Hotel review: Grand Luxxe Residence Club, Nuevo Vallarta

Pool area of the Grand Luxxe
When visiting Riviera Nayarit, the development along Mexico’s mid-pacific coast, you’ll have the choice a number of different classes of hotels and also timeshares (non-owner and short stays at timeshares can be arranged though RCI; membership fee applies). For those of you who are interested in the timeshare philosophy but haven’t peeked inside any properties you’d consider buying, let’s have a look inside a brand new oceanside luxury residence club in Nuevo Vallarta: Grand Luxxe.

I had the honor of being the first journalist to stay at Grand Luxxe, which is still being finished in some ways; a restaurant is being added and the spa is still under construction. Still, one never wants for anything at the Banderas Bay Grupo Vidanta complex, which also includes a Grand Mayan, a Mayan Palace and an Ocean Breeze resort. Guests of Grand Luxxe are given a handy wristband which affords them access to any and all amenities in any of the hotels on the complex, so don’t worry that staying at a timeshare like Grand Luxxe would mean the same thing every day; there’s a whole lot to do and see if you want to do and see it.

%Gallery-98911%The Check-in

Checking in at Grand Luxxe was pretty simple. The six allotted desks provided ample reservationists. You fill out a form, give your credit card for incidentals and get yourself a wristband. When you first walk in, you’ll be impressed by the palatial lobby which includes a bar and will include a restaurant, and the huge paintings behind the check-in desks. I named this one “Emo Boy and His Propeller.”
Emo Boy and His Propeller
Each floor has a private concierge located by the elevators, and when you arrive at your room, you’ll be greeted with some welcome snacks and a bottle of wine. If you’ve got a car, the parking is available for $8.00 per day or $25.00 per week.

The Rooms

The rooms at Grand Luxxe are brand new and pretty fabulous (see gallery). Each spacious suite includes 12′ ceilings and a 50 inch plasma television and a balcony with a plunge pool and a hammock. All 108 rooms are ocean view two-bedrooms, and are categorized as Suites (sleep 6-8) and Villas (sleep 8-10).
Suite at Grand Luxxe

The Bathrooms

The bathrooms include jacuzzi tubs and large, wood-floored showers, as well as plush, oversized bath towels.
Grand Luxxe bathroom
The Designers Guild bath products were not my favorites of all time, but they were satisfactory and replenished regularly.

The Amenities

The amenities of Grand Luxxe are sort of neverending, because with your wristband, as I mentioned, you get access to everything on the multi-resort complex. The Grand Luxxe is considered the highest level resort, so though you can get into everyone else’s amenities, they can’t get into yours, which means GL guests get a private, exclusive pool area (as well as a private kids’ club) and an elite lobby bar. Soon, the Grand Luxxe will have its own spa, but for now you’ll have to trek over to the Grand Mayan (which is visually astounding with multi-story-high Mayan statues in the lobby). The spa there is excellent, and golf carts and drivers are on call to transport you there or to anywhere else on the complex; the restaurants, the different resorts, the wave pool and the lazy river.

The Restaurants

So far, the only restaurant the Grand Luxxe has is Blue Fish, a poolside, casual establishment a wide array of tacos and ceviches for surprisingly low prices. A proper restaurant is slated for the lobby, but until that opens, you can cozy up to the small lobby bar or head to any number of the restaurants around the resort complex, with everything from Italian food to sushi. A breakfast buffet is available right next door (walkable) and is stocked with an unbelievable variety of foods. Poached eggs in poblano sauce you may have expected; ravioli in white wine sauce … maybe not. But I’m certainly not complaining. There’s also a healthy Green Juice available which I definitely recommend to get your day started off right.

