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Getting The Perfect Place In The Sun

By Judi Dash
Newsday Staff Writer

October 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003 NEWSDAY. All rights reserved.

The hotel's brochure hooked us; then, a glowing blurb in a guidebook reeled us in. Off we went to a hot new couples resort in the Turks & Caicos islands, south of the Bahamas.

But wait. The brochure cover had shown a wide, airy balcony with an unobstructed vista of turquoise ocean. Yet, the tiny terrace from our "ocean view" room overlooked mainly the block of rooms in front of us, with a thin sliver of sea barely visible over the rooftops. And how come the guidebook blurb didn't mention that this "balmy Shangri- La" had such a serious mosquito infestation that the delicate netting over our canopy bed -- which we thought was for decoration -- had to be used nightly, along with a smoldering anti-bug coil that left our throats sore each morning; and that at dusk each day, guests were advised to go inside and shut their windows and doors, so an enormous belching machine could fog the property with pesticide?

Again and again in decades of traveling, I have found that deceit often is not so much in what the resort -- or sometimes, travel writer -- says, as in what they don't say. Those omissions can make what should have been an idyllic escape, instead a disappointing -- even hellish -- ordeal.

At a swank hotel in eastern Puerto Rico, where, the brochure promised "an ocean view from every room," our lodgings overlooked the parking lot and air-conditioning plant (which roared day and night), with a little swath of water vaguely discernible off to one side. At a family resort in the Turks & Caicos that the brochure said also had plenty of romantic niches for honeymooners, we found no such thing. Our room faced the hubbub in the gargantuan main pool ("Samantha, you get over here now"; "Austin, stop hitting your sister."). At night, the soundtrack switched to deafening disco music from the dance lounge behind the pool (was that the romantic niche?), and bingo numbers yelled out from the resort rec center next door. Just when we thought we had found some solitude along the lighted paths that snaked around the outer reaches of the property, calypso music ambushed us, blaring from little loudspeakers embedded in the gravel.

At a cliff top resort on the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California, no private vehicles were allowed up the long steep hill leading to the guest lodgings, but the shuttle carts were so few and far between, that guests -- particularly older and physically challenged individuals -- often were stranded at the bottom or top of the hill for as much as 45 minutes, an especially unpleasant predicament in the rain.

As promised, our oceanfront suite in St. Croix had a magnificent view of crashing surf. The problem was: We couldn't hear it for the deafening clamor of construction machines creating a new wing of oceanfront suites next to us.

To be sure, the picture painted -- and, in this day and age sometimes digitally enhanced -- tells nothing but the truth. But the traveler may have to take on the role of investigator. How do you sleuth out the reality behind the story? Ask before you book, and then again before you go, (because things can change at the last minute). Here are some considerations:

AMBIANCE. Who is the place designed for -- families, couples, tour groups? Is this a big high-rise hotel or an intimate retreat? Is the hotel on a busy street or on its own isolated turf? Are the public spaces quiet or bustling, romantic or stark?

BEACH. Do you have a beach? How far a walk is it from your room, or is it even on the same property as the hotel (some hotel beaches are across the street or require a shuttle ride). Is the beach a long one where you can stroll for miles or just a patch of sand? Is it soft, white sand or sharp shells or gravelly? Can you walk into the water comfortably from the beach, or are there sharp shells or rocks upon entry, and is the water rough or calm, warm or cold?

CONSTRUCTION. Is there any at or near the resort, and if so, what is its proximity to your room, the public areas, the dining rooms or pool? (Even if the hotel tells you there's no construction or none planned during your stay, check back before you go. Weather, labor problems and material shortages can delay schedules, and you could find a bad, if unanticipated, scene on arrival. Construction is most prevalent off-season (usually May through October) but could happen any time.

DISTANCES. How far is your hotel from the airport, popular tourist attractions, restaurants, the main town, nightlife and interesting natural areas, such as snorkeling and hiking havens. What's the drive time based on road conditions? Is your hotel the kind of place where most people find all they need to entertain them on the property or head out on day trips? How far is your room from the lobby, recreation activities and spa?

