Following last year’s amazing trip to Sandy Island Family Camp in Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, there was no doubt we would return. I wondered, though, whether it would live up to expectations, or not seem quite as shiny the second time. I needn’t have worried. Just a few hours into year two and it was clear it was just as good as we all remembered. Better, my kids said, because they already knew everyone and had friends.
My husband and I spent last weekend (March 6-9) at the new Hyatt Zilara all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. This is an adults-only resort, but it is directly connected to the Hyatt Ziva all-inclusive family resort, and there is not much separating the two. We used 25,000 Hyatt points per night for our 3-night stay, which in my opinion was a fantastic redemption value. (You have to call for this – it didn’t show as available on the Hyatt website) We redeemed 43,000 Southwest points for our 2 direct flights from Baltimore to Montego Bay. As the Hyatt provides a free shuttle from the airport to the resort, our entire out-of-pocket expenses for the weekend consisted of parking at BWI and some tips at the resort.
The resort had only opened in December, and I had read many reviews that were less-than-favorable. It seems that the resort wasn’t quite ready for prime time at opening and I was worried that our experience would be less than stellar. I am pleased to report that whatever kinks there were in the initial few weeks seem to have been worked out. Our stay was nothing but great!
Getting There: The flight from BWI was on time, and we landed in Jamaica around 2:00 pm. Upon exiting the flight, we headed to the customs area. Prior to departure, I learned of a service in Jamaica called Club Mobay that allows you to fast track through Customs. The cost is $50 per person. I tried to figure out how long the regular line might be at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, and ultimately concluded that it probably wasn’t worth the cost. Oh, how I regretted this. We ended up waiting in line for 40 minutes to get through Customs. Not the end of the world, but it was extremely hot and stuffy, and we really just wanted to get to the resort and start our vacation. If I had to do this over again, I would gladly shell out the $100 for this service.
Once through Customs, we headed to the Hyatt Lounge. “Lounge” is a bit of an overstatement, as it is a small non-air conditioned space more like a store front with two desks and 2 couches. Zilara guests check in here, rather at the resort. For some reason Ziva guests still have to check in at the resort. The lounge was actually pretty crowded (it is small) and there was nowhere to sit, but an agent came over to us with some beverages (water and Red Stripe beer), and a clip board with the paperwork. After a few minutes, all of the guests in the lounge were directed outside to board the shuttle. Our driver was very friendly and chatty, and we pulled up to Zilara about 10 minutes later. Because we had already checked in, a woman appeared and handed us all our room keys. We were assigned Room 4310. We had booked a standard room, but were upgraded to a junior suite, although no one ever communicated this to us. It was just a pleasant surprise upon opening the door.
The Resort: The property is a former Ritz Carlton. It has been refurbished and new buildings added. Apparently all of the standard rooms are in the older buildings and the suites are in the newer buildings. My first impression of the resort was very positive. Beautiful, and really had that “fresh and new” look. By the time we arrived it was close to 4:00 pm and we hadn’t had lunch yet, so a bellman took our bags up to the room and we headed to find some lunch. Unlike many all-inclusives, there are no wrist bands or rules about where and when you can eat. The restaurants don’t even take reservations, which I appreciated as I prefer not to plan what time I want to eat on vacation. We headed toward the beach and stopped at an outdoor restaurant called Horizons. The setting was beautiful and the staff extremely friendly. We ordered the duck poutin for an appetizer, and I got the lobster mac n cheese and my husband had a burger. The duck poutin was very good. I did not care for the lobster mac n cheese, but only because it was nothing like any mac n cheese I’ve ever had. It was in a red sauce filled with peppers. I’m not sure where the cheese was hiding.
Our Room: Our room was on the 3rd floor. The hallways and common areas were bright and airy, and nicely decorated. Our room was very spacious – it was clear that it wasn’t a “standard” room, although it wasn’t exactly a “suite” either. It consisted of bed with a couch and chair, a large bathroom with a really great soaking tub, and a balcony with a double-sized lounger. We had a great view over the pool area looking out to the ocean. Not bad for a points redemption! There was also a refrigerator stocked with beverages and 2 bottles of liquor, which was all included, but we never used any of it. Why make your own drink when a bartender will make you one? There were also Doritos and chips that we didn’t touch.
