Another Long CSA Review from a First Timer! (12/19 - 12/26)
After lurking on the message boards for the past year, I feel that I should make a contribution to the Couples community. So, here's a review of our first Couples experience!
About us: mid-thirties, married 10 years, child-free. Foodies, but not big drinkers. My wife is a big fan of the beach; me, not so much - we're both very pale. This was our first all-inclusive. After a very stressful Christmas 2011, we decided to go somewhere tropical and far away from the usual family madness. We didn't really have a destination in mind until my wife sent me a link to a blog post she saw regarding CSA. The couple that wrote the post seemed like people that had similar interests/tastes, and that led me to do more research. Plus, we really liked the 'couples-only' aspect of the resort. I read a LOT of posts here on the message board, and that further convinced us to take the plunge and book 7 days. The 11 month countdown began... excruciating!
Arrival at Montego Bay: It had been a while since either of us had flown internationally, so it was a little bit of an adjustment to the ritual: get of the plane, go through immigration, pick up luggage, go through customs. The lines were a little bit long, but they kept moving.... I would say the entire process took around an hour. After going through customs, simply follow the crowd to the resort lounges... airport staff will point you in the right direction. The Couples lounge is "hard to miss" - just make a left once you get to the lounge area. We checked in with the staff and then I immediately headed to the restroom to change out of my winter clothes. By the time I exited, my wife and I barely had time to get Red Stripes and we were on our way to the shuttle bus. Make sure that you have some cash ready to tip the skycap - this was a bit confusing and some of the people that we were riding with thought this was part of the "all-inclusive" part of the vacation.
Shuttle ride to Negril: our driver asked if we wanted to listen to some music. We said yes and he put on this CD of reggae covers of 90s American love songs... it was horribly awesome. I wish I could recall some of the songs because it was truly ridiculous. Anyway... the drive took about an hour and a half. I've heard people mention that it is bumpy, I would say that it is equivalent to riding on some of the paved rural roads of my somewhat rural hometown. It was eye-opening to see the conditions that are normal every-day life for Jamaicans - it should make you very fortunate for what you have and hopefully more inclined to give back.
Arrival and room: we arrived, tipped our driver, and went to the front desk area. Check-in was a bit confusing since they did sort of a group check-in explanation with all 7 couples and then we individually spoke to the front desk staff. The cold washcloth and bubbly made it so that I didn't mind having to wait 10 or 15 more minutes. They had received my Romance Rewards pre-check in info. I requested a 2nd floor room and they had no problem granting my request. We went to the bellhop, identified our bag, and we were off to our room... which was the next building over from the lobby! Pretty short trip. We were in an Atrium room - my initial reaction was that it was a little smaller and a little shabbier than what I had imagined from the pictures... but you have to realize that what you see on the website is always going to be a "glamor shot." I really loved the room - the wooden shutters on three sides (pro tip: use the pin to keep them open!), the HUGE balcony with hammock (comfy, but a little small for two people... would love to see larger hammocks!!!!), king-sized bed with towel art. The mini-bar was stocked and our alcohol requests that we made arrived about an hour later. The room was meticulously cleaned every day. Turn down service is nice, but it seemed to come at a completely different time every day... and a couple times not at all. It is nice to have someone come in and close all those shades... there's a ton! I remembered that a lot of people mentioned ants on the message board... this was an issue over by the mini-bar... but it really wasn't a big deal, at least to me. I enjoyed having lots of fresh air and the outdoorsy nature of the Atrium room far outweighs the annoyance of some ants on the mini-bar.
Seagrapes: ate there every day for an early lunch. The service is definitely "island style", i.e. a bit slow, but once I got used to it... no problem. Janet was AWESOME and I always had her serve up whatever the juice of the day was. In the afternoon, my wife would often go and get a coconut water (served from the coconut, of course!). The veggie fare was nice and light. If you're not used to eating veggie food like we are, I'd definitely recommend it.
Cabana Grill: we headed over there every afternoon for Jamaican chicken patties!!! Neither of us had any idea what they were initially... we were expecting something like a hamburger patty on a bun... so when these flaky pastries filled with ground chicken and spices showed up were were very confused!!! However... they were so good!!! A great afternoon snack. I went and had the jerk chicken one day and it was okay... not mind blowing or anything.
