I honestly had no idea what to expect when I left the plane and entered into Sangster International Airport. I was looking forward to spending some time in the sun, but this was also my first experience at a Sandals Resort and I was a little nervous. I’m not exactly what you would call an all-inclusive type of guy. Sure, I’ve been to them and they’ve been fine, but it’s not something I do often. I was intrigued though because, like many other people, I had seen their commercials promising a true luxury experience for years. While I was skeptical that luxury could be offered at the all-inclusive level, I was also eager to see if their claims were true. Almost immediately the subtle differences between Sandals and other resorts came into very sharp focus. Even before I left the airport, I found myself relaxing in a Sandals lounge, waiting for my private transfer to Sandals Montego Bay and just like that my remarkable experience with them had begun.
It was only appropriate that my first Sandals experience took place at Montego Bay because that’s where, way back in 1981, the resort empire started and Montego Bay was their first property. A lot has changed since then of course, especially in the world of luxury travel but, believe it or not, Sandals pioneered a lot of those changes, at least in the Caribbean. They were the first to have some of those amenities that we just now expect in spots like Jamaica: King sized beds, great food, personalized attention and they even opened the Caribbean’s first swim-up pool bar. Since then, as I very quickly learned, they have constantly been evolving and implementing new features, all meant to stay current with the expectations of the modern luxury traveler. In fact, the property just completed a massive, multi-year refurbishment updating just about everything on-site. From the guest rooms to public spaces and even brand new restaurants, the Sandals Montego Bay of 2019 is not the same as it was even a few short years ago. I didn’t know about any of that though as I was escorted to my suite by my butler. No, all I knew was that everything immediately seemed both easy and comfortable, exactly what anyone wants on a beach vacation.
Not every room is a butler suite, but if you do decide to book one of the premium rooms then your experience will be unlike any other you’ve enjoyed at a premium resort. Featuring very spacious rooms, the suites include those amenities for which Sandals has become famous, right down to the patio bathtubs that are fixtures across the entire property. Rather than take up too much of my time, my butler simply said he could be reached by personal phone at any time and that was that. Too many times the check in process at resorts is long and cumbersome, full of a recital of details that I’ll never remember. Realizing that I simply wanted to start relaxing right away, my butler made sure I had everything I needed and that was it. Throughout my stay though, whenever I needed something it was always easy to reach him, from an extra pillow to a couple more bottles of Diet Coke.
Speaking of Diet Coke, since I’m not a frequent visitor to all-inclusive resorts, it took me a while to get used to the idea that yes, indeed, everything was included. Everything. The mini-fridges are fully stocked, the cabinets full of rum and any restaurant on-site is available to guests, even the premium establishments at no extra charge. It was beyond what I expected and that was another indicator that yes, this was truly a luxury experience.
The food actually deserves some attention, because it’s so much more impressive than at other all-inclusive resorts I’ve patronized. Instead of the normal, and predictable, resort fare, there’s a little bit of everything at Sandals Montego Bay from Korean BBQ to a surf and turf fine dining experience. Sure, if you want a buffet they have that as well, but the options are impressive. Guests also have privileges at nearby sister properties, even further expanding the dining possibilities. You can stay there for more than a week and never repeat a restaurant if you don’t want to. It at first struck me as odd that they have so many premium restaurants but don’t charge extra for them, so I asked someone on staff about it. The response? They just want to make sure the guest experience is as great as it can be. That’s impressive honestly, and very rare to find in the hospitality experience.
Food isn’t the only reason to visit Sandals Montego Bay, with what is arguably the most pristine stretch of beach in the region, there are plenty of different ways to decompress. Although all Sandals Resorts around the Caribbean are consistently busy, they tend to have a limited number of rooms. What that means is that, even when they’re at almost full capacity, it never feels like there are too many people because, well, there aren’t. The beach area in front of my room, as an example, never had more than 2-3 people lounging around, making it feel like a private and definitely special experience. There are multiple beachfronts of course, as well as pools and plenty of activities to keep yourself occupied, if that’s what you want to do. Just as guests have dining privileges at the sister properties nearby, they can also head over at any time to use their facilities, making all of the resorts available for anyone to use. Free shuttles run between them all day, and it’s a great add-on to an already impressive resort experience.
One of my chief complaints about all-inclusives is that some can be homogeneous bubbles into which local culture doesn’t enter. That’s not at all true of Sandals, and it has always been that way. A Jamaican company since the beginning, the spirit of the island has always been at the core of the experience both onsite and off. If you want to learn more about the region or even the entire country, tour company Island Routes has a desk at the resort making booking a tour fast and easy. The second morning of my trip I did just that, joining them for a fun morning on the river. An easy drive from Montego Bay, as soon as we arrived at the Martha Brae River we were ushered to our rafts and off we went! For a little more than an hour our guide took us down the river, sharing local history and lore as we admired the gorgeous scenery. It was also nice to get out and about, explore the island a bit more and meet people who are fiercely proud of where they live.
As you can probably tell yes, I was impressed by Sandals and it honestly has nothing to do with the fact that this was a press trip. If my experience had been bad, I would have no qualms sharing that but that’s not what happened. Even someone like me, who is extraordinarily picky when it comes to hotels, was deeply impressed by almost every facet of the experience. My true regret was that I only had a couple of days at the resort to enjoy it. To fully take advantage of the amenities, a week or more truly is in order. Even though it was a brief trip, there were a number of special moments that made the short vacation memorable, whether it was enjoying a sundowner at the new overwater bar, visiting the new overwater villas at the Sandals Royal Caribbean or just enjoying a delicious meal with new friends. I now understand the appeal of this style of travel and while it’s certainly not how I always vacation, it’s a fun new option I can’t wait to experiment with again in the future.