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Travel Writing by Chelle

Destination: Negril, Jamaica
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Cool Runnings in Negril

By Chelle Koster Walton

For purchase only; updated 4/28/03.

Jamaicans sing as they work, whether young or old, reggae or gospel, quietly as a rhythm for their work or in loud, rich stage tones complete with dance steps. Which means that the music in Negril, famous for its nightlife and reggae fests, begins at daybreak and often doesn't wind down 'til daybreak on the other end.

Early morning Negril dawns much the same as it did 20 years ago. Slim dark men in crisp khaki shirts rake up sea grape and almond tree leaves from resort beaches. The clear-clear water, yet unclouded by foreign feet, shimmers in magical shades of green, blue, and combinations thereof. Smoke from jerk pork fires mingles with the calm seas lightly salted musk. Taut-muscled fishermen crowned with tight white coils of hair haul their wooden dugouts above high tide line and afterward indulge in the chill baptism of morning sea. Bandana'ed women, plump as their pineapples, set up tables of fruit to sell.

In but a few hours, the cool white sifted-fine sand will heat up and so will the action. Boats, water-skiiers, snorkelers, crayon-colored sailboats, and buzzing jet skis will rend the calm morning that belongs almost entirely to the Jamaicans. Plastic lounge chairs seem to crawl into the sunshine. The endless parade up and down the beach commences.

Once a mecca for young, adventuresome, and budget-minded vacationers who embraced its basic, natural lifestyle, Negril has grown up some. All-inclusive resorts, charming inns, and smart villas attract a less spendthrift crowd. Yet the upscale climb hasn't diminished the sybaritic spirit of Negril vacationing, nor has it diluted the genuineness of the Jamaican experience. Guest houses, inexpensive hotels, affordable food and Red Stripe beer, and good ganga (though illegal) still draw the young, especially at spring break. But even the boozy college students come away with a sense of place when they pack their sand-heavy bags to leave Negril.

Negril is one of the easiest destinations in the Caribbean to slip into the village way of life. You find yourself wanting to adopt the Negril lifestyle, underprivileged as it may seem at first. With the exception of the all-inclusives, accommodations in Negril place you in the center of daily activity, whether you're a "beach person" or a "cliff person."

Not some anthropological classification of ancient natives, these labels refer to vacationers' preferences to lodge on the West End, where cliffs make a sharp departure from the more commercial downtown and beach scene, or on the sugary seven-mile swath of sand. The attraction for the cliffs is scuba diving, better prices, and a more profound plunge into Jamaican culture and the natural way of life professed by the dread-locked Rastafarian religious sect.

Even at its high end, Negril tourism remains swayed by vegetarian diet, healthy relaxation, and metaphysical escape. The major all-inclusives -- Sandals, Hedonism II, Grand Lido, and Couples Swept Away -- have spas, where therapists are known to throw in bits of local bush medicine knowledge from time to time. Along the beach, vendors sell aloe massages. At the West End, Jackie's on the Reef epitomizes what Negril can do for a soul. Jackie Lewis dropped out of the New York retail scene to live the self-fulfilling, minimalist life in Negril. Her away-from-it-all four-room hostelry specializes in spiritual healing, yoga, intensive massage, and healthy eating.

"Everything is done outdoors in Jamaica," says Lewis from one of the rooms open air, fairly rustic bathrooms. "Here you are learning how things are in Jamaica by living closer to nature."

With its luring reef-protected crescent bay, what's done outdoors by visitors to Negril happens mostly in or on the water. There's no end to the sailing, parasailing, water-skiing, snorkeling, and boat tour opportunities. Traditionally, Negril tourism has focused seaward, but with the improvement of roads and sophistication of ecotourism sensibilities, attention is turning toward the land, a land of rolling hills and mammoth trees right out of Dr. Seuss.

One of the best ways to get into local nature is with a horseback ride at Paradise Park, about 30 minutes off the beach. Suitable for children and first-time riders as well as experienced equestrians, it takes you through several different habitats to sandy shoreline dotted with mangroves and backdropped by the dramatic Blue Mountains. Other tours do mountain biking, river tubing, deep-sea fishing, visits to mountain falls and a nature reserve, and other nearby nature and heritage adventures.

