Picking Jamaica for a holiday was the best un-researched flight selection I’ve made so far – we had set travel dates in between work deadlines and availability for business class flights made the decision for us.
This country thankfully doesn’t seem to be fully discovered however that means that there aren’t a great deal of up to date and glossy travel books to dig into. Sifting through the likes of Mr and Mrs Smith and iEscape (and cross checking to TripAdvisor) identified that there was every type of accommodation to choose from! We picked pretty quickly using those sites as a starting point, not liking anything resembling a Sandals resort and wanting to see a few different bits of the island during our trip.
3 hotels, 3 (not one) love(s)!! They were about as varied as they come but they all seemed to have a unique charm from all the photos, information and reviews. This meant that we started our trip in the Blue Mountains, then headed south to Treasure Beach and then rounded it off in a gilded setting near Montego Bay.
BA fly from Gatwick for their Caribbean stops. The thought of Gatwick made us shudder, we really like T5! However valet parking is about 1/3 of the price at Gatwick and the lounge (though a bit tired and busy) was out of the same mould as was the porridge and fizz breakfast combination I had which started the day off nicely! Flight was good – the timing is nice as you leave at lunchtime and arrive late afternoon and as a Cornish girl that means a rodda’s cream tea before landing! The plane also had on-request movies which was good – a flight I did in business to Newark earlier in the year didn’t so I was pleasantly surprised.
We also chose to get a hire car – all of our hotels did a double take when we turned up under our own steam, it doesn’t seem to be common (and to be honest the directions we got from the first 2 hotels were so vague that I did doubt myself for a while). Was it dangerous, not that we saw. The roads are pretty bad in places, but nothing happens fast in Jamaica so just drive slower! Two things we learnt pretty quickly…
1. Avis slap a surprise insurance charge on you when you pick the car up unless you have a MasterCard World – this of course was not mentioned on the booking form.
2. Driving through Kingston in the early evening is hectic, if you are faint-hearted then maybe get a taxi – we did of course survive and even found our way to Strawberry Hill, but at one point we toyed with the idea of going back to the airport and getting a taxi as the Shell map you can buy does not have a good enough level of detail. After this first drive, we then did zoomed-in screen grabs from Google Maps on our iPad and used those for the rest of the trip and it worked a treat.
Strawberry Hill – we only stayed one night, probably not long enough – but we were up at 5am due to jet lag and so it actually felt like we were there a lot longer! The sound of the birds and other animals in the trees at night is deafeningly amazing, and in the daytime there are hummingbirds everywhere. The setting is stunning and you kind of have to pinch yourself to convince yourself it’s real! It is so high and has the most stunning view of Kingston (did request that they send out detailed driving instructions for future guests!) and further into the mountains. The site is large and you would not know that it was fully booked busy – the rooms are in huts and they are well spread out and very private. We stayed in the most basic room, but it was great – big comfy bed, veranda with a view and blue mountain coffee ready and waiting to be brewed (for the 5am start)! The pool is small but on the edge of a cliff – so it’s more for just gawping at the view rather than doing lengths.
Breakfast was a triumph and we were joined by Gordon the new general manager who is already doing good things to this place. The hotel is owned by Chris Blackwell who brought reggae to the rest of the world – so the cultural paraphernalia is just staggering. It really was a privilege to start the holiday in somewhere so unique and special.
Driving was easy – now I had the maps sorted – and there is a good toll motorway for much of the trip West. Once back on the bumpy roads you will drive past loads of fruit stalls – they are beautiful and are worth a stop. Once you are out of the Kingston “lock your car doors” areas, it feels safe and friendly, with more goats than people! We stopped in at Lovers Leap and that was our first sight of the azure blue sea – wow, I have not seen colours like that before.
