CTI review 4/10 – 4/16 (Excruciatingly long)
Remember, you were warned……
DEPART FROM LA/ARRIVE IN JAMAICA
Red eye flight out of LAX, 4.5 hour layover in Miami, routine flight to Mobay, breeze thru Customs, blah blah blah. Then we arrive at Couples lounge….ahhhhhh, home. No Ava to hug for Tommy, but the friendly gents working there that morning nonetheless greeted us with a cold Red Stripe, which we barely had time to finish before it was off to CTI. And dig this, the very first Couples guests we met before heading out was the very sweet ‘Kiminsocal’ and her SO. All that way over and the first folks we meet are fellow SoCalers – whuda thunk.
Anyway, we headed out to Ocho Rios with just one other couple whose names regrettably I could not recall, but they were so nice and of course excited to be heading to paradise. Their destination was CSS, so they would be dropped off first. The driver asked if we wanted to make a pit stop or drive straight thru. The four of us immediately agreed to make it a non-stop ride. Now at this point let me immediately debunk a huge myth on this and other travel boards regarding Jamaican drivers and the “scary” ride to the resort. It’s obvious those who feel the ride is not for the fainthearted have never driven on California freeways, because if they had, they would never in a million years refer to this drive as anything but non-eventful. Scenic? By all means. Scary? LOL, not in the least. Yes, due to the fact that the road to Ochi is for the most part only a two lane highway, you’ll see a number of vehicles pass other slower ones by having to cross over into the oncoming lane. But Jamaican drivers obviously have it all down pat. There is definitely an unwritten code as to how they adjust to this and it all flows so smoothly.
We first dropped off the couple at CSS, then headed over to our destination. I was surprised to learn it’s only a several minute drive between the two resorts. When the van pulled into CTI and up to the lobby entrance on this super bright sunny morning, Rosa immediately stated we picked the right resort. Before us was the open air lobby and just beyond and thru that was one of the most beautiful views of the Caribbean one can only imagine.
We were barely out of the van and of course still in a state of visual awe when Byron, CTI’s resident ambassador, warmly greeted us with a cool towel and a glass of champagne, then escorted us over to check in, turning us over to Ricardo, who quickly got us thru the formalities and whatnot. Within minutes our room was assigned, and we were immediately escorted there. The process could NOT have been any smoother if we had scripted the scenario ourselves.
It was a Premier Ocean View room, #3226, which is Bldg 3, aka the main bldg, 2nd floor, room 26. It’s really more like the 3rd floor tho, being the 1st floor is pretty much one story above the beach level. The room is almost at the very west end of the main bldg, right before it transitions over to Bldg 4, aka the West bldg. It directly overlooked the swim up bar. The view? I’m not sure if I can describe it any better than heavenly. From the moment we swung open the French doors and stepped out onto the balcony, we were greeted with a picture normally found only on postcards. In addition to the sweeping views of the turquoise waters, we had a straight ahead shot of Tower Isle, which added a touch of rustic class to the visuals. And if that wasn’t enough, we were also blessed with the perfect tropical breeze, which immediately reminded us of the balmy trade winds of the Hawaiian Islands. It was so nice that we would never close those doors throughout our stay at CTI. Morning, noon, night – didn’t matter, the doors remained open at all times. There is nothing like going to sleep while being caressed by a silky smooth evening breeze, along with the sound of waves cracking the shoreline….and of course the sweet, sweet chirping of those beloved tree frogs.
The room itself was functional. It was decent size with sufficient storage. It included the nice flat screen TV, although we really didn’t watch it much, maybe a little bit at night to help lull us to sleep. And along with the aforementioned view, there were two other important features that mattered to us: a comfortable bed and a nice hot shower. The king sized bed was super comfy, and it included the nicest pillows I’ve ever slept on in any hotel or resort - ever. The bathroom was small, but again functional. The step in shower was nice and hot, in fact almost too hot. We constantly found ourselves having to adjust the temperature, so we were grateful for this aspect. The pressure wasn’t all that strong, but that was no biggie. Out here in the west, it’s quite common to find showers with low pressure, it’s just the way things are these days.
