Finally back from our honeymoon in Mexico and have some time to share our experience with those who are curious on TA. While I've never posted a review before I did ask A LOT of questions of the PDC, Playa Paraiso, and Cozumel forums when planning this trip so I figure I should "pay it forward" so to speak. Thanks to all for for the help and advice in planning the trip. Parts of the trip were great, parts not so great, but the entire experience was very memorable and one we will not soon forget. While I don't expect we will be returning to Playa del Carmen anytime soon (nor Mexico for that matter) overall the first half of the trip, spent at IB Grand, was very relaxed, romantic and quiet (at points maybe too quiet...) and the second half at the Royal PDC was loud, drunken and crowded (which was not entirely unexpected).
To summarize, my wife and I are in our late twenties and split our honeymoon between two resorts in the PDC area. We started with four days at the Iberostar Grand in Playa Paraiso, then switched to the Royal Playa Del Carmen for four days. To summarize, on a scale of 1 to 5 would rate the Grand 4.5 and the Royal a 3.5. Some highlights and drawbacks of each resort follow. If anyone has a question about either resort please feel free to PM me.
The food is INCREDIBLE! Its probably the best I've ever had in a resort--definitely the best food I've ever had on a buffet (however, the variety at breakfast buffet doesn't change much--not a problem for us because we found our favorites and liked having them everyday, but this may bother some). Actually, my wife and I enjoyed the lunch and breakfast buffets more than the a la carte sit down dinners (lunch buffet changed a bit more than breakfast each day). I found the entrees were hit or miss at the a la cartes (for example, my wife's double cut filet at Toni's was incredible, while my surf and turf, i.e. single cut filet and lobster tail, was somewhat dry and overcooked). My personal favorites were the lobster Thermidor (amazing!) and pheasant appetizer at the Gourmet restaurant and the lobster lasagna at the Italian restaurant (very rich but impressive). My wife's favorite was the fried ice cream at Toni's (she actually had not ordered this originally, but took one bite of mine and had the waiter bring her out one instead of her dessert; this was not a problem). The tempura anything at the Japanese restaurant was good, but nothing else at the Japanese restaurant was spectacular. There were huge slices of lobster EVERYDAY at the lunch buffet; a chef carving slices of prosciutto every morning at the breakfast buffet, and the fresh shrimp cooked to order outside La Brisa at lunch one day are incredible and not to be missed.
THE STAFF: We did not realize how good the staff really are until we got to the Royal. No need to tip at Grand (most didn't) if you don't want to (I did for exceptional service and beach service (b/c its hot running back and forth to beach), but it never seemed expected). At the Grand they go above and beyond to accommodate all requests (within reason). For example: I requested bottles of Don Julio and Grey Goose for the room; the butler could not accommodate those options but did provide bottles of Jimador and Absolut for the room. Grey Goose and Don Julio were available at every other bar. Included in our honeymoon package was a romantic dinner at the Gourmet restaurant. So, previously we had booked this dinner on the last night of our stay. Unbeknownst to us when we first booked the "romantic dinner" the menu for this dinner is basically the same as the normal menu of the Gourmet restaurant (which we had already eaten at on the first night). Wanting to try something different we tried to see if we could switch the "romantic dinner" option to the Japanese restaurant. While the concierge made us a reservation for the Japanese he said they couldn't accommodate the romantic dinner at that location... however, when we showed up later for our reservation we had a fantastic table, they had spread rose petals all over the table and we were waited on by the manager of the restaurant. We also had different towel art and flower arrangements in the room every night. One night at Toni's when the waiter found out we were newlyweds he brought over a special bottle of sparking wine/champagne for us that was different from the normal sparkling wine everywhere else. Staff is first class all the way.
