Bougainvilleas in all shades of pink, red and purple are found throughout the resort. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
The view from the top of the hill overlooking Anse Marcel on St. Martin was classic Caribbean: a sparkling, crescent-shaped cove dotted with a smattering of sailboats flanked by a hillside of tiled rooftops, bougainvilleas and red poincianas in bloom.
When the taxi pulled up to the resort entrance, I recognized the porte cochere with its grand white pillars and blue trim and the smartly uniformed bellmen and attendants.
What had changed since my last visit in 2010 was the name above the door.
I've seen the Riu signage in the Caribbean and Mexico and have stayed at Riu properties in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Cancun. They are massive properties whose exteriors tend toward a subtle shade of lavender, at least in the Caribbean.
Not so at the Riu Palace St. Martin, a storied property that was previously a Radisson and before that L'Habitacion de Lonvillers.
Gay Nagle Myers
• Ask the concierge in the lobby to make dinner reservations at the three themed a la carte restaurants after you've gotten the lay of the land.
• La Mer is the French restaurant; save room for the creme brulee trio with coconut Nutella or the vanilla rum baba. Try the lobster risotto at Krystal, which offers a fusion menu. L'lle serves a hearty steak and other grilled meats. Le Marche, the fourth restaurant, serves buffet style for all three meals.
• Grab a chaise lounge at the far end of the beach if the activity at the free-form infinity pool is too kid-oriented and noisy.
• Take time to sit in an Adirondack chair on the spacious, manicured lawn looking out on the bay.
• Hang the sign on your door the night before with your breakfast order for the next morning. The croissants arrive still warm from the oven.
• There are electrical outlets on the left side of the guestroom desk that accept U.S. plugs.
• Try the rums. The bartenders are experts and can help with the selection.
• English is spoken by everyone, but "merci" and "bonjour" are rewarded with a smile.
• Don't bother changing greenbacks into euros. The U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere, even at the open-air markets.
The property reopened under the Radisson flag in December 2008, following an $80 million renovation and conversion of L'Habitacion.
The resort converted to the upscale Radisson Blu brand in 2010, following a seven-month, $10 million renovation.
Riu purchased the 252-room Radisson Blu St. Martin in June 2014 for $45 million, kept the overall white-with-blue-highlights color scheme, renamed it a year ago and officially launched it as an all-inclusive resort last December. Riu added two restaurants to the property, for a total of four, and a host of amenities, including complimentary, propertywide WiFi.
Transforming from a room-only European Plan property into an all-inclusive resort was and is a challenge. The island has only three all-inclusive resorts; there are two Sonesta properties on the Dutch side of the two-country island, and the Riu Palace is the first on the French side.
General Manager Paco Benito, whose past hotel postings have taken him to Cuba, Montreal, England and New York under various brands, summed it up this way: "This is a new world for us here. Riu knows the all-inclusive product inside and out, but for staff who have never worked it, there is much to learn.
"We are using this first year to see how it all shakes out," Benito said.
No matter the name change, the resort was booked to capacity last December and ran at 96% occupancy through much of the winter, Benito said.
"A lot of our guests were Riu devotees," he said. "Because travelers trust Riu to deliver, they are willing to try alternate destinations that feature Riu resorts."
Riu's renovations included an expansion of its Renova Spa and upgrades in the three room categories as well as in the marina suites. More interior upgrades are planned, especially in the corridors and hallways of the two main wings of guest suites that extend toward the beach.
The Riu has an on-site dive center and all manner of kayaks and snorkeling gear.
Rack rates in June start at $378 per room, per night, double, but Riu has several promotions running throughout the summer, including family, wedding and honeymoon packages. Visit www.riu.com.