Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why you should take Costco Wholesale on your next vacation

The soaring lobby of Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall, an ultra-expensive, all-inclusive, adults-only resort near Montego Bay, Jamaica. I booked a three-night stay through Costco Travel, saved money and received some valuable extras.

The hotel has 285 rooms, a presidential suite, four specialty restaurants, two buffets, a cigar bar and a nightclub. Two family oriented hotels are next door, Iberostar Suites Hotel and Iberostar Beach Hotel.


I appreciated the money Costco Travel saved me on my flight and three-night stay at a 5-star hotel in Jamaica last week, but really loved all the time I saved at the airport before boarding the flight home.

Montego Bay's departure terminal is notorious for long, serpentine lines you have to join to check in for your flight, and then more lines that take you through security.

Even after you leave security, you can be selected for extra screening inside a room, where your hands are examined for drug residue.

Those searches can really ruin a vacation. Last year, a bottle of homemade jerk sauce was removed from my carry on and tossed in the garbage.

Costco's 'fast track'

I didn't have to worry about any of that with Costco Travel's "VIP fast-track access" through immigration and security, and admission to Club Mobay, a VIP airport lounge with an open bar, sandwiches, wraps, patties and coffee.

I lucked out when a terminal worker herding me and an endless line of others checking in for a United Airlines flight to Newark got me a boarding pass at a kiosk.

Then, I was through immigration and security in minutes, and made a beeline to the VIP lounge for a rum punch.

The Costco package also included a $100 credit on Chukka Tours' Jeep 4X4 Safari to a beautiful waterfall.

The guided tour was part thrill ride over dirt roads, part nature lesson on the lush island's beautiful trees and plants, and part history lesson in an old sugar-cane plantation hit by a slave revolt. 

On a hot and humid day, a hazy view of Montego Bay from an elevation of 1,300 feet during Chukka Tours' Jeep 4X4 Safari. The nature-and-history tour cost me and my wife $89 per person before Costco's $100 credit.

Our guide took coconuts off of a tree to provide us with a refreshing drink. Four couples belted themselves into seats in the covered bed of a Toyota 4X4. Other refreshments during the 4 hour-plus tour were rum punch and bottled water.

The corner balcony of our oceanfront junior suite afforded a sweeping view of the Jamaican coast.

The lobby of Iberostar Suites Hotel Rose Hall, which is connected to the Spanish hotel company's Grand Hotel Rose Hall.

A steel-drum band and dancers entertained guests of Grand Hotel Rose Hall during an afternoon beach party, where lunch was served. In view of the hot and humid weather -- with temperatures in the low 90s -- and limited protection from the sun, I watched from my balcony.

Guests lined up for coconuts.

Endless food and drink

With four specialty restaurants, breakfast and lunch buffets open four hours at a time; "snacks" available near the pool, at least three bars and room service, guests of the Grand Hotel can eat and drink all day and late into the night.

There is no limit on bottles of inexpensive Spanish and Argentinian wine.

Guests also have access to a restaurant in the adjacent Suites Hotel that serves food all night long. 

It was a bit much, and I gained 3 pounds on my first night, even though I didn't touch bread or dessert. When I got home, I was 5 pounds heavier than when I left. 

We told the hotel staff we were celebrating our anniversary and my wife's birthday.

On Saturday night, a female staffer brought us a bottle of Spanish sparkling wine in an ice bucket and two champagne glasses.

We finished another bottle of wine during dinner in the hotel's Es Palau Gourmet Restaurant.

Then, I had cognac and coffee in the nightclub, where we watched a hilarious couples competition.

When we got back to our suite, we found the butler had drawn a hot bubble bath strewn with rose petals in our whirlpool tub.

From the lobby of the Grand Hotel, marble staircases bring you to the main buffet and restaurant level.

At the breakfast buffet, I started with a plate of Jamaican fruit, including intensely sweet nesberries, and a glass of freshly squeezed sour sop juice.

Jamaican specialties included Ackee and Salt Fish, the national dish, and Mackerel Rundown or salted fish cooked in coconut milk. The buffet also has two omelet stations and another station for smoothies and freshly squeezed juices.

A selection of cheeses at breakfast, above and below. 

Freshly squeezed mango-carrot juice.

One of the tastiest salads I encountered at the lunch buffet was shrimp, provolone and parmesan cheese.

A platter of European cheeses at lunch.

One of my lunch plates included, clockwise from upper left, boiled shrimp, fish in pepper sauce, quinoa salad, zucchini with cooked onion and crab salad on toast.

The kitchen tended to overcook fish, such as this wild-caught snapper available at lunch one day. The buffet also served farmed fish, including tilapia and basa fillet, despite all the wild fish available locally.

On Sunday morning, I enjoyed marinated tuna, above, and smoked marlin, below.

Goat cheese with fruit was another breakfast selection.

More attention to detail needed

Jamaican officials give 5 stars to Iberostar's Grand Hotel Rose Hall, but the all-inclusive resort loses points for several exceptions to its all-inclusive policy. See:

There also is a puzzling lack of attention to detail, such as not providing a corkscrew for a welcome bottle of wine, and being slow to replenish items in the free minibar.

The luxurious junior suites are about 30 feet long, not counting the balcony, with a marble bathroom, a bedroom and a sitting room.

When you enter the suite, you are flanked by a wardrobe on your left that hides a safe, minibar and coffee maker.

The bathroom on your right has two sinks, separate stalls for the toilet and shower, with a 12-inch shower head, and a whirlpool tub.

The two sinks are about 15 feet apart, but only one box of tissues and one wastebasket were provided initially.

And the rack for the bath towels was awkwardly placed on the wall above the whirlpool bath, requiring a long reach and stretching over the tub to get them.   

A hot bubble bath awaited us when we returned from the hotel nightclub. To get a bath towel when we weren't taking a bath, we had to reach over the tub to a rack on the wall.

Admission to Club Mobay, a VIP departure lounge at the Montego Bay airport, was included in the Costco Travel package I bought.

Transfers need work

The most disappointing part of the Costco Travel vacation package I bought were the transfers to and from the hotel provided by Jamaica Tours LTD, which seemed overwhelmed trying to handle large numbers of vacationers.

The trip from the airport to the hotel was delayed about 30 minutes, and I was asked to stand outside in the hot, humid weather to wait for a vehicle.

The pickup also was late in arriving at my hotel and at the airport, and the driver couldn't find vacationers on his list.

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