Toasting the Moon in Jamaica

From April 2019 through September 2021, you could find us in the continental USA. It was the longest time we’ve spent not traveling in the past decade. As we prepared to leave the country for the first time since the pandemic began, we mentioned that maybe we’d forgotten how to travel. Packing seemed confusing, we felt that we were forgetting things at every turn, and all of the documentation and paperwork necessary to travel these days (pandemic-induced) had our heads spinning.

As we planned our first venture in the pandemic world, we looked longingly toward Europe. But, with regulations in constant flux and trips being cancelled everyday, we thought staying closer to home would be a better bet.

I had been seeing The Rockhouse advertised and reviewed in all of my favorite travel magazines. And, it was gorgeous. Cliffside instead of beach. Secluded. Jamaica. It had all of the things I love… So, I proposed the idea to Noah, and he agreed. It seemed like a relaxing and no-nonsense holiday. It was just what we needed.

Our trip to Jamaica will come in three parts – this one will serve as the introduction and overview…

  • Overview (This post)
  • International Travel in the COVID-era (Next post)
  • Jamaica in the COVID-era (Coming soon)

So, with that said, we’re going to stick to the resort and our activities in Jamaica. But, if you’re looking for the drama — stay tuned. There was plenty of that, too.

Paradise in Photos

Photos always tell an interesting story. They can show beauty; they can show grotesque. They can say more than 1,000 words, but they can also leave a lot out.

Photos apply to one of the senses – sight. The rest is what we fill in.

When I see photos of paradise, I “see” the beauty in the photo.

I fill in beautiful scents of tropical fruit, jasmine, and the sea.

I fill in the sound of waves, birds chirping, and wind rustling through the palms.

I imagine the feel of salt water on my skin and the humid breezes creating clumps in my curls.

I think of the taste of fresh seafood, fresh fruits, and spices.

But, that’s all in my imagination. The photos don’t tell all of these stories. My mind does.

Maybe you do the same thing…

The truth is that those moments absolutely exist. But, it’s not the whole story. And, reviews that show the beautiful photos and describe the beauty of a location leave so much out.

This is our Jamaica story. Beautiful. Kind. Dirty. Heart-wrenching.

Montego Bay Airport and Club Mobay

When booking our trip, we were given the option of purchasing Club Mobay assistance and expedited customs when arriving in Jamaica. Usually this is something that Noah and I would scoff at and ignore. Who really needs to be personally escorted through security? However, in the time of COVID, the world is a new place. And, we didn’t know what to expect. We knew that if we hadn’t done our paperwork correctly, we could be facing heavy fines and potentially Jamaican prison… So, we bought the package.

Essentially, Club Mobay gives you the opportunity to bypass all lines for customs in Jamaica. And, because you’ve been pre-approved by your Club Mobay representative, you avoid a lot of the standard questioning involved in international travel. Then, once in Jamaica, you’re escorted to an arrivals lounge where you enjoy VIP treatment including free food and an open bar.

Would we use it again? Maybe…. It’s a nice perk. However, it wasn’t vital or necessary for the safety or insurance of the trip overall.

Kenny Tours

Potentially the best part of Jamaican travel is the relationship you can make with your drivers. They are your lifeline for understanding the “lay of the land” and the culture. And, Nayan and Wings were both excellent. Kenny Tours serves Montego Bay to Negril primarily. However, the drivers will take you anywhere on the island. And, all of our excursions outside Negril were organized by Kenny Tours. They continuously overdelivered on their promises. And, I highly recommend working with them.

Appleton Rum Estate

Appleton Rum is not a Jamaican owned company. It’s owned by the Italian brand Campari. In fact, most big business in Jamaica isn’t Jamaican owned anymore. Russia owns the sugarcane crops. China owns a major transport industry. The United Kingdom still has ultimate jurisdiction over the government. And, many Jamaican farmers have decided that they can’t make money in farming anymore. So, they’ve sold their land to international investors who plan to turn the agricultural areas into condos and resorts.

That said, sometimes the international investments bring excellent jobs and infrastructure. And, for Appleton Rum, both are true.

The estate is surrounded by limestone mountains. And, those mountains keep it safe. In fact, the employees seek shelter at Appleton Estates during hurricanes.

On top of this safety, Appleton Estates is completely off the grid. Through using a variety of green-energy initiatives, as well as a lot of creative recycling methods, from harvesting to distillation to the visitors center – Appleton runs on rum. And, it powers itself. It was very impressive.

The sugarcane is blended from 10 different types of sugars. And, the water is fresh spring water running from those limestone mountains. All of this, along with vigorous Jamaican rum standards make for very impressive aged golden rums.

YS Falls

On the east side of Jamaica, many tourists find Dunn’s River Falls. I’ve climbed the famous Dunn’s River a few times in my life, and I was always amazed by the fresh water options in Jamaica. The water is cold and clear. And, the falls are powerful and exciting.

When deciding to go to YS Falls, I thought that it would be beautiful and romantic. It is absolutely gorgeous.

Spoiler alert – I don’t care what the movies say. Serious “big” waterfalls are not romantic. Prove me wrong. LOL!

They’re loud. They’re encompassing. They’re awe-inspiring. But, you won’t have a romantic moment in them. You’re really just trying to survive and not break a leg.

