There are two kinds of travelers: those who love all-inclusive resorts and those who don't.
There's usually no in between. Count me in the first category.
I've never been to an all-inclusive resort I didn't like, and I've stayed at a lot of the top brands in the Caribbean and Mexico that offer golf: Riu, Iberostar, Club Med and Palace Resorts. My Sandals experiences have always seemed to be a notch above.
Some very lucky professional golfers will get that signature Sandals treatment next week. For the seventh straight year, the Korn Ferry Tour kicks off its season at the Bahamas Great Exuma Classic. The tournament, which runs Jan. 14-17, is held at Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma on its stunning Greg Norman-designed golf course.
Sandals reigns as the king of all-inclusive golf in the Caribbean, featuring seven different golf resorts spread among Great Exuma, Jamaica and Saint Lucia. Every one of them offers free green fees to play, plus all the perks of an all-inclusive vacation: multiple restaurants, free premium alcoholic drinks, beautiful beaches and pools and the access to complimentary water sports.
I've stayed at four of the seven Sandals golf resorts - everywhere but Saint Lucia - so I've got a firm grasp of what to expect from a Sandals golf vacation. While the green fee is free, there are mandatory cart fees at each course - $50 in the Bahamas and Saint Lucia and $30 in Jamaica (plus a $25 fee and tips for a forecaddie). But it's still a small price to pay for the chance to tee it up in a lush green paradise when much of mainland America is freezing.
Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma
My visit to Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma at least a decade ago had some memorable moments juxtaposed against some awkward ones, too, since I was traveling solo as a golf writer. Walking into a room with rose petals scattered on the floor was actually quite amusing. Dining alone with only couples around me, though, felt downright lonely. I did end up playing with a couple of cool guys on the golf course, which no doubt ranks among the most scenic in the world. As the tournament has shown, the course can be fearsome when the wind kicks up. Most of the back nine follows the rocky shore of a narrow peninsula jutting out into the sea.
Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma feels like an exotic destination for couples looking to honeymoon or go on that extra-special trip to get engaged or celebrate a milestone anniversary. The 500-acre property is gorgeous. Hammocks for lounging are spread throughout the grounds. As vacation math goes, 11 restaurants, six bars, six tennis courts and 3 pools add up to one incredible stay.
Sandals golf resorts on Jamaica
The Sandals brand is synonymous with Jamaica. There are multiple Sandals properties on the island. The three Sandals resorts near Ocho Rios cater best to golfers. I spent two nights at each last November, exploring the differences between Sandals Dunn's River, Sandals Royal Plantation and Sandals Ochi. Don't ask me to choose a favorite because they're all so different and interesting, despite being within 15 minutes of one another.
Sandals Dunn's River feels the newest, fresh off of a major transformation and grand reopening last year. It's the first resort in Jamaica with SkyPool Suites, which feature pools and bathtubs right on your balcony. Read my review for more.
Sandals Royal Plantation and Sandals Ochi are actually neighbors. Sandals Royal Plantation is the smallest and quietest. Its ornate boutique hotel sits on a cliff overlooking two intimate beaches. It attracts a more mature crowd, one looking to sip wine more than slam tequila. The second night, my wife and I had the most amazing private dinner served under the stars in a gazebo on a dock in the sea. I won bingo at the bar afterward, if that tells you anything about the resort's chill vibe.
Meanwhile, the party never stops at Sandals Ochi. It's the quintessential Jamaican party palace where a DJ spins music to inspire guests into dancing, drinking and playing games in the main pool. My wife and I showed our age unfortunately, losing a game of group flip-cup at the swim-up bar. You can avoid the chaos by lounging at one of the two small beaches. Learn more about each property by clicking on our resort guides.
Free shuttles at all three resorts transport golfers the 20 to 30 minutes to Sandals Upton Estate Golf & Country Club. The course is short at 6,404 yards, although the tiny greens are a good defense. Between the hills and the doglegs, it's a fun round. All five par 3s wouldn't be out of place on more heralded championship tracks.
Sandals golf resorts on Saint Lucia
Like Jamaica, Saint Lucia is home to three different Sandals resorts available to golfers: Sandals Regency La Toc, Sandals Grande St. Lucian and Sandals Halcyon Beach. Saint Lucia used to have an advantage of two courses, but the nine-hole La Toc Golf Course is closed, possibly for good. That leaves the 6,744-yard Cap Estate Golf and Country Club, a jungle layout by Norman with plenty of elevation change.
Home to 12 restaurants and six bars, the Sandals Grande St. Lucian is the biggest property and also closest to the golf course. And, if you're lucky, maybe you can finagle your way onto the nearby private Point Hardy Golf Course at Cabot Saint Lucia, one of the hottest new playgrounds on the planet. Even if you can't get on, you'll still have the vacation of a lifetime. Sandals rarely, if ever, disappoints.