By Michael Van Cooten
In these times of companies apparently maximising profits at the expense of customer satisfaction, when was the last time — if ever — you were completely bowled-over, by receiving much more value than was advertised?
My answer: two weekends ago.
From the afternoon of Friday, April 5 until Sunday, April 7, my beautiful, intelligent — and sexy — wife, Donna, and I, partook in the “Weekend Getaway” package, offered by Splashmins Hotel and Resort, in Guyana.
We had a pleasantly-fulfilling, enjoyable and memorable experience that far outstripped the benefits advertised by the hotel/resort — which was unexpected and surprising for me, even though we were foretold.
A few weeks ago, my wife’s lifelong best friend, Caesarine, had suggested — based on the fantastic time her son had told her he had, on his honeymoon, at the hotel/resort’s “Weekend Getaway” — that we should check it out.
Honestly, I trust Caesarine’s judgement, but remember, this was a second-hand recommendation she gave us, so I was a bit sceptical, since I normally set the bar high, when it comes to customer service and satisfaction.
Oh boy, did Splashmins blow my scepticism out of the water (pun intended).
After about an hour’s trip, by car, from east coast Essequibo, we arrived at the park/hotel/resort, which is located in the Madewini wetlands area, on the Soesdyke-Linden highway, approximately midway between Georgetown and Linden, on an imaginary horizontal line, about 10 to 15 minutes east of the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.
I must admit I was excited to spend some alone-time with “the wife”.
After calling ahead to find out if the resort had television and WiFi access in its rooms, and finding out “yes”, I packed my laptop and the over-700-page tome I’m currently reading, “Mask of Treachery”, by John Costello — just in case the venue didn’t deliver on all the “inclusions” in the package. Like I told you, I was sceptical.
Construction on the 400-acre Splashmins — a man-made fun-park and resort, encompassing the Madaweni Creek and nestled within the company’s over-700 acres of lush, tropical rainforest that showcases Guyana’s natural beauty of flora, fauna and fish-filled waterways — began in May 1997, and was officially opened in April of 2000, by the Ashmins Group of companies.
The “black water” creek — that starts at the Demerara River and meanders its way, eastwards, through the resort, and onwards beyond the Soesdyke-Linden highway — was, originally, (in the part that’s in the park) about, on average, 15 feet wide, with an approximate 60-foot wide band of nine-feet deep marshland/swamp on its north and south banks.
To fit in with the innovative and expansive vision he had for the property, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Lennox John, in the beginning, cut down trees and subsequently combined 72 million tons of sand, available on the property, to back-fill the nine-foot swamp that edged the north creek shore.
He also enlarged the creek itself, converting it into a lake, by dredging to deepen and widen it, to its current measurement of approximately a mile long by 500 feet, at its widest — an area that includes an inlet on the south shore and two more on the north shore, giving the body of water the look of an outstretched arm, with the thumb pointing upwards, and first two fingers ajar and extended downwards, at its western end.
The south bank of the creek was left in its almost natural state, with trees and shrubs, beyond which are acres of grasses, palms and literally hundreds of fruit trees, including, among others, coconuts, sugar cane, soursop, mangoes, kuru, sideoms and limes.
This 25-acre, lushly-vegetated area houses Splashmins Eco Adventure Park and Camping Grounds that accommodates hundreds of individuals for fishing and swimming in the south inlet of the creek, bird watching, camping, bush cookouts, lazing in hammocks slung between trees and fruit picking — with one condition: the fruits have to be consumed on the property.
The creek’s north shore boasts a quarter-mile long, white-sandy beach — where guests can sunbathe, swim, play volleyball, beach soccer, picnic etc. — that is paralleled by a palm-lined, brick walkway.
Just beyond the bustling beach/walkway area is an enormous, manicured, spotlessly-clean 163-acre park — short-cut, lush lawn, interspersed with 12-to-15-foot-high, piston-shaped ficus trees; firs; diverse varieties of flowering plants and palms; and almond trees.
The park — which exhibits the appropriate ambiance for weddings and other social occasions — is also dotted with numerous picnic areas; an open-air bar; a 24-seat restaurant; oblong and circular benabs, with both thatched and zinc roofs; an enclosed conference room that accommodates up to 70 persons for business meetings etc.; an open-air banquet hall; a basketball court; and a night-lit cricket/soccer field.
