Beaches Royal Plantation: Intimate and upscale By Gay Nagle Myers / December 12, 2001 Share 1 -- have stayed at Sandals and Beaches resorts in Jamaica, the Bahamas, St. Lucia and Turks and Caicos. At others, I've inspected rooms, toured kitchens, sweated in saunas, wined, dined, danced, snorkeled, sailed, shopped and sunned. There is an overall formula at work here -- and work it does. Clients who visit one resort can easily transfer their affections to the next, knowing that marble statues; four-poster, mahogany king-size beds; name-brand wines and liquors, and water sports far beyond beach volleyball will be offered. Other similarities bind these resorts together -- a variety of restaurants, in-room amenities, afternoon tea and efficient airport transfers. Each resort is a niche onto itself, which probably accounts for the high level of repeat guests, many of whom move from one property to another as their lives dictate. They arrive as honeymooners at one, return with kids at another and resurface as discerning, well-heeled empty-nesters at still another.Gordon "Butch" Stewart, chairman and chief executive officer of Sandals, said he recognized the value early on of defining and refining niche markets to expand his audience of repeat guests. "We've seen couples date, marry and start families. When they wanted an inclusive resort for their kids, we listened -- and opened two Beaches resorts in Negril, Jamaica, and one in Turks and Caicos," Stewart said. "Now that the original Beaches kids are older, we opened two adults-only Beaches resorts in Ocho Rios [Jamaica] -- Grande Sport at Ciboney and Royal Plantation. Both welcome kids over the age of 16."My latest Sandals and Beaches experience brought my husband and me to Beaches Royal Plantation Golf Resort & Spa in Ocho Rios, down the beach from Beaches Grande Sport and a short drive from Sandals Dunn's River and Sandals Ocho Rios. Beaches Royal Plantation opened last February and already has garnered top honors -- the AAA Four Diamond award and three Five Star Diamond awards from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences. The prestigious honors piqued my curiosity to see the place firsthand.Beaches Royal Plantation, a deluxe property tucked into a lush eight acres, is on the site of the former Plantation Inn, built in 1957. That's where the shared history ends. The property underwent a refit that gives new meaning to the word "renovation" -- far more than a pastel pink paint job and the trucking-in of mahogany beds were involved.Aram Zerunian, general manager, said, "Sandals bought the place in December 1999 and began to transform it." That's a $10 million understatement. Original guest rooms were gutted and enlarged to 80 suites, each with a balcony and water view. There's more marble here than in an Italian quarry, plus Mexican tiles and stonework.Each suite is a self-contained love nest with enough distractions to fully occupy guests. Perhaps that explains why the resort's two beaches are rarely crowded. Standard fare in all suites are a 27-inch TV with a CD player and VCR, complimentary stocked minibar, upscale toiletries and 24-hour room service that delivers fresh lobsters at midnight if requested.Three restaurants offer a choice of menus and locale. Bayside, which serves all meals, has the added bonus of Henry the peacock, who often displays his plumage while strutting near the tables. The resort has 14 resident peacocks, but Henry is clearly the leader of the pack. The beachfront Royal Cafe is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.Beach butlers also roam the sand, responding to raised yellow flags that signal a thirsty or hungry sunbather. The dinner-only Le Papillon French restaurant, presided over by executive chef Hugo Hirn, requires reservations and jackets for its nightly eight-course dinner.Don't look for a karaoke bar at this resort. Nightly entertainment varies, but includes steel drum players; calypso bands or jazz groups outdoors; Andrae Campbell on the piano four nights a week in the Drawing Room, or billiards in the Games Room.No visit to a spa resort is complete without sampling a treatment, so I booked a couples' massage ($120) for myself and my reluctant husband, whose massage experience up to that point was limited to a long-ago chiropractor visit.Beaches Signature Spa, which has its own building and staff, is all about pampering and self-indulgence. Steam baths and saunas are complimentary, all other services carry a charge. We sweated through a 10-minute sauna and were then escorted to a treatment room, where I promptly drifted off as my masseuse's magic hands worked out the kinks. My husband talked nonstop to his masseuse, apparently telling his life story as she pummeled his muscles. He is now a massage convert.Sandals and Beaches resorts offer complimentary transfers to and dining at their other resorts, so we visited Beaches Grande Sport one evening for its weekly beach barbecue. Grande Sport is a sprawling resort set on 45 acres with 300 suites and villas, 91 pools, 20 whirlpools, a spa, four restaurants, a fitness center, the Caribbean's first martini bar and activities that include a 30-foot-high climbing wall. All guest rooms have been or will be renovated.General manager Josef Zellner said he exposes guests to local culture through Jamaican cooking classes, salsa lessons and craft workshops. The place was packed and jumping in late October. Zellner said his business has picked up "dramatically" since the falloff after Sept. 11. So, too, has business at Beaches Royal Plantation, despite the property being open less than a year.Zerunian said the resort will be full for the holidays, aided by promotional packages and booking incentives. No further room expansion is planned, he added. "We are a small deluxe property with a specific high-end market." Occupancies through August ranged in the mid-80s. Bookings fell off after Sept. 11, but had picked up to more than 60% by November. "We've already had repeat guests, and we have a lot of bookings for 2002, especially from February through April," Zerunian said.