The Staff

The staff at Grand Luxxe was friendly and attentive. Every time you arrive at the lobby, at least two people say hello, and your floor’s concierge greets you and/or is polishing something every time you step out of the elevator. The drivers for the golf carts come quickly and don’t expect tips. Everyone was very warm, but they do stay out of your way, which I appreciate. There’s nothing like aggressively helpful staff to overcomplicate your vacation.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line here is that Grand Luxxe is a fabulous playground for families who can afford it. Rates are from $930.00 to $1550.00 per night including all taxes, and each ocean-view, private pool’d suite comes with warm service and all the amenities you need to relax and play. I recommend this hotel because it truly provides spacious, comfortable rooms and facilities; really giving you what you pay for. You could stay in Nayarit for a lot less, but you could find a resort like this elsewhere in the world for twice the price, as well. The anticipation of your needs at Grand Luxxe is tantamount to magic.

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Disclaimer: This trip was sponsored by the Riveria Narayit CVB, but all opinions expressed in this review are strictly my own.

[Photos by Annie Scott]

Hotel review: RIU Palace Paradise Island, Bahamas

Is it really better in the Bahamas?

The archipelago located in the Caribbean is a U.S. favorite for a quick beach getaway, but does it really stand up to the hype? The Bahamas is home to gorgeous beaches, shopping options ranging from t-shirt stands to Gucci stores, and a nightlife to rival some of America’s hottest city spots, but where you stay in the Bahamas is equally important as what you do. From Nassau to Paradise Island, hotels and resorts line the white-sand beaches offering everything from paragliding to booze cruises.

RIU Hotels & Resorts, widely known for their luxurious accommodations in Jamaica and Mexico, recently renovated their Paradise Island home, but did it stack up to their other flagship properties?

The Check-in

The RIU Palace Paradise Island is an all-inclusive resort featuring five different restaurants, a spa, fitness center, jewelry store, convenience store and pool with poolside bar on the premises. The remodeling did this hotel good – upon walking into the lobby, it’s hard not to notice the decadent red-and-gold decor, accented by a dark wood lobby bar and check-in area. Gold chandeliers hang from the ceiling and life-size statues sit in the corners of the lobby, welcoming guests to all points of the resort.

Checking in proved to be a bit chaotic. As is typical in the Bahamas, guests usually arrive via van or shuttle bus with other guests, which means check-in happens at once for everyone. On this particular day, however, only two check-in attendants were available for guests, which resulted in a lot of standing around and waiting. Thankfully, a bartender with a tray of rum-infused cocktails made her way through the check-in offering guests something to bide the time.

The hotel does prominently post a 3 p.m. check-in time on its website, and due to a high-occupancy the weekend of my arrival the rooms weren’t ready until 3 p.m. We had to wait one hour until our 3 p.m. check in time and filled it, quite literally, with food from the restaurant’s Bahamas Restaurant lunch buffet.
%Gallery-97367%The Rooms

The rooms at RIU were redone when the renovations took place, giving travelers more open space and efficient design for moving around the room.

Each room features a four-poster king bed or two double beds, plasma TV, sitting area and mini-bar, which is part of the hotel’s all-inclusive feature. The rooms have individual climate controls so you can set the temperature to your liking – a nice addition following a long day in the hot Bahamas sun. There aren’t a lot of outlets but U.S. travelers don’t need converters in the Bahamas, so charging your electronics is an easy task. Before you plug your laptop know this: the hotel does not offer Internet access in the rooms, either free or for a fee. If you want to connect, you need to log in from the lobby – a nice distraction for those who want to ‘unplug’, an anxiety attack for those who need to check in while traveling.

When you make your reservations, request a room with an ocean view and you won’t be disappointed. The personal balconies offer views of the vast Atlantic Ocean, Paradise Island and, if you’re located in a room at the end of the hall, you can see past Paradise Island into downtown Nassau.

The Bathroom

The best part of the bathroom is the size. Featuring his and her sinks and a shower/bathtub combination, the bathrooms are nothing luxurious but plenty efficient. There are robes, typical bath amenities (soap, lotion and shower caps) but instead of individual shampoos, conditioners and shower gels, the hotel stocks an all-in-one bottle in the shower that serves all three purposes. If you like using different products, bring your own.

