It’s been a minute since I’ve had a chance to exercise my travel blogging fingers. This quick trip to Negril for a romantic and restorative Valentine’s celebration was divine, giving me a chance to do some writing and collect some great images. I will be reviewing two hotels, spa services, a SCUBA outfit and now that I’ve accepted that I’m a “foody” I’ve added a few restaurant reviews! The rest of this post will be images and words that I hope capture my love of Jamaica, the land that inspired the kingdom of my fictional heroine, Princess Isabelle of Xamayca.
Let’s just start off with one of my favorite things to experience when I travel, the food!
Of all the ways to experience a culture, food may be my favorite. I would put Jamaican food up against any of the world’s cuisines! And don’t get me started on the fresh fruit you get in Jamaica! As my cousin said when I told her about the sweet Julie mango I had on the beach, “You forget.” What she meant is that when you eat a mango here (in the States) and think it’s good it’s only because your taste buds forgot what a real mango tastes like! As usual, I had several delicious meals in Negril. I also had one really terrible one and a slightly above-average one.
Let’s get the terrible one out of the way first: the so-called “Jamaican breakfast” served to me at the restaurant at our hotel Idle Awhile on the cliffs. It was not on the menu so I was overjoyed when our server told me, “The chef can make a traditional Jamaican breakfast.” I love the traditional JA breakfast; ackee and saltfish, boiled yam, boiled green banana, calaloo, fried breadfruit, fried or boiled dumpling. I couldn’t wait but when the chef laid it before me and informed me, “I don’t cook with a lot of salt or spices because it’s not good for you,” I started to worry. My worry was not unfounded. Even with my addition of salt the meal tasted like nothing! All the foods I named above need to be seasoned! Who ever heard of a Jamaican chef NOT using spices?! Did he look at me and determine I had high blood pressure? (I don’t!), did he think I was an American and had uneducated taste buds? Was he just a terrible cook? Whatever the reason I was very disappointed. I get a little angry thinking about it now, so let’s move on!
To my slightly above-average meal, we go to The Pushcart restaurant at The Rock House (one of my favorite hotels in Negril). The last time I’d eaten at the Pushcart was 7 yrs ago and I recall eating the curry goat almost every night, so this time I was excited to have it again. Sadly, I needn’t have been. Aside from being spicy (read hot) there was just something missing! The amount of meat was ample (I’d heard another diner complain to the manager about the amount of bone) but the flavor just wasn’t there! I’m not ready to indict the Pushcart just yet, but until I return I’m not going to give it the former glowing recommendation that I used to.
Now, on to the most delightful epicurean experiences I had while in Jamaica! Save for the Juici pattie on the way to Kingston and the Julie mango on the beach, Zest restaurant at The Cliffs Hotel provided these delightful experiences. Where do I start? How about with the first meal we took there? It was dinner on our second night and I had the Appleton braised oxtail with white rice and calaloo. Freedom (my girlfriend) had the rasta pasta. Both were delicious but when I say this is the best oxtail I’ve ever had I’m not exaggerating. It was perfectly spicey and sweet (yes oxtail can be a little sweet). If you don’t like oxtail or don’t eat meat look away. This oxtail had a generous amount of meat (versus bone and fat) and the perfect bite could be formed out of some white rice and a little callaloo on your fork. My only concern is that henceforth any oxtail I eat will be compared to this one and be found sorely lacking! The rasta pasta (no meat) was also delicious; penne pasta in a light cream sauce with mushrooms, ackee and other veg. For dessert that night we split the scotch bonnet cheesecake. If you are not familiar with scotch bonnet, it is a type of pepper, very popular in Jamaica. With a heat rating of 100,000-350,000 Scoville units, the scotch bonnet can be up to 40 times hotter than a typical jalapeño pepper. I was intrigued by its use in a dessert and I have to say my curiosity paid off. It was delicious! Not too spicy but just the perfect balance of heat and sweet. My only complaint? I wanted more.
My number two meal was also eaten at Zest. For dinner on our last night I chose the coconut lobster rundown. For those who don’t know what rundown is, it’s a type of stew dish made from coconut milk and any variety of fish or seafood that you choose. It originated in Jamaica but can now be found all over the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. This particular dish used spiny lobster served in the shell (just for presentation, you could lift it out) and with bits of sweet potato, and other veggies. It too came with a side of white rice. The lobster was tender and again just the right balance of sweet and savory. For dessert that night we had their key lime pie (they were out of the scotch bonnet cheesecake) which was also very good!
