7 DAYS IN // Ocho Rios

Sandals Ocho Rios is one of the older Sandals resorts. It is also one of the cheaper Sandals resorts in the Caribbean. We booked for seven days (four people, two rooms) and we were very much looking forward to visiting after our great experience with Sandals at St Lucia the year before. Our first impressions were not great, probably caused by a long flight and bus transfer. It was also pitch black as we were escorted to our rooms and we were very tired. However, after the 7 days we were beguiled by the Jamaican charm of the resort.

beachpano

Magnificent 7 // Ocho Rios

1. Enjoy the beach

2. Experience Dunn’s River Falls

3. Take to the water

4. See what the island has to offer

5. Visit a Sandals Foundation school

6. Play golf

7. Join in the daily activities

Getting there –

It was a nine-and-a-half-hour flight from Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic. Normal Virgin flight and service. The ‘plane arrived more or less on time without any drama which is what you want. Montego Bay airport is a breeze to get through with straightforward customs and baggage retrieval. It is probably the quickest transit we’ve ever had in any overseas flight. The Sandals resort reps are situated just past the “nothing to declare” exit. They have a good system honed over the years with all guests due that day on an appropriate list and your baggage is labelled with coloured tags for your resort.

The transfer to Ocho Rios was quite long, longer than we thought it would take. It took us just over two hours to get from Montego Bay airport to the resort and traffic was heavy. The resort is divided into two by a public highway. The minibus stops at the main reception on the “Hill” side. Typical of Sandals, check-in is a bit haphazard, very “Caribbean”. You have to take a shuttle hop bus to the “Riviera” area where we were staying. We were very pleased that we were in the Riviera area.

We arrived late and after all the check-in procedures we found the restaurants stopped serving at 9.30 pm so we had to wait till 10.30 pm for the late-night tapas bar to open. Which, perversely, does not serve tapas, but varied snacks (sliders/hamburgers etc.).

Where we stayed –

roomview
View from our balcony.

We were in two rooms (Riviera Bamboo Grove Premium) overlooking a pond and rich foliage. Very tranquil. We were centrally located for all amenities being on the side of the resort near the beach and it was a short walk to numerous restaurants and bars as well as the beach, water sports and an entertainment area. The room itself was OK. This is an older resort and both our rooms were a little tired.  For example, a few of the drawers in the chest of drawers were broken and the shower was over the bath etc.   Did this impact our holiday? Not at all. It was just not up to the standard we had experienced in the St. Lucia resort.

There are six Sandals resorts on Jamaica and unlike St Lucia, you are not encouraged to visit the other resorts. This is likely due to the distances involved.  Ocho Rios is probably the least expensive of the six resorts and is located next to Sandals Royal Plantation resort.

To eat and drink –

At Sandals you do not go hungry or thirsty. There are sixteen restaurants to choose from and all had veggie options. Although be aware that not all restaurants were open every night. The breakfast and lunch buffets on the Riviera side were served in the Sky Terrace which offered a wonderful view over the beach. The range and quality of the food was generally very good. The lunch buffet was themed differently each day. I particularly liked the egg station at breakfast. Some restaurants require booking, so this needs to be done at the beginning of your stay. Frankly, we did not bother.  There was plenty of choice without having to book.  If you are new to Sandals, Kimonos serves Japanese food and the chefs put on a performance. It is worth booking up if you have not been before. We went in St Lucia, but did not this time. A lot of people say great things about the French-themed Le Gourmand.  We tried it in St Lucia and it was OK, not a great selection for vegetarians.

All the following did not require booking and are located on the Riviera side except for The Manor:

  • Neptunes, Mediterranean Seafood.
  • Soy Sushi Bar, Japanese cuisine (we ate there twice!)
  • The Reef Terrace, Local cuisine
  • Sky Terrace, seafood the night we were there.
  • The Manor, Caribbean Cuisine
  • Tapas on the Riviera, Not themed.