My bathroom seemed to have a water-heater problem, which meant taking a hot shower was rather cold. I called a few times over the course of my stay to ask maintenance to look into the issue but unfortunately, the problem was never fixed.

Lesson to travelers:
If there’s a problem with your room and it isn’t resolved within a few hours, ask to be moved. It’s the hotel’s responsibility to ensure guests are satisfied, and that includes making sure guests have hot water.

The Amenities

Heaven descended upon us when we discovered the serve-yourself mini bar, complete with bottle dispensers of our favorite liquors. If the night calls for a rum and coke or vodka tonic, you don’t have to look farther than the little nook in your bedroom.

Unfortunately, this work-a-holic-even-while-traveling traveler suffered a minor panic attack at the realization of one missing amenity: no Internet access in the rooms. This was a foreign concept to me — most hotels today are wired for Internet access at all floors and even at a fee, it’s a nice amenity to have. I checked the hotel’s website and found a line item that says “Internet available for a fee,” but I’m assuming this was only valid for business center computers. I understand the need for unplugging on vacation, and I envy those travelers who can do it, but it admittedly seemed odd that after a renovation, the hotel didn’t foot the bill for WiFi or high-speed access in the rooms. Internet is available in the lobby, however, only in one section and if you’re a late-night worker, this area won’t serve you well. You’ll have to connect at the lobby bar, which is located right outside the hotel’s nightclub area.

The Restaurants

The hotel features five restaurants and two bars, all part of the all-inclusive offerings.

Breakfast: The breakfast buffet is offered daily and features tables of breads, fruits, cheeses and hot items. Early morning eaters definitely get the prize at the buffet. When first laid out, the food and display is fresh and attractive. Come later to breakfast and you might find another scene. It didn’t seem that the hotel did much to replace trays of food on a regular basis. You could be left with the slim pickings of bacon hardened in its own fat at the bottom of the tray or soggy eggs sitting in a water-like substance. If you choose to wait for a new batch of food, you could be waiting a while. I choose the waiting game and after 10 minutes gave up.

There are hot food stations where chef’s prepare made-to-order items, but by the time I arrived to breakfast around 9:30 a.m. one morning, the griddles were already crusted with food. I opted for toast and orange juice. The moral of the breakfast buffet: Get there early to get the good stuff.

Lunch: Served in the Bahamas restaurant area, the lunch buffet is set up similar to the breakfast buffet and the same rules apply – go early, or consider another option. By 2 p.m., the meats were sweaty and the cheese was starting to congeal. I picked the freshest vegetables I could find from the salad bar and grabbed a side plate of french fries to tide me over. Surprisingly, the french fries weren’t too bad.

Dinner: There are three a la cart restaurants in RIU — Krystal, a fusion restaurant; Tengoku, a Japanese restaurant; and Sir Alexander, the hotel’s “gourmet” restaurant. You must make reservations to dine at any of these restaurants. The seatings are 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. and each restaurant offers a set menu. You’ll have your choice of a few appetizers, a few entrees and a few desserts, plus a full wine/liquor and beverage list.

The only problem with this concept is that guests have to decide early on where to eat. Because the restaurants are small in size it’s likely some guests won’t get reservations, but it’s equally likely that many guests change their mind half-way through the day and decide not to eat at the restaurant and forget to cancel their reservation. In addition, if you make a reservation and you’re not on time, you don’t get seated.

Since the menu’s are set, there aren’t many options based on your ‘mood.’ I had dinner one night at Sir Alexander and was pleasantly surprised at the size of the portions and made-to-order freshness of the entrees. On another night, I made a reservation at Krystal but had to cancel after realizing the set menu featured salmon dishes (the one food I’m allergic to). Since guests aren’t allowed to order off the menu, I opted not to dine at the restaurant and instead dine out at another restaurant in Paradise Island. This defeats the purpose of an all-inclusive hotel, but on the flip side, you can always go to the buffet.

