Bahamas 2012 - Sandals Royal Bahamian

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Holiday resort report for our 2 week stay at Sandals Royal Bahamian in Oct/Nov 2012, with the added excitement of Hurricane Sandy...

Getting There

Our direct BA flight left from Heathrow Terminal 5 (a confusing mess) at 10:30am.  We took the opportunity to stay at a local hotel the previous night, and used Purple Parking Business to look after our car.  They provide a shuttle bus for the lengthy transfer to T5.

After a 9-hour flight, we spotted the Sandals rep hiding at the end of the arrivals hall, and were led to a shuttle bus for the 20-minute transfer to Sandals Royal Bahamian.

The Hotel

This 400-room hotel is on the north coast of New Providence, a few miles west of Nassau.  The rooms are mainly in two large six-floor blocks, Balmoral and Windsor, with a few low-rise villas towards the back of the property.

There are two large pools, each with a swim-up pool bar and lots of sunbeds, a water-sports and dive centre, and a beach area with more sunbeds and a couple of piers.  The Windsor pool is noisy, with loud music and entertainment staff laying on dancing, demonstrations, competitions, etc during the day.  The Balmoral pool is quieter.  There are a couple of function rooms for shows/concerts/films, and a gym.

A kilometre offshore is a small, privately-owned island.  Sandals own half of this, and they have a restaurant (Café Goombay), a swimming pool and bar, and lots of sunbeds on the beach.  A ferry runs back and forth between the hotel and the island.

Architecture is typically Sandals: overblown and just a bit tacky, all Grecian columns, statues of semi-clad goddesses, murals.  Mark, my New-Yorker dive buddy, perceptively described Sandals architecture as “an American's idea of what Europe looks like”.

New Providence is a built-up island, especially the north coast where the hotel, and the Bahamas capital Nassau, lie.  From our balcony, we could see an expanse of buildings and tower cranes, where more hotels are going up.

Our room

We'd paid for a “Sea-View” room, and were disappointed to be shown to a room towards the back of the Windsor block with hardly any sea view.  We asked for something more favourably-placed, and were transferred to a much better room further forward and on the top floor, with a proper sea view.

Our room was grandly described as “Honeymoon Grande Luxe Beachfront Sunset Concierge Room” (despite the fact that it was east-facing, and therefore should have been a "Sunrise" room, and at least a hundred metres back from the beach).  It was large and well equipped with a king-size bed, bedside tables, a chest of drawers supporting a huge LCD TV, two easy chairs with a table, a sofa and a writing desk and chair.  There's a mini-bar packed with water, mixers, juices etc, and we had four full bottles of spirits (gin, rum, vodka and scotch), and a bottle each of red wine, white wine and French sparkling wine.  There was also a coffee maker, with the usual supplies.  The minibar is restocked daily.

There was a single washbasin, and a cupboard containing hanging space, an iron/ironing board, and a good-sized room safe.

The bathroom contained the loo and a big bath with shower over and a towel-rail with lots of towels.

Outside on the balcony was a table with a couple of chairs, and a clothes-frame for drying stuff.  The balcony had a good view over the Windsor pool, the pier and the beach.

We turned off the air-conditioning in the room.  The corridors outside, however, were like a deep-freeze.

There's in-room Wi-Fi of reasonable quality available at a steep price – US$44.95 per week, or at an even more rip-off rate per day.  For an all-inclusive resort, this grates.  It was, however, welcome while we were confined to our rooms during the hurricane.

We were pleased with our room.  If we had any complaints, they were:

  • it would have been nice to have two washbasins, not just one
  • more hanging space for trousers, frocks etc
  • the shower rose was too low for me – I had to stoop to get my hair wet
  • sometimes we were left with no hand-towels – but then we were provided with extra bath-towels instead.

Food+Drink

There are ten restaurants on site, and we tried most of them.

Baccarat

The poshest restaurant (you have to book and wear smart clothes), but not our favourite.  Although the food was generally good, there wasn't much choice, we felt it cramped, the tables too close together, and the air-conditioning too cold.  Avoid the bench-seat along the back wall – it's very uncomfortable.  I once spent ten minutes with an empty wine-glass waiting for it to be filled up.

