Jamaican Escape: Twenty-six miles of reggae (and a whole lot more beach)

Photo: Jonas Hansen
Photo: Jonas Hansen

Jamaica is the land of Bob Marley, Montego Bay, beaches, rum and seemingly endless sunshine. There’s no shortage of things to do here, or maybe even more appealing, not do. If you wanted nothing more than to stretch out in the sand and spend a week sipping mojitos to a reggae soundtrack, you could have the most blissed-out time of your life.

Yet if you’re keen to lift the bar a bit, rise from that beach towel, and try your hand at one thing a day that’s either distinctly Jamaican, entirely unforgettable, a little outside your comfort zone or maybe a bit of all three, I offer the five suggestions below.

Be warned, they may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you have an occasional appetite for the extreme, are pressed for time, and still want a good sampler of the island, consider this a starter menu.

(Disclosure: My trip was confined to the west coast, which is the prime area for tourists, though does not include Kingston, hence the lack of Trench Town or Bob Marley Museum suggestions).

Photo: Rick’s Cafe
Photo: Rick’s Cafe

Jump off a cliff

In the shadow of three bars and at least as many signs warning of “spinal & vertebrae fractures, joint dislocation, muscle and ligament damage and severe bruising,” leaping off a cliff on your vacation may seem like kind of an iffy idea. Especially when you’re away from home, and you may not have read your travel insurance coverage all that closely.

Nevertheless, here we are at Rick’s Café, a famed reggae bar perched above the westernmost point of the island. It’s a spring break-like scene with booze-cruise catamarans anchored in the cove down below, a dancehall band jamming on stage, and the sun slowly descending into waves, casting a magical glow on the party. Everyone seems to have a beer in hand or a rum punch, or both.

Dotted along the edge of all of this action is a descending series of concrete pedestals, the first is 35 feet over the water, the next 25 feet, and lastly 10 feet. Consider that one the starter option, where you can take a few practice leaps before deciding whether you really want to go any higher.

Even jumping from the lowest level requires a little nerve, especially the first time when you don’t know how deep or cold the water is. Not wanting to shrink from the moment, I do a few practice jumps, to build up some confidence. The water is perfect and the mood among the jumpers jubilant. Stepping off a ledge, even only 10 feet up, is so counter-intuitive that anything better than breaking your ankle seems like a happy result. And to do it here, in the middle of a party with the cliff sides lined with spectators only adds to the fun.

Yet still, I’m determined to go higher. Even leaping from the lowest point packed a bit of a wallop so I’m slightly anxious to push my luck. However plenty of people seemed to be leaping away and coming out of the water smiling. That’s I all I want. Experience a quick thrill, say I did it, and emerge unscathed. So I climb to the top pedestal and, following the directions of the attendant standing by, I curl my toes over the ledge and lean forward. Eyeing the rocks cropping out from the cliffside, I confide to the guy that I really don’t want to hit anything on the way down. “You’ll hit de water, mon,” he says.

Ah yes, and so I did. Very hard and not particularly gracefully I’m sure. Still, what a rush.

See the sugarcane

Okay, no one goes to Jamaica to enjoy a sugarcane plantation, I get that. So why mention it? Well, partly because sugarcane is absolutely elemental to the island. Jamaica wouldn’t be what it is without it. It wouldn’t have the history, the culture or the hardships. Plus, the fields are everywhere. As soon as you leave the coast you’re in sugarcane country. If you’re on a tour with a driver, chances are he’ll regale you with tales of relatives who worked the fields, and who had to be covered in heavy clothing from head to toe, no matter the heat, to protect themselves from the leaves, and the snakes. Indeed, there were once so many snakes slithering in the thicket that plantations needed to import mongooses to instill some order (which proved tricky for the local chicken population, but that’s another story).

The earliest workers were slaves brought in from Africa by Spanish colonialists in the 1500s. The vast majority of Jamaicans today are descendants of those enslaved peoples. Sugarcane soon became the dominant crop, enabling the export of sugar, of course, though also molasses and rum.