Palms: Went here for breakfast a few times - the buffet was ok. I don't eat much for breakfast, but my wife enjoyed the made-to-order omelette bar. The bloody mary/mimosa station was a nice touch as well.
Patois Patio: we ate here for breakfast twice and dinner three nights. The breakfast service was VERY slow and the servers definitely did NOT seem to be morning people! Not rude, but not overly friendly or anything. I'm not a big breakfast person, but I did enjoy the griddle cakes and french toast. My wife enjoyed her omelettes. Even though the bar didn't seem to be up and running, they were kind enough to get us mimosas on request. The dinner service was good when we had Romaine and not really too good when we were there for Christmas dinner. The food was ok. I was a little disappointed by the Christmas dinner - the special menu was supposed to be the same as that at Feathers, but I doubt that the quality of the food was the same. I'm sure the service would not have been the same as quality as Feathers. I will say, though, that the drink staff was pretty prompt in bringing us drinks.
Lemongrass: we ate here twice. Service was pretty good, and the thai food was wonderful - I'd say on par with what you would get at a nice thai restaurant in the US. If you have a 6:30 reservation, I'd try to be one of the first few couples seated so that you can sit on the outdoor deck by the tiki torches.
Feathers: we ate here twice; tried to go a third time, but didn't feel like waiting until 9:00pm which was the only reservation left. Service was spectacular - Stacey-Ann in particular was awesome: funny and attentive. It was great to be in a nice restaurant but where the servers were laid back and not stuffy. The food was great! Only complaint, and this was really our own fault, was that we went two consecutive nights and the menu was the same. I don't eat seafood, so this really limited my options. However, the quality was a notch above Patios that I really didn't mind eating the same thing twice.
A few other food-related comments: we were able to make same-day reservations most of the time (and for times that we desired), but for some of the busier nights (like Christmas) it wasn't possible. Also be aware that restaurants are closed on certain nights... it's probably best to try to map everything out your first night! On soups: I remember lots of people mentioning to TRY THE SOUP. So, I did. And I have to say: GREAT recommendation. All the soups were delicious, and soup is not something I usually order when I eat out. It's all inclusive, so hey - go ahead and order the soup. If you don't like it, no big deal! The breakfast room service was hit-or-miss. We ordered every day, but it only came 4 out of 7 days. Not sure if anyone else had this experience, but a word of caution: if you really need something to eat, you might want to just get up and go to breakfast!
The Beach: You probably already knew this by now but... it is beautiful! Water was very warm and clear blue. Sunsets: stunning. If you want one of those tiki shade huts (I forget the proper term), make sure you get up early (between 6:00 am - 7:00 am) to 'reserve' one with your beach towel. I'm an early riser, so this wasn't a big deal for me. It was a bit annoying, though, that most people would reserve one and then not show up at the beach until 11 or noon. I usually reserved one, drank some coffee and read a book while waiting for my wife to get up. After breakfast, we'd head on over to our hut and park ourselves there from 9 to just about sunset. Drink service was ok - seemed to depend on who was working that day. The Bamboo bar (the one closer to the Swim-up bar) seemed to be better than the Sunset bar which was, unfortunately, the one that we were usually nearest. I'd say that the one thing I didn't like were the vendors. Yes, as everyone says, if you just tell them "no thank you" they're on their way... but I just didn't find it very relaxing to always have to listen to someone hocking shells or cigarettes or jewelry or handiwork or jetski rides or parasailing or... you get my drift. I thought that I could have some peace and quiet on a 6 am walk... but immediately upon leaving the property I was asked if I wanted weed. I got used to it after a while, but I just prefer to be left alone. This wasn't a deal breaker, but I really would have preferred a private beach. In the end, though, the positives outweighed the negatives. Plus, we smile now when we remember the guy yelling "shellllllls. conch shells."
Watersports: the water was rough for a couple of the days we were there, so the watersports were closed those days. So, a tip for you: if the water is calm and you want to do watersports... DO THEM, don't wait!!! I took out a paddleboard one morning and another morning my wife and I took out a double kayak. We regret not snorkeling or doing the Hobie cats.... but we were so relaxed reading and drinking on the beach that we just didn't end up doing it. We also missed out on the catamaran cruise - it doesn't run every day, and it was cancelled two other times (once for the rough water, once for Christmas Day). The day we were going to go, my wife felt ill and so we ended up skipping it. We'll have to check it out next time! Neither of us are interested in SCUBA so nothing to report there.