We decided to take a walk to check out the resort. We headed back down past Horizons to the Zilara beach area. There were lots of chairs and several cabanas that looked great. There were very few people around. The beach area is not large, and a “lagoon” is created by rock pilings. There is also a trampoline/slide inflatable in the water. Following along the path you come to the Ziva beach, which is definitely larger. The Ziva pool complex is also larger. If you continue on the path along the beach you come to a grassy area and a stage where there was live music several times during our stay. We stopped by an outdoor bar called Fez, on the second floor of one of the buildings overlooking the grassy area. All drinks are included at the resort except for select bottles of wine, so we had some cocktails.
After a little while, we decided we were ready for dinner. Fez is right over FUZION, an Asian fusion style restaurant featuring a traditional seating area, a Chinese area, and a Japanese hibachi area. Although I warned my husband that this restaurant hadn’t gotten very good reviews, he was in the mood. This was definitely our worst restaurant choice of the weekend. We picked the Japanese hibachi area. Our “chef” asked us to pick 2 meat options, and we watched as she placed skewers of those items, along with zucchini and eggplant, over a grill to slooooooooooow roast. The skewers were tiny, and we quickly finished them and wanted more. But it took quite a long time for the next set of skewers to cook, as well. The food was fine, but nothing that special and I really felt like we wasted a meal here. Another thing to keep in mind is that only a very few of the restaurants are on the adults-only side. Fuzion is not, and I was seated directly next to a girl who looked to be around 5 years old. She was perfectly well behaved and I didn’t mind at all, but something to keep in mind if you are looking for an “adults only” experience. Right outside of Fuzion is a little deli that had ice cream and desserts and we stopped in. I got ice cream and my husband had a cupcake. The ice cream was very icy, not so creamy.
After dinner, a reggae band was playing on the lawn, but we were pretty tired and decided to head back to the room. I was curious about the older buildings, so we walked through one on our way to our building. Wow, what a difference in the common areas! It wasn’t necessarily bad, but definitely looked dated with older carpeting (as opposed to the more modern stone hallways in our building) and an overall older feel. The other distinguishing feature between the new buildings and the older one is the balconies. Although the architecture of the new buildings very much matches the old and blends together nicely, the older buildings have balconies with traditional railings. If you were seated or lying on the lounger, your definitely could not see out. On the newer buildings, however, the balconies are constructed of glass, so even when lying down you can see the ocean. So much nicer!
Back in the room, we enjoyed the big soaker tub for two, and called it a night.
The next morning, we decided to head back to Horizons for breakfast. Lots of good choices and so nice to sit right on the beach. I wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to get chairs on the beach, but it turned out it wasn’t an issue at all. As we were eating breakfast, I noticed all of the cabanas were still empty, so I walked over to one and set all our stuff on it. We finished breakfast, took about 10 steps to the cabana, and were at our “home” for the day. The cabana had curtains on the top and sides that provided nice shade. They are in the process of placing thatched roofs over all of the cabanas, but I thought the curtains were perfectly adequate. Waitresses came by periodically to see if we needed any drinks, but we were also only steps from the pool bar. We were also only steps from a restroom. Did I mention it was the perfect location? We swam out to the trampoline/slide for a little bit. The water was warm and relatively clear, but the bottom is extremely rocky. The beach on the Ziva side did not have this rock issue. I would love to see Hyatt try to address this somehow. The beaches have a little more seaweed than in other places we’ve been, but nothing too bad and I noticed staff raking it up off the beach each morning.
For lunch, we wandered over to Barefoot Jerkz, a little hut on the beach serving jerk chicken. The chicken was really, really good. There are picnic tables near the hut, but we carried ours back to our cabana and had our own little picnic. After the chicken, we stopped by the Crepe Cart and enjoyed some banana/Nutella crepes. Yum. It was midday by now, and what was really noticeable was how few people were around! The resort must not have been very full the entire time we were there, as very few of the chairs at the pool or beach were ever occupied. There was a big convention of Xerox employees going on, but they must have been indoors all day. It really added to our enjoyment of the resort to feel like we had the place to ourselves.
We headed back to the room around 6:00 pm to shower and change for dinner. The original plan had been to try Petite Pariz for dinner, but somehow we were drawn back to Horizons as I noticed the Surf n Turf menu item. Yum! It was a really good filet mignon with half of a lobster. For a starter, I had the shrimp/lobster “martini” which was a generous sized portion of lobster and shrimp in a cute cocktail glass. Again, the food and service at this restaurant were great! After dinner, we went for a little walk and ended up back at Fez. There was a large private party going on on the lawn for the Xerox people, including a live band. We sat on the deck at Fez and enjoyed the band and watched all the people before turning in to our tub, and room.
