I am posting this, as I have returned from Jamaica and have reviewed and condensed my trip diary.
I am an older, experienced world traveler, but this was my first trip to the Caribbean and my first experience with an all-inclusive resort! We did not choose a small, intimate resort, but one that would meet our budget for a special family celebration (for 6 people in 3 rooms) Our choice was RIU Ocho Rios (4 star on the internet), where an average of 1,500 guests are staying at any given time.
I think the “all-inclusiveness” of it, and the moderate price we were willing to pay, made for the disappointing “foodie experience” we had.
The food and drink were generally mediocre (and that excludes our skipping the things that looked bad or old). The buffet-style service provided no incentive for either the guests or the resort to value the food. Because of the “all you can eat” nature of the buffets, RIU made sure you didn’t get excited about the food!
I should have known that you don’t go to this level of all-inclusive resort for the food or drink. The food was usually not fresh, not local, not ripe and not prepared with care: I didn’t see, nor have, any local fish. The tuna in the salads was canned, a fish fillet from Guyana had many bones still in it, the small, pre-frozen tuna steaks were always overcooked. Meat-cutting was brutally impartial: bone, gristle, cartilage, and fat were included in the final cut. Lima beans, hearts of palm and much more were from cans.
Being adventurous, we didn’t always look at the identification cards above the food or reject food because it was foreign to us. We found some new foods, like bread fruit, were inedible, while others, such as sweet sop, were a pleasant surprise.
At the same time, some familiar foods were disappointing: the tangerines, for example, were tasteless. The pineapple was good, but the small, Gala-like apples, while possibly local, were not that gala. The bacon was nondescript. The previously frozen, deep-fried hash brown slabs were grease-laden. The sliced cheeses were mediocre.
On the other hand, the local grapefruit and coffee were good. The dark, smooth coffee was actually excellent, with a hint of chocolate. Some foods that were prepared to be served immediately were delicious. The fresh jerked pork and chicken fricassee were wonderful, as were the chickens just pulled out of the roasting oven. I enjoyed some breads; some had real substance. The made-to order omelets and fresh eggs over easy were very enjoyable. We found some good desserts, although we’re not normally big on desserts. We had some good rum–raisin and coconut ice cream. As time went on, and our interest in food became jaded, we became bigger dessert fans!
There are numerous theme restaurants. Two restaurants (Sir John’s and Sir Richard’s, with identical menus) are considered “gourmet” (requiring appropriate attire). The Japanese restaurant “Tushima,” like the “gourmet” restaurants, provides full table-service, and forbids smoking. “Mammee Bay, the dinner meal “steak house,” is outdoors (allows smoking) and includes a buffet salad bar, and carafe-served wine. At lunch time it is pure buffet. “Mandalay,” the “Asian” restaurant is strictly buffet (and carafe).
RIU has a policy of only allowing only two reservations (at the “high-end” restaurants) for every four days at the resort. You are supposed to eat the other dinner meals at the massive buffet at “St. Ann’s.” Newcomers found ,at first, that all reservations had been booked for Sunday (before they arrived); then found that the rules changed so that only same-day bookings were allowed. We quickly became outlaw-opportunists, and on four occasions took the places of no-shows by arriving at the exact appointed time and waiting to see if there were any openings. Fifteen minutes after the reservation time, if capacity allows, there are usually several tables available.
In their “gourmet” restaurants they have a broad wine selection of one red and one white. It comes from a real wine bottle (rather than from a spigot), but it’s still plonk. The white “Sauvignon Blanc” was from Argentina, the red was a no vintage Rioja from Spain. The wine that comes out of spigots or a carafe we called “TP” for “Tanker Plonk”, since it obviously comes in by the tanker truck load.
Despite the cachet of the five restaurants requiring reservations, only three provided table service and wine served from bottles. At the others, although they might pour your wine or clear your plate, the reservation did little more than limit access.