Back to the location. As I previously stated, the room directly overooked the swim up bar. This could have its advantages and disadvantages, depending on how one utilizes the room. Because the swim up bar is a major hub of social activity during the day, if you’re the type who likes a nice afternoon nap or just wants to enjoy the room in peace and quiet during this part of the day, then this is not the room for you. However, since Rosa and I often found ourselves at that very location during the day, it was perfect for us. Just a quick walk down the steps and BAM – instant fun. And of course once the bar closes, this part of the resort becomes super quiet in the evening, so we always had a peaceful night’s sleep.
As for noisy hallways or funky smells, both negatives which were brought up in some earlier reviews….never ever an issue. Ironically, we would incur more noise outside our room during our stay at CN than at any time at CTI. Go figure. Oh and we got those cute little water bottles with the Couples logo on them. And yes the rooms come with bathrobes!!
One more interesting little tidbit. On the second nite in our room, there was a knock at the door, and when we opened it, we were greeted by a staff member with a cold bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and two flutes. What a thoughtful gesture by the resort!
For much of our stay it was quite sunny. I only remember a very hard rain on one of the days, which happened to be when we went horseback riding and that was about it. There were a couple of other days where it was overcast for parts of those days. And for the latter part of the week the red flag was out, causing the cancellation of some water sports activities and trips to the AN isle.
I’d guestimate that the median age of the customer base during our stay that week was around 30 years old, perhaps a bit younger than most might expect. I mean, the age band certainly ran the gamut, but it did appear that a large percentage of the total were in the high 20’s/low 30’s range. Most were Americans, but the Brits were also well represented, as was Canada, both the English and French speaking groups. It made for a nice mix overall. And there had to be at least 20 weddings take place the week we were there. I was amazed at that.
THE RESORT LAYOUT
For the most part, CTI is linear in its layout, primarily running east to west. It’s about 18 acres according to the website, but a portion of that is devoted to the quiet and not-too-utilized front of the property. Most of the remainder houses the rooms, lobby, restaurants, pools, and beaches. And they’re all pretty much interconnected. The big advantage here is if there’s a long rainstorm taking place, you can traverse the vast majority of the property without getting wet. Due to its compact size, you run across the same folks over and over again. The subsequent familiarity often leads to conversations, which in turn leads to friendships, making CTI a very social resort.
A common complaint about the place is it’s too hotel-like or looks too much like a high rise. At first I thought how much of a high rise can it look like, being it’s only five stories tall. But once we were there I kinda understood. Unlike CSS, which is built into the lush hillsides, or like CN & CSA, which surround their facilities with lots of tropical foliage, CTI boldly shows off its South Beach architecture, with its gleaming white façade hugging close to the shoreline. It practically hovers over the beach. But I can’t see why that’s so bad. I mean sure, it may be hotel-like, but it’s the only resort in the chain with its own pier and its own restaurant right on the water. And considering CTI has more ocean view rooms less than 50 yards from the beach than its three sister resorts combined.....well if that’s too hotel-like, then it’s my kinda hotel.
The center and focal point of the resort, the lobby is simply gorgeous in its homage to Hollywood with that Art Deco/Post Modern minimalist decor. Strategically placed furniture in colorful and interesting patterns lends a bit of a jungle-like touch to the overall feel…..Garbo meets Hemingway. The nice thing about the lobby is it’s as beautiful at night as it is in the day time, maybe even more so. And it’s as much function as it is form. It serves as a nice, relaxing gathering place to chat with others, even if you’re not waiting to take off on an excursion or what have you.
Altho it’s the smallest of the four properties, CTI’s beach never seemed to be overcrowded, and there were plenty of loungers and shade for all. Being this was our Couples debut, I can’t really comment as to what degree the beach has been restored after that storm eroded a sizable portion of it last month, but it appeared to be in pretty good shape. I certainly didn’t hear any complaints from my fellow guests regarding its condition.
THE POOLS & JACUZZIS
There are two primary pools: the main pool and the swim up bar. The larger main pool is at the eastern side of the resort and is the one with the one time diving board-turned waterfall feature. It tends to be the quieter of the two pools, altho once a pool volleyball game commences, it then gets fired up. The swim up bar on the other hand is almost always in a state of fun and yahooing. The activities folks often stage games and contests at the swim up bar, so it really was a great place for socializing, as evidenced by the number of friendships we struck up from this spot. There is also the small but legendary Buddha pool over by the Spa.
