The Best Sandals Resort in Jamaica

The Best Sandals Resort in Jamaica

Which is the best Sandals resort in Jamaica?

That was the seemingly simple question we set out to answer when we first began to research the review article you are currently reading.

Sandals, as you may know, is a chain of all-inclusive beach resorts with properties in a handful of Caribbean countries including St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Grenada and Antigua. The country with more Sandals resorts than any other — there are seven altogether — is Jamaica.

But which of those seven Sandals should I choose for my vacation? you might be asking.

With that specific question in mind — and with a skeptical view of Sandals in general — Spot Cool Stuff visited all our their all-inclusive resorts on during our last trip to Jamaica. Here’s what we found:

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Sandals Overview

Sandals vs Your Typical All-Inclusive Resort

Every Sandals resort is all-inclusive. Every one offers the same basic premise: excellent service and high quality accommodations in a fun adults-only vacation environment. (For those looking to vacation with younglings in tow, Sandals has a sister brand, Beaches, which runs excellent all-inclusive kid-friendly resorts).

Spot Cool Stuff admits to being a grumpy curmudgeon when it comes to the all-inclusive resort concept. Sure, your typical all-inclusive provides guests with free food and drink. But usually the food is heavy on the carbs, the drinks are light on alcohol and the resort setup is such that guests are cocooned, never experiencing any of the country they’ve bothered traveling to.

Some all-inclusive resorts also have serious quality problems. Others are notorious for being all-inclusive in name only, tacking on extra charges and/or pressuring you to buy into a time share. Even some of the better all-inclusive resorts seem to feel that they’ve “captured you” once you arrive. They lavish you with attention when trying to sell you on the resort. Then their desire to provide you with an optimal experience disappears the moment your credit card approval comes through.

Sandals is refreshingly, and surprisingly (to us), different.

What is and is not included at Sandals

Instead of being “all-inclusive,” Sandals describes itself as being “luxury-inclusive.” That term is no mere marketing gimmick. At Sandals, the food is excellent (whole lobster, anyone?), the mixed drinks are potent and the staff is attentive. Everything is made easy. Tipping is banned (except for the butler service — see the review of the Sandals Royal Plantation, below). Reservations are required at some of the resorts’ higher-end restaurants, but a table is not hard to get.

sandals resort horseback riding s The Best Sandals Resort in JamaicaDuring a Sandals stay it is easy to find a restful beachside spot to while away your days as you like. It is also near effortless to get involved in the fun spirit of the resorts. At Sandals Negril, Spot Cool Stuff jumped in the pool for quick swim and then quickly found ourselves involved in a water volleyball game. After, the players all swam over to the bar where the bartenders had already prepared a row of shots for whoever wanted one.

The point being: Sandals doesn’t only offer a lot for their all-inclusive price, they actively work to help you take advantage of it!

Among the resort perks that are included in your Sandals room price: golf at professional-level 18-hole courses and scuba diving. (You could literally go diving every day during your resort stay and not pay any extra.) Non-motorized and motorized water sports (such as water skiing) are included as is use of all sporting gear and facilities like tennis and racquetball courts and fitness centers with trainers. Among the other items you won’t pay extra for: entertainment (from live shows to special parties), use of private off shore islands, airport transfers and transportation to another Sandals resort in the same town. If you stay for six or more nights, Sandals will even treat you to a free “Beautiful Beginnings” wedding that includes your own wedding website!

What’s the catch? A stay at Sandals is not exactly cheap, though we find it to be mostly high value. (Some saying about getting what you pay for comes to mind.) Also, not every Sandals offers every activity (some don’t have water skiing, for instance), though if you are a guest at one Sandals you have complimentary use of all their resorts.

Then there are those things not included within the Sandals room rate. For instance: yoga classes, scuba lessons and the like. Also spa treatments, though Sandals does occasionally offers special deals that include spa credits — check their website. Incidentals like phone calls and gift shop items aren’t included. Neither are optional excursions and tours of Jamaica.

All those exceptions to the “all-inclusive” concept we understand. What we don’t understand is why golf caddies cost extra (US$17 for 18 holes) if every golfer is required to have one. Worse, wifi internet is not included. Regular readers of Spot Cool Stuff know what a pet peeve this is of ours. When asked to explain the policy, a Sandals representative told us that the front desk will gladly check your flights and print out boarding passes for you, but that Sandals resorts are meant to be enjoyed in-person and not online. Fine, but we’re all adults here. It seems totally backwards that a $40 room at a Comfort Inn would include free in-room wireless internet but a $400 room at an all-inclusive Sandals resort would not!

