Searching for the "real" Jamaica, we found the perfect compromise on the edge of Negril's finest sands
We began our Jamaican adventure in Montego Bay, cosseted within the confines of Half Moon Bay luxury resort, with its pristine private shoreline and over 400 acres of gardens and sporting facilities. It was indeed a taste of paradise. Yet I saw mountains beyond the perimeter fence, thick with tropical vegetation, and overhung with cloud. I heard noise and hustle from a different world. I wanted a taste of it.
We had rented a cottage in Lucea,a non tourist town further along the coast, and a car to drive there. But when we told people, hoping to glean some local knowledge, they looked puzzled or anxious. The hotel bus driver shook his head, and gave us his best advice on driving in Jamaica...
”Don’t”, he said firmly.
We assured him we knew all about driving on the left, but he still shook his head in disbelief.
"Then be careful," he warned.
The open road
After picking up our car, I soon realised why few tourists stray from the resorts. I had been totally unprepared for the poverty that I saw, and the huge gap between our life style and the average Jamaican’s. Being a tourist in a non tourist environment was clearly going to be difficult, and we hoped that people would accept us. It was fascinating to observe life in the towns and villages as we passed through, with their simple wooden homes, roadside beer shacks and very basic shops. From time to time we would spot the concrete shells of grander houses seemingly abandoned, or only partly occupied. These are known as the “save’n builds”, belonging to people waiting for better times.It was great to see so many children, neatly dressed in uniforms of blue, yellow and brown, walking from their schools on the edge of town, while out in the countryside herds of goats held sway.
We turned away from the main coastal road to explore the interior, climbing towards those spectacular and impenetrable mountains we had seen from our resort. It was a slow crawl as we tried to avoid the many potholes and wandering whippet like dogs. Then we dropped down to the coast again, passing vast plantations of tall swaying sugar cane, a salutary reminder of a cruel past.
Downtown Montego Bay
Jamaica has a reputation for being edgy and dangerous. Clearly there are places to avoid after dusk like downtown Kingston, or Montego Bay. We decided to keep out of the centre of town, even by day, but promptly took the wrong turning and found ourselves lost in the teeming,chaotic and colourful trading centre that is Mobay. A young man on a bicycle spotted our dilemma. Pedalling furiously, and stopping to wait for us at junctions, he helped us negotiate our way out of the mêlée. He was the first helpful person we met on the open road, but certainly not the last.
Sadly, our self catering accommodation turned out to be a total misrepresentation of what had been advertised. Needing to find some accommodation quickly, we selected a comparatively cheap beach cottage in the tourist resort of Negril. On arriving, we searched for our establishment along the unprepossessing strip development of hotels and discos. Had we made a big mistake?
Beach bums at the “Whistling Bird”
Each cottage at The Whistling Bird is named after a local Jamaican bird. Ours, “Lazy Katie”, was basic but charming. We had arrived in the dark, so it was only on emerging the next morning that we saw how absolutely wonderful its setting was, within well kept tropical gardens on the edge of Negril’s seven mile stretch of white sand. Sitting on our veranda, by the hotel's private strip of beach, we watched as people traversed the public shoreline in front of us.Tourists jogging; couples strolling; young men parading on horseback; police officers; hustlers and traders, filed along in a never ending procession. Some carried baskets of fruit on their heads, simple carvings, or pots and cups made out of calabashes. Others had more covert "goods" on offer. Young or old, streetwise or poor, Jamaica had suddenly come to life.
Fortunately we had arrived before the peak season, so we could really get to know the staff at this laid back spot. From the philosophical night watchman who served us early morning coffee at the bar by the sea’s edge, to the cook who made our breakfast, and took our order for dinner so that she could go shopping. From the maintenance worker whose impressive knowledge of cricket and world politics shone through, despite our struggle to grasp his lilting patois; and not least the cook’s tiny grand-daughter, proudly displaying her newly braided hair. Everyone we met seemed to be part of a large, loyal, and happy family. We were thoroughly charmed, and privileged to get to know them. What's more, it confirmed my belief that wealth is not a necessary prerequisite for contentment.
Food: delicious and local
As for the food, it was local, cooked to order, and delicious: calaloo and plantain; snapper fish and shrimps; pineapple, paw paw and fresh coconut; akee and salt fish, all served up by the edge of the sea. This was a different kind of paradise; one that you would be hard pushed to find in the most expensive resort.
Whistling Bird had provided us with a safe and alternative means of getting to know local Jamaican people, in a way that is impossible in more impersonal establishments.
When to go
I was very happy to spend my days strolling along Negril’s beach, and watching the world go by from my hammock strung between the palm trees. If, like me, you prefer the quiet life, make sure you travel between April and early December.
Negril is a busy resort however, and things hot up with the beginning of the peak tourist season. If you like to intersperse lazy days with disco nights, then this is the place for you from late December onwards."The Jungle” nightclub is close by, and Rick's café, where locals dive from the cliffs, is just around the headland.
Accommodation in Negril:
Negril has a number of all inclusive resorts fronting the beach, such as “Couples Swept Away”, or "Breezes". For my taste however, a simple beach cabin suits the Negril scene perfectly.
A two person cottage at the Whistling Bird costs from $98 per night, with a gourmet meal plan costing $33 pp extra.
For a slightly more up market cabin, you might like to try Country Country just up the beach. Accommodation here costs from $131 for two, with a complimentary breakfast at the beach side restaurant. The cottages are prettily painted and more comfortably furnished, but they are more crowded together and set back from the beach.
As for this beach bum, I will definitely be heading back to the Whistling Bird...”yeah mon”.