Where you'll stay is always the next shoe to drop when making travel plans, a process that for many of us involves lots of haggling with the Internet over the price of a flight, leaving lodging as a secondary thought in our planning. Today we're taking two St. Thomas resort hotel situations head-to-head in a comparison on nine counts. As we compare the Marriott Frenchman's Reef and the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, keep in mind that we're not steering you in one direction or another here. We'd encourage you to read and pick the one that best suits your personality and travel tastes!
Accounting for a bit of market and seasonal fluctuation, you're going to come out about even either way. However, we found that the great number of travelers with caveats, aka AAA, military family, rewards credit cards, etc might find the Marriott to have a bit of an edge. Also worth noting that the Marriott will earn you rewards points, while Bolongo Bay is not part of a chain so therefor will not.
Room Quality: Marriott
Marriott's rooms are more modern and overall more akin to what travelers will expect from a high end chain hotel. They are hands down higher quality than what you'll find at Bolongo, lacking the "rusticity" of the just fine, but not modern Bolongo rooms (which seem to be progressively remodeled, as there is some variation from room to room). One caveat here is that, however modern, Marriott's rooms are not immune to mosquitos; some weather stripping is most definitely in order on the outside facing doors.
Choose Marriott if seeking a posh resort experience, but we'd take Bolongo's vibe every time. Your days spent at the Marriott seem rather scripted, corporate, and designed around seducing you into paying them more money. At the Marriott you'll be offered the opportunity to spend ninety minutes touring a timeshare in exchange for $100 to use towards some other activity, whereas at Bolongo you can snorkel for full sized bottles of rum and champagne. If you're a fan of the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall (set in Hawaii), you'll identify with the sense that at Bolongo you might enjoy an honest to God beach party, whereas at Marriott you're going to be charged $4 for a casual diet Pepsi (upsettingly, they do not stock Coke products).
It goes hand in hand with Vibe. Though we met some really delightful people at Marriott (we're looking at you, Jarrett the cocktail geek bartender), the staff at Bolongo comes across as truly focused on you having a good stay, whereas many of the staff at Marriott seems to be focused on, well, carrying out the corporate mission of squeezing out another dollar. There aren't many at Bolongo that we didn't enjoy connecting with and actually learning more about, whereas the folks at Marriott have been conditioned to turn every discussion into another way to sell you something.
Bolongo gives us two very compelling options: Iggy's Beach Bar and the Lobster Grill (aka "pool bar"). Both will make your taste buds happy, but Bolongo's smaller guest capacity just can't sustain the variety of food in beautiful settings that the Marriott has on offer. From the stunning views (though mediocre food) of the Aqua Terra and Sunset Grill to the beachside kitsch of Coco Joe's, Marriott gets it done on food variety. Turning to food quality, we must pay special attention to Havana Blue (discussed in our earlier post Seeking sangria on Tortola and St. Thomas, two Caribbean islands that love rum). They redeem the overly curated feel of the Marriott as a locally owned restaurant leasing space on the resort property. Aside from great sangria, we cannot thank our server Sarah enough for the amazing service, world class food, best wine list on the island, and overall great vibe she brought to the table. This is a place not to be missed no matter where you're staying!
WTF will always be pre-disposed to the bar that puts sangria in our hand before heading to the beach (not an option at the Marriott), but we found that drink quality was about on par at both spots. Bolongo wins with overall friendlier bartenders and drinks going for about half the price of those at the Marriott. We'll award points to Marriott, though, for serving drinks in a bar that you can swim to in the pool. Bolongo makes you get out the pool before sidling up, but they still win this round.
There's no contest here. Marriott is closer to downtown Charlotte Amalie (so a cheaper cab ride), offers an hourly or half-hourly water taxi (seasonally dependent) to the same downtown, and is geographically placed to offer striking views of both the harbor and the ocean with the island of St. Croix many miles in the distance. Bolongo isn’t in a bad spot, nor is its beautiful view of a rather private cove bad, but it loses each count in the geography contest.
Two couples could drink several bottles of wine debating this point. In fact, we as one couple drank several mimosas each doing the same. The Marriott offers more, more, more every where you look! The beach there sparkles with immaculate (and hot!) sand and the bluest water. It's really pristine, but feels cookie cutter with its rows of beach chairs and umbrellas lined up for you to plug into. On the other hand, Bolongo's beach (while rockier and overall less pristine) bears an aura of authenticity and accessibility with its shade under the palm trees, friendly offer of towels, and overall vibe (see "Vibe"). Both offer catamaran sails, night kayaking, and other sundry adventures… but only Bolongo lets you snorkel for booze ;-)
This came down to two little vignettes at the end. First, the Marriott issued us a "towel card" with an admonishment that we could trade one card for two towels, which we were return to get our card back, and that lost cards would incur a $25 fee. Bolongo just gave us some towels when we went to the beach. Second, Marriott spent days advertising a wine tasting to be held on Monday evening. We went a few minutes early only to be told by the host that we'd need to show our "platinum card". When we probed further, this fellow quite literally patted me on the back and condescendingly said "Well this just isn't 'A' wine tasting, but I'll tell you what: if you show up at exactly five we'll let you have a glass". We felt like kids whose Dad had just told us "better luck next time, slugger!" The Marriott was unbelievably gorgeous and well manicured, the perfect Caribbean vacation to be sure… but Bolongo Bay made us smile.
Bonus - Animals randomly roaming the property: Bolongo
Iguanas find homes at both the Marriott and Bolongo, though they definitely seem to prefer the Marriott. You can’t walk to the beach without running into a fine specimen scurrying down the steps or kicking back by the waterfall. Bolongo rescues local cats, and they are adorable. Some are more inclined than others to make your acquaintance, but some of the less reticent feline residents will spend the whole day with you if you make them an offer. They give the place a very special local charm.