Still, if you left for Jamaica without any cash or credit cards you could go to Sandals and have a luxurious, wonderful vacation . . . until your flight home landed and you realized you have no way to pay to get your car out of airport parking.

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Visiting strategy

As mentioned previously, Spot Cool Stuff is not one for visiting a country and spending all our time there within the sanitized confines of an all-inclusive resort. Not that we judge those who do — sometimes one needs to simply get away, stay in one place and have everything be easy. But if you are interested in experiencing Jamaica beyond the luxury on offer at a Sandals resort, we have a few suggestions. In no particular order:

sandals jamaica volunteer The Best Sandals Resort in Jamaica1) Volunteer for a few hours. Sandals runs its own charity program, The Sandals Foundation, and are keen to arrange community volunteer activities for you upon request. Contact the foundation if you want to make use of your extra luggage space too. There might be a school in need of pens, books, up-to-date maps, et al — you can visit the school to hand out the supplies yourself or Sandals will do it for you. (Short digression: On a trip to any developing country you can put your extra luggage space to good use — see our review of the cool Stuff Your Rucksack website.)

2) Spring for an island excursion. You can arrange one after you arrive at Sandals. Or you’ll save a bit of money if you book in advance with Island Routes (which is owned and run by Sandals’ parent company).

3) Visit another Sandals in a different part of Jamaica. If you are a guest at one Sandals you can eat, drink and play at any other Sandals (or Beaches) resort at no additional cost. Perhaps make a day trip out of it, stopping at local spots along the way.

4) Arrive a few days early and travel around Jamaica on your own before staying at Sandals. Go on a jungle hike. Eat at a street stall. Stay at a small, family run place (we’re partial to My Time N Place on the coast between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay) or even go camping. Roughing it a bit will make your experience Sandals feel all the more luxurious. Check out our list of cool Jamaica travel ideas or get a good Jamaica guidebook for some inspiration.

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Sandals Resorts in Jamaica Comparison Overview

There are seven Sandals resorts around Jamaica. Most are similarly price, with exception of the Sandals Carlyle, which is significantly less expensive, and the Sandals Royal Plantation, which is somewhat more. Save for those two resorts, you’ll be making your Sandals resort selection based on criteria like resort vibe, location, facilities, etc. Our brief review of each:

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Sandals Montego Bay

Location: Montego Bay (go figure), adjacent to Sangster International Airport
# of Rooms: 245 across 10 categories
# of Pools: 4 swimming pools, 4 whirlpools
# of Restaurants: 8
Vibe: Fun & social
Has own golf course / Swim up rooms: Yes / No
SCS Romance Quotient: Medium-high

The highlight of Sandals Montego Bay is the beach. It’s the longest private stretch of white-sand in all of Jamaica, which makes it a bit of a bummer that the beach runs parallel to the runway of Montego Bay’s international airport. For the most part, the airport is out of sight. But when a plane takes off the airport is most definitely not out of earshot. In a noble effort to turn that negative into a positive, the Sandals staff has turned each departing aircraft into an opportunity to blow kisses and offer champagne toasts to those jetting away. Still, some guests have complained about the noise (especially when trying to take a nap); others are completely unbothered by it.

Besides the beach (which is arguably the best of any Sandals in Jamaica), Spot Cool Stuff is a fan of the layout and size of Sandals Montego Bay. The resort is small enough to feel like nothing is too far away but large enough to always be able to find a private outdoor spot when you want one, either on the beach or in the resort’s lush gardens. Add to that great snorkeling and a fun party scene.

The main downside (besides the airport noise) are the rooms: While still very nice they tend to be a bit smaller and have few windows than most other Sandals properties.

Best for travelers seeking . . . great beaches with a social vibe.

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Sandals Royal Caribbean

Location: Mahee Bay, about a 15-minute drive east of the Montego Bay airport
# of Rooms: 197 across 14 categories
# of Pools: 7 large, 5 whirlpools
# of Restaurants: 7
Vibe: Quiet and hotel-like
Has own golf course / swim up rooms: Yes / Yes
SCS Romance Quotient: High

The Sandals Royal Caribbean is one of two in Jamaica to offer suites you can swim up to (the other is Sandals Negril) and the only one with its own private island (see pic, below). Both are very cool, most especially the private island. It’s ringed by clear water and white sand beaches you can enjoy from your own private cabana — the beach area on the far side of the island is clothing optional. The island is home to an excellent spa, a small pool with swim-up bar and a Thai restaurant. The resort will take you there by boat whenever you want, or add some adventure to your island journey by sailing or swimming to the island yourself.