The beach... kind of... Compared to the Royal, the beach SETUP (with palapas spread out, few people and abundant towels) was phenomenal... however the appearance of the beach, compared to other beaches we've been to in other countries, was only average. Also, the rocks under the water are DANGEROUS. The beach at the Grand was never crowded (TOWEL GAME was NOT in effect!). Didn't have to get down early to get a palapa (there were always some available) and the plastic/mesh loungers were very comfortable (NOT the wicker ones though). Additionally, while the drink service at the beach was slow at times it was nowhere as slow or inconsistent as at the Royal and at the Grand you always knew they were coming back... eventually. BEWARE of the rocky areas below the surface of the water, especially if the waves are rough (which they were EVERY day we were there). I banged my knee up pretty good on a rock and my wife lost her glasses one day when the waves pushed us into the main rocky area. So be careful.
The Sparkling Wine: Very palatable. We ordered a bottle every night (or during the day and kept it cold on ice till the night) and had a couple drinks before dinner. I thought it was as good, if not better, than Korbel or other faux champagnes. It was drinkable enough that (1) we didn't feel the need to ever order champagne and (2) we didn't feel it needed to be cut with juice to drink it.
The Pools: were exactly what they advertise to be. The quiet pool was always VERY quiet if you wanted to relax. The activity pool had activities. The swim up bar at the activity pool was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the atmosphere--everyone always friendly (and typically tipsy- but not sloppy drunk) and the bartenders made some new and interesting drinks/shots to try (ask for a Purple MF, Sex in a Hammock, or Crazy Frog). The pool at the spa had a great juice bar where they made fresh juices in front of you everyday. My favorite was the carrot and cucumber (weird combination but really refreshing). Pool at the spa also had water spouts and massagers in the water--something worth trying if you're there.
Gym: was small but more than adequate for vacation; plus it was air conditioned (NOT the area for the spinning classes though... which my wife found to be a problem).
Check in: We really liked that we were greeted with a cold towel and "welcome home" speech; as well as option of waiting at the lobby bar and having a drink while waiting for our Butler to bring the golf cart around to check us in to the room.. however, we did have some slight issues with Check in (will address later).
Check Out: LOVED that they called the day before to arrange a time for the bellman to come and help us with our bags for checkout (they did NOT do that for the Royal...); Staff was prompt and helped assist in taking our bags to check out counter... check out was slight issue.
Minibar service: Left a note (in spanish) by the fridge explaining whatever we wanted (and $100 pesos per day) and it was always stocked accordingly.
Maid Service: Was good... but oftentimes in the room when we wanted to be there; however, not nearly as obtrusive as at the Royal; Never had an issue with them being there for turndown--it was always completed while we were at dinner. Usually had some cool towel art when we cam back.
Pillow Menu: Awesome! The firm pillow as perfect. After trying my pillow my wife wanted a firm pillow as well; one call to the concierge and the pillow was in the room next time we came back after being at the beach. While the Royal had a Pillow menu as well, the pillows were inconsistent (i.e. both my wife and I ordered firm pillows--hers was firm; mine was old, dirty, and NOT firm)
Shows/Entertainment: We made it to Theater at the Grand almost every night we were there and saw parts of the Boogie Nights show (pretty good), Big Band Show (pretty boring), and the Broadway Show (Good for what it was... just not our cup of tea). We didn't see the magic show (it was our first night and we were tired) or the Rock Show (which we heard was the best one). We also never managed to stay for more than 20 or 30 minutes. Typically we'd eat dinner around 8 or 9 then head over for the beginning of the show and leave once one of us started falling asleep. The production values of the show (lights, dancers, singers, special effects etc.) are very good (much better than I expected), but in the end they're trying to appeal to such a wide audience that the substance of the shows is lacking. Its just American musical numbers from various generations sung by entertainers who, while talented, sometimes don't have the best grasp of the language... sometimes words are mispronounced or emphasis in the song placed in random places. Wife and I would've appreciated some more contemporary music as well. But, as long as you go into the show realizing this, then they are pretty good for what they are. We never made it to the nightclub in the main resort at night but saw it one day and were glad we didn't go (definitely a very weird Star Wars theme... smelled mildewy as well--but that was during the day. At night they probably air it out). Overall, the entertainment scene was better than we had expected (we didn't pick the Grand for the shows, but for the beach and service), but I was ready to leave after four days and check out a new scene.
