Jake recently returned from a tour around some of AM Resorts' Mexican hotels - you may be more familiar with the brand names "Secrets", "Dreams, "Now" and "Zoetry".
While he was there he discovered the good, the bad and the guacamole, while exploring the things that make each of AM's brands special...
We were welcomed with a great treat at London Gatwick... AM resorts had booked us all in premium economy (which is a very generous gesture for a fam trip). On check-in things got even better with a further upgrade to Club World.
Now, I am not going to ever say I wouldn't want an upgrade but I do have to say that BA's business class is not my favourite. The configuration has lead to the cabin being called coffin class as the centre and window seats have very high walls surrounding them. However the thing I think really let's the cabin down us the lack of direct aisle access which makes the product dated vs the competitors. Whilst BA's Club World may have been innovative when introduced, it doesn't feel so now. And there was no Usb socket!!! #firstworldproblem!
I sat next to the delightful Sinead from Ireland (whom I only realised on the second day wasn't called Siobhan) who kept me amused with her juxtaposition of outwardly being a respectable suburban mum but actually can swear like a trouper. My favourite being: I'm waiting for the omelette queue to die down. Look at them all standing there with their plate out like “Oliver”!
Arriving in Cancun was relatively speaking a breeze. Yes my bag was the last off but we were through the airport within an hour.
First impressions of the arrival were great with a very comfortable transfer in a very comfortable and modern minibus which put transfers I have had on some caribbean Islands to shame.
On arrival at Now Sapphire we were presented with cold towels and checked in quickly. The wifi was explained and is very simple to use just needing tour room number and your surname (this is the same principle with the other AM brands too). Now Sapphire is a second hand resort in that it was previously a Paradisus so it isn't as new and spangly as some other resorts. That said its price reflects this, and everything was certainly in working order and well maintained. My entry level room was perfectly adequate. It had everything one would expect to find with a 4* resort.
We ate in the “El Patio” restaurant (Mexican) and had a specially prepared menu which was absolutely delicious. One thing I am always dubious of when given special menus at hosted dinners is whether the food truly reflects the quality a guest would receive. The guacamole, salsa and nachos we had to start were divine and I had to point out to myself that was how it should be, given I was eating them in the country from which guacamole hails!
After dinner cocktails in the main resort bar were of a good quality although sadly smoking was permitted which marred the experience for me as a non-smoker. It is something I have become unaccustomed to now that so many resorts have adopted the international norm of smoke free.
Breakfast the next morning was one of the most expansive selections I have ever seen. In fact even at breakfast you could have more Mexican food than most Mexican restaurants would show on their menu in the UK and that was in addition to the usual western fare of fruit, cereals, omelettes, waffles etc all cooked at live cooking stations or available on the buffet.
The preferred club pool at Now Sapphire was an adult only oasis definitely worth having access too and the benefits of this upgrade were more evident here than at other resorts in the chain as the preferred club rooms had noticeably fresher decor too.
Secrets Playa Mujeres
Moving on to our next home for two nights - Secrets Playa Mujeres. The newest in the chain (although that title will soon go to Secrets Akumal when that opens later this year), Secrets Playa Mujeres in theory has everything a top notch resort should have although at times I felt the resort had missed some rather important tricks...
Arriving at the resort you initially are greeted in an open plan lobby with a potentially beautiful panorama over the reserve the resort is located in. Sadly the architects built the lobby at the wrong angle so instead of the views being over the natural surroundings, the view is over the (distant) back of the main hotel building. The lobby is full of staff giving the impression that you are going to be pampered. However, once you have been taken by golf buggy down to the main accommodation and pool area, you realise how the atmosphere can very quickly become crowded. What was concerning was the crowded atmosphere given the resort occupancy was only 56%.
Rooms were all of a very high standard - the master suites looking out over the beach in particular were stunning and some came with a private plunge pool. However I would not value a swim up room here. The swim up pools were very 'bleaugh' - if that description isn't in the dictionary, call me! Most rooms looked out on to the pool area which was free form and although aesthetically pleasing, had a tendency to feel very full. I did particularly like the bass player who wandered around the pool playing chillout music with a funky vibe but less liked the fact the pool bar only had one poor barman trying to serve all the guests which lead to a bit of a fracas between some US guests and lots of people offering tips in an attempt to get served first. This was particularly disappointing given the number of staff members who had been loitering around in the lobby that could have been redeployed.
