**Beach Junkie's Note: Our friend Stingaling enlisted in our help for her all-inclusive vacation last month. Before she left, we asked her to make mental notes of her stay and to blog her review as a guest. So, here is Beach Junkies' first-ever guest resort review. All photos used in this post belong to Stingaling**
Trip Date: January, 2010
Location: Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic
Stingaling Rating: (based on 5 stars)
Beach: 4 / Food: 4 / Rooms: 3 / Pools: 3 / Snorkeling: N/A
Can I start with a little disclaimer? I must say that I am having a hard time with Beach Junkies' star rating system and applying it to this resort because I know that their standards are very high when it comes to resort travel. This is only the second AI vacation I've ever been on in my life, so my knowledge and experience of these types of vacations are meager in comparison. So obviously, my star rating and review isn't really relative to the other reviews on this site, and therefore, the opinions expressed in this particular review are the views of the writer [Stingaling] and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Beach Junkies blah blah blabhbity blah.
We stayed at the Riu Mambo from January 23 - 30, 2010. There were mixed reviews about this resort, but we weren't dissuaded at all by these reviews, especially after really considering the petty things that people would complain about. As well, we scored a really excellent deal for our vacation, and in the end we got such awesome VALUE out of our week here. One thing of note about the Riu resort is that it is comprised of 3 hotels, the Mambo, Merengue and Bachata. You pay to stay at 1 hotel, but you can play at all 3, meaning that you can enjoy all facilities at all the hotels, and are only limited to eating your dinner at your own hotel.
FLIGHT FROM TORONTO
We flew with Skyservice out of Toronto, and were delayed on the tarmac at Pearson airport due to some issues with their luggage handling system. For anyone who has flown Skyservice in the past, you all know that these planes are not ones you want to be sitting in for longer than necessary. This coming from a person that is of below-average stature — I felt crammed and sore in my sunken little seat by the window. We waited on board for over an hour for the luggage trailers to bring our passengers' bags to the plane group by TINY group. The captain advised us that we had to take off due to flight crew schedule restrictions, while 29 of our bags were still somewhere in the airport's luggage system. Luckily for both my boyfriend and me, our bags were among those that flew with us. For those that were not so lucky, they were assured that their luggage would be on the afternoon flight to POP, and would promptly be directed to their hotels by their tour operators. We were delayed a little while on our transfer bus, waiting for things to be sorted out, but were on our way in no time. The airport is about a 30-minute ride from the resort.
We arrived at the lobby of the Riu Mambo by about 2:30, and were greeted immediately by welcome cocktails by the staff. It was quite a large group of us that arrived from Toronto with Sunquest, and they told us that some of our rooms were not ready at that time, which was not a surprise to me, since it is indicated that standard check-in is at 3:00 here. However, lucky for us once again, our room was ready for us. Rather than lining us up to check us in, they had a table full of envelopes with our check-in packages, and called us individually to hand us our packages.
About a week prior to arriving, I had emailed the manager and requested a room that was close to the beach, on the second floor with a king bed and I was happy to see that my request was honoured — our room was #2412, which was on the second level of the villa type building, just steps away from the beach. We didn't have a direct view of the ocean from our window, but there was a good view from our balcony. Since the grounds and the resort aren't huge, we were also really close to the lobby, beach snack bar and buffet restaurant.
The room itself was pretty spacious. The bed was actually two double-mattresses pushed together to form one big bed, which wasn't ideal because of the big split in the middle. We had a closet, ceiling fan, a mini-bar with booze dispensers, and a safe. Our little fridge was stocked with beer, and mixers for the booze like Pepsi, tonic water and club soda, as well as a big jug of water for drinking and for brushing our teeth. Safe key and lock were provided to each guest free of charge. Our room was a bit musty smelling, but not unbearable. The bathroom was nothing fancy – just a toilet, bathtub/shower and sink. If I could express a couple of gripes with the room, it would be regarding my showering experience. Firstly, there was no hot water in the mornings. I'm not sure the reason for this, but the water would be lukewarm at best. Afternoons would be better, where the water would switch intermittently from hot to less than hot. Secondly, the bathtub is long and narrow. As I mentioned before, I'm not a huge person, but there was so little space in that tub that I had a hot and intimate affair with that shower curtain twice a day. Because I'm a bit of a germaphobe, I can't stand things touching me in the shower unless it's my own hands, a bar of soap or the water itself and that shower curtain would come in for frequent hugs and kisses, so I'm quite sure I lost my virginity all over again to it.