EXTRA CHARGES. Does the hotel impose a surcharge for activities on the property such as use of canoes, snorkeling equipment, the spa or gym? Some resorts offer free guided snorkeling trips or hikes; others nickel and dime wherever they can. Some places provide free or inexpensive do-it-yourself laundry facilities -- especially important for families. Is there an automatic service charge added to your bill? At some resorts, that can be as much as a 25-percent surcharge -- in addition to any taxes.

FOOD. Does the hotel have a selection of restaurants, and how close are other interesting places to eat? Does your room have a fully equipped kitchenette or at least come with a refrigerator, coffee maker or microwave oven? Is there a market nearby where you can stock up on basics such as fruit and snacks? Is there room service?

GETTING AROUND. Do you need to rent a car, or can you get around easily and inexpensively by taxi or public transportation? Is there a free shuttle to the airport? If you're staying at a large, spread out resort, are there plenty of shuttle vehicles that can zip you to and from your room -- especially important in inclement weather and for those with physical challenges.

HELP. To look for the best destination/lodgings for you, the Internet is a great place to start. By typing in key words -- such as Aruba or Caribbean Beach Resorts, you can pull up maps and tourist board information as well as newspaper and magazine articles that may critically evaluate different resorts and chat rooms with no-holds-barred analyses.

INSECTS. Are there particular times of year where mosquitos, bees or other annoying insects are prevalent or absent, and what does the hotel do to protect you -- mosquito netting, coils, window screens, screened-in balconies?

JACKETS AND TIES? How formal a place is this? Do you need to dress up for dinner, or can you come in your shorts or bathing suit?

KIDS. Does the resort provide plenty of activities, supervision, baby-sitting for children as well as adults-only zones -- pools, restaurants, beach areas -- for child-free individuals as well as parents who want some respite from the kids?

LIGHTING. Are the walkways and grounds well- lighted at night so that guests -- especially older people -- don't risk falls?

MEDICAL SERVICES. Is there a doctor on call, and where is the closest hospital? Will you insurance cover emergencies, or do you need to buy travel insurance?

NIGHTLIFE. If that's important to you, is there any on premises or nearby. What kind -- romantic dance music, theater, discos or blues bars?

OPPORTUNITIES. Are there special activities offered by the resort on particular days of the week, such as manager's cocktail receptions, beach barbecues, snorkeling trips, sunset cruises? Are there local events for which you might want to time your visit -- jazz festivals, Carnival, sailboat regattas?

PROTECTION. What kind of security does the hotel have? Can anyone wander onto the property from the beach, or are there guards to keep outsiders out? If you have a balcony, is it accessible only from your room or from the roof or ground level -- or other rooms in the case of terraces shared by more than one guest room? Does your balcony door lock?

QUESTIONS. Establish a contact person at the resort (get the full name and title) who can answer your questions and has the authority to make guarantees. Don't shy away from any questions and insist all are answered. You're the paying guest, and this is a hospitality industry.

RECREATION. Does the resort have a pool (Is it heated? Is there one indoors?) Is there a gym, and if so, how is it equipped? Is there a spa; what services are offered? What activities are available on or near the property -- horseback riding, tennis, golf, diving?

SHOPPING. What kind of stores, handicraft shops are around? Are the prices at bargain or tourist rate?

TERRAIN. Is the property flat or hilly -- especially important for older people, parents who may be navigating strollers and those with physical challenges.

UPDATES. No matter what you were told when you booked, call again a few weeks before you go and again the week before departure to make sure no new construction has started (or has continued). You might also find that a first-choice room that was unavailable when you booked may have opened up.

VIEW. What exactly is the view from your room -- flat on the ocean or toward the ocean over hills and the golf course? Are there any obstructions, such as construction or the rooftops of other buildings? Even trees can block a view. Would your view be improved from a higher floor?

WEATHER. Are you visiting the place in the dry or rainy season -- or worse, the hurricane season? Is the temperature uniformly hot, or is it cold at nights and early mornings? Is wind a problem or a relief? Are the rooms in your hotel air-conditioned? Do they have ceiling fans? Can you open the windows? Whatever guarantees you get, get those promises in writing -- by letter, fax, or e-mail -- and bring those documents with you.

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