Almost ready for its close up: A first look at the reopened Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas

Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
Five words you never want to hear on the other end of the line as you’re packing for vacation: “Your reservation has been canceled.”
A preemptive call to The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, to inquire about airport transportation options had me breaking into a sweat, and not the kind induced from lounging on a beach under the Caribbean sun, as an agent tried to pull up my impending booking. Luckily, with a little digging, they were finally able to locate the still-intact reservation but I couldn’t help wondering if the mix-up was an omen for the trip.
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The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas was in its third month of operation when I visited, according to one staff member I spoke to, after being closed for a $100 million renovation to repair damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017. As I learned from my colleague Summer Hull, you just never know what you’re going to get when visiting a newly opened property.
What I found upon arrival was a hotel that may be open, but wasn’t quite offering guests the full resort experience yet — which could be a dealbreaker for some considering the cost of a stay at this property.
Rocking chairs welcoming guests at the entrance to The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

In This Post

Booking
The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas is a top-tier Category 8 Marriott Bonvoy property. This means award nights will cost you 70,000 points for an off-peak night, 85,000 for a standard night, and 100,000 for a peak night redemption.
Predictably, a stay — even mid-week — at this property wouldn’t come cheap in the middle of high season for the Caribbean. Had we paid cash, we would have paid about $1,000 per night, but we wanted to keep our cash outlay to a minimum so instead chose to redeem 155,000 points (for one off-peak and one standard night) which TPG values at around $1,240.
The resort quotes a daily resort fee of $85, but I was “only” charged $50 upon checkout.
If you’re low on Marriott points and are eyeing a redemption such as this, consider signing up for the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card, which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 100,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening.

Location
Getting to the island of St. Thomas from New York was a dream: a quick nonstop flight from Newark (EWR) to St. Thomas (STT) meant wheels down by 2:50 p.m. local time. The drive from the airport to the resort, however, was a different story.
Related: Best ways to use miles in the Caribbean
The Ritz-Carlton is located on the east end of the island, 10 miles from the airport. The hotel does not have any type of shuttle service in place and the island does not currently have Uber so your only option is to grab one of the many taxi vans waiting in the airport lot. You have two taxi options: Pay $90 cash for a “private shuttle,” meaning you have the van to yourself, or $18/person to ride in the same vehicle but with additional passengers. And by additional passengers, I mean seven additional passengers — so get ready to get close if that’s the route you go.
A view of the Ritz property at night. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
You could also rent a car, but beware that the quality of rental cars in the U.S. Virgin Islands is often not great, and you drive on the left-hand side in the USVI, which could be difficult for those used to right-hand driving on the mainland.
Because St. Thomas is very hilly, be prepared for a long drive (in our case, about 45 minutes) up very steep and winding roads. If you’re prone to car or motion-sickness, maybe skip the free shots offered at the airport Margaritaville on your way out.
Check-in
My husband and I arrived at the resort around 3:50 p.m. We were met by friendly hotel staff who directed us to the check-in desk where a cold towel and delicious iced beverage (with optional Cruzan rum topper!) appeared within minutes. Despite official check in being a mere 10 minutes away (4 p.m.), the room was not ready. This was especially hard to comprehend after a staffer mentioned the hotel was only 40% full at the time of our visit.
The lobby is airy and decked out with brand-new furnishings. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
The receptionist asked us to drop our bags with the bellman and wait at Sails, the resort’s closest beach-front restaurant, while the room was readied. As we hopped on a golf cart to head down to the water, my husband had to ask that our luggage be moved from the middle of the unattended valet driveway to a secure storage room.
Golf carts at the ready to transport guests from the lobby to their room. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
An hour later, we finally received a call that the room was ready. We waited 15 minutes for the bellman to meet us at Sails as directed by the receptionist but eventually gave up when no one showed, and walked back up to the entrance to retrieve our luggage and room keys.
Room

The room — especially the bathroom — at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, was the highlight of the stay.

The term “well-appointed” is defined as “having a high standard of equipment or furnishing” when it comes to a building or room and this certainly was true of our standard king room. All the furnishings looked brand-new, modern in design, and the room was spotless.

The bed was large and luxurious with plenty of pillows to go around and crisp, clean linens.

A king bed fit for a king — what more could you ask for? (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

Outlets were within arm’s reach of any horizontal sleeping position and ample in number. The only downside to the bed setup was that the thermostat was obscured behind a large lamp on the bedside table, making it almost impossible to read or adjust the temperature without doing a furniture shuffle or some type of neck gymnastics.

Plenty of outlets, but you had to work for thermostat access. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

Oddly, no protective or decorative covering was fitted onto the lower mattress, which made for a strange-looking setup.

Some things are better left unseen. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

That said, the top-of-the-line bed situation coupled with the sleekest and quietest ceiling fan I’ve ever seen made for a great night’s sleep.

Aside from the bed, the room also included a chic faux-reclaimed wood desk with leather chairs under an oversized rattan light fixture.

A large and in charge desk made for the perfect spot for breakfast. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 

There was also a sleek set of drawers under the flat-screen TV that housed a mini-fridge and DIY Nespresso coffee station with all the fixins’.

The coffee station was discreetly tucked into the set of drawers. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

There was also a chaise lounge in the room that, while large for the room, was quite comfortable.

The perfect spot for a little catching up on work. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The closet was big enough to fit an entire resort wear collection and housed the room’s safe, which was easy to use and large enough to accommodate a bevy of electronics and travel documents.

Love a good hotel room robe. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The balcony was spacious albeit no frills, with two basic loungers and chairs at the ready.

The perfect spot for catching a sunset sky. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

This outdoor space would have been the ideal spot for relaxing except for the fact that the view from our building was of the ongoing grounds construction as well as the back of Sails, with limited views of the water. If a good view is a priority, make sure to request a room in one of the buildings that faces east and not north.

View from the balcony of the lush grounds, but limited water. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
As the grounds and property were still very much a work in progress, many of the foot paths were muddy from landscapers.

Lots of greenery — and lots of mud. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The bathroom was beyond spacious with a shower stall, private toilet, large vanity area and the kind of deep soaking tub that vacation dreams are made of.

Could have spent the entire stay just in the tub. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The vanity had ample counter space around his-and-hers sinks as well as an additional shelf for storage needs. The lower shelf of the vanity was lined with automatic track lighting that turned on as soon as you walked in — a smart and useful feature.

A private toilet is always appreciated. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The shower was spacious and included a Raindance showerhead. Asprey amenities were fully stocked in both the shower and main bathroom area.

The shower situation was just as nice as the tub. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
The usual suspects. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The toilet seat was one visit away from sliding off but was promptly fixed after a call to the front desk.

Clean, but needed a little tightening. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

Food and beverage
Our first dining experience on the property was at Sails waiting for the room, where we began our vacation with high hopes.

The covered beach-front area was a godsend between afternoon rain showers. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The service, as we would experience throughout our stay, was top-notch. The local staff were friendly, attentive and the best part of every meal.

The chips and guac (called Hallamole on the menu, $14), on the other hand, was frankly terrible. Stale cuts of various root vegetables were piled into a basket with a side of guacamole that was oxidized and tasted store-bought.

Sails root chips, guac and salsa. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

 Tuna poke ($29) and the Red Hook fish tacos ($20) followed suit. Both were disappointing.

The tuna poke looked much better than it tasted. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

Fish tacos with more mayo than Mahi Mahi. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The good news is you’ll have no trouble finding solace in the frozen drinks, a favorite being the B.B.C. (Baileys Banana Colada, $16), which was basically banana pudding in drink form with booze mixed in.

The Baileys Banana Colada a.k.a. the B.B.C. will make you forget all your worries. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
Dining at Alloro for dinner, where “fine dining transports you to Sicily by way of St. Thomas,” was not as disappointing, but still not great. We were told the restaurant was booked up when we walked in, and that the only seats were at the bar, which was more than fine with us, but odd considering all the empty tables.
A beautiful space, to be sure. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
An eggplant caponata starter ($16) was served atop an arugula salad with no dressing and undressed grilled bread. The pizza ($21) and pasta dish ($19) were not offensive but nothing memorable. The resort is lucky to have such incredible staff working, who at least made the experience pleasant overall — and also knew how to make a great Negroni.
You can get better pizza and pasta at the airport. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The property’s surf-and-turf restaurant, Bleuwater, was not open for dinner during our visit (despite the website listing hours of operation as 6 to 10 p.m. daily), which reception was unable to confirm or deny when we called for reservations.

