Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A holiday in Jamaica, No problem mon!

My first experience of the Caribbean compared with the Bounty advert, with the sparkling white sand and crystal clear waters.

Sometimes I think I was born on the wrong side of the world, as I thrive on a relaxed pace of life, exotic food and beautiful weather. It is no surprise then why I was eager to visit Jamaica - the colourful land of Bob Marley look-alikes, palm trees and perpetually sunny beaches. While the island attracts over one million tourists to its sandy shores every year, it remains largely unexplored by the Irish- surprising considering our reputed sense of adventure. I travelled there alone, eager to see if it would tempt me back one day with my family, my friends or for a romantic holiday.

Jamaica is a large island so I was not able to see everything in one trip, especially since almost one-half of it is 1,000 feet above sea level. The island has 14 parishes, each with its own flavour. My first stop was in Negril- one of the trendiest resorts on the North of the island. Its beach is like a shell necklace with a conglomeration of tourist attractions fringing the coast for 15 miles. From snorkelling to parasailing, to just chilling out at a midnight beach bonfire – it offers every excuse to be lazy.

I was staying in the Grand Lido Resort on the famous seven mile sandy beach and it was here I had my first taste of the ‘all inclusive’ holiday. This concept- where your accommodation, food and drinks are all pre-paid- has been latched on by hotels throughout the Caribbean and beyond.You may fork out more for your holiday but once you arrive you don’t have to worry about carrying any money. With Eddie Hobbs in mind I was sceptical of this ‘load up your tray as everything is free’ deal. A young Irish couple staying at the resort were just as suspicious of the hidden costs. After several amusing trials of room service, we were delighted that the brochure’s promise was, in fact, true. The freebies even extended to tennis lessons, fine dining restaurants, water sports, beach parties and constant flowing champagne.

Negril was ideal for a holiday spent lounging on the beach and being pampered in the hotel spa. It was through my terrific minder for the week, however, that I captured the traditional Jamaican way of life. Norma showed me how to haggle in the local craft market and ensured I tasted the best local cuisine. My plan to combine this holiday with a detox was a farfetched goal. By day two I was treating Jamaican food like a box of chocolates - sampling a bit of everything. Some of my favourite indulgences were ackee (a traditional fruit enjoyed at breakfast) dumplings and jerked chicken (barbecue style chicken with spicy seasoning) .This was often followed by spongy banana bread and a mug of rich Blue Mountain coffee. While travelling during the day time, I enjoyed casual culinary fun with a small snack of roast corn, or fresh mango from the roadside vendors. At night I enjoyed sipping a glass or two of the homegrown Tia Maria, which is said to be created in honour of the country’s independence in 1962.

Jamaica is a celebrity haven so I had my paparazzi glasses on for the first few days. With no A- list star in sight I took a tour of Goldeneye- the resort where Ian Fleming penned the James Bond books and where Scarlett Johanssen and Josh Hartnett recently visited. The Hollywood starlets splashed out €3000 a night for Fleming’s villa on Bond beach. Irish celebrities have also savoured the Jamaican lifestyle with Bono leading the way. U2’s frontman used to be a frequent visitor at the idyllic Caves Resort in Negril. It’s easy to see why so many celebrities visit, as there is no hassle from the locals- in their words ‘everything is no problem Mon’.

Just as I was relaxing into the Jamaican way of life, my itinerary suggested some adventure. This kicked off with a horseback ride n’ swim- an unforgettable experience for someone who had never been on a horse before! My muscles ached from a combination of laughter and desperate attempts to cling on as the horse paddled through the deep waters. The adrenalin rush soared even higher as I took to the trees for a rainforest canopy tour in the afternoon. After being harnessed up into the leaves and branches, I glided over the rivers like Tarzan’s Jane at speeds of 35 miles an hour.

The most terrifying part of my trip was yet to come, as I was booked in to swim with sting rays the following day. Even though I was in a secluded resort the tragic news of Steve Erwin’s death travelled fast. The group I was joining for Jamaica’s newest attraction coincidentally chose not to partake in this swim- so it was just me, alone with 26 sting rays.

I shivered at the sight of their venomous tails even though I had been shown how to avoid their stings- by shuffling by feet into the water and not jumping with fright! After a reluctant shuffle into the shallow sea water, the largest sting ray, Musclegirl, swam into my arms. I shrieked and hollered- much to the bemusement of onlookers- while trying not to lose grasp of this massive slithery creature. It was difficult to keep control of her as you have to ensure the sting ray’s eyes are kept below the water- otherwise they become agitated. Musclegirl’s family and friends pushed the fear factor by swarming at my feet. I could feel their tails swishing past my legs and it took every inch of panic stricken bravery not to jump. With half shut eyes I forced myself to embrace a few more of the smaller sting rays, and even fed one of them, before running to the safety of the shore. Although I rejoiced for rising to the challenge, once was enough for this experience.

After this encounter everything else was a breezy adventure. Swimming with dolphins was exhilarating; climbing Dunn’s waterfalls was a slippery challenge while a culinary tour in the Jamaican hills was a mouth-watering experience. Time constraints unfortunately meant I missed out on a visit to the Bob Marley Mausoleum.

My holiday ended on a high note in Ocho Rios. Ochee, as it is known locally, was once a sleepy fishing village but is now a hugely popular honeymoon retreat. My hotel, Couples was as the name suggests- exclusively for lovers. The all- inclusive concept was in force here also- the romantic extras included flower petals scattered on the bed, a Jacuzzi for two and double Spa treatments. Although I felt like a lemon at times, I was still swept away by the old world romanticism. My balcony was like a movie theatre every evening, as I witnessed several sunset beach weddings under floral filled gazebos.

My only regret is I did not get time to experience much of the Jamaican nightlife outside of the resorts. Anyone my age would be tempted to check out the enchanting hip strip in Montego Bay. Apparently it is buzzing every night with a dazzling array of reggae artists and calypso kings.

After six days of touring and exploring, I spent the last day doing what most people come to Jamaica for- chilling out on one of the glorious beaches. Followed by a soothing coconut massage and facial, I left the island refreshed, well- fed and with plenty of Jamaican recipes to try out at home. Will I be making a return? Yah Mon for sure!

Why Jamaica?
Families will find every conceivable activity, great beaches, and many child-friendly resorts. Golfers will be delighted by the champion courses, mainly in the Montego Bay area. Couples will be serenaded by the romance that stems from every direction. And for groups the party will never stop with the trendy nightlife and adrenalin pumping adventures.

Meet the People
An excellent way to see more than just Jamaica’s fine beaches and fruit cocktails is by signing up to ‘Meet the People’. The programme offers tourists the opportunity to mingle with the locals. You could meet a Jamaican family for a day of fun on the beach, or perhaps pay a visit to the children at a local primary school.

When to go
High season in Jamaica runs from around mid-December through to April. July and August are the hottest months and February is the coolest. Regardless of when you visit, the tropical climate and warm temperatures essentially guarantee beautiful weather.

How to get there
Jamaica is accessible from the UK with daily Air Jamaica flights. Check out www.airjamaica.com
Several Irish travel agents operate holidays to Jamaica:
Sunway Travel www.sunway.ie
Tropical Places www.tropicalplaces.ie

Where to stay
The all inclusive holiday package is available in a number of resorts including:
The Grand Lido Resort www.grandlido.com
Couples Resort www.couples.com
Beaches Resort www.beaches.com

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