Tourist – Real and Imagined

Jay is tired of being a tourist.  Actually, he’s tired of being treated like a tourist.  He doesn’t want to pay $12.00 for a cocktail, he doesn’t want crowded or cheesy, he doesn’t want to be the guy in the flowered shirt and plaid shorts.  So what’s a guy to do when his vacation destination is Negril?

Putting my “way back” hat on, the Negril I first met and returning to year after year through the mid-nineties was one of the places in Jamaica that you went to escape the more established and touristy areas such as Ocho Rios or Montego Bay.  Negril was still the “wild west” – tough to get to, rustic to be in and not much to do other than sand, sun and sea.  There weren’t too many of “us” there during that time but those of us that were, were of a similar mind, with similar tastes for the simple life.  We were more than fine with rustic wooden cabins, water heated by nothing other than the afternoon sun and in eating what the Jamaican ate as a routine, not an “experience”.  Fresh fruit, fresh veggies and laid back vibes was all that was wanted.  Jay would have had no problem not being a “tourist” in the old Negril.  But Jay, like thousands of tourists each year will never know that Negril.  So did he and the others miss the boat?  Should he just not bother?  Absolutely not.

West End Road, c. 1983 – unpaved and uncrowded

I’m not interested in the common word play that would force someone to define a tourist vs. a traveler vs. a visitor vs. a permanent fixture.  Personally I don’t feel like a “tourist” in Negril or New York.  I do in Paris and Los Angeles.  So, just to make things equal, taking out perceptions and pre-conceived notions, lets check out Merriam-Webster for a starting point:

tour . ist – noun:  One that makes a tour for pleasure or culture

tour . ist. y – adjective:

1. characteristic or relating to tourists (i.e, “touristy behavior)

2. Patronized by or appealing to tourists (i.e, “touristy restaurant)

Now that we’ve leveled the playing field, we can help Jay out.  The first way to help Jay would be to have him believe that not all touristy places are overpriced and cheesy.

One of my favorite things to do in Negril, something that I do at least once a trip is a cruise aboard Wild Thing.  After a hurricane destroyed the original catamaran owner Peter McIntosh designed and built the current sixty-foot mastless boat.  He himself would refer to it as a “tourist barge” equipped with a water slide and ample room to dance or stretch out in the sun.

The cruise I enjoy the most is the day cruise out to Half Moon Beach.  We sail first to the “shallow” reef for some snorkeling and swimming, then head out to Half Moon Beach for a good ol’ fashioned Jamaican lunch that includes Jerk Chicken, Escovetch Fish and Rice and Pea.  On the way back the tunes get cranked and all are encouraged to dance.   Did I mention cocktails?  Included.  As many as you want, with one warning:  No alcohol is served until after we’ve left the reef.  Safety first.

Snorkeling the Shallow Reef, courtesy of Wild Thing

I’ve never known anyone not to have a good time on Wild Thing.  The difference often enough, between a good cruise and a great cruise can be your cruise-mates.  I tend to bring a small party with me each time:  Seven, ten or fifteen friends consisting of new visitors, veteran visitors and Negril residents.  Even if we happen to be with a boat load of “sticks in the mud” we can make our own fun and encourage others to join in.  Now, I realize Jay will probably not have access to fifteen friends to take along with him but as long as he is gregarious and open he can meet up to eighty new friends from all over the world and have the time of his life with these people and the wonderfully fun and competent staff.  What will really ring Jay’s bell is the price – $75.00 for three hours on a wonderful boat that includes snorkeling, lunch, drinks and time on a private and natural beach.

Another touristy destination that I enjoy is the Pelican Bar.  Built on stilts out of what looks like scraps of wood on a sandbar about 3/4 mile out to sea.  The funky uniqueness of the place is a major tourist magnet whose popularity grows year to year.

Often enough the best part of going somewhere is getting there.  This is definitely the case with the hour and a half drive to Pelican Bar from Negril.  The road to  Black River and Treasure Beach hugs the magnificent south coast and passes through quaint little towns, majestic housing schemes and roadside vendors all with gorgeous scenery as a backdrop.

This past year we cruised through Black River over to Parrotee Beach to link up with a boat to take us out.  Parrotee Beach is an interesting place; on one side you have modest homes that sit on the sea, on the other the marsh lands of the Black River.  Basil’s Gateway to Treasure Beach connects boats with eager passengers at $10.00 a head.