The Sandals staff, friendly at all resorts, is perhaps especially so at their Royal Caribbean resort. We also give bonus points for the quality of the snorkeling immediately off the resort’s coast. The main downsides are the lack of water skiing and the relatively small beach areas. Still, no other Sandals offers such a feeling of seclusion in such a convenient location.

Best for travelers seeking . . . a getting-away-from-it-all luxurious feel close to an international airport.

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Sandals Carlyle

Location: Montego Bay, 5 minutes from the airport
# of Rooms: 52 across 4 categories
# of Pools: 1 large, 1 whirlpool
# of Restaurants: 3
Vibe: Quiet and hotel-like
Has own golf course / swim up rooms: Yes / No
SCS Romance Quotient: Almost none

For better and worse, this property (often referred to as “Sandals Inn”) is by far the smallest Sandals in Jamaica. That means no other Sandals has an atmosphere more cozy. It also means no other Sandals has less variety in terms of food and activities. There’s no private beach at the Carlyle (and the Chatham public beach across the street is no great shakes). There’s no swim-up pool bar. Though the staff at the Inn is exceedingly friendly, there isn’t near the feeling of luxury here that you’ll find at other Sandals Resorts. Guests are also plagued by the same airport noise that affects Sandals Montego Bay. Altogether, the Carlyle is easily the least luxurious Sandals resort, not only in Jamaica but anywhere.

That said, three facts make the Sandals Carlyle worthy of consideration. First, it offers the cheapest rate of any Sandals anywhere — we’ve seen seaside deluxe rooms go for as low as US$150 per person, which is about 40% cheaper than the next least expensive Sandals. Second, the Carlyle runs hourly shuttles (during the day) to Sandals’ two other Montego Bay-area resorts. Remember, a Sandals guest at one resort can eat/drink/play at any other without additional charge, which means you can pay the Carlyle’s rates but take advantage of the nearby facilities at Sandals Montego Bay and Royal Caribbean. Third, because the property is so small you have “real” Jamaica a short distance from your hotel room.

Best for travelers seeking . . . a Sandals all-inclusive experience at the lowest possible price.

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Sandals Negril Beach Resort & Spa

Location: Negril, a 2 hour drive west of Montego Bay airport
# of Rooms: 222 across 13 categories
# of Pools: 4 pools, 4 whirlpools plus private pools
# of Restaurants: 7
# of Restaurants: 7
Vibe: Laid back and sporting
Has own golf course / swim up rooms: Yes / Yes
SCS Romance Quotient: High (ridiculously so at sunset)

Negril is famous for its traveler-friendly nightlight and music scene, so it surprised us that the Sandals Negril Resort didn’t have more of a party-reggae vibe. Guests were often social around the open-air lobby, buffet area and swim-up pool bar, all of which are adjacent to each other. Otherwise, they tended to take advantage of the activities on offer — golf, tennis, scuba diving, etc. Our sense was that guests here also tended to get out into Jamaica on their own more from this resort than they did from other Sandals, if only to walk along Negril’s famous “Seven Mile” beach or catch the cliff divers at Rick’s Cafe.

Being on the island’s west coast, Negril has the best sunset of any Sandals in Jamaica. It also has the second-best beach (after Sandals Montego Bay). The combination of those makes for a very romantic setting, perfect for a wedding, honeymoon celebration or beach-side drinks.

Because of the layout of the resort, Sandals Negril has an especially large number of rooms that face away from the water. (Some unfortunate souls merely get a view of the parking lot across the street). Consider upgrading to a room in the Paradise Building — they are larger, more private and have balconies with sea views.

Best for travelers seeking . . . a mix of beach lounging and an array of activities.

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Sandals Grande Riviera

Location: Ocho Rios, 90-minute drive east of Montego Bay airport
# of Rooms: 529 across 24 (!) categories
# of Pools: 6 large, 5 whirlpools
# of Restaurants: 15
Vibe: Generally more party like, but nearly every vibe can be found somewhere in the resort
Has own golf course / swim up rooms: Yes / No
SCS Romance Quotient: High

The Grande Riviera is the most lively and party-oriented Sandals in Jamaica. Not that you’ll see scenes from Animal House reenacted here. But the energy, fun level and openness guests have towards engaging with each other is palpably higher here than your typical Sandals.

sandals grande riviera restaurant The Best Sandals Resort in JamaicaThe Grande Riviera is also the largest Sandals in Jamaica. If it seems to its guests almost like the Grande Riviera grounds is large enough for two resorts, that’s because, well, it was once was two resorts; to this day, the place feels a bit divided in half. The Seaside portion is more active and has the chic Ochi Beach Club. The Riviera Villas area is more lush and tranquil. We found that, in general, people who only stay for a few days find the Grande Riviera too large and unmanageable. Travelers who stay for a longer period of time love the variety and huge array of options — you can literally have dinner at the Grande Riviera every night for two weeks and not eat in the same restaurant twice!