The restaurant was, however, open for breakfast (if you can find it — the space is unmarked except for faded lettering over a nonworking entrance). It was the best meal we had during our stay. Opt for the breakfast buffet ($32/person) and enjoy fresh juices, pastries, a selection of standard breakfast items from the hot bar and a cold bar of meats and cheeses. 

A variety of pastries were available to choose from for all your carbohydrate needs. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

A hearty cheese-and-meat selection did not disappoint. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The fresh fruit was a much-appreciated highlight, as were the fresh fruit juices. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

A hot bar came stocked with all the basics: scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and breakfast potatoes. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

Again, the service was amazing. 

Not wanting to try our luck again at Sails, we ventured over to the beach-front lunch spot on the residence side of the property. We opted for what seemed like the safest choices: a crispy chicken wrap ($19) and a steak quesadilla ($27). Not exactly island food, but it did the trick.

The crispy chicken wrap. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

The $27 steak quesadilla. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)

On our last morning, we opted for room service: bagels and cream cheese, fruit smoothies and coffee ($79 total). We were told it would take 35 minutes but the food did not show up until almost an hour after we ordered.

Bagels for breakfast: You can take girl out of New York… (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, also offers a Club Lounge (complete with a killer balcony area) where you’ll find a light breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks (!) and dessert served daily for $400 per day per reservation.
Given how expensive it is to dine on-property and how, well, not great, the food was during our stay, I would 100% opt to go this route if returning. On our walk-through one evening the selection of bites looked incredible (much better than what was being offered at the actual restaurants) and the self-serve bar speaks for itself.
The other move would be to take advantage of the local restaurants and bars that are a short taxi ride away in Red Hook.
The patio outside Alloro restaurant. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
Amenities

When all the construction is complete, guests will have access to two pools on the resort’s property. However, only one of the two was open while we were there, so we were given access to the pool at the adjacent Ritz-Carlton Club residence property.
The pool that was open at the resort was a smallish infinity pool just steps from the beach. The pool deck was adorned with about a dozen lounge chairs and a few cabanas.
The only pool open on the hotel side during our stay. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
The cabanas remained untouched during our stay. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
Due to construction, a large metal fence limited the deck space as well as the sunlight at the open hotel pool, which is probably why we rarely saw many guests hanging here.
Some serious shade. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
The pool was also noisy as one would expect from a working construction site. The pool currently under construction should be a nice family-friendly option once complete.
I called to check in with the resort about the progress of the construction on this pool, and the agent I spoke to told me that it should be open by the end of next week, as it’s just awaiting a final water inspection.
Ongoing construction at the second, family-friendly hotel pool. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
An overview of the hotel pool and beach area. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
The best part of the beach was the sunscreen station. A nice touch for those on a quick vacation not wanting to check a bag full of liquids or not wanting to buy a new bottle of sun block on the island.
A sunscreen for everyone — even pasty New Yorkers. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
The pool at the Ritz-Carlton Club next door, however, was massive and offered a much better selection of lounge chairs and access to sunlight for those seeking an extra dose of vitamin D.
The beach on the residence side was also in better shape (softer sand, better beach chairs and trees for the sun-averse). It was about a five-minute walk from the hotel pool area, and worth the trip.
Picture yourself in one of those amazing hammocks. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
The gym was brand-new, with plenty of cardio and weight machines to choose from, and offered a better view of the ocean than our room.
Come for the workout, stay for the view. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
There were plenty of free weights to choose from. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
Brand new cardio machines. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
Complimentary earphones, water, towels and fruit were also supplied.
All the necessary gym amenities, a nice touch. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
The tennis courts looked great but we were unable to use them due to frequent rain showers and high winds during our stay.
Nonmotorized aquatic activities were included with the stay. We took out and enjoyed kayaks and snorkeling gear. Standup paddleboards were also available, although we opted not to take them out due to the rocky nature of the beach.
Service
The restaurant and grounds staff at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, were excellent from start to finish: friendly, speedy and knowledgeable. Reception was hit or miss, at times unable to answer basic questions about operations. We did receive prompt service to repair the toilet as mentioned above, which was appreciated.
The gorgeous atrium at night. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
Overall impression
The grounds at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, were beautiful — the flora and fauna were abundant and tropical — and that’s even with ongoing construction.
Blooms on blooms. (Photo by Jane Frye/The Points Guy)
 
There was a good deal of mud on footpaths and in grassy areas where crews were working during our visit. The footpaths are also very poorly lit, so a walk to dinner or around the property at night was precarious.
The room was top-notch and the staff wonderful. Once construction on the hotel pool is finished, it should be a nice play to catch some rays, relax and take in the scenery in peace.
Once the final details are finished on this property and operations have had a chance to smooth out the kinks, this resort will be worth considering for your next visit to St. Thomas, especially if you can do it on points. The food could still be a gamble, but if you opt for the Club Level option and/or dine in Red Hook as a Plan B, you should be good to go.
Featured image by Jane Frye / The Points Guy.

Visiting Exuma With Kids

If you want to escape the crowds flowing out of oversized cruise ships into the major tourist centers of the Bahamas, it’s time to visit the untouched islands of Exuma. There, isolation brings serenity and the beaches and marine life make Exuma perfect for kids or even the pickiest traveler.
Exuma consists of 365 individual islands with Great Exuma and its main village of George Town as the gateway to surrounding isles. You can fly or arrive by boat but the effort of getting there is rewarded by crowd-free beaches and perfect sunsets.
When to Go
Exuma is a tropical destination you can visit year-round, with consistent temperatures in the high 70s to 90s. Many people prefer to visit from December through May,  when it’s dry and a pleasant escape from winter elsewhere, but it is also the peak travel season.
The months from July through October are hurricane season with an average temperature in the high 80s but you could experience high winds and cloudy days. Be sure to buy travel insurance if you visit during hurricane season. If you’re looking to save a few bucks with less risk, travel to the Exumas in the beginning of July or the end of October.
Photo by Jessica Rooks
How to Get There
Flights arrive at Exuma International Airport at George Town (GGT) on Great Exuma, or you can connect via boat from Nassau (NAS). Flights are available on American Airlines, Bahamas Air, Delta Air Lines and Silver Airways (a United Partner). Look for JetBlue’s flash sales when prices are ultra-affordable or try booking a United flight with your MileagePlus miles.
The Silver Airways flight leaves from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and availablity looks wide open in late autumn. If you can get to FLL from your city, the entire trip should be 17,500 miles one-way in economy. This is a great price going directly to Great Exuma.
Screenshot via United Airlines
You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to your United account instantly at a 1:1 ratio. Just remember to log into your United account before searching for award availability since flyers with elite status and holders of cobranded credit cards like the United Explorer Card get access to additional award options.
After landing at George Town or Nassau, you can get to the other islands by high-speed boat. Most families stay on the main Exumas and make daytrips to other islands, most of which don’t offer accommodations or are owned by celebrities.
What to Do in Exuma With Kids?
Sightseeing tours by boat from Great Exuma start at $250 per person. Yes, that’s pricey for a family but most shared tours offer a full day of attractions with lunch included. You’ll need to rely on tour operators to see and do most activities.
For children, the recommended age to travel on a high-speed boat is 4 years old. Our daughter was 3 when we visited Exuma but she has traveled on similar boats before. A few things to keep in mind as a first-time traveler on a high-speed boat is that the water isn’t always calm and the sun will beat down on you if there’s no sunshield or roof on the boat. Bring a jacket for the wind and lots of sunscreen.
Photo by Jessica Rooks
 
Look to the Chase travel portal for outfitters that offer a variety of the tours we mention below. You can pay cash or use your Ultimate Rewards points to pay for activities offered via the portal.

