Caribbean diaries (4) - Jamaica (Negril, Kingston and around)

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Details and photos on http://travelfrreak.blogspot.com/2019/01/caribbean-diaries-4-jamaica-negril.html

Negril

The Negril resort area is supposed to have the best beaches in Jamaica among all the resort towns. And during my first two months in Kingston, I was unable to go there as it was a 3-4 hour drive away. But finally, on my recent trip back to Jamaica, I made it there. And I was impressed. The 7-mile beach is definitely worth all the hype around it.

Negril is located on the north western edge of the island. Again, while going we took one route and while coming back a different one. So all in all, I have ended up driving all around the island of Jamaica ???? (Route map at the bottom).

Our drive to Negril was through the interiors of the island. We stopped at the town of Mandeville on the way for a snack break and walked to the local Burger King for a quick burger and to the local mall to buy food for the trip. It was an interesting stop, especially as everyone warns you that Jamaica is unsafe. But walking to a random town did not feel unsafe at all.

On the way, we passed through a lot of small towns and villages, and as usual, there were loads of churches and colourful houses on the way. And we noticed many locals just sitting on the side of the roads and chilling. We also saw lot of hawkers on the roadside selling different local fruits. We should have stopped and bought some of the healthy stuff, but Jamaica is made out to be so unsafe, that we resisted. We also noticed that lot of the towns had grand and huge luxurious houses up on the hills. I am guessing, these are all holiday homes of the rich. On the way, we also came across a pathway of bamboo on both sides of the road which was quite a fascinating sight. We were brave enough to get out and take a few photos there ????.

The drive was beautiful - through foggy mountains and green forests, valleys and next to the sea, bamboo covered roads and narrow roads through the jungles. We saw loads of picturesque vistas and a striking sunset on the way. Everything was so fresh after the rain and very very green. We kept the windows open and loud music at times. It was an amazing drive. People were driving very badly on the single lane roads though. And we had to be extremely careful and focussed all the time.

Also right before our coastal drive to Negril, we ran into a huge accident on the road. This was on a one way road, and we ended up wasting an hour in the traffic jam there. So the whole drive took us 6.5 hours instead of 4! As when we had started, we had got lost in Kingston too and drove around in circles. So we landed at our resort pretty late at night.

Negril is famous for its 7-mile beach and most of the resorts are located on the beach itself. We however stayed a bit far at the Spa Boutique hotel. It is a popular resort known for providing a nice private experience to its residents, away from the crowds and noise of the 7-mile beach. And we all totally loved our stay there. And in keeping with my tradition of not leaving my Jamaican resorts much, it was pretty much the same for me in Negril also ????.

The resort is located on a cliff, with lot of rocks along the water. And inside, it was all very green, with the bungalows hiding in between them the trees. Most of the bungalows were two storeys and we got the terrace rooms which had a heavenly view of the sea especially during sunrise. I was planning to sleep in but when I saw the view outside at 6 am, I had to give up on my sleep and come out and read a book, enjoying the freshness around. The sea, the sunrise, the greenery and the water. It felt like heaven. And given how far the resort was from the crowds and there was so much greenery, it was able to give you the feel that you were all alone there, which I totally loved.

The resort had a small artificial beach on the cliff, a nice outside pool overlooking the sea and lots of sunbeds and hammocks next to it. Just outside on the rocks next to the sea, there were loads of crabs, and pelicans were coming and swooping to find prey. You could also see fishes in the water if you walked on the rocks.

They also had great snorkelling right next to the cliff which was fun. I saw crabs, sea urchins, star fish, a small ray, long bottlenose fish, dead corals and loads of blue, yellow and other coloured fishes while snorkelling there. Snorkelling was definitely better in the afternoon than the morning though. The water was so warm, it felt perfect. Not just for snorkelling, but for swimming too.

They also had a nice spa in the resort, though please note that the massage tents were near the sea but pretty much in the open. So you need to be careful who is around. They also had a nice in-house terrace restaurant right next to the sea where we had a few tasty meals. It had a very picturesque setting, with chairs right next to the sea. And looked stunning, especially at night when it was all lighted up and you could see the faraway lights of the 7-mile beach. But the restaurant closed at 10, so you always had to hurry ????.

The staff in the resort was cheerful and helpful always. And they made you feel like you were there alone. You can stay at a place like this forever and not do anything, which is what most of us did except the youngest in our group who went to 7-mile beach both the days ????.

