As a travel agent, it’s always a bit hard to admit that you haven’t actually been everywhere or done everything. You are the subject-matter expert to your clients but our expertise is not universal. Most of us have our niches, destinations or travel-types that we are intimately familiar with and for which most of our clients start using our services. For some agents, this niche is the only type of travel they will book. For others, a niche is a lead service and they are happy to facilitate travel arrangements for other destinations or travel-types that fall outside of their niche. We know our suppliers, we know how to research and we utilize our peers in the industry for information when there is a gap in our knowledge. It’s not at all a stretch for a well-trained agent to competently advise a client on a destination they haven’t personally visited.
With that knowledge, it’s still a bit embarrassing to reveal what you haven’t experienced. So, I’m making myself a bit vulnerable in acknowledging that, though I have very successfully advised on a number of all-inclusive vacations and I am well-trained on the Sandals and Beaches brands, this was my first actual visit to a Sandals Resort. You are all shocked, I know.
I can say by the end of the trip, I enjoyed the resort and would have no problem returning for an actual vacation. It is a wonderfully relaxed environment with lovely and eager staff and is set on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I wish I had been able to take time to explore more of the island. The grounds of this resort are lush and immaculately kept. Not a leaf out of place. It’s like someone is vacuuming the lawns here.
That being said, though the resort is slowly undergoing upgrades to the rooms, many are starting to show their age. I also found that the food quality was somewhat inconsistent, which isn’t really in keeping with the Sandals brand. Some meals were fantastic and others were just ok. Have I mentioned I’m a snob? Still, as I said, I really enjoyed my stay and would definitely return.
A Sleep-Deprived Arrival
Early morning flights are not my favorite. I’m pretty sure I’m in the majority on that sentiment. Unfortunately, I could only spare the time off for the three nights Sandals was providing and my choices were a bit limited. With a whopping three hours of sleep (because I am always a bit on-edge before traveling), I set off for Bush Intercontinental at 3:30am. Ugh. After a relatively quick layover in Miami, a lovely chat with a lady heading out to Antigua to visit her daughter, and a second flight where my brain wanted to sleep but absolutely wouldn’t, I arrived at V.C. Bird International. I was exhausted and attempting to remain cheerful but definitely feeling myself getting worn around the edges.
Blearily wandering around the tiny airport, I finally asked someone where the shuttle was then stumbled out to the curb to join my group. I ended up boarding the shuttle to Sandals with a number of other travel agents who ultimately proved to be some of the nicest people I’ve encountered on a trip so far and who were all just as exhausted as I was.
After a relatively quick 30-minute drive, we were taken to the club level entrance of Sandals Grande Antigua. Having no idea what type of rooms we’d been assigned, this was a pleasant surprise. We all stumbled out of the van and were met by the cheerful staff who passed out cool towels and whisked our luggage away to be delivered to ours rooms. We were then ushered into the Club lounge for a glass of bubby and to check-in (note: the Sandals staff said it was champagne but it sure tasted like sparkling Moscato). We were then escorted to our rooms.
Sandals offer three levels of service at their resorts: Standard, Sandals Club, and Butler Elite. All guests enjoy the all-inclusive amenities but the upgraded levels are afforded slightly more service than the standard rooms. Club guests have a separate check-in and access to room service, fully stocked bar, concierge service, and use of the club lounge during their stay among other upgraded amenities. Butler Elite guests enjoy an even higher level of service with a private butler during their stay. The Butlers will do everything from save lounge chairs at the pool, to making arrangements for excursions, to drawing baths when he/she knows the guests will be returning to the room for the evening.
First let me confess that I am a bit of a snob. Not so much of a snob that I can’t stay in a 3-star hotel but I will opt for luxury whenever possible. I booked the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta for a stay during our summer road trip, if that tells you anything. Sandals Resorts position themselves as a luxury brand and I wanted to know if it lived up to the hype.
Arriving in a state of sleep-deprived grumpiness definitely colored my initial impressions of the resort. My room in the Mediterranean tower was large and comfortable but, aside from the large flat-screen TV, a bit dated. Still, the view was great and the welcome cheese platter was a nice touch even if the humidity didn’t do the water crackers any favors.
To combat the travel fatigue and bad mood, I took advantage of the large Jacuzzi tub in my room during my break. Twenty minutes later, I can report that I was feeling a bit more charitable toward the world and decided to put my misgivings aside and approach this experience with an open mind.
We were treated to a private cocktail hour before heading to dinner as a group at Mario’s, the Italian restaurant on property. Mario’s provides a gigantic antipasto and salad buffet in addition to the table service, which had some solid selections. My spaghetti carbonara was tasty but the tiramisu was a bit too gelatinous for my tastes.
Dinner concluded about the time the rain arrived. With no umbrellas at the restaurant, myself and the other agents took off our shoes and made a mad dash back to our rooms. Soaked and exhausted, I went to bed early.
