Off the Beaten Track in Montego Bay, Jamaica
I was a virgin to Jamaica. And with a crazy hectic schedule I hadn’t had the time for preliminary research. (I actually prefer it this way.) I go in blind, with no feedback or opinions and can allow my artistic personality to sense everything without bias. At first I was taken aback by the similarities with West Africa: corrugated steel, cement blocks and a native economy that was more advanced than I had seen in Liberia but not quite New York. My best advice? Go off the beaten track in Montego Bay, Jamaica. And watch your children flourish.
The second thing that thrilled me were the people. They are phenomenally vibrant. Visceral. Kind. One New Yorker on the trip said that she longs to have a Jamaican nanny to care for her kids someday. And now I see why. I long to take my children to the island just so they can experience the care and spirit of the citizens. I would hope that it rubs off on my kids.
I will tell you about the resorts and activities, but what needs to be talked about are the people. The history. The island. Founded by Christopher Columbus in 1494 and ruled by the Spanish until the English took over in 1655, the history is rich and deep. Slavery.. sugar cane.. plantations.. voodoo.. rastafarians. And the history of the flag. Originally it meant something slightly different than the current interpretation. Green: lush vegetation, yellow: sun that always shines and black: the strife and hardship of the people. Now, the black signifies strength. I get tingles. Jamaicans have been through so much and still thrive.
I stayed at Half Moon Resort and the Grand Palladium and would happily return to either property. Half Moon exhibited the finest attention to families and children that I have ever experienced and must write about it in a fully separate article. As much as I could have relaxed on either of the resort grounds, I instead familiarized myself with the unexpected activities offered in Jamaica. After riding a camel at Dolphin Cove, I pet a stingray (the kind that killed Steve Irwin) and then got kissed by dolphins. (In the photo above, try to peel your eyes away from our stingray guide and note the camel in the background). On another day, Chukka Adventure Tours took me riding on horseback past Prince Charles’ polo grounds before I rode bareback into the Carribean ocean atop my swimming horse. One of the top ten memories of my life.
A self-proclaimed foodie, the trip to Scotchies excited me to no end. There is no replacement for authenticity. Picture a wooden firepit, grates covered in 6-foot long, 3-inch diameter pimento wood with chicken set directly on top. The whole thing is then covered with the corrugated steel that many Jamaicans use for housing elements. The taste cannot be replicated with a powder or sauce. The only downside is that they don’t ship directly.
The nightclubs of Montego Bay start ‘going’ at about 2am. The dancing is phenomenal, as are the fashions. As a dancer I can say I’ve never seen women or men isolate different body parts in such a sensual yet innocent way. When I return I will sleep for a day so that I can dance all night. The locals are so kind and warm that I’d place bets on getting some great dance lessons.
“Don’t worry about a thing.” The song played silently in my head and affected me greatly. I always worry. I have a hard time relaxing. And in Jamaica the easy-going attitude is infectious. Running into Bob Marley’s son Rohan was a mesmerizing experience. Managing the Jammin’ Java Coffee enterprise as well as playing music along with his brothers Damian and Ziggy, I would think he has many reasons to be stressed. But he’s not. He’s also warm, open and fun. But then again, he’s Jamaican.
I ended up at the market in Montego Bay on a Saturday. We were all craving authentic Jamaican patties and went into a raw, stimulating corner where young men sold produce and cellular phone cases. On the corner was Juici Patties, which served these decadent treats in take-away paper bags. The beef. The spice. There was cheese in them. A perfect mystery cheese never to be duplicated at home. Amazing. Perfectly satiated, our dapper Jamaican Tourist Board guide took us to see Pablo Palair, his custom tailor. Bespoke. Jamaica may be classified as a third-world country but Tom Ford may have a bit of an international challenge. Form fitting shirts with detailing on the cuffs and neck would make stylists for GQ do a double-take.
Rose Hall is a perfect place for the thrill-seeker. Or pessimist. You will both be equally challenged. An original great house on a plantation manned by slaves, Rose Hall is rumoured to house ghosts and ill-will. The rumour says that Annie Palmer murdered three husbands, each in a different room, and abused her slaves horribly. Her slave lover one night decided to murder her, and the ghost of Annie Palmer still walks the premises. You may visit Annie’s grave and see photographs of oodles of people who developed their photos were developed (in the old-school way) and were convinced that a ghost had appeared in the mirror or shadows. In the 21st century we may attribute it to a ‘flash’, but you never know. Regardless of your belief in ghosts, the ‘great house’ and antique reproductions are stunning, and lead your mind to question an era of slavery and passion that exists across so many cultures.
Children are blessed on vacation in Jamaica. But my gut feeling is that they must leave the resorts. Check out the Rastafarian Indigenous Village. The cuisine of Kingston. And of course the dolphin, horse and stingray excursions.
As with any travel experience that involves children, I would encourage parents to find someone you trust and explore. Get a driver for a day. Take a taxi with a destination in mind that you don’t find in a tourist guide. You will raise your children to travel differently in the future. To become little citizens of the world. Even better? Jamaica has developed a program called ‘Meet the People‘. Ever want to spend a whole day with Usain Bolt and his family? Or perhaps a third-generation Jamaican who cooks incredible delicacies daily? You can. The program, implemented in 1968 allows tourists to explore authentic experiences while on vacation. Do it. Quick. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and I have a feeling that Jamaica’s popularity is about to skyrocket because it is so unique, with beauty, cuisine, heritage and kindness.
Jamaica is a true country. And a culture. Like in university when I wanted to wear the logos and emblems of my alma mater, Jamaicans (and tourists) revel in the green, black and yellow. Jamaicans wear it all daily. With pride and style. At the airport I spoke to a couple who didn’t even experience jerk chicken. They were sad that they didn’t go off their resort grounds. Especially when traveling with kids, you have a perfect opportunity to teach them to recognize different cultures and cuisines instead of just remembering a stunning beach or pool and forgetting where they saw it. In my experience, it bodes the traveler well to enjoy the amenities of a resort and then choose a way to experience the real country.
And don’t worry about a thing.