At Tushima, the so-called “Japanese” restaurant, we got a compulsory sushi combination platter without asking. These were pathetic and not fresh. I think there was cooked shrimp in one and another had the stock, mediocre smoked salmon to be found everywhere on the buffets. The other sushi was solely vegetable; and here you are in the middle of the ocean! The sushi rice was mostly inedible. I had some decent Teriyaki shrimp accompanied by yucky flautas-like zucchini stuffed rolls. I tried to eat some fancy, fan-sliced melon, but found both were unripe and tasteless. I had the very traditional (not) Japanese dish of sweet and sour shrimp (which was mediocre), and my Significant Other (SO) had another “Classic Japanese dish,” basil beef, which came with plain, sliced, baked potato! The requested rare beef was truly raw, cold and gristly. Neither of us could finish a piece we tried. We had their special “Tempura ice cream dessert”, which had little if anything to do with ice cream; this rubbery mass of melted goo tasted like it was filled with coleslaw, or was it chopped rubber bands? Snarge? A truly nasty dessert.
One night we went to a “Special Jamaican Dinner” at Saint Ann’s. That means they pan sautéed chicken and pork outside. There were two sauces; one sweet mango and the other peppery and dark brown. The dark was good. St. Ann’s is the fallback restaurant if you cannot get into any of the reservations-required restaurants. A buffet-only venue, its size is overwhelming, while the actual quality of the food is the opposite. The diners’ interest is maintained by themed specials such as the Jamaican Dinner, and the surprise service of lobster tail one evening. There was a very long line. That’s OK, neither of us like frozen lobster that much…
In the midst of all the apparent choices at St. Ann’s and elsewhere through the week, I was surprised to find no fresh berries! No berries, no fresh asparagus, no nuts, no avocado, no cilantro or spicy salsas.… Only once did I see cold black beans. We had lots of fruit while there. A new one for me was sour sop, which was a little like fruit juice laden cotton with giant cotton seeds left in. Slightly slimy and fibrous, you don’t want to chew it too long.
We had lunch at Piccola Italiana several times (a daytime, all-hours, snack restaurant). This was my first encounter with jerked seafood, and though it was pre-frozen, it was perhaps one of my best meals. It had green-lipped mussels, shrimp, in their shells, and calamari that was all freshly cooked in a jerk spice. I was lucky to get some just as it came out. I really enjoyed it, though peeling the coated shrimp was uber-messy. There was horrible pizza, too. One, piled with big chunks of what looked to be chopped hotdog. I think it was the same bad sausage links served for breakfast. That would have surely made me gag.
Dinner at Sir John’s was quite different and fairly good. The menu was limited to four entrees. The menu at Sir John’s and Sir Richard’s are identical. My halibut was overcooked but the smooth crab and shrimp bisque was OK, and the mussels Rockefeller were pretty good, though tepid. SO’s lamb chops were quite good, but as I ate one I realized I was tiring of jerk seasoning. The Crepes Suzette came with a good coconut ice cream but the crepes were tough and rubbery. Very little of my fruit medley, with honey, was good. Service was very good and wine… well, it flowed like water. It usually does… This was an upscale setting with nice silverware and dishes; chargers and the like, yet the food didn’t quite match the pretentiousness of Sir John’s. There was a lack of balance and sophistication in much of the food and service. Overall, this was our best meal yet and it gave me renewed hope, as a Chowhounder, that I would sniff out enough deliciousness to survive.
We got into Sir Richard’s without reservations. The food was decent. We chose some different entrees from the menu shared with Sir John’s. The sesame-crusted chicken with a cream/tomato chiffonade was tender and delicious. The second time SO had this same dish the tomato was overpowering and not nearly as good. I had lamb chops (as SO had at Sir John’s), but one of the four was inedibly tough! I was served hard mashed potatoes as well as slices of baked potato! There was a diced vegetable medley that was actually edible, but nothing fancy. The crepe suzette was again tough and rubbery. SO’s dessert profiteroles, with chocolate sauce and fruit made no sense. They were not fresh and did not pair well with the crunchy, unripe melon.
Lunch expeditions: we had lunch of pork, cold shrimp, fries, cake and ice cream at the Plantation, augmented by what was to be had on the beach from the Jerk Hut. They serve a variety of grilled sausages, chicken or pre-cooked/overcooked pork (I think; it might have been beef)! They have beans and rice and a wicked good, spicy jerk sauce. Finally my jerk itch was properly scratched! The chicken was wonderful tasting, but as usual, there was something to spoil the overall impression; the chicken had lots of inch and a half long pin feathers still in the skin and the pre-cooked pork was dried out. Still, I considered this to be generally good food; the kind a Chowhounder looks for. At the Plantation, it was fun to watch three different kinds of birds vying for the leftovers at the dirty, un-bussed tables on the balcony (the best place to eat).
