Regular readers know that I offer an award booking service, and it’s gotten quite a bit of attention since I launched it about 3.5 years ago. It’s been covered in the New York Times and in USA Today, for instance. And I’ve been selected by Conde’ Nast Traveler as one of their ‘World’s Top Travel Specialists’ in 2010, 2011, and now also in 2012.
Conde’ Nast hosts an annual gathering for this group, the first one I attended was in January 2011.
This year’s event was held at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman. I’ve stayed at several Ritz-Carltons, but always on someone else’s dime or once for a night on Marriott Rewards points. This time I’d be paying, albeit as a business expense.
The going rate on the Ritz-Carlton website was somewhere in the $700s for a base room when I reserved my own. An ocean view room was a couple hundred dollars more than that. And the hotel charges a $50 resort fee, which I admit is the highest resort fee I’ve ever seen though it includes valet parking (and internet).
Fortunately the conference had a special rate of $199, with resort fee waived. So while I’ve never spent $300 on a hotel room night before, I was able to continue that lifelong streak. And I was also lucky that the conference would be picking up all of my meals from start to finish, although I did decide to go down to Grand Cayman early (the rate was available both before and after the conference — good job, Conde’ Nast!).
On arrival in Grand Cayman you walk down the stairs from the plane out across the tarmac and into the terminal. Getting out of the plane from the first class cabin there was no line at immigration, and processing took just a moment. I had a carry on bag only, so no wait for luggage — just a quick walk outside the terminal to the taxi booth where I was handed a ticket that stated the price of the ride and directed to a driver. A representative of the Ritz-Carlton was standing nearby, overheard the destination, and came right over to assist with my bag (all of about 10 feet to the car).
It was a quick 10 minute drive to the hotel, though I suppose it has been known to take 15 minutes in traffic.
The hotel representative had asked my name when walking me over to the cab, so I rather expected the hotel to know who I was on arrival but they did not. I walked right up to the desk though and was pleasantly surprised by an upgrade.
My booking was for a ‘run of house’ (whatever they’d decide to stick me in) room. And there was no option to buy up to a better room other than booking outside of the group rate, which wasn’t an option for me.
It turns out that I had been blocked into an ocean view room, presumably a result of the conference (I’d bet they were trying to impress the 135 or so travel agents in attendance who were all dubbed by the magazine as among the best and most influential in the world.) And I was told that I was given an upgrade because of my status to a top floor ocean view room (they call it the ‘Penthouse’ level).
See, I’m in the midst of an experiment though one I don’t expect to pan out. I asked Marriott for a status challenge and then converted my Marriott Rewards account to Ritz Carlton Rewards. The question is whether the status expiration will carry over properly once the account is converted, though I imagine that it will.
Status really didn’t get me much else on this stay. The only other meaningful benefit is free internet, which is free for everyone at this property anyway. There’s no upgrade to club level with the status, and no breakfast benefit either. But it got me a higher floor, so presumably a better view, no complaints there.
I was escorted to my room and it really was on the other side of the hotel, a seemingly endless walk, probably made longer by how slowly the Ritz staffer was walking (the median guest is, I imagine, older than I am). Along the walk I bumped into Milepoint member cliburn who was vacationing on property.
The room itself was ‘fine’ — fairly basic, though with a nice sized balcony (large enough for a couple of chaise lounge chairs.
The bathroom wasn’t as luxurious as I would have expected (if I’m going to stay at a Ritz Carlton, I prefer marble marble everywhere), and the water pressure in the shower was somewhat lacking. The bath amenities were Molten Brown.
What was spectacular, though, was the view.
Equally ‘special’ is the beach itself, but I didn’t actually want to spend any time there because of how crowded it gets. Make no mistake, this is a very large resort. And so it suffers from what I find to be the biggest drawback of big beach resorts — a lack of beach chairs. If you don’t get out and save a space by 8am in-season on the weekend, you aren’t going to get a beach chair in the front row. And who wants to lay out on the beach three rows back? Where you’re looking at other people instead of, you know, the ocean?
Since the beach is the main attraction, though, there were always plenty of chairs available at the pool — although I spent most of my gazing and reading time up on the balcony where it was much more peaceful.
