Having been to both of Couples properties in Negril (Swept Away and Couples Negril) several times, my wife and I decided that it was time to see another part of the island. We liked Couples a lot and so we decided to venture out to Ocho Rios to Couples’ Tower Island resort. Tower Island is certainly one of the oldest resorts in Jamaica, having seen a host of Hollywood stars and famous musicians in the early decades of Jamaica as a tourist destination. You can see many of their pictures hanging in the piano bar at the resort. The property was completely renovated in 2010 however, and is now thoroughly modern while maintaining much of the charm of its historic past.
It is a bit further to Ocho Rios than to Negril, and you can’t take a plane there for relatively little money like you can to Negril. But the road has been updated and you'll make the 110 km (70 mile) trip from the airport in just about an hour and a half. Because we had been to Couples Negril as recently as last year, most of the comparisons here are framed against that property rather than Swept Away.
Tower Island has a little over 200 rooms; it is similar in size to Couples Negril. Swept Away used to be small too, until they expanded it. The advantage of the smaller resorts is that you tend to see the same people over and over again and often get to know people. There's less of this as the resort gets bigger.
A few years ago Couples, like several other resort chains, built an arrival lounge right in the airport. Here there are bathroom facilities (where you can change into warm weather clothes) and have a beer (on tap!) or a bottle of water while waiting for your bus to the resort. We waited only about 15 minutes and off we went. Don't forget to tip the airport baggage handlers and bus drivers; they are not Couples employees. We arrived at the resort with about 10 other couples and they had enough staff on hand to process us all very quickly. We didn't arrive until five so all the rooms were ready immediately. Oddly enough, at first they didn't seem to have any record of our being repeaters even though I had done the pre-arrival check in on the web site.
If you’ve never been to a Couples resort, you’ll probably be surprised by a couple of things. First, unlike all the other all-inclusive resorts I’ve been to, there are no wrist bands at Couples. I hate wrist bands. Secondly, there are no facilities that are off limits to some visitors but not others. There’s no exclusive “club” beach or cabanas for those who pay extra, no butlers or other things that separate customers into various classes. I think this is great.
Everyone notes that this resort's hallways have more the look and feel of a hotel than the other properties and this correct. The hallways are generally spotless, though despite a recent renovation the carpeting on the stairs was getting frayed. We were given a 3rd floor room (which is what we requested...the view was outstanding). However don't do this if you have issues with stairs because it's a bit of a climb and, at least in the building we were in, there is no elevator. If there are people smoking ganga on your floor, you will smell it strongly, though not so much when you go into your room.
If you've read any comparative reviews of Negil and Ocho Rios, you know that the beach at Tower Island is comparatively quite small. The chairs are closer together, there are no hammocks on the beach, and not only is the beach not very wide, it's not very deep either. Many days there was barely room at one end to put up a volley ball net between the building and the water. On a more positive note, the staff is constantly cleaning it, and we never had a problem finding beach chairs. The long beach walks that are available at Seven Mile Beach and Bloody Bay in Negril simply aren’t available here.
One of the nicer aspects of this beach is that there are no jet skis out front constantly going to and fro trying to get you to rent them or go parasailing. There was one fellow in a boat selling conch shells, but that’s about it. There’s also no one walking up and down the beach selling cigars and cigarettes. However, there also aren’t any of those great beach musicians you see in Negril.
If you’re a beach person, unless you’re really, really bothered by the jet skis, you’d do better in Negril.
This is one area where Tower Island really excels. At Couples Negril there is an absolutely fabulous pool. However there is only one pool, so everything from scuba classes to water aerobics take place there. There is a swim up bar with music going all the time and late in the afternoon, when some people have been drinking perhaps a bit too much the patrons can get a bit too loud. Tower Island has one of these pools as well, though it is smaller than the pool at Couples Negril. The great part is that they have a second pool that is about the same size. It has a bar, but there's no swim up bar; instead you have to walk 10 feet to get to it. There's a waterfall that used to be the diving board back in the day and it creates a background noise that almost completely wipes out the music coming out of the beach grill. It also attracts a lot of people, but they are people looking to relax. The most organized activity this pool sees is the occasional water volley ball game. There are two adjoining hot tubs...one of them, most people thought, was set way too hot...the other was about right. If you are the sort who likes to read by the pool while soaking up the sun, Tower Island might be the place for you.
Tower Island is just off the coast of the Tower Island resort (so close could probably swim there) and it is the au natural facility at this Couples Resort. Those who are into au natural sunbathing love it because it is physically separated from the rest of the property. They have a shuttle boat that runs back and forth and is always available. My wife and I aren’t really into this and didn’t visit the Island. We had assumed that Tower Island was perhaps the main reason that people picked this resort over other Couples properties. However the week we were there, there were people on the island but it appeared to be a fairly small proportion of the total number of guests at the resort. If you are into this, the island might be a very good reason to select this resort over the others.