Sunday morning was our last full day. I woke up not feeling very well. I think it was from getting a little too much sun the day before. That has never happened before, but I just generally felt nauseous and stayed in bed while my husband went out for some breakfast. We could have ordered room service (included), but I really just wanted to go back to sleep for a little bit and I could tell he wanted to get out. He brought me a fruit plate back and once I got up and moving I felt a little better. It was about 11:00 by the time we got down to the beach, but we pretty much had our pick of any cabana or chairs and chose our same cabana again! By lunch time I was feeling pretty much 100% and wanted to eat so we decided to check out Choicez, the buffet. This was a really great buffet. The only disappointment was that on our way out of the restaurant, we went through a room that contained a buffet table filled with crab claws and chilled shrimp! I can’t believe we hadn’t seen that!
The day before we had seen people taking out ocean kayaks, or going out on the little hobie boats, and we had planned to do that today. Unfortunately, the wind was very high today, so the boats couldn’t go out. Not a big deal, and although it was really windy, it didn’t negatively impact our day. Because the beach and pool are situated between buildings, these areas are fairly protected.
We also noticed several kids on the Zilara beach today. I assume this isn’t supposed to happen, but the trampoline/slide being placed on the Zilara beach is a little confusing, and as you might imagine, very attractive to kids. Again, it wasn’t a big deal but if Zilara is being marketed as “adults only” they should enforce that.
For dinner, we ended up back at – you guessed it – Horizons. We abandoned the plan for Petite Pariz after a quick look for it came up empty. I ordered the exact same appetizer and meal, and it was just as good the second time around. We did decide to try someplace else for dessert and ended up at the Italian restaurant, Del Roza. This place looked really good – the pizza and pasta dishes looked delicious. I ordered tiramisu and my husband had the chocolate pudding (more like flan). What we did not like about this restaurant was the acoustics. It was so incredibly loud we couldn’t even hear each other. I would not recommend dining here unless they fix that. A huge negative for me. When we left Del Roza, there was a circus show performing on the lawn outside. We grabbed some chairs and watched for a little while, before making our way back to the room. There was a note under our door indicating that our shuttle to the airport would depart at 9:30am for our 12:30 flight. Seemed excessively early to me, but we didn’t complain. The next morning we were up early and down for breakfast around 7:30. We decided to try the breakfast at Choicez buffet, which had pretty much everything you could want. We sat outside, overlooking the beach. After breakfast, we enjoyed the beach for a while before heading back to our room to pack up. We were down to the shuttle at 9:30, and were the only 2 people on the shuttle. Our driver told us that lots of people change their shuttle time because they don’t feel the need to be at the airport so early. We should have done this. We were at the airport, through security, and at our gate by 10:00 for our 12:30 flight!
Our Southwest flight departed on time, and we were back to Baltimore by 5:00 pm. Daylight savings time occurred while we were gone, but Jamaica doesn’t recognize it so the flight “time” was longer on the return.
We are not the kind of people who often return to a place we’ve been, mainly because we like to experience new places. But we both agreed we could see making this an annual weekend getaway. It is an easy flight for us and the proximity of the airport make it so quick to get to. We had only been to one all-inclusive previously in Mexico (which was just ok), but we think Hyatt really does this right. Everything seems high end, and this is more “luxury chic” than “all-you-can eat and drink” party centric. I would say this place is more suitable for couples than for singles, but probably everyone could find something they liked here. The staff is wonderful. Very talkative and friendly, and genuinely seemed to care that guests were having a good time. We never felt any pressure to tip, although we left housekeeping a nice tip and tipped the bartenders at times. We also tipped our shuttle drivers.
This summer, we discovered a truly magical place. Following our positive experience at the Dude Ranch, I was searching for another all-inclusive place for our family that wasn’t the typical Caribbean beach resort. Something like the Dude Ranch, but without the horses. Not that we didn’t enjoy the riding, we were just looking for something different.
