To be honest our expectations of the resort were not that high. We were looking specifically to go some place different, with some interesting things to see off the resort. It did exceed our expectations.
The resort is only about 2 years old. This was nice because the facilities are still new and in good working order. The only downside is that the palm trees are still small for shade, and the staff are still in the learning stage. You can tell that tourism is still a relatively new thing in this area because aside from the front desk staff not many spoke english. However, they are all very nice and friendly. If it was a person pouring water at dinner the extent of their English was " Water...yes?". We met a couple who had been here one year earlier and they commented on how much improvement they had noticed in the service. Approximately half the people on the resort were from Colombia or other parts of South America which may explain this.
Rooms - They were very clean with nice duvets. The air conditioning controls seemed to vary by room. In our room the highest we could set it was 20 degrees Celsius which was a bit chilly. Since we were on a ground floor we did not feel comfortable leaving our patio door open which would have been preferable as the evening temperature is nice. I would recommend getting a room on the second or third floor so you can do this as the breezes at night are nice. We had the odd geko in the room which did not bother me.
Food - The food was very good. In fact, I would say it was better than two other Occidental resorts we have stayed at. There was always a nice selection of fruits and vegetables. There was typically a rice dish at every dinner with a selection of two or more meats plus various cooked vegetables and other goodies. Fish was very common and well prepared. The food changed everyday so I did not tire of it.
Restaurants - Since the resort seemed to be half full at best we had no issue booking the restaurants. The "Grill" is an outside restaurant where you can order a selection of grilled meats like ribs, steak skewers, etc. You could not order a good North American style steak which was a bit disappointing. However, it was ok. The Italian restaurant is really not a restaurant at all. It is also an outside oven that any can walk up to and order a pizza or lasagna. Both were excellent. The last restaurant, and the only one inside, is more of a fine dining experience. The menu changes nightly. We had oriental one night and Peruvian food another night we were there. Again, it was good but not excellent. The salad bar and deserts were identical to what you could get at the buffet so where was nothing special there.
Pools - It is nice that they have two pools...a "quiet pool" and "activity pool". The quiet pool was nice and quiet. Again, since the resort was only half full getting a lounger was not a problem. The activity pool really did not have much in the way of activities. A spinning class at the edge of the pool in the morning, the odd pool exercise session for the old folks and that was it. Essentially the only real difference was that they had music going all day which ranged from Bob Marley, Spanish music or American top 40 hits sung in Spanish which was funny. There is a bar at the quiet pool but you have to get your own drinks. The pool waiter just sat with the bar tender all day and talked and never asked if you wanted anything. At the activity pool there was also no service at all. If you wanted a drink you needed to walk to the bar yourself (not far) and get it yourself. This was a good example of the staff still needing to learn North American service expectations.
Beach - The water is about 150 meters from the resort. A very short walk down. It is a darker sand so it does get hot. There are no trees down by the beach at all. They have these small shelters built that you can lay under and they work fine. The water is not clear because there is a river not far that empties into the Caribbean, and constant waves which clouds the water. The water is a great temperature. It was windy every day by the beach which was a bit annoying. One evening it was really windy and the water came close to the resort and washed away many of the shelters they had set up. Another day there was a farmer who was moving his cattle from one pasture to another and I guess the beach was the quickest way to get them there. All of a sudden there was cattle everywhere but they moved on quickly. That was interesting and a testament that the area is still being built up for tourism. There is also a small fishing village about a 10 minute walk down the beach. Not much to see really but very local.
Cartagena (Old City) - This is likely one of the main reasons why you would choose this destination. The tour company offers a half day tour of the new and old city which I highly recommend. They show you around and you see Fort Catagena, the Monastery and a walking tour of the walled city (old Cartagena). It is well worth it and gives you a chance to scope out things to come back to during your stay. The hotel has a shuttle bus that goes back and forth from the resort to the Old City from 8am to 12:30am each day which makes things so easy. However, you need to book the shuttle in advance. A cab is only about $20 USD if you want. The Old City is very safe and beautiful architecture. We walked for hours, did a few museums (Historical Museun and Inquisition Museum), visited the various squares, walked on top of the wall that surrounds the city, shopped and ate. The food is one of the best parts. There are many great restaurants and the prices are reasonable. I can honestly say it was perhaps some of the best food I have ever eaten. You can eat like a king and have a bottle of very nice wine for $30 to $50 per person.
In the city of Cartagena itself most shop staff spoke no English (which makes bartering a challenge). The street vendors and restaurant staff spoke enough to get by with you. Even in the museums very little was in English so you can pay for an English guide who will give you the museum tour in English. Emeralds are the big thing here as they are mined close by. There are A LOT of emerald jewelry stores but know your prices before you go. Everything is on a barter system so you have to know something about emeralds and their costs to know if you are getting a good deal or not. Just remember that everything you buy outside of a restaurant is negotiable (clothing, tour guides, jewelry, taxi, etc). If you know basic numbers in Spanish it is a big help.
Other Tours - We did not do any but we spoke to people who did. The general consensus was that they were not worth taking. Mud bath at the volcano (Colombian men in the mud bath with you offering to give you a "massage", and women when you get out wanting to help wash the mud off you...all for money...disturbing was the consensus. There is a boat trip to an island with a "white sandy beach and coal reef". The people said the beach was not white and there was very little see in the water. The shopping trip to four towns seemed to be a big disappointment for everyone. It was 12 hours on a bus and the stuff being sold in every town was exactly the same...hammocks and bags. There was a bit of history and they said the lunch was very good...but not worth the money and 12 hours of travel. This tours is the one thing they really need to work on at this destination. However, the Old City makes up for a lot and you can go there a few times before you are bored. This is really the main attraction.
Overall, my wife and I enjoyed ourselves but would likely not go back. It is really a 3 star resort and I think our expectations where in line with what we paid. Once you have seen the Old City there is really no reason to go back unless you are ok with hanging out on the resort all day. We had a good time, met some really nice people, ate well and learned a great deal about a real gem of a city.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- 190 Rooms All inclusive resort directly on the beach. Located 22 minutes from the historic walled-city on the northern side of the city. The Estelar Grand Playa Manzanillo by Occidental Hotels & Resorts ... more less
- Reservation Options:
- TripAdvisor is proud to partner with Orbitz, Barcelo, Expedia, Booking.com, Travelocity, Cheap Tickets, HotelTravel.com, Odigeo, Hotels.com and Priceline so you can book your Estelar Grand Playa Manzanillo by Occidental Hotels & Resorts reservations with confidence. We help millions of travelers each month to find the perfect hotel for both vacation and business trips, always with the best discounts and special offers.
- Also Known As:
- Occidental Grand Cartagena Hotel Cartagena