I know that this is an odd topic to devote an entire section to, but this is important, as you will see. Last year at Couples Negril they had installed WI-Fi pretty much all over the resort, including in palm trees on the beach. I wasn't really sure how I felt about this...on the one hand it was incredibly convenient. On the other hand, maybe it was too convenient...I probably checked my work email too frequently. They do have WI-Fi at Tower Island, but it does not work very well. There was no connectivity available in our room, though there was on some parts of the balcony. And even when WI-Fi was available with a good signal sometimes I had trouble connecting and had to try several times. The WI-Fi is completely open with no encryption at all, so be careful.
There is an Internet cafe on the property, conveniently located near the pool. But you should be even more careful there. First, while they have installed the antivirus program Avast, they haven't kept it up to date and it is no longer working (as the software itself will tell you). There's very good free antivirus software available these days and they really should get it installed. But the more serious problem comes not from malicious hackers but potentially from your fellow guests if you're not careful. The browser on the desktop is Firefox, however, depending on which computer you sit down at, you'll either get version 3 or 3.5. This is software from 2009 (Firefox is currently on version 20.0). It has none of the security features that have been added in the last four years! If you are a Gmail user, when you go to mail.google.com to read your email, you'll get a message that it is not compatible with this outdated browser. No problem, you think, I'll just use Internet Explorer. That’s out of date too.
If you get one of the Firefox version 3.5 computers, you will have “private browsing” available. If you do this, none of your history etc. will be save when you exit. You can enable private browsing by selecting it from the Tools menu.
Here's the important part. Many people exit Gmail by simply closing the browser when they are done. If you do this on these machines (and you’re not using private browsing) when the next person sits down and goes to mail.google.com, your email will open for them. That's right, they won't have to put in your user code or your password. They'll be able to read all of your email and even send email that appears to come from you. Almost every time I used Gmail in the Internet cafe I found myself looking at some else's email. The reason this happens is that all of these machines have the default set to "stay logged in". The way to get around this is to either use private browsing or to specifically log out BEFORE you close the Firefox browser window. In short, the Internet at this resort is not merely problematic, it's potentially quite dangerous.
This resort has an alcohol problem. Based on my experience at Couples Negril and Couples Swept Away I had previously thought that the alcohol selections at all of the Couples properties were the same… and generally excellent. However, either I was mistaken about them being the same or the quality of alcohol selections had declined dramatically in the last year. I’m a gin drinker myself and in Negril it was possible to get both Bombay Sapphire and Beefeaters as well as other brands. Neither is available at Tower Island. You can get Tanqueray, but the only other choice is something called “Old Tom” which is dreadful. Really dreadful. Twice a week they offer a rooftop martini party, but the only gin available there is Old Tom. My wife drinks cosmopolitans and had no trouble getting one with Absolut Citron at Couples Negril. At the Tower Island piano bar, which is where one would normally go for a martini, there was no Absolute but, to their credit, they had Stoli and Grey Goose. We were told that Absolut wasn’t available at any of the bars on the property. However at the martini night on the roof, there was no Grey Goose, but they had Absolut!
At Couples Negril (also Swept Away) they have the same bartenders almost every day and it generally only takes one day for them to learn what you drink and produce it almost without you’re having to ask. We never had that experience at Tower Island and I’m not really sure why.
Probably the bigger alcohol problem at Tower Island is the wine. Now the house wine at all of the Couples resorts isn’t top shelf, but it’s generally quite drinkable. The house wine served at the restaurants at Tower Island is similar (it’s from Chile). But the wine that they have at the bars and in the rooms is much worse. The white wine in the rooms is so bad that we took to ordering (and paying for) a bottle of wine each day from the room service menu. Most days we had to make two or three selections before we could find one on the list that they actually had in stock. The person who is on the phone at room service doesn’t actually know what they have in stock so generally we would call and order a bottle and five minutes later we’d get a call back telling us they didn’t have it. Then we’d try again.
My wife went to the spa on a daily basis and I went once. Each time we had a very good experience. My wife prefers the spa at Couples Negril because of one therapist there (you rock, Karen!), but really you can’t go wrong at a Couples spa.
Back in the day (circa 2000) Swept Away had all Reggae music at least two evenings a week. Unfortunately those days are long gone and most of the music played in the evening at all of these resorts its retreaded American pop music, somewhat like you’d hear at a typical American wedding reception. Every now and then they break loose with some Reggae and they’re wonderful, so you know they can do it. When we toured the property on arrival I asked the tour guide whether there was a night they were offering Reggae and was told they do that on Friday’s. On Friday, they did indeed have Reggae…. for fifteen minutes… that was it.
However, of all the three Couples resorts that I’ve been to, I’d rate Tower Island the best for entertainment, for one reason: Monday night in the piano bar. They really have a great house band at Tower Island, my only objection is to the unending stream of wedding reception music that’s played most evenings. On Monday night in the piano bar these same guys cut loose with what they call “A Night of Jazz”. They are phenomenal. They started out with a couple of standards from the 40s, but quickly segued into a huge variety of stuff from every decade from then to now. It wasn’t just the music, it was the total vibe of the place. It was so totally laid back. Their front man is a fabulous sax player who, during a particularly lengthy piano solo wandered over to the bar to chat up the guests and order a drink for the drummer. He returned just in time to come in perfectly on his next lick. It really felt like you’d wandered into a jam session in somebody’s basement. We’d heard informally that this show was relatively new and something of an experiment at Tower Island. They’d be crazy not to make it permanent.