Crystal Room

Perhaps our favourite.  More choice, the tables were further apart, the food was generally good, the waiters were more friendly and relaxed, and one even left a full bottle of wine on our table (you normally only get wine by the glass).  The Crystal Bar outside was comfortable and quiet, but on two or three nights it was freezing.

Casanova

A good choice of food, and a good ambience in the evening.  At breakfast and lunch they dispense with tablecloths, and we twice had a table with an extremely sticky tabletop.  Service hit and miss.  They do basic café food.

Spices

We ate breakfast here frequently (it's the only one that opens at 7am).  Enthusiastic greet staff, and a good choice of buffet food.  Freshly cooked eggs and omelettes.  The bacon at this and other restaurants was described as “crispy”.  We would agree with that – get your dentist on standby – it's rock-hard.

They are also open at lunchtime, and are always popular.

Kimonos

This is as much entertainment as a meal.  You are seated in small groups around a griddle, and your group's chef prepares the meals in front of you.  If you're lucky, your chef is amusing and entertaining.  Unfortunately ours wasn't.  Worth doing for the experience.

Cafe Goombay

This is incorrectly called “Stewfish” on Sandal's website.  Based on the Sandals Island offshore, with an emphasis on seafood.  Basic food at lunchtime and a bit more up-market in the evening.  We ate there one lunchtime, and weren't that impressed.   We didn’t eat at Goombay in the evening.

Royal Cafe

Near the beach, and can be draughty.  Basic food at lunchtime – burgers/hot-dogs/fries/salads.  Supposed to be a bit more upmarket at night.

Cricketer's Pub

Supposedly authentic British pub, with mock beer-pumps.  Also two TVs, tuned to different American football or news stations, the sound from these competing with loud background music.  Fast service.  There's a quieter terrace with seating outside.  We didn’t eat there.

Gordon's on the Pier

This exclusive restaurant, located at the end of the bigger pier, costs extra (a lot extra), unless you've paid for Sandals' Butler service.  We tried this once.  Food and service were very good, although we weren't seeing it at its best – it had to re-locate to the Royal Café, as the pier was out of action following the hurricane.

Bella Napoli Pizzeria

A basic pizza place near the beach, with tables to sit at, and waiter service.  We enjoyed delicious freshly-cooked pizzas here on several occasions.

Diving

The big news is that diving is included within the All-Inclusive package at Sandals.  There's a two-tank dive in the morning, and a one-tank dive in the afternoon.  There's no diving on Sundays (though they also do a shark dive, allegedly spectacular, on a Sunday for US$105 extra).  I fully intended to do 20 dives on this holiday, which would cost upwards of £1000 in the Maldives.  However, Hurricane Sandy had other ideas – diving wasn't possible, or comfortable, for a week, and so I only did ten.

Because the hurricane had smashed the pier, the dive boat had been moved to the south-west, lee side of the island, so to get to the boat we had a 25-minute ride on an old, rusty, dented bus (they understandably don't want to use a posh coach when the passengers are only going to drip salt water everywhere).  My ten dives were therefore all off the SW of the island, and I didn’t get to see any of the northern sites. 

We were told it was very important to check in at the dive centre at 8am.  We then wandered over to Reception (5 minutes away) to await the bus, which annoyingly never arrived until 8.40am.

The local dive team operated in a state of organised chaos, however everything got done properly, although dive site briefings and assignment to dive leaders were at times a bit lacking.  The dive boat was a Newton 46 – big and fast.  Transfer from dock to dive site generally took “20 Bahamian minutes” (in the words of Wenzel, the chief instructor), ie 30 to 40 minutes.  There were 20+ divers on board, plus 3 or 4 dive leaders, so we were often treading on each other's fins.  The leaders soon worked out who were experienced divers, and who needed an eye kept on them, and sorted us into groups accordingly.

Max depth was limited to 80 feet (25 metres), and max dive time was limited to 30 or 40 minutes – very frustrating to have to get back on the boat with your tank still more than half full.  It was explained that this was done to minimise our surface interval, and to ensure that we were all bussed back to the hotel in time for lunch.

Fortunately, visibility recovered rapidly after the hurricane – much better than two years ago on St Lucia, when viz was still appalling three weeks after Hurricane Tomas.  St Lucia is a mountainous granite island with soil-covered hillsides and rivers, which gave rise to torrents of brown silty water pouring into the sea.  New Providence is a flat, coral-sand island with no rivers, where the coral sand settled out quickly.  Water temperature was 26 - 27°C.