To the west of the cricket/soccer field is the hotel, consisting of three two-story, orange and yellow condo-like buildings, each containing eight air-conditioned suites, with individual balconies, queen or king-sized bed, bathtub with hot and cold water, Wifi, television, iron and refrigerator with beverages.
The first thing that should have given me a hint at the exceptional service that was to follow was: on finding out that we had been booked in a ground-floor room, I enquired if we could be transferred to one on the second floor.
I’m a Capricorn, I like heights, okay.
Malinda, from housekeeping, who welcomed us at the booking office on the hotel site, briefed us, showed me to the free parking area, said, with a genuine, wide smile “no problem”, then personally took us on a tour of the available, second-floor rooms, one of which we took, that had a view of the lake and a king-sized bed.
The company’s promotional brochure promised, that for my wife and I, the total cost of the “Weekend Getaway” would be 49,995.00 Guyana dollars (approximately $312.50 Canadian or $238.07 US), and would include: a stay of three days and two nights; live entertainment; bonfire night; beach volleyball; a buffet dinner; use of the resort’s amenities; a soca boat ride and lake tour; and horseback riding.
We actually ended up getting, not only the items listed above but also an additional two breakfasts, two lunches and an extra dinner — my second surprise.
I felt like I had gone to heaven.
After settling into our spacious room and chatting on the balcony, shaded by the spread-eagled fronds of a towering palm tree, at about 7PM, we made our way to the small, unpretentious, but intimate, 24-seat restaurant for dinner, which blew my mind.
We had barely seated ourselves when, out of nowhere it seemed, appeared a personable, smiling waitress with a courteous welcome, and two glasses of naturally-pure cherry juice.
In under two minutes, the waitress returned, outlined, verbally, what was on the menu for dinner that day (I guessed that the management preferred the personal touch, since there was no printed menus in sight), then took our order for, get this: “pineapple chicken and carrot rice”, which even sounded delicious, if that’s possible.
When the servings arrived, my wife and I were impressed, not only with how expertly they were dressed, but how ample they were, even containing tossed salads, which we didn’t expect.
Our meals looked and smelled so good, that I dug-in, immediately, forgetting to even say grace. Listen, this is “the God’s truth”, the food — no strike that, because it deserved a more appropriate description: cuisine — was absolutely delicious, no joke; we totally enjoyed the experience.
By now, you should have definitely gotten the correct impression that I am a “foodie”. I don’t eat only to satisfy hunger, but for the relish and pleasure; I love food, end of story.
That surprised me, since at all the all-inclusive resorts that we have ever been to, whether in Cuba, Jamaica, Antigua, and the Dominican Republic, eating was always buffet format — serve yourself.
After dinner, we exited the restaurant, immediately in front of which, were chairs arranged in a semi-circle, adjacent to a roaring, dazzling, over-five-feet high bonfire that was set up on the beach, and where the weekend getaway guests were to meet for “games night”.
When all the guests had assembled (eight of us), a tall, muscular, handsome, personable gentleman took centre stage, with his assistant, and with microphone in hand, introduced himself as Joel Cole, the co-ordinator for the resort’s weekend package’s actvities, who immediately attempted to get us to participate in the “games” he had planned for the evening.
Because of a “knee issue” on my part, my wife and I declined involvement, so also did the other six guests, initially, but that didn’t faze Joel, who kept on, gently but persistently persuading the other six, to loosen up and give his “games” a try, which they reluctantly did.
He started them off with an easy warm-up task: “chipping” or slow-tramping around the bonfire a few times, accompanied by soca music.
Next came a bout of “musical chairs”, which was won by one of the wives, whose name, my wife and I found out later, was Ammelia, who, in the end, beat out her own husband, Jason, for the win. Ammelia was a fierce competitor.
Then came a game that required the guests to divide into two teams that somehow, miraculously it seemed, culminated with the three couples, being split up and ending up on a team that their spouses weren’t.
First, the team members, on each of the two teams, had to assign numbers, between one and three, to themselves that involved consultation and discussion among themselves. the game also involved planning and plotting strategies to outfox the opposing side.