Confusion of Butler/ Concierge during Check In: We had an Oceanfront room so we got a private check-in... however, the Butler who checked us in had no idea what was in our package (didn't even know it was our honeymoon) and kept referring to some slip of paper we were supposed to have but were never given by our travel agent or anyone else. Thankfully, we came prepared with a listing of the amenities/extras which were included in our package (MAKE SURE TO BRING A LIST OF WHAT YOU PAID FOR). It was a little annoying (and time consuming) to have to provide and explain this listing to both the Butler and Concierge (Glad I took the time to tell the concierge though because we never saw the Butler after the first day). I feel for the price-point of this hotel they should know who booked and paid for what. Also, it took me twenty or thirty minutes with the concierge to confirm our dinner reservations which were made weeks earlier (these reservations had actually been changed because certain restaurants were closed certain nights). Not a huge deal, but an annoyance that, in my opinion, should not have been an issue at a five star resort. Also, make sure to have concierge print you out your reservation receipt-- no one told us we would need it, but you do.
By the conclusion of our stay we had got most of the amenities/extras included in our honeymoon package (we never did get out honeymoon shirts... not that its a big deal, but if its included in a package, it should be provided)... but not in the most efficient order (i.e. we received fresh flowers in room our last day... would've been nice to have it the first day so we could have enjoyed them for the whole stay...no bottle of champagne or wine in the room when we got there... however one phone call to room service and food + champagne + water delivered within 20 minutes). We did receive a lot of random towel art though; which my wife loved. Like I said, the inconveniences were not a huge deal, whoever for the price point these are things I wouldn't have expected to be an issue. Overall, sometimes it felt like there was a disconnect between the booking agent and the concierge (which I thought was weird because I saw the emails back and forth between our travel agent and the hotel confirming everything... so if there was some confusion it was on the hotel's end and not on our travel agent's end).
No A/C at Lunch: but this was only at Bella Vista, so we made sure to eat at the other lunch buffet (La Brisa); It was weird though because breakfast at Bella Vista had A/C... not sure what the deal is with that. Food was still good... it was just unbearable for us (I don't enjoy sweating into my lunch)
Spa Charges: I realize the national currency is the Peso (that's why I brought some Pesos...) but when you're quoted a price for a spa treatment in dollars... you get a receipt for the treatment from the spa in dollars... you would expect that the resort can charge for the treatment on your credit card in Dollars--Not so at the Grand (or the Royal). It wasn't until our last day when checking out that we were told that we had to pay for the spa treatment in pesos. While not a huge deal, I did have a fee on my credit card for the conversion (which was expected... that's why I wanted them to charge me in Dollars). Also, included with our honeymoon package we were supposed to received 10% of spa treatments; after the conversion into pesos this discount disappeared. We got the Mayan treatment, which was a two hour couples massage plus cocoa rub/bath thing for $480 US + tip (ended up being charged more); would not recommend for the price. While the treatment/massage was OK, I feel I got just as good a massage on the beach in PDC for $18 US for 70 min (vs. $500+ for couple for two hours). Plus, on the beach they quoted me the price in dollars and accepted Dollars as payment.
Mini-Fridge: Very small and didn't keep anything cold... cool maybe... but not cold. I wonder if this is just a fact of life in these resorts because the fridge at the Royal, while a full-size refrigerator, also, only kept items cool... never cold. BEST ITEM we brought with us, used it at both resorts, was small insulated cooler bag that slung over your shoulder. Only big enough to fit 4 or 5 beers/waters or a bottle of sparkling wine (plus ice), but we used it at both resorts if we wanted something to actually get cold.
Alcohol: While bottles of top shelf alcohol are everywhere I have my doubts that the bottles are actually what they claim to be (i.e. the Grey Goose didn't taste like Grey Goose to me). Also, I took the half bottle of Absolut that I had left after our four days at the Grand with me to the Royal. Our refrigerator at the Royal had a freezer. I put the Absolut in the freezer and it froze! Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but its my understanding that vodka doesn't freeze... not unless its cut with water or some other impurity...
