The swim-up bar has been a mainstay of Sandals hotels with many guests enjoying Caribbean sunshine with a drink in hand right in the pool.
Here, Claire Ballentine, writing in Bloomberg, takes us through the evolution of the swim-up bar and why it has become a favourite for those on holiday.
The swim-up bar is a polarising amenity: It’s either the pinnacle of leisure – think of lounging in a Caribbean pool watching the sunset with a piña colada in hand – or a ridiculous chain resort gimmick to siphon more dollars from hotel guests’ soggy wallets.
No surprise, then that they can be found in locations that range from the Four Seasons Resort Maui, which has panoramic views of lush tropical gardens, to a thatched-roof version serving giant pickles at a theme park in Des Moines. There’s even an indoor one at a Times Square hotel.
“It goes along with the whole vacation experience,” says Eric Herman, senior editor at Aqua Magazine, which covers the pool industry. “It’s like being served cocktails on the beach. It’s a hedonistic indulgence activity.”
Traditionally, a swim-up bar is like a regular bar but located directly in the pool, allowing guests to order their Frosé without the burden of getting out. There are usually submerged bar stools and shallow depth, so you don’t actually have to tread while you sip.
This year, Sandals Resorts International is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first Caribbean swim-up bar at its Montego Bay resort in Jamaica with a redesign, which was introduced on August 30th.
Architects removed the window panels that framed the bar’s opening to break down the divide between indoors and outdoors and installed Spanish cedar and teak along the front façade.
“Our pool bars are kind of the heart of the hotel –that’s where everyone pictures themselves,” says Maggie Rivera, senior vice president for strategic communications at Sandals. “This one is the iconic cornerstone.”
The swim-up bar has its roots in the Las Vegas gambling scene of the 50s, when poolside amenities began to be used to keep guests spending money while they were relaxing, Herman says.
In 1952, the Sands Hotel & Casino introduced blackjack tables and slot machines near their swimming pools. Soon after, the Tropicana Resort offered floating gambling tables.
“In Las Vegas, pool design was the key differentiator between resorts (at that time),” says Stefan Al, an architect and author of The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream.
It wasn’t until 1981, when Sandals Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart opened the Montego Bay resort, that serving beachside cocktails to guests became a tradition. During renovations three years later, the brand decided to push the idea further after architect Evan Williams told Stewart that he never understood why you couldn’t have bars in pools. So, they decided to create one.
It was an immediate hit, and it wasn’t long before other resorts waded into the category. Today you can order a cocktail from swim-up bars at the Hotel Punta Islita in Costa Rica, the Hotel Monte Mulini in Croatia, the Crystal Cove resort in Barbados and Le Meridien Bali Jimbaran in Indonesia. Sandals has at least one in nearly every one of its 15 all-inclusive resorts.
Swim-up bars are having a resurgence in popularity for a simple reason: social media. The one at the Four Seasons Resort Maui is one of the hotel’s iconic features, says general manager Marc Bromley.
Situated in the adults-only Serenity pool, and built in 2009, it serves such signature drinks as a mojito with blueberry compote. “It’s kind of ground zero for Instagram in our hotel,” he says.
They don’t have to be outside, either. Room Mate Grace Hotel in New York has operated the D.I.P Aqua Bar & Lounge since 2008. (The acronym stands for “dance in the pool.”)
Hotel director Alvaro Diaz Martos says it’s the only indoor swim-up bar in Manhattan.
There’s also an in-water bar at Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, a man-made geothermal spa steaming up a scenic rocky landscape, and the Lotus Swim-Up Bar at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, with an infinity-edge pool.
Some people choose to bring ‘vacation vibes’ to their everyday lives by installing a swim-up bar at home.
Austin-based pool designer Brian Cullingworth says the average build-out can add US$10,000 or US$15,000 to the approximately US$60,000 cost of building a home pool. This feature became popular about 20 years ago, as a pool customisation trend took hold, coinciding with skittishness following September 11 (2001).
“People started not wanting to travel, so they started to create staycations,” Cullingworth says. “They were spending money they would normally spend traveling on a pool.”
The renovations at Sandals Montego Bay swim-up bar include new stonework and quartz countertops, says Sarah Hartman, one of the architects who worked on the project. The hotel installed fans and chandeliers with glass imported from Spain. In addition, coral stone clads the entire building, and the floor is Spanish porcelain tile.
“We wanted to enjoy the outside inside and keep the atmosphere casual yet elegant,” Hartman says.
Sandals also modernised some of its classic cocktails, such as the Dirty Banana (Appleton Reserve rum, Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream, banana and milk) and added new drinks like the Buffalo Soldier (Casa Noble Crystal tequila, Appleton Reserve rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice, soda and Scotch bonnet pepper).
Still, some drinks needed no improvements, says Ricky DuQuesnay, group manager for food and beverage at Sandals. “When you’re in business for 38 years and clients expect the rum punch to taste a certain way,” he says, “you don’t want to be changing it.”
— This article was first published in Bloomberg News