Parrotee Beach – Marshlands of the Black River

The boat ride from Parrotee is lovely, you cruise by waterfront homes and have the opportunity to see the south coastline from the sea.  It can be even more special if you happen upon a pod of dolphins; we did not have that good fortune this trip.

Soon you see that other-worldly thing out there – a stack of sticks like something out of Water World.  There is the world-famous Pelican Bar.  After climbing the somewhat rickety stairs/ladder and entering the small two room structure there’s not much else to do but order a beer and find a seat outside on the deck.  It’s cool to be out there in the middle of the sea, watching the Pelicans swing by and dive for their dinner or watching the sting rays float below your feet searching out theirs.  Hungry?  Floyd always has something cooking in his make-shift kitchen; a pot of white rice and whatever fresh fish has been caught that day.  Usually there is also some fresh caught lobster to be had.

Floyd has a captive audience and his prices reflect that.  This might not thrill Jay but he can rest assured he’s not paying $12.00 for a drink.  A beer will cost him about 300JMD (about $3.50US) and a plate of food about 1000JMD (about $12.00US), be it lobster or fish.  Other than what you drink or eat while at Pelican Bar there is no admission fee.  The boat ride from Basil’s is only $10.00 per person.  Add whatever you negotiate with your choice of private driver and you can have yourself a great value and a wonderful day.  I would recommend that Jay avoids combining a Pelican Bar trip with other south coast excursions – something that is often suggested by drivers and tour operators.  I feel Jay would benefit most by allowing himself the day to really enjoy the journey to and from the bar as well as the bar itself, using his own driver for just he and his companion, making as many stops as strikes his interest.

The last on my “touristy” list of things to do is the Seastar Saturday Night party.  Seastar is a medium-sized hotel located up a lane off West End Road.  Every Saturday night they throw a fun and tourist oriented party with a buffet, live Reggae cover band and drummers.  For $18.00US per person Jay can enjoy a surprisingly good buffet with traditional Jamaican food mixed with traditional North American dishes such as mashed potatoes.  Seastar serves up Jerk or Brown Stew Chicken, Escovetch Fish, Callalloo, Rice and Pea and Jerk Pork along with salad, potatoes and yummy fresh rolls.  I personally am not a buffet fan but I have to say the food is fresh and hot and never tastes as though its been sitting in a warming tray for twelve hours.

The reggae band is more than competent; very danceable and they play tunes that even the newest visitors to Jamaica or folks not all that into Reggae can recognize and enjoy.  As the evening proceeds and the liquor flows part of the entertainment can be found by watching tourists dance with each other or locals, letting it all hang out in oh so many ways.  My favorite part of the evening though is the drummers.  They are energetic and mix traditional Jamaican Nyabinghi rhythms with a strong African beat.  A few years ago they added African dancers to the mix and its great to watch – especially when they pull folks up from the audience to dance with them.

Jay can go to any of these places and be treated to a nice experience that highlights Jamaica’s scenery, music and food without getting too “local”.  At all three his interactions will mostly be with other tourists.  He won’t break the bank and his vacation will be enhanced by any or all of these attractions.

Ah – but Jay doesn’t really want to hang out with North Americans during his visit to Jamaica.  He wants to see and feel the “real” Jamaica; he has a desire to step off the beaten path.  I can certainly relate:  I prefer to travel that way myself.

When we have visitors in town we keep them as busy as they want to be.  We take them on Wild Thing, to Pelican Bar and to Seastar, sure, but we always throw into the mix the lesser known and traveled attractions.

Blue Hole is a twenty-minute drive from Negril’s West End.  I suggest heading out south on West End Road and enjoying the trip through the smaller towns of Orange Hill and Revival on your way to Brighton.

Blue Hole is just that – a deep blue “bottomless” hole.  There are a number of these throughout Jamaica.  The one in Brighton has been dug out to meet an aquifer of mineral water below the surface of the earth.  The owners of the property have put in a long ladder and guests love jumping in and climbing out over and over, treading within the deep blue ice cold water.  My friend Karl did just that on our visit there with him and his wife Lyta.

