The most frustrating, exasperating, and in some ways, best trip yet to CSA
First. Who we are. My wife and I went to CSA for our honeymoon in 2006, came back in 2007. We then went to Europe to visit with another pair of honeymooners we met at CSA back in 2006 for our 2008 vacation. Last year we took some good friends B (boy) and K (girl) with us to check out the newly renovated CTI. They loved it. We did too, but we decided that CSA and Negril was our place for 2010, and 2011 for that matter. Dates this trip... the week after Thanksgiving.
I won't get into the flights at all. Except for B & K having to sprint in Philadelphia, the whole thing was uneventful. Due to Jet Blue having a complete spasm however, we had to all rebook for our trip to Jamaica kind of late in the game. To make a long story short, we ended up on separate flights from B&K on the way down, and they arrived at the Couples lounge a half hour before we did. They decided to hang out till we arrived. No problem mon. Except the Keg is blown with no relief in sight. B has become a recent believer in Karma (more on this later), so he buys drinks at a stand in the airport. I think it was Margerettaville. Later I argue with him that buying beers at Marguerettiville does nothing for your Karma.
In that half hour, with bought beers in hand, B&K were worked by the TimAir folks. They did strike a good deal. I argue that Tim Air is better for the return trip, but it falls on deaf ears. All they hear is fifteen minutes till CSA by plane. I know its at least a half an hour before we get in the plane. They don't care and neither do I...... I've always wanted to go Tim Air, but..., shall we say ... the wives have always been a bit reticent. K actually has a prescription for Xanax when she flys.. Anyhow, the deal is good, and the women say an enthusiastic yes. So off on TimAir we go.
The flight is wonderful. I am doubtful that we saved much time maybe 20 minutes, AND there is NO drinking on TimAir. It will be the first time I spent my first hour in Jamaica without a Redstripe. The pilot is great. The flight is actually very smooth, and not the least bit frightening. The views are wonderful. We are like all Americans in their first few hours in Jamaica.. Which is to say we are over tipping in record proportions. Everyone is happy. The Tim Air flight could be kind of like Ricks... Overpriced, but well worth doing once, maybe twice... more if you like. We land, get a cab, and its off to CSA.
I had visions of us arriving and we would be alone at check in. I was wrong. So very, very wrong. We arrived at the end of what must have been a very big bus un-loading. That big bus had already gotten the cold towel and champagne treatment. We were indistinguishable from that crowd, and thus I knew... No welcome for us. One of the general rules for Jamaica in general and Couples specifically I've noticed is "Stay in the box of what they expect" You get out of that box and, well... you end up marooned way out in the land of "Soon Come". One of the porters noticed that we were separate and eventually brought us the champagne, which was really nice of him to do...
I also made the mistake of trying to be helpful. Everyone from the bus had clip boards with the necessary forms they were filling out. I noticed a stack of clipboards on the desk, and told B that we should get ours and fill them out. What I didn't notice is that they had names on them already. B noticed this but I did not. I filled out the top of the form before I realized there was someone else's name on it. When I figured this out, I was still quite sober, and a bit shocked. So much so that I exclaimed "Oh No!, there is someone else,s name on this form". That was the point, at least from my point of view, that everyone in check in area began to laugh uncontrollably at me. Fortunately, I have a thick skin, so I responded by dispatching the wives to go get strong drinks. It was really all I could think of to do at that moment. I am an idiot.
Turns out.. There was NO clipboard with my name on it. Despite pre-registering, and paying up early, and being "passionate level repeaters".. My wife and my arrival was a bit of a surprise. After a bit of hunting and pecking on the computer we were sorted out. But I will say this.. Randymon and Seandymon, the back office integration has issues. I mean ISSUES! I'm 0-2 on pre-checkin. Three days in we get two repeaters gift packages. I return one out of decency. We also go to the concierge desk on day two and let them know we will be going to the repeaters dinner... with or without invitation, because it's the next day and we don't have an invitation to RSVP with. I don't enjoy this. At all.
