So, you guys already know I’m obsessed with Jamaica, right?
Many times on this blog, I’ve listed a road trip around this reggae-and-rum-soaked isle as one of my bucket list trips, and I’ve spent hours daydreaming over guidebooks and travel blogs and trying to manifest the perfect moment to make it happen. So far, that moment hasn’t yet emerged.
But, in late 2016, an enticing offer arrived in my inbox: be one of the first to experience Sandals Royal Caribbean’s new overwater luxury villas. Located on a private island just offshore from the resort, the overwater bungalows and villas were the Caribbean’s first — no more flying to French Polynesia just to wake up with azure waves lapping under your bed.
Needless to say, I almost set my computer on fire with the speed in which I tried to tap out my acceptance email. Was it the Jamaica trip I’d been carefully mapping out for years? No, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience something unique and special, and a way to dip my toe in one of my dream destinations. Plus, I got to whisk my sister to a much-needed healing retreat post-election.
Sandals Royal Caribbean is located less than a ten minute drive from Montego Bay Airport, which has a private Sandals lounge and easy direct flights from all over the US. We loved watching planes fly overhead from our balcony, and the fact that the commute was so quick for our short, three night stay.
Our room wasn’t quite ready for our early morning arrival, so we had lunch at the main resort before taking a water taxi over to the private island, Sandals Cay. These transfers are available 24/7, so you’re never stranded (not that a private island a short swim from Montego Bay would be a bad place to be stranded.)
When we finally made the much anticipated crossing, it sunk in how lucky we were. These villas were so new a the time that half were still under construction, and they were practically ripping price tags off the furniture as we walked in for our shriek-filled tour.
These industry-changing villas clock in at a gargantuan 2,000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor living space. The open-plan bedroom and sitting room with a glass-bottom floor is the centerpiece, leading in one direction to a master bathroom and closet that would make Carrie Bradshaw weep, and a chic entryway and kitchenette stocked with top-shelf liquor (hello, aged Appleton rum) in the other.
The shower had a blind that could be lifted for full ocean views, a soaking tub was more than big enough for two, and generously-sized Molton Brown products made us feel like we were at a spa.
The real jaw-dropper, however, was the private infinity pool and multi-level deck, from which we spent an entire afternoon leaping into the sea. Eager as I was to explore Jamaica, I never wanted to leave this villa. Perhaps they offer lifetime rates, I suggested to Olivia?
Like all Sandals properties, this one is adult only and all-inclusive. My history with all-inclusives has been pretty limited — I’ve stayed at mid-range versions in Bali and in Aruba and one luxury version, also in Bali. But the over-the-water villa experience in Jamaica was on another level.
For one thing? We had butlers. We actually learned a very important fact about ourselves on this trip, and that’s that the whole butler thing isn’t really for us. Now, we adored our crew Matthew and Samantha, and Sandals should truly be proud to have them on their staff. They were absolutely excellent at what they did, and we enjoyed getting to know them. When I was temporarily frustrated over a miscommunication over our scuba diving plan, the only blip in our stay, Matthew had it solved in a second.
But gosh, they just looked so warm in those formal suits and white gloves, I wanted to tell them to sit down and have a drink! Also, we were somewhat overwhelmed by the attention — in retrospect, we should have just told them upfront that we preferred space and privacy to meticulous attentiveness, since they clearly would have happily accommodated that request.
Regardless, at the Sandals over-the-water villas, you never have to worry about your needs going unattended. Remember, if you’re headed to an all inclusive with this service, butlers and spa therapists do accept gratuities, an exception to Sandals’ general “no tipping” rule.
I know that in many circles, all-inclusives have a suspect reputation for food. Well, I can assure you we did not go hungry. We had the option of having meals in our villa, and every single time we did so was exceptional. Our in-room dinner menu included options like châteaubriand, a hand-carved beef tenderloin filet with green asparagus, gratin dauphinois, and creamy five peppercorn cause, and gratin de crêpes aux artichauts, a savory artichoke-filled crepe with Gruyere cheese and mascarpone reduction. Y’all, that’s so fancy I don’t know what half of it is!
I noticed that many of the items on the villa menus were identical to menu items in the resort’s restaurant’s, but I can only assume they took special care to prepare dishes especially perfectly for those in over-water accommodation.
Outside of our private dining, there were eight on-site restaurants we could chose from, as well as twelve at nearby resorts that are also included, with free transfers. We had a lunch of casual poolside eats at The Mariner and Bella Napoli Pizzeria (you could order from either menu at the same tables), breakfast at The Regency, and dinner at Eleanor’s, serving Pan-Caribbean cuisine.
Our absolute favorite, however, was the lunch option located right on Sandals Cay, The Jerk Shack. This thatch roof eatery was the perfect place to try jerk, a native Jamaican cooking style in which meats are rubbed with a fiery mix of pimento and Scotch Bonnet peppers. The traditional fare of coconut–jerk chicken, jerk pork, or grilled fish came with seasoned market veggies and rice and peas and was served at simple picnic tables under an almond tree. We loved it.
With more time, would have tried the Oleander Room at nearby Sandals Montego Bay, a modern take on traditional Jamaican cuisine. We also would have loved to have tried Sandals Cay’s Royal Thai, which along with the clothing-option beach was closed temporarily due to bungalow construction. Sounds like I have two reasons to come back!
The amount of activities that are included at this all-inclusive are kind of mind blowing — there’s even unlimited scuba diving! I was so excited about that one, it earned a post of its own, so stay tuned.
Speaking of my favorite things, our butler Samantha told us that yoga classes were being planned in the future for Sandals Cay guests, but we figured, why wait? Our villa had more than enough room for a self-practice!
