Last Updated on January 3, 2024
By John and Sandra Nowlan
For Adam Stewart, Executive Chairman of Sandals Resorts International, the new Sandals Dunn’s River Resort was his late father’s “final masterpiece.”
Gordon “Butch” Stewart, a native Jamaican who died in 2021, started the Sandals high-end Caribbean chain of all-inclusive luxury resorts. In 1981 he bought the derelict Bay Roc hotel and then spent $4 million turning it into the famous and popular Sandals Montego Bay.
Stewart was an innovator (he was the first to bring swim-up bars to the Caribbean) and entrepreneur overseeing the 21 Sandals and Beaches properties across the Caribbean.
A Lush, 25-Acre Property
Sandals Dunn’s River is a lush, 25-acre property near Ocho Rios, a 60-90 drive from Montego Bay. It’s where the senior Stewart got hooked on tourism as a young man. At the time he was delivering fish to the Arawak Hotel, then the largest resort hotel in the British West Indies.
It’s fitting then that his final project in tandem with his son was the approval of a budget well over $100 million for a total transformation of this Sandals resort in an area of Jamaica he knew best as a child. This new look appears to be the model for all Sandals in the future.
To Deryk Meany, the General Manager of the new Sandals Dunn’s River Resort, the re-imagined and stylish 260-room property represents a significant evolution. “This is a whole new concept,” he told us. “We’re elevating Sandals to Sandals 2.0.”
The original Arawak Hotel is now the Travertine Building. Its interior has evolved over the years as the property changed ownership. It became known as the Jamaica Hilton, then the Eden II, followed by bankruptcy and closure.
In 1989, the Jamaican insurance company Sagicor bought the hotel for $10 million. It then hired Sandals, a successful and growing resort company, to run it. For almost 20 years, it was known as Sandals Dunn’s River Villaggio Golf Resort and Spa. But in 2010, the contract with Sandals ended, and the property was renamed The Jewel Beach Resort.
The Great Transformation
Finally, in 2020, after pandemic losses, the property was sold outright to Sandals, and the great transformation began.
A key priority for Butch and Adam Stewart was the Travertine Building (the old Arawak). It was totally gutted and stylishly refurbished. Out went the dark woods, vibrant colors, and mahogany four-poster beds of the past. Natural Caribbean colors of pastel blue and green came along with all new room layouts and new furnishings in both main buildings – Travertine and Mammee.
Sandals Dunn’s River now has 14 room categories in three levels – Butler, Club Sandals, and Luxury. All include a king-size bed, stocked fridge (alcohol and non-alcohol), a coffee maker with excellent Blue Mountain coffee, 50″ Smart TV, Soaking Tub, makeup mirror, safe, and also plenty of storage.
At the top end of the Butler category is a brand new section at the back of the resort with swim-up Rondoval Villas. Each has a private pool and direct access to the river pool that meanders among the Rondoval buildings. The top-end suites include a rooftop sanctuary and a telescope in each unit. Butlers also receive training in fundamental astronomy to help guests navigate the night sky. Also new are the beachfront Tufa Terrace Buildings with Butlers and zero-entry swimming pools on the ground floor or Sky Pools with soaking tubs on the upper floors.
Club Sandals Rooms
Club Sandals rooms are located in the Travertine and Mammee buildings. They include private check-in, concierge service, and access to a private lounge.
We enjoyed our stay in the Travertine building with a marvelous view of the Caribbean, a two-person soaking tub on the balcony, and a large, comfortable room with great lighting and plenty of power and USB outlets.
The spacious bathroom included a large walk-in shower and a dual sink with a vanity and makeup table. Luxury-level rooms with similar amenities are also in the Travertine building but face the lush landscape of the resort and the mountains in the distance.
An Abundance of Restaurants
A resort of this size (maximum 560 guests) typically has 5 or 6 restaurants. Sandals Dunn’s River has 12, including several concepts new to the chain. Edessa features Greek cuisine, Banyu has authentic Asian fusion food, and the high-end L’Amande offers French and Jamaican fare.
We also found the beach-side Jerk Shack had excellent Jamaican jerk for lunch. However, their evening offering of whole fresh red snapper was marred by hard seats and three competing and noisy music sources. The Isola Pizzeria produced some of the best pizza we’ve ever enjoyed. At the same time, the Galene Seaside Grill had tasty Jamaican patties at noon every day.
Deryk Meany told us that almost 65% of the resort’s 850 staff come straight from school and undergo three months of training. “They may be a bit green,” he said, “but trust me, they’re very proud of their jobs and want to offer guests their best.”
The resort includes 9 bars that offer a wide variety of complimentary wine, beer, spirits, and cocktails. The most intriguing and another first for Sandals is the Dunn’s Rum Club. With comfortable chairs and knowledgeable staff, the bar offers 30 different brands of Caribbean rum poured neat, mixed, or in six testing flights of three contrasting rums. It’s a great way to introduce guests to the most famous Caribbean spirit.
Like many Caribbean resorts, Sandals can be a bit noisy with thumping pool music in the afternoons. Still, evening entertainment in the central plaza usually ends by 9:30 or 10:00.
An Intriguing Mix of Guests
Most guests were in their 30s or 40s. Still, we were surprised by the number of older couples who seemed to be having a great time. Complimentary water activities (SCUBA, snorkel trips, kayaks, sailboats, glass bottom boats), clear Caribbean water, and a wonderful seaweed-free beach are among the daily diversions that seem to keep all ages happy.
Sandals Dunn’s River is also trying to become paper-free. Guests must access the Sandals app for resort maps, daily activities, and information about restaurants and menus.
Sandals appears to be on the right track with the new, modern look that will eventually be part of all its Caribbean resorts. At the Dunn’s River resort, land is being cleared next door along the beach for the Sandals Royal Dunn’s River Resort. It will include several over-the-water ultra-luxury villas. It should be ready sometime in 2025 and will further enhance Sandals’ reputation for innovation and luxury.
“Butch” Stewart would be proud.