The idea was: the two teams lined up opposite each other, with a “bone” placed on the sand, in the centre of the space between them, and when the co-ordinator called a number, between one and three, randomly, the team member on each team with that number, sprint to the “bone”, pick it up and run back to their side, without being touched by their opponent.
Well, in no time at all, the participants were really in to the spirit of the game — laughing, celebrating with each win, and by the end of the game of 15 “sprints”, things had gotten very, very competitive, with Ammelia’s team coming out on top.
The final game was, again, a competition between individuals: a “spoon and lime” (instead of egg) race, which was won by, guess who? Ammelia.
By the end of “games night”, four couples, who had started out as complete strangers, were talking with each other, animatedly, and had formed a bond. It certainly seemed, to me, like Joel knew why he had persisted in getting involvement in the games.
He revealed his motivation to me, in an interview on the last day of the getaway, after we had checked out, noting that he was not surprised by the change in guests’ attitude towards each other.
He related that he had seen it happen many times before, in the year that the “weekend getaway” package has been in effect, adding that it was somewhat of a goal of his to create camaraderie and a bond between his guests.
He pointed out that he has seen cases, where couples came individually, and by the Saturday night dinner, requested that instead of sitting separately, if the resort could join a number of tables together, so that they could all sit, as one group.
“That is something that we pride ourselves on. As a matter of fact, we actually use that as one of the tools of our promotional campaign — people come individually, but by the first event they become friends,” he gleamed.
“It just goes to show, that if you can create events that people can enjoy themselves, with fellow guests, the bond (between them) automatically becomes strong, people get to talking and realise the many commonalities that they have…you know, by 36 hours after, you have friends.”
The next day, Saturday, was booked solid: 7-8AM — Madeweni Expedition and Nature Walk; breakfast between 8 and 10; volleyball, between 11AMm and 12:30PM; lunch, at 12:30PM to 2PM; 2-3PM — break; 3PM to 5:30PM — Soca Boat Ride: 5:30PM to 7:30PM — “Do your Own Thing”; and 7:30PM to 9:30PM — Beach Buffet Dinner and Entertainment.
My wife and I begged off of the nature walk. We wanted to sleep in a little later, after all, we were on a vacation, of sorts, and I wanted to make sure I had enough rest and energy, with which to attack breakfast (smile).
But, being a bit curious, I cornered Joel, later, and asked him to describe the scenery along the walk, and how it went.
He explained that the area, Madewini, in which Splashmins is located, is basically a tropical forest/jungle, teeming with wild life and flora, and the Madeweni expedition and nature walk was designed to give resort guests an opportunity to explore and experience it.
In describing the abundant variety of birds in the area, the coordinator stated: “A team from Conservational International came here to study the number of birds’ species in the area, and so far, they found 163 different species, just around the Splashmins area alone.”
The walk (3.89 miles long, outgoing and incoming) actually comprises of a hike through the forest, along a section of a loam road that was built by Splashmins and runs from the resort to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. It also includes expeditions along trails — constructed by the local Amerindians, who have been living in the area for decades — that branches off of the road.
Regarding the nature trail walk, on Saturday morning, Joel disclosed, “We were lucky, we saw two different types of hawks, woodpeckers, toucans, and these are just the rare birds; of course there were also the regular birds: kiskadees, blue sakkies, parrots etc.”
When “Hon” (now you know, my wife and I call each other “Hon”) and I got to the restaurant for breakfast, the other three couples were already there, looking exhausted from their experience on the nature walk.
Breakfast was a gastronomic delight, starting off with cherry juice and fruit salad for both of us. Hon had boulanger (egg plant in Canadian) and choka; and I put away pot bake and stew fish; followed by coffee and tea, respectively — and this was only breakfast, can you believe it?
We skipped the volleyball session, again because of my knee issues, and when we got back to the restaurant for lunch, although the volleyball net was still up, the other couples were nowhere to be found. Then after a few minutes one of the couples crawled in, explaining that after breakfast they went back to bed, fell fast asleep, right through the volleyball time period.
A little while later, Joel’s assistant dragged herself in, and explained that she had just awakened. One by one, the other couples came in, with the same story, so, it appears that the net was forced to played volleyball with itself.
Lunch was exceptional: curry chicken and rice for Hon; and pot roast chicken and chow mein for me. Both of us also had tossed salad and cherry juice, of course. By this time, I was soooo impressed with the cuisine, I asked to see the chef (noticed I didn’t say cook) so that I could compliment the obvious genius.
