When I was invited for a short four day vacation with my daughter to Turks and Caicos to write about Beaches Resort, I was happily surprised. I've only heard great things about this chain of luxury family hotels and was eager to experience it first hand.
Beaches and Sandals are both family owned companies - both known for their high end accommodations, food and facilities. In fact, this is the innovative company that originated the all-inclusive concept decades ago at their Sandals resort in Jamaica. Even knowing this in advance, I have to admit, this seasoned traveller was surprised at what I found during my short stay.
Beaches prides itself on customer service and value for your dollar. Considering this is not an inexpensive vacation by any means, my expectations were very high.
The surprises begin upon arrival at the resort, where well dressed gentleman present us with cold towels as soon as we step out of the car - just what we needed to refresh after a long trip and burning heat.
We're booked into the Italian section of the resort - the newest and most elegant, although the original Caribbean and French areas are also gorgeous. Champagne for the adults, fruit and fresh baked cookies for the kids and we're whisked to our rooms overlooking Grace Bay.
Surprise #2 - The accommodations exceeded my expectations! Built with families in mind, our spacious suite consists of a gorgeous mahogany bunk bed with trundle bed to sleep 3, plus a flat screen with Xbox for the kids in one room. For the grown ups, a separate elegant room with a King size four poster bed. The bathroom has a stunning mosaic whirlpool tub and separate rainhead shower. Luxurious. Gorgeous. Comfortable.
Surprise #3 - When a resort says all-inclusive, there's usually some small print somewhere where a laundry list of stuff isn't included. What I experienced at Beaches exceeded my expectations in terms of delivering value for your dollar. As example - I opened up my minibar to find a fully stocked fridge with water, pop, beer, liquor - plus two gorgeous bottles of Beringer Wine AND a full bottle of Appleton Rum. No charge. Drink at your will. Restocked daily. No bill.
Surprise #4 - This resort is busy. It was at 94% capacity when we were there and yet it didn't feel full. There were always a ton of places to lounge at one of their seven grand pools. They all have a gentle zero entry, four of them are heated and most of them have hot tubs integrated into them. One of my favorite memories was floating on a raft in the huge heated hot tub nursing a pina colada while my six year old daughter swam laps in the semi-shallow pool around me.
Surprise #5 - All the pools, even the kids' pool, have swim up bars. Had I done my research, this wouldn't have been a surprise as Sandals was literally the first resort to invent the concept of the swim up bar - now a standard feature at most resorts.
Surprise #6 - The food is spectacular. Unlike many other all-inclusives, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that only three of the 16 restaurants are buffet-style. I find buffet meals extremely stressful as a parent - and much prefer when food is made fresh and brought to the table without the kids racing around the restaurant. There is a wide variety of cuisines available for every meal. We experienced little to no waiting time ever to get seats.
There are only a couple of restaurants you need to make reservations for; Our absolute favorite was Kimono's - with Japanese Teppanyaki-style meals prepared at your table. Chef F. Cookie (aka Fortune Cooke) was sweet and hilarious and made our meal a memorable one. My daughter STILL talks about him. And I adored the Barefoot Restaurant - situated by the beach, where you're expected to take off your shoes to dine at picnic tables while feeling the sand under your feet.
Surprise #7 - This surprise wasn't a great one. Food is always an issue with us as my daughter has severe allergies to fish and nuts. As you can imagine, eating at restaurants can be stressful. Beaches is extremely accommodating to those with food issues. The head chef spoke to me on a couple of occasions assuring me he would keep my daughter safe. He did. They did. But...there were several miscommunications along the way that caused us to wait a long time for our meals. The waiters were nervous and flustered when we reminded them about other allergies and sometimes didn't have our names on their allergic list. The bottom line, Jessie was safe and the food was delicious. Constructive criticism would be for the food staff to work on their internal communication.
Surprise #8 - A photograph cannot capture the incredible beauty of the beach. The powder white sand, the gentle breeze, the sound of the waves lapping the shore and my daughter's singing as she dug for seashells. Too stunning for pictures.
Surprise #9 - There's no Starbucks - but Beaches did coffee one step better! Expanding on the theme of all inclusive, I discovered Cafe De Paris, a lovely little cafe on the property, which makes excellent lattes, mochas, and french pastries. You walk in, order, enjoy - and My favorite an iced cappuccino with a shot of Baileys!! Oh yeah!
Surprise #10 - The Kids area is absolutely incredible. For babies - a fully equipped nursery. For the little ones - Camp Sesame daycare. There is a fantastic waterpark and an XBox Game Garage with 50 systems set up with G-rated non violent games. Also for the teens - a night club that looks like it belongs in South Beach.
My daughter's fave hangout is Bobbie Dee's - a 50's style dinner with a fully stocked ice cream sundae bar and soft serve ice cream. Plus, a nice man stands outside the diner making cotton candy for kids needing their sugar fix. The cost for any of these treats? ZERO!! It's all part of the all-inclusive package. Are you surprised?
Surprise #11 - Water Slides aren't just for kids. I actually wrote about my life-changing experience with my daughter going down these slides. The surprise isn't just how much fun these slides are for everyone in the family, but rather how important these family trips are to bring a family together. With the day to day stresses of preparing meals, rushing to meet deadlines, traffic, homework, laundry and bored kids a distant memory, it gives you the chance to to take a deep breathe and connect with your family in a deeper way. I know my daughter and I did.