Enough of that. Overall, the room was kept really clean and the maid did a great job every day. Oh, except on that last day, when she forgot to leave towels for us. No biggie. We called the front desk, and someone was at our room promptly with new towels.
We went with no expectations for the quality of the food, but ended up all agreeing amongst our little group that the food was great. I'm not sure why I was reading so many complaints about the food and the lack of variety offered. Sure, if you're the type of person who is only going to eat the pizza, fries and pasta, then yeah – it will be the same thing every night. However, we felt that the food was excellent and it was pretty different every day. For breakfast, the usual bacon and sausage and scrambled eggs were offered. Fresh donuts, French toast and pancakes and some sort of puréed starch like potatoes, yuca or yam were available. As well, were omelettes made to order if you wanted. Fresh fruit (like papaya, pineapple and passionfruit) were always plentiful, as well as fresh fruit juices and shakes. We had breakfast in all 3 hotels, and found that it was the same food offered everywhere. What I loved about the Bachata restaurant is that there is a big terrace that wraps around 2 sides, so that morning we got to eat outside with a view of the ocean. However, in terms of layout and ease of navigating the buffet, the Mambo was our favourite place to eat. We were usually not very hungry at lunch, so we would just snack at one of the beach snack bars. Things that were offered there were burgers and hot dogs (we stayed away from these, because the buns were kind of a weird soft, and the hot dogs were boiled), 2 or 3 pasta options per day, and a couple of protein options like pork or beef prepared in different ways. Dinner was always an event for us at the buffet – lots of choices every night and we left the buffet every night stuffed with good food. The Mexican, Dominican and Chinese theme nights were fun. The Dominican night was neat, though many dishes offered this night were labelled simply "Dominican Specialty," or "Dominican Dish," I suspect because they didn't know how to translate these items. Bit of a mystery, though didn't stop us from sampling these tasty dishes. Chinese night was a bit lackluster in comparison, as they simply added soy sauce to their dishes to ethnic-ize them.
On the other hand, the à la carte restaurants were completely disappointing. We had to reserve these on the day-of at 7 am, either the Italian or the Steak House. It turns out that at night, they use the Beach Snack Bar for the à la carte restaurants, and alternate between the 2 menus every night. Items ordered off both menus were not great. In fact, it seemed that they did better with cooking things en masse, because they still offered buffet items as starters to the meal, and we enjoyed this more than the actual meal on both nights. Something we found amusing was the promise of the lovely-sounding "aromatic potatoes" with all the entrées on the Steak House Menu, because our meals were presented to us with French Fries sprinkled with Parmesan Cheese and we quickly realized that yes, these were indeed potatoes that were aromatic in their most base form.
There was only 1 Beach bar, and that was located on the Mambo Beach, making it convenient for us. However, this bar only offered beer, and there were no spirits stocked here for the frozen drinks like Piña Coladas. The snack bar was just a few minutes walk from the beach, and you could get any kind of drink here. However, we found the alcohol to be on the weak side at all bars at the Riu. We are a group of people who like to drink, and try as we might, none of us got past a slight buzz for the whole trip, even though we were asking for double/triple shots of booze in our mixed drinks. Sangrias were great, but the house wine was not. We were only able to have mojitos on one night, as they seemed to be without fresh mint for almost the entire week. The bartenders were all friendly and full of energy, and pretty quick to serve you.
If you do your research ahead of time, you will know that you will not find white sandy beaches in Puerto Plata. The water isn't going to be crystal clear either – it's the Atlantic Ocean. It was a little pebbly going into the water, and there is a slight drop-off. As well, there was a bit of seaweed and debris washing in, which was not so much of a problem for us because you know why? It's the ocean. It's got living, breathing things in it and is too big for someone to come by daily to skim with a net. Besides, at the Riu, I thought they did a really good job at keeping the beach clean of this debris every day, and if it wasn't for the inconsiderate and lazy smokers who treat the beach like it's their big personal ashtray, it would've been damn near immaculate. Another thing I liked about the beach at the Riu was that there was a breakwall about 500m out, which meant that the waves were calm rolling ones coming into the beach. Probably not so fun for someone who likes to play in more of those aggressive, crashing waves. Our beach at the Mambo was the best one of the three, because it was the widest (I don't know how the small strip of sand at the Bachata qualified as a beach) AND we had the benefit of the beach bar. Another thing to note is that there are only loungers here and no palapas, but there are lots of palm trees around if you are looking for some shade.
