Monday, December 31, 2018

Saint Lucia 2018 - Part One: Planning and Sandals Grande

Our first trip to St. Lucia was in 1995 for our honeymoon at Sandals La Toc.  It was our back-up destination after our “planned” honeymoon spot of Antigua was shutdown due to hurricane damage 3 months prior to our arrival.   We had a great time on our honeymoon, but never returned to the island because of the long flight from Chicago and distance from the airport to many of the resorts. We also presumed all beaches (like the one at La Toc) would be grayish volcanic sand vs. the nice white powder sand we like.

What brought us back to St. Lucia after all these years?  Jade Mountain.   Dave first read about this unique hotel when they first opened (around 2006) and has been plotting a way to make it there since.  The hotel was featured on “The Bachelor” several years ago, which increased the demand for space in the 25-room hotel.  With its limited space increased popularity, uniqueness and excellent service,  the resort is pricey!  No way could we make a week vacation there a fiscally responsible choice. We wouldn’t fly to St. Lucia for 2-3 nights either.   That’s where Sandals comes in.

Sandals (and their family-focused Beaches) has an excellent loyalty program.  We earn points towards discounts on future trips (valued at $0.025/dollar spent on lodging) and after each 70 paid nights we earn a free week trip.   The room you get for the free trip is based on some complex secret formula of your previous room category levels booked, prior resorts, and room levels at the selected free resort.   Luckily most of our recent stays were at properties with multipliers!   When Dave called to book the free trip at Sandals Grande St. Lucian he was shocked that they offered us a Grand Rondoval Suite (stand alone cottage) with private pool and hot tub.  We’d never pay to be in this room category - which priced out at + 10,000 for seven nights.  With seven nights booked at Sandals we added on 3 nights at Jade Mountain to bring our ten night trip to a “reasonable” cash outlay price.   To make the trip even more cost effective and decadent at the same time, we used our frequent flier miles for First Class tickets.

Getting There

We flew out of Chicago O’Hare the night before Thanksgiving and headed to Miami.  Direct flights to St. Lucia are only available from Chicago on weekends.   We stayed overnight at an airport hotel (that finally had a craft beer focused tap selection).  MIA was relatively quiet Thanksgiving morning and we took off with no issues.  We found our new Nintendo Switch was perfect for killing time on the long flight with games like Mario Kart and Mario Party.

As predicted, several planes landed in St. Lucia at the same time we did, and our plane was last one in the group.  We spent about 25 minutes in line at Immigration before collecting our luggage and meeting our driver. 

We hired a private transfer vs. taking the free Sandals bus to ensure we could stop for a beer/bathroom break and to avoid stops at the other two closer Sandals resorts.   Our driver was fun and chatted with us most of the trip.  The roads on St. Lucia are pretty curvy given all the mountains.  We took a half-way break for restrooms and beer at a bar that overlooked the town of Dennery.   We sat here for a while because the driver’s associate was going to let us follow him on a short cut to our hotel.   That man did stop at the bar, said hello, then ditched us.  We ended up stuck in Castries rush-hour traffic after an accident. The total trip took over two hours.

Sandals Grande

We finally made it to Sandals Grande.   It was night so we did not get to appreciate the beauty of the area until the morning.   We did our check-in with one of our three butlers (part of staying in the Rondoval) which included a quick orientation of the room and our pool/hot tub area (with built-in misters).   We went over our dinner plans for the week and discussed where to set up our chairs and cooler in the morning (another butler feature), arranged for room service breakfast, and our daily 5:30 cheese plate.   This may sound demanding but we are pretty low maintenance compared to other guests.  We do not ask them to unpack/pack us, walk us to dinner, or deliver a drink to us (but they do fill our coolers and we do have them bring us lunch to the beach occasionally).

For dinner that night we hit Barefoot, the no-reservations required beachfront restaurant.   Sandals dining is fairly harmonized across all properties....Italian, Beachfront Casual, English Pub, Steak House, Caribbean, Sushi, Indian, Cook-In-Front-Of-You Japanese and one beach buffet night.   Since we knew the drill we managed to make plans to skip the buffet, get reservations late at other restaurants, and book a dinner at Sandals La Toc - our honeymoon hotel.

The Grande has a little over 300 rooms.  Given the long Beach and two large pools people could space themselves out very well.  Since this property had the nicest beach for the three locations in St. Lucia guests from the other Sandals would come over for the day.  This was also the “party” Sandals of St. Lucia so the soca was always blaring by the pool all day.  We took part in the Friday Foam Party.  Two hours of soap flying out of a cannon!

Next to our resort was the Pigeon Island National Historic Landmark   For $21 we gained access to the grounds and a souvenir guidebook.   The site held a fort on one hilltop, ruins of barracks at the base, and a few other POIs.   We headed over first-thing in the morning to beat the heat.  Fortunately we had the fort mostly to ourselves.   We had great views of our hotel, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the surrounding area.  

When we finished up at the fort we made the decision to climb the higher peak.   The path was sketchy with a lot of loose rocks and steep little areas to work around.  The views were very nice from the top.

That was our only real activity for the week.  We wanted to go to the Castries Street Party but we assumed it was actually in Castries - at least 30 minutes away.  It was actually only 2 miles from the hotel.  Oh well.   We did leave one night to visit Sandals La Toc - our honeymoon hotel.   We had dinner and spent some time remembering our early days of marriage.    We recreated a photo we took on our honeymoon.

1995 / 2018

Most of our days were spent standing in the sea, depleting our cooler of beer faster than the butlers could replenish it, having unicorn races with our floating drink holders (great conversation starters because everybody wants one), visiting the swim-up bar for Peter specials, swimming to the floating bar (Dave screamed with excitement when he saw it in the water), winning couples Name That Tune at the piano bar, and catching sunset at 5:30.  The resort had perfect seating arrangements for sunset viewing THAT NO ONE TOOK ADVANTAGE OF.  We paddle boarded once, had a couple’s massage (insanely when we booked we got $250 in spa credits), and took the sunset butler catamaran cruise.  The overall food quality was good, not excellent.  Entertainment was a mixed bag of good bands, bad guest talent shows, and cheesy newlywed games.  The staff was friendly and did a lot to ensure guests were having fun.  Other than butler and spa tips (the only people you can tip at a Sandals) all this was free!

Next post will cover Jade Mountain.

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