If you’ve been following this blog or our recent Facebook and Twitter posts you’ll know that we recently visited the beautiful US Virgin islands in the Caribbean. We’ve been making more of an effort to diversify our vacations recently (it’s easy to keep visiting the resorts we know so well and love so much!) so we’ve been planning and booking trips to some of the of the Marriott and Starwood resorts that we hadn’t previously been to.
Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove has been high on our list of resorts to visit for some time (we’re big fans of the Caribbean) and, if we’re honest, the pictures on Vacation Smarter weren’t up to the standard we would have liked so there was an added incentive to book a trip (like we needed one!). In addition, we’ve been regular visitors to Aruba since 2006 so we were interested to see how Frenchman’s Cove compared to two of Marriott’s other Caribbean resorts.
We should start off by saying that we’re not viewing this as a competition, we’re just attempting to put together our opinion on how the resorts and the islands compare – all comments from vacationers who have visited these resorts (or who’d like to visit) are very welcome in the comments section below.
Geography and Weather
Aruba is a flat island that sits outside the generally accepted “hurricane belt”. This gives it the almost unique selling point of being a Caribbean island where your vacation is unlikely to be affected by bad weather, irrespective of the time of year. St Thomas is a very hilly island that sits well inside the “hurricane belt” and so can be affected by tropical storms and hurricanes at certain times of year (there was a big tropical storm which hit the island just a week before our arrival).
There are advantages and disadvantages to the locations of both islands:
Aruba’s lack of bad weather generally means that there isn’t a time of year where whole days or weeks can be lost due to rain and wind (although there are times of the year which are rainier than others). The flip side to that is that Aruba is a very dry island with little natural greenery or tropical plants – once away from the resort areas the island can be rocky and arid and there isn’t much in the way of wildlife to be seen.
Aruba can be dry and rocky
While St Thomas’ location means that visitors, at certain times of year, risk rain and high winds affecting their vacations, this same weather ensures that the island is green and lush and feels like a true tropical island with the wildlife that goes with that.
St Thomas benefits from the rain that Aruba doesn’t get
The main beaches on Aruba (Eagle Beach and Palm Beach) are on the west coast of the island and are both of an impressive size. The two Aruba Marriott Vacation Club resorts sit at the northern end of Palm Beach and, between them, take up a wide section of sea front. The area of Palm Beach around the Marriott resorts is also one of the beach’s widest points so there is a good feeling of space and the resorts don’t overshadow the beach area at all.
Having said that, the beach in front of the Marriotts can still get crowded during peak times (especially in front of the larger Surf Club) and the competition for a ‘palapa’ (thatched beach umbrella) in a prime location is fierce year-round (be prepared to get up early and wait in line for those premium water-side palapas). It’s always worth remembering that these are not small resorts – the Surf Club has 450 rooms and the Ocean Club adds a further 218 rooms – so set your expectations accordingly.
A view of the palapas on Palm Beach in front of the Surf Club
An often forgotten fact is that Palm Beach is man-made and the majority of the palm trees on it were planted by the resorts – so it’s not exactly a natural Caribbean beach. It is a nice, large beach with beautiful sand but visitors aren’t going to forget that they’re in a resort area – there’s nothing ‘idyllic’ about the beach. Eagle Beach (which lies south of Palm Beach and is a short car-ride away) may be a better option for those looking for a less crowded day out with a more relaxed feel to it.
St Thomas has beautiful beaches all over the island and they feel and look more like the idyllic beaches we see on the Travel Channel and in magazines advertizing the Caribbean. We visited St Thomas in the ‘off season’ so we can only assume and extrapolate what we saw to get an idea of how busy and crowded the beaches can get – bear that in mind when considering our comments.
Magen’s Bay beach on St Thomas – click image for full size
The beach in front of Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove is small. Compared to Palm Beach on Aruba it’s tiny – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During our time there it never got too busy and it gave the resort more of a boutique feel to it. The sand was beautiful and white and, while it wasn’t one of the more beautiful beaches we saw, it certainly had its own charm. Because of its size we’re in no doubt that space will be at a premium during the busier times of the year – although the resort is considerably smaller than the Aruba resorts (it has just 155 rooms) it’s still large enough to mean that there will be a lot of competition for sun loungers, umbrellas and beach space. Be prepared for some early morning rises if you want to be sure of a spot in the cove.
The beach at Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove – click image for full size
One of the benefits for guests at Frenchman’s Cove is that they can use the amenities and facilities at the neighboring Marriott property (Marriott Frenchman’s Reef & Morningstar Resort). The beach in front of the Morningstar portion of the resort is considerably longer and wider than the beach at the Cove and, while we were there, there was next to no one on it. Granted this may change during busier months but we suspect it’s unlikely to get as busy and crowded as Palm Beach in Aruba.
The beach in front of the Morningstar Resort – click image for full size
This is going to be short and quick – if you’re a pool person you’re going to prefer the offerings in Aruba. The Surf Club offers guests a lazy river and a vary large pool area while the Ocean Club has a quieter, but still good sized, pool. In addition, the Surf Club has just added a dedicated kids pool area which will appeal to visitors with smaller children. Due to the size of the Surf Club it’s always advisable to get to the pool early if you want to snag a sun lounger but it’s only ever super busy during peak travel weeks.