There are four Jacuzzis that I know of, two over by the main pool and two more at the Spa. If there are others, I never saw them. We were going to use them, in fact at one point I stepped in one over at the Spa. Unfortunately early into the vacation, dumb me forgot to put sunscreen on the top of my feet and they became sunburned. Actually, there was no pain or anything…that is until I stepped in, then yeeeeowwww!! Funny how semi-hot spa water feels like magma on sunburned tootsies. Oh well, so much for the bubbly water on this vacation.
Can’t say too much about Tower Isle, being we didn’t visit there. Sadly, due to a number of red flag days neither did a lot of the regular au naturelers as well.
We were fortunate to have booked our trip during the period when they were including $350 in spa credits and we took advantage of them…and then some. It’s very tranquil there and the moment you walk thru the front door you’re blessed with a fragrance that sets the mood immediately. I had two aromatherapy massages and Rosa had one, but she also indulged in something called a peppermint sea twist treatment and a facial. We loved it all. In addition to the previously mentioned Jacuzzis and Buddha pool, there is also a juice/smoothie bar, altho it’s not always manned. But if someone is there working it, you can have a refreshing drink.
THE GIFT SHOP
We also received $150 in gift shop credits, of which we also took full advantage, using them to purchase tee shirts, caps, hand bags, etc for various family members. Nice overall selection of goods. The resort also includes a separate logo shop by the beach, but we never got around to stopping in there. Our bad.
Dunns River Falls
This is Jamaica’s #1 tourist attraction and I can see why. This free excursion was a blast, but keep in mind that the climb covers a 960 ft elevation gain, so this is no E-ticket ride at Disneyland (did I just date myself with that or what). But when finished you feel so satisfied. And it’s quite the refreshing trip on a hot day to boot. My suggestion is if possible, to go on a day when there are no cruise ships in port. That’s what we did and I believe the two busloads that departed from CTI were the only folks there that morning. It felt like we had our own private tour of the falls.
Ok, so it’s really more like horseback walking. Still, it was an inclusive activity and a lot of fun, plus it allowed me to channel my inner Roy Rogers by cutting loose with a yippee ki-yay (the Bruce Willis version, natch). It was a nice gentle walk thru a plantation trail, being led by friendly, experienced guides, who pointed out the various flora and fauna during the sojourn.
Chukka Canopy Tour
Aka the ziplines, this was our favorite excursion, altho it’s not inclusive. I can’t remember the exact cost, but I think it was around $200 for the two of us…and worth every penny. There are seven traversing ziplines, plus two smaller but fun rappelling lines. The last line spans a length of 660 ft. Highly recommended.
Catamaran Cruise/Watersports/Shopping Tour/Margaritaville
We did not partake in any of these. The one we most regretted missing was the cat cruise. But with the waters being pretty choppy the two days for which we had the opportunity, Rosa didn’t want to chance it. I did hear later that some who did go said it was pretty rough out there and that a couple of folks got a bit seasick. There’s no doubt had we gone that Rosa would have as well. Didn’t care about the shopping, altho some who went said it was nice. Ditto with Buffetville, but it’s at least worth pointing out that Couples not only offers a free transfer to and from there, they also include the entrance fee. But you gotta buy the drinks. With the liquor flowing till the cows come home at the resort, we never entertained the notion of paying for it at another location.
This is CTI’s largest dining establishment and the only place that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner – all three in the form of buffet dining. Having been weaned on Vegas buffets, which are some of the best and largest on the planet, I found the buffet food here an average experience. But it does seem to be quite popular, even at dinner. After all, it is quite convenient and if variety & volume rank amongst your key criteria, you can hardly go wrong.
CTI’s formal restaurant, this is one of two requiring reservations, and the only one requiring the guests to be a bit more gussied up. We dined here twice and on both occasions the food and service were simply excellent. We usually ran the gamut, each of us ordering an appetizer, soup, salad, entree, and dessert. You can have as many items as your tummy so desires. Can’t decide between two entrees? Order both, no problem mon!
