Enjoying a Special Rate at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman

Regular readers know that I offer an award booking service, and it’s gotten quite a bit of attention since I launched it about 3.5 years ago. It’s been covered in the New York Times and in USA Today, for instance. And I’ve been selected by Conde’ Nast Traveler as one of their ‘World’s Top Travel Specialists’ in 2010, 2011, and now also in 2012.

Conde’ Nast hosts an annual gathering for this group, the first one I attended was in January 2011.

This year’s event was held at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman. I’ve stayed at several Ritz-Carltons, but always on someone else’s dime or once for a night on Marriott Rewards points. This time I’d be paying, albeit as a business expense.

The going rate on the Ritz-Carlton website was somewhere in the $700s for a base room when I reserved my own. An ocean view room was a couple hundred dollars more than that. And the hotel charges a $50 resort fee, which I admit is the highest resort fee I’ve ever seen though it includes valet parking (and internet).

Fortunately the conference had a special rate of $199, with resort fee waived. So while I’ve never spent $300 on a hotel room night before, I was able to continue that lifelong streak. And I was also lucky that the conference would be picking up all of my meals from start to finish, although I did decide to go down to Grand Cayman early (the rate was available both before and after the conference — good job, Conde’ Nast!).

On arrival in Grand Cayman you walk down the stairs from the plane out across the tarmac and into the terminal. Getting out of the plane from the first class cabin there was no line at immigration, and processing took just a moment. I had a carry on bag only, so no wait for luggage — just a quick walk outside the terminal to the taxi booth where I was handed a ticket that stated the price of the ride and directed to a driver. A representative of the Ritz-Carlton was standing nearby, overheard the destination, and came right over to assist with my bag (all of about 10 feet to the car).

It was a quick 10 minute drive to the hotel, though I suppose it has been known to take 15 minutes in traffic.

The hotel representative had asked my name when walking me over to the cab, so I rather expected the hotel to know who I was on arrival but they did not. I walked right up to the desk though and was pleasantly surprised by an upgrade.

My booking was for a ‘run of house’ (whatever they’d decide to stick me in) room. And there was no option to buy up to a better room other than booking outside of the group rate, which wasn’t an option for me.

It turns out that I had been blocked into an ocean view room, presumably a result of the conference (I’d bet they were trying to impress the 135 or so travel agents in attendance who were all dubbed by the magazine as among the best and most influential in the world.) And I was told that I was given an upgrade because of my status to a top floor ocean view room (they call it the ‘Penthouse’ level).

See, I’m in the midst of an experiment though one I don’t expect to pan out. I asked Marriott for a status challenge and then converted my Marriott Rewards account to Ritz Carlton Rewards. The question is whether the status expiration will carry over properly once the account is converted, though I imagine that it will.

Status really didn’t get me much else on this stay. The only other meaningful benefit is free internet, which is free for everyone at this property anyway. There’s no upgrade to club level with the status, and no breakfast benefit either. But it got me a higher floor, so presumably a better view, no complaints there.

I was escorted to my room and it really was on the other side of the hotel, a seemingly endless walk, probably made longer by how slowly the Ritz staffer was walking (the median guest is, I imagine, older than I am). Along the walk I bumped into Milepoint member cliburn who was vacationing on property.

The room itself was ‘fine’ — fairly basic, though with a nice sized balcony (large enough for a couple of chaise lounge chairs.

The bathroom wasn’t as luxurious as I would have expected (if I’m going to stay at a Ritz Carlton, I prefer marble marble everywhere), and the water pressure in the shower was somewhat lacking. The bath amenities were Molten Brown.

What was spectacular, though, was the view.

Equally ‘special’ is the beach itself, but I didn’t actually want to spend any time there because of how crowded it gets. Make no mistake, this is a very large resort. And so it suffers from what I find to be the biggest drawback of big beach resorts — a lack of beach chairs. If you don’t get out and save a space by 8am in-season on the weekend, you aren’t going to get a beach chair in the front row. And who wants to lay out on the beach three rows back? Where you’re looking at other people instead of, you know, the ocean?

Since the beach is the main attraction, though, there were always plenty of chairs available at the pool — although I spent most of my gazing and reading time up on the balcony where it was much more peaceful.

Food on property is on the whole very good. It’s also very – very – expensive. Everything is “priced in Cayman dollars, but billed in US dollars” meaning they show you a number on the menu that looks smaller than the number you’re presented with on your bill. Takes a couple of meals to get used to. I do foreign currency conversion in my head all of the time and yet the first meal really threw me.

