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New Year’s Eve is one of my favorite holidays. I usually like to stay in Miami and throw a party with friends, but this year I decided to branch out and explore a new destination.
Choosing Papagayo for New Years
I toyed around with Mexico City or even Cartagena, Colombia, but I couldn’t get the right mix of flights/climate/hotels right. Plus, my friends really wanted somewhere that would be reliably warm, so that canceled out Mexico City.
Then the light bulb clicked – why not check out Costa Rica? I’ve never been, and there has been a lot of buzz about the new Andaz Papagayo, which opened up on December 20, 2013. I normally like to let hotels open and get the kinks worked out, but since I thought it would be beneficial for TPG readers if I got to experience the resort and share my views. Here we go…
Rooms Paid and Upgrades and On Points
Rooms were going for $600 a night (plus a $60 nightly resort fee) or 22,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night and no resort fee. I opted for the latter for myself, but a couple friends of mine didn’t have enough points and so I offered to give them a soon-to-expire suite upgrade if they wanted to pay for a room. That way, I’d get the points for paying for the room and they’d get a $1,200 nightly suite for $600 – a win-win all around!
When we originally booked our stays, the Andaz was not available on New Year’s Eve, so we booked three nights at the Hilton Papagayo, which is across the gulf about 15 minutes away. The Hilton was a bust (more on that in a separate review), so I decided to take a chance and called the Andaz to see if they might have rooms for an extra night and lucky for us, they did, so we extended our stay by a day with no problem. Score!
We flew from Miami on American – I paid for a discounted first class ticket from NYC, which I needed to lock-in my Executive Platinum status ($1,100 roundtrip) and my friends used 7,500 Avios each way to fly MIA-Liberia nonstop. When we arrived at Liberia, we took a taxi from the airport to the Hilton, which cost about $45. During our stay we met a great tour guide named Herson Segura who drove us back to Liberia airport for $50 at the end of our stay. If you want to arrange airport pickup from him, his email address is email@example.com. I spent a lot of time with him on private tours and he is an all-around knowledgeable, reliable guy who will show you his home country at a fraction of the cost of larger tour companies offered through the hotel.
From the Hilton we went scuba diving on our last day and had our boat drop us off directly on the beach at the Andaz after our dives. I should have coordinated this type of check-in in advance because the lobby was a solid 15 minute walk from the far beach where we “landed.” However, they sent golf carts and several staff members to retrieve us and we were on our way. Here’s a quick video from the beach:
And now a quick snap from the golf cart en route to the lobby:
Quick shot of the resort from the lobby, which is one of the highest points of the resort:
I’m used to getting a glass of wine at check-in, but at this resort they only offer local Gauravana juice and a cold towel, which was refreshing. All three of our rooms were in the #7 building, which is down a small hill from the lobby and close to the tapas restaurant Chao Pescao, where we dined several times. The standard rooms are spacious (~560 sq ft) with small patios and a shower that has a sliding doors so you can shower semi al fresco.
The rooms are not furnished in the typical modern Andaz design aesthetic. There is a lot of wood which is in line with the overall feel of the resort – that it is a part of the landscape, not a sore thumb sticking out. From afar, the round wooden lobby and hotel buildings blend into the mountainside and inside the room you feel like you’re a part of the trees. In fact, one night we were sitting out on the patio of the suite and heard monkeys moving quickly through the trees just feet in front of us. It was kind of creepy and cool all at the same time!
The suite was larger (1173 square feet), with a completely separate bedroom and master bathroom and larger balcony. The windows were all a part of a sliding door system, so you could open everything up to feel like a part of the jungle.
The rooms were stocked with complimentary mini bar (sodas and waters) along with chips, nuts and some small chocolates. The only issue I had was that housekeeping never restocked the mini-bar and my friends had the same issue. All other Andazes restock daily, so I’m not sure if that was a training issue or if they really are skimpy with the minibar.
Food and Beverage
As a Hyatt Diamond, I received free breakfast daily in the Rio Bhongo restaurant, which is the restaurant attached to the main pool. It offers a buffet or limited set menu for breakfast.
The first day I went with the pork belly Benedict, which was decent, though the pork belly was pretty chewy (more than it naturally should be).
I put breakfast for two to four people on my bill for most days and each full charge was taken off at checkout. Technically the benefit is only for the Diamond member and guests in their room, but the resort seemed to be very generous with this benefit without me even asking.