Our favourites were Soy Sushi, The Manor and Neptunes

BobMarley cocktailThere are also 11 bars, however we only visited a few on the Riviera side of the resort.  Yes, we could have taken a short ride on the hop bus to the Speakeasy or Rabbit Hole or sing along piano bar on the “Hill” side, but we didn’t so I cannot say too much about them!  One of our favourite cocktails was the Jamaican-themed Bob Marley.

Magnificent 7

1. Enjoy the beach

You are in the Caribbean. The sun shines, well hopefully. The water is warm, there is an abundant supply of sun loungers and there is beach service from the bars surrounding the beaches. So clearly recharging your batteries whilst sunbathing, reading, gentle swimming and cocktail sampling is one of the best things to do. Taking it easy on the beach in the shade of palm trees is what the Caribbean is really about.

If you don’t want to get sand between your toes you do not have to. Slightly away from the beach are pools, cabanas, hot tubs and you can sample just as many cocktails as you like from these locations as well.

The main beach at the Riviera is very safe with pontoons in a semi-circle to form a sort of very large salt-water swimming pool so if the sea is rough this area is somewhat protected.  There are floating rings to sit in as a couple or small group and the water is very clear and we saw numerous small fish. One morning we watched a pelican using this as his breakfast bar. This area is for swimming, paddling and lazing in without the other water activities affecting it. Literally a few yards away you can swim and body surf, however this area does have kayakers, paddleboarders, boats etc.

Beach1

2. Experience Dunn’s River Falls

Dunn’s River Falls is a must when coming to Jamaica. The Falls can be visited independently or as part of a tour. There is a path up the side of the Falls should you not want to walk straight up the Falls through the water. I urge you to be brave and take the water route.

Dunns4
The water route is more fun.

On the day that we were there the weather was pretty inclement, however it didn’t matter as you’re going to get very wet anyway. You literally make your way up the face of the Falls led by a local guide. It’s about 50 metres high. Not a lot of Health and Safety, but that did not cause any issues. There are some difficult sections and some of the depths are variable. Wearing a swimsuit is recommended and water shoes are essential. If you do not have water shoes you can rent them from the guides. Do not wear expensive trainers as they will get ruined. A fantastic tour and worth investing your time in visiting this area.  Apparently the market traders at the top of the

Dunns2
Finally at the top…

falls can sometimes be very pushy, but this wasn’t a problem when we were there. There was someone trying to sell DVDs which included film/photos of our group climbing, but (a) we had read that most of the DVD was standard tourist board type footage of the falls themselves and (b) who uses DVDs these days anyway?! Get a waterproof pouch for your phone and you can take your own photos on that – but make sure it has a neck strap as you will need to keep your hands free to climb.

3. Take to the water

Clearly, water sports are a major attraction of Sandals resorts. There are four snorkeling trips per day. For the 9 o’clock trip you visit a shipwreck, however this trip has a charge. The other three snorkeling trips are included. The one we took was fine however the reef was quite close to the shore and although there were a lot of very small fish it was not quite as charming as the St. Lucia snorkeling sites we visited the year before. There are scuba dives each day, you can also kayak, paddleboard, windsurf, take sailing lessons as well as drive an unusual pedalo that looked very much like a tractor. Another option is to ride a glass-bottomed boat. Alternatively, you can laze by a pool, the beach or a swim-up bar and sample cocktails to your heart’s desire.

4. Explore the Island

Spend time looking at all the brochures at the travel desk when you arrive.  There are a number of Party and Landmark cruises and Island Routes has a desk at both the “Hill” and Riviera areas.  We took one of the Party cruises on a Catamaran that also included Dunn’s River Falls.  This was terrific and nearly everyone on the boat was dancing on the way back.  There are a number of cruises and tours for you to explore at least part of the island (Jamaica is a very large island).