Lunches from Zest were also amazing. These we took out on the cliffs on our own little private “pads” which were round concrete platforms build out on the craggy rocks connected by stone and wooden walkways. Free twice had their Jahpotle bowl made of ackee, faro, quinoa, black bean and corn salsa, barbecue jackfruit topped with a few plantain chips. I had the watermelon salad (all their salads were very fresh and tasty) and one day I had breadfruit fish tacos. The taco shell was made from thinly sliced and fried breadfruit! Delicious!! I really can’t say enough for the food and service at Zest and The Cliffs but if you get a chance to go there and eat, just do it!
I’m not sure if it started with Aquaman but for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be able to breathe underwater. Until I develop gills I’m going to get my undersea fix doing what one of my childhood heroes, Jacques Cousteau did, SCUBA diving. In case you aren’t picking up on it, I’ve had a fascination and love for the sea and its creatures since I was a kid. I never tire of being in the water whether it’s swimming, snorkeling, or SCUBA diving and when I visit tropical climates I always try to go diving. Negril, because of its crystal clear waters, is one of my favorite places to dive. Like the last time I was in Jamaica in 2015, I hooked up with Negril Adventure Divers. Ryan Edwards, the owner and I have kept in touch since my last visit and I was excited to see my friend again. I was also very happy to see that Negril Adventure Divers had weathered COVID because this had been a very tough time for the tourism industry. They picked us up around 8:30 and brought us to the dive shop for a two-tank dive. Check out my vids below of the two sites: Spadefish Reef and Throne Room!
Rest, Relaxation & Rejuvenation:
Next up on our tour of Negril is the reason we go on holiday: R & R but admittedly it’s hard to balance this with my need to see and do. That’s one of the advantages of going to Negril for me. I’ve been there so often that the need to be a tourist is fairly weak. I still love to do things like SCUBA dive, horseback ride and take excursions but this was a short trip. Both Free and I were in need of just chillin’ so although diving was a priority for me, we let go of doing too much touring. Opportunities to lay on the beach or cliffs in a hammock or lounge chair in the sun or shade is why tourists the world over have flocked to Jamaica and the Caribbean forever. To just lay outdoors listening to the ocean, wind people and animals is divinely pleasurable. There is a unique scent in Jamaica, a sweetness often tinged with the smokey smell of burning trash that I love! Anywhere I may be in the world if I smell that smokey smell I’m instantly transported to Jamaica. At night the air is often perfumed with the smell of blooming flowers and the sounds of tree frogs lull you to sleep. And what can be better than to sit on the cliffs and look out over the cerulean sea under a bright blue sky? Getting a massage in this environment is the answer! I was blessed to have two opportunities to do just this.
First stop, Tanya’s Secret Escape. I encountered Tanya’s services back in 2015, the last time I was in Negril, and had done a Women-Owned Business Wednesday feature on her (see Tanya’s Secret Escape feature). I’d been to her place and she’d come to the house. Before this trip, I’d called ahead to book for the second day there. I was overjoyed to learn she too had weathered the storm of COVID and was still in business. I knew she was still there because a cousin of mine visits her place regularly when in Negril. One of the best things about Tanya’s is the location. It’s on the cliffs overlooking the sea, a lush little property. The massage area is an open bamboo structure with a thatched roof and the scrubbing area is a separate concrete structure with a treatment table and shower. The relaxation area (which doubles as the outdoor massage area) is a concrete deck built into the limestone on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. The sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below makes for a great meditation soundtrack. After my very thorough scrub, Tanya wrapped me in plastic wrap to let the oils she’d used soak into my skin. It was good for me to lay still for 15 mins and just be. After this, she rinsed me off with cold water (to close my pores)! It was now time for our massages so still wet, with a sheet wrapped around me I hurried to the relaxation area. The sun was starting to make her descent as Tanya and her massage therapist set up our tables. It was a bit windy and chilly but even with this, I was falling asleep on the table as the stars were coming out. When we were finished we sat on the massage tables and just took in the beauty of the night sky and the sound of the sea. Lovely. The objective: total relaxation, was achieved. If you have a chance to visit Tanya’s I recommend it highly. Very professional and reasonably priced $60/1 hr massage! Just be sure to check availability ahead of time, bc she’s pretty popular! But, she’s very responsive via the contact info on her website: Tanya’s Secret Escape
