Since this post isn’t about flights, I’m putting it up on a Wednesday. I will have a regular trip report on the flights themselves in the next couple weeks.
The last time I took an actual vacation was 2019, which I believe was about 248 years ago. Late last year, I started dreaming. Southwest had announced Long Beach – Honolulu flights, and I snagged four $99 one way tickets for March using points. Maybe we could go and maybe we couldn’t; the points could always be redeposited. We chose a different path.
In January, Southwest announced it would fly to Maui, so we switched to go there. Sure, the surge was awful, but maybe it would be better by March. As we all know, it was, but Maui saw a lot of rain right before we were going and the forecast for our trip was iffy. If we were going to go somewhere, we wanted to make sure the weather was good, because a week inside with children sounded like punishment.
So, 4 days before the trip, we started looking at other options. How would we design a pandemic vacation from scratch at the last minute?
The idea was to go on a beach vacation, a relaxing spot where we could maintain distance from others. My wife and I had been vaccinated thanks to a late call from a friend saying that they were about to throw some doses out if they couldn’t find arms to put them in. But still, our kids weren’t vaccinated, and we didn’t want to find ourselves in a crowded place anyway.
We decided that it would be best to look at where we could fly nonstop, and that meant Florida or Mexico were our primary options for warm beaches. Florida was out immediately. The lack of even basic masking rules to try and prevent the transmission of COVID makes it a no-go for me. So, we looked to Mexico.
After perusing a variety of hotels in both Cabo and Puerto Vallarta — the places with the most plentiful and affordable air options — we decided Puerto Vallarta was a better spot with better beaches, sunny skies, and temps in the high 70s all week. Originally we were going to stay at the Hyatt Ziva using points, but they wanted too many points for the 4 of us in a room, being an all-inclusive. We thought about the Sunscape which is also an all-inclusive and had a dirt cheap travel agent rate of under $1,000 for a week, but that made us uneasy. A place like that seemed to thrive on gatherings, and that’s the opposite of what we wanted.
Finally, the Conrad Punta de Mita caught our eye. The property only opened last September with 324 rooms on the Pacific, just past the northern end of the Bay of Banderas. Punta de Mita lies nearly an hour west of the Puerto Vallarta airport, and is fairly isolated. I had been there and stayed a couple nights at the St Regis previously, but that was significantly more expensive than the Conrad, at least 50 percent higher. I couldn’t justify that, so we decided to give the Conrad a try.
I initially reached out to the hotel to see about any travel agent rates. In the end, the rate they offered us for a 1 bedroom suite was actually worse than what we could get through their published Sunshine package which included airport transfers and a $200 resort credit. We went with that instead, choosing the suite because the kids would be in school during the week, and we’d need the space.
Booking the flights was easy, and we were set.
So, how was it? The hotel is beautiful. The main tower has only ocean-facing rooms, and it’s flanked by smaller “casas” on each side. We were in Casa 8, along the north side of the resort.
There are three pools, one for kids with a water slide, one for adults, and one for everyone with a great infinity edge overlooking the Pacific.
There were several restaurants, but with demand down, the opening hours were odd. The only lunch spot was Paleta, located at the pool area. Mezquite was beachfront and open for dinner. Meanwhile, Árbol in the main building was there for breakfast and dinner. We ate at them all and found the food to be mostly quite good. My wife was a big fan of the baja shrimp tacos at Mezquite. The poke at Paleta was delicious. And though we didn’t eat breakfast much, we found it hit the spot on the couple days we did.
The room was big with giant TVs in both the living and sleeping areas. There was a large bathroom with a nice view of the mountains as well, but I cared about none of that, really. Most importantly in my mind, there was a huge patio overlooking the grounds and the ocean where I could spend plenty of time with a book and whisky.
There was also a plunge pool on the patio, which I despised. I just don’t understand the point of them. They aren’t hot tubs, but they aren’t big enough for swimming. Who wants that? I hated this one even more simply because it made a loud gurgling sound that drowned out the waves. We learned we could call the front desk to have it shut off, or least, one person said they could do that while another said they didn’t know anything about it when we tried a day or two later again after it mysteriously turned itself back on. When it was off, the sound of the waves was just about perfect.
This was a great way to spend a week. With occupancy ranging between 10 and 30 percent, the place was empty, and we only left to eat in restaurants outdoors a couple times along with one other time to go ride horses. The view below is from the Litibu Grill just up the beach.
It was an ideal setting for a vacation, but that’s not to say it was perfect. This wouldn’t be a worthwhile review if I didn’t also talk about the bad.