Word to wise for travelers: Check the menus and consider your options before making a reservation at one of these restaurants. If all else fails you can have dinner at the buffet in the Bahamas restaurant, or go nearby to another restaurant.

The Pool/Beach

The pool area features lounge chairs, a swim-up bar and a good dose of island music. Get here early – it’s a small space and chairs are limited, but you can take your towels and head to the beach, just steps from the pool deck.

The thing to remember about the Bahamas is that no matter where you are, there’s always someone selling something. On the beach, you’ll be asked to buy everything from bracelets and sarongs to jet ski rides. If you don’t want anything, just be polite and say “no,” then go about your lounging.

The Staff

Despite the long wait at check-in, the front desk staff couldn’t have been lovelier. Our questions were answered with patience and politeness, and the check-in clerk made sure we knew about the options available to use while we waited for our room.

Know this: The Bahamas is on ‘island time’, which means what normally takes 10 minutes at home can take up to an hour in the Bahamas. If you want something, you’re going to have to get it yourself. At one point during my stay I opted to take in the lobby Internet service. I copped a squat in a nook off the side of the lobby bar, and asked a staff member if the light above the sofa I was sitting on could be turned on. I was told that wasn’t her job and I should ask the front desk whose job it might be. When I asked for a glass in the breakfast buffet so I could pour myself some fresh squeezed orange juice, I was told I’d have to wait for fresh glasses to come out. Additionally, wait times at the bar averaged 20-30 minutes and only when we attempted to climb over the bar to pour our own drink were we asked what we wanted.

On the flip side, every time I ran into the cleaning crew on my floor I was greeted with smiles and friendliness. These ladies loved talking to hotel guests, and I was more than happy to spend a few minutes asking about their days. The day before my departure I went to check on the confirmed transfer with Majestic Tours. I admittedly feared the worst, but the Majestic Tours representative at the hotel was organized and friendly, located my reservation and confirmed my departure the next day. Everything was on time (the only variation from ‘island time’ I experienced during my Bahamas trip).

The Bottom Line

It’s important to note that RIU has variations of brands. If you’ve been to the “Palace” brands, which is what this Bahamas hotel is branded under, you might be surprised at the difference. Palace is denoted as the hotel’s elite brand of resorts, but unfortunately, based on prior customer reviews, it doesn’t quite compare to its sister properties in Mexico, Jamaica and Aruba. The RIU Paradise Island hotel does, however, offer the traveler on a budget a great option for visiting the Bahamas with rates starting at $185 a night for the off-season.

It’s placed in a perfect location on Paradise Island (right next door to the gargantuan Atlantis Resort) and is two steps from the beach (which is likely why you came to the Bahamas to begin with). Since it offers one of the island’s only all-inclusive options, travelers don’t have to think when they are here. You can eat at your leisure, lounge all day long or take any one of the hotel’s shuttles to the downtown Nassau area for shopping and nightlife.
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Inside These Walls: The Omni Bedford Springs Resort

How much do you really know about the hotel you’re sleeping in? I’m excited to bring you this new column, Inside These Walls, which will introduce you to the unknown facts and hidden secrets held in many of the world’s most popular hotels. Each week, I’ll bring you insights from a new hotel I’ve visited including tales from historians, owners and employees, who all somehow have a link to the hotel’s hidden past. The column goes beyond the typical hotel review and unveils something sacred, historical and sometimes mystifying about the hotels we pass through, but never really knew. Our first stop: Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania.

The town of Bedford Springs has a significant place in Pennsylvania history. Numerous U.S. presidents and dignitaries, including Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor, have an association with Bedford Springs. In fact, James Buchanan called Bedford Springs his summer home for 25 years.

However, before the presidents settled into the area there were the travelers. Tucked in the Allegheny Mountains of south-central Pennsylvania lies a luxury resort that at one time was the stopping point for hundreds of settlers looking for a miracle.