Food was disappointing. The hosted meal we had on our first night was one of the weakest with a particularly tough piece of meat and a desert with the taste and texture of a bouncing ball. Breakfast although better was not well signed so you had very little knowledge of what was on offer unless it was something very recognisable. I asked one chef at a live station what he was cooking. His reply was 'yes'. That was very helpful! On our free night, a couple of us went to the Seaside Grill, billed as the resort’s steakhouse. My medium rare order had the texture of carpet. I rejected this and stuck to a liquid dinner. My fellow diner Sinead from Ireland asked them to replace her equally overdone steak, and the brought out something which still had a pulse. It was third time lucky, but was a disappointing experience and the Steakhouse could learn a lot from Sandals’ “Butch's Chophouse”.
Long term, with its location next to a golf course (where there are free green fees for guests) this could be a good resort. Hopefully it is just teething problems which make it one to overlook for the moment.
Zoetry Villa Rolandi
We had the pleasure of visiting the stunning Zoetry Villa Rolandi on Isla Mujeres. This is the hotel I would return to in a heart beat with my loved one. Owned by a famous restauranteur with a reputation for fabulous food which is well deserved this is a small hotel with just 30ish rooms. The island itself is just a 20 minute trip from Cancun by the resort's private yacht. Isla Mujeres is small with a bohemian atmosphere - you can hire a golf buggy to get out and about to the shops and markets on the island.
Zoetry Villa Rolandi is set on its own small but perfect beach with a beautiful pool area and two amazing restaurants. We were served the most fabulous ceviche for starter followed by a divine mushroom ravioli followed by a very welcome Tiramisu. I could not fault anything.
A tranquil ambiance oozes out from every crevice of the hotel. Whilst not adult only, the hotel promotes that they do not have any facilities for children what so ever. There was one child in residence while we were there and it is clear the sorts of families who would be attracted to Villa Rolandi are those who are self sufficient and would not intrude on other guests.
Villa Rolandi is a 5 minute walk from the island's dolphinarium.
It is a place to chill for a week with a good book, eat exceptionally well and soak up the sunshine. Guests who like Royal Plantation would appreciate the ambiance and food here. This is the ultimate small, luxurious yet unpretentious all inclusive hotel.
Zoetry Paradiso de la Bonita
Back on the mainland, the other Zoetry on this part of Mexico is the Zoetry Praidpso de la Bonita. Whilst still a small hotel with 90 rooms it is large in comparison to the Villa Rolandi.
All the rooms are unique with a theme (such as 'Bermuda' or ‘Jamaica'). This hotel was a gift from an architect to his wife. If you are looking for quiet luxury in a remote location this is ideal. The location would not suit you if you want to be able to wander out and about though as there really isn't anything to wander to in a suitable distance. However it would make a good combination as a twin centre with the Villa Rolandi. Both Zoetries have a small spa which will offer pretty much any treatment you desire.
The gardens are lovely and tranquil with iguanas basking in the sun just to remind you that you are somewhere exotic in case the weather and palm trees aren't enough!
Onwards down the coast to Dreams Tulum. Top Tip for this resort - the standard rooms are more recently refurbished than the 'premium rooms' so unless square footage is important to you, at the moment the upgrade isn't going to give you a wow factor. Whilst areas of the hotel (pool area in particular) felt decidedly average, the spa did have a very unique jungle theme and the hacienda courtyard and swim-up rooms (the Newley refurbed ones) were impressive.
At Dreams Tulum we dined at “Himitsu”, the resorts pan Asian restaurant. Whilst not in the same league as somewhere like Soy at Sandals La Source, this was certainly one of the better Asian style meals I have had at a Caribbean All Inclusive.
Dreams Puerto Aventuras
Heading back up the coast our next stop was Dreams Puerto Aventuras. This hotel has a small beach and relatively crowded pool areas, but what really is the selling point for the hotel is the onsite Dolphinarium. You can even book a dolphin view room if you want to watch them frolicking about! Along with Dreams Tulum, Dreams Puerto Aventuras is a solid 4* hotel. Rooms are contemporary but you can't disguise the fact the hotel structure itself is older, and not in the historic/atmospheric way. It's one of those hotels where if the price is right, it is great value for money - but it isn't the best in the chain (unless you are obsessive about Dolphins)! Preferred Club rooms were considerably better decor wise but don't expect much from the Club Lounge here.
Secrets Maroma Beach
Secrets Maroma Beach suffered a little from the noisy pool syndrome that some of its sister resorts experience. But, the rooms are genuinely impressive in decor, and the hotel has some unique features like misting walkways which spray a cooling most over you as you head down through the open public areas! Make sure you try a Passion Fruit Daiquiri - divine on a hot day - and when is it not hot in Mexico! Maroma is hyped as the best Secrets property outside Cancun and pool areas aside I can see it has the potential to be just that - and perhaps my feelings about the need to have peace and quiet by at least one pool are unique... The spa area was very impressive and I was not expecting the almost Bedouin like main treatment hall full of its private canopied tents - unique and unlike anything I have seen in a spa of this size before.