We ate here twice as well and loved it both times. In addition to a gorgeous setting – on the water, with soft lighting, and a beautiful resort in the nighttime backdrop – the menu is an adventurous fusion of Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese dishes. They don’t even ask if you want the appetizer for two platter. It’s been requested so often that they now simply auto-include it with your dinner. How cool is that. The other dishes, including the soups, salads, entrees, and desserts were never less than outstanding and quite authentic I might add.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the main restaurants. Because it neither required special attire or a reservation, we pretty much thought it would be a so-so dining experience. But the quality of food and especially the formality of the service put it up there close to par with 8 Rivers. We ate there only once, but would have dined there so again had we the opportunity to do so.
Pool Grill/Veggie Bar
I combined these two separate eateries because almost every day Rosa and I combined both places to serve as our lunch. One of us would grab something from the pool grill, such as a burger, snapper sammy, jerk chicken or pork, jerk patty, fries, etc…while the other would order something as well from the veggie bar, such as a goat cheese sundried tomato Panini, some of their many tasty dips & incredible sweet potato chips, and of course their yummy-in-the-tummy fruit smoothies. We’d then meet and share everything. Lunch was never boring for us.
Saturday Night Gala
This was the first of two themed dining experiences and happened to be the site of our first dinner, being we arrived on a Saturday. Formerly the Poolside Gala, it’s now held in the Patio Restaurant. I’ve read a lot of folks say it’s lost some of its charm being in this location. Perhaps so, but logistics dictate the necessity of this being it’s so huge, and there simply isn’t enough space to seat everyone around the pool. And they do a nice job of decorating the Patio, so we had no problems with the locale. Besides, if you really have an urge to dine poolside, they also had a number of tables set up there. The meal itself was pretty much standard buffet faire, altho I gotta admit the variety and quality of the dessert selections were impressive.
The second of the themed dinners, this will be broken up in two parts, as there is both the food and the entertainment to talk about here. So this is the food section only. And in 20/20 hindsight, I would have skipped this meal here altogether, opting instead to dine at Bayside, which I then could have used another night to eat at The Verandah. It’s not that the faire at the Beach Party was all that bad, it just wasn’t anything special. It certainly wasn’t as extensive or impressive as what was served at the Saturday Night Gala. They have everything set up on the beach itself, hence the name. It’s a bit crowded and the lines for the food are long and arduous if you arrive at prime time. So here’s a hint to those who would still like to partake in this festivity: Hold off about a half hour or even longer after it’s started before going there to eat. The lines will have been reduced to a more manageable level by then.
They provided some of the best entertainment you can imagine. The house band – I think their name was Fusion, was solid every night. I can’t recall the lady singer’s name, but she had a voice and style reminiscent of a young Tina Turner. She sure could belt ‘em out. I mentioned that the food at the Beach Party was just ok, but I can assure you the entertainment portion of it was incredible. It featured some great limbo dancers led by this one guy who could limbo under a set of lines that couldn’t have been much more than 18 inches or so high. How he did it I’ll never know, but it was amazing to say the least. The show also featured a fire eater – got heartburn just watching the dude.
There were other singers and dancers on other nights that also rocked the house, but perhaps the highlight of the week was on Thursday night when the Silver Birds performed. They are a multi-piece steel drum band that included some incredible dancers as well. No sense in trying to describe it all, I wouldn’t be able to do them justice. Suffice to say, it made for a most memorable evening.
Couples Resorts would not have its vaunted reputation in part if it weren’t for its bars, and in this regard CTI did not disappoint whatsoever……
Swim up Bar
Previously mentioned, this was our personal favorite. Open from 10am to about 7pm or so, it serves as the hub for many of the daytime games put on by the activities folks. It’s also just a damn good place to meet folks and cut loose.
Pretty much open from 10am thru the late hours, this served as the hub for drinks during the dinner and entertainment hours.
I believe this bar was open for most of the evening and late hours, even if there was no particular entertainment going on directly in there. Of course the place was always at its most hopping whenever Eddie was performing at the piano on the sing alongs or when karaoke was taking place. The bar inside is limited as to the types of drinks it serves, but whatever they don’t make they’ll order it from the main bar. And thankfully this bar serves Guinness Stout, my brew of choice.