On the Saturday, we finally went out of the resort for dinner to the Island Lux beach park which was on the 7-mile beach and had a very nice ambience to it. We ate at the seafood restaurant, which was a nice place, well lighted with a good lively ambience, right next to the beach and had good seafood too. So we liked it. It was a bit empty though given this was not tourist season in Jamaica.

The next day I finally did go to the 7-mile beach - it is actually a sandy beach for 7 whole miles! The drive till there felt luxurious, with green palms on both sides and huge resorts lining the road. The beach was fantastic, with blue waters, blue skies, white sand and warm waters. But the beach wasn't nice to just hangout as all the resorts are all-inclusive and you can't just go and eat anywhere. Also they are a bit rude and even though the beaches are public, they treat them as their private ones. And stop anyone walking along. So it was a bit annoying.

Otherwise, there were lot of water sports, some nice sea food places including one place on the boardwalk where you decide the lobster you eat and so on. It was too hot and humid though and staying in the shade felt welcome. I spent some time on the beach and just alternated between relaxing and swimming.

Overall, the weather was quite perfect. It rained every afternoon while we were there, and the sunsets were pretty given there were clouds and they played games with the light. It was much hotter in the day and cooler in the evening. But overall, it was very comfortable the whole day.

The drive back to Kingston though was very different and more comfortable than on our way to Negril. We took the highway along the north of the island, to Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and then Highway 2000 all the way to Kingston. Given these were the most touristy areas and the highway connected all the major resort towns, the road was amazing and better quality than the inland one we had taken earlier. The road from Negril to Montego Bay was more open and green. And from there to Ocho Rios was a lot more crowded and less pretty. We ran into multiple military checkpoints here which was as surprise. Maybe because this is the most tourist heavy area?

On the way, it was raining initially and then suddenly became sunny, which felt refreshing given all the greenery around. On the north coast route, we passed by many bays with bright blue, light blue and green waters, and the waves lashing on the shores and beaches. They were all quite stunning views all the way and you can see expensive resorts, the usual coloured houses and the houses on the hills on the sides. We also passed through some towns looking like english seaside towns.

Montego bay was huge and posh. Part of it is built on the mountains overlooking the bay. There were multiple huge resorts all along the road. Also the roads were lined with palm trees everywhere. It definitely felt more luxurious. We stopped at Smockies there for lunch, it was a small little shack but had one of most awesome jerk chicken we ever ate. The rest of the drive was quite fast and uneventful, and we were very soon on time in Kingston. Google maps had suggested the other route through the island as the shorter one but it was wrong. This road was a lot better and prettier. Even though it was longer, given the quality of the road, it ended up taking much less time.

Once in Kingston though, we had another interesting experience. We ended up missing a few turns and landed in a not so great area at night where it was pretty obvious that the place was shady. It is called Whitfield and gave us a few quiet moments when we did not know what to do. When we read about the place later it turned out that it was actually unsafe. And to be honest, even a second there was enough to make you feel so. Anyways we got out of there safe and sound and were back to work soon enough.

Kingston

I stayed in Kingston for some 8-9 weeks in total and even though on weekends I left the city, I did explore it a bit for dining during the time I was there. Kingston is the capital of Jamaica, and a huge spread out city. With mountains on one side and the sea on the other. You can see the mountains surrounding the city and half the time they were covered with clouds, providing stunning views almost daily. The sunsets here are also one of the most alluring ones I have seen. Kingston had a waterfront, but no beaches. So the sea views are mostly of the deep blue waters but there isn't much to do in the water.

In fact it feels like a very industrial city. It has one of the few deep sea ports in the Caribbean and has a huge harbour. But it all looks very boring. Most of the downtown is quite rundown, with many old dirty looking buildings. In fact, most of the city I saw wasn't very pretty. They say that the houses up in the mountains were grander and better. And there are some nicer areas around. I did see one of them and got a sense of what people mean, but my impression of Kingston remains of a poor town. I was barely able to find any good areas to explore or malls to go to buy anything in the downtown areas. There was lot of graffiti on the street. And lot of colourful houses. I also saw children would be playing football all the time outside. But overall, I didn't see too many people outside and I don't think the city is too safe either.

Apparently, the US has a huge part to play in the current state of the city. In the 1900s, Jamaica was modernising very fast and doing well, but then it started leaning towards communism. And the Americans then came in, gave them guns and it all went down. Crime increased, development slowed down and Kingston became more and more like a ghetto. I don't know how true this anecdotal story told by a taxi driver was, but definitely worth reading up on.

Landing in Kingston was always a treat. The airport is on a narrow strip of land jutting into the sea. And the views from the top were always magnificent. The drive to the airport was also exhilarating, driving through a narrow strip of land into the sea with waves crashing into the rocks on both sides. And the water was so blue on both sides. It was my favourite drive in Kingston always.

