My husband and I were lucky enough to spend 11/14-11/20 at CSA, and I wanted to share what a remarkable experience we had. I've been a message board junkie for ages and am particularly fond of long, rambling reviews, so you might want to skip this one if you're in a hurry J
Us: Just to give you context, we're a married couple in our mid/late 30s from NYC (my husband's a Brit) and 1st time CSA repeaters. We're fairly sporty, sort of foodies, and I'm pretty terrible at just chilling out.
Transportation: I have a LOT to say about the flight so I'm leaving that until the end. The shuttle service down was perfectly fine, the driver very nice. Coming from NYC, I didn't find the driving at all unusual. The return shuttle back was less enjoyable. The driver was great, pointing quite a few things out to us along the way, but there was a large group from CN in the car that seemed a bit drunk and obnoxious. But maybe we were just cranky about having to leave CSA!
Arrival: We didn't get to the resort until 8pm, but were welcomed and shown to our room within 15 minutes. They forgot to give us our repeaters stuff until I asked for it the next day, but the woman checking us in seemed new, and couldn't have been more kind and attentive. I think the true measure of service is how the staff responds to things not going perfectly, and the CSA staff exceeds at putting you at ease.
Room: We had the same room as last year - 1224. It's a 2nd-floor atrium very close to the Palms. It can be a little noisy occasionally, but we loved its proximity to everything - the watersports and SCUBA huts, Palms, Seagrapes. Every evening, we'd sit on the balcony, enjoy the entertainment, and sip the champagne we brought back from the Palms bar. The room had been updated since last year and everything was fresh and new. Quibbles with the renovation: They switched to the key card entry so there was no key to lock the balcony door, and the latch on the balcony door was installed incorrectly so you couldn't lock the room. Also, the hammock was new so it wasn't that comfortable yet. These are so minor that we didn't mention them during our stay, but I'm sure they would have done something about it if we had asked. Another thing about this room is that housekeeping doesn't come until 4 or 5 each day. Personally, I love it, since the room is clean when we come back to get ready for dinner, not earlier in the day when we'd mess it up again.
Activities: We didn't do as much as we planned because watersports were closed for a couple of days due to rough water, but we did snorkel, take tennis lessons, and hit the gym each day. We also enjoyed our complimentary massages. The sports facility is tremendous, never crowded, and so nicely done. You could really spend the day across the street if you wanted. I also went diving - which was great and deserves its own paragraph.
Diving: Last year I did the discovery dive at CSA and loved it, so I got PADI certified at home. However, when I went out this year for my first real dive, I got nervous before we descended - the water was unusually choppy, there were a lot of divers, and I started to lose my weight belt (my fault for not securing it properly). These are minor issues, but I feared that I'd panic halfway down and ruin everyone else's dive, so I got back on the boat. Wade, a.k.a. Capt. Jack Sparrow was delightful company while we waited for the divers to return. When they did, I was so impressed with the dive crew and other divers' attitudes: don't worry, it happens to everyone, you should try again tomorrow. So the next morning I did, and it was fine. I have to say a special thanks to Steve from Florida, who was supposed to be my dive buddy the first day when I bailed, and the very next morning offered to be my buddy again. He also took a bunch of underwater pics and emailed them to me. I ended up doing two more dives and saw a bunch. The dive crew struck the perfect balance of letting me know they were looking out for the newbie, without smothering me and making me nervous. They seem like great instructors; after I get a few more dives in, I would love to go for my advanced certification with them.
Horseback Riding: We booked an outside horseback riding excursion that was fabulous and a true highlight of the trip. We were driven up into the hills, taken on a 40 minute trek down a path, cantered along the beach, and then went into the ocean to with the horses. Finally, we rode home. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about both the horses and the countryside, and it was not your typical guided tail-to-nose, no faster than a walk, kind of ride. It also provided the opportunity to experience the beauty of the Jamaican countryside.
I think the phone number for Country Western is: (876) 957-3250, but we were referred to them from Sienna at Talk of the Town Tours: www.talkofthetownnegril.com who really went out of her way to help us set this up. It was a one of a kind experience and very reasonable.