They have what’s supposed to be the best restaurant on the island in Eric Ripert’s “Blue” but I didn’t wind up eating there. I had originally had plans to connect up with a friend who is also on the Conde Nast list for dinner, but he had to cancel attending the conference last minute. It’s crucial to make reservations there in advance, as once on property they didn’t have anything available (even for the following day) until 9pm.

The first night I had dinner at the hotel’s steakhouse, which was surprisingly good.

As a side to the steak I had a baked potato with lobster and truffle oil which was really good.

Coming back from dinner, the room was quite hot. I hadn’t realized when checking in that it was on a sensor and probably had heated up with the a/c off while I was out of the room. Since it was an Inncom thermostat though I decided to override it to set the temperature lower than it was set to allow. Unfortunately putting it into “VIP” mode just turned it off. And it wouldn’t turn back on. The whole thing froze up entirely, although after half an hour reset itself and began to work again.

The next morning I went back down to the steakhouse which becomes the main breakfast restaurant, and man was it ever busy.

Getting staff attention for coffee was a challenge. They were so overwhelmed with guests that most were running around, in fact twice staff members nearly ran into me when I was walking outside from the buffet. And when I got up to go back for a second plate, the staff cleared the table and were about to seat new guests there as I returned. They were just trying to turn those tables and get through breakfast service, and were completely unable to provide the level of service that they promise.

The second night I went to their sushi restaurant where the food was quite good. I opted for the omakase menu, which was a bit hit or miss – the only real miss being the sushi rolls they sent out were way too common and touristy while the rest of the meal was interesting fusion of Japanese and haute cuisine. They did grate fresh wasabi, which is very much appreciated and so much better than the wasabi I get almost all the time in Japanese restaurants. (I think the only other times I’ve had fresh wasabi have been at Waku Ghin in Singapore).

My wallet was suffering mightily after a few meals on the property, so fortunately the conference began the next day. We started out with an amazing reception in the evening on the beach, with several bars set up and food stations from each of the restaurants. Our breakfasts were continental albeit with a hot item outside of the conference space, and lunches served outside on the deck near the conference room — the first day plated, the second buffet, all quite good. As I say, the food property is very high quality.

There’s little question that this hotel is way too large for my tastes, it is more of a resort ‘factory’ than understated elegance on the beach. But I also was getting way more than my room rate’s worth, so I was very happy with my stay. I wouldn’t pay regular price to stay here, in fact I would have been very unhappy had I been given the poor service in the breakfast restaurant and the inability to lay on the beach and look at the ocean.

Housekeeping was also a low point, they didn’t change the sheets on the bed the first night (I spilled something and that spill was still there — and there was no card in the room telling me I needed to place it on the bed if I wanted the sheets changed), and they walked in on my last day even though the privacy sign was hanging from knob since they wanted to turn the room over for the next guest. There were also hand prints on the sliding glass door to the balcony from previous occupants.. and they weren’t just there when I arrived but throughout the stay until I left.

I left the hotel at the end of the conference and headed to the airport, where I needed to take a conference call for work. There’s no ‘quiet place’ there, but I went upstairs to the airport restaurant which is the only spot that offers free internet that I knew of. I ordered a quesadilla and a drink, they gave me the code for wireless, and I plugged my noise cancelling headset into the phone and Skyped into the call (keeping my phone on mute most of the time, since there was noise up there from wind and occasionally clanking service carts).

Back downstairs and through immigration (which was quick) I walked over to the gate and spotted a lounge — which I hadn’t known existed.

I saw a couple of Conde’ Nast staffers slip in, and I admit I was jealous. A lounge. That I imagined I didn’t have access to (it wasn’t listed on the Priority Pass website, for instance).

Soon enough though it was time to board. It turned out that a Tuesday evening flight from Grand Cayman to Miami was going to be one of the toughest upgrades of the year to clear. My tickets were booked far in advance, I’m an Executive Platinum, and as far as I could tell I was ultimately the only complimentary upgrade to clear.

Lots of folks from my conference taking up the seats, and I wound up sitting next to the Senior Vice President of a top cruise line.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. That is possibly the scariest looking bedroom – and certainly bedspread – I have seen in a long time!

    And have you honestly never spent more than $300 on a hotel room?!

  2. @Raffles honestly never a room rate more than $300 per night on average that I can recall …. I’ve done > $300 for the first night on a buy-one-get-one Intercontinental deal though (average across 2 nights under $300, but I did pay over $300 the first night and $0 the second). And I did buy up a base villa to an overwater villa at the Park Hyatt Maldives where my stay was on points and the buyup was paid for with Hyatt certs redeemed via Capital One’s credit card signup bonus. And the buyup was $350.

