractive. The quality of food has improved, while expensive booze is not offered at the larger properties. The service is consistently good throughout the chain. The Hendrickson family, which owns Sunset Resorts, also operates the Knutsford Court and the Courtleigh hotels in Kingston. In both Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, Sunset Resorts occupy choice beachfront real estate.
Sandals and Beaches
Owned by Gordon "Butch" Stewart, the Sandals chain attracts couples, and the Beaches resorts cater to families. Newly built or refurbished properties like Sandals Whitehouse in Westmoreland and Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay contrast with the more mid-range properties in Mobay, Sandals Carlyle and Sandals Montego Bay. The quality of each varies with the price point, some serving premium brand liquors and others offering a more basic package. Be sure to know what to expect, as the baseline of quality varies greatly between locations.
Royal Caribbean is easily the best Sandals property, with a small private island just offshore and easy access to Montego Bay and its attractions. Sandals Whitehouse is the newest property, but it is also the most remote, and many guests find themselves too isolated for comfort when it comes to seeing Jamaica beyond the walled compound.
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