Reviews Of Costa Rica
I was fairly worried after reading some of the negative reviews about the Grand Papagayo. I was thinking about taking my default choice in any destination - the Four Seasons. However, I am very happy to have chosen this option instead. As a traveller who has experienced the very utmost of luxury (places like the Mandarin Oriental, private rented castles, Costes, private villas in Florence, etc) in over 40 different countries, I can say I'm more than just a bit spoiled and expecting the very top of the spectrum. In fact, I was going into this experience with skepticism and ready to criticize. I must say I was not disappointed in the least bit. In fact, I will also venture to say this hotel represents the best value of any place I have ever stayed at, worldwide. I would expect to have paid 2 to 3 times higher in Hawaii or anywhere else for the same accomodations, not even considering the food and service. Some previous travelers were calling this a 4-star hotel. It's clear the hotel has grown up since it first opened, and this is now definitely a 5-star resort.
You have 5 options. As follows:
The Buffet: this is the default option if you haven't made reservations. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast and lunch are very good. Dinner is - OK. Great atmosphere, especially at night - candlelight setting in the dining room with live acoustic local musicians. Themed dinners (Mexican, Italian, local, etc). If you can get reservations for dinner at the a la cartes, you should try to do so.
The Italian a la carte: Having experienced the cream of the crop Italian in various top restaurants in Italy, I was still not disappointed. The food was as good as in many very expensive Italian restaurants back home ($120/couple +). The staff and decor tried very hard to preserve an authentic atmosphere.
The Oriental a la carte:
The Oriental restaurant had a somewhat limited menu (no sushi, but sushi is sometimes available), but we were pleasantly surprised with some very tasty, refined and well-presented food. The decor was obviously not an oversight and there is quite a bit of attention to detail.
The Snack Bar: This restaurant/buffet is by the pool. Good for - a snack. We ate lunch there as well. The Snack bar will fry hamburgers for you and a few other things. The buffet has a lot of fresh fruit, deserts, and other things.
Room service: This is free (as is the minibar). Didn't have a chance to try this.
Impeccable. I wrote an e-mail to the Occidental worldwide management, in regards to the bad reviews, and asked them to make sure our trip didn't have the same problems. Harold (who I assume is a manager) wrote me several e-mails, arranging the dinner reservations for us and in all making sure our stay was perfect. We had a small problem with the DVD player and 2 guys came up in under 10 minutes to fix it. The people in costa Rica take their jobs very seriously and go beyond the extra mile (like mopping up the patio because they had tracked some mud in, coming to fix our dvd player in the rain).
The waitstaff goes out of their way and my glass never even approached empty. I never had to "look for a waiter"/wait like in some overpriced boutique restaurants back home. Part of the effect of a very low price of labor ($800/month is considered a fantastic salary), is that the hotel can afford to put two to three times as many people on the property. This results in an almost 1:1 staff/guest ratio.
Beach/pool: very relaxing. The pool is incredibly clean and there is water volleyball and other activities. The beach was much better than expected. A few people said the sand was black and rocky.
The sand was tan and soft, however there is a rocky bottom once you get out into the ocean. Grab some free snorkeling gear (I can't stress enough the fact that *everything* at this hotel is free) and paddle out by the rocks - huge pufferfish, beautiful ultramarine blue and striped exotic fish await. Also available are free sea kayaks, and a full-on watersports company/school including scuba lessons, jetski tours, etc. A variety of other activities leave from the pool area. We went on the beautiful sunset walk to a place with a full horizon and picturesque cliffs.
Spa: a full range of services. We got a couples aromatherapy massage out in huts near the beach. Very relaxing and very courteous staff. Fair pricing ($80/hr for massages, for example).
Jungle Tours: We chose Vargas tours and were incredibly satisfied. It was just me and my wife on the tour - incredibly private. We did the hotsprings spa, horseback riding, water slide and canopy tour.
Towns: We didn't visit any of the small towns (like Coco Beach), but in driving by there are some quaint stores and interesting local commodities.
None of this felt 'touristy' or 'cheesy' - you really felt like you were experiencing a secluded part of the world (including bumpy road and strange but delicious native foods). I highly recommend going on at least one such tour during your stay.
Deficiencies: The hot water doesn't get that hot. I think it might just have been our unit. The situation seemed to have fixed itself the second day. The unit floors were a nice terra cotta tile, but some 5-star travellers may be expecting hardwoods or slate/marble/etc. The buffet was OK but not spectacular. There are a lot of stairs (as previously mentioned), especially if you're in one of the higher-up oceanfront villas... however, there is a shuttle, and the exercise is good for you. We're not talking backbreaking effort here, just a flight or two here and there to burn off some of the calories you'll be ingesting. I think the elevation changes (and therefore stairs) are part of what makes this resort have the phenomenal atmosphere and vistas that make it unique.
We posted some of our photos from the trip here:
OK, I'm ready to go, now what?
The airport in Liberia is fairly small. Hustle off the plane or you'll spend a long time in line for immigration. Make sure to call or e-mail the occidental and have them send an official cab, they'll send a guy with an air conditioned van and a sign. $45 each way. Pay your departure tax ($26pp) at the tour desk when you arrive so they have time to process it. You'll get receipts to confirm your payment. Fill out the back of these receipts. This will save you about an hour on departure (so you can get there 1:30 instead of 3:00 before your flight). Trip to/from the airport takes 30-45 minutes.
Make sure to book reservations for the two a la carte restaurants ahead of time. You can e-mail the hotel and make these arrangements before you come. Otherwise, you need to make the reservations between 8am and 11am every day, the reservations fill up fast.
There is no need to tip. I tipped the bellboys and the cabs, because they're hauling my heavy luggage around, but that's about it.