Next stop, KiYara Spa on The Cliff. After driving into Kingston on Valentine’s Day to visit my aunt and uncle we’d arrived at our last full day. My agenda for that day was to stay close to home, relax and spend as much time in the ocean as possible. I decided to start with a massage at The Cliff’s spa and I’m so glad I did. After my therapist met me in the gift shop in the hotel’s lobby I followed her through the pristine and now very familiar grounds of the hotel, past the pool, the parasol-shaped almond trees, down the steps, past the bar and then to a magical looking wooden gate. Almond, sea grape and other trees formed a shady tunnel of branches over the short walkway that led to the treatment room. Once inside I looked around. My eyes delighted in the touches of bright color, the blue-green pareo that lay on the table, the magenta bougainvillea that floated in the soapy water of the foot bath, were sprinkled on the table and rested in a bright white conch shell. The room was soothing, simply adorned with ecru walls, sea-blue cabinets, white columns. An open shower with a stone-tiled floor stood off to one side. Best of all, the view. My head faced the open side, white curtains blowing in the breeze framed a perfect view of sea grapes and beyond that the deep blue ocean and lighter blue sky. Unlike the night on the cliffs at Tanya’s, it was a warm day and I had no trouble relaxing right away as I lay face down on the table taking deep breaths and releasing, letting go into the capable hands of Tanecia, the massage therapist. About 15 mins into the massage, once I realized how talented she was, I asked her if she could extend my 60 mins to 90. It was well worth it. After my treatment, I floated out of the room and back down the covered walkway. The rest of the day was spent sunning on the cliff, swimming and having lunch from Zest before we watched the sunset for the last time (on this trip).
Lastly, I will be reviewing the hotel at which we stayed along with the hotel next door at which we spent most of our time. After much confusion and false starts at the Montego Bay airport, we finally obtained a driver to take us to our hotel: Idle Awhile on the Cliffs.
Even though the travel agent had arranged transportation several drivers were unable to take us because where we were staying is far out on the West End in Negril and the small roads don’t accommodate buses. So we had to find a driver with a smaller vehicle. We finally got on a van. I was excited to get going because it was already late in the day. We’d arrived around 3:45. But taking off for the hotel wasn’t meant to be. We had to wait for the van to fill up with other passengers which unfortunately included what turned out to be the loudest family ever! Three adults, one teenager (probably to babysit) and like 50 kids! Okay more like 4 but they shouted across the bus the entire time. And, although they had come from Argentina for only a week they had the hugest suitcases I’ve ever seen! Free has a lot more patience and tolerance than I so she was laughing but I was ready to start throwing children off the bus! Luckily, their hotel was the first stop so the rest of the drive was quite pleasant, watching the beautiful shoreline and countryside roll by. After two more stops, we were finally nearing our hotel. We were driving into a rainstorm that we were still under when we arrived at our hotel around 7:00 in the evening. Luckily someone had waited for us in the little enclosed gazebo that is the reception desk (I was later to find that they closed and shuttered the front office around 5:00). He was nice enough to tell us that the restaurant was closed/closing but he could quickly put in a dinner order for us to be brought to the room. That was very nice!
Through the now lightly falling rain, a porter brought our bags to the room. The way this property is laid out there are small tropical apartment blocks with four units each: two downstairs and two upstairs. We were in an upstairs unit in the garden. The gardens were very lovely and our balcony looked out into the trees and down into the garden. When we entered our hotel room we were a bit surprised to be entering into a small kitchen (this had not been shown on the website). Past the little kitchen is the room. The floor was covered in blue tile with a king-sized bed, the room was a decent size. The bathroom also ample space with a tile-covered walk-in shower. The balcony wrapped around and a hammock was hung on one side. The layout and decor of the room had potential BUT the problem was that everything looked old and worn. The room was in desperate need of a makeover and freshen-up. The safe didn’t work, no batteries and no one ever fixed it. This last point brings me to the service at Idle Awhile.