First, let me give you some background. My husband and I first visited Sandals Royal Caribbean in 1998 and returned in 2000. This was our third trip, just concluded (November 20 to November 24 2004).
Let me start with the good so you can have a bit of perspective as to our experience. Sandals Royal is a lovely resort-it's smaller than the other Sandals properties I have seen and by far quieter in terms of the clientele. The landscaping and exterior maintenance is breathtaking. You can easily go for a stroll through gardens and open spaces, and it's quite obvious that it is expertly maintained. The grounds were an A+.
We had an oceanfront concierge-service suite. The room was very well appointed as well and well cared for by the housekeeping staff. The floors were a beautiful with cool tile, the sitting area spacious and comfortable with a sisal rug, and the sleeping area was spacious as well with a hardwood, four-poster king-size bed. We also had a balcony, which had a surprising amount of room and a place to sit for breakfast and morning coffee. The room itself is an A+.
The tour/excursion desk was extremely accommodating and friendly, and the tours were spectacular (we did the snorkeling catamaran, the ride-and-swim horseback riding, and the canopy traverse tour). Getting off the resort is something we enjoyed, taking half-day excursions and leaving time to return and relax in the Jamaican sun. Tour arrangements also receive an A+.
The common areas of the resort are also quite nice, with understated and well-kept furnishings and touches. There are plenty of places to sit comfortably and relax. The exterior of the resort (in terms of painting and maintenance) are also very nice visually. On aesthetics, I give it an A-.
One neutral over which the resort has no control is the beach space itself-this resort does not have a long, deep beach. Rather, it has "scallops" of beaches. The beaches are kept reasonably clean, though you occasionally compete for space with sailboats and other water sports equipment. There are not enough beach chairs and many of the ones they have are so old and poorly maintained that they are flat-out uncomfortable. On both a practical and aesthetic basis, the beaches at Sandals Royal Caribbean get a C.
Now to the disappointments. As I mentioned, we have now been to this resort three times. We were happy to come back this past time and were looking forward to it. One of the things we enjoyed most on previous trips was the accommodating and friendly nature of the staff across the board. On our previous two trips, it was easy to have a conversation with a staff member that was completely engrossing. Every time you passed a member of the staff, they would greet you and inquire as to your enjoyment of the resort and stop and talk. You never had to initiate this contact. It was offered freely, and in a very genuine fashion. At no time previously did we feel the staff was "sucking up" to us. It was an invaluable and largely unquantifiable part of our experience. This was in short supply in our most recent visit. Don't get me wrong-the staff (for the most part) is not rude, but they seem, rather, to be in short supply and so unenthusiastic about working there that they simply don't engage and don't go out of their way. It's as though they have been beaten down, and it really impacted on the overall presence and atmosphere of the resort itself. Atmosphere, in this sense, gets a D.
My husband and I are not unreasonable guests-it doesn't take much to satisfy us. Repeatedly, however, we seemed to be being told what we couldn't do. I'll give a few examples. My husband's birthday was on our second day of the trip. One of the restaurants at the Royal and two at the Montego Bay Sandals require reservations; although we attempted to make them within two hours of our arrival, we couldn't get them on his birthday. We understand this, but no apologies or regrets were offered whatsoever. When we DID show up at the Regency Suites restaurant (no reservation required) on Sunday night, and we were told we would have a 25-minute wait to be seated for dinner. We could clearly see that there were plenty of open tables, but not enough staff to serve them. We were offered no apologies at all. When we indicated that we would go to the Courtyard for dinner, we were told (rather rudely) that my husband's shirt (a silk V-neck) would prevent our admittance. It didn't seem to matter that we were guests. Reservations and restaurant management get an F.
The front desk was really quite appalling. It is customary to tip non-Sandals employees (such as tour guides, tour drivers, etc.) when leaving the resort. For some reason my husband could never get change when he asked. They keep change at the front desk, but the personnel either didn't have a key or it wasn't open to make change or some other issue. We would expect, given that we are the guests, that they would find the key and not simply tell us we can't have something. The front desk staff gets an F.
A caveat before the next item: the concierge himself, upon check-in, was a very nice and polite, pleasant person. Concierge service, however, is a complete joke. We expected a few things: one, with concierge service, we would be able to go to one place to make reservations, book tours, have questions answered, etc. Not so. The concierge checks you in and takes you to your room, and the check-in is no faster than non-concierge service rooms. Concierge suites have a mini-bar and are entitled to 24-hour room service. The room-service menu was exceptionally limited (mostly pool bar food delivered cold). The mini-bar was fine, but I had to ask several times for it to be restocked. I tried to call the concierge desk at various points throughout our stay-we could NEVER get them to answer the phone. We always had to walk down and ask someone, just as though we had the regular-class service. We had to check out with the concierge, and the process was unremarkable. If you can avoid concierge service and its charge, skip it-it was a non-factor. Concierge service gets an F.
Dining was a mixed bag. The best food was at the seated dinners, and you're very smart if you stay with seafood; it's exceptionally fresh and I had two fabulous seafood meals while there. Avoid the beef and chicken, as it was totally unremarkable. Lunch was served buffet style and was quite good. The breakfast buffet was only okay; the fresh omelets were good, but the remainder was kind of cold and the availability of fresh fruit was limited. Stick with room-service breakfast delivery-less hassle and generally better. The three non-reservation restaurants for dinner were fine: the Pavillion, the Regency, and the Courtyard. Service was overall pretty good. The pool bar and finger food (burgers, jerk chicken, pizza, and fries) were disgusting and nearly inedible. Food, overall, gets a C.
This is NOT a resort to visit if you're looking for an active nightlife and games staff. I had very little interaction with the entertainment staff (by my choice). When I saw them they seemed quite pleasant, and as if they were trying, but there is virtually nothing going on entertainment-wise at this resort. I have no grade to give the entertainment as it was a non-factor for me. When we wanted an active and festive night, we went over to the Motego Bay Sandals-it was hopping.
Let me summarize by saying this: there are differences between five-star and three-star resorts for a reason. When it's bothersome is when you've paid five-star prices (four nights, round trip airfare for two from Baltimore to Jamaica was $3,000-not cheap) and receive three-star treatment. It's especially bothersome when previous visits had been five-star experiences. If I allowed myself to concentrate too heavily on the cost of our vacation with respect to the service received, I would go crazy.
We love Jamaica and will definitely return to the country-the people are lovely and interesting and the country itself is beautiful and intoxicating. But we will NOT return to Sandals. If we are going to pay Ritz-Carlton prices, we'll stay AT the Ritz next time. We were sorely disappointed and quite saddened at the degradation in service at Sandals Royal Caribbean.