Bars: As I mentioned earlier, we're not really big drinkers... so we weren't really concerned about top-shelf liquor. It seemed like the beach bars had at least one bottle per day of the premium stuff, but we were satisfied with a shot or two of cheap liquor in fruity drinks. The exception would be the Martini Bar - lots of quality drinks there. By the end of our stay, it became our ritual to go there for a pre-dinner cocktail. The Patios bar was good too, but the ambiance of the Martini bar was better. Plus, it smelled REALLY funky on the one end of the Patios bar by the pool... almost as if there was garbage underneath it. It was really gross... so we sat as far from that as possible. Didn't make it to the swim up bar, but it always seemed pretty lively. The juice bar at the sports complex had great smoothies and infused water.
Sports Complex: Even if you are like us and not really big sports buffs, make sure you check out the sports complex across the street. One morning we took a walk on the trail and then played ping pong. Another afternoon, I ended up going over to the beginner's tennis clinic. I've never played tennis before, but I've always wanted to learn. There were four of us with varying levels and the instructor was very nice and patient. I had so much fun I signed up for a private lesson with Lorson the next day... and he was phenomenal. I regretted not signing up for lessons earlier in the week, it was fun and I think I could've used the activity to counter all that time laying around drinking Mai Tais! After the lesson I took a dip in the lap pool... it was nice and cool. The lap pool seemed to be always deserted... so if you want a change of scenery and a nice cool swim, check it out.
Christmas: Christmas Eve there was a cocktail party which we skipped, but then happened upon at the end. We were both really sorry that we skipped it, because it looked amazing. Ice sculptures, watermelon sculptures, hors d'oeuvres, music, cocktails... wow. There was an amazing spread at the Palms buffet as well. Not being traditionalists, we ate at Lemongrass of course... which was pretty dead, given the festivities. However, we did go down to the Palms and take a look at what seemed like an endless table of desserts. Santa arrived on Christmas Day and was available for photo ops and had little presents to pass out as well. As I mentioned, there was a special Christmas Dinner menu, but the Christmas Eve menu was superior. It was also fun to see all the people that decorated their patios with lights and decorations... couldn't believe how some people just went all out! I think our favorite part were the two huge REAL pine trees in the lobby and the Great House building. They smelled amazing and gave us just a little taste of Christmas at home to go with our beach Christmas.
Check out and departure: what a SAD DAY!!! The night before we settled our room charges (3 postcards!). Someone came to get our bag and hour before departure. We had breakfast and said goodbye to the beach, then joined the other depressed looking couples in the lobby to await our shuttle. They arrange the shuttle to pick you up about 4-4.5 hours before your flight leaves which seems a bit excessive... but I can understand that they want to ensure that you make your flight. Upon arriving at the airport we tipped the driver and hauled our bag in (seriously skycap, I don't need to pay you to drag my bag 100 feet).
Miscellaneous: From reading the message boards, I expected the staff to be much more friendly and outgoing than they actually were. There were some people that definitely were "a cut above," I would say that most staff members were pretty good and there were a few that I was surprised that they were so aloof or unfriendly. In fairness, I'm not really a chatty person so its possible I just didn't get to know them. This didn't take away from my overall experience, it was just something that surprised me after reading the forums. Maybe it's because I'm a first-timer and they are friendlier to people they recognize from multiple stays?
We'd never done an all-inclusive before, so I wasn't sure how I would feel about it...being that I'm a miser. Bottom line: I loved it. I put my wallet in the safe and didn't touch it until we left. For me, it was so relaxing to not have to worry about whether or not ordering another martini before dinner would put me over-budget. Hey, the money's already spent, so ENJOY! If you're a first timer to AI and you're on the fence, I'd highly recommend you to take the plunge. Even though I did have some complaints in the review, the positives of CSA completely outweighed the negative aspects. Though I can't compare CSA to any other resort, it was a wonderful AI experience. We were instantly discussing when we'd be back. I know now why there are so many people on the message board that are repeaters - it was a truly relaxing, beautiful vacation. Caution: YOU WILL FALL IN LOVE WITH JAMAICA!
Now, our big question is... what do we do next? We're torn between going back to CSA (which of course feels like home now) or checking out one of the Ocho Rios resorts (variety is the spice of life!)... and even then, CTI or CSS? If anyone has any particular advice, I'd appreciate it.
If you made it this far... whoa! Thanks for reading.