B&K .. On their second trip, however, recieve all their repeaters perks flawlessly. I, for one, yearn for the days when it was all "unofficial". I think we got more, with less effort on everyone's part. The "official" program makes the whole thing feel a lot less special, and is still just as wildly un-predictable. Almost like getting a toaster for opening a bank account, (maybe). I would ditch it and go back to the old way.. That way ... anything people got they would consider special. The current way, not so much, even when Couples delivers on what was promised. I do not see the "win-win" in the current program at all. Especially given its well documented haphazard execution. On this very board.
For all those who were wondering about " Who gets offered the upgrade?" It was us. BUT we didn't think that GVS was an upgrade from Atrium, so we refused. This did not make them happy, but we were accommodated. Apparently there was a run on the Atriums happening. B&K had booked a GVS. Had I known I would have warned them.
Now is the time for a little back story. One week before our trip, Billy experienced some dizziness, and numbness in his left arm. His wife took him to the hospital immediately, where it was determined that he was not having a heart attack. What was determined however, was that he had a benign brain tumor, and though it was benign, its still has to go. They scheduled the surgery for two days after our return. B is a cancer survivor already and took it all in stride,. His major concern was " Can I still go to Jamaica?" The answer was yes.. but don't act like a rock star.
Anyhow, needless to say, wife and I were very interested in making this a great trip for them. Road noise, apparently was NOT what the doctor ordered.
They were originally in the new section. They asked to go to an Atrium. Given the pressure put on wife and I to "upgrade"... It was no surprise that an Atrium was not available. In fact.. they were told NO other room was available. Another long time repeater intervened and got them moved to an old section GVS. The road noise was better.
For those of you wondering, and sweating out whether you will get a "new" vs. "old" GVS.... Let me tell you my opionion having seen both. You want the old section GVS. They are nicer... EXCEPT when:
The air conditioning is broke.. (low on charge IMHO)
The ceiling fan is so bent it can only run on low speed.
Both of those together are deal breakers in my book. One or the other needs to work. K went and told the concierge once. I was there. Nobody even came and looked, to our knowledge. B said something about Karma, and forbade any of us to complain again to Couples. Karma re-payed him the favor when their smoke detector battery died in the middle of the night, and started chirping in response. That is something Couples did fix the next day. As far as I know, the air conditioning and fan are still broke. If you are in 1102, I feel for you. Sorry.
Okay.. Enough of the bad crap. On to the good stuff... except for some more things to come later... all but one outside of the resorts control, and that one is a taboo subject... so wait for it!
Despite all my kvetching in this review we had a great time. We met some other repeaters who were wonderful people. Befriended some newbies, who were also wonderful people. Got to talk to Randymon and Lee Issa, both of which are always a thrill. There was a big photo shoot going on for the website and new brochures. I was glad to see that.
A stated goal for B and me was to get off resort some. Our first trip down the beach was to change some money. For no other reason than because we could. We walked down the beach to Bourbon Beach and crossed over to the road because I *knew* there was a cambio there. It was closed. But a guy across the street said he knew the owners and would call them. Despite alarm bells going off in my head, we said okay.
A little more about B. When he beat cancer he was still in his 20's. He decided right then and there that life was too short, and basically backpacked around the world. He has been to rural Mexico, South America and made his own way across Thailand. All by himself. A real worldly road warrior. Everyone that knows anything about Jamaica has told me under no circumstances, change money on the street. Well there we are, and sure enough we are involved in changing money on the street. Because the Cambio is closed, and I'm too lazy to go to Valuemaster down at the traffic circle. I figure "I've got Billy with me...It'll be okay." We get told the rate is 82, which is okay. The counting begins. We are changing $100.00 each. We are due $8200 Jamaican each. Billy counts $8000. I count $7000. Money is passed around and re-counted by the street guys. The difference is, and I had NO idea I was being smarter, is that B watched his guy count the money, while I look away while mine is counting his, and then recount it myself. I get $8000 and start bitching about the $200 he owes me. I don't get it. Nothing smaller he says. Billy also complains, but he gets his $200. The deal is done and we walk away while shooing off every higgler who just saw us change money. We stop and get a beer and head back to CSA. Long story short. B got $7200 Jamaican, cause the guy shorted him with slieght of hand. Because I counted my stack independently, I got $8000. Here is a pro tip that I now know and now will always follow. CSA will give you up to $100 USD in Jamaican everyday on a credit card at their exchange booth upstairs. There is a 4% fee but for $104 US you get $8500 Jamaican which is a great deal. Yay CSA.
