Clients shouldn’t be wary of immersing themselves in Jamaica’s friendly local scene, says Joanna Booth
My palms are suddenly rather sweaty – and it’s not down to the warm Jamaican climate. I’m standing in front of a class of 64 five-year-olds, and I can feel every single one of their expectant eyes focused on me. The pressure is on. It’s time to learn about the letter K.
Given that I have about as much experience teaching small children as I do taming lions, it’s probably unsurprising that I’m a little nervous.
But we read a story together, with lots of audience participation, and spell some words beginning with K, and pretty soon I’m really enjoying it. And if the volume of hugs I receive at the end is anything to go by, so did the kids. (That, or they were just extremely happy it was finally over.)
I’m at the West End Early Childhood Institution in Negril – a name that’s almost bigger than the school itself. The building is painted in a rainbow of cheerful colours, the teachers seem kind and committed, and the kids are lively and engaged.
But there would be an elephant in the room, if only there was space. There are 192 pupils packed into what is essentially a two-room hut. This is a seriously overcrowded school.
That’s going to change. This is one of the schools supported by the Sandals Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the hotel business – and so the premises will be getting an upgrade this year. It’s also one of the schools that clients staying at the nearby Sandals or Beaches properties in Negril can visit if you book them on a Reading Road Trip with Island Routes.
This two-hour, $25 excursion takes guests into a local school, where they’ll be paired with a small group of children aged between three and 10 for reading and comprehension exercises.
Shy clients can be reassured that they won’t need to stand up in front of the whole class as I did – Sandals kindly organised a special individual visit for me as my stay didn’t coincide with the group tour, which runs on Thursdays.
Negril has established a reputation for being the most laid-back area of Jamaica, so you might think it is best suited to fly-and-floppers rather than clients who want to get out and experience the island beyond the hotel boundaries.
Well, yes, guests can quite easily check into a Negril hotel and stay poolside for a fortnight – but if they do, it’ll be a real shame. That slow-paced and relaxed attitude which has given the resort serious slacker credentials is what makes it absolutely perfect for tourists who want to see a bit more of life. There’s nothing remotely aggressive about Negril.
So while most visitors are unlikely to feel happy about hanging around downtown Kingston, no matter how much they want to see the ‘real’ Jamaica, Negril’s chilled-out charm makes it somewhere they can explore with peace of mind by day and night.
Clients can experience a little of local life simply by heading out of their hotel for a drink or two. The sandy strip of Seven Mile Beach is backed by bars as well as hotels, so they won’t need to wander far to find a rum punch.
There are smaller shacks as well as the heavily advertised tourist spots such as Margaritaville, a two-storey behemoth full of American college kids.
Further down the coast, where the sand gives way to rugged limestone cliffs, they’ll find Rick’s Café, one of the most famous bars on the island, noted for both its beautiful sunsets and the opportunity to take a high-adrenaline plunge from a range of jump-points set in the cliffside around the bar into the clear blue waters below.
The Sociable South
Travel further along Jamaica’s southwest coast, and things get even more low key. My fellow drinkers at the Pelican Bar couldn’t have been more local – for the first half an hour of my visit it was just me, a stingray and a family of passing dolphins.
This bar is in the middle of the ocean – just a shack on stilts set out in Parottee Bay, with drinkers transferred over by boat.
Even the more adventurous activities in the southwest aren’t too fast paced. Going in search of crocodiles doesn’t require any Mick Dundee-style, gung-ho effort when you’re in Jamaica – merely an hour chilling on the deck of a small boat gliding peacefully through the mangrove-lined Black River.
My guide from J Charles Swaby’s Black River Safaris knew exactly where to find the crocodiles, which hunt at night and rest by day, so we’d soon spotted six of the beasts hiding among the water lilies and giant ferns, mouths open in the sunshine.
Dunn’s River Falls is undoubtedly Jamaica’s most famous waterfall – which is why visitors there will stand in queues to shuffle among the pools.
YS Falls, inland from Black River, is lesser known but just as beautiful, so there’s far more space to frolic in the refreshing waters, have pictures taken in front of the torrents and take the plunge from a rope swing if you’re feeling brave.
Treasure Beach is for clients who really want to immerse themselves in local life. This sleepy network of villages on the south coast has gorgeous deserted beaches, winding countryside lanes, and a cohesive community where strangers are welcomed with open arms. Farming and fishing are still the focus in this area, so tourism is small scale and personal.