Because it is so large, the Grande Riviera has every resort activity on offer. Of special note is the nearby Jamaica Golf and Country Club, which is arguably the best golf course in Jamaica and where Sandals guests receive complimentary greens fees. The Grande’s grand scale also means that a huge array of accommodations are available, including rooms and suite with private and semi-private swimming pools.

Best for travelers seeking . . . a social scene, great golf and/or an especially large variety of activities.

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Sandals Royal Plantation

Location: Ocho Rios, 90-minute drive east of Montego Bay airport
# of Rooms: 74 across 8 categories
# of Pools: 1 pool, 2 whirlpools
# of Restaurants: 5
Vibe: Quiet, intimate, pampered luxury
Has own golf course / swim up rooms: Yes / No
SCS Romance Quotient: Luxuriously high

Every Sandals resort in Jamaica offers rooms with butler service. The Royal Plantation is the only Sandals to offer only rooms with butler service. (All the accommodations at the Royal Plantation are ocean-front suites too).

butler service royal plantation The Best Sandals Resort in JamaicaButlers were once common among the wealthy but these days few people have had the experience of being served by one. It is quite something. The butlers at Sandals are personal assistants that will attempt to cater to your every request. In fact, they try to anticipate your needs and fulfill them without being asked. Spot Cool Stuff spoke to one couple staying at the Royal Plantation who went off on a hike and returned at what they thought was an unexpected time; they entered their room to find that their butler had already prepared for them a perfect temperature candlelit bubble bath! Many Royal Plantation guests have a butler service story like that.

Upon arrival, every guest is provided a cell phone they can use to contact their butler at any hour. Butlers will unpack your belonging for you when you arrive. They’ll bring you drinks as you lounge by the pool and serve you lunch on the beach. They’ll make any arrangement and, no matter what you ask for, they are instructed never to say “no” or “that’s not possible.”¤

Some people (Spot Cool Stuff among them) find the butler service a little creepy, unnecessary and/or intrusive and feel guilty about using it. While that’s understandable, we’d also say that absolutely everyone deserves to be pampered once in a while, especially if it is a honeymoon, wedding or some special occasion.

Aside from the butler service and ocean-front suite rooms, the Sandals Royal Plantation is a beautiful, quiet resort. It is easily the most tranquil of Sandals’ Jamaica offering. The downside is that the small size means that there’s not a wide range of activities. However, a free shuttle takes Royal Plantation guests to the large Sandals Grande Riviera where everything is on offer.

Best for travelers seeking . . . the highest level of service in an intimate setting.

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Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa

Location: Jamaica’s South Coast, a winding 90-minute drive from Montego Bay
# of Rooms: 360 across 11 categories
# of Pools: 4 large, 4 whirlpools
# of Restaurants: 7
Vibe: Nature-filled seclusion
Has own golf course / swim up rooms: Yes / No
SCS Romance Quotient: High

The Whitehouse is the most distinctive Sandals resort in Jamaica for (at least) two reasons:

First, it is the most remote. The Whitehouse Resort isn’t located near any other Sandals. It isn’t near any city (or town, or village of any note). Instead, it’s in the middle of a 500 acre wilderness preserve. That makes Whitehouse the most sprawling and nature-filled Sandals in Jamaica. Its secluded setting is downright romantic, though it also makes Whitehouse the only Sandals in Jamaica with no off-resort nightlife scene nearby.

Second, Whitehouse has a European theme to it. The resort is divided into Dutch, Italian and French “villages.” None will fool you into thinking that you are in Zandvoort, Rimini or St. Tropez, but they do have a slight European vibe to them and adds an extra air of sophistication. Interestingly, the villages each have developed personalities. Eg. the Dutch pool tends to be sedate while the French pool is more social.

Some other factors to consider: The beach at Whitehouse, while perfectly serviceable, is not outstanding. On the other hand, the level of service — high at every Sandals resort — is probably at its zenith at Whitehouse.

Best for travelers seeking . . . maximum seclusion, natural beauty and/or a chic, sophisticated atmosphere.

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So the Best Sandals Resort in Jamaica Is . . .