As a visitor here, it would be easy now to see the fields only as part of island’s lush backdrop, the green blur beneath a perfect sky on your way to the beach. However, if you get a chance to pull over on a side path and walk along the sugarcane, even if only briefly, you’ll soon get a hint of real life here, and how tough it has long been. What’s more, how blessedly easy we have it in comparison.

Photo: Faith Brar
Photo: Faith Brar

Go for a swim… on a horse

Now back to your regularly scheduled vacation…. Enter the horses!

Having ridden a few steeds in tourism spots, I envision the scene at Chukka Caribbean Adventures with some reservations. I anticipate a stable of tired nags, waiting to lumber yet again down a well-worn path. And when we first arrive, it’s not immediately clear that this ‘adventure’ will be all so different. That is, until we each saddle up.

How it’s decided who gets what horse seems a little mysterious, with the guides picking us out of the group and pairing us up in no obvious order. I get ‘DeNiro,’ who has very much his own view on who’s in charge, and on our rightful place in the line-up of riders. We should be at least two horses ahead apparently, if not further. So, we spend much of the first half hour jumping the queue, and just generally asserting ourselves, much to the annoyance of the guides who keep reminding DeNiro, in patois, that he knows better. (No, actually, he doesn’t).

Meanwhile our group’s journey leads us through streams, beneath underpasses and into the forest, climbing up steep hills and then down sharp drops into ravines. On the ascents and descents, we’re supposed to hug the hillside to avoid cascading over the edge. Yet here again DeNiro has his own take, and clearly considers the risk of losing his rider a gamble he’s ready to take.

There will be no such tumbling, of course, though in our fairly large pack, one horse does emerge from the clearing curiously free of its rider. (Side note: We’re joined this morning by a large group of women from Detroit, many of whom have never been on a horse before, and who despite constant reminders by the guides, seem un-swayed by the wisdom of leaning back when bounding downhill. Whether that’s resulted in someone’s ride becoming a walk we never discover).

While the whole trail is good fun, without question the highlight comes when we leave the road and head straight for the sea. This I hadn’t encountered before.

We pause briefly, swap our leather saddles for neoprene covers, and ride down the beach and right into the bay, galloping through the surf as the waves crash over our waists. Staying upright and on DeNiro is now much tougher as our new saddles don’t have stirrups. Yet we’re now half under water so there’s nowhere to fall. And by this time even DeNiro seems to be cooled off and enjoying himself, swerving from side to side to see if I can be shook-off and maybe swim away. No chance. This part is way too much fun.

Photo: Reggae Marathon
Photo: Reggae Marathon

Experience a 26-mile reggae party

As with leaping off of a cliff or horseback riding in the sea, attempting a marathon in the tropics might not immediately seem the best idea. Even if you love running and like the heat, combining the two can seem a stretch. And yet, as with other activities suggested here, once you give it a try, it can soon feel like the most splendidly Jamaican thing to do… at least for the first few hours.

The largest event of its kind in the Caribbean, the Reggae Marathon takes place every year in Negril on the first Saturday in December. Despite the name, it’s actually three races; a 10km, a half-marathon and a full marathon, all beginning together at 5:15 am. The aim of the early start is get as many people as possible off the course before the sun reaches blast mode by 7:30 am. Of the nearly 2,000 participants, the vast majority of runners will do the 10km and so are safely finished and enjoying the post-race beach party before the sun even surfaces.

This year only 120 of us embrace the full distance, which consists of running the length of the famed Seven Mile Beach, and back, twice. (Along the road, that is, not on the sand.) The morning starts on a magical note as we all race off together in near total darkness. For much of the first hour it feels somewhat otherworldly, as there are no street lights, no spectators and really no way to see who’s running which race.

