Among the first guests to occupy one of the four new Millionaire Suites at Sandals Regency La Toc Golf Resort & Spa in St. Lucia was a middle-age couple from the Midwest on their first vacation at a Sandals resort.
The champagne-and-limousine transfer from the airport might have helped set the tone for what lay in store once they arrived at the resort, but nothing had prepared them for the unobstructed view of the Caribbean Sea, sky and infinity pool from their brand-new, bluff-side suite.
"They were speechless when they stepped inside," said Dwight Johnson, director of marketing for Unique Vacations, worldwide representative for Sandals and Beaches Resorts, who greeted them at the resort when they arrived.
"Their reaction was spontaneous and unrehearsed and just what we had hoped for from our guests when they see the suites for the first time," Johnson said.
Sandals' staff didn't see much of the couple over the next few days. "They just didn't want to leave their suite and their view," according to Johnson.
When they did venture out, their private butler served as chauffeur and guide.
Their reluctance to forsake 800 square feet of living space and 400 square feet of outdoor space (complete with a private pool, waterfall, whirlpool and three-level sundeck) was understandable.
The four Millionaire Suites, so-called because the design and construction of each unit cost at least $1 million, are tucked on a bluff above La Toc's highest point.
The suites represent a "real design departure for Sandals," according to CEO Adam Stewart.
Absent from the Millionaire Suites are Sandals' signature four-poster mahogany beds, which Stewart said "presented a design challenge and a distraction from the view."
Sandals originally had targeted seven Millionaire Suites for the La Toc property but could not assure that each suite would have that drop-dead view, so the plan was scaled back to four units.
The suites feature a contemporary king bed and neutral color schemes for the soft goods, including an oversize sectional in the living room.
Mahogany furniture, Turkish floor tiles, two big-screen plasma TVs, a freestanding tub in the bathroom, mirrors that eliminate glare and new lighting techniques that draw the eye to the outdoor view are several of the features.
The Millionaire Suite seven-night rate for two in mid-October starts at $10,322.
In addition to its Millionaire Suites, Sandals has invested more than $200 million over the past two-and-a-half years in property updates and expansions, banking on the fact that the hard work will pay off with jaw-dropping results.
"Every step we've taken has been to improve our offerings, ramp them up another notch, raise the bar and keep our product fresh," Stewart said.
Although the recent downturn in the U.S. economy has sent some markets into free fall, Sandals reports little falloff in its luxury market segment. "We continue to pursue that market and haven't seen much of a slowdown," Stewart said.
The pursuit of that market includes a number of projects in the pipeline, many including the addition of suites, which make up 40% of Sandals' total inventory.
Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, for example, will open 30 more river suites and a Red Lane Spa in 2009.
Sandals' 1,300-square-foot, over-the-water suites (its newest accommodations category) are planned for its resorts in St. Lucia, the Bahamas and Jamaica, including eight on Sandals Cay, the private island attached to Sandals Royal Caribbean in Jamaica.
Eight new plantation suites opened in July at Sandals Negril; new lobbies and room upgrades are planned for Sandals Grande Ocho Rios.
Still in the development stage is a Venetian Village at Sandals Grande St. Lucia, with 240 suites, 20 over-the-water bungalows, swim-up pool suites and waterways that meander throughout the property.