Jamaica: Cool runnings, now with direct flights from Dublin
Stereotypes & Spontaneity
2016 brings direct flights to Jamaica. Thomas Breathnach laps up the stereotypes and spontaneity of a Caribbean haven.
The modern traveller is meant to carry an open mind. But sometimes, nothing welcomes you to a destination like the first flash of a national stereotype.
As I touch down to a fireball sunset in Montego Bay, border officials welcome me with a melodic Creole lilt, a billboard of Usain Bolt festoons the arrivals hall, and Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier is testing the subwoofer of my airport transfer. Nowhere seems to have trademarked relaxation quite like Jamaica, and with the Caribbean nation coming within direct reach of Ireland this year, I was set for a slice of the action.
No sooner has Marley reached his first middle eight, than my jovial driver, Jermaine, is briefing me with the local lowdown. First up is the holy trinity of the Jamaican patois. I learn that 'yeamon' means 'yes', that 'irre' means 'alright' and that the Jamaican linguistic panacea of 'no problem' seems to culturally translate to 'it'll be grand'.
At this point, I wasn't sure how the local lexicon spelled "tourism paddywhackery", but who was I to argue with the capital of cool - a country where strangers high-five you on the street, and business emails are signed off with "One Love"?
The second largest island in the Caribbean (roughly the size of Cork plus Kerry), Jamaica's tourist scene hubs around the resorts of Montego Bay, Ochio Rios and Negril. The vibe of all three generally mirrors their predominant clientele: a fun-worshipping demographic, zip-coded somewhere between Ontario and the Jersey Shore.
With that, you can expect Margaritaville cocktail bars (think Starbucks for Pina Coladas), coconut-white beaches and luxury catamarans boarding a continuous cargo of booze-cruise chasers - not to mention full-moon parties, die-hard dolphin parks and Cool Runnings-themed toboggan rides.
I find my refuge in Negril's super-luxe Rockhouse Hotel (rockhouse.com; €100pps). Its dreamy cluster of luxury, straw-roofed villas sees me waking up feeling like I've won the reward challenge on Survivor. As a true Caribbean utopia, my own private pool ladder sinks into a cove of coral.
At Jamaica's most western point, sunsets offer stellar screensaver moments, and the vistas are even more dramatic off-shore at The Pelican Bar, an iconic watering hole set on stilts a mile out at sea. I arrive there with the aid of a local fisherman, while pelicans and frigate birds sail the skies like modern-day pterodactyls. Patrons are few, cocktails are mean and driftwood makes the perfect sun-lounger.
Another journey takes me upstream along the Martha Brae, an exotic riparian heaven best known for its river rafting. This isn't white-water country, however, but rather home to Jamaican-style gondoliers who row eco-romantics down the river's lush rainforest banks (jamaicarafting.com; $30pp).
I mount my bamboo vessel aided by one Mr Cee Walker, a salt-and-pepper bearded gent who welcomes me with a door-step smile.
"Oh you're Irish," he notes, before relaying the historical ties between our islands. It's said that up to 80,000 Irish slaves were shipped to Jamaica during the colonial age, and the Jamaican accent is said to be related to the Irish brogue - particularly that of Cork. With a little imagination, I could have been in a taxi to Shandon.
While all Jamaican tourist activities deliver a craic-filled atmosphere, the national don't-worry-be-happy sentiment isn't likely to extend to your wallet. A widespread dual pricing system means most tourist attractions offer concessions for locals while hefty US Dollar rates apply to foreign tourists.
A tip? Bring a supply of Greenbacks if you plan on doing the circuit.
Beyond the turnstiles, Jamaica's Afro-Caribbean inspired cuisine is a huge draw. Fragrant goat curries, spicy jerk marinated chicken and cured salt-fish are just some of the highlights. For the best culinary buzz on the island, I strike for Stush in the Bush (stushinthebush.com), a Rastafarian organic restaurant set in the vulture-guarded hills overlooking Ochio Rios.
It calls for an inland detour via vibrant scenes of rural Jamaica: stray goats grazing amid hibiscus blooms, ramshackle tractors motoring through sugar cane plantations. As I pass a chapel in the village of Freehill, scores of churchgoers are cooling down around an ice-cream machine. Sundae service, Jamaican-style.
Driving up the mountain roads, a dread-locked dude in a Bob Marley tee grinds up next to me in his Jeep. It's Chris Binns, who opened Stush in the Bush together with his wife Lisa. "We've created a piece of heaven up here," Binns explains.
Sublime sweet potato gratin, fresh banana flambé and clinking jam jars of divine rum concoctions follow. With real food, real conversation and real people, this rugged pocket of the island is the Caribbean haven at its best. The stereotypes are sunny, but it's when I turn a little away from them that I really find my Jamaican dream.
How to do it:
Prices with Falcon Holidays (falconholidays.ie) start from €1,589pps for the three-star Holiday Inn Resort in Montego Bay, while €2,809pps with Thomson (thomsonholidays.ie) will buy you the five-star Couples Tower Isle in Ochio Rios.
Both packages are all-inclusive, with flights on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner and transfers included, and are based on a 14-night stay.
For more to see and do in Jamaica, see visitjamaica.com.
What to pack:
A water-resistant camera.
Considering much of your time in the Jamaica will most likely be spent snorkelling, diving or simply swimming to the pool bar, investing in plunge-proof tech will easily double your photo memories and undoubtedly add to your Snapchat cred.
For sweet options, Pixmania.ie offers a handy Nikon Coolpix for €89 while to capture even more action, entry level GoPros start from under €140.