Jamaica, November 2008

Last spring when I saw an ad for a fam to Jamaica, I filled the form thinking a trip south planned for the fall sounded fun. I had never been to Jamaica and all those photos of people horseback riding in the jungle are sitting under waterfalls made it look different from other Caribbean islands. Besides I wanted to find out how “dangerous” an island it really is…. as this has been its reputation…

So off we went…on the wings of Air Jamaica, which flies between Toronto and Kingston. A nice surprise: clean modern colorful planes, cheerful staff, and a real meal during the flight!!

Kingston is not a touristy place, and even if we were staying in a pretty ordinary motel style hotel (the Altamont court) we already got a taste of how luxuriant the vegetation is…and how nice Jamaican food can be.

This would turn out to be one of the revelations of this trip: the food! There is such a variety of fresh produce both from the sea and the land …several fruits and some vegetables I had never tasted before like paw paw, breadfruit, soursop, june plum, callaloo, ackee. Patties and bammies are very popular and everything jerk  (chicken, pork, sausage). Soups are great, especially the red pea soup. I was lucky to have a travel companion who guided me through menus so that I could sample the local delicacies and a tour guide who explained colloquialisms such as the expression “Belly buss” as in “Better belly buss dan good food waste”.

At one point during the trip our driver stopped the bus along the road and people came up offering freshly grilled fish through the windows.

The next morning we started our visits in earnest.  This was a “Small hotels and villas” fam, so we mostly stayed away from the larger properties that everyone knows…

Our first stop was Hotel Versales in May Pen on the way to Negril. Obviously this is low season so the place was very quiet and not really impressive….but again I was seduced by the flowers.

Our next stop was the Bluefields Bay Villas. For our first taste of villa living…we started with villa San Michele: surrounded by water on three sides, offering great views of mountains meeting the Caribbean, stands of bamboo and fruit trees, and an unspoiled sea I was seduced! I did not need anything more, I would have gladly stayed there forever.

The view both inside and out of the bedrooms was movie-like

The view from the downstairs terrace was not shabby either…and of course you have your own pool pavilion…

There is a small sandy beach where the starfish seemed to have been painted in…

We visited a few others such as the Mullion Cove, with six bedrooms

I could not resist this lovely candy cane colored hibiscus

And finally the Hermitage where we had lunch. This was the most luxurious with precious woods and marbles. Even the tableware was antique ….

By day’s end we had reached Negril. This is THE tourist destination of choice because of the famous Seven Mile Beach.

We were staying at the Rondel village. It is a lovely compact beach side resort. The rooms are large and airy and each one has a big balcony. Had it not been for the lack of hot water I would have been in seventh heaven. True to form I headed for the water as fast as you can say “bathing suit”. The water was clear and warm and I stayed in until the sun came down.

That night we had dinner at Couples Negril. As the name indicates this resort targets couples and is supposed to provide a romantic vacation…I was slightly turned off by the dark red décor…a bit too Mount Poconos for my taste BUT I must say cocktails were awesome, the buffet was varied and tasty and the staff charming. It is mostly a young crowd, lots of newly weds and their entourage. After dinner there was a variety show, presenting dancers, fire eaters and limbo dancers…but the big attraction was definitely the bar…and the feature drink was  a Bob Marley, which is a layered shooter of crème de menthe, dark rum and grenadine….that you must drink in one shot through a straw…

The next morning we had breakfast at Merrils, a no frills property but nicely located on the beach.

After which we headed for the Moondance villas. Again, each one comes with a chef, a bartender and a housekeeper…they felt luxurious…even if I did not catch any great ocean views.

Their names are very evocative: Ginger Breeze and Lilac Mist to name a few.

Our next stop was at the Palms…a very nice zen décor and beautiful beach

Our next stop was brief, at the Seawind resort. Its only claim to fame is that it is run by a couple of Quebecers, so, for anyone who wants French speaking service…this is the place.

We returned to a Sunset property for lunch called Sunset at the Palms. This one has a very different feel. The lobby was dark and cool. The rooms are tree-house style sprinkled in nicely landscaped gardens. Although it is not directly on the beach, it is close to several golf courses and has a nice spa.

There is another side to Negril and we got to see it at Rock House Hotel. This is the cliff side, offering dramatic views.

The barman here was exceptionally friendly:

Our last visit in this area, was a property called Tensing Pen. Similar location, totally  different feel

We then stopped at Rick’s Café, a very popular bar and restaurant. A diver throws himself from atop a tree down into the ocean below…the photos do not do him justice as he is very high up…

Then it was back to our hotel for a swim, a red label beer and a nice sunset…THIS is what makes it all worthwhile….