Or, earn 2 American Airlines AAdvantage miles per dollar spent on tours booked through Viator.com

Hit the Beach
Here are the best beaches to visit with kids on Great Exuma:

Coco Plum Beach: This public beach is free to visit and has a sandbar directly off its shoreline. Coco Plum is a great spot to collect sand dollars. The only downside is that there are no amenities, beach bars or restaurants.
Stocking Island: Across from George Town, this amazing beach stretches for three deserted miles. You’ll likely have it all to yourself, all day. There are also a few dining options on the island. The public beach is free but to get here, you must take a water taxi for $15 per person round-trip.
Jolly Hall Beach: There’s plenty of shade at this free public beach on Augusta Bay on the main island close to George Town.
Hoopers Bay: If you want to see turtles, visit Hoopers Bay. There’s no charge to see the turtles that come ashore to nest. There’s plenty of free parking across from this free public beach if you decide to drive.

Go Kayaking
Rolle’s Sea Kayaking on Great Exuma offers a variety of watersport services in the area. Tours are $70 to $90 per person.
Snorkel
If you want to snorkel without time constraints the freedom to explore where you want, rent gear from any of the dive shops on Great Exuma. Or book a snorkel tour.
Here are the best waters to snorkel:

Stocking Island: Off Great Exuma, take a water taxi ($15 per person round-trip).
Three Sisters: Off Queen’s Highway close to George Town in Moss Town (Great Exuma), this beach offers shallow reefs with schools of fish.
Thunderball Grotto: Take a boat tour or private charter to get here. It’s quite a trek from Great Exuma.
Jolly Hall: On Augusta Bay on the main island close to George Town. This reef is filled with schools of grunts and yellowtail snapper.

Try Paddleboarding
If you want to rent a paddleboard in Great Exuma, it will cost $25 per hour, $65 for a half day or $90 for the full day with Exuma Kitesurfing. The company also offers group lessons, free pickup and drop-off.
Visit the George Town Straw Market
At the straw market (open 9am–5pm, Monday–Saturday), you’ll find handmade Bahamian crafts such as straw bags, dolls, hats and shell jewelry.
Swim With Nurse Sharks
You need to take a guided tour boat or hire a private charter from George Town to swim with the nurse sharks at Compass Cay (quite a distance from Great Exuma). it isn’t cheap but the experience is worth it! I recommend taking a shared tour with Exuma Cays Tours. A full-day tour includes visiting Compass Cay for the nurse sharks, Pig Island, sandbanks, Thunderball Grotto (the James Bond film was made here and the grotto is great for snorkeling/diving) and a local island like Staniel Cay for lunch. The tour rate is $250 per person (same price for adults and kids) or you can choose to take a private charter (up to 12 people) for $1,700 to $2,000.
Feed Endangered Bahamian Iguanas
This activity also requires a guided tour boat or a private charter from George Town so your kids can feed the indigenous iguanas. Exuma Cays Adventures offers a variety of stops along the way to Iguana Island. Pricing is the same as the nurse-shark tour mentioned above.
Photo by Jessica Rooks
Feed the Swimming Pigs
You’ve probably heard about the famous swimming pigs of the Bahamas. Families can see them by taking a private or shared tour to Pig Beach (close to Compass Cay). Various tour companies can get you there.
Photo by Jessica Rooks
Visit Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park
The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is only accessible by a private charter or boat tour. Admission is free and you can paddleboard and kayak with no equipment rental fees. This is a bit far from Great Exuma.
Photo By Jessica Rooks
Where to Stay?
There are no points-friendly hotels in the Exumas. Your two options: 1) Pay cash for your hotel and “erase” some or all of the statement charges with a credit card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, or 2) Book through a portal where you can either earn or use points (more on that in a minute).
Here are three hotels to consider on Great Exuma:

Hideaways Exuma is a beachfront hotel in an ideal location six miles from the international airport and less than a 10-minute drive to the main town of George Town. The property offers one-, two- and three-bedroom villas and cottages. Suites have two bedrooms with spacious king or queen beds that accommodate families of up to six people. There is no twin bedding available at the Hideaways Exuma. On site, there is a restaurant, outdoor pool and a variety of water activities for the family. The starting price for a two-bedroom is $187 per night.

Book via Hotels.com/Venture with your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to earn 10 miles per dollar on your hotel stay, which is up to 20% back in total rewards.

Exuma Palms is a beachfront hotel in George Town that offers an on-site restaurant and complimentary breakfast each morning. The bedrooms offer twin and queen beds that can accommodate a family of four. The starting price is $128 per night.
Peace and Plenty Resort has an outdoor pool, restaurant and spacious rooms. Rooms with ocean views and more than one bedroom are available and can sleep up to six people. This property offers rooms with twin, queen, and king beds to chose from. Peace and Plenty Resort is also located in George Town.

Redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards: Many hotels in the Exumas, including the three I mentioned above, can be booked through Chase travel portal. (See the screen shot below for even more options.) Pay cash and earn points — at a rate as high as 1.5 cents per point if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve — or use your Ultimate Rewards points to redeem for nightly stays.

Bottom Line
If your family is planning a getaway to the Bahamas, I recommend the pristine waters of the Exumas. The white-sand beaches are breathtaking and the surrounding waters offer a host of watersport opportunities and abundant sea life to explore.

The Private Island You Can Book With Points: A Review of Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina, Autograph Collection

It was February. Winter had been gray, nasty and long, and my family had traded the cold/flu/plague back and forth for weeks. We needed sun and an escape from the sniffles. The night before our planned departure, a long-awaited parents-only trip to Scandinavia in winter suddenly seemed like a terrible, horrible no good, very bad idea. We’d be leaving sick kids behind to go to another continent. We were exhausted. Snow boots sounded awful, and it all felt wrong (even if it was a great business-class redemption).
So we canceled at the last minute. We had grandparents lined up to watch the kids back home, which meant we were still determined to go somewhere — just not across the Atlantic and not for that long. As lovely as Sweden and Denmark might have been, we wanted somewhere closer, warmer and with clear blue water.

As long as we were being picky, we also didn’t want to go to a busy “resort factory,” didn’t want every single meal to cost a small fortune, and were looking for a destination with a good February weather forecast and last-minute availability.
Okay, so we were a little picky.
Given the criteria, the destination quickly became very clear — a points-friendly hotel on its own private island in the British Virgin Islands. Specifically, our new four-night destination was to be Scrub Island, a Marriott Autograph Collection property that just reopened a few months ago after undergoing repairs from 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

While we had been to the US Virgin Islands before when we stayed at the Westin on St. John ( which also recently reopened after the hurricane), this was our first trip to the British Virgin Islands (BVIs). Boy, were we in for a treat.

In This Post

Booking
We booked our stay at Scrub Island about 24 hours before departure, which I’m guessing isn’t the norm. Rooms at this resort can be booked from 60,000 Marriott points per night for a standard hotel room that is around 375 square feet in size; the resort is comprised of 26 guest rooms and 26 one bedroom suites. There is also a collection of ten villas that range from two to six bedrooms. As you would guess, those options cost more. I’ve seen one-bedroom suites for about 100k Marriott points per night, but often the larger accommodations are bookable either with cash or with 60k Marriott points per night + a cash co-pay.
The Room
There’s still construction happening, as three new villas are currently being developed with a scheduled opening for this year.

Our rate with a AAA discount was just over $400 per night. TPG values Marriott points at 0.9 cents each, so we would have been a little under that redemption rate given cash prices if we had used points. (I also have other plans for my remaining Marriott points, so this time we went with cash and earned points.)
There also is a $30 per night resort fee per adult. I was surprised when I realized it was a per person charge; that’s a new one for me.
If I had the Citi Prestige® card I could have used that to get the fourth night free. Getting that card is absolutely on my 2019 credit card plan for just this reason.
Should you wish to book a five-night stay on Scrub Island, Marriott points would be an attractive option since the fifth award night is free. If you book at the current 60k per night price before the property jumps to 85k points per night on March 5, a five-night stay would cost you 240,000 Marriott points (plus resort fees).
You can even lock in a Points Advance reservation now, then work on earning enough points to cover the stay, as long as you earn them at least 14 days before check-in.
With both the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express® Card and the Marriott Bonvoy Business American Express® Card you’ll earn 100,000 Marriott points after you spend $5,000 on your card within the first three months of card membership until April 24.

Location
We came here for the location, and it did not disappoint. Scrub Island is about a five-minute (free) ferry ride away from the island of Tortola and the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (EIS) on Tortola. (Tortola is about 18 miles from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and roughly 130 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico.)