She came out, introduced herself and thanked me, profusely, for the compliment on her cooking, or should I say, “cheffing”? Sorry but I don’t remember her name. She told us that she was a proud graduate of “Carnegie” and that cooking for her was a passion.
For the non-Guyanese reading this, “Carnegie” stands for Guyana’s Carnegie School of Home Economics, founded in 1933 that became a respected institution for excellence in food preparation, among other things.
At a little after three-thirty in the afternoon, after waiting for a number of new couples, who were supposed to have booked in earlier, we took off, in the company’s pontoon, with soca music blaring, on our cruise around the lake, with Joel as the tour guide, and Ryan, the driver.
Since no one seemed interested in dancing to the soca music, we lazily sailed up the southern inlet, and disembarked at the dock at the resort’s Eco Adventure Park and Camping Grounds, where we spent about 20 minutes exploring the venue, picking fruits, taking pictures and watching some of the 20-something-year-old campers, who were swimming and frolicking in the waterway.
After clambering back aboard, we exited the inlet, turned west and then north into the first, then second inlet, mesmerised by the affluent, private, waterfront homes of the Madewini Estates.
Madewini Estates, situated at the western-most area of the north shore of the resort, is a collection of mansion-like, opulent homes, offering luxury retirement and vacation living, with a range of fully customizable villa designs, laid out over 230 acres of the 400-acre Splashmins Resort.
Residents of the Madewini Estates Resort Community have free access to all the amenities of the Splashmins resort, along with the security, peace of mind and social lifestyle that come with community living, the developer’s marketing material promises.
After about an hour we returned to the launch area, where another couple, who had arrived late, was waiting for the cruise. Joel, being the empathetic and thoughtful personality that he is, offered to take them, and anyone else of the disembarking party who wanted to go, on another cruise — of course, three of the couples, including Hon and I, went back for a second helping.
By the time we got back ashore, there was only about two hours for us to rest up and get ready for the beach dinner buffet and entertainment, performed by solo pannist, Detroy.
We arrived a bit late for dinner, and was surprised to find that we were the last to show up, and that the guests had just about doubled.
The dining area, created on the beach, immediately in front of the restaurant, was cordoned off by about-six-foot poles, topped with Tiki-torches that provided soft, romantic illumination and also reflected off silky-looking, semi-transparent, beige cloth material that was draped, banner-like, between the poles — all this under a clear, starry, moonless night sky, and with the strains of R&B, soca and reggae music, emanating from the steelpan, which Detroy’s extraordinary talent made “talk”. The ambiance was perfect.
At the buffet station, which was set up, just north of the dining area and staffed, Hon selected pigeon peas cook-up, with macaroni pie and stewed chicken, and for salad, sliced cucumber with a lump of chicken salad on top. I had steamed trout, macaroni pie and tossed salad. And for desert, we were served, the best tasting custard (that was topped with multi-coloured sprinkles) Hon and I have ever had.
I knew, right there and then, that I had died and gone to heaven!
In our interview, Joel mentioned that the entertainment varies each week and that to date, they have had dancers, singing and dancing, karaoke, an acrobat, but mainly singers in the reggae, soca and R&B genres.
“While entertaining the guests is our main priority, we have also provided a venue for Guyanese acts to be able to perform in front of a crowd, every single week. Since we started, over a year ago, we have had over 40 different acts come and perform for the guests, here, at Splashmins,” he said.
“And we’re proud of that; firstly, for giving the guests, who show up every weekend, an absolutely wonderful performance”, and secondly, to give local artistes a platform to exhibit their talents…..”because the music industry in Guyana is still a budding one, and we would like them to have as many opportunities as possible, to perform in front of a crowd, and we can provide that, so, we kill two birds with one stone,” he elaborated.
The last day of the weekend getaway encompassed: breakfast, between 8-10AM; from 9-11AM — horseback riding; 11AM to 12PM — games time; noon — check out and lunch.
For breakfast, we enjoyed fruit salad, cherry-orange juice, saltfish and “float” bake and “boil and fry” — sweet potatoes, ripe plantains and cassava boiled and then fried with seasonings and onions. Hon had coffee and I had tea.
