Friday 23 March 2018

Niamh Horan: The secret to a great holiday in Jamaica

Montego Bay Magic

Golden sands: Niamh relaxes at the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort & Spa.
Golden sands: Niamh relaxes at the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort & Spa.
Montego Bay, Jamaica, a place where the pace of life moves slowly, and where the locals believe, 'Di hotta di battle, di sweeta di victor'.
Tourists form a human chain as they climb Dunns River Falls.
Jamaica has plent to offer on the culinary front.
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

The secret to Jamaica is the people, says Niamh Horan, and that's not just holiday-standard Hallmark-style sentimentality...

We all have an idealised vision of what a place will be like before we arrive.

I'm sure many an American has dreamed of green rolling hills and old thatch cottages before touching down in bustling Dublin city, to shuffle between leprechaun museums and overpriced stews. They have to make an effort and head to the Wild West to see what real Ireland is all about.

Dreams of a romantic picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower can be dampened by dense crowds, and the fact that you can see a McDonald's from the pyramids of Giza has disappointed many a tourist.

Jamaica is different.

The moment you touch down in Montego Bay you don't have to go searching for the 'real' deal.

And I think the secret is in the people. It may sound like Hallmark-style sentimentality, but bear with me.

When you get a taxi outside the airport in Montego Bay, the driver is playing the hits of the island's favourite son, Bob Marley. One Love and The Redemption Song breeze from the stereo as you cruise by an ocean of azure blue and sea-greens on your right and the colourful huts of red, pink, blue, yellow and greens on your left, en route to the main hotels on the island.

Montego Bay, Jamaica, a place where the pace of life moves slowly, and where the locals believe, 'Di hotta di battle, di sweeta di victor'.
Montego Bay, Jamaica, a place where the pace of life moves slowly, and where the locals believe, 'Di hotta di battle, di sweeta di victor'.

On the streets, men in their seventies with long Rastafarian hats cruise along on the back of mopeds, while locals sit outdoors watching the world go by.

A trip through a local fruit market greets you with Jamaicans smoking weed, which the country has decriminalised. Here they say it gives you the 'wisdom of King Soloman' because the herb is believed to have been the first to sprout from the Rastafarian king's grave.

Now I'm not saying it's a direct result - but the vibe is more chilled than anything I've yet experienced on a tropical island.

Two favourite phrases of locals - 'Yeah man' and 'no problem' - are said with a shoulder shrug and blissed-out tone. If you stress or appear in a hurry to get food served for example, they will look at you like an alien who dropped in from another planet. But pretty soon you get into the pace of life.

And soon it feels like you could never dream of going back.

It may take you a night to fit into the magic of a laidback style here, and ordering wine with your evening meal is the perfect catalyst.

In Ireland, the waiter swoops with a bottle as soon as the bread basket lands. Here, they take their time laying the spread. But don't worry - I've tipped them off that the first long-haul flights which come direct from Dublin this summer will bring a group of countrymen who like their tipple before starters.

That said, try to chill out and get into the vibe and rid of the hasty speed of life back home.

Tourists form a human chain as they climb Dunns River Falls.
Tourists form a human chain as they climb Dunns River Falls.

Jamaicans have an old saying: "Di hotta di battle, di sweeta di victor."

It basically means that success is more rewarding after hard work and struggle. This slow and steady approach has benefited them when it comes to property.

If you notice half-finished houses dotted around, it is because here they have a very different approach to owning their own home.

They work for a few years, save up enough to build one room, and live in that. Then they work for another while, save up enough and build the second room, and so their property grows, along with their ability to save.

They detest bank loans so telling them about our 'want now, pay later' mentality back home and the rise and fall of the Celtic beast raised a few brows.

I stayed at the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort & Spa in Lucea by the edge of the sea. There are several options within the Grand Palladium family; the Lady Hamilton is the most recently refurbished and luxurious.

This is a place that has mastered the art of catering for the needs of everyone from families with young children to loved-up couples and those wishing you make something extra special of their trip and tie the knot.

The hotel has the biggest pool in Jamaica, a stone's throw from soft-powdered beaches and surrounded by acres of tropical gardens where papayas and ackee, the national fruit, hang from trees. Carefully maintained by a team of gardeners, these gardens provide the perfect backdrop when making your way around the complex, and a setting for the gentle chirp of crickets at night.

The complex itself is made up of grand, colonial-style buildings, and as ever, it's the little things that count here. A few tiny details show ways in which the hotel has aced, where other hotels might have slipped: full and fast wifi is widespread from the communal breakfast area to restaurants - so no groups of people congregating in the lobby or rushing back to their room for decent access.

Trademark relaxation: Jamaica.
Trademark relaxation: Jamaica.

In the rooms, heavy blackout blinds ensure a better night's sleep than you'd get at home (important when the temperature can get into the mid-thirties) and remember that pesky room card you have to slot into place every time you walk in the door of your room to activate lights and entertainment? These rooms detect the card in your hand as soon as you walk through the door.

Another welcome detail the hotel includes is an adult-only pool and bar area.

There is plenty of beach club entertainment and space for youngsters to run around and play by the other pools, but this area is mercifully reserved for those who want time-out from high-pitched screams. There's also an adult-only restaurant designated each night for holidaymakers who want time away from kids - especially other people's.

Seven a la carte restaurants include Italian, Mexican, Asian, Indian, Creole-Jamaican and a mean steak house to choose from, along with three buffet-style options, and dietary requirement cards can be provided on arrival.