To get here from Houston, we flew United nonstop to San Juan, then connected to a very small Cessna on United’s partner Cape Air to go the final 35 minutes to Tortola. We could have used 35,000 United miles round trip to book Saver awards to San Juan then purchased just the Cape Air segments for Tortola, but there wasn’t a way to redeem United miles for the whole journey. Since there weren’t a ton of last-minute options available, we paid cash for our tickets, then used miles from our Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to offset the price a bit.

Another option to get to Scrub Island is to fly to St. Thomas on airlines such as JetBlue, United, American Airlines or even Spirit Airlines. From there, you can take a ferry to Road Town in Tortola (prices are around $60 round trip for adults). This could be a more budget-friendly option, as I’ve seen Spirit flights as low as $70 to St. Thomas.

You can also use as few as 7,500 British Airways Avios to fly on American.

As I’ll explain further, I think the very best way to enjoy a visit to Scrub Island is to make it part of a longer trip to the Caribbean that could include other stops in the Virgin Islands such as St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix — or even nearby islands such as St. Kitts and St. Martin.
Check-In
After landing in Tortola and clearing customs and immigration (which was quick and painless), we headed out of the small airport and saw a man with a Scrub Island sign standing outside. While we weren’t on his list (presumably because we booked last-minute), he was happy to provide free transportation in a large van for the roughly one mile journey to the ferry dock. While this all started smoothly, apparently we missed the ferry, circled back to the airport to get more passengers (who never arrived), then zoomed back when the ferry unexpectedly reappeared. It was all a little weird, but fine once we were actually on the ferry steaming towards our temporary island home.
While getting to Scrub Island from Houston certainly took less time than it would have taken to get to Scandinavia, when you add in two flights and a ferry, it still takes a while. By the time we arrived at the resort, it was dark and we were hungry for dinner. Luckily, we were greeted on the dock with some very tasty rum punch that we enjoyed while being escorted to our room: number 1712 on the ground level.

I have Marriott Platinum status, but no room upgrade was offered or requested. I did, however, inquire about breakfast and was then provided vouchers for a free continental breakfast each day. (It turned out to be more valuable than just that.)
The Room
Our room at Scrub Island was clean and well air-conditioned, the mattress and sheets were extremely comfortable, the towels were soft and the water in the shower was usually hot.

Oh, and the view from our windows wasn’t half bad. Really, what more do you need on an island?

The bathroom was plenty spacious with a double vanity plus both a shower and soaking tub. Housekeeping came every afternoon while we were out and did a great job of tidying up. There is a small fridge in the room that they would restock with two included bottles of water each day (as a reminder, though, we were paying a $60/day resort fee for two adults).

If you are hoping to watch TV at night, note they do not have cable at the moment. (Your best bet would be to log into Netflix if you have an account.) Thankfully for those who have to stay somewhat connected, the Wi-Fi worked fine in the room.
I don’t know what Scrub Island was like before Hurricane Irma, but post-reopening I can say that while the bones of the room and hotel grounds are good, things remain a little rough around the edges, like these light switches found in the spa.

None of this was a dealbreaker for us, but it’s time to mention a few things beyond the lack of cable TV. For example, there are literal gaps in construction in some spots, including in the bathroom.

As you walk around the hotel grounds, there are some broken glass doors, broken fixtures, missing light switches, dingy and rusty corners, etc. The bathroom door near the pool didn’t really shut and certainly didn’t lock (or at least I was afraid if I could get it locked I’d never get out).

There’s still construction happening on some villas and some homes on the island have not been repaired at all. Scrub Island is open for business and our room was more than fine, but if you need perfection, opulence and finished corners (literally), consider yourself warned that this may not be your spot — at least for now.
Food and Beverage
Cardamom & Co
On Scrub Island you have three on-island dining options, in addition to room service. The priciest option, and the one we started with the first night after check-in, is the resort’s signature restaurant, Cardamom & Co., located on the top floor of the main building. It is indoors and only open for dinner. While reservations are recommended, we didn’t have one and it was fine.
On the menu you’ll find salad, seafood, steaks and handcrafted cocktails.

We enjoyed the lobster, fish, mojitos and a salad. Dinner for two with one drink each plus tip came to $195 all-in. We were not particularly enthused by the stir-fried veggies, but the rest of the food was fine to good and served with a side of friendly service.
That said, as the days went by, we found other food we liked at least as well, if not better, at lower prices.
For starters, Donovan’s Reef Marina Bar and Grill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is an open-air restaurant near the pool.

Belgian Waffles
American Breakfast
While we didn’t try lunch or dinner here, we did enjoy breakfast all four days using the coupons given to us at check-in as a reward for our Marriott Platinum status. We were entitled to two complimentary breakfasts per day as long as we selected from the Continental Breakfast ($10), American Breakfast ($17), Belgian Waffles ($16) or Banana Pancakes ($17).

Of the choices, the American Breakfast was the best deal of the bunch as it was ‘free’ and you got a coffee or orange juice with it, though not both. (Coffee and OJ were each $4 if ordered individually.)
The ‘free’ Platinum American Breakfast
If we wanted something else, other entrees were offered at a 50% discount, which was more versatile than first advertised and very helpful in starting out the day on a decent budget. One day I did get the shrimp and grits at 50% off (normally $23) and it was really good.

A simple breakfast for two here took about an hour each day, and not because we are leisurely eaters. These are the islands, so prepare to enjoy meals and activities on island time. If you don’t get your coffee refilled on the first try, it will come on the second or third. That isn’t really a criticism, just a reality. Plan accordingly if you are trying to catch a ferry or have an excursion scheduled. Otherwise order, enjoy the view, and the food and drinks will come when they come.
The third dining option on Scrub Island is the most wallet-friendly: the Gourmet Market & Cafe. This is essentially a well-stocked convenience store that also sells deli sandwiches, pizza, coffee, pastries, etc. (You could even buy your own deli meat and bread here and make your own sandwiches if you were feeding a family.)
Marina Deli and Market at Scrub Island

Josh and I enjoyed some solid $9 toasted sandwiches, plantain chips and local root beer for lunch one day from the market and split a $22 pizza for dinner one night.

You could pick up a bottle of wine and pizza from the market and have your own outdoor dinner and drinks for two under the stars for less than $40, which isn’t bad for a resort in the BVIs.
I must mention two other dining choices, even though they technically aren’t on Scrub Island. One is to take the free ferry just two minutes away to Marina Cay, where you will find the famous Pusser’s. Pusser’s as it used to be was wiped out by Irma. They have reopened with the same painkiller drinks and the same five-star sunset, but for now are operating out of a tent.

We loved Pusser’s so much we went for both a dinner and a lunch, though dinner at sunset was our favorite of the two meals thanks to the views and more extensive menu.

Prices here were about $12 – $19 for lunch entrees and $22 – $38 for dinner entrees, though some appetizers could have been subbed in as an entree at slightly lower price points.

An even cheaper nearby dining alternative was to take Scrub Island’s free ferry to the same dock you would use to get to the airport, then walk about 50 yards to one of the two restaurants/bars at the marina. For lunch one day at the option nearest the ferry dock, we shared a small basket of jerk chicken and a total of three drinks for just $16. Mixed drinks here are literally half the price of those on Scrub Island and just as enjoyable.

The ferry comes once an hour, so you could potentially get dropped off, eat your meal in under an hour, then hop right back on the next boat.
Amenities
The only resort on Scrub Island is the Autograph Collection hotel, but not everyone on the island is a resort guest. The island is home to Dream Yachts and has a bustling marina with a couple dozen fancy boats docked there for a night, a week or however long. That means the island has some amenities not only to meet the needs of overnight hotel guests, but also those who are boating from one island to the next. That includes a full dive shop called Dive BVI that offers day trips to other islands to snorkel, go diving, etc. Group snorkel trips start at $50 per person.

There is also a boat rental station where you can rent little RIBs and go on snorkel tours. We paid $185 for one of these tours for the two of us and had a guide take us on a 2.5-hour tour to a solid snorkel spot. The tour was fun but would have been more fun had the water been less choppy — we got bumped around like jumping beans!

If you want to get on the water without paying for a tour or boat, the hotel resort fee covers the use of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards to enjoy the turquoise water.

Back on land, there are a few pools, a waterslide and a hot tub. Two of the pools and the hot tub are all in the same area, just on different levels. This is where you will find basically all of the families on the island, as the kids gravitate towards the water slide.
Scrub Island pool and water slide
You can order drinks by the pool with a push of a button and there’s also a swim-up bar right by the slide.