After some serious Googling, I stumbled on the concept of family camp. Like traditional summer camp for kids, but for the whole family. Turns out, there are a few of these scattered around the country. Most are actually traditional summer camps for kids, but with the last week or two of the summer reserved for families. This wouldn’t work for our family, as we start school in late August. A few of the camps I found, however, were exclusively family camps. They ranged from the fairly well-known Tyler Place in Vermont, which is really more of a resort, to the very rustic —– in —–, which is so rustic it lacks electricity and running water. I carefully scrutinized each camp. Some included all meals, some just a few. Some were in the mountains, others at the beach. Some focused on a specific sport or skill. Some were very expensive, others more affordable. Soon, one clear winner emerged for us: Sandy Island. Set on a private 50 acre island in the middle of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnepesauke, the camp has been in existence since 18—. Originally a men’s camp, it began welcoming families in 19—. What drew me to Sandy Island was that everything was included. All meals, all activities, all water sports, all entertainment. Everything. And, well, the idea of being boated out to an island with no cars, no televisions, no distractions for a week was just the icing on the cake. I was sold. My husband was sold. The kids were not sold. “It’s like the dude ranch, but without the horses!” I said. “You mean without the best part?” came the reply. I booked it anyway.
A few months before our vacation, I received an email from a fellow “camper” named Sara who wanted to welcome me. She offered some advice (bring your own fitted sheets, the camp’s don’t fit very well) and asked if I had any questions. I had a few, which she promptly answered. She seemed nice.
We arrived at the Sandy Island boat launch on our appointed Saturday morning. The boats take campers over every hour on the half hour, no reservations needed. We pulled into the parking lot around 10:30 and assumed we would take the 11:30. To our surprise, a woman rushed over, introduced herself as Sara (yes, the emailing Sara), and told us we were getting on the 10:30! Her son and some other people started unloading our car, carrying our luggage down to the separate luggage boat. I asked her how she knew it was us, and she let me know that we were the only new family this year, and she knew everyone else! I have to say, I was a little apprehensive about being the only new family. Everyone else would already know each other, and be friends.
We got on the boat and we were off. I snapped this photo of my kids on the ride over. Look how excited they look:
Twenty minutes later, the boat pulled up to the dock at Sandy Island. We were shown where to go for check in and then directed to our cabin, Wee Hoos.
We set out to explore the island. There is a central area with a sports field, basketball hoops, four square and bocce courts, etc. and lots of kids were already playing. My kids held back, not really knowing how to break in to these groups of kids who obviously knew each other. But a pretty amazing thing happened. Kids approached them and asked them to join in. Adults approached us and introduced themselves. We started to relax.
Turns out, most of these people have been coming to Sandy Island their whole lives. Seriously. One of our fellow campers, Alice, has been coming for 74 years! Our week (Week 6), is comprised of a few large extended family groups, interspersed with some families like ours who are relative “newbies” that are first-generation campers with only 10-15 years of Sandy Island under their belts. Many of these families are from New England, but a surprising number are from the DC area, and several from more far-flung locations who grew up in New England, subsequently moved away, but continue coming to Sandy Island each year.
We soon learned there is a predictable rhythm to Sandy Island. Breakfast is served from 7:30-9:00, lunch from 12:00-1:00, and dinner starts at 6:00. A bell that can be heard around the island signifies it is meal time. Monday through Thursday there are organized kids’ activities by age-group from 9:00-12:00. Friday morning is a triathalon, followed by a water carnival. Afternoons generally include an organized sporting event, such as a softball game, capture the flag, or soccer. Each evening, there is a different activity after dinner. There is movie night, bingo night, and talent show night. There are also the famous “Sandy Island dances” where everyone participates in lines dances choreographed to some hokey classics such as “Witch Doctor,” “Elvira,” and “the Hustle.” There are also tournaments for every taste, such as bocce, ping pong, and Scrabble. There is no pressure to participate in anything, yet most people do. The Little Red School house welcomes the littlest campers, so parents can relax on their own for a few hours each morning.
My husband and I spent our days mostly lying on the beach. We kayaked, tried paddle boarding, waterskied, and went tubing. We had meals with our kids, but otherwise rarely saw them. They had made friends, and spent the days doing old-fashioned kid activities. We had made friends, and spent our evenings getting to know new people. When the following Saturday rolled around, no one wanted to leave. The photo I snapped on the boat back tells a very different story then on the ride over. Sandy Island had won our hearts. “We’re coming back next year, right?” everyone wanted to know. Of course we are.