Spot Cool Stuff arrived in Jamaica skeptical of the Sandals “luxury-inclusive” concept but prepared to research which resort was the best one, at least relatively speaking. We left genuinely impressed with the Sandals product (their lack of free wifi notwithstanding) and with the sentiment that each of their resorts has something to offer.

If a single Sandals resort had to be declared as “the best” it would the Sandals Royal Plantation — the natural beauty, intimate feel, personal butler service and proximity to all the offerings at the Grande Riviera make it ideal for special occasions. But a stay at the Royal Plantation is more expensive than your typical Sandals resort. (The beach there also isn’t as large as other Sandals resorts). The extra cost might be worth it if you are going for a wedding or honeymoon, but perhaps not if you are traveling on a routine vacation.

On the other end of the spectrum is the least expensive, least luxurious Sandals Carlyle. It’s fine for two or three nights — at the end of a Jamaica trip before heading home, for example — but it is not a special sort of place. On the other hand, Carlyle guests can easily use all the facilities at Sandals’ other two Montego Bay resorts, so there’s great value to be had.

If it is your first time in Jamaica we’d generally suggest Sandals Negril or Sandals Royal Caribbean for a shorter stay (eg. up to three nights) or the Sandals Grande Riviera for a longer one. If you’ve already experienced Jamaica and simply want an easy, secluded vacation, the Sandals Whitehouse is ideal.

In the end, it’s a matter of knowing what you want in your all-inclusive resort experience and picking the Sandals resort matches it best. If you are feeling stuck, rest assured that you can’t really make a wrong choice — except maybe leaving your suntan lotion at home.

updated: 30 Mar 2013
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Related posts:
The Best Websites for Booking a Caribbean Vacation
5 Cool Caribbean Beach Bars
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This is a trick some all-inclusive resorts bait people with: They have one great restaurant that’s part of the all-inclusive package, but reservations are so difficult to get, or reserved for “VIPs”, that most guests can never actually eat there.

The SCS Romance Quotient is our own completely subjective take on the romantic vibe at each resort. The ranking is somewhat relative — with the exception of the Carlyle, every Sandals is rather idyllic.

¤ Are we bad people for wanting to test this? Spot Cool Stuff is tempted to ask the butlers to, say, arrange for us an in-room poker game with a pair of Australian wallabies and Deepak Chopra just to see what happens. Please leave a comment below if you try this.

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Responses

  1. Margo Chenoweth says:

    What a fun and informative read! Thanks! After reading this I am now POSITIVE that we will be going to a Sandals Jamaica for our wedding – no other resorts reviews even begin to compare.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Lauren says:

    What advice do you have for some one choosing between a Sandals in Jamaica and some other destination? I’ve never stayed at an all-inclusive before. Ready to take that plunge but no closer to deciding where after reading this.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Lauren,

    We haven’t visited any Sandals outside Jamaica and so can’t speak to the specifics of those.

    We can say that every Sandals has the same basic concept as what we described above. So, in terms of choosing between a Sandals in Jamaica vs St. Lucia or Antigua or elsewhere, we’d suggest considering the cost of the airfare, availability of the activities you are interested in (eg. scuba diving) and what other travel you’d like to do.

    Thanks! Let us know where you end up.

    ~ scs

    [Reply to this comment]

    Lauren Reply:

    Just got back from one of the best vacations in my life!!!! Stayed at the Negril Sandals and pouring over the options you reviewed. It was even better than you described. My one complaint is that the road was under construction and so the airport drive took nearly 4 hours!!!! Might have picked a resort closer to Mo Bay had I known that.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Tammy says:

    We’ve been to the Sandals Negril twice. The beach is beautiful, but the compromise is the distance to town and tours. We took 2 tours which took all day due to the distance but they were worth it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Stan says:

    This is a really informative article. These places sure look amazing to take a vacation, especially the beaches. It’s a shame that I’ll never be able to afford a vacation like that. Maybe some day when the kids move out I could actually afford to go there.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. D.B. says:

    you had me at “adults only”, you almost lost me at “wifi internet is not included”, but then you had me again at “royal caribbean private island”. thanks for this very comprehensive review.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. alwyn says:

    Choosing a Sandals in Jamaica is not an easy choice. Sandals ocho Rios has the most restaurants and Sandals Royal plantation has a butler for all rooms.

    Sandals Negril has the best beach and Sandals whitehouse has the most privacy and seclusion.

    Sandals Mobay is the first and original, Royal Caribbean has a private offshore island, and Sandals Inn is know for relaxation and quiet.

    They all give the same great service but those are the key features in my opionion.
    alwyn recently posted..Jamaica Events in November | Triathlon, Restaurant Week, GolfMy Profile

    [Reply to this comment]

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