Caribbean diaries (3) - Jamaica (Ocho Rios and Port Antonio)

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This summer I spent a couple of months in Jamaica on work. My weekdays were spent in the capital city of Kingston and weekends were spent exploring the beach resorts nearby. During this time, I visited Ocho Rios (twice), Port Antonio and Negril along the northern coast of the island. And I loved my time there. All the resorts and the beaches felt like they were in a different timezone altogether. With the crystal blue and tranquil waters around, the warm and relaxed air and the chilled people everywhere. Where time came to a standstill, and all you wanted to do was float in its timelessness...

Ocho Rios

My experience in Ocho Rios was more about the resort I stayed at than the town actually. It was such an amazing experience to be at Jamaica Inn, that I went to the same resort twice and both the times did not leave it at all over the weekend!

Getting there

Getting from Kingston to Ocho Rios is quite easy and convenient. Its about an hour drive mostly on the newly opened highway 2000 which cuts through the centre of the island and takes you through some beautiful mountaineous landscapes. Its quite a high quality freeway where you can drive fast while enjoying the jungle views around. Its all green everywhere with tropical forests. The route goes up and down through the mountains and is a pleasure to drive through. And there are loads of villages on the sides of the roads too, though they are mostly hidden in the forests.

Sometimes when it is rainy, the whole drive becomes even more green and fresh then ever. And you get to see some majestic sunset views in the evening, with the clouds and sunlight playing games with each other. A part of the route also passes through a valley which is always foggy and filled with clouds, as if in a bowl. I drove through the highway some 5-6 times and enjoyed each of those experiences. And as soon as you are off the highway, you reach Ocho Rios within 10 mins.

Jamaica Inn - the resort

Jamaica Inn is one of the resorts you come to as you drive past the town. I am still very surprised that the first time I entered the gates at Jamaica Inn, my first impression of the place wasn't great. In fact, I actually questioned myself whether I had landed at the right place or not! It had a very rustic feel to it, like the old British bungalows. And lot of open spaces and gardens within the premises. It was definitely not at all like the swanky posh new age hotels that we all frequent nowadays. And so I wasn't sure if it was worth the high price it charged. But that was just my first impression, as everything else after that was heavenly. And I fell in love with the place within an hour of being there.

The first time I visited, I got one of the Balcony suite rooms which are the simplest ones available. They are located on the first floor and have a sea view. The interior decor of the rooms was very comfortable and it had an outside balcony where you could sit with a view of the garden below and the sea beyond. As I had reached at night, I didn't get to see the resort much.

I had dinner at their open air restaurant where there was live local Jamaican music playing. The food was average but there was already a very relaxing feeling all around which I had already started enjoying. Everyone in the resort was very friendly and always smiling. Service was personal and relaxed, and they took their time to do anything. It was overall a very friendly place, where even the guests spoke to each other and chatted for long ????.

After dinner, I sat outside in my room's balcony, just enjoying the music from the restaurant, listening to the waves splashing along the beach and enjoying the twinkling lights far away. It was already so relaxing to be here, far away from all the troubles of the world. But even all this hadn't prepared me for my experience over the next two days.

And when I woke up in the morning was when I fully awakened to the bliss that was Jamaica Inn. The view right in front of my room was of a garden next to a white sand beach. And it was heavenly. It was so blissful being in the resort that I ended up not leaving it for the next two days at all.

Its a huge resort with bungalows spread in a huge green area. They have many different kind of rooms - balcony rooms, verandah suites, huge luxury villas with private pools and their own private entrance to the sea, cottages and so on. All of them are painted in a soothing shade of white and blue, have a lot of privacy and offer the perfect place to unwind. There was something of the old British world charm in the bungalows which was very attractive and calming. And of course, having food on the beach, the spa and all the activities made it easier to just chill inside.

