There was no evidence of the recession at the El Conquistador hotel in Puerto Rico—at least over the President’s Day holiday weekend. The property was filled to the brim; every lounge chair was occupied (and there are hundreds of them) and even the forty-dollar-an-entrée restaurants had lines out the door. I just spent the last 5 nights at this 900+ room hotel and it reminded me about why mega-resorts like this may be heaven for kids, but they are exhausting for adults. Despite sunny weather and an oceanfront room, I was actually looking forward to checking out and getting on the plane today—that never happens!
We have mega-resorts on Ciao Bambino like Atlantis in the Bahamas. There is no question that properties like this are a blast for some families, but I think parents need to think about the overall experience they want to have on their vacation and review the resort amenities carefully to ensure they will not be disappointed, or worse, return home stressed.
Based on my experience this past week, I’ve outlined specifics to think about:
Peace and Quiet
It’s just like Vegas! Someone made this comment to me during our stay and I’m sorry to report that this was a true statement—there were so many people in every corner of the hotel, that it was noisy everywhere. Of course, any pool area with kids is going to be loud—we want it that way so kids (ours included) can yell their heart out and we can remain stress-free. That said, I desperately wanted to find other spaces that were peaceful and there were none to be found except the spa. An adult-only pool area in addition to the family pool area solves this problem. I would never go to a mega-resort on the beach without this again.
The hassle factor is high at big properties simply because they occupy a huge footprint and naturally it takes time to get across the property. In the case of El Conquistador, the trip from one end of the property to the other involved a funicular ride and an elevator ride. When you have 2000+ people going back and forth all day long, you end up continually waiting in line. This is not relaxing—especially with kids that are dying to get to the beach and pool. In this case, the beach was a boat ride away, so it truly took effort to get there. I’d hate to be the parent with a toddler that wants to easily get back to their room for naptime. Ask about any transportation logistics required between core public areas (like the pool, beach, and/or restaurants) and the quoted guest room.
Swimming Pool Set Up
The rush to get a good chair by the pool or beach is not unusual, even at smaller hotels. There are always “prized” seats that people will claim with books and towels early in the day. The issue for me is the number of umbrellas or seats with some kind of shade. For a property this big, there were a small number of lounge chairs with umbrellas compared to the number of people by the pool; moreover, every chair was pushed next the one next to it, so there no room to maneuver into a different position to escape the sun. For those that are sun-sensitive, ask about the umbrella-to-lounge chair ratio.
Food Quality and Price
Many beach hotels are in isolated locations where you are stuck eating there unless you are willing to drive a significant distance. This was the case at El Conquistador—not a problem in terms of variety because they have several restaurants catering to meals throughout the day—but quality and price was another issue. We had few good meals and the insult-to-injury was that decent dinners here were expensive ($30-50 for an a la carte entrée). This is the case at many upscale properties—I’m OK with it in concept if the quality of the food and service is excellent. Since there were no outside restaurants to go to in the area (just like a cruise ship another guest remarked)—we were trapped. If a hotel is in an isolated location, scan the Trip Advisor comments for food quality and service comments prior to booking.
State of Guest Rooms
If a hotel has been around for more than a decade, guest rooms need updates and renovations. When a property has over 900 rooms, this is an expensive undertaking. Our first room was in a depressing, older building with stained hallway carpeting; a few phone calls later we were moved to a room that was in better shape with a wonderful view. I asked around and learned that rooms had been updated in some way—that is the key—some way does not mean that all rooms are of a standard quality level. In an older property, always ask the hotel to confirm the renovation timeline for the specific room type you’ve been quoted; in a larger hotel, I’d ask them to confirm the specific building/wing they have available, as that can make a big difference.
We had an imperfect hotel experience, but there were good points. El Conquistador has a fantastic, multi-million dollar water park that was fun for all ages (although, I liked it for 1-2 days, not 5). The hotel also has a private island with a lovely expanse of beach and water. Our experience was inconsistent—there are always pros and cons at every property, but the bottom line for me was that the cons outweighed the pros.
The Families Should Know section on Ciao Bambino reviews highlights what may be a con or caveat, depending on travel expectations and/or the age of your kids. After this experience, there are new things we’ll add to this section. In the meantime, the Check Availability button allows you to request pricing and ask about additional details that are important and not included in the property review.