Getting to know Sandals Grande Antigua
The next day dawned in glorious fashion and I felt ten times better after sleeping in the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve experienced since my last stay at the Ritz Carlton (yes, I’m a spoiled brat). After a decent breakfast and a short presentation, we set out to explore the various rooms available at the resort with our guides.
The resort is simply beautiful; lush, calm, a feast for the eyes. There is no better way to describe it. Yes, some buildings are older construction (Sandals took over an existing resort that was built in the 70’s) and some of the décor could use an update but don’t let that be a deterrent. The updates are in progress and what we saw looks lovely. Even in the older rooms, the comfort of the spaces and the beautiful views that surround you every time you step out the door will make most anyone satisfied with their stay.
In case you didn’t know, Sandals are resorts made exclusively for couples. While you will occasionally see mother-daughter or girlfriend groups, the typical guest is a couple in a relationship. Every room comes with a king-sized bed and the resort is designed to promote romance. Large couples loungers on the beach, candlelight dinners, torch-lit paths, and the endless sound of gentle waves breaking on the shore combine to ensure you and your significant other can relax and reconnect during your stay.
There are plenty of opportunities for activities and group fun at the bars and pools but Sandals Grande Antigua is not where you come for the proverbial party. There is a nightlife but this is mainly a location where you come to relax and enjoy the beach.
I had quite a bit of work to do during my stay (cest la vie) but I did make time to try out snorkeling and the Red Lane Spa. For those of your who aren’t familiar with the Sandals brand, unlike many other all-inclusive resorts, snorkeling AND scuba excursions are included in the cost of your stay. Even if you aren’t scuba-certified, you can become resort certified through Sandals for around $100/person.
Our snorkeling excursion took us to a lovely reef about 10-15 minutes from the resort. All of the equipment was provided and was in excellent condition. Our guides were great; very friendly and knowledgeable. You get about 30 minutes to snorkel but the resort runs a couple trips a day and you can go as often as you like. You don’t need to worry about large sharks in this area, just watch out for the moon jellies. They don’t have a big sting but some people are more sensitive than others.
I managed to squeeze in a 90-minute Raindrop Dreams massage just after snorkeling and before our farewell event. It was worth EVERY penny. Honestly, I caught myself snoring while the therapist worked on my feet. I could have stayed there forever but, as I was the last appointment of the day, I’m pretty sure everyone wanted to go home. Still, I highly recommend making at least one appointment during your stay at Sandals Grande Antigua
The Food & Beverage Experience
As I said before, as far as the restaurants go, my experience was a bit mixed. My favorites during my short stay were Barefoot By The Sea (a fairly casual restaurant in the sand on the beach) and Eleanor’s for breakfast. Personally speaking, I love eating on the beach so the locations of both of these restaurants was perfect. I also enjoyed all of my meals at each. I was impressed that Eleanor’s even made my eggs perfectly over medium, something many restaurants I’ve visited have a hard time doing.
For snacks and indulgences, I really enjoyed the offerings at Café de Paris and the pizza from Bella Napoli. It’s honestly hard to go wrong with gelato, crepes, and pizza. The frozen spiked coffees at Cafe de Paris were high on my list, as well.
If you have food allergies or aversions, never fear; Sandals has you covered. I was really impressed to see the number of gluten free options available on the menus and in the bakery cases. We were also told that if guests with allergies have a craving and it isn’t on the menu, the chefs will happily whip it up for them if asked.
Sandals offers their own, branded, Robert Monday wines as house wines at every meal and all bars. If you want something a bit more special or you are very particular about your wines, they also have a Manager’s Choice menu with a number of good options for an additional fee. The mixed beverages are tasty and you have a wide variety to choose from but the bartenders won’t mix them very strong unless you ask. They stock decent liquor so there is no need to worry about encountering less than satisfactory or tainted alcohol at a Sandals Resort. For my fellow Texans, they even offer Tito’s Vodka!
Almost everyone I traveled with had a 3:00pm flight back to Miami and, as such, we were all scheduled to depart the resort around noon. Even though we had but a few short hours left, all of us managed to squeeze in a bit of last minute fun. After a leisurely breakfast, I returned to my room to put my luggage out for the valet. Then I changed into my swimsuit, grabbed my backpack of travel clothes and headed to the Departure Lounge.
The Departure Lounge is a nice Sandals perk that ensures you have maximum time to enjoy the resort even if you no longer have access to your room. After grabbing a key from the Club desk, I threw my bag into a locker and headed to the beach for a last float in the gorgeous Antiguan waters. Sure, it was only a half hour but it was awesome. About forty minutes prior to departure, I returned to the lounge to shower and change and then ran to snag a pizza for the road from Bella Napoli and a bottle of water from the lounge. It’s all included, right?!
While I was initially skeptical of how I would feel about my stay at Sandals Grande Antigua, I have to say that the brand has won me over. I truly enjoyed my stay. The service is good, the rooms are comfortable, and there’s something to be said for being in a beautiful place where you can truly relax and enjoy the company of your traveling companion without having to worry about anything or be on any kind of schedule. I honestly can’t wait for my next Sandals experience.