The other night you don’t want to miss is when the Silverbirds play. They are a Jamaican steel drum band, but they’re not like any steel drum band you’ve ever heard before. They play at all of the Couples resorts, so you can see them no matter where you are, and you really shouldn’t miss them.
The Patio is the buffet restaurant at Tower Island and the food there was generally quite good. We only ate dinner there once, though, because generally we just don’t prefer buffets for dinner. However, the night we ate there we enjoyed it. I had the best Caesar Salad there (individually made to order) that I’ve ever eaten. The fish (available at almost all meals including breakfast) was fantastic. We ate a lot of red snapper that week. The marlin was great too.
The Verandah is a very small restaurant that has dinner where you order from a menu. One of the truly wonderful things about going to an all inclusive resort is that you make your dinner selections from a menu that doesn’t have any prices on it. You don’t have to decide whether you should order the chicken dish or whether the rack of lamb is worth the extra money. There are no reservations at the Verandah so you may have to wait a while. The first time we went there the wait was about 45 minutes, but you can wait in the piano bar and they will come and find you when your table is ready. The second time we were seated immediately. Every dish we had both nights was outstanding.
We also ate twice at Bayside. Bayside is an Asian restaurant that is built on the rocks out over the water. We were really looking forward to this and the first night we ate there we asked for a table along the rail and were given one. This may not have been the best idea. On many evenings the surf really crashes on those rocks. You won’t get wet or anything like that, but it is fairly noisy. If you go here, be sure and try the tasting platter as an appetizer… it’s great. I had the Pad Thai one night and they did a great job of making it spicy for me.
Eight Rivers is Tower Island’s upscale continental restaurant. I thought the décor and ambiance were better than either Otaheite at Couples Negril or Feathers at Couples Swept Away. I had the Carribean Crabcakes there as an appetizer and they were fantastic. As a main dish, I had the salmon and it was perfectly cooked, but not very flavorful. My wife had the surf and turf and she thought the chicken was somewhat overcooked and dry. The service was wonderful and overall the experience was not bad, but not great either. When we were asked about it at the end of dinner we gave them an honest appraisal, talking about the wonderful appetizers but the less than wonderful main dishes. We left, but later that evening the restaurant manager sought me out to apologize for dinner not being better. Wow! I couldn’t believe he remembered me.
The next night we ate at Eight Rivers again, this time as part of the repeater’s dinner. The repeaters dinner is open to anyone who has previously stayed at any of the Couples resorts. It is always the best meal of the week, no matter which resort you are at. The food more than made up for the minor issues of the night before… it was just wonderful.
Your experience at the repeaters dinner will vary considerably depending on who you end up dining with. We sat at a small table with another couple from Manitoba and a Couples staff member from the personnel department. The conversation was lively and fun, and this was one of the best repeaters dinners we’ve attended. The food, and especially the wine, are a peg or two above the usual Couples standard at these meals and if you get invited, don’t even think about skipping it.
One of the reasons that many people like Ocho Rios is the easy availability of off-property excursions. Dunns River Falls is a short drive away as are zip lines, bobsledding (!), horse back riding, and golf. You can visit Bob Marley’s house with just a half day time commitment. Or you can go visit the Blue Mountains. Many of these things are not as easily available in Negril. So if you are into excursions, that’s a consideration. My wife and I wanted to go to Ocho Rios in part because we thought we’d finally take advantage of the available excursions. When it came down to it, we never left the resort. We both have pretty stressful jobs and I guess we just needed to push the stop button for a while. Your mileage may vary.
One More Story
Something happened in Jamaica this time that had never happened to me before. In packing my prescription medications for the trip I accidentally left one out. I discovered this on Saturday evening when we unpacked. On Sunday I went to see the resident Couples nurse (yes she was there even though it was Sunday). I figured I’d have to have a local doctor write a prescription. However, it turns out that in Jamaica there are some pharmacies that require prescriptions and some pharmacies that don’t. The nurse wasn’t sure whether the one that didn’t would be open on Sunday or not, but she talked them into sending over some pills and my problem was resolved by Sunday night for a total cost of $10. Kudos to Couples great staff.
It’s often been said that different Couples resorts “call” to people in different ways. I met a woman at a repeaters dinner in Negril a few years ago who thought that nothing beat Tower Island. So the answer is that you have to find the place that’s right for you. This year I missed the roominess of Negril’s beaches and the long walks I used to take in the afternoons. I also missed the drink selection and I missed the excellent WiFi service at Couples Negril. Next year we’ll head back to Negril and we will miss the Monday night jazz, the quiet pool, and the lack of jet skis in the ocean. But I doubt that we will ever be back to Tower Island; it’s just not the right place for us.