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.