The dives seemed to be of two kinds: wreck and reef.  On the wreck dives, once you'd checked out the wreck, there was generally little else to see – few fish, not much reef.  The reef dives were usually at the drop-off to Tongue of the Ocean, and were much more interesting, with more to see.  There are sponges and hard and soft corals.  I saw Caribbean reef sharks, stingrays, a turtle, morays, Flamingo tongues, conch, lobsters, barracuda, a scorpionfish, a puffer fish, lots of big groupers and lots of huge Lionfish.

These latter are an invasive species, with no natural predators, so they just eat and eat, and grow bigger and bigger.  We saw more, and much bigger, lionfish than you see in the Indian Ocean, where they come from.  Because they are a pest, the dive leaders are authorised to spear them whenever possible, frequently bagging more than half a dozen on each dive.  Some would get ripped off the spear by sharks, who seemed to be oblivious to the lionfish's poisonous spines.  One or two of the leaders spent more time hunting and killing Lionfish than guiding us around and showing us things.  However, it was interesting on the way back to the dock to see the crew cutting off the poisonous spines and gutting the fish ready for the pot.

Dive Sites

Hollywood seems to like using the Bahamas when they need underwater sequences for films, so there are the remains of several underwater film sets, for some reason generally involving planes that have been “crash-landed” on the water.  The combination of proximity, clear seas, plenty of sunshine and co-operative authorities is just the job.

For example, I dived on the Vulcan bomber that featured in the James Bond movie “Thunderball”.  Of course, it wasn't a real Vulcan bomber – it was a plywood, canvas and scaffolding mock-up.  And since it was sunk to the sandy sea floor 40+ years ago, it's now looking a bit sorry for itself – the plywood has all rotted away, and the scaffolding structural members are covered in soft corals.  The wheels and tyres of the fake undercarriage are still visible, if a bit wonky after so many years and a few hurricanes.

I also dived on the remains of the (real) Douglas DC-3 “Dakota” that featured in the movie “Into the Blue”, and the real twin-engined Cessna crash-landed into the sea by Michael Caine in the film “Jaws – the Revenge” - a few years ago voted one of the worst films ever made.

There were also lots of shipwrecks to be seen – all deliberately sunk to provide interest for divers, and to form new coral reefs.

Dive sites I visited were:

  • Steel Forest: 3 wrecks, sharks, stingrays, nice reeftop
  • Grouper Haven: nice reeftop, sharks, lobsters
  • Pumpkin Patch Wall: nice reeftop, sharks, lobsters
  • Mike's Reef:  close to Pumpkin Patch Wall, very similar
  • DC3: Dakota wreckage, not much else
  • The James Bond Wrecks: the “Thunderball” Vulcan with attendant stingray, plus two other (ship-)wrecks,
    one of them the "Tears of Allah" from "Never Say Never Again"
  • Razorback Ridge: stingrays, scorpionfish, puffer fish
  • Fan Sea Purple: nice reeftop, lobsters, turtle
  • MV 'David Turner': wreck of a coastguard cutter deliberately sunk in 1997, not much else
  • Nary Nary: shallow dive, Cessna wreckage, reef fish, morays.

Hurricane Sandy

Unfortunately, our arrival on the island coincided with the preparations for Hurricane Sandy, which had already pasted Jamaica and Cuba.  We arrived at the hotel late on a Wednesday, only to find as we checked in that others were trying to reschedule their flights to get out before the airport closed.  It was already blowing half a gale with black, threatening clouds, and as we were shown to our room, it started raining.

By Thursday morning, the hotel staff were busy nailing up hurricane boards across sea-facing windows, piling up sandbags against windward doors, moving sunbeds off the beach and tying down anything that might blow away.  Preparations were well-planned and clearly well-practiced.  The staff were quite blasé about the whole thing.  The wind increased during the day from the north-east, and rain was being blown horizontally against our balcony window.  As night fell, the wind increased still further.  Sandy, now category 2, passed by a few miles to the east early Friday morning.  It was a noisy night: the wind roared, the doors and windows rattled, the rain spattered against the window, and there were unidentified bangs, rattles and scrapes from the roof (we were on the top floor).  We didn't sleep very well.