So, all in all, I would give Beaches an 11 out of 10. I want to go back with my whole family the next time. Jessie misses Chef F. Cookie, and I miss the luxury.
Thanks again to the staff at Beaches Turks and Caicos for hosting us and for giving us a taste of what a real family vacation should be."
One of the biggest conversations on Twitter, in blogger communities and at Blissdom Canada is monetization - how do moms who blog make a buck?
When I started YMC I had no idea how to turn my passion into a business. Through trial and error and going with my gut, we've developed what I think is a successful solution for all parties.
The end result - unique, playful ways of integrating content into our site, allowing our awesome team of bloggers to generate income and our readers to have great stuff to read and interact with.
We don't accept every advertising opportunity. Some products just don't fit. And I'm cool with that. But, even when I like the brand, the bloggers may not. And I'm cool with that too, right Julie?
Each time a sponsorship opportunity crosses my desk, I invite one of our writers to create the content. But, in order to do it - they have to believe in the product and come up with a blog that transcends a traditional review of the product into a compelling story and/or a learning opportunity.
The results, IMHO, are quite spectacular.
Here's one blog from Sharon that tells the hilarious tale of what happened when she was sponsored by Global Pet Foods but her cat wouldn't eat the product.
Lisa came up with a crazy idea to test Healthy Choice Steamers with her friends in a way that I'd never seen before.
Scrubbing Bubbles were totally cool with never actually showing their product in action; instead spending their advertising dollars to come up with a way to help exhausted moms take care of themselves.
And finally, there's our Holiday Shopping Guide presented by Walmart that's giving our resident shopaholic Loukia a chance to get paid to write about her passion while helping moms. The guide has everything from tips on how to shop efficiently while staying within budget, how to keep track of christmas presents and all the information you need to get through the holidays with as little stress as possible.
Worried about transparency? We are incredibly proud of our relationships with these brands and ALWAYS indicate when our content is sponsored. And even more importantly, the words are ours. We would never write something we don't believe in nor do we let our clients put words in our mouths.
If you want to use this as a working model for your blog, it's key to have conversations with potential advertisers and work WITH them to create fantastic content for your site. It's a win/win situation as long as you GET PAID for your work.
Finally, we want to thank all our fantastic sponsors for believing in us - a group of mostly work at home moms who have a dream of empowering women with kids - for funding our website so we can continue to revolutionize motherhood one blog at a time."
When I was asked to test drive the new American Express Gold Rewards Card and the Membership Rewards Program, I put my plan into action very quickly.
I went shopping! Strategically. Knowing I would be able to get double points for every eligible dollar spent at my supermarket, I made sure to pay for all my groceries with my Amex Gold Rewards Card. I also double dipped and earned a ton of AIR MILES simultaneously.
Gas and drugstore purchases also scored me double points.
I didn't shop more than I would normally, I just changed how I paid for my shopping.
While shopping for my family basics during the day, night time was spent huddled with hubby on the net, sourcing an awesome winter vacation for my family. We found a great deal at an out of the way condo in the Caymans. Woo hoo! The condo is perfect for us so we could do our own cooking (safer for my daughter's allergies).
Once we secured those dates, we scoured the web for affordable flights to Cayman Islands. We did the happy dance when we found out West Jet flew there direct - and the price was right (considering we're travelling at the busiest time). We snatched them up and paid for them with my Amex Gold Rewards Card. Cost of tickets - $3,845 taxes included. And of course, double Membership Rewards points for all travel purchases. Ka-ching!
Then I shopped some more - stocking up on points.
My statement arrived yesterday. I racked up a total of 65,959 points over the last month (I had been given 40,000 points to test drive the Amex Gold Reward Card).
But what does that mean in terms of redemption?
Today, I called the Customer Care Professionals at Amex to see what these points are actually worth. He explained that 10,000 points = $100. So I was able to redeem all my points and apply $659.59 towards my flights. When I pay my Amex bill at the end of the month, there will be a refund of that amount waiting for me.
And here's the extra cool part. I will continue to collect points using the double point system and can RETROACTIVELY go on paying off my flights with the points I accumulate for a year from the day I booked my tickets.
Here's why I'm impressed with this card so far..
I like getting double for nothing (first year card fee is waived by the way)
I was able to book my trip and get the lowest price with no worry or STRESS about blackout periods or keeping tabs on participating partner airlines - all I had to do was call Amex to pay for it with points. Having said that, if I wanted to transfer all my points to my Aeroplan account (1:1), I could have done that as well.
The redemption process was easy, fast and mathematically makes sense. There were no surprises. And I didn't have to struggle online to redeem. A very polite customer service rep did everything for me. It took 5 minutes. Nice.
While 80% of us participate in credit card rewards programs, nearly one in four have let our points expire. What a shame. All of us rewards junkies are clutching our chests in pain hearing this.
Bottom line is - pick a rewards program that make sense to you. Shop strategically. Go with a rewards program like the Amex Gold Rewards Card that makes redemption a breeze. And don't forget to USE YOUR POINTS. Get out and see the world with your family. And let Amex pay for it :)