Regarding authentic Jamaican food: They sometimes set up two or three big steel kettles outside Saint Ann’s at dinner time (like with the lobster or seafood), and serve up “authentic” Jamaican fare, even though I saw them dropping huge frozen chunks of seafood into the pans. Seasonings are mild. I cannot say what is authentic flavor but the Jerk Shack had the one spicy sauce that set itself apart from all the rest of the mild, tan sauces.
Dinner at the Mandalay “Asian” restaurant: The lows: generally overcooked food (and we were there for the first sitting), sushi, chocolate “crap” ball, coated in sesame seeds, the wine, two cakes with identical “cool-whip” like chocolate mousse component and very slow service. Highs: seafood vegetable soup, beef tartar, seasoned, pickled hearts of palm and cornstarch battered, fried fish fillet. A barely passable meal. We won’t return.
Dinner at Mammee Bay. We were served the “TP”. I hate it when you have to beg for more of this rank, wine-like liquid. Inexplicably, a server later showed up with a bottle, rather than a carafe of TP, and I had one, passable glass of wine at the end of the meal. SO had beef tenderloin, which was good and perfectly cooked. “Tenderloin” might have been a stretch but it was not too tough. I had very good red snapper, which was a huge piece of fish and it was not overcooked (!), but it did have bones in it! A chimichurri sauce, a sweet sauce and a fake “hot” sauce was served with that meal. That was a fair meal but the service was poor, the lobster (at the 2nd seating) was “finished”, meaning not available, and we cleared the table of plates ourselves before venturing over to the dessert buffet.
Alcohol choices: The only beer is Red Stripe (or Red Stripe Lite), the only scotch is Highland Mist and the only whiskey is Black Velvet. The rum is just as bad. Martinis from the bar were well-made but the unpitted olives were tasteless, wrinkled, old and actually detracted from the drinks. I did like the mango and rum drink they gave us when we arrived. In our rooms we had strange “alcohol dispensers” full of plonk gin, rum, brandy, and vodka.
Good news: We had NO bad reactions to anything we ingested.
I eventually adjusted to the feel of steam tables and the “food court” scene, reminiscent of a shopping mall. Since I have been to Vegas once, those wishing noise, drinking and smoking will be right at home there. If you have a room on the far west side you can listen to reggae from a “off the reservation” bar, next door. It can be very loud, with a booming bass. In our room, it was inescapable. This was much the way it was, “on the reservation”. I was rather shocked by the “theme park” atmosphere. I guess I really didn’t know what to expect. The pools closed at six PM, before dark. It doesn’t get quiet till dusk and then there are still pockets of music and entertainment well into the evening. Even when the beach was empty, it was usually not that quiet or peaceful.
We did enjoy activities while we were at RIU. We played tennis every day, swam and snorkeled or sailed in the afternoon. Since they only let you have a mask and snorkel for an hour at a time and don’t include fins, bring your own gear if you have it! I saw a big puffer fish, while at the reef.
I do not know if RIU is on an austerity program because of the economy, but I noticed that the maintenance was minimal. The place looks seedy if you look closely: we started to notice damaged furniture, with many screws missing, as well as slow and sketchy housekeeping and grounds maintenance. We even saw a ceiling fan lose a blade in Mammee Bay restaurant and start helicoptering wildly. They re-attached it by taking a screw from each of the other four blades… For a place that looks very fancy on the surface, there were many things tattered or semi-functional, some that were strangely delayed (like re-stocking our minibar) and some things (like washcloths) that were simply unavailable after our first day
I understand that there are places like the Grand Lido that we believe have a higher quality of food and drink, while still being all-inclusive, but we tried to find a mid-priced place that we could afford and one that might appeal to our late twenties children accompanying us. Plus, RIU in Ocho Rios had many positive reviews on the internet, to which I am trying to add some balance with this report.
I’ve given a lot of attention to the food, because this is Chowhound, though it was not the reason for our trip. I hope this will prove helpful to those considering any all-inclusive Caribbean resort.
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