It is, however, an awesome feeling to have $8000 in your pocket, even if it is worth less than $100 US. Sooo.... we recruited another repeater husband "S" to go to the 3 Dives jerk festival with us. We were all sure we would miss it if we waited too long so we left right after noon. being the Jamaica Neophyte that I am... we caught a route taxi and chartered it up to the cliffs for $1500J. (which is too much) Our driver was very nice.. and we got his card for the return trip.
Well, we got to 3 Dives, and they were still setting up for the festival. We were way early. We got one beer, told we would be back, and headed to one of the neighboring cliff resorts. What a great time time! We hung out, explored some caves and drank a fair amount of Redstripe. The cliffs are truly beautiful. They are well worth visiting.
We could tell the jerk festival was picking up at 3 Dives so we all headed back. They were now charging admission for the festival, but one of the bouncers recognized us from before, and let us in for free. I thought that was very cool. We then set upon all the offerings of the jerk fest, and ate our fill. There was jerk pork, jerk chicken, jerk conch, fish stew, and all kinds of sides. We ate and ate and ate, and drank some more Redstripes. Then we realized we had spent $15,000 Jamaican plus some USD so it was time to go home. We got our money's worth.
The next day sand gravity set in. Enough said. Went to the repeaters dinner and ate with Sean Rose, who I think is the head guy for food and beverage. Great dinner and Mr. Rose is a great host. Really enjoyed talking with him.
The next day, we borrowed S again and went to the Pelican Bar. If you do not know what the Pelican Bar is... stop reading and google it now. I booked the trip myself with an outside tour service and they were fantastic. Great, new van with leather seats, and the driver was awesome. Email me at mandolin-dot-jeff-at-gmail if you want their info. That Pelican Bar trip is probably the best day I've ever spent in Jamaica. And I've spent a lot of great days in Jamaica. I'm not going to review it any further here, because this review is getting long. All I will say is that if you are considering going, I whole heartedly recommend it. Resist the urge to combine it with another excursion. Just go to the Pelican Bar for the day and eat lunch there. Well worth it.
The next day, the weather was beautiful again.. Morning was spent lazing on the beach until B's knee went out walking in the sand. Poor guy. He cannot catch a break. We had to get a wheel chair to get him off the beach and to the nurses office. The resort was very nice and lent B some crutches and a wheel chair for him to use. B & K also report that both the doctor and the nurse were really good to them and they are very thankful to them, and CSA for the caring way they treated them. He used the wheel chair for the rest of that day then switched to crutches full time. All the resort staff did a wonderful, and very graceful job of accommodating B and his injury without making it a big deal. Truly a class act by CSA.
We spent the rest of the trip being truly lazy. Had our anniversary dinner at Feathers which was awesome. Other than that we just hung around the main pool as it was easier on B's knees.
One other bad thing to note: I was hit up by one of the staff to make a "charitable donation". I was not asked for a tip. I was asked to give money to help with a problem. The amount asked for was not trivial. Since I did not know whether the situation was real or not, I did not give the money. I had to say no. The reaction after I said "no" makes me suspect I was being worked. Still... Bummed me out more than I thought it would. That decision still weighs on me a bit now, though I'm glad I made it.
On the day we were scheduled to leave, we had to leave a bit early, as we had to tak a longer route to get to MBJ due to the Reggae marathon. I will say there were mixed reviews on the bus ride back to the airport, but I LOVED it. We went down towards Savalamar and then over the hills to just east of Lucea. Awesome views and sightseeing in the hills.. Lots of sugar cane fields too. I wish we could go that way more often. Those that frighten easily do not.
Other good tips I learned this time around. Things are WAY cheaper in the airport if you're paying in Jamaican dollars. Don't know about the big ticket items, but I could tell a real difference with the lunch, soda, and snacks we bought. WAYYY CHEAPER.
Already booked for next year, and really can't wait!! I'll try answer any questions the best I can.
Click HERE for pictures of our trip to the Pelican Bar!