Every so often a golf cart can be heard sounding its horn as, festooned with flowers, it pootles through the resort. In response, people start applauding because it means that somebody is heading off to get married. Whenever it happens, I find myself clapping too, just as I used to do watching Peter Pan at the theatre as a child, only this time I have a nice cold drink next to me. For this is Sandals, where happiness and romance is the resort’s whole essence.
Sandals, which has 16 resorts around the Caribbean, feels like a blissfully simple concept, especially after 18 months of a pandemic. This one, in Grenada, is at the south of the so-called Spice Island and has its own little beach; a crescent of golden sand, not too raked, with small cliffs on both sides. Beyond are a series of villas and hotel rooms, bars and restaurants, and expansive swimming pools.
On my arrival, I see bougainvillea and frangipani, with the occasional hummingbird darting between them. Behind one of the cabanas there’s a nutmeg tree with beautifully scented leaves and flowers. And everywhere has the sort of tropical heat you don’t find in Europe.
Bliss: The Mail on Sunday’s Sarah Turner describes the beach at Sandals Grenada as a ‘crescent of golden sand’
As night falls, the sound of tree frogs fills the air, mixing with the faint sound of music, a mix of reggae and 1970s classics. Everyone is really happy. Everyone’s wearing cheerful, colourful clothing.
As I explore, I feel all the confidence of a company that really knows what it’s doing. Sandals is one of travel’s strongest brands; a celebration of romance and a belief that all-inclusives can be luxurious.
Above all, it feels properly Caribbean, in the best way possible, with little in the way of prescription and a lot of acceptance. Not a size six? You’ll feel fine. Another beer? Nobody will judge. You don’t want to get dressed up? You want to dance? All fine.
The most complicated part of Sandals is working out which room you want. There are a mind-boggling 27 different room categories to choose from – do you want a swim-up room, private pool, soaking tub, or sea views? Then there is the choice of village. Pink Gin is on the beach and dates from when the hotel was a La Source hotel, while Lover’s Lagoon Hideaway is the newest, with rooms that have their own patio and a delightful simplicity.
Then you have to decide whether you want concierge service or butlers, who bring round-the-clock room service, and ladle on romance with petal-strewn beds, bubble baths and private meals in tucked-away parts of the resort.
The resort has a number of swimming pools, explains Sarah – some are party pools with music and swim-up bars, while others offer quiet relaxation
But after that, everything feels lovely and simple. Everyone has access to the same restaurants and most of them are walk-in rather than requiring reservations, which makes things easy. Butlers do add niceties such as reserving sunloungers and tend to pop up with snacks, but they’re not essential.
Each day, there was a stall on the beach where fresh fruit was cut up, and there are always waiters roaming the resort trying to bring you food and drinks from the bars and restaurants.
Although I start by bonding heavily with my sunlounger, if you want to get active there’s a highly chilled and well-equipped gym as well as clay tennis courts where the Grenadian national team sometimes practise. Watersports are part of the package, even including scuba-diving (with the caveat that if you’re a beginner, there’s a charge for initial training).
Sarah managed to tear herself away from her sunlounger to visit Grand Anse, regularly voted one of the most beautiful beaches
Island flavours: Sarah went to a local spice market where she stocked up on fresh nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon
My most blissful moment comes when I’m snorkelling near the beach and find myself in the middle of shoals of different fish, suspended in gloriously clear water. I simply wandered into the watersports area and borrowed a mask.
In reality, there are two Sandals. There’s a party Sandals and a quieter one, each centred on their respective pools. The party pool has music and a swim-up bar and everyone is lovely in a jolly and extroverted way. I find myself mostly heading to the quiet pool, because it’s close to the beach and Neptune’s bar, although everyone falls into conversation with people.
You can’t really generalise about the average Sandals customer. I meet doctors and teachers and a delightful Swedish woman who’s a linchpin of the Ipswich Women’s History group, all of whom are repeat visitors. Everyone here is in couples, except for me, through circumstances – as they say – beyond my control, but despite this I don’t stint on the experiences. I have a superb massage on a pavilion along a small walkway set out into the ocean as the sun sets, with just the sound of waves lapping, and thoroughly enjoy eating snacks in heart-shaped canape dishes.
I’m often sniffy about the food at all-inclusives, but Sandals genuinely surprises me. Of the ten restaurants, the three standouts are Spices, which serves deeply delicious Caribbean food, and Soy, which has every imaginable type of sushi and sashimi, all wonderfully fresh, while Butch’s chophouse – named after Butch Stewart, the Jamaican who founded Sandals 40 years ago – specialises in steak and lobster.
Sandals doesn’t stint on its drinks offerings either. They have all the big-name brands and bartenders happy to concoct every sort of cocktail, but I’m a bit disappointed that there aren’t more local offerings, such as classic Caribbean soft drinks like Ting, or some of the local brews from the West Indies Brewing Company in St George’s, or more than just one Grenadian rum in the bar. There are only six wines, three red and three white, on the house list, but it’s a minor quibble.
I’ve been to Grenada before and I love it. It’s a joy to explore, with 120 square miles of rainforest, villages and beaches, partnered with almost non-existent crime. The island has fabulously fertile soil, so is full of small farmers and artisanal producers, such as the organic Belmont Estate, where they produce cocoa, to Renegade Rum, which has its own sugar cane fields.
One of the Sandals staff told Sarah she must visit Annandale waterfalls, above, during her time on the island
Sarah Turner was a guest of Sandals. Seven nights for two people in a Butler suite, with all-inclusive accommodation and 24-hour room service, return flights with Virgin Atlantic and transfers, starts at £2,485pp. Seven nights for two in a Pink Gin Grand Luxe room starts at £1,765pp, with all-inclusive accommodation, return flights with Virgin Atlantic and transfers (sandals.co.uk, 0800 597 0002).
The biggest criticism of all-inclusive hotels is that they don’t encourage you to head out, but Grenadians are so proud of their island that I get a welter of recommendations from the Sandals staff. Camille in the spa tells me I should go to the Annandale waterfalls; Antonio tells me about the rum distilleries, especially River Antoine, and Umbrellas bar on Grand Anse beach; Chrystelle urges me to head up to Welcome Rock near Seven Sisters, where there are panoramic views of Grenada, including a lake that appears heart-shaped, and Kelly’s Hot Spot in Gouyave on the west.
When I can tear myself away from my sunlounger, I choose Grand Anse, regularly voted one of the most beautiful beaches, where posh hotels co-exist with small beach bars and a spice market. Not only is it absurdly gorgeous with the purest white sand, the gentlest of waves and dotted with palm and sea grape trees, but it feels genuinely Grenadian, with a politeness and orderliness I remember from my last visit.
The island has taken the pandemic very seriously. Even though it’s open-air, my temperature is checked before I can go into the spice market, but I emerge with fresh nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon.
Perhaps there are grumpy people in Grenada but I certainly didn’t meet any at Sandals, Grand Anse beach or in the local supermarket when I went in search of locally made pepper sauce – those made by Baron have a cult status among my foodie friends. And Sandals feels wholly Grenadian in its generosity too.
On my last day, I ask Rachel at the coffee shop for my usual almond drop biscuits – and I have to stop her at six, which she wraps in a napkin.
‘You’re not wearing beach clothes, so I can tell that you’re leaving,’ she says.