Most all-inclusive beach resorts don’t have any history in their pedigree, but it’s a different story at Sandals Royal Bahamian Resort.
When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, better known to the world as King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, arrived in Nassau in 1940, it was a much quieter island.
By the time they left five years later, however, there was enough of their coterie remaining to establish the Balmoral Club, a large manor house surround by 10 villas that collectively served as a playground to high-profile visitors and residents. Sixty-seven years later, the guest list has included everyone from Richard Nixon and Buzz Aldrin to the Beatles, who stayed in today’s Villa Oleander while filming Help! (and wrote the song Wait there).
When Sandals took over in the resort in 1995, renaming it Sandals Royal Bahamian, the company began transforming the staid, old-world opulence into a more youthful, modern atmosphere. Drawing on the spirit of the “love story of the century,” which is today memorialized in the Piano Lounge with correspondences and photography of the duke and duchess, Sandals refocused the resort on adult couples and intimacy. In 2012, the resort completed $17.5 million in renovations, most noticeably in the Balmoral Tower, which added 35 balconies, walk-out suites, a penthouse gym, mahogany furnishings, and 42″ plasma TVs.
When I stepped into my room in the tower, I found my bed pleasantly decorated with rose petals and a heart-shaped towel embracing a bottle of red wine. However, being hot outside, I opted for something a cold can of Sands Bahamian Beer from the minibar. Cracking it open on the balcony was probably the first real moment to enjoy the all-inclusiveness of the resort. Apart from massage treatments at Red Lane® Spa , once you enter the resort, everything–food, drink, entertainment, and watersports–is included, making the sweetness of the beer flavor your mouth as opposed to the bitter taste of the usual huge hotel mark-ups. No doubt the cost is factored into the room price (starting at $292 per person, per night), but the sleight of hand goes a long way to making someone feel like a guest as opposed to a customer.
From the balcony, it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off the Caribbean itself (especially if you are a northerner by trade). The impossibly blue water seen from the plane retains and deepens its color up close, almost to a point of hypnosis. Tearing my eyes away from the tranquilizing waves, I could see the rest of the resort spread out below me. The central pool, with swim-up bar, seems to be the hub of the resort and features an abundance of faux Greco-Roman décor seemingly absconded from a golden-age Hollywood film set. It’s a bit cheesy perhaps but not actually so out of place in the cinematic setting.
Immediately beyond is a complex of ten restaurants and eight pubs, each with its own ambiance and décor. Although the Crystal Room is considered the prettiest dining room of the resort (and island for some), I preferred the art nouveau-flavored Baccarat, where French haute cuisine adopts a Bahamian zest, best tasted in the conch fritters and pan-seared crab cake with citrus mousseline.
After dinner treats are plenty as well, whether quaffed in a pint at the British pub-style Cricketers Club, danced to at the Royal Theater beach nightclub, sung around the piano in the main building, or stolen as kisses under starlight on the resort beach. It’s also damn tempting to just go back to the room and take advantage of the full bar and balcony.
But the highlight of the resort for me was Sandals Cay, a private island lying a half-mile off the beach. Not only does it offer a fascinating lesson in music history, as the place where the “Another Girl” segment of Help! was filmed, but also a secluded escape from the buzz of the resort. The day beds and cabanas there might be one of the best places in the world to read a book.
Get thirsty? A turquoise-colored rum drink is just a snap away, or at least the more polite modern equivalent.
Where Sandals Royal Bahamas succeeds most is maintaining the sense of intimacy and privacy often lost at many Caribbean mega-resorts. Sure, business is business, but it just feels a bit more personal at Sandals Royal Bahamian.
All photos by Mike Dunphy except the first, courtesy of Sandals Resorts. Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of Sandals Royal Bahamian for purposes of review.