Post-yoga, Sandals had invited both of us to experience one of their signature spa treatments. Our butlers offered to set it up in our room, but Olivia was more keen on the Red Lane Spa, and that was just fine with me.
Spa treatments are obviously an exclusion to the all-inclusive, with the In Good Spirits Massage we each indulged in running $152 per person. Other fun and locality-infused options include a Papaya-Pineapple Salt Mousse and a Caribbean Seaweed Body Treatment. Our therapists were total sweethearts and we pretty much floated out of the spa and back to our villa.
All five over-the-water villas at Sandals Royal Caribbean have perfect sunset views (some of the over-the-water bungalows, which are slightly smaller and don’t have pools, face back towards land). Since Olivia and I are firm believers that mimosas are for any time of day, we loved breaking into a fresh bottle of bubbles and ordering up pitchers of fresh tropical fruit juices and watching the sky turn pink.
Tempted as we were to go out and adventure beyond the boundaries of the resort throughout our stay, we knew that an opportunity like this was a rare one, and we decided to spend as much time as we could lapping up the luxury of the Carribean’s first overwater villas.
Sometimes, a real vacation is required. And that is more than okay.
That said, we made one exception. Sandals partners with the company Island Routes to provide signature tours around the beautiful island of Jamaica.
Their signature offering? A boozy catamaran cruise around Montego Bay to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. We simple couldn’t say no to that, and thus we set sail in coordinating swim wear, of course.
Once aboard, the crew determined the water was a bit rough for snorkeling, so we proceeded straight to Montego Bay’s hip strip. This shore-front stretch is home base for tourists with an array of dining, nightlife, and souvenir shopping options. The epicenter of it all seemed to be Margaritaville, which featured a water trampoline, inflatable obstacles and a 120-foot neon green water slide that spat us directly into the Caribbean Sea!
Now, I have done my fair share of rolling my eyes at Margaritaville in the past, but seriously… I was a fool. We had such a blast bombing down that waterslide, splashing around in the aquatic amusement park, and laughing on the dancefloor. I can only assume this place gets lit with vacationing dentists from the midwest at night, and I am fully here for it. I’ve actually read it can be quite popular with locals, too, so it sounds like no one can resist the Margaritaville charm.
Back on the catamaran, the staff turned things up with more cocktails, shots directly in the mouth for pouting little sisters (not naming names, but it was Olivia) and the ever-irresistible cha cha slide. Lest anyone overindulge on Red Stripe, there were also plenty of appetizers being passed around to soak up booze.
They basically turned that catamaran in to a club through sheer determination that everyone onboard would have a good time. Again, we adored the staff, who were so much fun and just absolutely the nicest guys.
Overall? This was a once in a lifetime experience that I loved sharing with my sister. I say once in a lifetime because for most folks, a splurge this extravagant probably will be. The twelve overwater bungalows start at around $2,000 per night, while the five private pool villas like the one we stayed in start at about $3,000 per night.
Honestly, as fun as the private infinity pools are, the oceans is right there — I think I’d go for the bungalows and spend the extra money on massages and excursions. If you’re thinking, um yeah not in this lifetime, Matthew did help us peek at some modern and chic recently renovated suites in the main resort that had lush bathtubs on the balcony and are a fraction of the price, so don’t write off Sandals if the overwater accommodation isn’t in your budget.
The villas we stayed in are luxury on a new level from anything I’ve ever experienced, and the service is absolutely impeccable. When you’re in your villa and eating at the restaurants on Sandals Cay (Royal Thai and Jerk Shack seem to be the crowd favorites at Royal Caribbean) you’ll be floating on air. The only time we felt some dissonance was at the restaurants and pools at the main resort. Many of the guests there are paying about a sixth of what over-the-water villa guests are paying, and so it’s hard for those facilities to live up to the price point and level of luxury you’d expect staying on Sandals Cay.
Regardless — if you’re a high roller in North America who wants a quick, mind-blowing getaway without having to schlep to the other side of the planet, a honeymooner who loves the Caribbean, or just a vacation enthusiast looking for something completely unique and special, start searching flights to Montego Bay.
If this is on your bucket list, over-the-water bungalows and villas literally sell out months in advance, so bust a move and get booking! Due to the wild popularity of the over-the-water accommodation, they’ve also opened them at Sandals South Coast in Jamaica and the Sandals Grande St. Lucian in St. Lucia, and they are in the process of building more at Sandals Royal Plantation in Jamaica.
When you need a mindless vacation as badly as we did this particular week, there’s few places that offer it as seamlessly as an adult-only, Caribbean all inclusive. And when it comes to those categories, Sandals converted us — they are an innovator committed to creating unique vacation experiences.
I adored the easygoing charm and warm hospitality of the Jamaicans we got to know, I loved my first plate of Jamaican jerk in Jamaica, I blissed out listening to a non-stop playlist of Jamaican artists on our sound system, and much to Olivia’s amusement, I had a blast practicing from the printed guide in our room introducing us to common Jamaican phrases like “bruk out,” or “get crazy.”
While I am well aware that four days spent almost entirely within the confines of an all-inclusive are hardly a cultural immersion in a new country, this trip absolutely lit a fire under me to get back as soon as possible. We arrived in Jamaica pretty broken and heart-aching, and the Caribbean sun and Jamaican smiles really did give us some of the healing we craved.
Jamaica, I can’t wait to come back to you.
Stay tuned for our Jamaican scuba adventures!
Many thanks to Sandals for hosting us.
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in November of 2016 in Jamaica, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.