Near the pools is a small beach with a water trampoline.

There’s no designated adults-only pool on Scrub Island, but if you head to the other side of the island, you’ll find a spot that seems to attract adults more than families. The North Beach (they’ll take you in a buggy or it’s a pretty healthy walk) has a relatively long beach, a small pool and another bar.
The North Beach on Scrub Island

Frankly, all of the pools were too cold for my liking in February (I’m a Texan and like warm water), but the vibe on North Beach was very chill and calm. There are much better beaches in the BVIs, but if what you want is a nice view, cool breeze, some quiet and maybe a beach drink, this is a solid spot for a couple hours.
North Beach on Scrub Island

For a workout on your trip, there is a well-stocked gym near the marina.

Unless you need to stay on a flat surface to get your heart rate up, however, I recommend just going for a walk or jog. The incline getting to the top of the island was more than enough of a daily workout for us! Seriously — some spots are hilariously steep but the views are worth it.

On previous trips to the Caribbean, I’ve had a string of bad luck at spas. In fact, for a few years, I stopped getting massages in the Caribbean completely as too often they were disappointing considering the price. I’m not sure what made me try this resort’s Ixora Spa, but suffice to say I went in with low expectations.
Spa on Scrub Island
Instead, I enjoyed my massage so much I went twice.
The spa has some unfinished corners, but the outdoor plunge pool was absolutely gorgeous (though still too cold for me to get in). More importantly, both therapists we used had good pressure and were very skilled at helping us relax and de-stress. The prices aren’t cheap, starting at $140+ for a one-hour massage, but we very much enjoyed our time in the spa.
Plunge pool at the spa on Scrub Island
Each day we were there, the resort had one scheduled and included activity for guests to participate in, such as a sunset cruise, a tour, yoga, etc. We signed up for a sunset cruise and were looking forward to it, but ultimately missed the boat by 30 minutes. While the activity card in our room we received at check-in had the correct 5pm departure time, the breakfast menu we saw every morning said the cruise departed at 5:30pm. We thought it was at 5:30 and it was long gone when we arrived. Others who did catch the boat ride said it was a fun time.
Sunsets in BVI are epic
Families should note that on Scrub Island there is no kids’ club, along with no available babysitters, and no kid-focused planned activities. Perhaps this will change in the future, as they did have some available babysitters before the hurricane, but for now, there’s really just the pool, the beach and some floaties.

Perhaps because the resort is not as family-focused, there are no rails along the marina, there’s lots of water and plenty of steep stairs everywhere. I’m personally glad our 3-year-old wasn’t with us. While there were some families at Scrub Island, I found this resort to be best either for adults or for older kids who are ready to enjoy snorkeling, hiking and exploring the nearby islands with their parents. (That said, if you wanted to make it work for a family, it is certainly possible.)
Overall Impression
We went to Scrub Island in search of sun, serenity, outdoor activities and beautiful water. It didn’t disappoint on any of those levels. While the hotel is on a private island, you aren’t isolated the way you would be somewhere like the Maldives. The free ferry every hour can take you off the island, helping with both exploring and staying on a food budget.
I recommend Scrub Island despite it still being a little ‘scrubby’ around the edges. But I don’t recommend coming here and just staying on the little island. Use it as a home base to go to nearby Virgin Gorda and explore The Baths, to snorkel, and to see the world-famous beaches on other spots in the BVIs.
We enjoyed our time on and off Scrub Island – photo from Virgin Gorda
If what you want to do is just veg-out at a full-service beach resort for a number of days (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there are probably better spots to consider. (For example, you could just park it on nearby Puerto Rico at the St. Regis Bahia Beach.)
The service at Scrub Island is friendly, but not always prompt or super responsive. The on-island beaches aren’t overly spectacular. The pool is nice, but not huge and there aren’t separate spaces for families looking for fun and adults looking for quiet. The standard room is fine but not somewhere you want to while away the days.
You should come to Scrub Island if you want to use or earn Marriott points while being stationed in the middle of some of the most gorgeous water and islands on earth.
Scrub Island’s number one amenity is its location, so use that to your advantage, then return to your room each night get some good rest in the middle of paradise before starting your next island adventure.

As for us, we’ll make it to Scandinavia one day, but I don’t at all regret skipping it this time for a winter break in the sun.

Puerto Rican Renaissance: A Review of Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve

At the end of 2012, in the middle of my sophomore year at the University of Michigan in bitterly cold Ann Arbor, Michigan, a then-new resort opened on a gorgeous stretch of beach on the northern shore of the island of Puerto Rico, about 45 minutes west of San Juan, that immediately caught my attention and became the object of my travel dreams. That resort was Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve — the first North American iteration in a portfolio that now includes only three properties but is continuing to expand with a couple more properties slated to open this year (though all bets are off as to whether they will open on time or not).

The resort has an illustrious past. It was originally developed in the late 1950s by Laurance Rockefeller (yes, those Rockefellers), while Puerto Rico was at the height of its glamour as a travel destination. Ritz-Carlton Reserve designers and engineers set out to recreate and enhance the original resort’s emphasis on luxury, tranquility and sustainability when they were redeveloping the property, and it quickly became one of the world’s most talked about resorts.
Five years after opening, though, Dorado Beach became one of many thousands of tragedies that Hurricane Maria dealt to Puerto Rico. That storm will live in infamy among Puerto Ricans as one of the worst to ever hit the island.
A little over a year after the storm, Dorado Beach opened again, and with its reopening came a symbolic rebirth of Puerto Rico as a top destination for travelers seeking a luxurious beach vacation. So, in late January, roughly six years after the resort originally opened, I found myself on a flight down to San Juan with TPG creative director Isabelle Raphael to review the property. See? Dreams really do come true.

In This Post

Booking
Perhaps the biggest problem with Dorado Beach is that you can’t redeem points for stays, and the cash rates for rooms are frankly exorbitant. In the low season, it’s normal to see the cheapest rooms selling for $899 or more per night. I can’t stress how much of a bummer this little detail is — the resort is truly incredible, but not being able to use Marriott points for stays really hurts.

Anyway, we traveled to Dorado Beach at the end of January, right in the middle of high season, which meant rates were accordingly high. We paid $1,557 per night for my two-night stay through Hotels.com with a Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. This excludes the daily $95 resort fee, which actually rings up at over $100 after taxes. This is by far the priciest resort fee I’ve encountered on my travels, and paying yet another $100 on top of the already sky-high room rate is a hard pill to swallow.
It’s with bookings like these where the Venture card really shines, as it earns 10x miles per dollar spent on hotel reservations when booked through the special link at Hotels.com/venture. You can also stack this with Hotels.com Rewards, which awards one free night per every 10 paid nights. Since the free night is based on the average price of the 10 nights, when stacked with the 10x miles from the Venture Rewards, it effectively gives us a 20% return on this reservation. That’s one of the very best credit card returns you can get when spending cash on hotels.
Since Ritz-Carlton Reserve properties don’t participate in the Marriott Rewards program, you’re not eligible to earn points, either. Another major bummer.
You have to pay cash no matter what when staying at this resort, so another great way to book would be through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program, as it entitles you to a room upgrade and a special amenity, which is usually a food-and-beverage or spa credit. The room upgrade alone could go especially far at a resort like this: It could land you in a room with a private plunge pool.
Location
The resort was in the city of Dorado, about a 45-minute drive from San Juan’s Luis Muñoz International Airport (SJU). We took a taxi from the airport, which cost $90 including the tip. The resort itself was very large, meaning we didn’t have time during our two-night stay to explore the local area, though on the way in I noticed that the area immediately surrounding the resort consisted of a lot of gated communities with individual homes, golf courses and other beachfront resorts.

Check-in
As soon as our taxi pulled up to the impressive entrance to the resort, we were greeted with fresh fruit popsicles, which I gladly devoured.

Immediately behind the porte-cochère was a lily pond flanked on one side by the reception area and a golf course on the other. It made a grand first impression and illustrated how the resort focused on a seamless integration with its surrounding environment.

The first impression was great, but the second was even better. As soon as we ascended the steps to the main lobby, I was blown away by the view. The open-air lobby had a direct view through the heart of the resort out to the thundering ocean. I could already tell this place was going to be special.

