Wednesday 24 January 2018

Jamaica: Paradise postponed

Caribbean holidays
The Royalton White Sands Hotel opens onto Montego Bay - famed in song, and rightly so
The Royalton White Sands Hotel opens onto Montego Bay - famed in song, and rightly so
Dunns River Falls - where Sean Connery and Ursula Andress filmed the Bond movie 'Dr No'
Bob Marley
Mystic Mountain Rain Forest Adventures

Conor Power

Back in 1994, I had been due to go to Jamaica on my honeymoon. Due to flight schedule changes, however, we had to postpone our trip to that particular paradise and spent our post-nuptial break in sunny Crete instead.

This year, our Caribbean odyssey finally got going.

We rubbed our eyes and stared out the window of the plane at the white-fringed necklace of the Bahamas islands, glimmering in the azure sea. Then came the huge expanse of Cuba before the verdant form of Jamaica came into view.

The transfer bus from Montego Bay airport took us east along a smooth highway, skirting the coastline and offering tantalising views.

Looking inland, it was all rugged, dense abundant greenery. Everything here seems to grow in abundance and the land looked like it was farmed only sporadically compared to the intense competitive nature of farming back at home.

Grand houses seem to co-exist rather naturally alongside wooden shacks. Every so often, little bars would appear - hexagon-shaped timber structures with corrugated iron roofs - adorned with Rastafarian colours.

Dunns River Falls - where Sean Connery and Ursula Andress filmed the Bond movie 'Dr No'
Dunns River Falls - where Sean Connery and Ursula Andress filmed the Bond movie 'Dr No'

The guide on the bus was busy talking about our surroundings - the political organisation of the various parishes, noteworthy hotels and golf courses, as well as dropping a few famous names of regular visitors (such as Eddie Murphy).

The Jamaican accent sounds strange hearing it being spoken outside of a movie context. I also noticed that when Jamaicans talk among themselves, it's in a sort of patois, with only the occasional word of English being recognisable in any one sentence.

We were staying at the Royalton White Sands hotel. It's a large all-inclusive resort packed with swimming pools, lounge areas and restaurants with a sandy beach at the end.

It has a sister hotel next door - the Royalton Blue Waters - and all facilities are common to both hotels, making a super-sized resort that helps to compensate for any feelings of being enclosed and excluded from the outside world.

We had already decided which restaurant we were going to eat in on the first night and off we strolled, hand-in-hand like a newly-married couple, to the Italian trattoria, floating back to our room two hours later.

Free bars can have that romantic effect.

Being in an all-inclusive resort for the first time takes a bit of adjustment. The idea that you can wander around this enormous place, simply choose a spot to eat or drink without there being any exchange of money feels odd, brilliant, disturbing and exhilarating all at the same time.

Would I become an alcoholic over the course of a week? Because if there's nothing to do today but lie around in the sunshine then why would one not have four screwdrivers for breakfast?

It turns out that the best pleasures are experienced in a sober state so I limited myself to just one buck's fizz with my sumptuous breakfast before we went to ease away the jet-lag on a sun lounger.

The beach isn't very long but it is a gorgeous piece of tropical paradise where you can indulge in the exquisite pleasure of lying under a coconut tree as Caribbean waves roll gently in.

The public beach however stretched to either side of the hotel complex for about a kilometre or so before ending in mangrove swamps that reach the shoreline.

We set off early on the second morning along the beach to see a bit more of the island. It's the perfect time for a little exploring because it's the coolest part of the day. It's also the quietest as all the casual vendors are still tucked up in bed.

We managed to get around a great deal of the shallow bay, staring into the clear waters below us and taking lots of pictures with our little waterproof camera. Following the advice of locals we met along the strand, we also went strolling off to a spot around the bay that was meant to be the best place for snorkelling. It was superb and we stayed in the water for almost an hour, finning around, coming across clusters of rocks with dozens of colourful tropical fish, sea anemones and other exotic sea life.

We also made good use of the hotel's sailboats, kayaks and pedalos. The sailboats are 2/3-person super-stable twin-hulled vessels. Neither of us have any great sailing skills, and the last time we tried sailing a small boat together (which was not long after our honeymoon) had ended in tears and cursing in West Cork, so we stuck with the kayaks.

