Wednesday, June 3, 2009

No Problems in Jamaica

Something funny happened on my way through Jamaica: I fell in love. Not with the dude in the photo above (sorry, mom) but with Jamaica. It’s true what they say: it always happens when you least expect it.

Jamaica had always fallen very, very low – to the point of nonexistent – on the long list of places I want to visit in this lifetime. When a business trip was scheduled to the island I wasn’t overly thrilled, but decided anyway to make the most of the experience and create a mini vacation out of it. After all, Jamaica does have sun and beaches, and I had a friend willing to meet me there. So I proceeded to plan the long weekend with low expectations; little did I know I would be blown away.

Nestled among the colorful family of Caribbean Islands, Jamaica stands out from the rest like a middle child: without too much effort, as though it was meant to be different. With deep roots in slavery and a rich African heritage, Jamaica presents a tapestry of individuality and flair unlike any other island culture I have witnessed. The people, the food, the music, the landscape... all go hand in hand with the often-spoken phrase “No Problem”, which may as well be the island’s national anthem. Jamaica is the land of no problem. Of seemingly untroubled souls. Of gleamingly bright smiles. Jamaicans are kind, considerate, hospitable, informed, and totally laid back. Maybe it’s the almighty herb that contributes to this general state of “whatever”. I'm not judging.

After a week of Luxury Imprisonment behind the concrete walls of The Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall in Montego Bay , I returned to the madness of the Montego Bay Airport to join up with my incoming friend. Together we boarded a Jamaica Tours Ltd. bus bound for Negril, and at the precise moment that bus pulled away from MoBay, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief for having escaped 5-star, culture-less, white-washed glitz. The oversized, overly-air conditioned bus was packed to the gills with eager tourists, but at $25 per person it was perfectly convenient. And with Derek as our driver and guide, we were treated to a 2-hour comedy routine and lesson on Jamaican culture, history, food and language. (According to Derek, a woman with a very large rear-end is said to have a “Wicked Bumper”. I still don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing).

As the bus inched slowly toward Negril, I watched Jamaica's stunning landscape unfold before me: forests of lush, green trees giving way to long stretches of white, sandy beaches; tranquil ocean waters as translucent as glass, glistening like diamonds in shades of turquoise and emerald green. I had arrived in Jamaica expecting nothing. Ten days later, I departed having discovered a glittering gem floating in the Caribbean Sea.

Below are the highlights – plus a few lowlights – of my experience in Jamaica. Content edited to be suitable for all audiences.

Xtabi on the Cliffs: Heaven on the Cheap
I fell in love with this quaint little resort, with its spotless rooms, inviting swimming pool, friendly service, and the airy, bright octagonal bar and restaurant overlooking the sea. As proof of my love, I devoted an entire post to this resort.

Rockhouse Hotel: Heaven on the Not-So-Cheap
This resort, just down the road from Xtabi, is all it’s cracked up to be and more. Maze-like stone paths wind through lush gardens, leading to sleeping cottages that sit precariously on the cliff’s edge. A gorgeous bar and restaurant space creates an intimate dining experience, and the on-property spa offers a full list of services at decent prices. Maximum peace, quiet and privacy are what you will be treated to at Rockhouse, not to mention unbeatable sea and sunset views… and a healthy dose of luxury.

Yoga Negril Center
A large, open-air yoga studio built of gleaming wood sits proudly amidst the tranquil gardens and cottages of this small hotel on Norman Manley Blvd. The Iyengar yoga class led by Fanette is slow-moving and of low intensity, but perfect for loosening up achy muscles after a long plane ride or one too many pina coladas. The “café” serves up a healthy menu of freshly-made treats including vegetarian omelets, yogurt and granola, and soy vanilla shakes. The Yoga Center is an adorable and homey place located right across the street from the glorious seven-mile beach, making it the perfect option for yoga buffs and solo travelers who want to feel safe and sleep beachside on the cheap.

Rick’s Café
Yes, it’s touristy and crowded and borderline cheesy. But this expansive, cliff-top bar and restaurant draws hundreds of people nightly for a reason. Blended cocktails, live reggae bands, a swimming pool and the daredevil antics of well-toned (read: incredibly hunky) cliff divers all work together to create the perfect atmosphere for watching the afternoon sun drop into the Caribbean Sea. The view is spectacular, the scene is lively and the drinks are reasonably priced, making Rick’s Café the perfect setting to kick off an evening of antics in Negril.

White Sands Negril: Where it’s all about the beach
This beachside hotel is less than spectacular, leaving much to be desired other than near-heavenly access to the seven-mile stretch of sand and sea that make Negril an incredible place to be. A lengthier review can be read at Virtual Tourist .

A few others worth the shout-out:

Patsy: A lovely lady blessed with the hands of a man. If you are lucky enough to discover Patsy resting idly on the seven-mile beach, you are in for a treat and one hell of a fresh-aloe foot massage. $8.00 and 20 minutes under the spell of this uncommonly strong woman will leave your feet and legs limp and bruised – in a good way.

Scotchies (MoBay/Rose Hall): Open-air Jerk Joint with three menu options scratched on a chalk-board: Jerk Chicken, Jerk Fish, Jerk Pork. Lively bar scene, good food, tons of flies, stray dogs, even a stray rat or two. A truly local experience.

Native (MoBay, on the Hip Strip): Amazing local cuisine, gorgeous open-air setting. Possibly the best meal I had in Jamaica. Go.

Cosmos On The Beach (Negril, Long Bay): Bad food, uninspiring ambience, lots of mosquitoes. Don’t go.

Shark’s Seafood Restaurant and Natural Juice Bar (Negril, West End): Overshadowed by the nearby and popular Alice’s, and so small you might just pass on by, this fairy-lit mom and pop establishment is 100% operated by mom and well worth a visit. For fantastic local cuisine with a serious kick of flavor, request your jerk cooked with “two spice” spiciness.

Bar 237 (Negril, Long Bay): Hoist yourself up onto one of the ridiculously tall benches at this spacious bar on the beach, and you won’t be disappointed. Blended cocktails, reggae tunes, beachfront location. Chillaxing…. Jamaica style.

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