The lobby was also surrounded by a water feature, which had a calming effect and also worked to bring the outside inside. Unfortunately, our rooms weren’t yet ready, but we were introduced to our team of embajadores, (literally “ambassadors”), who were available for us throughout our stay for any requests.

We received a quick tour of the main part of the resort before heading over to the poolside restaurant to eat lunch. The rooms took a couple of hours to get ready, which was surprising, as the resort didn’t feel all that busy when we arrived.

Room
The majority of rooms at this property were arranged in individual buildings containing just four rooms spread between two floors. Base-level rooms were on the top, since those didn’t have individual plunge pools like the ground-floor rooms did.

If a hotel charges $1,500 per night for a base room, they’d better be anything but “base.” Fortunately, when I opened the door to my room, it didn’t feel entry-level in the slightest.

My first impression was that it was absolutely massive — the smallest rooms on the property are almost 950 square feet, almost double the size of my Brooklyn apartment.

The room was filled with light, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling window that spanned the width of the room. This window opened completely, bringing the sights, sounds and smells of the beach into the room.

This was by far my favorite feature of the room. The building was so close to the ocean that I really did feel as if there was hardly a distinction between the inside and the outside.

The room’s balcony was also one of the largest I’d ever experienced at a resort — there was plenty of room for the table and chairs, as well as the chaise lounge. I actually found the chaise to be on the small side — Isabelle’s balcony had a lovely sofa that I wish I’d had.

The bathroom was another example of the resort seamlessly blending the inside and out. It was phenomenally spacious and also had floor-to-ceiling glass windows, though here it didn’t open up the entire width of the room.

Instead there was a door that was adjacent to the indoor shower that opened into the outdoor shower area. Who doesn’t love a hotel room where you have to distinguish between indoor and outdoor showers? The pressure and temperature in both showers were excellent for me, though Isabelle did report that her outdoor shower never heated up, even after letting the water run for about 10 minutes.

The outdoor shower immediately became one of my favorite features of the room — there was something so very peaceful about a warm shower on a warm night surrounded by the sounds of the abundant wildlife at the resort.

Back inside, the bathroom featured a large soaking tub, double sinks and a separate WC.

Amenities were by the on-property Spa Botánico and were stocked in large, reusable plastic containers rather than individual-use bottles, as part of the resort’s commitment to more sustainable practices.

The predominantly white king-sized bed was beautifully offset by a rich wood headboard that had a slatted design feature that you could keep open or close to not allow light in from the bathroom.

Light switches were clearly labeled and located conveniently for in-bed control. There were a couple of outlets adjacent to the bed as well: a necessity in today’s world.

The room’s closet was large and located in a sort of “foyer” that contained the room’s minibar and was between the bathroom and the main part of the suite.

The minibar was expectedly high-end, with prices to match, though I did grab a Diet Coke one day — desperate times. The provided water bottles were complimentary, though, and the housekeeping staff left several more each day.

There was a Nespresso maker, too, which I know that coffee drinkers would appreciate. Confession: I don’t drink coffee … I know. What’s wrong with me?

Food and Beverage
Since we only had a two-night stay, we did most of our eating on the property. Luckily, there were more than enough options to keep things interesting on our short stay. The resort offered three full-service restaurants and one deli-style shop for quicker meals.

Like I mentioned earlier, our rooms weren’t ready when we arrived at the resort, so one of the embajadores suggested that we grab lunch at Positivo Sand Bar, the restaurant adjacent to the resort’s Positivo pool, which I considered to be the resort’s main pool. The space itself was gorgeous, with most of the tables placed in the sand, so you really felt like you were on a beach vacation.

The space itself was gorgeous too — it gave me 1950s-Caribbean-beach-club vibes. Plus, the music, which I’ll call “ambient beach beats” contributed to the relaxed atmosphere. I ordered a Caesar salad with churrasco as well as a glass of rosé — it was the perfect way to kick off our stay at Dorado Beach.

That night, we ventured to the resort’s other beachfront full-service option, Encanto Beach Club Bar and Grill. The restaurant was set just steps from the beach and featured a large, circular bar in the center surrounded by tables and booths for larger groups.

The menu focused on grilled meats and seafood. We shared a burrata-and-tomato appetizer, and I ordered grilled chicken with vegetables for my main course along with a Cuba Libre — it was excellent. Many times, chicken dries out and becomes flavorless, but this dish was bursting with flavor.

During the day, the Encanto Beach Club Bar and Grill served as the restaurant for the Encanto pool, which seemed to have significantly fewer guests than the Positivo pool. It also seemed to cater to families more — on one end was a zero-entry feature that would be appealing to small children, for sure.

The following day, we ventured over to Coa for breakfast — it was the hotel’s signature restaurant and offered breakfast daily from 7am to 11am and dinner from Tuesday through Saturday from 6pm to 10pm.

When we had breakfast, there were only a handful of other guests in the restaurant, though it looked like it could handle a crowd.

Connected to the main restaurant was a sumptuously appointed bar area that open Tuesday through Saturday from 6pm to 12am, featuring live music Thursday through Saturday from 7pm to 10pm.

A buffet was set up in a room adjacent to the main dining room, which offered the typical breakfast buffet, though the food looked very fresh.

We both ordered from the a la carte menu — Isabelle went with the oh-so-Australian avocado toast, while I went with a breakfast mainstay: an omelet.

On the last night of our stay, we went back to Positivo Sand Bar for dinner — whereas at lunch the restaurant served light poolside fare, at dinner time it focused on sushi and Japanese cuisine. We arrived around 7:30pm and asked for a table for two, which the restaurant couldn’t accommodate, as they said the restaurant was fully booked. One look around, though, and I questioned the validity of that statement, as there were plenty of open tables. This happened at the Encanto Beach Club as well the previous night — both times we ended up sitting at the bar. Totally fine for us, but make sure you make reservations in advance, or at least when you arrive on property, even though you probably don’t even need them.

I ordered room service — another omelet with local Puerto Rican sausage — on the morning of checkout, and it was delivered within three minutes of the estimated delivery time — I was impressed. The food arrived hot and fresh, too. 
I enjoyed my breakfast with the huge glass door open — I had to take in that phenomenal view one more time.

When we found ourselves with a couple of hours of downtime, we spent it sitting by and swimming in the pool, which, of course, works up an appetite. We ordered chips and guacamole, as well as a round of “skinny” mojitos (a typical mojito but with less sugar) to keep us going until dinnertime.

Pool service was attentive and friendly, and each day the staff wheeled around a cart with coconuts ready for drinking — it was a refreshingly tropical touch.

Amenities
One books a stay at a resort like Dorado Beach with one objective in mind: relaxation. What better way to achieve that goal than by a pool or the beach? Dorado Beach definitely had us covered in that department. The Positivo pool was my favorite spot on the resort — it’s hard to get more picturesque than that.

The pool had infinity edges that gave way to the roaring ocean further beyond, and the water itself was a spectacular blue, thanks to the tiling work.

It was kept at a warm-enough temperature that I didn’t recoil at all upon entering, like I do at so many other pools. Plus, there was hardly anyone in the pool at one time, so it really felt like we had the place to ourselves. I suppose that was arguably one of the best features of this resort: It didn’t have a tremendously high number of rooms, so public spaces didn’t feel crowded, and there was never a mad dash to reserve a pool chair at 7am.

We visited the stretch of beach adjacent to the Positivo pool for a couple of hours one afternoon. The resort offered full service on the beach, so we were tended to within a few minutes of sitting down. The server brought a tray with sunscreen and lotion, several water bottles and wet, cold washcloths. I thought this was a nice touch, and something that went above and beyond a typical beach resort, where sunscreen alone can be a significant cost. Then again, with the room rates at Dorado, sunscreen should be included.

The water itself was fabulous — there was a natural rock barrier so the water we swam in wasn’t nearly as rough as it was a little farther out, but it was wavy enough to really make you feel like you were in the ocean. It was truly one of the more spectacular beaches I’d visited — and I’ve got quite a few under my belt by now. There was something about its perfect crescent shape and the tall palm trees arching towards the water that made it magical.

The Encanto pool, like I mentioned earlier, seemed geared more toward families — it was large, freeform and had a zero-entry side.

The pool deck was large, and there was plenty of space between seat clusters.

The larger stretch of beach was adjacent to this pool, which made sense, as the area was branded as a beach club.

