Sun, Sand and Social Distancing at Sandals Resorts
Privacy Has Always Been a Luxury
Yes, Sandals Resorts has taken safety measures to another level. But take a long look and you’ll notice that the qualities travelers crave more than ever have actually been at these resorts all along.
Just before midnight, the navigation lights on American Airlines flight #2405 could be seen descending onto the island of Antigua. The landing of the plane at V.C. Bird International Airport carried so much significance on this night that local television showed the event. Matthew Cornall, General Manager of Sandals Grande Antigua, was among those watching.
“It’s difficult to put into words the emotions,” says Cornall, who had gathered dozens of his team members around a TV. “When I looked around, I saw tears in their eyes.”
The arrival of the commercial flight meant Sandals Grande Antigua would be the first of 15 Sandals All-inclusive Resorts to re-open to travelers since COVID-19 forced the world economy to shut down in mid-March. Given a panoramic view of the property, you’d never know it had been closed. In the stillness of the previous 10 weeks, crews kept the landscaping and pools in their Instagram poses — a constant state of readiness, same as the resort team.
“Do you hear that?” Cornall asks about the sounds in the background. “The laughter and the singing? That’s who we’ll always be. We’re a team and… I don’t want to overstate this… we really are family.”
The environment is casual and warm. It’s as normal as normal can possibly be, given the protective masks and gloves worn by team members, reminders of the headlines that say: “Travel will never be the same.” True. You can’t turn a corner at any Sandals resort without passing a hand-sanitizer dispenser or seeing someone wiping down touch points every 15-30 minutes, whether the points have been touched or not.
But before diving deep into the “never the sames,” Cornall wants to stress something else that is just as important at all Sandals properties:
“For us, some things will always be the same.”
A Wide-Open Perspective
Cornall walks more than ever. He says “Good morning… Good morning… Good morning” as he passes team members; many responsible for sanitizing air ducts every time guests depart a suite and using black lights on surfaces to make sure there are no stray imperfections.
He stops at the elevator and allows two people to take the next ride. “One couple at a time,” he says politely. When he arrives at the third floor, he steps onto the landing and stops again.
“I think we’ve all learned to be less hurried and more aware of our surroundings,” he says.
From where he stands, your eyes can follow one couple strolling along an extra-wide path of pavers toward a humongous pool and beyond that to a perfectly blue sky and an even bluer sea. All of it merging into a space that’s spectacularly infinite. The view itself is just as it’s always been, but the perspective might “never be the same” because doesn’t everyone crave space more than ever?
“Six months ago, couples would pause here and say ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ for maybe half a minute,” says Cornall. “Now it’s five minutes. They just stare and breathe it all in.”
With that comment he’s awakened perhaps the most ominous concern for travelers: breathing used air. Which must explain why one couple after another pauses in spots like this. Allowing the Caribbean sunshine to melt away the concern. The constant trade winds disintegrating whatever’s left. Taking time to breathe.
“Honestly, I felt more safe at the resort than I do in my hometown,” says Joanna Baumann, who traveled to Sandals Grande Antigua with her husband, Andrew, in June to celebrate their wedding anniversary. “The staff made us feel more protected than ever, but at the same time we didn’t lose that relaxed Sandals vibe.”
The open views, open minds, and open spaces are not just phenomena on the 3rd-story balcony in Antigua. What’s true here is also true where couples breathe 1,000 miles away, all the way to Sandals’ home island of Jamaica.
The long swath of sand framing the western side of Sandals South Coast in Jamaica is still cool under the feet at 8:30 a.m. Secluded as the beach is, the overwater suites at the end of a long boardwalk are as visible-yet-distant as the moon. It’s impossible to tell if anyone is home out there, where the sea breeze flows over the outdoor soaking tubs and eventually into the open-air restaurants along the beach. These “always the sames” — the seclusion, the breeze, the tropical air — are just as disinfecting as the stringent protocols found in the thick handbook on Sandals’ Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness.
“We have dedicated inspection teams at each resort that follow the strictest guidance from medical professionals, the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the local Ministries of Health in each country we call home,” says Sandals Resorts’ Founder and Chairman, Gordon “Butch” Stewart.
Among the hundreds of details: The water in the pools is checked every hour. Every surface — door handles to coffee makers — is inspected at least three times a day. Bar stools and tables are pulled farther apart. Dive gear is immediately stored in sanitization solution. The spraying and wiping are continuous, as is the presence of the black light.
But perhaps the most effective “protocol” is one that’s been in place for decades:
“Our commitment to romance. To us it has always been synonymous with seclusion… luxury… privacy” Stewart continued.
Beach huts adorned in the sand make for the perfect seaside napping spot.
Another term comes to mind: Social distancing. Look again at the overwater villas, alone over the Caribbean Sea. Or the Rondoval Suites spaced along the beach in St. Lucia. Or the skypool suites reachable only by a wind-blown feather in Grenada. “Social distancing” might be new to the everyday language, but it isn’t a new concept at these resorts.
“Actually, we’ve never felt like we’re in a crowd at Sandals,” says Baumann. “It’s as exclusive as we want it to be, but now it’s at a whole different level. They’ve put a lot of thought into spacing everything out, and that made us comfortable about safety the minute we arrived. And then… it felt like the resort was all ours.”
Ideas called innovative, even radical, in Sandals’ quest for the ultimate romantic experience now appear fortuitous. Private infinity-edge pools. Private tubs on the verandas. Private in-suite bars. On beaches two miles long, couples can practically claim an acre of sand to remain distant. The decisions to include as many as 105 private pools, up to seven expansive main pools, and 16 restaurants on one giant property have never been for the sake of attracting crowds. It’s to diminish them.Sandals-Royal-
Occasionally, one other person does appear: The butler. For couples in such a suite, the butler is the only human touchpoint — using white gloves. What the guests do not notice is that each butler, and every single team member, goes through a new daily routine upon arriving on property. There’s a temperature check, mandatory changing of clothes, and a “shoe bath” to clean and disinfect shoes.
Being squeaky-clean extends beyond the staff and into all guests’ suites, too. It’s another stop-and-take-it-in moment. The soft fabrics have just been steamed, the sanitizer station filled, the bathroom disinfected with hospital-grade products. Every nuance, from bedframe to sliding veranda door, has passed the tests.
Whenever Joanna and Andrew Baumann would walk to a restaurant or to the beach, they’d look around and listen. Taking in, as Joanna says, “the familiar Sandals vibe that we came for.” If anything, the vibe is thicker. It’s inescapable. And — let’s just be honest and say the word — it’s contagious. The freedom to breathe and move and drink in the casual mood is fantastically contagious. Take it from those who have been among the first to return: It’s the same as always, and just maybe it’s even better than ever.
The author, Robert Stephens, is a husband for 20+ years & father of daughters; Robert’s priorities of family, community & brief stints as a butler, beach groomer, & crepe “chef” at Sandals shape his traveling & writing perspective.