Held on the roof top of the Patio from 6-8pm every night except Monday and Saturday, it appears to be an increasingly popular locale for this part of the evening. I think the concept is still a bit new, as it looks as if it is a work in process - a bit spartan in nature. But it’s a nice place to meet, chat, and imbibe in some creative martoonies.
Only open when Bayside is in operation, it’s a full service bar, serving the same fantastic drinks as the other bars.
TRADING PLACES PROGRAM– CSS
We visited CSS on our 3rd day in paradise. It’s pretty much everything everyone says it is: a lush, beautiful, romantic destination filled with breathtaking scenic vistas and charming little get-aways at every turn. This place has more nooks and crannies than a Thomas’s English muffin. We found the place to be very quiet, almost zen-like in its serenity. When we eventually made our way down to the beach and the main pool - the resort does have a lot of stairs – we were a bit surprised to find that same quietness. Even the swim up bar at the main pool and the volleyball game at same was more restrained than what we witnessed at the other resorts. This is likely due to the fact that CSS has the smallest customer base even tho the property itself is the physically largest of the four resorts.
We spent some time lying around at the beach under one of the open palapas. We thought at first we scored big time by snagging one of them. But after numerous times of bumping my head when getting up, I realized the smart guests simply knew better. The water was pretty calm, so Rosa and I each took out a water bike and had a lot of fun pedaling around the bay. Afterward, we opted for lunch at the Bella Vista beach grill. We liked that not only did they offer some good grill food, but they serve you tableside as well. Rosa in particular loved the jerk chicken, while I thought their steak sammy was fantastic. We were originally going to eat at Palazzina, but weren’t that impressed with the buffet offerings, altho we would later return there to have dessert on the terrace.
We then hiked back up the stairs to check out the spa and gym, eventually stopping at the health bar there and enjoyed one of the tastiest fruit smoothies we’ve ever had. We also made our way to the mineral grotto and dipped our feet in it – very nice. Soon it was time to return to CTI, so we headed on back to the lobby to wait our van. Did I mention there was a lot of stairs?
I doubt I can add anything relevant regarding the excellence of the staff that hasn’t already been mentioned. They are simply the best, period. Perhaps one aspect I can touch on that I don’t recall having previously read is the staff-guest ratio. I don’t know the number itself, but it seems pretty high to me, much like what they talk about on cruise ships. It just seemed that every time I turned around there was someone asking how we were doing or if they could be of assistance in any way. The absolute worst thing I could ever say about any staff member was that he or she was professional and courteous in his or her duties. Remember, that’s the worst I could say. Ok, time to debunk another myth – you know, the one about the staff operating on “Jamaica time”, aka being a bit slow to respond or whatever. Well, that was never the case with us. Be it bringing us drinks on the beach & bars, serving dinner, having something brought to our room, whatever. It didn’t matter. Response time was always at a minimum, and tasks were always performed with good cheer. Respect mon. And much love, too.
So with that said, some major shout outs to (and apologies for any misspellings):
Byron & Everald – two of the resorts ambassadors, they are the first faces the guests meet upon entering the resort, and they set the table for the good times to come with their positive attitudes.
Ricardo – he made our check in process butter.
Velma – who made our messy room look so clean and sparkling after she finished with it each day. Not sure if Velma also did the turn down service at night, so whoever did, many thanks there as well.
Rayeena – she helped us with both dinner reservations and inclusive activities such as the horseback ride. Always, always no problems mon with her, even when we would pester her to change our dinner times and such. What a sweetheart.
Annette – she booked our Chukka canopy tour (zipline). Even tho that was the only business we had with her, from that point on, whenever we’d cross paths, she’d always ask how we were doing and if we were enjoying ourselves.
Brenton, Matthew, & Aisha – activities directors. I can’t say enough about these hard working, yet fun loving folks who kept everyone hopping with poolside games and served as hosts for the evening entertainment. Brenton also provided our tour orientation. These guys are the heart & soul of the resort and are indispensible to the success of experience as a whole.
Myama – omelet maker to the gods.
