I got back from Jamaica on Monday night, and had an absolutely marvelous time. On Friday I wrote about some questions I had about the experience, since I've never visited an all-inclusive resort (or Jamaica) before.
Now I have the answers to those questions and more! This is a pretty detailed [i.e. boring — ed.] post so go ahead and skip it unless you're curious.
Getting to the resort is totally seamless
All the Zilara website says is "After passing through customs, simply visit the Hyatt Lounge, where airport agents will arrange travel to our hotel."
I had no idea what this meant, but it turns out be to uncannily accurate. Immediately after customs in Montego Bay, you enter a large arrival hall with "lounges" for most or all of the resorts on the island. There, I confirmed the credit card I had on file, filled out some paperwork, and after 5 or 10 minutes a driver arrived to take us to the resort.
I'm not entirely clear on the economics of these airport vans, since none of the vans I saw had any kind of resort branding, so I assume they're private contractors who take turns driving guests to and from all the resorts as they arrive and leave.
Everything about the physical property is terrific
Reader Ben commented on Friday's post that the Hyatt all-inclusive properties are relatively new, and as far as I can tell the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall opened in late 2014. If anything, I'd say the property felt even newer than that. The little things that are usually the first to go worked flawlessly: the sinks, showers, light switches, air conditioning, phones, etc. never gave us any trouble at all, which is something at a property where people are constantly tracking around sand and seawater!
My Diamond status maybe got me an upgrade or two
When we checked in at the airport I saw that our room type was "Jr. Suite King," which is at least an upgrade from the room I'd reserved, and which I assume was based on my Diamond status (it certainly wasn't based on the rate I paid). We arrived at the property around noon, and were told that we wouldn't be able to check in until 3 pm, the guaranteed check-in time.
When 3 pm came and went, our room still wasn't available, so we parked in the lobby to wait. After half an hour more, the front desk clerk came over, apologized even more, and upgraded us again to an "Ocean View Jr. Suite King."
It was great! Here's the view from our balcony, in case you missed it on Twitter:
We ate several meals out on the balcony, as well as resting and reading out there.
The employees are incredibly friendly
I always have a lot of followup questions when I'm in a new and unfamiliar environment, and all the employees were friendly and accommodating.
One interesting thing I observed and finally asked someone about is that the hierarchy of employees felt very "flat." There were always a lot of staff around but I never observed anyone "managing" anyone else, giving instructions or criticism. It turns out the only way to identify the supervisors is that their shirts, which are otherwise identical, have a slight slit at the bottom that I never would have noticed if I hadn't asked. After that it was funny to keep an eye out for who was in charge at each restaurant, bar, and activity.
I discovered two and a half rules governing guests
As the curious sort, one of my biggest questions was just how many rules we'd accidentally bump against. I figured as a bumbling American people would always be telling me to do this and not do that.
But over the course of our 3-night stay I only ever observed 2 (and a half) rules being enforced.
First, children are absolutely forbidden on the adults-only Zilara side of the resort. This was somewhat funny because the Zilara side, especially at the beach, literally runs into the family-friendly Ziva side; it has to since the two properties share the same water sports booth. But if any kids stepped over onto the Zilara side security suddenly materialized and ushered them quickly away. The parents did not, usually, find this as funny as I did.
Second, you had to wear a shirt in the food service areas, which is not an unreasonable rule and one I only discovered because I tried to grab a sandwich from one of the to-go areas on my way back to my room.
The half-rule I also discovered is that the bars don't serve beer before 10 am. I don't have a good sense of why this rule exists, since the minibars in each room are restocked with beer every day.
You may ask, what rules did I expect to encounter? Lots! For example, the swimming pool is right next to the beach, and there's a long list of rules, including the obvious "guests must shower before using the pool." I am the only person I observed, in 3 days, showering before using the pool. So, the pool had some sand in it, but no one seemed to mind, including the employees.
I didn't observe anyone trying to sunbathe in the nude so I don't know whether they'd allow that or not. It seems like an obvious benefit of an adults-only resort, but perhaps they get too many American tourists for anyone to be interested. I didn't see any rules posted against it, though.
Order room service all the time
If I go back to this property I'll order room service for breakfast every day (I recommend the Yardie omelette, side of toast, side of bacon), and then just grab a sandwich, burger, or pizza for lunch. I tried a couple of the restaurants that open for breakfast and lunch every day and they made no impression whatsoever. One served a "barbecue chicken" that didn't taste like anything even after I doused it in hot sauce, and I got some eggs and toast at the other which tasted about the same. Just a waste of time waiting to be seated, waiting for a waiter, and waiting for your food.
Plan around dinner
I knew this going in, but didn't put enough emphasis on it while actually planning our days. The dinner restaurants open at 6 pm each day, and if you don't get there at 6 pm, you're going to have trouble eating there. Our first night we managed to be seated immediately at the French restaurant, our second night we gave up and ate at the buffet (big mistake), and our third night we couldn't get seated at the Italian restaurant but ended up having an amazing meal at the Caribbean restaurant.
It seemed like the consensus was that the Italian restaurant was the best on the property, so it's a bit disappointing we didn't get to eat there, although we could have done a lot worse. I'd recommend picking a restaurant in advance every day and simply planning to be there at 5:55 pm, since I don't know of another way to be sure you get your first choice.
People were tipping a lot
I don't know what the point of going to an all-inclusive is if you're going to walk around with a wallet, but people were tipping everywhere. People sitting, in swim trunks, at the swim-up bar would pull soggy dollar bills out of their underwater pockets to hand to the bartenders! I'm glad the US dollar is so durable, and I'm sure the staff were appreciative, but it seemed like overkill to me.
The entertainment surprised and delighted
In the evenings there were a lot of very strange events going on. One night on our way back to the room we accidentally stumbled upon a fashion show, firebreathing performance, and synchronized swimming show (in that order, not all at once). There was nothing about any of them in the daily program so it felt oddly serendipitous, although I'm sure I could have asked someone what the evening entertainment was in advance, if I'd known there would be evening entertainment.
Likewise someone told me Saturday morning that they'd just been going for a walk on the beach the night before and discovered the resort had set up a rum bar and dance party.
Basically, save some energy for the evening and walk around after dinner and you'll likely run into something totally unexpected.
Overall, I'd say my expectations were exceeded in almost every way: the resort was great, the beach was great, the pool was great, and the staff were terrific.
The only area where I'd say my expectations were met, but not exceeded, was at the themed restaurants, which it turned out work just like the cruise ship dining experience I feared: either plan ahead or plan to wait if you want to eat at the in-demand restaurants.