In 1796, Dr. John Anderson (with the help of the Native Americans in the area) discovered the mineral springs of Bedford, which were hailed as “healing waters.” People came from all over New England, then from around the country, to try the water for medicinal purposes. By 1802, patients of Dr. Anderson began singing the springs’ praises.

“Dr. Anderson essentially started the hotel – he had a very large farm and he would put up some of the patients there in tents,” explained Bill Defibaugh, a local Bedford Springs historian. Defibaugh family owns what is now the Defibaugh Tavern, but was once a housing depot for travelers seeking a drink of the miracle water.”In the tavern, there were 14 rooms and they were able to put in 10 people in a room on mattresses. People were brought out into the springs and given a regiment of drinking the spring waters,” said Defibaugh.

According to Defibaugh, people came in droves, but were turned away because there no room for them at the tavern-inn. “The taverns were always full, and that’s when the townsfolk rose up and decided to help Dr. Anderson, and the Bedford Springs Resort was born.”

The first group of rooms on the property was called The Stone Inn. Over a few years the resort expanded, allowing more opportunities for overnight guests. The Stone Inn was finished between 1804-1805, and Dr. Anderson had set up a clinic in an old mill nearby where he dispensed medicine to his patients. When they started coming in by the hundreds, however, it was time to build some more.

“My great grandfather was there when they started to build the third large building on the property” said Defibaugh. “They added on to the stone building and that’s how the resort was built. It’s now a quarter-mile long, and over the centuries has become a very fashionable resort.”

Just how fashionable? According to the ledgers in the hotel that date back to the 1800s, U.S. generals would drop off their wives and children at the Bedford Springs resort and then go off to war. According to one legend, President Lincoln’s Cabinet members begged Lincoln to take a rest at the resort but Lincoln declined, saying the stress of the war was too serious for him to rest. Instead, Lincoln sent his cabinet members for a night’s stay in Bedford Springs.

Over the years, environmental issues have plagued the once healing waters and today, the springs aren’t currently open for drinking because of bacteria. However, there are still hundreds of stories to be told from inside the walls of The Stone Inn and the Omni Bedford Springs Resort.

Today, the Omni Bedford Springs Resort has 216 guestrooms and suites and, channeling the energy of the healing springs, boasts a 30,000 square foot Springs Eternal Spa.


Escape the ordinary Dallas hotel at The Joule

Dallas is not a city known for boutique hotels, but that’s been changing thanks to properties like The Joule, a unique 129-room upscale hotel that first opened in 2008. Constructed in a former 1920’s Neo-Gothic bank building, this sophisticated retreat combines contemporary design with the unique architectural touches, world-class artwork by the likes of Andy Warhol and on-site fine dining and nightlife. Cookie cutter business hotel this is not. Earlier this month, Gadling stopped by The Joule to take a closer look at this intriguing boutique property. Want a peek at one of Dallas’ most unique hotels? Let’s take a look.

Check-in and The Lobby
The minute you step inside The Joule’s front door, the property’s slick design is on display. Luxurious wood-paneled walls hung with artwork by Andy Warhol and Richard Phillips frame an understated lobby of low-slung couches and chairs. A collection of artsy coffee-table books is scattered about for browsing. We felt as if we had entered the living room of a high-class penthouse – comfortable yet intriguing.

Anchoring the back of the two-story lobby are two massive rotating gears, a play on the hotel’s energy-focused theme (a joule is a unit of energy). The cogs are so huge in fact, they manage to hide the check-in desk. We wandered around for a few minutes before locating the desk and beginning our check-in. The hotel had our reservation on file and we were on our way to our room in no time.

Keep reading below to find out about The Joule’s one-of-a-kind pool and the in-room experience.

%Gallery-92690%The Rooms
In keeping with the unique decor of The Joule, guest rooms follow a similar high-end design motif. Our Deluxe Room’s interior was slick and modern, yet still inviting, set off by the same hardwood touches found in the lobby. Though the room was small, it managed to be well-organized. A stack of intriguing music and art books lined a table and custom Dallas-themed photography on the walls lent the room a personalized yet sophisticated air.