Noah used the opportunity to rope swing into the falls. And I enjoyed “climbing” them and attempting to sit under them. Apparently “sitting under them” can be done. But, I didn’t do it successfully. It was more a matter of sitting and being drug under the currents.

I did find some relaxation and romance in the limestone water pools. The weight of the minerals in the waters did feel therapeutic, and I was happy to watch the sporting activities in the falls from the comfort of the lower pools.

Floyd’s Pelican Bar

In the middle of the Caribbean Sea sits a small party hut called Floyd’s Pelican Bar. Accessible only by boat, tourists and locals arrive ready for Red Stripe, small bites, local craft shopping, and dominos. This was a completely unique and odd experience, from the small and strangely balanced boat to the irregular boards and shaking structure. I would absolutely do it again and take some memorabilia from my home state (it hangs all over the bar), and I’d be absolutely confused as to why it exists and how it stands once again. Apparently, it can’t be replicated in Jamaica because of the unique rock formations that keep it grounded. Other similar structures would be blown away in any storm. The structure is beloved by everyone, even the local crab population.

Barney’s Flower and Hummingbird Garden

Off of a small background in Westmoreland lives a German gentleman named Barney. And, Barney has built a home and beautiful garden over the course of 30 years. His gardens are very specific, in that, he cares for the local hummingbird population. The swallow-tail hummingbird is Jamaica’s national bird, and it’s absolutely stunning. Jamaica is also home to the second smallest hummingbird in the world, and it’s barely larger than a bumblebee. Barney came and picked us up from the hotel, showed us his beautiful gardens, and even made us “hummingbird cocktails” that we could hand-feed to the birds. It was a beautiful and remarkable experience. Barney told us about living in Jamaica. The German roots in the neighborhood. And, about his fears of living and aging without healthcare and within an infrastructure where medical care is limited and poorly received.

Our heart broke for him in learning that all of his friends have left, and he is alone and unable to move. Yet, his garden brings him peace. And, it certainly brought joy and peace to us as well.

Rick’s Cafe

Rick’s Cafe is world-famous for the cliff diving. Partiers can choose to jump from 8-40 feet. It was amazing to watch some of the locals jump with aerobatics and tricks along the way down. There were also multiple bars, a dance club area (mainly empty due to COVID) and pools.

It was fun, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like under normal circumstances. COVID meant that space was limited, social distancing mandated, and curfews at 5:00 p.m. so the party couldn’t get out of hand.

The Red Stripes were cold, the DJs were great, and the cliff divers were insane – so – I guess we got the basics covered.

The Rockhouse Hotel

The Rockhouse was our draw to Negril. The cliffs and the clear water called to us like a siren. And, swimming in that water was phenomenal. I’ve never enjoyed the sea more.

The spa was divine. They were professional and wonderful.

The hotel staff was beautiful and friendly and overly helpful.

But, I hadn’t planned on being locked at The Rockhouse Hotel, as we were for three days. I hadn’t planned on nightly curfews that took the entire staff away from the hours of 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. – no front desk, no restaurants, no bars, no maid service.

I also hadn’t realized that basically all restaurants and shops around the Rockhouse would have closed down permanently during COVID.

I became “WhatsApp” friends with some of the previous business owners, and hearing their COVID stories, the stories of regulations and suffocating legal issues, and the stories of the COVID economy forcing them to shut their doors was heartbreaking.

Small business hasn’t survived in Westmoreland.

Which meant that the Rockhouse Hotel (and the nearby Sandals) had no competition. And, the day of our arrival, the Prime Minister mandated three “no movement days” during our trip. We were stuck.

I won’t say that the hotels in the area price gouged because they could… But…

Each of our hotel meals cost the equivalent of around $80-$100. I’m pretty sure that those small businesses would have happily fed us for half that price. But, they couldn’t. They weren’t allowed.

The Rockhouse profited.

It was beautiful. You can see that from the photos. But, there was always fear and restlessness over our shoulder. Would we pass our test to be able to go home? If not, we would be forced to pay to stay in the hotel for a minimum of 14 extra days. Would the testing at the hotel be fair? Would it be accurate? Would we be allowed to go home? We were 100% at their mercy.

The first four days were idyllic. The sun and snorkeling kept us busy and the “sight” of it all kept us happy. But, after a while, the allure fades.

The doors and windows to our villa weren’t sealed. The mosquito net around our bed was our only protection from the mosquitos, no-see-ums, spiders, roaches, and lizards in our room. The shower and water closet were “outdoors” and the sounds of footsteps after all of the staff had gone home at night were unsettling. The smells of sewer backup plagued certain parts of the resort, especially after the daily rains. Bats circled at night. And, many guests suffered stings from wasps and bees in their rooms.

This is a four-star resort that’s been applauded for nearly fifty years as being one of the best in the world. I couldn’t help but wonder what other Vogue and Conde Nast readers thought while staying here. I’m eager to go with the flow, but I’ve stayed in hostels that made me feel more comfortable.

Would we recommend going?

After all of that – yes.

I would wait until the COVID pandemic has fully ended.

And, I would treat it like Vegas. A week is too long. Go for a nice weekend. Enjoy the cliffs, see the sights, swim, and go to the spa. More time than that and your other senses kick in, and you realize that maybe not everything is as nice as it seems.

Other Posts on Our Version of Paradise – NYC

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Majhon and Noah

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