Food on property is on the whole very good. It’s also very – very – expensive. Everything is “priced in Cayman dollars, but billed in US dollars” meaning they show you a number on the menu that looks smaller than the number you’re presented with on your bill. Takes a couple of meals to get used to. I do foreign currency conversion in my head all of the time and yet the first meal really threw me.
They have what’s supposed to be the best restaurant on the island in Eric Ripert’s “Blue” but I didn’t wind up eating there. I had originally had plans to connect up with a friend who is also on the Conde Nast list for dinner, but he had to cancel attending the conference last minute. It’s crucial to make reservations there in advance, as once on property they didn’t have anything available (even for the following day) until 9pm.
The first night I had dinner at the hotel’s steakhouse, which was surprisingly good.
As a side to the steak I had a baked potato with lobster and truffle oil which was really good.
Coming back from dinner, the room was quite hot. I hadn’t realized when checking in that it was on a sensor and probably had heated up with the a/c off while I was out of the room. Since it was an Inncom thermostat though I decided to override it to set the temperature lower than it was set to allow. Unfortunately putting it into “VIP” mode just turned it off. And it wouldn’t turn back on. The whole thing froze up entirely, although after half an hour reset itself and began to work again.
The next morning I went back down to the steakhouse which becomes the main breakfast restaurant, and man was it ever busy.
Getting staff attention for coffee was a challenge. They were so overwhelmed with guests that most were running around, in fact twice staff members nearly ran into me when I was walking outside from the buffet. And when I got up to go back for a second plate, the staff cleared the table and were about to seat new guests there as I returned. They were just trying to turn those tables and get through breakfast service, and were completely unable to provide the level of service that they promise.
The second night I went to their sushi restaurant where the food was quite good. I opted for the omakase menu, which was a bit hit or miss – the only real miss being the sushi rolls they sent out were way too common and touristy while the rest of the meal was interesting fusion of Japanese and haute cuisine. They did grate fresh wasabi, which is very much appreciated and so much better than the wasabi I get almost all the time in Japanese restaurants. (I think the only other times I’ve had fresh wasabi have been at Waku Ghin in Singapore).
My wallet was suffering mightily after a few meals on the property, so fortunately the conference began the next day. We started out with an amazing reception in the evening on the beach, with several bars set up and food stations from each of the restaurants. Our breakfasts were continental albeit with a hot item outside of the conference space, and lunches served outside on the deck near the conference room — the first day plated, the second buffet, all quite good. As I say, the food property is very high quality.
There’s little question that this hotel is way too large for my tastes, it is more of a resort ‘factory’ than understated elegance on the beach. But I also was getting way more than my room rate’s worth, so I was very happy with my stay. I wouldn’t pay regular price to stay here, in fact I would have been very unhappy had I been given the poor service in the breakfast restaurant and the inability to lay on the beach and look at the ocean.
Housekeeping was also a low point, they didn’t change the sheets on the bed the first night (I spilled something and that spill was still there — and there was no card in the room telling me I needed to place it on the bed if I wanted the sheets changed), and they walked in on my last day even though the privacy sign was hanging from knob since they wanted to turn the room over for the next guest. There were also hand prints on the sliding glass door to the balcony from previous occupants.. and they weren’t just there when I arrived but throughout the stay until I left.
I left the hotel at the end of the conference and headed to the airport, where I needed to take a conference call for work. There’s no ‘quiet place’ there, but I went upstairs to the airport restaurant which is the only spot that offers free internet that I knew of. I ordered a quesadilla and a drink, they gave me the code for wireless, and I plugged my noise cancelling headset into the phone and Skyped into the call (keeping my phone on mute most of the time, since there was noise up there from wind and occasionally clanking service carts).
Back downstairs and through immigration (which was quick) I walked over to the gate and spotted a lounge — which I hadn’t known existed.
I saw a couple of Conde’ Nast staffers slip in, and I admit I was jealous. A lounge. That I imagined I didn’t have access to (it wasn’t listed on the Priority Pass website, for instance).
Soon enough though it was time to board. It turned out that a Tuesday evening flight from Grand Cayman to Miami was going to be one of the toughest upgrades of the year to clear. My tickets were booked far in advance, I’m an Executive Platinum, and as far as I could tell I was ultimately the only complimentary upgrade to clear.
Lots of folks from my conference taking up the seats, and I wound up sitting next to the Senior Vice President of a top cruise line.