Gradually the sky lightens and almost all of the 10km runners are finished, leaving the rest of us to hurry and finish before things get too hot. At the halfway mark, I’m still fine. The sun is up but not directly overhead. Inevitably that soon changes, and the heat intensifies. Yet as the distance wears on and the conditions become more challenging, one of the great elements of this race kicks in. A natural camaraderie emerges from the fact that most of us are on holiday, we’ve traversed back and forth on this tight loop a couple of times now, and we’re all midway through melting. At this point, we’re high-fiving each other just for still being out here.

I won’t say the last few kilometres are fun. The sun is sweltering and after three hours of running, all I want is to pass out in the surf. Yet still I’ve no regrets about choosing to run the marathon here. I wouldn’t have curtailed this experience for anything. After all, in what other race do you get to run amid the aroma of massive joints being enjoyed on the sidewalks? Or run to reggae pumping out at pitch decibels every kilometre from roadside speakers. (To say nothing of ducking and weaving to avoid jerk chicken drums suddenly being wheeled across the course).

Best of all though is the vibe here. Every year some 500+ women from Reggae Runner clubs throughout the U.S. come to Negril to run this race. Most do the 10km, a few do the half, but all party on the beach while the rest of the participants finish.

Photo: Noel Hulsman
Photo: Noel Hulsman

Spend time on the beach (lots of time)

Perhaps this should be the article’s opening suggestion, as surely the most appealing thing to do in Jamaica – especially if you’re coming from Canada – is simply to lie on the beach. After all, the conditions seem to be perfectly calibrated. The sun is almost always shining, though never oppressive (providing you’re not running). Even in the middle of the day it’s never humid, and while you wouldn’t call it arid, you will dry instantly when leaving the water.

As for the water… how best to describe? It’s as if a team of scientists discerned the exact degree between inviting and invigorating and then applied it to the entire coastline. At first dip, the sea seems wonderfully refreshing, and then just incredibly warm… which is also how you feel when you’re out of the water. Indeed, if there are any downsides to the beaches here, it’s the constant confusion of wondering whether you’d be happier wet or dry. I strived to stay somewhere in between.

That mix was most appealing early in the morning, just at the break of dawn. We stayed at the Azul Beach Resort Sensatori Jamaica, a four-star oasis in the centre of Negril’s Seven Mile Beach, a mostly uninterrupted stretch of sand that extends as far as you can see on both sides. Before sunrise I would head down to the beach and walk in the waves until the Azul was no longer in view, and then turn back and do the same in the other direction. My only company was herons, sandpipers and other early risers, dotted along the shore, all with our feet splashing in the surf. It was absolutely idyllic.

Photo: Azul Beach Resorts Photography
Photo: Azul Beach Resorts Photography

If you go

Both Air Canada and WestJet fly direct to Montego Bay, though only Air Canada offers non-stops flights from Montreal and Toronto. While flying into Kingston is also an option, for most tourists, Montego Bay’s close proximity to sun spots Ocho Rios and Negril make it the far most appealing choice. From Sangster Airport, it’s a seamless 90-minute shuttle to either destination, with buses and vans traveling continuously along both routes.

Where to stay

If Negril is peak sand and surf, Seven Mile Beach is surely the most sacred spot of all. And in the heart of that, as mentioned above, is the Azul Beach Resort Sensatori Jamaica, a ‘Gourmet Inclusive’ member of the Karisma Hotels and Resorts family. Quite aside from the incredible location, a key part of the Azul’s charm is the design of the property, that somehow allows it to feel spacious enough for solitude yet not so huge that walking from any of the resorts nine restaurants or seven pools to your room seems a chore.

The Azul features many of the most-favored perks of Caribbean all-inclusives: swim-up bars, the pool-side cover bands each night, the multiple food options for every diet. They even have staff who rake the beaches at dawn so that all traces of yesterday are wiped away each morning. And although I didn’t see any drinks being delivered down to the beach, there was no waiting involved at any of the resort’s nine bars.

There are definitely more budget-friendly options in Negril, and even along the Seven Mile stretch, but if it’s a luxurious stay in a great location that you’re seeking, Azul should be on your list.

 

Photo: Azul Beach Resorts Photography
Photo: Azul Beach Resorts Photography

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