Boat1 Boat2

5. Visit a Sandals Foundation school

Sandals offer a Reading Road Trip where you can visit one of the schools they support and read to a small class of students. We did not go this time as the date of the visit did not work for us, however feedback is so positive and the children get so much out of these visits that I have included it as one of the things you should consider doing.

6. Play golf

I enjoy my golf and Sandals provide access to their own courses pretty much throughout the Caribbean. The course I played was a 20-minute bus ride from our resort with a stop on the way to pick up guests from the neighbouring Royal Plantations resort. There are a number of pick-ups during the day so if you want to start early to avoid the heat or you want to have leisurely breakfast and then play golf, the choice is yours. Club rental is reasonably priced and you have to have a caddy. The course was in immaculate condition and having a local expert to read the greens was a bonus! Excellent half day activity. I took golf shoes, tees, glove and a few balls in my suitcase. A few players on the bus had their own clubs, but you have to play a fair bit to justify the hassle.

Golf
Even on an overcast day, the course looks stunning.

7. Join in the daily activities

Footprints

Each night a Footprints magazine is delivered to your room showing the activities planned for the following day.  It is worth reading this!  There are activities on both the Hillside and Seaside areas.  Some we avoided (bingo) whilst others we embraced (Salsa dance lesson).  The Footprints magazine also prints which restaurants are open that night which is useful.

We enjoyed the staff performances at the amphitheatre and there is a weekly beach party that gets very crowded but is fun.

Ent1
One of the performances in the amphitheatre included singing and dancing.

Sandals also have pretty good gyms. The one on the Hillside had separate rooms for cardio and strength work. The gym on the Riviera side was under refurbishment so our good intentions to use the gym in the morning were thwarted by a pathetic excuse of not wanting to take the hop bus over to the “other side”.

 

Of Note –

  • Local currency. At the airport transfer you are gently pressured into giving a tip to the chap moving your suitcases to the bus. Maybe get some local currency or a few US dollars
  • Gifts – We took a few things for the Sandals Foundation.  Sandals links with local schools and guests can bring crayons/pens/pencils etc that are distributed to them. The website packforapurpose.org gives ideas of materials that are needed.
  • Wifi –  The Wifi was pretty good throughout the resort
  • Tips – This is an “all-inclusive” resort. No tips are necessary, except on the golf course where it is customary to give your caddy a tip.
  • Golf – Teeing off early before it gets too hot is highly recommended.
  • Shopping – There are a few shops in the resort. Prices are as you would expect, you are a captive audience!
  • What we did buy was a Seawag case for our mobile ‘phones. This kept the phones dry and we could take photos in Dunn’s River Falls without getting out ‘phones wet.
  • All-inclusive – Everything is included; even the minibars in the rooms are restocked every day.
  • If you are going to go snorkelling, consider bringing your own snorkel and mask.  These are supplied, but we have always felt more comfortable taking our own.
  • Plug sockets – These were of the US type.  One of our rooms had USB sockets; the other, just across the corridor, did not. Take an adaptor.
  • Outbound transfer – Sandals transfer you to the airport ridiculously early for your return flight.  We left the resort at 2.15 pm for an 8.15 flight.  The return bus trip took us 90 minutes so that left us over four hours to wait.  Montego Bay airport has some cool shops and eateries and you can recharge your ‘phones/iPads at many points.

airport

Lessons Learnt:

  1. Look at the excursions offered and if you think you might do one of them, bring light portable equipment, eg snorkel, mask, golf balls, tees etc.  Also, if there is one you particularly want to do, check when it is offered.  The Reading Road Trip was only once a week.
  2. Make sure you have enough sunscreen. We took a lot of different brands and loved the ‘once a day’ variety.
  3. Do not start drinking too early in the day as sun, sea and alcohol in excess are a heady combination. It’s very tempting when the alcohol is so readily available and included in your holiday package.
  4. If you want to eat at a particular restaurant, book a.s.a.p.

Fun fact: The Giant Swallow Tail butterfly is found only in Jamaica.  It is the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere with a wingspan up to six inches.

 


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