BATHROOM: I am NOT a fan of the glass partition separating the toilet from the rest of the bathroom... this needs to be taken out and replaced with a real wall. Also, our bathtub was filthy so, while it was nice that one night they drew us a bath with rose petals, neither of us wanted to use the tub because it looked gross.
Leaks in hotel: When it rains it leaks ALL OVER the main hotel (not in the rooms, never had a problem with that). While the staff are prompt about putting down towels and signs warning that the floor is slippery, you would expect at a 5 star resort they could fix it up so the ceiling doesn't leak when it rains.
Shopping Complex: While the crepes were OK, the tacos I read everybody raving about on TripAdvisor were nothing special. The taco place also seemed very dirty to me. The stuff in the stores looked cheap and nothing special. We bought souvenirs in Playa.
Wines: Didn't bother ordering off the wine list of "extra cost" wines... but after two days of incessant heartburn from the house wines I just stopped ordering wine. There were plenty of other good things to drink. They did give you a whole bottle of wine if you ordered a glass though. That was nice--wish it hadn't given me so much heartburn or I would've drank the wine more.
OVERALL: Rate 4.5 out of 5. For what we paid I expected more, however, ff we ever return to Mexico we'd definitely go back to the Grand. I did think 4 days was enough to see/do all that the Grand had to offer and I was ready for a new scene after four days (I can't see spending a full week, let alone two at this resort--they'd have to roll me onto the plane to get me home because I'd get so fat). Food was out of this world fantastic. Great place if you're looking to eat and relax. Not the place if you're looking for a party scene.
The Royal Playa del Carmen:
Room: UPGRADE OR YOU'LL REGRET IT! UPGRADE IS WELL WORTH THE MONEY for the room, if they put you in room 769 that is (or any of the "69" rooms near Meditereano). We would have been miserable in the room we were originally assigned (the online check in didn't work for us... I think the computer system has a lot of bugs in it... so if we didn't upgrade we would've been stuck). After upgrading we were assigned room 769 and it was INCREDIBLE. Like a high-roller suite in Vegas. Also, the minibar consisted of several full size bottles of top shelf liquor (Grey Goose, Don Julio, Johnnie Walker Black, etc.). Also had a full size fridge (welcome change from the small fridge at the Grand), separate sitting room. TWO BATHROOMS. Huge shower with six showerheads that also doubled as a steam room. Full size bath/jacuzzi tub that had seating and separate jets for two. King size bed and large bedroom. Separate sitting area/dining area with table to seat 6. Giant balcony with an ocean "view." Wii and DVD player (and DVDs) in room (didn't use, but was there). Two flat screen tvs (didn't even have a flat screen tv at the Grand... not that we watched much TV at the Grand... we did watch some at the Royal). iPod dock that hooked up to speakers (which we did use). Bathroom amenities were pretty good as well. Also, LOTS of towels in the room (at the beginning... weren't that great about refilling towels... or anything really... once used).
Proximity to Town: Liked the ability to walk right onto 5th avenue for shopping and walk down the beach. We ended up walking on the beach down to Senor Frogs one day (which sucked... rightfully so... I know we shouldn't have bothered but it was at the end of the beach and we were ready for a break from walking.. and sometimes we like that touristy b.s.) and Brocheetas another day (which was AMAZING... the food in cone concept is fun... the food very tasty... however, touching the squeeze bottles for their sauce, and then eating with the same hand, may have gotten my wife extremely ill, some sort of stomach virus... so if you eat there, and I highly recommend it, just be sure to use hand sanitizer constantly--I didn't get sick and we both ate same things, but I santized constantly) and Fusion Cafe for fire show (which was short and less than impressive... but I perhaps had built my expectations too high of what to expect from Playa). Happy hour tacos al pastor at Carboncitas were good as well. Bought some souvenirs, overpriced t-shirts, jelly fish lamp, parrot thing to hang on the wall. Only wish those activities and souvenir shopping could have justified four days leaving the Grand and coming to the Royal... we quickly discovered Playa was nothing special... way too crowded, dirty and exhausting (mentally and physically)... and the beach is not pretty, full of rocks and seaweed and, at many points, nearly impossible to walk through because of all the vendors who have their boats tied up right onto the beach.