We then went horseback riding, packed, checked out, then returned to the restaurant for lunch that consisted of: fried trout with eddo leaf cook-up for Hon; and I wolfed down barbequed trout, with eddo leaf cook-up and macaroni pie — and, of course, we both washed down lunch with cherry juice.
I again asked to see the chef, who I explained to, that her delicious cooking had added tremendous fulfilment to our weekend, and thanked her, again. She smiled, warmly, humbly accepted my praise, and told us that we had “made her day”, since she strives to impart happiness to folks, through her cooking.
After a short swim and some frolicking with Hon in the lake, I sat with Joel for a short interview, in which, when asked what his responsibilities, as coordinator, were, he replied: “Supremely among them, is to ensure that the guests get exactly what they paid for, and to match delivery with their expectations.”
In addition to its splendid natural beauty and fantastic fare, the thing that truly impressed my wife and I about Splashmins, was the genuinely-courteous, friendly, attentive, cordial and helpful behavior of the management and staff towards their guests — from the owner, to Joel, the waitresses, chef, bartenders, cleaners, housekeeping, horse trainer, boat driver, gardeners etc.
By the way, it was Joel, who is also the founder and Chief Executive Officer of marketing and promotion company, Creative Concepts, who came up with the idea of the “Weekend Getaway” package and sold it to Splashmins’ owner.
Listen, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything at Splashmins was all “honky-dory”; there was a hiccup: the resort’s “Super Wifi” was not powerful enough for me to access Netflix, CNN, other mainstream websites, or even my own Pride News Online website.
But, it turned out that, in the end, it didn’t matter, since I was so busy having a grand ole time, I didn’t have a chance, or the time, or inclination to use the Wifi, my laptop or read my book, anyway.
I think I could guess what you are thinking now: They got the good treatment because he is the publisher and editor of a popular, influential and second-oldest (36-years-old) Caribbean-, Black- and African-Canadian newsmagazine, so, obviously, Splashmins put on a show for them, anticipating a written review.
Hey, if that’s your thought, you’re pretty smart — but dead wrong!
When we booked our romantic getaway, we did not disclose, either that we were from Canada or that I owned Pride News Magazine. And secondly, initially I did not even think about, much less plan, writing a review; as a matter of fact, I rarely write for Pride — I just edit, manage, publish and pay the bills.
Here I was, all alone with my alluring wife — no children or mother-in-law in sight — in an environment conducive for romance, for two-and-a-half days, and I would be thinking about writing a review? You’ve got to be kidding me! You joking, right?
But, and here’s the big but (no pun intended), after a day-and-a-half of soaking in views of an enchantingly-beautiful natural landscape, including exotic flora and fauna; a mesmerising body of water, shimmering under a stunning sunset in the evening, and canopied by a blotchy-clouded, half-moonlit night, ablaze with twinkling stars — and spying satellites, at night; exquisite, mouth-watering cuisine; exceptional, courteous, personable customer service; enjoyable camaraderie with new-found acquaintances; many softly-whispered conversations with my beau; and much more value than I had anticipated and paid for, the spontaneous coercion just came naturally — I had to tell this story to as many people as I could, so that, hopefully, they could feel the intoxicating joy that my wife and I had experienced.
It wasn’t until the Saturday night, after dinner and the entertainment, that I informed the “Weekend Getaway” package’s coordinator, Joel, about who I was, professionally, and what I had in mind, because I needed to get some photos and official information about the resort, and a few comments from management.
Just before we left the resort for home, I came out of the restaurant, after my interview with Joel, and stepped into a conversation between Hon and one of the other wives, who suggested, strongly, that we contact her in the future.
After this interaction, on our way to our car, we were approached, and stopped, by Jason and his wife, Ammelia (the Champ as I called her), who explained that she had pointed out to her husband how lovingly Hon and I always acted towards each other, and suggested to him that that is how she “would like them to be, when they got to our age”.
After a lengthy and meaningful conversation, Jason subsequently gave us their contact telephone numbers for follow up, and requested ours, which we gave, willingly.
I am not saying that we gained friends, it’s way too early for that, but we do intend to follow-up with these two couples and…who knows where things could end.
So, now that you’ve been told, when are you going to check out Splashmins? They’re just waiting to entertain and please you.