Peering through the window early on Friday morning I could see that the wind had shifted round to the west, and there were heavy seas running, with the ocean white all over.  I was surprised to see that the sun was shining, the rain had stopped, and the wind seemed to have reduced to mere gale force.  I could see that the pier was damaged, so I went down to the beach-front along with several other curious holidaymakers, to check it out. 

In fact both piers had been badly damaged by the massive waves, and were unusable (see Photos).  The fixed sunshades on the beach were ripped out or heavily damaged.  The normally pristine beach was covered in wreckage from the piers and from seaweed thrown up by the storm.  There was surprisingly little damage to the buildings – they are clearly well-built.  The trees and shrubs in the garden didn't fare so well – much of the vegetation turned brown and died off over the next few days.  Spray was being blown off the pool surface in big clouds, soaking passers-by.  Leaves, sand, seaweed and assorted rubbish covered the area near the beach.  The Windsor pool, right next to the beach, had a lot of sand in it – the pool bar was damaged and out of action for a week.

I soon realised that, though the sun was shining, the hurricane hadn't gone away.  We had clearly been on the edge of the eye, because by lunchtime on the Friday, the sun had disappeared behind black rainy clouds again, and the wind had increased back to hurricane force. 

We had been told not to go outside, so for much of Friday and Saturday we remained in our room, reading books, watching TV, and using the Internet.  This was boring.  The hotel set up a restaurant in a large function room at the back of our block, so we didn't have to go outside.  Unfortunately, after the hurricane finally disappeared towards New York, a cold front passed through, and there was a strong, chilly wind (Force 5 to 6) from the north-west, which meant nobody went outside much on Sunday either, except to watch the hotel staff clearing up the storm detritus.  By Monday, though still cold and windy, it was possible to sit in the sun by the pool and watch the workmen who'd started work on repairing the pier (they were still working when we left more than a week later). 

It was still cold and windy on Tuesday.  I looked at the sea state, still F5 to 6, and thought “there's no way they'd go diving in this”, but I was wrong – they'd ventured out that morning, though a couple of divers told me that it had been “interesting” getting back on board the boat after the dive in the rough seas.  I went out for the first time on the Wednesday (a week after we arrived), and it was still pretty rough, and COLD.  Divers were shivering uncontrollably in the wind on the boat during their surface interval – me included.  However, the following day, Thursday, was beautiful: warm and calm.  What a change.  The rest of the holiday was warm and settled.

With the pier out of action, the off-shore Sandals Island was unreachable.  It too had been damaged and a large team of workmen was finally sent out from a nearby marina on the Tuesday to clear up, and it opened again on the Thursday, a week after the hurricane arrived.  However, we had to be bussed to a marina 30 minutes away for a rather longer boat ride than usual.  We only did this once as it meant travelling for nearly two hours.

Without the pier, Gordon's on the Pier and Café Goombay were re-located into other restaurants temporarily.  We did get to eat at Gordon's-on-the-Pier-not-on-the-Pier at Café Royal.

We got off a lot lighter than New Jersey and New York a few days later – the Bahamas were better prepared.  Sandy had certainly been an experience for us, but a major disruption to our holiday – we effectively lost a week of our expensive fortnight there.  We were surprised to hear that Sandals will offer us a replacement holiday - they don't have to do this.  Later: Delighted that Sandals have given us a credit voucher for the accommodation costs for the entire holiday.  We'll have to pay for the flights, but have now booked a holiday at Sandals in Antigua for 2013.  Well done, Sandals.

Conclusion

We had a great hotel room.  Dining was mixed, usually good.  The staff were, almost without exception, smiling and attentive.  Plenty of sun-beds round the pool and on the beach. 

Sandals is an acquired taste – if you're gregarious, like noise and joining in organised fun, games and entertainment, you'll love it. 

The diving was interesting, but not really in the same league as the Maldives as far as marine life goes. 

The hotel management and staff coped admirably with Hurricane Sandy, and we were pleasantly surprised to be told that we'd be offered a replacement holiday (Sandals have given us a credit voucher for the accommodation costs for the entire holiday.  We'll have to pay for the flights, but have now booked a holiday at Sandals in Antigua for 2013.  Well done, Sandals!).

Would we go back to the Bahamas again?  Well, certainly to the Caribbean, but probably not to the Bahamas.

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