The only thing that, in our opinion, was something very special and unusual, which we would not have done if we were still at the Grand, was going to Alux (the restaurant built into a cavern) for drinks. The formations inside the cave are incredible. Definitely great atmosphere. It was also the only place that offered me sangrita with my shot of tequila (the waitress even showed me the traditional way to take a tequila shot) Plus, we went early (just for drinks--food on menu looks very expensive and I read nothing was really that tasty) and had the whole bar area to ourselves. The manager put some music on and my wife and I danced by ourselves under the lights and cave formations-- very special. Afterwards we walked around and checked out the whole cave. Not sure any establishment in the US would allow you free rein to explore an underground cave system by yourself, but we got some great pictures and memories out of the experience.
Activity Pool/ Swim Up Bar: Loved Jeyyson the swim up bartender; however, I think I only liked him because he could make the shots I'd been taking at the swim up bar at the Grand. The swim up bar at the Royal is WAY more drunk and rowdy than the Grand. Not a problem for me, but my wife refused to set foot in it.
Gym: the one facility (other than the Room) that was better at the Royal than the Grand. However, use of the gym was difficult because it was SOOO crowded. My wife did the spinning class at the Royal one day and appreciated that it was air conditioned... however, the class only had three bikes (or space for three people to sign up) so she only managed to get in one class while we were there.
Everything else: Pretty much everything else at the Royal was worse than the Grand. The Royal was INCREDIBLY crowded and noisy always, and I don't think the resort was anywhere near full occupancy. Friday night was INSANE with weddings; three on the resort (I felt sorry for the brides who had to be subject to drunken hijinks at the pool within earshot on their special day). They also set up weddings right on the beach, so while we were lounging in our reserved beach cabana (beach cabana came included with our upgrade) ten feet over we could hear and see the wedding toasts and cake cutting of one of the three weddings for that day. The food at the resort was either just OK or bad, other than a couple standouts (Chateaubriad steak and coconut shrimp at Marie Maries; made to order burritos/quesadillas at breakfast buffet at Medeterano; dinner at Pelicanos-- all fantastic, but my wife seems to think it may have been dinner at Pelicanos, and not lunch at Brochettas, that got her sick--so who knows-- we did not eat the same things at Pelicanos and I did not get sick... so she could be right). Personally, I was fine with the food being only adequate at the Royal because this way I didn't find myself stuffing myself with amazing food like I had at the Grand. I basically felt like a bloated tick 24/7 for four days at the Grand. BY the time we got to the Royal I needed a break from eating! Keep in mind, at the Royal, lobster and wine are upcharges (At the Grand I'd had enough lobster, which was included, so I didn't feel the need to get it at the Royal). Also at the Royal you will not be able to find someplace to eat on the resort at 11AM (everything is either shutting down or opening up... so you're getting the dregs of food/service at this hour). Also, there is no A/C in Spices... so breakfast there one morning/afternoon was MISERABLE (I literally was sweating into my omlete). Spices did have a mimosa bar, which looked cool, but we got there at the end of breakfast when they were shutting everything down and the mimosas looked extremely hurt. We never went back to Spices b/c of the A/C issue; we ate at Mediterreno most mornings for breakfast--pretty much same menu, just less of it.
Maid service: They were pretty much ALWAYS cleaning our room when we wanted to be in there... big hassle. Also, they didn't replace glasses and towels on any kind of consistent basis. Sometimes we'd have them; sometimes not. We got some towel art one time... they started constructing it while we were in the room so it wasn't really a surprise or anything...
Room Service: AWFUL AWFUL AWFUL. Did not realize how good we had it at the Grand. We'd have to call down 4 or 5 times for bottles of water at the Royal; sometimes we got it. We stopped using room service for the most part. Ordered some waters, beers, a bottle of Don Julio and limes. Had to call down multiple times for it. Huge pain. They also pretty much NEVER use the magic box that is so highly touted and pretty much ALWAYS knock on the door, even when you ask them to leave the stuff in the box because you're in the shower or otherwise indisposed with your wife.