On my second visit to Jamaica Inn, I stayed in Clearwater Villa which was a huge suite and pure luxury. We had our own pool, own sunbeds, a personal garden and our own private entrance to the sea. And I enjoyed it totally. I think Jamaica Inn has ruined me for life regarding luxurious beach vacations ????. There was a very private feeling about the resort, where it feels you have all the place to yourself, given how its been setup. And that is something I will always appreciate about this place.

Things to do in the resort

Food: The resort has a breakfast area and the breakfast is included in the room rates. It also has a restaurant for lunch and dinner as well as bar food on the beach all day. The breakfast area has one of the most fabulous views I have ever seen - its located right next to the green and blue waters, with a view of the sea and the surrounding areas. Its the best way to start a good day. And the spread is also good, especially all the Jamaican fruits in the menu. Every morning, I ended up staying there longer than I initially planned, just lost in the views around more than the food.

Every night, dinner again was in the open terrace, with a great background setting. The waves would be hitting the shore, the palm trees would be swaying in the background, the stars twinkling above and the lights of the town calling out from far. Every day, there was live music in the restaurant, with mostly local artists performing. One day it was reggae, another day Jamaican songs and popular pop songs at another dinner. It was always amazing to eat there, almost surreal every time.

And after dinner, I would just sit outside in my balcony, read a book or enjoy the sunset views with the sound of the music still playing. It always felt so surreal, as if I was in heaven with not a care in the world. And thinking to myself, this is the life and it doesn't get better than this. There is something about this place that is amazing - you forget all your troubles when you come here. I loved those relaxed stress free evenings there and they were definitely the high point.

Activities: There is a beach in the resort itself of white sand and dotted with palm trees plus almond trees serving as natural shades. They have a beach bar serving food and drinks, including complimentary ones. The water there is sparkling clean and had a variety of shades, from green to dark blue hues. And when its sunny, the water sparkles light green. I swam a bit in the warm waters and it was lovely, especially during the day when the weather was a bit warm. I also went a couple of times for snorkelling and saw all the typical coloured fishes - orange, yellow, blue et al and sea urchins, all very near the resort. You can very easily chill there the whole day, going into the water, waving to all the boats passing by, reading, eating and also trying out some of the water activities offered by the resort.

The resort has free gear for the residents for lots of water based activities like sailing, paddle surfing, kayaking and snorkelling. In addition, they also have a croquet lawn, the usual gym and a oceanview pool. They also have their own spa which has a fantastic location overlooking the sea, and is totally worth experiencing. They also have a library stocked with many books to pass time, especially during the day when its a bit hot to get out. I ended up reading a book on both my trips there. They also have a snack hour when they offer free snacks near the terrace restaurant. Everything there is setup in such a way that you don't feel like doing much or leaving the property either.

They had a few other activities in the resort, like going to a turtle hatching location, going for a nature walk and so on. I couldn't go for the turtle hatching as it wasn't the season. I did however go for one of their nature walks where they take you around the resort and show you different kind of tropical trees and flowers, and I think that was the maximum activity I did that weekend ????.

Ocho Rios is part of the garden parish of Jamaica and hence there is a lot of focus on different types of trees and plants. It was quite an interesting walk, especially some of the flowers that the gardener showed. We started with tasting and smelling the leaves of some local spices like rosemary, lemon grass, garlic wine and blue mountain coffee. Then he showed us the ganja plant, which was a first for me. Among the fruit trees, they had the bread fruit, avocado, roseapple, cotton tree (used for making boats), royal palm, desert palm (which stores water inside it), soursap and almond trees (which provided natural covering like an umbrella on the beach).

And they also had a lot of the local flowering varieties within the resort - orchids, gulmohar (knows as pride of Barbados), lobster claw, frangipani, gingerlily flower (bright red), boostail (long tail), flame of the forest (bright orange on the tree), red shrimp flowers and so on. The gardener showed us each of these plants adding a bit of history or other detail to make it more interesting. Like he showed us the common touch-me-nots grass which were apparently brought to Jamaica and were planted on large farms to allow the owners to find where the slaves had run away.

