Grand Cayman Cookout, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman
Caribbean island nations broaden appeal for groupsNorth America’s aquatic playground is diversifying. In December, the Caribbean went mainstream Americana when Popeyes Bahamas Bowl took place at Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium in Nassau. The NCAA football game between Eastern Michigan University and Old Dominion University was televised internationally by ESPN and brought players, coaches and thousands of fans to town. Lea Miller, executive for the bowl game, says the event resulted in “unprecedented exposure” for the Bahamas. “No other country in the Caribbean can touch this,” she says. The annual Grand Cayman Cookout, which took place Jan. 12–15, featured some of the top culinary savants in the world—including Emeril Lagasse, Jose Andres and Anthony Bourdain—delivering presentations and preparing sumptuous dishes for attendees. They also joined attendees for parties and other activities, including a wine fair and auction. The cookout was sponsored by Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, Food & Wine magazine and The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, the host hotel.
The BahamasJust 50 miles off the coast of Florida, the Bahamas consists of more than 700 islands and islets. Most groups can find everything they need around the capital city of Nassau and its neighbor, Paradise Island. Atlantis Paradise Island Resort is a premier destination for meetings and events, providing exceptional team-building experiences in an unrivaled setting to ensure an unforgettable stay. It stands as a world-class conference center and is home to the largest halls in the Bahamas, including the 50,000-square-foot Imperial Ballroom. With more than 500,000 sq. ft. of flexible indoor and outdoor function space—including outdoor venues, boardrooms, meeting and breakout rooms—Atlantis can accommodate up to 4,000 guests for group events. Atlantis boasts 1,201 guest rooms in its Royal Towers and 600 in The Cove. New for 2017, Atlantis launched its first all-inclusive plan for groups booking 10 or more rooms. Besides event set-ups and group menus, the package includes massive discounts on spa treatments, Ocean Club Golf Course green fees and the resort’s famous dolphin interactions. Of course, Atlantis also boasts the largest casino in the Caribbean, with poolside gaming. Howard Karawan took over as president and managing director of Atlantis in September. He will oversee leadership and integration of guest and employee experiences, while managing the day-to-day operations. The 30-year hospitality veteran previously worked at Atlantis as president and chief marketing officer before serving in a leadership role with Fontainebleau Resorts. “Atlantis, the Bahamas and the Bahamian people hold a special place in my heart,” Karawan says. “It is a privilege to be able to come back to this one-of-a-kind resort and work with the team of dedicated Atlantis employees committed to delivering a guest experience unlike any other, and continuing to evolve Atlantis, which attracts holiday travelers from around the globe.” Bay View Suites Paradise Island just completed a massive rebrand in an effort to become a leading meetings property. In addition to 4 acres of private tropical gardens and three swimming pools, the hotel offers 75 one-bedroom suites, townhomes and villas, which feature fully equipped kitchens. Over on Grand Bahama Island, Grand Lucayan resort has just reopened after a brief closure due to Hurricane Matthew. The 740-room campus is bursting with more than 90,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space, including a 14,850-square-foot ballroom. Best of all, this truly breathtaking setting is infused with a dose of sophisticated Bahamian style, from movie nights under the stars to post-meeting rum tastings, to cozy evenings with a local storyteller. On tranquil Eleuthera Island, French Leave Eleuthera is a Marriott Autograph Collection property that opened in December with 12 one- and two-bedroom beachfront villas. The 270-acre resort offers extraordinary outdoor event space, including a 1,470-square-foot event lawn that overlooks the marina. Resort guests will experience the unspoiled beauty of an iconic pink-sand beach and dazzling views.
