Those in need of a luxurious beach getaway to escape from busy, working cities know exactly where to turn as they book their flights for destinations such as Monaco, Bali and Capri. They yearn for impeccable hotel service, lavish amenities, exotic excursions and undisturbed beaches.
The last place they look is Jamaica, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was ravished by such catastrophes as Hurricane Gilbert of 1988, the Persian Gulf War from 1990 to 1991 and the U.S. and Canadian economic recessions of the early 1990s.
Back in those days, Jamaica was characterized by barbed wire, drug-pushing locals, feral animals and extreme poverty evident around every turn of the dirt roads. Many who visited the country during this time are hesitant to go back and give Jamaica a second chance. However, a few are giving it a go – and they are so pleased with what they find, they are going back again and again.
Since the dark period of Jamaican tourism has faded, Jamaica has received more than one million visitors a year; the country celebrated a year of two million visitors by the end of 2013.
Lured by the stunning beaches and pleasant weather, tourists head to the island from December to April, when it rarely rains and a pleasant breeze flows alongside reggae music.
Clearly, tourism has had quite the turnaround in Jamaica, which now has 30,000 hotel rooms. Locals are also supported in the industry since one in four Jamaicans work in tourism.
Although I had never been to Jamaica, I am always on the hunt for new destinations and convinced my travel companions to pack their suitcases with me for a mid-winter getaway. With a degree of apprehension, we headed for the Hilton Rose Hall in Montego Bay, which is on the north coast of the island and which, along with Negril and Ocho Rios, attracts the most visitors.
Once I arrived, it was hard to imagine that tourism ever suffered, and even harder to understand why Jamaica wasn’t crowded with travelers. The Hilton Rose Hall immediately uplifted my companions’ opinions of Jamaica with signature complimentary lobby drinks and friendly hotel concierge service in a contemporary lobby attached to a large deck overlooking the ocean and hotel property.
This was in stark contrast to their previous Jamaican experiences from 25 years ago, which included one black-and-white television in a hotel lobby and showers that produced no hot water. Back when they visited the country 25 years ago, my companions had been urged not to leave hotel property’ they remembered being harassed into purchases by locals and hotel staff alike. A lot had obviously changed since then.
The Hilton Rose Hall is clearly focused on the sunshine of Jamaica, with the largest water park in the country, including several water slides, hot tubs, a lazy river and private beach flowing throughout the hotel grounds. In addition to enjoying the various pool and beachside amenities of the all-inclusive resort — including meals and drinks delivered to my beach chair — I found no better way to enjoy the turquoise water than to gaze at it from a private cabana while enjoying a massage at Sooth Spa, the on-site hotel spa which uses indigenous elements from the surrounding land and sea.
Long hours in the eternal sunshine of Jamaica leads to a hunger that can be satisfied by the seven hotel restaurants, including Luna di Mare, an intimate northern Italian restaurant and the Three Palms, which features modern cuisine and fresh seafood. I never missed an opportunity for a fresh seafood dish, including the blackened grey snapper filet from the Three Palms and herb-crusted salmon filet with lime-ginger sauce from Luna di Mare.
Clearly, we weren’t the only ones enjoying all that the island had to offer. Bright colorful beach homes dotted the area with elaborate customization and manicured tropical shrubbery.
Outside of the Hilton Rose Hall, the splendor continued throughout the Jamaican countryside in lush landscapes, swooping mountaintops and crystal-clear waters. There was horseback riding in the area, bamboo rafting on the Martha Brae and zip-lining through the jungle.
We got a close look at the surrounding greenery and luxury homes in Montego Bay on a horseback riding tour we took with Braco Stables of Duncans, Trelawny. We took a two-hour trail ride with a stop at a private Caribbean beach to relax in the sun and ride horses bareback through the refreshing waters. During the trail-riding portion, we got a close look at the tranquil farms and tropical homes tucked away in the brush.
Later, we also headed to the Martha Brae River for rafting and were hosted on a bamboo raft ride three miles down the river. Located 20 miles from Montego Bay and 40 miles from Ocho Rios, rafting down the Martha Brae River was a welcome, calm excursion that allowed for appreciation of the beautiful Jamaican landscape.
However, for a much more adventurous day trip, we also went to Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios for zip-lining through the jungle, the best way to see the waters from high above while swinging from the trees and observing the wildlife. With a small group of other zip-liners and two friendly guides, it was an ideal way to get some excitement on an otherwise calming trip.
Throughout the years, Jamaica has certainly undergone quite the transformation, forcing all who visited the Caribbean island 20 years ago to give it a second look. For those looking for a luxurious beach getaway, it can be found in Jamaica.