As you could imagine, the hotel featured an expansive (and expensive) spa called Spa Botánico, which was completely reimagined with the reopening of the resort. It was set back from the beach and surrounded by lush greenery. You entered the spa through a building that resembled a temple of sorts — in the front of the main building was a mindbogglingly large tree that really set the tone of the whole place as a sanctuary within nature.

I honestly didn’t have time to book myself a treatment, but I did have a peek at the public areas of the spa (most of it was off-limits to photography, as the space was clothing-optional).

Inside, the building was perfumed by fragrant incense, and then through the other end of the building was the spa’s reflecting pool, which had a number of loungers spread around it.

Farther back was a large lawn area, where guests can take walks and really connect with the serenity all around.

A fitness center was part of Spa Botánico as well, but, you guessed it, no time for that!
Another one of the resort’s standout features was the Rockefeller Trail, an 11-mile walk that encompassed the forest and all its wildlife, the beach, the golf course and more. The resort also offered a variety of water sports, including kitesurfing, sailing, windsurfing, paddleboarding and regular old surfing — the lessons were designed by Olympic windsurfer Karla Barrera and her husband, Phil Morstad, and offered through their company, Goodwinds.

There were plenty of other activities to take advantage of, like playing tennis at the five-court tennis center and a children’s waterpark, but you definitely needed more than a two-night stay to experience everything. Perhaps, though, the best amenity of all was the magical location: Relaxation came easy at Dorado Beach!

The resort also has one very special, very exclusive amenity — an entire private villa that can be rented out for a nightly rate that includes five figures. It’s called “Su Casa,” and, according to the hotel, it’s a five-bedroom, 8,000 square foot villa from the 1920s that has its own private gardens as well as an infinity lap pool. Su Casa has a very interesting AvGeeky history, too — Amelia Earhart stayed there before she vanished in 1937. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check out Su Casa myself, since it was occupied when I stayed at the resort, but I’m inclined to believe that we must give it the full review it deserves in the near future… right?
Photo courtesy of Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve.
Overall Impression
My stay at Dorado Beach was a long time coming. Ever since I’d first caught wind of the resort several years ago, I knew I somehow had to make it there. Now that I have, I’m hooked. The resort is so far above and beyond typical Ritz-Carlton resorts that it doesn’t even feel like the same chain.

And, in many ways, it’s really not part of the same chain. Reserve feels like a completely different hotel brand — and it has the price tag to match. Arguably the most disappointing thing about these properties is that it’s impossible to redeem points for a stay. But it seems like that decision was purposeful: Upon my departure, I expressed my sadness that I couldn’t redeem points. In response, the employee said, “Well, yeah, if you could redeem points, then everybody would be staying here.” To me, that summed everything up: The Ritz-Carlton Reserve is supposed to be an ultra-exclusive place, one reserved only for those who can afford it and expect the best of the best.
So, if you can swing the high price of entry, you won’t be disappointed. The resort’s location is truly magical, the rooms (even the most basic ones) are at once sumptuous and casual, and the pools, beaches and views are sublime. I’m holding on to a sliver of hope that someday Reserve properties will find a home in Marriott’s new Bonvoy program, though I know that’s probably naive. Regardless, while I wait (im)patiently for that to happen, you’d better believe that I’m plotting all possible paths back to Dorado Beach.
All photos by Nick Ellis and Isabelle Raphael for The Points Guy unless where noted.

How to Plan a Points and Miles Trip for a (Very) Large Family

The more a family grows, the more difficult it is to corral everyone at the same time in the same place. Sure, it can still happen at the usual events such as weddings and major holidays, but the likelihood of a large family vacation seems to shrink as the family expands.
But as my family proved last week, it isn’t impossible. Through many hours of planning over the course of many months, I was able to coordinate a trip for a family of 24 people (yes, you read that right) to Puerto Rico. The best part about it was that I flew everyone there, all two dozen of us, on points and miles.
Of course, I learned plenty along the way. So if you’re trying to arrange a large vacation that the entire family will be talking about for the rest of their lives, consider this your definitive guide.
The Biros Family Puerto Rico crew. All here on points.
How It Began
The catalyst for this massive family getaway was a pretty unusual scenario, and actually the same reason I ended up as a writer for TPG. I won TPG’s Marathon to a Million contest almost three years ago and landed the one million JetBlue TrueBlue points prize, novelty check and all.
However, even then (as I noted in my first-ever article for TPG explaining what I’d do with my winnings), I didn’t think planning a trip for my entire family was a possibility. But my dad, who had accumulated a few hundred thousand Amex Membership Rewards points through his small business, expressed an interest in doing “something” for the family with these points. He also pointed out that he had no idea how to do so.
As I became more skilled in the points and miles game, I realized I could actually make this happen between his points and mine. And I learned how surprisingly attainable a large family points and miles trip was, even without winning a big contest.
Step 1: Pick a Time and Place That Works for Everyone
This is really the only thing that everyone has to agree on, and it can prove to be difficult — perhaps the most difficult part of the planning process. For example, maybe a ski trip sounds fun to the majority of your family, but it’s tough to sell it to a family member that has no interest in skiing. For my family, I wanted a warm, tropical paradise, and I knew that would interest everyone. I also wanted a destination that wouldn’t require passports. Almost none of my nieces and nephews own a passport, and at $115 to $145 each, it’s a significant expense.
So I settled on Puerto Rico. It was easily accessible from the Midwest with options on JetBlue. And although no one would need passports, the language and culture would feel remote for someone who has never left the continental United States.
No one in the family was opposed to escaping the Midwest in January.
Another tip: Don’t dwell if someone can’t go or chooses not to. Chances are, if you’re reading this, travel is a high priority. But it’s not for everyone else. You and I may think it’s crazy to turn down a free family vacation, but other people have other priorities. Move on, and focus on making this the best trip for those who do see the value in it.
Step 2: Book Flights As Soon As They Go on Sale
When you are booking a large number of flights with points, it’s best to do so as soon as they go on sale. Refer to this guide to know when each airline releases their tickets, but low-cost carriers typically work the best. Unlike the big three airlines that release flight schedules 11 months in advance, low-fare carriers release schedules six to nine months out, meaning if you are booking flights as soon as they go on sale, you only need to plan that far in advance.
If the routing works, I recommend Southwest Airlines for the following reasons:

Generous Baggage Policy: Two free checked bags per person is especially important for inexperienced travelers who will likely overpack.
Schedule Release Dates: Southwest is usually the last major airline to release tickets, which means if you are booking flights right when they go on sale, you won’t have to plan as far in advance as the other airlines. This link will tell you when the next batch of flights will be released.
Ticket Prices on Release Date: Unlike airlines like JetBlue that horribly inflate ticket prices for holiday times even when a ticket for a flight has yet to be sold, Southwest appears to release all of their seats at the same low price regardless of dates. This is crucial if you’re trying to book a trip over the holidays, which may be the only time you can line up a group that includes school children.
Award Ticket Pricing: Unlike the big three, the number of points required to book a flight on Southwest is tied to the fare of the ticket. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about award inventory, and won’t end up paying double for a standard award if your family outnumbers the award seats available. If anything, the ticket price will increase by a few thousand points after you book up some of the seats.
Generous Cancellation and Change Policy: No other airline compares with Southwest’s cancellation policy on awards. If you cancel, the points are simply put back in your account. Changes are free, too. You’ll just pay the difference in points.
Family Boarding: If you have children in your group, your entire party could potentially board between groups A and B. Even on a full flight, you’ll be able to sit everyone together in open rows toward the back of the aircraft. Honestly, assigned seating would be easier, so family boarding isn’t necessarily better, but at last you know open seating won’t work against you. And it definitely beats airlines that want to charge for assigned or preferred seats.