I’m told that this area is how Jamaica used to be, and there’s certainly an old-fashioned welcome on offer in the boutique hotels, restaurants and bars, and at the community tourism initiatives, which include the Treasure Hunt Craft Shop, showcasing local talents, and a vast sports centre funded by Breds, the area’s community charitable foundation.
I spent a Saturday there, watching kids from more than 50 schools competing in track races during the day – I may well have spotted the next Usain Bolt or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – and in the evening cheering on competitors in a five-a-side football tournament. The whole town turned out to watch, and every so often, someone would amble over and chat to me over a Red Stripe.
Creating interaction between tourists and locals is probably the trickiest challenge for any destination – the minute it feels forced, patronising or inauthentic, it’s a failure. But get it right and it’s gold dust.
My most vivid memories of this sleepy corner of Jamaica don’t feature a sunlounger, despite the idyllic setting – they’re of the people I met. I can only hope some memory of me remains on the island too – otherwise there’ll be 64 five-year-olds in Negril struggling with the letter K.
Find out more: visitjamaica.com
Tried & Tested: Jakes, Jamaica
Jakes is a one-off. It’s not for everyone, but if you pick the right clients, they’ll fall hard for its friendly, barefoot, boho-chic seclusion. When I arrived, Strictly Come Dancing winner Caroline Flack had just left, raving about her stay.
Set on a secluded cove in Treasure Beach, the property has slowly grown since it opened in 1993 as owner, Jamaican artist Sally Henzell, has added extra villas. Each is different, but the feel is Caribbean-via-Barcelona, with nods to Salvador Dali in the extensive use of colour and mosaic.
There are 21 one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom cottages on the property (I liked Octopussy and Cockles best), plus two more cottages and three villas in the neighbourhood.
Levels of luxury vary from the oldest rooms, which are rustic and a little ramshackle, to Seaweed Villa, a breathtaking four-bedroom show-stopper off-property where Serena and Venus Williams recently stayed.
There are hidden nooks to relax in around the leafy grounds and a truly excellent spa, but the main pool, deck and Dougie’s Bar are the focus for sunbathing in the day and sundowners at night. As well as the main restaurant, more relaxed bistro Jack Sprat is at the far end of the property, with excellent seafood, pizzas and outdoor movie nights every Thursday.
Tried & Tested: Beaches Negril
Beaches and Sandals make a lot of their claim to have more inclusions than other hotels, but it’s a fair point. At Travel Weekly, we regularly cover the resorts, so I didn’t expect to be surprised during my stay at the 186-room Beaches Negril. But even a cynical hack like me was impressed by the breadth of what’s on offer.
It’s not just the big things – the nine restaurants, seven bars, nightly entertainment, kids’ and teens’ clubs, water park and Xbox lounge – that make a difference. The details count, too.
It’s not just watersports that are included, but motorised watersports, as well as diving. There’s a well-equipped gym and fitness classes, but you can also get personal training from an instructor free of charge – Marlon got up with me at 6am two mornings in a row to run along Seven Mile Beach, so I could keep up my training for the London Marathon – the definition of going the extra mile.
The service was genuine and incredibly friendly, from the masseuse in the Red Lane spa to restaurant staff who made sure that despite the fact I was visiting alone, I didn’t feel lonely.
Eat like a Local
Hotels often pride themselves on having a wide range of international cuisines on offer, but it’d be a crime to come to the Caribbean without sampling some delicious local dishes.
Even the laziest of clients can have a go – one of the highlights of my visit to Sandals Negril was a stop at the mobile jerk truck that trundles along the beachfront, dispensing piping hot and mildly spiced chicken in baskets.
Nothing feels more fitting than sampling seafood within spitting distance of the ocean, so send clients to Cloggy’s on the Beach in Black River and Jack Sprat in Treasure Beach. The food is fantastic at both, and tellingly, when I visited the tables were just as full with locals as tourists.
Jamaicans are proud of the quality of their food, whether it’s served in a swanky restaurant or from a shack by the road.
Some of my most memorable flavours came courtesy of my guide Oneil Smith, who stopped the car regularly to introduce me to his favourite stalls, selling everything from cold jelly coconut to the lip-smackingly-good peppered shrimp that is such a speciality of the southwest’s Middle Quarter.
Pass on Oneil’s advice to clients – de-shell the prawns through the plastic bag they come in – that way you can avoid getting scotch bonnet all over your fingers!
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