That evening we were invited to the Riu Negril, a grand hotel, very luxurious looking like all Riu properties. There was a reggae concert afterwards with a Bob Marley look alike…

Next morning: time to leave Negril for Ocho Rios. Our fist stop was at the Grand Palladium hotel (and its sister property the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton). It is a huge complex (1056 rooms,  9 restaurants, 13 bars, 5 pools etc etc).

Right from the get go, the lobby sets the tone:

The pools are on the grand scale too:

It was a welcome relief to find these inner courtyards:

The following stop is Round Hill. If the Moon Dance Villas were nice, these were breathtaking! Ralph Lauren owns two of them and has decorated several. They have been written up in countless magazines.

Next visit: Coyaba Resort, while the Grand Palladium was blindingly white, this resort is yellow. There are some spectacular palm trees in this resort

Back on the bus for the last leg of the trip with a stop at the “Luxury tennis golf villas”. This property belongs to (or is run by) a professional tennis player and logically caters to tennis and golf players. There is a lot of attention to detail in the décor…coordinated fabrics etc….

And then…finally…. our reward!!! Our very own villa experience! The group was split in two. I got to stay in the “Scotch on the Rocks Villa” while the other group stayed at the “Somewhere” villa.

Just to set the record straight the name refers to a Scotsman and not a drink…

Here is my bedroom and the view from my balcony:

In the morning we came down to this breakfast, to which were added eggs and bacon, home fries, a traditional Jamaican fish dish…and pancakes….

There was a staff of five. The gardener did a great job of tending to the large variety of plants and flowers on the grounds.  The cook was as sweet as she was talented and shared some of her recipes with me. Our butler was a Rasta and took time to answer my questions about this religion, because it is more than the dreads…it involves life rules, and practices…surprisingly they are against violence…even if back here they are linked to street gangs…

Your every need was satisfied…the beds were like clouds, the views like postcards, the ocean…like paradise…

I was told the other villa was as nice…

After a perfect night, we were ready for a marathon of visits. Starting with Tranquility Cove, which is really a condo formula. Each unit having a full kitchen, a large open living space, a balcony, a closed bedroom and a bathroom with a fancy jet tub for two.

Next we visited Shaw Park Hotel, very elegant as you can see from this shot of the lobby.

The following stop caters to a different clientele: Rooms on the Beach

The following resort again had a different feel: small yellow buildings nestled on a hill. Their ad claims it is an oriental ambiance…. I’m not so sure. Its biggest drawback is that it is not directly on the beach…

We then drove to the Sunset Jamaica Grande and grand it is!! The hotel itself is a high-rise tower…. offering nice views the pools and water park below.

There is a beach although it is not the main attraction.

The décor is very colorful, even the chandeliers are colored…

And that concluded the hotel visits!!!! It was time to have some fun! And to finally see the famous Dunn’s River falls. This was my reason for wanting to come to Jamaica, this is what sets this island apart from the other Caribbean islands…it is also a big tourist attraction. It is a 600 feet climb from the beach to the top. It is quite a challenge but it is definitely fun and a great photo opportunity.

One couple in what I thought was their wedding clothes were standing in the water getting their picture taken…but when he took his top off and she got her dress wet… …I was not so sure anymore…

The next morning we set out to experience another of the big attractions: Mystic Mountain. We rode the chairlift to the top of the 700 foot mountain (it felt funny to do that without skis on my feet). As it skims the top of the trees, you have views of the coastline (and of the  Carnival Destiny that was docked in Ocho Rios that day) and close-up views of tropical treetops .

Once there you could ride the “bobsled” down which travels on winding, plunging stainless steel rails on a 3,280-foot gravity-driven ride through the forest. The ads may talk of a leisurely tour through the forest but to me it was sheer terror…but then…I hate any type of amusement park ride….Pictures are taken automatically after a particularly sudden turn…and displayed on a screen once you are back in the gift shop…I honestly did not recognized myself….enough said…

The other option, which was a lot more fun was the zip line. Similar to what I had done in Costa Rica…you  got to zoom from treetop to treetop…

We ended our day at the Dolphin’s cove, another tourist attraction…reminiscent of a mini sea world . There were dolphin of course and sharks and stingrays

There were also a few exotic birds and this cool iguana

On the way back, I was happy I had visited the island, but for some reason, even though I never felt threatened, I did not feel especially welcomed either. The locals seem mostly indifferent and, maybe because there were several Jamaican born people in our group, it intensified the feeling of not belonging…Thankfully our group leader and the Air Jamaica rep did their best to compensate.

Once I was home and looked at my photos I was impressed at how beautiful the scenery is: the mountains, the flowers, the fruit trees, the ocean….even if the beaches are not extra wide or long…

I would definitely go back to stay in a villa….but probably not to stay in any of the regular hotels…