The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa
Cayman IslandsAs an offshore banking center, the Caymans have enjoyed the highest standard of living in the Caribbean for years. First-time visitors are often surprised to see an island economy briskly humming along with the 14th-highest GDP per capita in the world. Caymanians balance their business success with a relaxed attitude and occasional bouts of intense revelry that visitors appreciate. The offerings for group bonding are as exciting as they are diverse. Groups of up to 70 can experience Stingray City, a bucket-list line item where visitors can swim with dozens of stingrays in the wild. The rays behave as if they’re trained, or old friends, as they are lured by the sound of familiar boat engines. The spectacular Cayman Crystal Caves are the island’s newest attraction. The 90-minute tour takes groups through a multihued assortment of crystals, stalactites, tropical plants and animal life. The project recently won the Governor’s Award for island conservation. World-famous Seven Mile Beach has just seen its first new development in 10 years with the opening of Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa in November. The boutique-style, design-driven hotel is the brand’s first Caribbean property. The 266-room hotel encompasses the island’s first beach boardwalk, and features interconnected coastal biking and walking paths that offer convenient access to the resort’s main pool, beach and water sport activity areas. “Grand Cayman was the perfect choice for Kimpton’s first island resort, with an ideal location right on Seven Mile Beach,” says Steven Andre, general manager of the resort. “Seafire embodies the spirit and culture of the destination, and will allow guests the opportunity to truly immerse themselves in island life.” The new Kimpton has 20,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including a 7,076-square-foot ballroom. There are six restaurants and an 8,500-square-foot spa. The island’s only Turkish bath is sure to impress groups of all sizes. The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa just completed the first half of its two-phase renovation. The $50 million overhaul continues with the redesign of all 343 guest rooms and suites, slated to wrap up in August. “Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa is favored by meeting planners for providing a wide array of function spaces, including access to the widest and most expansive area of the famed Seven Mile Beach,” says Marti Trieschmann, area director of sales and marketing. “The renovation will ensure Westin Grand Cayman continues to be a preferred destination for groups of all sizes by heightening guest experience, while also making the resort more competitive in one of the Caribbean’s most popular markets.” The Westin meeting facilities are top-notch, with 9,000 sq. ft. indoors and 40,000 sq. ft. outdoors. The resort’s full-service spa, AAA Four Diamond rated Beach House restaurant and inventive Caribbean dining options bolster its status as an unforgettable beachfront retreat on Grand Cayman.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
JamaicaAlthough less than 300 miles from Grand Cayman, Jamaica seems a world away. Always in the spotlight, Jamaica has a dynamic reputation. Reggae, dancehall and ska music; the Rastafarian religion; and the Black Power movement are just a few of the island’s legendary creations. Jamaica is also the birthplace of James Bond, so get Bond-inspired at the 52-acre waterfront property, GoldenEye, a collection of boutique hotels and villas in Oracabessa Bay on Jamaica’s north coast, 20 minutes from the port town of Ocho Rios. Attendees can choose to stay in one of 22 standalone villas, or 25 beach huts, including Fleming Villa.
GoldenEye, Oracabessa, JamaicaThe original Fleming Villa once served as the residence to James Bond creator Ian Fleming, as well as Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who bought the property in 1976. Groups of fewer than 100 can arrange a special event or team-bonding activity at the beach or at Fleming Villa bar. “Bond-ing. James Bond-ing.” Located on 2 miles of private, white-sand beach, Half Moon Resort Montego Bay offers 197 guest rooms and 27,500 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space. It’s set on 400 landscaped acres. Guests can take full advantage of the beachfront location and new group wellness offerings, including meditation classes and “Reggae Dub Club Yoga,” held in the only overwater bungalows in Jamaica. The Rastafari Museum in Montego Bay is a “must see,” but Jamaica’s newest attraction is on the opposite side of the island in Kingston. Peter Tosh Museum is dedicated to the life and work of one of the famous founding members of the critically acclaimed Jamaican reggae group, The Wailers. Groups can experience multimedia narratives and interactive elements as they explore the life of Tosh. A collection of his memorabilia including guitars, awards and his world-renowned unicycle is on display to the public for the first time. Unicycle lessons not included.
