My wife and I just returned from a wonderful week at the Royal Decameron. The resort is very visually appealing, and although quite long and large (820 rooms), it was well laid out and fairly easy to get around (if you do not have any mobility issues). First I should declare my bias, the only other southern destination my wife and I have been to Cuba. We have been there 12 times to 9 different resorts, so obviously we love Cuba and making any comparisons will be unavoidable. However, as we were visiting Toronto we chose a destination we can’t get to from Halifax. We chose the Royal Decameron based on its reviews and price, and most of the reviews are reasonable accurate. The initial bus ride to the resort is fairly long ~ 2 hours (we had to contend with late rush hour in Panama), I think that had I not been forewarned about the long ride, bladder issues might have been a concern, as there was no stop or offer of a stop enroute. However, I am certain that if someone asked they would have stopped.
The organization of the Air Transat/Decameron staff cannot be faulted. From the time you leave the airport the buses are on a load and go basis, the check in was quick and easy (of course, putting that first drink in your hand helps!!). Once you get your bags to the bus, they are delivered to your room either while you have a late dinner or once you have arrived at your room. We arrived in time to have a quick bite and could have still seen most of the evening show, but chose to explore a little first.
Rooms: We were given Room 4414, which for us was a great location (although that can be a very subjective think based on mobility and individual priorities. It was a ground floor room (we usually prefer an upper story room) which was the first building next to Lobby # 3. We had a short walk, down the steep hill to the Pacifiko buffet; a view of the ocean (due to being higher up on the resort); and an added bonus was that the Lobby 3 bar was just a few steps from our patio (although it was quiet and private). The room itself was large enough for us with 2 double beds, table and 2 chairs, a daybed, desk and stool, and TV. The bathroom had a large tile shower and was very clean and no water issues other than a slight variation in water temperatures at peak times.
Restaurants and Bars:
There is no shortage of bars or restaurants on this resort. There are 3 buffets and 7 ala cartes, we chose the Thai, Japanese and Mediterranean. The food at the ala cartes was good but not what we had expected from an ala carte experience. Our previous experience has been that the ala carte is treated more like a table d’hôte/prix fixe, where you chose all your courses from the menu and they are served to you. At the Decameron, only the main course is served and the rest is buffet style. In addition, there was no (or very little) attempt to create any atmosphere for the theme, i.e. staff dress, decoration, music, etc. (the one exception was actually in the buffet, when the staff wore black cowboy hats for 70’s night!). Therefore, while the food was good and different from the main buffets, there was little effort in making the experience “special”, and could otherwise have been a night at the buffet. Of the 3 buffets, we only had 2 quick breakfasts at the Panamai because it was farthest away from our room and it was open earlier on the 2 days we had excursions. We had dinner at either the Alantis or Pacifiko based on the theme for the buffet on the night (the information was posted in the 3 lobbies); our only mistake was choosing the 70’s night at the Pacifiko. We varied where we had lunch as there did not seem to be much difference, only there was more choice at the buffets. The food was good, variety was reasonable, basic buffet fare. The one real disappointment (and this again is subjective and my resort treat) was the quality and style of pizza offered. The concern for cleanliness and hygiene was obvious due to all female staff wearing hairnets (both kitchen and dining room staff), there were fewer opportunities for guests to service themselves, i.e. ice cream was served to you, and there was always someone sweeping the floors in the guest areas. There were some interesting fruits and juices we had not seen before but otherwise most of the food was normal buffet style, i.e. last night’s roast pig was today’s ham salad, etc. One of the main differences we noticed from Cuba, we feel, is based on Decameron being a Colombian company and most of the Cuban resorts are managed by Spanish or Italian companies.
Beach/Pools/Grounds: One of our favourite features of this resort is the layout of the beach with the pools spreading parallel to the beach. You are able to sit either at the pool or on the beach and still use either without relocating. In addition, the number of bars along the beach/pool area is great. You are never far from a bar or toilet, so juice, beer and rum are easily available. Unfortunately, there is only one swim-up bar and it is not a true swim-up as there are no stools, it is really just a bar placed next to a pool. It was located at the adult pool, which was farther from the beach, it was difficult to get a seat and quite loud. Fortunately, we were always able to find shade both at the pool and on the beach, it may not have been exactly where we would have liked but shade was available. Even when all the palapas were taken there were the tent-like shelters, which provided shade but could be hotter due to lack of breeze. We avoided playing the “towel game” the first few mornings but found to get a decent spot you had to reserve the lounger; there are signs saying that items will be removed from loungers after 90 minutes, but I can’t imagine who keeps track. For me, one big plus was the availability of chairs on the beach and at the pools as an alternative to the loungers. The beach itself is very long and wide, however, it is a mixture of white and black sand and the surf can be very strong. We did not attempt to swim or venture too far into the surf due to concern for an undertow and the occasional jellyfish. Again in fairness, I am not a real beach person and therefore my opinion should be taken with a pinch of sand! You are able to walk the beach west past the village and some beach houses and I was told by one fellow that he turned back after 1 ½ hours. There are a few condos very close to the resort on the beach. The pools were clean and inviting with a number of shallow areas for lying in a lounger in the water, however, none of the pools we were in were very deep. On more than one occasion, I heard a lifeguard stopping an adult from carrying a drink in the pool. Speaking of lifeguards, it seemed there was one at every pool and several along the beach, making it very child friendly (maybe drunk friendly too!).
Activities on and off the Resort/Hotel: There are many excursions offered by their own Tour company, “Decameron Explorer”. We enjoyed the Partial Canal Transit, which after the 2 hour drive to Panama City (and a 06:00 start), involved an ~ 5 boat ride through 2 sets of locks to the Gamboa Rainforest area. They provide a light breakfast and lunch on the boat. It was very interesting and informative, and despite rumours, you don’t have to get a tattoo for transiting the canal (that’s for crossing the Equator). The other excursion we took was the ½ day tour of Anton Valley. It is a ¾ hour drive into a 30 million year old volcanic crater. You visit a zoo for rescued animals, have a short walk through the rainforest, and have time in the only town in the world within a crater to look in the craft market. We went on Sunday when the local market is on as well. We felt both excursions were worth the price and it got you out to see some of the country. For activities on the resort, my wife enjoyed a few of the dance lessons, and felt they had been the best of any resort we have been to. The beach volleyball looked to be popular but otherwise we did not participate in any of the poolside activities. However, the activities were a lot quieter than any Cuban resort. The multiple pools made a big difference for that sort of thing. We went to the night show every night. They start a bit later at 21:45 but those that used professional Panamanian talent were excellent. My wife claimed that the dancers were as good as or better than ones we have seen in Cuba (although I missed sizzle). The audience participation shows, i.e. Best Couple, Miss Decameron, where actually tastefully done and you didn’t feel embarrassed for the participants. However, with the exception of an Ecuadorian flute player (and you can see them in any city of the world) and a guitar player playing classic rock, there was no live music anywhere on the resort.
Other Comments: Overall this is a great resort, it is well laid out with great views. It was clean and efficient and the staff is professional and competent. We never felt compelled to tip staff and the service was good whether you tipped or not. I generally only tipped when I had received excellent service (in comparison to similar occasions on the resort) or on my 3rd visit to the same bartender. If you want a wonderful resort for a wonderful resort’s sake, then you can’t do much better than the Royal Decameron. However, my major complaint is that this resort could have been anywhere the sun shines. With the odd exception, unless you left the resort you would not even know you were in Panama. There was no soul to the resort, which can be attributed to all or most resort locations, but for all the complaints and criticisms of Cuban resorts, at least they make sure you know you are in Cuba, with music and general atmosphere.