There are two other restaurants onsite: Ostra, which is the high-end dining option on-property and attached to the adult pool, and Chao Pescao, which is a lively tapas restaurant with great cocktails, but a limited food menu. For lunch, Ostra has eight items that can be served as a wrap or in a bowl and they are all $21 and the portions are meager at best. I talked to a lot of people at the resort and they all knew prices would be more than normal for Costa Rica, but the $21 wraps that barely had any substance to them were a bit ridiculous (along with the $7 iced teas). I talked to a couple who spent $350 per person for New Year’s and they said they basically got “foam”.
Service at the restaurants was also an issue at each place we dined. Modifying any menu item took a lot of explanation and reiteration, and generally food and drinks came out very slowly. Espressos ordered at breakfast would take 15 minutes to arrive and then you’d have to ask for milk repeatedly. The servers were all very nice, but they all generally moved at a glacial pace.
One night at dinner at Chao Pescao our drinks were each made individually and took about six minutes each to prepare (we’re talking sangria and margaritas). So they’d get delivered one at a time so we never all had full drinks at the same time. I appreciate a bartender that takes time to make a cocktail, but I also enjoy service that allows you to enjoy drinks and meals at the same time. These were not huge issues, but from talking to a bunch of other guests, we were not alone in having service issues.
The menus were also very limited and they were often out of items. One night at Chao Pescao they only had four dessert items on the menu and three were unavailable so we went with the churros, which came out still somewhat raw in the middle. Clearly food and beverage has some growth to do and I hope they beef up their menus- for example they should add more healthy options at Chao Pescao, like even adding a single salad to the menu. After two days we felt like we had experienced the extent of the three restaurants and we mostly tried dining off-site, which was cheaper and generally better.
Tip: We found out on our last day that the adult pool offers sangria by the glass and pitcher as buy-one-get-one. We clearly would have taken advantage of this earlier in the week, so ask for any specials while you’re there – never hurts to ask!
As far as the front desk and other staff, the service levels were great. One day I stubbed my toe walking into the lobby and cut myself pretty badly. Without asking, Mike at the front desk had Neosporin and Band-Aids for me and followed up with me later that evening to make sure I was okay. When we checked in, Ignacio gave us several room set-up options and made sure we were happy with our options and even offered to reassign rooms (even though they were nearly at capacity). Everyone smiled at you on the resort and by the end of my five days most of the staff were calling me by name and I truly felt welcomed and that they were proud of the resort.
Housekeeping was generally good, though one morning I left at 8:30am with the “Please service light” lit and when I came back from scuba diving at noon the room still wasn’t clean. Not the end of the world, but if they have a button to request your room to be serviced, they should honor it within a reasonable amount of time.
Even at near full capacity the two pools never felt crowded. I don’t think overcrowding will become an issue because there are so many things to see and do in the area that at any given time a large percentage of guests are off-site. The pools aren’t huge, but they are nice infinity edge with chaises and other beanbag-esque loungers.
My one complaint is that the loungers are black and can get scorching hot in the sun. One section of mine wasn’t covered with towel and it stung when my skin touched the boiling hot surface.
On New Year’s day I decided to start my detox and fight my hangover at the Onda Spa with a 90 minute deep tissue/hot stone massage, which cost $266 when all was said and done. The reception is in a different area from all of the treatment rooms, which are basically hotel rooms that have a massage table instead of beds. They have full showers/bathrooms and after your massage you can enjoy your tea on the balcony or use an outdoor relation lounge that has a variety of mixed nuts/fruits and comfortable chairs. The massage itself was decent, but the treatment room and overall ambiance of the spa was very relaxing.
Overall the resort is gorgeous and is a great place to relax and to also see all of the great things Costa Rica has to offer. The location is a bit remote – it is about 40 minutes to the airport and 1 hour from Coco Beach, 90 minutes from Tamarindo Beach and ~2.5 hours to Arenal volcano. However, the rooms are all well-appointed and while there are still service related kinks to work out, the staff is extremely friendly and the resort is very warm- even for families with kids. Plus, the value of redeeming points and avoiding the $60 daily resort fee and high room rates can’t be beat. The Hilton does not compare to this hotel. The Hilton is probably better for families because there are more activities and you won’t get eaten alive by food costs (since it is an all-inclusive), but if you’re looking for a sleek resort for relaxation the Andaz is a much better choice. Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.