from San Antonio de Pereira, Colombia
Submitted on 02-07-2016
When I first read the reviews of Riu Playa Blanca, I had mixed feelings about this resort. Our travel agent in Medellin gave us a package deal that was hard to refuse. But between the fly-by reviews touting the place, comments by management's "TA Reputation Doctor" and the very detailed reviews criticizing the hotel, I did not know what to make of this place. In spite of my initial reluctance to book here, my wife and niece outvoted me, and so we booked the vacation package through a travel agen...
When I first read the reviews of Riu Playa Blanca, I had mixed feelings about this resort. Our travel agent in Medellin gave us a package deal that was hard to refuse. But between the fly-by reviews touting the place, comments by management's "TA Reputation Doctor" and the very detailed reviews criticizing the hotel, I did not know what to make of this place. In spite of my initial reluctance to book here, my wife and niece outvoted me, and so we booked the vacation package through a travel agent.
Overall, my stay at Riu Playa Blanca was pleasant, but the hotel failed to live up to its potential in two critical areas: 1) Safety and Protection of Guests and 2) Food Quality and Preparation. For this reason, I am only assigning 3 stars for my overall rating of this property.
Riu Playa Blanca is situated on the Pacific Coast, about 100 km away from Panama City. The ocean surf is not much to look at, but a wide stretch of beach that stretches from the pool area to the berm is dotted with dozens of small palm trees and beach lounges. Riu Playa Blanca resort is all-inclusive, almost brand new (opened in April 2014), and boasts 553 rooms available for its guests.
The Riu complex is a medium-sized resort with a beach, ocean access; 4 swimming pools; an aquatic sports center; pool bar; sports bar; discoteque; lobby bar/lounge; and live show theater. There are also two stores in the main building, but no ATM (You need to go next door to the Playa Blanca Beach Resort ATM). There are ample elevators to service the 6 floors in the resort, but while I was there, the elevators malfunctioned at least 3 times, and guests had to use the stairs. WIFI service is adequate, but spotty. The hotel offers a premium WIFI service which I declined. The free WIFI service to my room was unreliably intermittent... and forget about streaming NETFLIX. The resort is clean throughout and the general appearance is kept well-maintained. The commons area and grounds staff do a super job of keeping the place ship-shape. The hotel is tastefully decorated in Art Deco throughout.
With three people in my family, a Riu standard triple room offered us space and comfort. Everything that was supposed to work, did so like a charm. The bathroom is huge, and can double as a dressing room while another is taking a shower. My only criticism is that the hotel is very stingy on the usual amentities found in a luxury resort hotel (eg no lotions, shampoo, shower caps or coffee maker.) The room we stayed in, #3062, has a big mini-fridge, four liquors on tap, an electronic safe big enough to store a 15" lap-top computer, iron and board, 32" flat screen TV with device connections, telephone, and A/C that works marvelously. The room had ample lighting, electrical connections and closets. At the end of the unit, overlooking the hotel gardens, is a spacious balcony with patio furniture. To the left, we had a magnificent view of the ocean. The room remained quiet and peaceful throughout the night and day. The beds are somewhat comfortable and afford average sleep quality.
THE RESTAURANTS AND BARS:
Excluding snacks, the hotel offers 4 main restaurants. If you wish to eat dinner in one of the specialty restaurants, you will need to make reservations in the Xian Asian restaurant before 10 am every morning. Overall, food quality in the restaurants ranged from Very good to Poor. Generally speaking, the salad, sides and dessert bars were quite good, but where the hotel falls flat on its face is on the hot buffet lines. The food is frequently old, stale, tired and tough. (And in some cases served under unsanitary conditions).
One thing about Riu Playa Blanca is there is no shortage of bars. You will find bars throughout the complex and beer and wine on tap in the restaurants. The mini-bar service to our room was exceptional. Our bar man, Roberto, kept our fridge and liquor dispenser well-stocked, and never let us "go dry."
1. BALBOA (Fusion)- Balboa is the main cafeteria-style restaurant which serves 3 meals a day beginning with breakfast. I nicknamed it "The General Mess" because the hot serving lines reminded me of the mess decks aboard Navy ships (and many times, so did the food quality.) There is a wait staff to assist with beverages and any other requests that you may have. In particular, we took a liking to Rosa, who was most helpful during breakfast and lunch time. I avoided eating from the hot buffet line, and stuck with the salads and sides in the cold buffet line which I might add were quite good. I ate a boneless pork chop on my first day, and it was as tough as shoe leather. The next day, I gave the peppered beef a shot, and was equally disappointed. At breakfast time, nothing is made to order like in many other AI resorts. Fried Eggs and omelets are made ahead of time and left out until they are hard and cold and no longer appetizing. The morning fresh fruit juices do get a double thumbs-up, though. The ubiquitous capuccinos hit the spot every morning as well.
2. Il Palozzo (Italian)- By far, the Italian restaurant is the pick of the litter. We enjoyed two evening dinners and would have done 3 if the restaurant was open Wednesdays. The anti-pasta, dessert, bread and hot buffet bars were excellent. In particular, I enjoyed the rich, full lasagna and thin-crust pizza at the buffet. I ordered broiled salmon and shrimp fetuccini as my main entree and was pleased with both selections. Il Palozzo is a cozy, quiet restaurant that comes as close as your going to come to a romantic setting at Riu Playa Blanca. This restaurant is highly recommended.