  3. I think your “resort factory” description is perfect. I’ve never felt as surrounded by loud, entitled Americans – anywhere – as I did during a stay at this Ritz. The single best thing about the place is the one thing you missed – Blu.

  4. Gary, I’m sad that you burned some of your limited time for writing entries for this blog to document a stay at a resort property which you thought would be poor value at rates that ordinary mortals would be able to get it at. If the property GM thought he might be able to “bribe” travel journalists into at least neutral coverage (on the grounds that any publicity is good publicity) by offering an extra special rate, he appears to have won. 🙁

  5. @PH I documented my stay and SAID that I think it’s poor value, I figured that information is just as useful as documenting stays that I think are good value. I seriously doubt the GM of the property would be happy with a review that is so critical of housekeeping, service at the breakfast restaurant, and which calls his property a ‘resort factory’ 🙂

  6. Great stuff as always, Gary. And like Raffles, amazed that you’ve managed to keep a $300 limit on hotel rooms. When it comes to fresh wasabi… when you’re next in NY, you might want to try lunch at Kurumazushi (http://www.kurumazushi.com/) – it was the first real high-profile sushi place in NY, it’s been going since 1977. Toshihiro Uezu, the opening chef, still behind the counter every day. And seriously amazing lunch specials – $20 sushi special for miso, eight to ten pieces of sushi, and green tea. Not Waku Ghin, of course (+ their omakase is a lot, lot more) – but great value. It’s tucked away in plain sight, on the second floor of a completely nondescript office-block in midtown – short hop from the Andaz 5th.

  7. I hadn’t spent more than $200 for a hotel room until 2008, when I stayed at Pom Pom Camp in the Okavango Delta. The cost? $1200 per night, plus return airfare. Two days, two people, $3000. An amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

  8. Stayed at Ritz-Carlton twice in my life and very disappointed both times. Seems to be a place with expensive Marriott hotel-level rooms where everything costs, including in-room coffee. Don’t understand all the hype about Ritz-Carlton.

  9. The St. Regis and W in Puerto Rico have resort fees in the 60’s

    As to the earlier comment, while I am usually in the “bloggers shouldn’t accept sweetheart deals because it biases their assesment” camp, i don’t think this fits the bill

    He was going for a conference, and happened to get a great rate for that. This arrangement might make Gary’s review of Conde Nast biased, and CN’s review of the Ritz biased…. but I don’t think Gary “owed” the RC anything and thus can provide an honest review

    I’ve stayed by the Westin next door. The most thoroughly “ok” hotel ever…. nothing great, nothing terrible. I was a little creeped about how consistently mediocre it was

  10. Wow, you lucked out at Immigration as we always have a long wait as several planes come in at the same time and departure is a nightmare with too many people in the little waiting area and not enough seats! The Club is only for Cayman Airways elite passengers and is very small but has abalcony to look out over the ramp. The Ritz is nice, but in reality just a pricier Marriott

  11. Totally disagree about the “bribe” reference. It was a conference price, not a bloggers rate. Documenting a stay that turns out to not be worth it’s retail cost does a real service to readers who might otherwise have gone there expecting more, saving them the disappointment, not to mention wasted time and money.

    There is one thing though that did annoy me. Saying you were given a ticket with the price for the cab, when you could just as easily say what that price was. Saying the meals were “very expensive”, instead of giving a ballpark price for the meal. I find this constantly on TripAdvisor reviews, where commenter’s say the restaurant was “moderately priced”, instead of how much the meal cost. Moderate compared to 3 star Michelin prices in Paris, or moderate compared to their local Applebees?

    Since you usually post a photo of the menu on a business class flight, why not do that with the places you ate on your own pre-conference?

    Also too bad you didn’t make it to Blue, since as the “best on the island”, those of us staying elsewhere on GC might wonder if we should go there for a special meal. As usual with RC, I looked up the website, and although they post a menu, they don’t mention any prices either. I guess its one of those “if you have to ask” type of things.

  12. I have to say Gary is probably the best of the lot in this regard. I Agree with RQ anytime a blogger receives freebies you have to question their objectivity going forward. I don’t think a conference rate like this qualifies as a freebie though, nothing is owed.

    An example that does qualify though: A couple of the bloggers have been giving away Starwood points and taking Starwood sponsored junkets. Then Starwood introduces a “huge” devaluation, to my mind you can’t but question how they review the changes.