Sublime Samana, Dominican Republic
Dominican RepublicThe Dominican Republic fills the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with neighbor Haiti. This baseball-mad nation hypnotizes with its awe-inspiring merengue dance moves and sultry style. Santo Domingo is one of the oldest cities in the New World, and the most charming island capital outside of Havana. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, a destination resort that is very popular with groups, features meeting space and entertainment, too. For starters, it boasts one of the largest casinos in the Caribbean. Other amenities include 13 pools, nine restaurants, a spa and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. The all-inclusive resort offers 65,000 sq. ft. of event space and can host nearly 4,000 guests. There are 1,790 guest rooms and suites. Located in Santo Domingo’s Ciudad Colonial, Casas del XVI is a private collection of historic homes once used by the Spanish conquistadors. They have been turned into exquisite lodgings and offer an intimate, historical retreat in the big city. Groups can discover this UNESCO World Heritage-protected “City of Firsts” by exploring the first castle, first cathedral, first monastery, first university and first fortress in the first permanent European settlement in the New World. Meeting spaces range from a patio accommodating 130 for cocktails to a dining room that can seat 40. Groups can golf at the 18-hole Las Lagunas Country Club course, located a short drive from the hotel. For the 19th hole, treats are in order. The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s leading producers of high-end rum, and Casas del XVI provides gourmet private tastings in its stunning, art-filled 16th-century library. Casas del XVI can arrange a day to explore one of the largest organic coffee producers, watch clay artisans create masterpieces before your eyes or savor a buffet-style lunch featuring fine Dominican fare, accompanied by a musical performance of Dominican-African rhythms. Tucked away between the lush, tropical jungle-clad hills and fine-sand beaches of Samana Peninsula lies Sublime Samana, a modern yet elegant luxury resort and member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. There are 26 suites and casitas and three meeting rooms, including a 1,000-square-foot room. Groups can arrange for an interactive cooking class with award-winning Chef Cristian Baez to learn to make fine Mediterranean cuisine with a Dominican twist, or indulge in a sunset barbecue on the beach and spend quality time with co-workers. Taste the famous and delicious lionfish dish, which makes a predatory creature into a culinary delight. The property itself amazes with a series of infinity pools that lead to the ocean. Games make for great bonding experiences, so grab a retro board game and play poolside or get active with blanket volleyball. Much as it seems, teams work together to bounce the volleyball on a blanket and learn to rely on each other to complete a task.
San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, Puerto Rico
Puerto RicoPuerto Rico, the Isle of Enchantment, is the largest overseas U.S. territory, and continues to push for statehood. Nestled on the former Rockefeller estate, Dorado Beach Resort offers an unprecedented Caribbean experience for groups. With 115 luxury accommodations at the only Ritz-Carlton Reserve in the Western Hemisphere, as well as Plantation Resort Residences, the destination caters to groups of all sizes and needs. The 4,368-square-foot ballroom can host up to 280. Located in the trendy, artistic neighborhood of Condado, San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino has a prime location between the beach and the historic city of Old San Juan, with shopping, cuisine, beaches and adventure within reach. It has 527 guest rooms and a 7,000-square-foot ballroom that can host 800. Beach lovers and surfers enjoy San Juan’s coveted beaches, and adventure seekers explore historic forts, two rainforests and three bioluminescent bays. San Juan Marriott’s spacious rooms provide guests with an upscale, Caribbean cosmopolitan vibe through turquoise and natural tones complemented by local art. To indulge groups in a genuine taste of Puerto Rican culture, without having to venture off property grounds, the hotel offers an authentic “Guavate in San Juan.” The whole roast pork experience draws inspiration from the mile-long stretch of lechon (a pork dish) hot spots on Route 184 known as “The Pork Highway” that is frequented by locals on the weekend. The pig roasting experience at the resort features an open bar with rums of Puerto Rico as well as a gourmet spread of Puerto Rican staples, all served on a terrace overlooking the resort’s two incredible pools and arguably the best beach in San Juan.
Natalie Compagno is an avid traveler who has written for The Huffington Post, Yahoo Travel and more.