I must say one thing about Kingston airport though. Its one of the most rude airports I have even been to. The staff treats you as if all you care about is entering the country illegally. One, they don't let you get on the flight if you don't have return tickets! Second, no one in the airport smiles or speaks politely. Even small things like if you walk towards a lounge, or by mistake open your phone while in the luggage area or take the trolley further than you should have - someone will rudely shout and point it out to you. And thats saying a lot given I have travelled a lot in US also. And third, they have health warnings for people who have travelled to any of South America, Central America, Africa or Asia in the previous weeks! Its like they are the most vulnerable nation in the world! The number of checks they do, you would think they are the US!

Anyways, irrespective of the airport, I always loved coming back to Kingston. Most of which was because of its weather, which was always amazing. It was always sunny and warm, though it rained a bit during afternoons. And the clouds would make the daily sunsets very pretty, with lot of shades of pinks and oranges lining the sky. After being there, I also realised how much I miss staying in warm places.

People

We didn't interact a lot with the local people but my perception is the ones in the city are not too friendly, especially at the airport. But they were always happy. Everyone seems to be in their own happy land all the time. Service is very slow and everyone takes so much time, everything moves at its own relaxed pace. Especially in restaurants, a takeaway would take forever. A lot of people greet each other with YoMon which is so cute. Also I noticed that there are not many Indians on this island like some of the other Caribbean islands.

There is no Uber here, so you have to take local taxi services. Its always advisable to take one from the hotel for safety issues. I used to drive when I was here, and it was fun. The roads are good but the locals drive like in India. So I felt like I was home ????.

Food

We explored a lot of the eating places in town but most of them were not good. The food was just not tasty enough. My favourites though were Uncorked, Courtleigh hotel restaurant, Tamarind for Indian food, and the Jerk Chicken shack near our hotel. These were the only ones of the 10-12 places we went to which we actually liked. And we went to a lot - Terra Nova hotel restaurant, Usain Bolt's Tracks and Records, Devon House's Opa, South Avenue Grill and so on.

Uncorked was a nice little cosy place with eclectic food choices and a nice menu. Tamarind food was awesome, especially the Kashmiri coconut naan. And the Jerk Chicken shack was one of the best jerk chicken places in town, because of which our hotel did not have jerk chicken on its menu! Opa at Devon House had a great outdoor ambience and a paintings gallery within the restaurant. And South Avenue Grill had a nice outside ambience too except it must have been one of the slowest services I have experienced ever.

Hotels

We were staying at the Marriort Courtyard, which was in the central part of town where all the hotels were located. Kingston hotels are overall not great - there are no high end brands in town at all. And the rates are very high, in fact almost European rates, with less facilities. I always thought the Marriott hotel was average. But my colleagues who had stayed at some of the other options nearby swear that this was the best ????. The food at Marriott was better than a lot of other food we ate but it got boring very soon. I loved its outside seating area though, enjoying the sun and warmth always. The mosquitos there were not too welcoming though.

Things to do

Honestly, there is not much touristy stuff to do in Kingston. Right in front our hotel was the Emancipation park which was a popular place to go to for the locals. It was always full of people - running, exercising, dancing, doing yoga et al. And even at night, it was always full. It felt like one of the few safe places in the city. I ran a lot there and it helped that it had a 500m running track all around. It always felt great to be out in the warmer temperatures there. Also, quite often, there was some events happening in park, as we could hear the sound of concerts there quite often at night.

The Bob Marley museum is one of the major things to see in the city, though I never made it. And a visit to Port Real which was a pirate city is also quite popular. Maybe for some other time. We went to Devon House which felt like a nice place and had multiple restaurants. I never figured out the shopping areas in Kingston though. I tried going to a few malls and shops on a holiday but they were all closed!

Strawberry Hill: We did not get to explore much of Kingston outside as we were always working. But one place we did go to one evening (and can be a nice weekend place) was Strawberry Hill. The resort is on Strawberry Hill and also known as the same. It has a narrow winding way to get up all the way which can be a bit difficult to drive. But the view from the top is totally worth it. You can get a view of all of Kingston, which is actually quite spread out. And they have nice bungalows to stay in, up the hill. All of which are spread out in a nice green area with lot of local trees and flowers. The dinner there was also good. A pretty good option for a weekend getaway from Kingston.

Overall though, I think Kingston as a city is not much to write about. Most of Jamaica that people like to visit are the resorts on the north side. Kingston is just the capital city, the engine driving the island. But not pretty at all.

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