We are beach people, so we didn't spend any time at the pools, which were crowded from early on in the morning with families and young children. Lots of palapas on the pool deck, and it seemed that the pool area was shaded for most of the day. From the looks of it, the best and fanciest pool was situated at the Bachata, and they had the only swim-up bar as well.
Because of the stay-at-one play-at-three quality of this resort, we had the choice of three stages at which to watch the nightly shows. A quick check of the activities board daily would determine what we would be doing. The Michael Jackson show did not disappoint, and we were looking forward to it all week — it was so bad that it was good. There was one shared night club, The Pacha, which we visited a few times. The night here would start off with the bartender performing double duty as the "DJ" by playing mixed tapes/CDs which would often skip, and when the music was played out, we all had to sit/stand in silence and wait for him to finish pouring his drinks before he could drop in the next CD in the DJ booth. Once the real DJ arrived is when the true Gong Show would start.
The staff is great and very hard working, and always with a friendly "Hola" with every passing encounter. Upon leaving any of the public washrooms or entering the eating areas, someone greeted you with a squirt of hand sanitizer. We found a server at the buffet we really liked, and I really wish I had written her name down, because she was so great and greeted us like old friends every time we came into the restaurant, even if we sat in someone else's section by mistake. The animation crew were lively, and I didn't find them especially intrusive when you wanted to be left alone. There are grounds-people who are constantly cleaning and maintaining the property so that it is immaculate and spotless all the time. I should also mention that our Sunquest rep, Nicole, was absolutely amazing and went above and beyond to make sure we had a great stay and had everything that we needed, doing special favours for us without us even asking.
We chose to do the Outback Safari and booked it through our Sunquest rep. The cost was $79USD, and the jeep picked us up right from the hotel. We enjoyed this excursion, though the name of it is a bit misleading because you would expect to see a lot more nature, ie. plants, trees, native animals in their natural habitat. Aside from only seeing crocodiles in a pen at their "ranch" we didn't see any other kind of wildlife. However, we thought that it was a good cursory way to see the country and encounter locals and see their way of life. The tour is a full day, and the itinerary includes a stop at a school house to see children in class, a stop at a local's house to see how Dominicans live, stopping at a river for a bit of a swim, homemade-style lunch at the Outback Safari ranch (which was DELICIOUS), and boogie boarding at a secluded beach to end the day. Another feature of this tour is the open bar. The jeep you are on is stocked with rum, beer, soda and bottled water, and they start serving you drinks pretty early on in the day. Julian, our guide, also acted as our bartender, and his skill at fulfilling mixed drink orders 4 at time on a moving vehicle with nothing but crazy, live Dominican traffic behind him deserves special mention. If you go on this excursion, a couple of items of advice, if I may: 1) When they tell you that it is your last chance to use the toilet, do not pass on the opportunity, even if you feel like you don't have to go. The drinks flow pretty freely on this tour, so chances are that your bladder will get full quickly. I didn't take the last washroom stop, and I am not the type person who feels right treating the ocean like it's one big public toilet, so I had to hold it while boogie boarding and for the long, excruciatingly bumpy ride back to the hotel. 2) Perhaps it's because I lack proper experience with ocean sports and didn't plan my outfit properly, but I had a wardrobe malfunction while bodyboarding. So unless you want to treat your boyfriend's buddy to the sight of your boobie hanging out of your bikini top like I did, dress appropriately and wear something that was built for and will hold up to the waves.
For what we paid, we got excellent value for our vacation. Far from being the luxurious, this resort is almost without any frills while not being an decrepit old dive at all. Everyone at the Riu strives really hard to make each individual feel valued as their own guest. For anyone who is looking to get away, spend some time bumming on a beach in the Caribbean while on a budget, I would recommend the Riu Mambo. I personally accomplished everything I wanted to do on this vacation: relax on a hot, sunny beach, eat and drink until I couldn't take it anymore, and simply exist for a week in which I didn't have to make any decisions.
Finally, thanks a million to Leesh and miQ for inviting me to guest blog! Love your blog, and I hope this contribution is helpful.