Unfortunately, the hotel seems to have yet to figure out how to actually run operationally. I can list all sorts of weird and annoying issues, so skip the bullets if you aren’t interested in that, but here we go….
- I checked in on the app and picked my room, but it said I had to stop by the front desk to get a digital key after erroring out. At the desk, they had us checking in right next to another family despite several other empty desks, and it took quite some time to get through the process. I’m not sure why they have the app as an option at all.
- The key to happy children is to have plentiful chicken fingers, pizza, and hamburgers… especially picky children like ours. Yet somehow with the low occupancy, they ran out of cheese for an entire day. I would love to get my kids to be more adventurous, but all efforst have failed. With very little else around, it’s important to have kid essentials well-stocked.
- With the restaurants open on a reduced schedule, we would have hoped that in-room dining would be able to deliver the same food that was available in the restaurants, especially during COVID. That wasn’t offered, so we found ourselves walking to the different restaurants to order food for pickup, again increasing interactions with staff when it seemed entirely unnecessary.
- The hotel wanted to encourage distancing by allowing people to opt out of housekeeping. We wanted housekeeping, and we asked for it to be after 1pm because the kids were in school before that. Housekeeping came early on at least a couple of the days. They were apologetic when we asked them to come back later and had no trouble doing so, but why offer travelers the ability to pick their times if you don’t follow through?
- The housekeepers also did odd things that only forced additional unnecessary interactions. For example, one day they took all the half-used shampoo and conditioner bottles, but they didn’t replace them. We had to call to get more, though really I wish they had just left the ones that weren’t empty in the first place. They also didn’t replace the tea and coffee supply in the room once it was used so we had to call to ask for replenishment to be delivered.
- The hotel has no filtered water system, and they say they will provide you with up to 4 bottles of water a day, or at least, we think. We had them leave 2 bottles one day, 5 another, and 3 on a different day. Every time we called, they would deliver more, but it was different every time, and we opted not to trust it. We bought a giant jug in a market one of the nights we went to dinner.
- The navigation paths are not set up well. For us to walk from our room to the lobby, we had to take a path that went out in front of the hotel and in through the front door. We quickly realized that was stupid and started trudging across grass. It always seemed like you had to go out of your way to get where you needed to go.
- The grass was mostly dead, yet for some reason there seemed to be someone there every day holding a hose and watering said dead grass. I did not understand this.
- There were multiple days where someone was using a very loud pressure washer on the paths. I can’t really comment on that since I don’t know why they had to do it or if it was necessary at all, but it was just odd… and loud.
- On one of the “busier” days — 30 percent occupancy — there were no loungers available at the main pool. The adult pool was empty, but we had kids and they wouldn’t open it up for kids to use. Eventually they found us some loungers, but they are going to need to make big changes if that’s how it worked at only 30 percent occupancy.
- I wanted to use the sauna in the spa, but their COVID protocols said you could only use the facilties if you got a treatment. I didn’t really want a treatment, and that’s probably a good thing since despite having 10 percent occupancy that day, they had no appointments for two full days. I should have suggested they just bring that woman watering the dead lawn in to give me a massage. I never saw the spa and even more shockingly, neither did my wife.
- There was a little clothing shop that my wife wanted to visit. She went up and they told her it would open at 1. She went up at 1 and they said the woman was on lunch, so it would open later. Eventually it did open, but the hours seemed to be “whenever we want,” because the day after it was open in the morning.
- When we checked out, the agent gave me the bill and said the kids ate free. I didn’t realize that was a thing, so I looked at the bill in more detail. I went back up to the desk to tell her that I didn’t think kids food was taken off. She looked and said whoops, we didn’t get kids meals for free. Ok then.
I know, I know. It’s a long, whiny list, but I don’t mean it that way. Like I said at the top, we had a great time on this trip. The hotel just doesn’t quite seem ready for primetime, but I suppose that’s to be expected when it has only ever been open during a pandemic.
Running a big hotel with low occupancy is hard. They don’t want to have full staff in order to save cash, and since it opened during the pandemic, they’ve probably never actually had a full staff. The people were remarkably friendly, helpful, and willing to tolerate my efforts to speak in Spanish the whole time. They just didn’t seem to have the tools to do everything the way they probably would have wanted to do it.
Considering all this, would I go back? Probably. With that weather, the beach, and the spacious grounds, it was a great place for a pandemic vacation. People were masking in all the tourist areas, and we never felt unsafe in that sense. It also never felt unsafe on the grounds or in the surrounding areas. Generally I like being closer to a town, so that it feels like you’re actually visiting that place and not just out on a beach that could be anywhere in the world. But if I needed another beach break, the Conrad would be an ideal, affordable luxury option in that spectacular corner of Mexico.