Further up the cost is the smallest of the Secrets Brand in this neck of the woods, Secrets Capri. Although small by Secrets standards this resort still has over 200 rooms in a classic decor and clearly has a lot of repeat clientele. Again the resort had an impressive spa area although I was alarmed at the costs charged at the spas at Secrets and Dreams properties. I had always considered Sandals expensive for Spas - I take that opinion back having seen the Secrets Price List. A bog standard Swedish Style massage will set you back around US$160 all told. Secrets Capri almost had me hooked until I got to the pool area and again was confronted by pounding music and no quiet area to escape from it.
Continuing up the coast we arrived at Secrets Silversands for a night's stay. This was the only hotel in the brand that really seemed to get the idea of having a quiet pool - but with eight of them they had plenty of opportunity! In keeping with a Chinese tradition, this resort has 8 pools and 8 accommodation blocks and opened on the 8/8/8... We ate at “Bordeaux”, the French restaurant and the food was generally very good. For the first time in the trip the wine was not particularly forthcoming and I had to ask on a couple of occasions for a glass! The shock of it! Styling wise, Silversands is very very contemporary. If you aren't a fan of stark, then this isn't your place (the traditionally classic decor of Capri would probably be a better choice for you).
The following day on our way up to Cancun we stopped at Now Jade. Sadly the resort was chock-a-block (and felt it) so we could not see any of the rooms although we were given a tour of the grounds and did stop at the “Coco Cafe” (the resort's coffee shop, and found in all the non Zoetry properties) where I encountered a rather divine white chocolate and baileys frozen beverage. Mmmm. I had high hopes for this hotel. The brochure had certainly appealed, but sadly I can only say I felt I was in the cavernous surrounds of a leisure centre rather than at a beautiful beach resort. It didn't say 'holiday' to me.
Secrets The Vine
Arriving at our last hotel stay Secrets The Vine was impressive. Yes, everything in Cancun is high-rise but that aside there is very little to pick at here at The Vine. The restaurants and venues have different branding to the rest of the chain as the hotel is themed around wine. The rooms, well I would challenge even the most discerning guest to be unimpressed. The rooms all have beautiful views either over he stunningly vivid turquoise of the sea or the Cancun Lagoon. One tiny little negative is perhaps that the balconies aren't hugely private (the dividers have gaps through which you could easily see and if you wished converse with your neighbours). The hotel is located next to Hard Rock Cancun which in size at least is dwarfed by the height of The Vine which adds to the resorts superb views. Preferred Club Rooms and Suites come with a butler service (although it is one Butler per floor so set your expectations of attentiveness accordingly). The Spa although smaller than at other Secrets resorts has everything you could want available.
On our last night in Mexico we dined at “Olio”, the hotel's Mediterranean style restaurant. It was Messe to start, then I chose the Lebanese Grill from the menu which was superb and the kebabs were flavoursome and juicy. Not one person had a bad word to say about their meal.
Earlier in the day we had completed our last site inspection at Dreams Sands in Cancun. Yes, the beach is ideal for families as it is calm water and gently shelving, but really the hotel is a disgrace to the brand. 3* pile it high sell it cheap. The staff were lovely and put on a lovely spread of canapés for us but you can't hide the fact this is a second hand hotel and showing its signs of age. Dreams should have closed the property for a longer period to properly refurb it rather than the basic spruce up it had when converting from the Oasis brand to Dreams. You can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear, I believe the saying goes. If you are getting a deal for £699 for a week inc flights, maybe consider it - but it is a get what you pay for place.
So. How do I feel after the trip about the AM resorts brands of Zoetry, Secrets and Dreams.....? Well, when it comes to Zoetry you can't go wrong. You can't improve in perfection although the experience could be a little quiet for some. With Secrets there are some very impressive aspects, although I would have liked to have seen more quiet tranquility spots in most of the resorts. And with Dreams you have to pick the hotel carefully and take advice from your travel agent about which resorts will meet your expectations. You can't compare Dreams to Beaches, but then the prices generally reflect that and if the price is sensible Dreams offers everything you need for a good family holiday.
Secrets are chomping at the heels of Sandals in many ways but you can feel the differing ambiance between Adult Only and Couples Only and the resorts are not quite as consistent within the Secrets brand.