There’s nothing small about the pool at the Surf Club
The pool at Marriott’s Frenchman’s cove is nice but can’t compete with the offerings in Aruba – although the views from the pool at the Cove are much better then the resort views from the Surf and Ocean Club pools. During our visit it was busy at times and we can imagine it being crowded during peak travel months. We’re not big fans of volleyball nets in resort pools (especially in smaller ones) so we hope the net we saw in the pool at Frenchman’s cove comes down during busier times – if not it will just exacerbate any overcrowding in the remainder of the pool.
The Villas at the Resorts
Marriott appears to build it’s newer Vacation Club resort villas to a reasonably uniform standard and with little variation in layout. As such there really isn’t much inside the villas to differentiate between the St Thomas and the Aruba properties. All three resorts have been refreshed and upgraded in some way over the past two years so the condition of the furnishings doesn’t vary too much.
One difference between the villas at the resorts is that both the Aruba properties have lock-off units while the villas at Frenchman’s Cove do not lock off. This also affects the beds that the resort supplies:
In their two-bedroom villas, all three resorts have king beds in the master bedroom but, while the Aruba properties have a queen bed and a sofa bed in the second bedroom, Frenchman’s Cove offers two queen beds. Different configurations will suit different people depending on how many are travelling so we don’t see this to be a major differentiator between the resorts – but it’s always a good idea to take things like this into consideration when planning your next vacation rental or timeshare stay.
Marriott’s Aruba Surf Club Floor Plan
Marriott’s Aruba Ocean Club Floor Plan
Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove Floor Plan
Master bedroom at the Aruba Ocean Club
The major difference that we noticed was in the views offered from the villas. At the Aruba Surf Club, unless you own or rent an “ocean front” villa, you will, mostly, only have a view of the Caribbean from your balcony (if you have a view at all). The story at the Ocean Club is much the same. In St Thomas, however, there aren’t that many units that don’t look out over the cove so you have a good chance of getting a nice view. Coincidentally, over the past few days, we’ve heard of a number of guest at Frenchman’s Cove who didn’t get units with a view but we’re putting that down to some truly bad luck as there are a lot more units with views than there are units with none. (take a look at our review of the Frenchman’s Cove resort to find out more about the views).
The Islands and the Resort Neigborhoods
Both the Aruba Surf Club and the Aruba Ocean Club sit within an area bustling with other resorts, restaurants, shops, casinos and night life – all of which are within easy walking distance. It’s a 5 minute car journey to the nearest grocery store and only 15 minutes by car to downtown Oranjestad (the main town on the island). You don’t have to have a car if you’re visiting Aruba (although having one does give you a lot of freedom to explore). Taxis aren’t particularly expensive and buses are very cheap – you can use either to visit Oranjestad or to do your shopping for the week – so it’s easy to save on the cost of a rental car if you’re not planning on doing too much exploring.
Aruba brands itself as “One Happy Island” and, for the most part, the people live up to that moniker. Overall it’s a safe place to visit and the locals are usually very friendly, smiley and happy to see you – it’s part of what keeps us going back to Aruba so often.
St Thomas is a different island to Aruba. Frenchman’s Cove sits in an area that is just outside the nearest town and, even if there had been sidewalks in the area (which there weren’t) the hills would have made it a long difficult walk – especially in the Caribbean heat. A car is a “must” on St Thomas because there are a lot of great sights to see and, with the exception of the neighboring Marriott Resort, there isn’t anything walkable from Frenchman’s Cove. Using the local taxis isn’t really an option – they’re very expensive because they charge per person – and the local buses didn’t seem to be frequent or inviting. (View more of our tips for visitors to St Thomas).
We found the resort staff to be very friendly, helpful and accommodating but, in other areas it was hit-and-miss. In some places we were greeted with smiles while in others we faced indifference and sometimes plain old rudeness. We always do our best to be courteous and respectful wherever we visit so this aspect of our trip wasn’t a highlight – but it certainly didn’t affect the vacation too much.
Although we found St Thomas to be a little lacking in the ‘friendliness’ stakes, it made up for it with its beautiful beaches and countryside. And St Thomas has one huge selling point that cannot go unmentioned – St John. This neighbouring island is only a 20 minute drive followed by a 20 minute ferry ride away from Frenchman’s Cove and it is, truly, staggeringly beautiful. We took a boat trip to and around St John (starting from St Thomas) and it was one of the best excursions any of us had ever done. If for no other reason this is why you should visit the USVI (read here for more about our trip to St John).
As we said in the beginning, this isn’t a competition – so we’re not going to declare a winner and a loser. Both islands and all three resorts have visitors that love them and love visiting them – and we can see why. Hopefully we’ve given readers that haven’t visited either (or both) locations, an insight into what each has to offer and how we think they compare. If you have any thoughts on what we’ve written or, if you have anything to contribute that may help others thinking of visiting the resorts and islands, let us know in the comments section below.
For more, new, photos of Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove and photos of both the Aruba resorts, visit our Facebook Page. You can also “Like” us on Facebook if you’d like to be one of the first to see the latest resort photos as we post them from our travels.