Smells: Yes, the 24hr snack bar room does smell like mushrooms and old man feet; it is stocked with water, beer, liquor, wine and champagne though--so we would hold our breath and run in and get waters and champagne from the snack bar because Room Service was pretty inconsistent.
Yes, there is a raw sewage type smell that wafts through the resort at times. It didn't always smell like raw sewage... but we did notice it on occasion. Didn't bother us in the room or on the beach.
Room didn't smell bad.
Noise in room: Yes, you do hear people moving furniture through the walls at ALL hours of the day... can be annoying at times... could never pinpoint exactly where it was coming from--basically just all around.
The Beach Setup: While there were less rocks in the water off the Beach at the Royal than the Grand, the beach at the Royal is SOOO Crowded. Also, while our "upgrade" package came with a reserved beach bed, the setup at the Grand, with the palapas and chairs, even while not reserved specifically for us, was far superior. The bed that came reserved with our room was missing one of the curtains, so we had to jerry-rig it with a systems of pulleys and weights in order to shield ourselves from the sun. Also, drink service on the beach was spotty, at best, and the drinks were not of a high quality.
Drink Selection: It pissed me off to no avail that no where in the Royal did they have Pacifico (which they had in ABUNDANT supply at the Grand), Cerveza de Sol, or even Corona. At the Royal I ended up drinking Coors Light and Superior (which is NOT superior in my opinion) or liquor. They also had Dos Equis on tap, however it didn't taste like Dos Equis to me... so I don't know what off-brand beer they really have on tap. The Sparkling Wine was palatable, but not the same, nor as good, as what they had at the Grand.
Liquor is watered down: The full-size bottle of Grey Goose provided with the in room mini-bar froze in the freezer... I don't believe Vodka, especially Grey Goose, will freeze unless watered down or if it consists of some other impurity.
Chef's Plate: BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT of the trip. One of the inclusions of our "upgrade" was unlimited reservations at the Chef's Plate. We ate there only once because my wife wasn't super impressed with any of the menus. The one night we chose was the Mexican night... you figure... you're in Mexico... the one meal the gourmet chefs should be able to knock out of the park is Mexican. WRONG. All but one of the courses was unimpressive (the chowder was good), but even that course was not something I'd order again. Steak was overcooked. Shrimp/prawns were unimpressive. I would take any of the buffets at the Grand over the Chef's Plate at the Royal.
Snorkeling: We went on a private snorkeling excursion booked through one of the companies associated with the Royal on the Beach in front of the resort. Was expensive and the snorkeling wasn't impressive. While we had originally planned on doing more excursions, we ended up just wanting to relax on the beach most of the time-- so we booked the snorkeling trip on our last full day. If you do book, make them take you to the snorkeling area farther away (30 or 40 min by boat--requires a minimum of 4 people) NOT the closer one (about 15 - 20 min away--they will do that one for just two). The closer one is very unimpressive.
OVERALL: Rated 3.5 out of 5. Pretty much the antithesis of the Grand. GREAT place if you're looking for a party all the time and free-flowing booze. NOT the place to go and relax and enjoy any sort of intimacy with your partner. While I expected this (and didn't mind; I had read the reviews and knew what we were getting into) I don't think my wife fully understood how loud and crowded it would be. It was Loud at all times of day, especially Friday and Saturday night (wedding partiers make a lot of noise... all night). I did, however, expect the food to be better; as I said before, other than a couple standouts, none of the food was anything special and all the food (except for Marie Marie's, which I thought was very good) was a significant downgrade from what we had experienced at the Grand. Being close to the PDC town is convenient, however Playa del Carmen itself is crowded, hot, sweaty, exhausting and a lot of the same ole' same ole' type souvenirs, shops, bars and restaurants. Plus, dealing with the time-share and excursion salesmen is exhausting; we felt like everyone had their hand out for money all the time if you looked like a tourist. Originally, we had decided to switch to a resort in Playa, rather than staying at the Grand, so that we could get off the resort and see more of Playa. We discovered after a couple days that (1) as much as we didn't love the Royal, we preferred the resort to being in town; (2) we did not need four days to experience Playa... an afternoon or evening was plenty.