We are always surprised to witness such warm interactions between employees and guests at large all-inclusives, but we recently saw a lot of it at all three contiguous Iberostars in Montego Bay, Jamaica. In other ways, of course, affordable Rose Hall Beach, more upmarket Rose Hall Suites, and the Rose Hall Grand, part of Iberostar’s Grand Collection, are significantly different from each other. More about that later; first, let’s see what else they have in common:
• A white-sand beach that’s so long and deep, it doesn’t feel crowded, even with high occupancy.
• All three opened between 2007 and 2009 according to a holistic plan, so although the 6-story exteriors aren’t identical, they’re part of a whole piece and designed as such.
• All rooms/suites have balconies, and—a recent upgrade—WiFi.
• The three use the same day-tour operator (Chukka), PADI scuba facility and nightclub.
• They each focus on just one wedding per day.
• The three resorts’ theaters offer the same shows, which rotate from one to the other.
• All rooms are non-smoking and handicap accessible; some accommodate wheelchairs, too.
• Each hotel features a buffet restaurant, a steakhouse that serves an outdoor buffet by day, and themed restaurants.
• Each offers multiple activities, including volleyball matches, games, exercise classes, etc.
• They limit each guest’s use of the snorkels, kayaks, and Hobie-Cats to one hour per day, so they’re not ideal for avid watersports types.
And now, the good stuff: How are they different?
affordable, family-friendly beach hotel
Upon entering Rose Hall Beach’s section of beachfront, we encountered two contradictory scenes. While some Lucy’s Kids Club counselors were playing with children, as you’d expect at this family-friendly resort, other staffers were leading guests in a booty-centric dancercise that’s decidedly not part of the Sesame Street world. We also noticed something rarely found at family-friendly or booty-shaking properties: Instead of “fun” decor, this resort’s public spaces and guestrooms include subdued hues and grown-up furnishings—light pastel walls, woven cane chairs, beige bedspreads with a soft fern pattern. Mention of that subtlety makes national sales and marketing manager, Tamika Higgins-Baker, chuckle. “Yes!” she says. “People who see this are pleasantly surprised!”
Of Beach’s buffet and three specialty restaurants—the steakhouse, Japanese restaurant and Cajun eatery—the latter is especially popular with guests from the Suites, who may use the facilities at the Beach, and the Grand, who are welcome at both sister hotels. However, says travel agent and family celebration specialist Darby Wojicks of Darby’s Destinations, “When clients choose the Beach, they only have access to the restaurants, activities and pools within the Beach section.”
Wojicks also notes that Rose Hall Beach doesn’t have 24-hour room service, as the other two do, and we noticed that although there’s a children’s pool, there’s nothing like the play-all-day water park at the Suites. Moreover, whereas its two sisters are all-suite hotels, Beach features mostly doubles.
suites for families and couples
Your first impression of the Suites is the vast lobby, with its central sculpture featuring brass balls on a 10-ft.-square, polished wood “game board.” The second impression comes at the front desk.
“Welcome to Iberostar Rose Hall Suites!” says the woman, and she seems to mean it. “You’re too early for check-in, but I’ll call to see if we can get you in quickly. Meanwhile, would you like a drink? Some late breakfast?”
Except for the presidential suites, all units are identical. They have a bit more color than the Beach units and include a couch, a handsome desk, and a mini-fridge well-stocked with soft drinks, water and beer. When we stepped out into the hallway, a member of the housekeeping staff asked if everything was to our liking.
In addition to the beach, there’s a lazy river, infinity pool, activity pool where guests of all ages participate in games and aerobics, and, in a different area, a water park with slides for even the most thrill-seeking pre-teens. Some parents send their children to Lucy’s Kids Club, so Mom and Dad can either relax under an umbrella, go off for a day-trip, enjoy the activities and/or swim-up bar (sometimes simultaneously), test-drive a Hobie-Cat, or bliss out in the spa. That spa has more (and more kinds of) hot tubs and saunas than most destination spas, and the hot stone massage there may be the best we’ve gotten in the 30 years we’ve been reviewing resorts.
Dinner options include the buffet and steakhouse, a Mediterranean restaurant, a “gourmet” restaurant that’s a time capsule of 1970s dining style, and a Mexican restaurant that stays open for folks who get hungry at 3 a.m. This reporter skipped that scene—ditto, the Cigar Bar—but did catch part of the reggae show at the theater and the Big Band at the Grand’s theater.
the grand: the days of wine and candles
When we entered the adults-only Grand we instantly detected something aromatic. “What’s that?” we asked the guard. “Scented candles.” Our feet felt different, too—plush carpeting.
In the lobby, gleaming gold-leaf columns support a rotunda with a neoclassical frieze that artfully stops just short of Liberace kitsch. When it rained, the staff set up a cheese- and wine-tasting. The wines were mostly $15 Chileans, not $100 Bordeaux, but that’s what made it useful for consumers. The suites at the Grand have plushly textured furnishings, marble in the baths, killer mini-bars, and huge balconies with suspended love seats. “Exclusive services also include 24-hour room service, butler service, and a pillow menu,” says Wojicks.
Although the Grand is smaller (295 units) than the other two Iberostar Rose Hall hotels, it offers four specialty restaurants in addition to its buffets: surf-and-turf, Japanese, Italian, and “gourmet.” The beachfront lunchtime buffet is exceedingly pleasant, but whether you eat there or in the main buffet restaurant (this is also true for the Suites), you find superior cheeses, smoked fish, carving-table meats, fresh salads, breads, chilled seafood (shrimp, crab, clams), Jamaican and international dishes, pastries, and deliciously fresh fruits. In short, this isn’t only about quantity, but quality.
Because the Grand is an adults-only hotel, one of the pools is a “quiet” pool—no music or loud games, just restful outdoor furniture with cushy cushions. Some of the people hanging out there during our visit were recovering from a round of golf at Mt. Cinnamon (free for Grand guests), a spa treatment (Grand has its own spa), or a workout in the fitness center.
why spring for a costlier sister hotel?
• The public and private spaces, restaurants, and hotel services are better.
• The swimming pools are bigger and more varied.
• Facilities like the nightclub and central spa are much closer. Guests can also play complimentary golf nearby.
• At the same time, guests who want to vary their stay with, say, some Cajun food (or that booty-shaking fest), are welcome to use any facility at a less expensive sister hotel.
• This also means that grandparents or any well-heeled couple in multigenerational and/or wedding groups can still fraternize with family while enjoying a more peaceful retreat.
But here’s the kicker: Although rates on the website fluctuate, the difference from one resort to the next is still no more than $50 pp dbl, including taxes.
As Higgins-Baker points out, many agents book these Iberostars through tour operators like Travel Impressions, MLT Vacations, and Air Canada Vacations, but regardless of whether they go that route or book directly, the cost of moving up is pretty small, and that fact gains urgency for any Beach guests who love Mexican food or whose kids catch wind of the water park at the Suites.
“The family could buy day passes,” says Higgins-Baker, “but you know what? For the same money, or less, they could stay at the more elegant Suites.”