Dining has always been a singular pleasure in Negril, where even the swankiest restaurants keep true to Jamaican traditions -- pumpkin soup, pepperpot, jerk chicken, ackee and saltfish (the national dish made with Jamaicas scrambled-egg-like national fruit), calaloo (spinach-like greens), curried goat, and meat patties. Some dress it up a bit. Charela Inn's Le Vendome, which is owned by a Jamaican man and his French wife, adds a French accent to the traditional. Couples Swept Away prepares variations such as ackee and saltfish sushi and breadfruit-stuffed game hen. Vendors along the beach sell mysterious, wonderful fruits with names like naseberry, June plum, and custard apple.

The vendors and their craft markets were once the sole source of shopping in Negril, but in recent years sophisticated shopping plazas have arisen, including Times Square, specializing in duty-free. The tidy plaza represents the new in Negril, an upwardly mobile swing reflected in the latest resorts, an 18-hole golf course, a new and wild two-tiered nightclub called The Jungle, and restaurants that -- contrary to Negril tradition -- may actually require shoes.

Unlike other destinations that decide to upgrade their images, what's old and endearing about Negril endures. Nudity and risque on the beach have toned down somewhat, and ganga use is more discreet (except possibly during spring break). But vacation Negril-style still reflects an alternative lifestyle -- one with roots as old as time and free as a song to the morning sea.

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TRIP PLANNER

  • Best for: Beach, watersports, and nature lovers.
  • Also good for: Families, couples, and singles; adventure travelers, spa-goers and seekers of local culture.
  • Cost for a two-night visit in resort accommodations. Anywhere from $50 off-season and $200 in season for the small, moderate resorts, to $600 and $700 for a deluxe all-inclusive room with meals, etc.
  • Highlights:
    • Beach
    • Jamaican people
    • Nightlife/music
    • Diving and other watersports
    • Dining
    • Horseback riding
    • Spas
  • Special events:
    • Negril Carnival in early May
    • Negril Music Festival in late May
    • Annual Reggae Marathon in early December
  • Information: Call the Jamaica Tourist Board office in Miami at 305-665-0557 or 800-JAMAICA. Visit www.jamaicatravel.com.

LODGING

  • Charela Inn, Negril Beach, 876-957-4277, www.charela.com. Charming, friendly inn with pool and watersports on the beach. $90-$210.
  • CocoLaPalm, Negril Beach, 876-957-4227, www.cocolapalm.com. 2 pools, restaurant, and beachside. $135-$240.
  • Couples Swept Away, Negril Beach, 800-COUPLES. One of Negrils finest all-inclusives, geared toward couples and sports, with spa and extensive sports complex. $465-$650 per couple.
  • Doris' Place, Negril Beach next to Negril TreeHouse. Guest houses such as these can cost as little as $10 a night.
  • Jackie's on the Reef, West End Rd., 876-957-4997, www.jackiesonthereef.com. 4 simple rooms accommodate guests at this spiritual health retreat. $125-$150 plus cost of required spa treatments.
  • Rock House, West End Rd., 876-957-4373. 28 thatched roof rooms atop the cliffs and caves of the West End, with horizon pool. $75-$210.
  • SeaSplash Resort, Negril Beach, 876-957-4041, www.seasplash.com. Intimate boutique resort with rooms junior suites, and family-sized loft suites. $39-$247.

DINING

  • Cosmos' Restaurant, Negril Beach, 876-957-4784. Native chow and tropical drinks in a casual beach setting. $5-$7.
  • Le Restaurant Le Vendome, Charela Inn, 876-957-4648. Five-course and a la carte dinners fusing Jamaican and French cuisine; live music Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. Five-course dinners $25-$35; a la carte $12-$28.
  • Norma's Restaurant, Negril Beach, SeaSplash Resort, 876-957-4041. Jamaicas renowned chef Norma Shirley designs creative new Jamaican dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner ($12-$18).
  • Ossie's Shack and Ossie's Jerk Shack, Negril Beach, 876-957-4257. Ossie and Miss Marge cook up the real thing in Jamaican folk cuisine. $5-$7.
  • Rick's Café, West End Rd., 876-957-0380. Known more for its sunsets, drinks, and cliff divers, Rick's also serves Jamaican-inspired favorites, burgers, and seafood for lunch and dinner ($15-$26) with live reggae daily.

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To purchase this article for publication, contact ChelleTrav@aol.com.
 
Copyright Chelle Koster Walton; it is illegal to reproduce this article or photograph without author's permission.