Staff: I found service to be even better than last year. We never encountered a single unfriendly or unhelpful person. You'd wait the perfect time between courses, drinks were refilled often, and the one time our Lemongrass server was in the weeds, the hostess stepped in and took our order, even though we would have been happy to wait. The only time we really waited for anything was when the beach or martini bar were packed; but you couldn't have expected those bartenders to move faster without superpowers. And honestly, who doesn't have time to wait 10 minutes in Jamaica? A special thanks to the wonderful servers, especially at the Palms in the morning and Patois in the evenings. Patrion at the Palms was always there to make sure we had coffee with a smile. Other stand-outs were Tomeika and Julian at Seagrapes, who made us feel so welcome. Brenton gave us wonderful tennis lessons. The whole watersports and dive teams - I'm afraid to list names and leave someone out -- couldn't have been nicer, even though they must have been very tired of telling people that yes, everything was still cancelled because of the rough water. We never met our housekeeper, but she did a great job as well.
Food: YUM! We're not huge eaters normally, but there is definitely something about being at CSA that makes you chow down. The quality of the food is really exceptional, particularly for an all-inclusive. We had continental breakfast every day in our room early, then went to the sports center, then came back to the Palms for a full breakfast for my husband. At some point in the day we would inevitably visit my favorite, Seagrapes, and sometimes (I'm embarrassed to say) we'd hit it again. Personally, I think the best dinner is at Patois, though Lemongrass was delicious also. Both years we found our dinner at Feathers perfectly good, but not that memorable. The atmosphere there is just not what we're looking for in Jamaica. We did dress for dinner so it's not the dress code, there's just something about the closed room and air conditioning that feels a bit soulless to me. Maybe it's too much like a city restaurant for us. We never had dinner at the Palms, but we did try the buffet lunch which was surprisingly yummy (I'm not a big buffet fan). We ate at the Cabana Grill once, which was good, but liked the lighter options better. I think they do a great job at offering a selection of experiences/menus to satisfy so many different palates and dining styles. We also attended the repeaters dinner at Patois, and that food was fantastic. For all of you repeaters, definitely go to that meal. We're not big socializers and were concerned about chit-chatting all evening, but the GM, Ricardo, and the other guests at our table were delightful.
Entertainment: After dinner we liked to just sit and relax on our balcony, though we enjoyed the music some nights more than others. It's just a question of taste, but I preferred the reggae music and Afro-Caribbean show more than the 80s night. I also wasn't a big fan of the talent show. The staff all seemed very talented, but some of the guests were less so. It was hard to not hear it from my balcony, so…let's just say that I wouldn't mind if that night was just a staff show when we return next year.
Clientele: I really enjoyed how international the resort felt this time. It was a nice blend of Europeans, Canadians, and Americans. I know there have been a lot of terrible things said on TA recently about the guests, but I can't imagine where even someone with a skewed perception of reality could characterize the guests the way they have. Everyone has a different way of enjoying their vacation - you can be a barfly, sports addict, beach bum, etc. But the resort is certainly big enough to find whatever group, vibe, or degree of privacy you like.
Flight: YUCK. The air travel was the only part of the vacation that was lousy. Flight down was delayed, not a big deal except that it was just late enough that Tim Air (which was going to be this year's treat) wasn't flying. Going back was a nightmare - after waiting in the AA line to check in for an hour and a half, they told us that there was a hold on our ticket because we owed them $400 because we had changed our flight. Now, we did change our flight before our tickets were issued, because AA cancelled the first one. However, there was not supposed to be a charge for this since we had no choice in the matter. It got cleared up and refunded by our travel agent once we got home, but I find it pretty horrifying that they waited until we were in Jamaica to try and collect these funds. What if we hadn't had the credit card? My travel agent said that this is extremely rare so I don't want to panic anyone that this would happen to them. However, I am banning AA in the future because they haven't so much as apologized for what happened. Incidentally, AA was the only airline that had a check-in line that long.
CONCLUSION: So if anyone's made it this far and is still reading this, you must know that we had a fantastic time and will be - of course - returning next year. It just feels so comfortable - the right attitude, amenities, and experience for a getaway like this. I was a little nervous about a sophomore slump, but our second trip was even better than the first. Thanks to everyone on the message board for all the great advice and fun throughout the year!