Across the island we arrived at The Cove (it’s at Button Bay, near Treasure Beach). This place is under relatively new management and has had some mixed reviews – but we really liked it. Friends have stayed at its sister hotel in Cornwall and so we knew its type. The site manager is incredibly helpful. We almost had the place to ourselves travelling in the shoulder season just after Easter; that is probably why we liked it so much. We had the best room – the Holland – and it is simple, clean and the balcony views were epic. The shower could do with a bit of an upgrade, but it didn’t really matter – we were out the back and beyond, this is not a resort, but an up and coming boutique sort of place. One of the big pluses for this area of the island is that it has a freshwater pool and a small beach which isn’t something that Jakes has – that is why I booked it. Perhaps it didn’t have the food and drink options others would have, but then we had a car so that’s no problem! We booked a trip out to sea to the Pelican Bar, also timing this well so that we were the only tourists! This is a thatched hut, on stilts, 1 mile out to sea on a reef – yes really, incredibly surreal! It’s about a 40 minute water taxi ride (you need sea legs unless you take the shorter hop from Black River) each way and when you are there have a few Red Stripes, watch the local fishermen play dominoes and have some BBQ’d lobster! I’m sure it is a tourist trap at the wrong time of day, but for us it was just a bit of something different! And we had 20 or so dolphins joining us on the journey!
After 3 days here it was off to the north of the island. We went via YS Falls – thankfully we were up there early, it is stunning but gets busy. Just as we were leaving it was obvious that the wrist band wearing all-inclusive resort holiday makers were arriving! We smugly drove off knowing we’d seen the place at its best! We headed straight through the mountains, but the gorgeous white beaches looked to go on for ever – with more time I’d like to have seen it, but didn’t see the point of stopping to take a picture of somewhere we’d already chosen not to stay at!
And then, well, we glided into Round Hill. I had been nervous about booking this – thinking it would be pretentious and not deliver what the photos showed. Oh how wrong! Having stayed at the Chedi in Muscat last year which is world-renowned for excellence, I would go back to Round Hill first (similar number of nearby passing jumbo jets though). The bar has photos of all the stars that have stayed here over the years, even the Queen. It might well attract less of the famous these days, but it’s retained a certain something that makes it feel special! We stayed in one of the beachfront rooms rather than a villa. Staying in the most “basic” can be a worry – but these rooms are like suites (123A that we had seemed bigger than others) and have the most enormous shuttered windows that look over the pool and the sunset and comfy sofas and a bed of dreams (and strong but quiet AC). You’re given a litre of rum and also it was our anniversary (it actually was) and we were given a bottle of fizz to enjoy as well. Everything at the resort is well appointed and well thought through. The place was busy, but yet it didn’t feel busy and thankfully although there were a lot of young children they were well behaved and well controlled by their parents. The pool is gorgeous, the sea is sheltered and great for paddle boarding beginners and if you want solitude there is a lovely quiet grass and seating area over near the spa.
Use the concierge for bookings – Kingsley booked us into The Houseboat Grill for supper one night and we of course had the best seat! I don’t think many guests leave the resort – but we did! We popped over to Greenwood Great House (smaller than Rose Hall that I decided would be overrun) and then continued the world tour of yacht clubs by having lunch at the Montego Bay YC – awesome, cheap and real and very welcoming to visitors from other clubs! Food and drink at Round Hill are of course expensive, but it was good. We maxed out on supper and tended to pick either lunch or breakfast (and top up with cereal bars that always go into our suitcases and stocked the fridge with Red Stripe!) There’s a regular manager cocktail party – it was good to meet the GM who lives and breathes the hotel, meeting the leader (who then remembered our names and re-introduced my husband to someone he knew later that night) confirmed this place is being run well.
Sadly then it was time to go home – we flew out of Kingston so had a long drive back (astounding for the front desk team at Round Hill!!) but it was easy – up through the mountains and down the other side. One last drive through Kingston to get the heart pumping… the only exciting thing though was seeing the most enormous pig walking through a side street in town (if only I hadn’t stowed my camera in case of attracting attention)! We stopped in at Port Royal for a quick look see at the “wickedest place on earth” and then to the airport. The lounge here is surprisingly good – I only have bad memories of Caribbean airports so this was a good surprise. Bad surprise – BA telling us they had run out of fizz on the trip from London and so could we please pick something else from the drinks menu! Still – I can’t complain, the Duke of Kent didn’t seem to and he was sitting just across the aisle!