But honestly, as I said, we didn't do many activities there as we ended up lazing and chilling a lot more than doing anything. The weather was quite hot and humid during the day, and cooler at night. It felt better when it was cloudy though and sometimes rained in the afternoon. Also you had to watch out for mosquitos and we had to use anti-repellant cream if we wanted to sit outside at night. I also noticed was that there was always loud sound of crickets in the background all the time which is so different than being in a city.

Outside the resort

There are loads of things to do around Ocho Rios actually. There is a dolphin cove where you can go and play with the dolphins. And then there is the famous River Dunn waterfall where you can walk along a waterfall all the way down to the sea and beach. It is supposed to be an amazing experience, and both weekends I was there, I had planned on going to the waterfall but never managed to make it ????.

I once went for a scuba dive which is offered by the diving guys at the neighbouring resort. It was a nice dive at a ship wreck, where we spotted some sting rays, sponges, typical fishes and the usual reef. The ride back in the boat when they were dropping me was amazing. We got a very good view of the resort from afar. And it looked even better than being in it ????.

I did go into the Ocho Rios town once and found it to be very average, quite in contrast to the resorts which are luxurious. It felt safe though which helps. I found things overall quite expensive though which I wouldn't expect in such a small town. I also bought a mango from a local stall, and the shopkeeper was surprised that I wanted to buy just one. The mangoes there taste almost as good as the ones we eat in India!!

One of the evenings, we went out for dinner to Oceans 11, a nearby happening restaurant. There were loads of local people enjoying being outside and eating and drinking. The location and ambience was good, being right next to the sea. But the quality of service was below par. The area also had a lot of nice apartments around, I am guessing they were all local holiday homes.

One of the weekends, I also spoke to the owner of the place who is an American. His family has owned the place for generations and he mentioned that their aim is to make it a place which residents visit regularly, and dont want to leave. And they've made it just like that ????. I also realised once there that this place was frequented by loads of celebrities, like Marilyn Monroe for her honeymoon and Winston Churchill for his breaks. I can see why. Once there, you don't want to leave. It was like being in a bubble, faraway from the world. Jamaica Inn has become one of my favourite hotels in the world now. And a tip - residents of Jamaica get a massive discount in rates, so definitely ask for them if you are.

Port Antonio

Another weekend in Jamaica, we went to the town of Port Antonio. It is located on the north-western part of the island and was a very different experience than Ocho Rios. The resort experience was the same - like other places in Jamaica, you don't want to leave any resort you are in! But the activities we did there were definitely different. And the drives were more spectacular too.

Port Antonio is almost a 3-4 hour drive from Kingston, in the parish of Portland. While going there, I took a route through the centre of the island (which is all mountains and jungles) and then along the north side of the island (which is a coastal route). And a different route while coming back through the west and south coast of the island. And both the drivers were quite a different experience.

While driving to Port Antonio, the first part of the drive of about 30 kms was through the Blue mountains (called the Stony Hill drive). It was a narrow road most of the way, with too many ditches and bumps. The last 10 kms was especially bad, with loads of potholes. But the views were magnificent. All around were beautiful tropical forests, with hanging roots, and a river running all along, down in the valley. It was all so green and fresh. I drove through very small villages and settlements. Every village had its own church. And everyone seemed happy and chilled, just like Jamaicans are supposed to be. Loads of them were just sitting next to the road and staring at nothing. And many were wearing funky dresses. I mostly drove with the windows open and the fresh air felt amazing, so surreal and liberating.

Once through the mountains, I drove through the northern part of the island, which had a nice coastal road. It passed through many villages, all next to the sea with bays and beaches at every turn. It was picturesque all the way, through Orange Bay, Buff Bay, Margarets Bay, Hope Bay and so on. All the villages were small and not really touristy. The villages had small shops and lot of colourful houses. It felt a lot like South Africa sometimes. And the bays were picturesque, with waves lashing on the shore the whole time. A lot of these bays were overlooked by nice houses on the hills on the other side, definitely of the rich from Jamaica and US:). The last stretch from Port Antonio to my resort, the Goblin Hill villas, was a bad road with lot of potholes. And I had to drive very carefully. But the local cars of course drove much faster than me throughout.