View from the restroom at Blue Hole in Brighton

The hole is but a small part of the Blue Hole property.  There’s a large bar and drinks are very reasonably priced.  There is also a large swimming pool, fed by the mineral water running below.  It is a relaxing hang, a nice place to play a game of dominoes with one or more of the locals that frequent the bar.  The food can be hit or miss as to availability, it is best to call ahead.  The last time we were there the cook-shed was open and serving up yummy fried chicken plates including rice & pea and vegetables for around 500JMD (approximately $5.50US).  Also while we were there they were putting the finishing touches on a large hotel/resort complex.  A few folks were actually staying there and shooting a promotional video.  Each time we’ve visited Blue Hole it has not been overly crowded; a few tourists who had ventured out with a driver along with several locals from the area.  Its a great environment to meet and talk with not only the locals but the few tourists who have also ventured off the beaten path beyond the more popular tourist attractions.  As of our last visit to Blue Hole in January we were not charged an admission fee.

Venturing a bit more off the beaten path, Jay can go to a most magical place just outside of Little London.  It won’t take him more than about a half-hour to get there from Negril either.  Zimbali Retreat is a working organic farm, completely off the grid that also has overnight guest accommodations.  When we were there last, they were expanding those accommodations and putting in a restaurant as well.

Lyta is a herbalist here in Northern California.  When she and Karl made their first trip to Jamaica last winter one of the things on her to-do list was to meet a Jamaican herbalist and learn about Jamaican medicinal plants and herbs.  Bongo Roach is a friend of Zimbali owners Mark and Alecia and is called upon regularly to come to the farm and talk with their guests about all things Rastafarian.  Arrangements were made to meet Mr. Roach at Zimbali and we were on our way to fulfilling Lyta’s wants and needs.  She and Karl spent an hour with him while the rest of us relaxed in a spot overlooking the farm and eating fresh Jelli Coconuts cut down by one of the farm workers.

Karl and Lyta with Bongo Roach, “reasoning”

Once Lyta’s notebook and brain were filled with the older Rasta’s wisdom, we all took a tour of the farm.  In addition to walking through and discussing the cultivated plants and trees, Mr. Roach pointed out and taught us about the various wild growing plants and herbs used in all types of Jamaican naturepathic medicine.  Upon our return to the main house we were treated to a wonderful Ital meal, most of which was grown right there on the farm.

According to Karl and Lyta their day at Zimbali was the most enriching experience of their trip.  Jay would enjoy it as well.  The experience is very personal and talking with someone like Bongo Roach highlights the natural beauty of the Jamaican people and culture.  Hosts Mark and Alecia are so welcoming and warm.  Many who visit Zimbali for the day yearn to return to spend a few days or a week staying right there.  This is so removed from the hustle and bustle its easy to see why.

Despite the fact that we live in the area where Mountain Biking first caught fire my husband got turned on to the sport in Jamaica.  Since then its been all about two wheels-one love; you can’t keep him off a trail.  This is a passion of his that he is excited to share with anyone who’s up to it, making it a favorite activity for our visitors.  The trail he rides is doable for all skill levels.

He and his cohorts head south on West End Road, hitting the trail right by Secret Paradise.  They ride through grassy meadows, rocky shoreline and dense bush.  Twice they hoist the bikes over a gate and a stone wall.  They stop along the way to “stop and smell the roses” as well as to talk with locals passing through or living out there in the middle of nowhere.  Hub always makes sure to stop and chat with two cousins who have a tobacco farm out there.

Karl, Sonya and Mr. Bremmer, one of the tobacco farming cousins

Soon they meet the road again and ride a short distance to Homer’s Cove.  Homer’s Cove is a sweet little beach and bay just outside of Little Bay.  Again, some time is spent taking in the magnificent scenery and chatting with fishermen and other locals for a while.

Roundtrip, the ride is fourteen miles.

DISCLAIMER:  Jay, nor anyone else, should attempt to do this ride without a guide who knows the bush/trail as well as the locals along the way.  If Jay can connect with someone like this it would be the ultimate in the road less traveled, off the beaten path experience for him.  Even if he doesn’t have the inclination to ride a mountain bike through the bush he most definitely can connect with a driver who will take him out to those sweet little fishing villages and southern coastal areas such as Homer’s Cove, Little Bay and Salmon Point for a look-see.

So Jay, as you can see you are not relegated to a vacation of cheesy tourist attractions and $12.00 cocktails!  In Negril you can really have the best of both worlds and still get that “hit” of local vibe and culture that keeps this veteran “tourist” returning every year.

Happy Trails!

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2 Responses to Tourist – Real and Imagined

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