3. Xian (Asian)- The sushi, noodle and salad bars were not bad. But once again, food quality at the hot buffet takes a nose dive. The various Asian-style entrees looked old, tired and dehydrated, so I did not try. I stuck with the sushi and noodles and was content with that. Unfortunately, there are no prepared-to-order hot entrees on the menu.
4. Chiriqui (Steakhouse/Snack/Fast food). This is the catch-all restaurant for the resort, and quite frankly the worst. Lunch and snacks are served here, and at night the restaurant doubles as a steak house. Although the serving area has boundary doors, the doors are kept open for some unknown reason. So, flies, mosquitoes and other insects are free to enter the serving area and light upon the food in the buffet lines. Fast food items like hamburgers and fries are desiccated and contaminated by insects. I took one look at this, and steered clear of the buffet lines at this place. My wife decided to try the curry chicken (a mistake). The heating elements on the sneeze shields are unprotected and present a safety hazard. She inadvertently bumped one of the UV elements with her wrist and received a second degree burn. What followed, in regards for what was offered as first aid treatment, will be discussed later. On our last night at Riu, we had dinner at Chiriqui (aka the Steakhouse). My rib-eye steak was cooked to order and passable. It was an extra-thin cut, but nevertheless, I was content to eat it. The servers at Chiriqui the Steakhouse did not exhibit the usual friendly, helpful attitudes of their counterparts in the other restaurants. As a matter of fact, the orders were slow in getting out... 50 minutes from ordering to serving the first course. Even simple requests were deflected with impatience and excuses. We would have not eaten here if Il Palozzo was open that night.
5. The Various Bars: Service at all of them are friendly and efficient. Most of the liquor labels are generic unknowns to me. But if you ask nicely, the bartender may treat you to a name brand liquor in your drink. (After the first drink, you won't be able to tell the difference between namebrand and generic anyways.)
The recreational staff at Riu is relentless in its efforts to keep hotel guests as happy campers. From early morning until late at night, the Riu staff is tirelessly enthusiastic in the various activities they offer. Whether it's taking a dive, keeping the pool clean, leading aqua aerobics, playing bingo or orchestrating a show, these young, creative people do an excellent job. I would like to single out one employee, Maria, the divemaster, who thrilled my niece with an afternoon snuba session at the nearby island.
Overall, the worker bees and front line supervisors at Riu Playa Blanca get it. But, I'm not so sure that management does. From chambermaid to barmaid, to bell hops and desk clerks to grounds keepers and security, the collective face of the Riu workforce is cheerful and helpful. Steve, our bell-hop, made us feel welcome when we first arrived. This guy did not leave us until he had fulfilled all our requests and we were settled in. He did not hesitate to check on us during our 5-day stay. Two invaluable "go to" people at the front desk are worthy of mention as well. Luber and Luisana are both knowledgeable and helpful employees who steered us in the right direction and got things done when others said "can't." Management should be proud of its staff and remain confident in the fact that its employees are indeed doing their job. As always, good, conscientious service deserve a tip. These good employees depend upon it.
Unfortunately, management seems unresponsive to the needs of hotel guests. In particular, the safety and protection of its guests appear to be low on its priority list. Here are two examples that made me come to this conclusion:
When we first arrived, I noticed that the floor of our shower did not have any kind of rubber map or non-skid strips. The shower enclosure is made with beautiful marble tile. Although very attractive, it is "slippery when wet." When used as flooring in a shower, it becomes the perfect fall hazard... especially for those of us who are up in our years. For 4 days, I begged for a rubber mat, but to no avail. Finally, on our last day at the resort, our chambermaid delivered a brand new Rubbermaid shower mat (still in wrap). I am fairly confident that Luber at the front desk made this happen. My question is: Why are rubber mats not standard issue in all the rooms? It was like pulling teeth to get one $10 rubber mat to prevent me from breaking my backside. Its sister hotel up the road, Riu Plaza Panama City has rubber mats in all its tubs and showers. Why can't Riu Playa Blanca do the same?
On our second day at the resort, we tried to eat lunch at the Chiriqui snack bar. As my wife helped herself to curry chicken, she burned her wrist on an unprotected UV heating element. The burn immediately turned red and later blistered. We sought first aid from the restaurant supervisor, Osvaldo. He told my wife to rub tomato juice on the burn. We then headed for the reception area in the lobby and to ask for help. The desk clerk put us in touch with the public relations manager, Magali Zigler, who told my wife to run plenty of cold water over the burn. She then offered my wife, a topical skin creme over the wound. I asked if treatment at the hotel infirmary was an option, but was told it's not possible. Frustrated, we returned to our room. A short time later, we had the front desk call an emergency medical doctor to the hotel. The doctor cleaned and dressed the burn. 2 shots, 3 prescriptions and $190 later, the doctor gave us the bill. My wife was instructed to stay out of the water and sun. Great news on the second day of a 5-day stay at a beach resort. So effectively, my wife was confined to the room for the remainder of our vacation. The following day, I wrote a letter to the hotel's General Manager, Victor Merino. In my letter, I gave an account of what had happened and the sequence of events leading up to calling the emergency medical doctor. The letter also included copies of the medical report and bill. I still have not received the courtesy of a response from Mr. Merino or anyone else in management. So, I can only conclude that Riu Management at Playa Blanca does not care about its guests.
For what we paid for our tour package, our 5 days/4 nights at Riu Playa Blanca was a very good deal. However, based upon my experience at this resort, I would not pay rack rate. If Riu management can become more focused on the details of daily operations and policies that need some shoring up, this hotel has the potential to become a great resort. Presently, the hotel falls short in a couple of critical areas. Hopefully, Management has the willingness to improve.