The toilet and shower are laid out in self-contained spaces on opposite sides of the room’s entrance. The “Rainforest” shower head was a joy to use and gets our thumbs up. The sink and vanity area (right) was also tiny but arranged to maximize space. All rooms come with Gilchrist & Soames toiletries and a small unit under the sink with additional amenities like tissues and cotton swabs.

The bed in our room was more than comfortable. With 300-thread count sheets, Down pillows/comforters and chrome reading lamps above each side that flip out, the sleeping area made for an excellent sleeping and late-night reading experience.

Other in-room amenities include a 42″ flatscreen television, an iPod docking station and Bose Wave Radio, and a full Martini station for cocktail fans.

As much as we liked the room’s sophistication and stylish elements, sometimes they can come at the expense of ease of use. When we tried to plug in our large-size Apple laptop charger at the outlets over the desk, it didn’t fit thanks to a curiously placed ledge. Many of the room’s other electrical outlets seemed to be hidden or occupied – a curious move considering the number of gadgets travelers carry these days.

Infinity Pool, Charlie Palmer and PM Nightclub

Not only does The Joule excel with unique in-room design, the property’s intriguing on-site amenities are also worth a visit. First is the hotel’s 39-foot Infinity Pool, one of the The Joule’s most stunning architectural features. Located on the 10th Floor, the pool juts several feet off the building’s edge, creating a dramatic visual effect. We were able to swim underwater up to its edge, gazing down at bewildered street-level pedestrians staring from up at us from below. A Fitness Center and range of Spa Suite services like in-room massage complement the offerings.

Just off The Joule’s lobby is Charlie Palmer at The Joule – a modern take on classic American cuisine that pairs nicely with the hotel’s upscale design interior. In addition to an artisanal and locally-sourced menu, Charlie Palmer features a lineup of signature cocktails and fully-stocked bottle shop at the in-house Next Vintage Wine Shop. Next Vintage is a particularly nice touch for wine-lovers and thrifty customers looking to pick up a convenient bottle for their night out. Just across the lobby from Charlie Palmer is PM Nightlife Lounge, an upscale high-design nightspot for those who want to continue the fun.

The Bottom Line
The Joule isn’t a hotel for everyone – those looking for a simple no-nonsense spot to rest their head should look elsewhere. But for the discerning hotel customer, The Joule’s attention to detail, understated design and top-notch amenities can’t be beat. High-concept boutique hotels can easily be over the top and silly, but The Joule managed to win us over with its combination of understated luxury and cutting edge style. Give it a try the next time you’re in Dallas and you’re in the mood for something different.

Travelers turn to seller sites for info

Where do you go to get information on destinations and travel? Well, you obviously come here – at least you did this time. And, we appreciate it. Despite the value of independent sources of travel news and deals, it’s the seller sites that are attracting all the action. Social media is moving the travel market, according to the latest research from industry research firm PhoCusWright, with user-generated content on online travel agencies (OTAs) leading the charge.

In 2008, hotel reviews on OTA sites accounted for only 52 percent of traveler-written reviews, with traveler review sites (not associated with an OTA), such as TripAdvisor, accounting for 46 percent of reviews written. Last year, the OTA sites were good for 74 percent of the hotel reviews that showed up on the web.

“Traveler review sites – led by TripAdvisor – created and drove the growth of the traveler hotel review category, demonstrating the potential role of user-generated reviews in the trip-planning process,” said Douglas Quinby, senior director, research at PhoCusWright. “The travel industry obviously took notice, and the major OTAs have remarkably stepped up their game in capturing reviews from their customers and incorporating the content into their hotel shopping path. Travel companies must keep a close eye not only on review sites such as TripAdvisor, but the growing volume of review content on OTAs as well.”