Dorell – she did such a great job with my massage, I requested her a second time. If she can’t leave you feeling in a state of bliss, no one can.
Antoinette, Simone, Crisrine, & Keneshia – Some of our favorite bartenders who would create the tastiest concoctions known to humankind.
As I previously mentioned, CTI is a very social resort, and Rosa & I were very fortunate to have met so many nice and fun loving people. It was always easy striking up conversations under almost any situation. I wish I could remember the names of everyone we conversed with, but there are some with whom we struck up endearing and hopefully lasting friendships….
Tony & Kathy – our dear friends from England. We met them the morning of the DRF tour and immediately hit it off with them. They were caught up in the Iceland volcano situation preventing them from going home as scheduled. They were supposed to leave CTI three or four days before we left, but were still there by the time we departed, and for all we know may still be there! Talk about being stranded in paradise, I couldn’t think of a better place to ride that volcano out. Just the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.
Len & Tracy (aka ReadyforNegril – not sure if that’s how it’s spelled) – Chitown baby! We had a ball with them almost every evening after we met, and these guys would later serve as our “tour guides” when we later ventured over to CSA on the second leg of our vacation. We probably had more laughs with them than just about anyone else. Some of the stuff Len said still has me in tears.
Rog & Lisa (aka Scoop on the MB) – Altho we met early on one day at the swim up bar, we really didn’t get a chance to hang out much with them, but were lucky one night to be sitting outside the patio area in front of the lobby when they happened by. We ended up having a nice, long conversation with them. It was to our good fortune, as they are two beautiful people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and we’re quite grateful to have had that time chatting with them.
Larry (aka jakeman2368 on the MB) and Denise – We were interested in meeting these two being they were fellow newbs and I kinda got to know Larry a bit beforehand on the MB. Lo and behold we ended up being next door neighbors to them. Great people and great parents, finding the time to talk with their kids each night via SKYPE. Oh and guys, hope you forgave us for that obnoxious sounding alarm going off from the IPOD station – finally had to have the front desk show us how to turn that stupid thing off! LOL
Gordy & Freda – If I’m not mistaken, I think Rosa and Freda first met when striking up a conversation in the ladies room – and the beginning of a lovely friendship was born. We often found ourselves crossing paths to and from somewhere or eating at the same place at the same time. And at every opportunity, a nice conversation would strike up. Two very sweet people.
Richie and Sylvia – Altho we only met near the end of our stay, I was so happy to meet the MB’s legendary Crabracer and his lovely wife. Boy, are these two energy personified. I can only hope the island would be available to you guys for the rest of your stay – may that flag fly green! Oh, and Bruce & Kelli, even tho we only met on our final night, you guys seem like great people who would have been a blast to hang around with. It was a pleasure meeting you.
Wayne and Jill – Anyone who was hanging around the swim up bar during the early part of the week was likely entertained by the gravel-voiced Wayne (“hey dude, you got milk on your back!”). This guy’s a walking riot and his sweet wife seemed to spend half the time apologizing for him – which of course wasn’t necessary. We had a blast with them. EVERY resort should have folks like these hanging around.
Dave and Joanna – talk about a couple of New Yawkahs. Dave’s big mistake was popping over to the swim up bar just when a bunch of us were set to down some Bob Marleys. Dave just had to try one…then two. It paid him back later, but it also set up a nice friendship whenever we met up with them. Very fun folks.
Amy and Steve and Posse – I had to include the Posse because wherever Amy and Steve were, so went the Posse. These are two extremely popular people! I would say it was too bad we didn’t get much of a chance to hang together much, but they were hardly wanting for company. Great people and Amy remains IMO one of the most helpful people on this MB. I am so grateful to have finally met her in person.
What can I say? I’m a hypocrite. For months I’ve been stating on this board that there’s no such thing as a perfect vacation. Ok, I still feel that way, but the week we spent at CTI came as close to perfection as any vacation we’ve ever had. But it’s not just the gorgeous resort, the great food & drink, the outstanding entertainment & activities; it’s also the people - the staff who worked there and the guests who stayed there. Together it all formed a special mosaic, and it’s no wonder when it’s all said and done, Couples Tower Isle was our nirvana.