OCHO RIOS, Jamaica — The message in my oceanview suite at Sandals Dunn’s River resort was titled, “A Legendary Tale of Welcome,” and it began this way: “Once upon a time a young boy spent his childhood days playing along a mystic stretch of beach in a place called Ocho Rios.”
I was hooked and continued reading. “He was surrounded by good friends and family who delighted in extraordinary tales about his days growing up selling fresh-caught fish to local hotels, including this very treasured site known at the time as the chic Arawak Hotel.”
Turns out that those childhood memories of Butch Stewart, who grew up to be Sandals’ founder, played a key role in the transformation of that “chic hotel” into the 260-room Sandals Dunn’s River, which opened in May.
The reopening is a homecoming of sorts for Sandals: It operated the property as Sandals Dunn’s River until 2010, when it became the Jewel Dunn’s River Beach Resort & Spa. Sandals acquired the property as well as adjacent beachfront land in 2020 for $30 million.
Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International and Butch Stewart’s son, collaborated with his father on the plans for the new Sandals Dunn’s River until Butch Stewart’s death in 2021.
“Spending time with my dad, dreaming up new ways to bring the new Dunn’s River to life, is time I will always treasure,” Adam Stewart said.
“I feel his presence everywhere throughout the resort,” he added. “Like the way the natural underground springs that feed Dunn’s River Falls percolate through this property, his ideas and philosophies on innovation, pleasing the customer, championing the team and Caribbean people are always bubbling up.”
The company employed other, more modern techniques to hone the look and feel of Sandals Dunn’s River. It mined the data it’s collected over 40 years of guest preferences, comments and reviews, and it studied market trends along with the lifestyles and expectations of today’s travelers.
The transformed resort reflects what Adam Stewart calls Sandals 2.0, the company’s strategic growth plans to elevate the next generation of its resorts.
This was my first visit to a resort I had heard, and written, so much about prior to its spring opening.
Guests awaken each morning to soft classical music played by a violinist on the main pool deck. “We start each day quietly so that our guests can take in their surroundings while they have breakfast,” said Deryk Meany, general manager.
I’d noticed the resort’s color palette of soft blues and greens in the guestrooms and suites, the outdoor seating areas and in the lobby.
“The days of dark furniture and the signature four-poster mahogany beds are over,” Meany said. “We are light and bright now, reflecting the colors of the Caribbean, of nature, of the outdoors and of the connections and experiences that await our guests.”
SkyPool Suites and Rondoval Villas
Sandals “firsts” at the Dunn’s River resort include the SkyPool Suites with floor-to-ceiling windows and glass-paneled, infinity-edge pools that span the balconies overlooking the sea, and the 12 Rondoval Villas, which are circular structures, each with a private pool and butler service.
While other Sandals properties offer Rondoval Villas, five of the 12 villas here each have a rooftop pool and lounge, complete with a telescope and the services of the Stargazing Concierge, who will point out constellations.
“These Rondovals are booked solid into 2024,” Meany said. “We plan to add more.”
The resort was at 92% occupancy in late September, according to Meany.
“Jamaica doesn’t have a shoulder season anymore,” he said. “Travelers are booking throughout the year, staying an average of six days at this resort, and many are rebooking before they leave.
Meany credited the hard work and dedication of travel advisors, who account for the bulk of his business. The resort has hosted several fam trips, and I met a Canadian group that came through when I was there.
“We’re blown away. This resort is stunning and very sellable,” said Sonia Morissette of Pro Destinations in Quebec City.
While chatting with Patrick, one of my two hardworking butlers who magically appeared whenever I needed a beach towel, a question answered, an umbrella or a rum punch, he confirmed guests’ reactions to the resort.
“No complaints, lots of positive comments and a delight at being here,” Patrick said. “I know that several couples rebooked for next year before they even left.”
Of the 830 employees at Sandals Dunn’s River, 825 are Jamaicans, which reflects Butch Stewart’s philosophy of hiring and training locals and offering them opportunities for advancement.
Sandals’ new culinary concepts
Of the 12 on-site restaurants, culinary firsts include the Greek restaurant Edessa (the baklava is a winner), the Asian-fusion menu at Banyu, Central and South American flavors at Zuka (try the eels) and Hamani, which features varieties of sushi.
For quick bites, I headed to the Jerk Shack on the beach or Saltaire, the buffet restaurant serving breakfast and lunch.
I spent some time during brief rainstorms at the BLUM café — the name is short for Blue Mountains, a reference to the verdant region where Jamaica’s famous coffee is grown. I can vouch for the variety of hot and cold brews, the pastries (try the coconut patty) and the fun conversations with staff.
My explorations brought me to Dunn’s Rum Club, which features the largest selection of rums on the island. Open from 5 p.m. into the wee hours, it’s a gathering spot after the outdoor poolside entertainment has wrapped up for the night.
Other firsts are the Lapidus Lounge, a tribute to famed architect Morris Lapidus, who designed the 1960s Arawak Hotel (I suggest you sip the signature Morris Manhattan cocktail); the open-air Champagne Bar overlooking one of the pools; and the Laughing Waters Beach Bar, named after the nearby Dunn’s River Falls.
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