As well as all the daytime fun and games by the adult pool and swim-up bar, there was great entertainment in the complex every night.

By the middle of the week, we had fully adjusted to Jamaican time and managed to stay up late enough to catch some of the shows. All were top-class with high production values, but the standout show was the thoroughly convincing Michael Jackson impersonator - a man who looked, sang (well, he lip-synched incredibly well) and danced exactly like the late pop prince.

We got around to trying out every restaurant in the resort. They were all very impressive but it was really hard to beat the spicy jerk beef beach barbecue at lunchtime.

There are plenty of options to take tours to explore Jamaica. TUI/Thomson offers some of the best options and their award-winning Cool Runnings is arguably the optimum choice.

For $120 a head (Jamaica has its own currency but the American dollar is accepted everywhere), you can have a day-long coastal tour on a catamaran sailboat, including snorkelling and visits to Dunn's River Falls, all with the comfort of an open bar on board.

We opted for two of the highlight visits. The first one was to the Luminous Lagoon only a couple of kilometres away. Bioluminescence occurs in many parts of the world, including several places in Ireland but one of the most spectacular spots in the world is at the Luminous Lagoon. After a short taxi ride from the hotel, we set out from a shanty-style fishing village in a large flat-bottomed boat to swim in warm sparkling pixie-dust water.

We also visited the aforementioned Dunn's River Falls. This was even more rewarding. It was one of those visits that looks like a tourist trap on the brochures but which turned out to be a quasi life-changing experience.

The $20 admission fee includes a guided climbing tour of the falls, which is done in a group holding hands. Readers might remember Dunn's from the film Cocktail, featuring Tom Cruise and Elisabeth Shue frolicking in the water.

Climbing them requires a much greater physical effort than cavorting under them, and water shoes are indispensable. Water flows down at quite a pace, gushing violently in parts, making you wonder if you'll ever make it to the top with your life and your swimming togs intact. When you finally get there after an hour of struggling through slippery rocks, blinding spray and impatient shouts from the guide with the watchful eyes, you feel like you've just climbed Mount Everest.

Two points for potential visitors; Jamaica has a reputation of a place where petty crime is rife so you're advised not to go wandering out the front gate and down the road where your pale European head marks you out for the muggers that apparently lurk amidst the friendly populace. Most local people we encountered were extremely friendly, humorous and quick-witted.

On a final point, be advised that marijuana is an ever-present reality in Jamaica and expect to be offered some almost as soon as you set foot in the country.

Lest you be tempted, however, please note that although the police seemingly turn a blind eye towards widespread consumption of this illegal substance among the local populace, they have been known to be far less myopic to relatively well-heeled European tourists who should know better.

Yah-man!

Getting there

We flew with Thomson, operated by Falcon Holidays (falconholidays.ie). You can fly direct from Dublin to Montego Bay on June 8 and have a 14-night stay in the 5* Royalton White Sands on an all-inclusive basis from €1,879 per person.

Flying time from Dublin to Montego Bay is approx 8.5 hours.

Transfer from the airport to the Royalton White Sands (46km) takes about 40 minutes. The hotel is located on a private sandy beach in Trelawny, 5km from the historic town of Falmouth and 31km from Downtown Montego Bay.

Trelawny is a beautiful, serene region in northern Jamaica that stretches from the powder-fine sands of Braco Beach to Falmouth. In between are dozens of sugar estates and idyllic sandy bays.

Cockpit Country - Jamaica's biggest rainforest - lies just inland.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Nine Mile high

Bob_Marley.jpg
Bob Marley
 

The lengthy pilgrimage to Nine Mile village is a must for Bob Marley fans to see where the late reggae man was born and where he is laid to rest. bobmarleymuseum.com

Rainforest run

Mystic Mountain Rain Fores.jpg
Mystic Mountain Rain Forest Adventures
 

Using facilities normally found in a European ski resort, Mystic Mountain Rain Forest Adventures offers a unique way to explore the Jamaican jungle, including a treetop bobsleigh ride. rainforestadventure.com

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