On the outbound flight, we got 19 family members in three consecutive rows using Southwest family boarding.
Also, remember that the Companion Pass works on award bookings as well, and it’s currently available through this amazing Southwest credit card offer.
My initial plan was to get most flights on JetBlue, but the pre-inflated ticket prices over Christmas made that pretty much impossible. I was able to pivot our trip to New Years, and I snagged one semi-reasonable return fare for most of us in early January. For my sister’s family, I found a doable outbound fare from Indianapolis on Delta Air Lines that made use of my dad’s Amex points. But the bulk of our flights were booked on Southwest at a great fare as soon as they went on sale. If we had enough Southwest and Chase points, we would have booked everything on Southwest.
Between the three airlines we redeemed a total of 715,860 points for 46 flights (not including a lap baby). Here is the breakdown by airline:

Airline
Southwest
JetBlue
Delta

Number of Flights
25
16
5

Points Redeemed
328,380
289,980
97,500

Average Redemption
13,135
18,124
19,500

 
The numbers above include the 10% rebate on JetBlue redemptions I get with my JetBlue Plus Card, but I still got the best value on Southwest. And, in addition to the various reasons mentioned above, it was also the most convenient option, with a direct flight from Chicago Midway (MDW).
Step 3: Book a Huge Airbnb (or Two)
While there unfortunately isn’t a great way to redeem points for Airbnbs, it does provide the best value on several levels. Here are several reasons large rental houses booked through sites such as Airbnb and VRBO are better for large families than hotels:

Large Communal Living Spaces: This is what makes it a true family vacation. A large area where the family can all gather together, be it a living room or an outdoor pool area. This is where everyone can relax and when the real bonding occurs. This happens far less when families are compartmentalized in hotel rooms.
A Full Kitchen: Compared to eating out every meal, you’ll save quite a bit of money when you prepare large family meals at home together in a full kitchen. Plus, like I said before, it’s a great space for bonding.
Overall Cost Is Cheaper: When you add up the price to house everyone in hotel rooms, the per person cost is usually much cheaper in a house rental.
Privacy: Large rentals often have pools, yards or decks, and these are normally reserved for your family only. This is also much less stressful for parents of small children who can give their kids more freedom than they would in a public setting.

A large communal living space means more quality cousin time.
However, these large rental units are often not in huge supply, and the best value properties get booked up way in advance. So, like plane tickets, the sooner you reserve these the better.
I had to get two Airbnb rentals to house our entire family. While there were options that would fit all of us, I wasn’t in love with any of them. I decided to keep an eye on listings over the course of a couple months in hopes that a new listing would pop up that would work. With the rental market constantly changing, especially following Hurricane Maria, this was a good possibility.
Sure enough, a rental with a private pool located a block from the beach in San Juan eventually appeared. It was a beautiful and newly renovated six bedroom, five bath home for $600 per night for 15 people. I then found a top floor apartment with private roof access and beautiful views of Isla Verde beach to house the other nine of us for $350 per night, just 50 feet from the main house.
The view of Isla Verde beach from the private rooftop of our second Airbnb.
Step 4: Get Others Involved in Planning
While you may be the most qualified to handle the flight bookings, others will inevitably want to chip in and help out. They can peruse Airbnb and VRBO listings as well. Or you can suggest they look up ideas for activities on the ground.
Getting the entire family to participate in elements of trip planning can help every member of the group feel more involved and excited. I told my family to check TripAdvisor and to pick up guide books from their library. Even the kids can help with this.
My sister branched off and took her family with older grandkids to El Yunque National Forest for a day.
Step 5: Look Into Charter Tours
There are a few luxuries that become accessible for a reasonable rate (per person) that you simply couldn’t get with a smaller group. One, as I already mentioned, is a lavish Airbnb. Another is the option to do private or charter tours. If you find a tour that has a capacity at or slightly above your group size, the per person cost is likely less than if you were paying individually for a spot. And you’ll get a private tour for your group, which you can likely customize as needed.
Snorkeling during our chartered boat trip was the highlight for many of the kids.
For our group of 24 people, we booked the 25 person capacity Innovation boat through Kayaking Puerto Rico. While I rarely do tours, this organized experience proved to be great for our group. The guides taught the young ones how to snorkel and guided them through the reef. And the price per person was about 10% cheaper than if we had all paid individually.
Step 6: Roll With the Changes
Just like any vacation, not everything will go according to plan. However, that’s much more likely to happen with a massive group. Roll with it and adjust when necessary. This trip was originally scheduled and completely booked for Thanksgiving of 2017. However, Hurricane Maria cancelled those plans. I was able to get everything refunded and book it again for the New Year of 2019, and it was much easier the second time around.
Step 7: Treat It Like a Once in a Lifetime Trip
As this is probably the first time you’ve done a trip of this magnitude, make the most of every moment and interaction. Encourage more campfire and sunset beach time than TV time. In fact, you may even want to consider a TV-watching restriction. Perhaps the experience will show you and everyone else involved that massive family vacations are possible, and you’ll all  decide you want to do it again. But there’s also a very real chance that this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. So be sure to treat it like one.
My family members had plenty of their own advice, too, which I recorded in this Instagram story takeover.
The whole gang at the Castillo San Felipe in Old San Juan.
The Bottom Line
What I learned above all else is how possible a points and miles trip of this size actually is.
I expected the trip to use most of my TrueBlue points and my dad’s accumulation of Membership Rewards points. But in reality, my dad’s Chase Ultimate Rewards points and Southwest Rapid Rewards points paid for the bulk of the flights, and he only started earning those points three years ago when I taught him how to attain the Companion Pass using Southwest credit cards. (I also had him to shift his personal expenses to the Chase Sapphire Reserve and business expenses to the Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card, earning Ultimate Rewards points that could be transferred to Southwest, his airline of choice.)
This vacation could very possibly be done again if I coached the rest of my family on points as I did my parents. But, as my mom stated on the flight home, “Let’s wait a few years.”
So long from the Biros family in Puerto Rico. All 24 of us.
I hope our family vacation tale has inspired you to do the same with your family, or even a large group of close friends. Feel free to reach out with any other questions that could help make this trip more attainable for you.
The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and high-level approach here. He’s taking a break from his normal column this week to share his family time.
All images courtesy of the author.

10 Hollywood Honeymoon Hotspots

Looking for some inspiration for a honeymoon or romantic getaway? Check out where the Hollywood who’s who took their post-wedding holidays. If these locations are good enough for these A-listers, they no doubt have the caché for you and your special someone too. You might not have their deep pockets or connections to get into the best hotels, but you can follow in their famous footsteps to at least enjoy the same regions. Here are ten celebrity honeymoon destinations around the world to stir your own travel dreams.
1. Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake, Tanzania
Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake (Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com)

This actress/crooner couple went on a romantic safari honeymoon back in 2012. They flew to Tanzania by private plane and then took a helicopter to Singita Grumeti, a private game reserve in Serengeti Park. They went wildlife spotting in a 4×4 and even indulged in a hot air balloon ride for a birds eye view on the African landscape. The newlyweds reportedly stayed in the luxurious Singita Sasakwa Lodge and Singita Faru-Faru Lodge throughout their blissful getaway.
The honeymooners took a hot air balloon safari over the Serengeti.

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9 Danger Zones You’d Best Avoid—Don’t Even Click This!

The US State Department and other government equivalents regularly put out warnings on global hotspots they advise their citizens to steer clear of. Most of these are war torn areas or regions where consular support is non-existent. Largely this is sensible advice (for example, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Kenya, Venezuela, Haiti, North Korea, Syria and the Sudan are not the wisest holiday bets at the moment). Then again, sometimes these travel alerts and warnings are a tad alarmist, geopolitically motivated or tarnish a whole country when only a small area is potentially risky. This list is a little different, where the threat to your well-being is due to factors like animals, altitude, disease or disaster. Here are 9 non-war-related danger zones around the world with particular hazards that should ward off even the most intrepid traveler.
1. Ilha de Queimada Grande, Brazil
Rio is getting a bad rap at the moment for its World Cup furor and uptick in crime. However, it’s another area of Brazil that screams “keep out” as no amount of street smarts could prevent its deathly peril. Ilha de Queimada Grande is an island less than 100 miles off the coast from São Paulo that is frighteningly noteworthy because it is literally crawling with snakes (or should that be slithering?). Not just any snake, but the endangered, endemic and deadly golden lancehead pit viper. It grows to half a meter long and transmits a quick-acting venom that melts the flesh around the bite and leads to an almost certain death. Estimates say there is one to five snakes per square meter on this nightmarish island, so you’re chances of encountering one while here are pretty much guaranteed. That’s why the Brazilian Navy sensibly discourages curious tourists or wayward fishermen from visiting, and only brave herpetologists on a scientific mission are granted permits to explore “snake island.”
Lancehead Pit Viper

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