Two must-have cocktails to try by the pool or reading a book are the 'Bob Marley,' with trademark bright green, yellow and red stripes, and the 'Dirty Banana', which always raises a few chuckles when you ask the barman for one. (Gravy is known as 'licky licky' by the way, so don't get a fright if someone asks you if you want it with your dinner.)

Another must-try - worth doing even if you are alone - is a romantic candlelit dinner on the beach looking out over the Caribbean sea. A violinist will serenade you with modern love songs while you tuck your feet into the sand and enjoy the setting.

For those looking to book a wedding, you can book a romantic cliff-top gazebo overlooking the sea surrounded by palm trees and lush tropical gardens, or the beautiful beach front.

When it comes to entertainment, one thing you really can't miss out on is dancing with the local Jamaicans - they have moves said to make "a prostitute blush".

However, even though they would trump even the Irish reputation for friendliness - if you are too demanding or get on their wrong side, you might discover their sharp tongue: "Me don't take talk" is the turn of phrase. But rather than being taken aback, it's amusing to see such an assertive bunch, who would hug you as quickly as they would put you back in your place.

Maybe when they're done teaching us the 101 steps to acquiring property, they can turn to the do's and dont's of relationships!

Check out the 'boogie woogie' nightclub (with all-important air-conditioning) if you want to dance the night away.

For sports and leisure there are plenty of options - water sports include paddle-boating, wind surfing, snorkelling, sailing and diving, and that's the shortened list - along with an 18-hole golf course and a gym and fitness club.

For the little ones, there are fully produced live musical stage shows at the resort's theatre, while the Raggs (characters from the TV series, for those not in the know) make daily pop-in appearances throughout the resort for photographs, a pirate show and surf party.

For a bit of R 'n' R, the resort has a large and well-kitted out Spa & Wellness Center.

But my considered advice - if you can pull yourself away from the resort - is to check out the immediate surrounds and see how the locals live.

For starters, look out for the clock at the nearby town hall. This was sent as a present by an old German businessman to St Lucia and turned up in Lucea by mistake. Needless to say, the Jamaicans kept it and it is still proudly displayed today.

The Dunn's River Falls Excursion, the most popular tourist attraction in Jamaica, is also worth a trip, with truly breathtaking views. Climbing the cascading falls is a refreshing and picture-perfect experience. It takes an hour, but even for those not up to the challenge of climbing, there are several points along the adjoining path where you can access the river and enjoy the pulsating flow over your body.

When it comes to shopping, the heart of Ocho Rios offers the opportunity to explore the local craft markets or check out the shopping centres and their duty-free offerings.

I also picked up three definite tips if you want to experience the highlights outside the resort. The first is a place called Scotchies. I heard a lot about this famed chicken joint from the minute I arrived, so I tracked it down and found that, although it looks unimpressive from the outside, inside you'll get a great view of just how they cook their famous Jamaican Jerk Chicken with secret spices on logs of wood over a fire.

Scotchies is known to attract A-list celebrities when they are in town - their claim to have the best chicken in the world is something that needs to be experienced to be believed. Safe to say there wasn't a word exchanged between my fellow holiday-makers and I as we tucked in.

Trust me, until you've been to Scotchies, you haven't tried jerk chicken.

The second tip is Rose Hall, a grand mansion on an old plantation famed for the White Witch, who is still said to haunt the rooms. With an English mother and Irish father, she married for money and then did away with her husbands and slave lovers one after another in the old house.

After running through a host of 'bed warmers,' she was eventually murdered by her long-time and favourite slave lover one night in bed. Photographs of her appearing spectrally in the background of tourist snaps hang in the lobby, and would scare the bejasus out of you.

And finally, tip three, the award for the best day out here has to go to partying and snorkelling on a catamaran off the coast of the seven-mile beach in nearby Negril. Finish the day by watching cliff jumpers at Rick's Cafe - in my opinion rightly ranked among the top ten bars in the world.

Take three: Top attractions

Jamaica has plent to offer on the culinary front.

The White Witch

A candle-lit evening tour of the Rose Hall Great House is a must for visitors to Montego Bay. Your guide to the former home of Jamaica’s White Witch, Annee Palmer, will tell you about the captivating and chilling stories of love, murder and mystery that rest between the walls. Try not to jump as you hear the creepy tales of ghost sightings that have been reported over the years.

Rick’s Cafe

In the sleepy fishing village of Negril, Rick’s Cafe has become world famous for its bar and restaurant offering views of the Seven Mile Beach. Watch cliff divers as you sip cocktails and enjoy the delights of one of the top ten bars in the world. The cool music, and daredevils who do back flips and somersaults off the cliff edge and into the sea, will keep you entertained as the sun goes down.

Doctor’s Cave Beach Club

Doctor’s Cave Beach Club is on the most famous beach in Jamaica. Known for its crystal-clear turquoise waters, the sheltered location provides calm bathing. The club here was first made famous by Dr Alexander James McCatty who allowed his friends to bathe at his small beach, which was entered through a cave. The crystal clear water rests between 22C° to 28C° all year round.

Getting there

The Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton is fully booked with Falcon Holidays for 2016.

For 2017, the prices are: Departing June 8, 2017, Dublin to Jamaica, Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort & Spa, 5T, 14 Nights, all inclusive, €2,424pp.

However, if you are still keen on going this year and don’t mind a quick stop-over in London, 2016 prices are as follows: Thomson offers seven-night holidays to Jamaica, staying at Thomson’s 5T Platinum Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort & Spa on an all-inclusive basis from £1,025pp.

Prices are based on two adults sharing, and includes flights departing from London Gatwick airport on 23 September and transfers.

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