The resort was amazing. It had a huge area, all green, with lots of activities to do - a pool, tennis, gardens and so on. It had a huge reception with a restaurant and bar. And had a few villas overlooking the sea. I took one of the terrace ones and settled in soon. The villas were huge and luxurious - with a kitchen and a local cook who would come and cook for you in your own kitchen. And the rooms were well stocked, with mosquito nets and mosquito repellants (liquid) and so on.

And the view from there was out of this world. It overlooked the bay, with the forests surrounding the bay. The first evening I landed, I just missed the sunset. But still sat outside, just enjoying the warm temperature and the sound of the waves. It was a bit humid but still fun. All around there were ambient insect sounds. And the stars above were beautiful. It felt so easy and amazing to just lie outside like this.

Morning of course brought an even better view. I had breakfast sitting on my terrace, eating what my cook cooked. And chilled in the resort for most of the day, walking, reading and just enjoy being there. There were loads of greenery in the resort, lot of trees, flowering ones like gulmohar and lobster claw, as well as fruit trees like almond and mango too and so many touch-me-nots which I have seen after a very long time. And of course brilliant views of the bay, including the view of Monkey island. I could even see people swimming there. In the afternoon, it rained a bit. And it was felt awesome to take an afternoon nap, with a cold wind blowing and the windows being open. I also went for a run around the property and down to the local beach which felt tiring given the villas were on a hill.

I did go out of the resort a bit though. First I went to Frenchman's cove which was a beach near the Frenchman cove hotel. To be honest, I was not impressed by it and would give it a miss anyday. The beach was too small and overcrowded. The cafe barely had some good food. It was too humid, and there were too many insects there. In the evening, I went to Woodys Burgers which is supposed to have one of the best burgers in town. It is a very small place which seemed empty when I went. I almost missed it too. But it did have one of the best burgers I have eaten.

The next day, we had a more active day. We finally went to Blue Lagoon which is what Port Antonio is famous for. You can rent a boat, which first takes you to Monkey island which is breathtaking. It is a small island which I saw from my resort too. And it has this pristine white sand beach with shallow waters. It was amazing just swimming and chilling there for a while. And there was a swing there to take typical photos. You also pass by the houses of the rich and famous on the bay, and they sure did look luxurious and expensive.

Then we went to the Blue Lagoon in the boat. This place was quite ethereal in its beauty. The water was of different shades of dark blue, and at different temperatures, sometimes hot and sometimes cold. It was very deep and fun to swim in. There was also a small spring on one side where we experienced more warmer waters. This place really had exquisite beauty all around and we spent lovely 3 hours there.

I finally also managed to go to Geejams hotel for lunch at the Bush bar. The hotel is a nice place to stay but was a bit too expensive. The restaurant though wasn't as expensive, It has a nice view, in the middle of tropical forests, with roots and creepers all around and totally worth stopping for a nice relaxed lunch. And very soon the weekend was over.

On the drive back, I took a longer route through the other side of the island. And loved it. It was so exhilarating to drive along the coast through these fascinating drives with huge bays next to me. Through towns like Boston Bay, Long Bay, Morant and so on. All the roads next to the bay had magnificent views, of the beaches and the blue sea waves hitting the shore hard. I also saw crabs crossing the street many times. There wasnt much other animal life otherwise, other than a few goat here and there

As on the drive there, I noticed loads of churches, and huge and colourful houses in every village on the way. And there were tons of bars playing loud music too. People in those villages were mostly chilling. I noticed a lot of Jamaican wear very bright colours and have exotic hairstyles. And the villages we passed by had lot of people playing football (maybe because it was Sunday). Part of the route was also through expansive fields and plains which looked pretty during sunset. The road wasn't great though and the potholes were deep! But I loved the driving experience there and the views, especially the sunset time. And soon was back in Kingston...

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