  13. For what it’s worth, when Starwood rolled out the big (positive) changes to their program a year ago, they hosted a bunch of folks to provide briefings on what they were doing. Lots of folks took flights, hotels, Michelin-starred meals, attended concerts. I flew up on my own dime, stayed out of pocket (at a Hyatt). I did (1) take a sandwich in a conference room while discussing the changes, and (2) took their car service the 10 minute drive from their office to the airport [I got myself to their offices but having them call a car was just convenient].

    Oh, and by way of additional disclosure, Starwood sent me a box of chocolates over the holidays, they were the only travel provider who sent me anything. I don’t maintain an ‘ethics page’ because I don’t think ethics are something you advertise, it’s about how I run this blog. I disclose my financial relationships where they exist. I turn down freebies or give them away (or if I do take something, I make a charitable contribution equal to the full retail price). But I try not to make it the subject of discussion here, people will find value in what I write or they won’t, they will read or they won’t, and I’m not sure I’m right in my approach (and by the way I’m sure many who read will tell me I’m not — that’s fine). As a result I don’t call out others or claim I am better or worse, I just live my blog the way I feel comfortable because it is and always has been my personal blog.

    While we’re on the subject of disclosure and I probably blogged it at the time but I did win Starwood’s contest in 2004 to “name the sheraton checkin kiosk” and I believe I received 60,000 points (reported on a 1099 to the IRS) for it.

    As for this conference, I was speaking at it and I paid my own air and my own hotel, I booked the conference rate although I speculate as to the reasons the hotel was willing to offer such a low rate. Although they got their money’s worth out of me with $37.50 breakfasts, dinner for about $175 per person, etc.

  14. @Nick in comment 18 – excellent point in your 2nd paragraph

    I don’t think you need to beat around the bush Gary… I’d say it’s pretty clear why they offered the low rate

    But that’s not your problem nor is it the point. Conde Nast might “owe” them a favor in return, but you don’t owe them anything. So there’s no reason to take your review with a grain of salt

  15. @RQ – I don’t want to speculate on the deal with the hotel though, really. They certainly got a ton of catering business out of it over the course of a few days. And while the rate was available over the weekend leading up to the conference, one imagines their occupancy really does dip substantially for the Monday/Tuesday when the conference was actually held. And it could have been the tourism board rather than the magazine getting a favor. I’m simply not privy to the details. But it WAS an extraordinarily low rate, one not available to the general public that wasn’t attending at or speaking at this conference, and I felt like I needed to disclose that.

  16. Gary,

    This is a great and very thorough review (interesting to see a full review in one post rather than split). I can’t fathom though the appeal of $700 rooms at that property plus $200+ per day in meals. The scenery was great, but that costs even MORE and you’ve shown plenty of other options for more affordable or more special views. I view Ritz properties as having a higher level of quality and service than a Hyatt or Hilton, but old rooms and large resort level service makes me question who the market is.

  17. Given that the conference is specifically a gathering of travel specialists named by a well known travel magazine, all I am insinuating, and I think with reasonable expectation, is that the hotel sales manager / GM, in deciding just how good a rate to offer for this conference, took into consideration that this was a gathering of travel specialists and not purple widget manufacturing machinery technicians, and therefore there is a reasonable expectation of related publicity henceforth. (Nothing against purple widget manufacturing machinery technicians.) Gary has said that he’s fine with the expressing of opinions by many readers who may agree whether he is taking the right approach or not. That’s what I’m doing with these comments — and I think I’m doing so in a reasonably civil way, just giving my feedback for some fine tuning. 🙂

  18. FWIW I think Starwood’s big positive changes last year boosting high value Plat earnings & the recent cash and points deval were all part of the same planned change. But obviously it’s more PC if they are separated in time.

  19. Blu cost about 900 – 1000 for two if you do the wine pairing in case you are curious. It was good but silly.

  20. Dear Gary,

    Thank you for the very helpful review. I am planning to go on a nice island vacation for spring break with my husband and two children (ages 3 & 9) and want to utilize our Marriot points at the Ritz. The photos on the hotels website look to be very misleading next to yours. The rooms seemed much more modern on the website. I abhor bedspreads/quilts in hotel rooms just as much as those “throw” pillows on beds that NEVER get cleaned…they should just quit using them.

    This review of the RC in Cayman makes me think of another factory like property; the Atlantis in the Bahamas. I regretted every second of that vacation. Again, thank you for your insightful review 🙂

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