Negril Trip Report, November 19-29, 2001 (Rondel Village)

PART ONE

Well here we go, trip #7 for me, trip #3 for the kids, something way more than that for my husband. We like Jamaica, Negril in particular.

Even post 9/11 and post-NY airline accident, we were pretty calm about flying and I’m glad – everything went very smoothly, all on time (even early). Security was a bit tighter than normal but we arrived early enough to eat a meal and hang out for awhile at the airport. We arrived in Charlotte to change planes and joined our relatives from NYC (his mom, aunt and uncle), and got to MoBay. There’s just nothing like stepping off the plane having that warm air hit you in the face. Aaah…. we’re back in Jamaica! We changed in the airport into shorts.

Delroy, Lee Weinstock’s friend who also drove us last year, met us with a nice van and a cooler full of red stripe and ting for the ride to Negril. We took the coast road TO Negril, planned to take the back way on the return. Between the two, I’d have preferred to take the back way both ways – it’s much prettier, and faster, road is in better shape. But the coast road was OK, under 2 hours I’d say, and we stopped halfway for a bathroom/more beer break.

We arrived at Rondel Village and checked in swiftly. Rondel was wonderful, a very good choice for those who really want A/C, cable TV, phones, etc. I don’t care much about those things but did enjoy the A/C. What was really great to me was all the space we had in our 2 bedroom villa – a huge living room with full kitchen (blender, microwave, toaster oven, real oven and stove, large fridge, sink, dishes, etc.), 2 huge bedrooms, one on the main floor that had its own bathroom, one “loft” bedroom that slept 5, another bathroom, a large wrap-around porch and our own jacuzzi (not that hot but the kids loved it). The furniture is real upholstered stuff too, not the semi-outdoor things that a lot of tropical hotels have. Beds were cozy, everything worked. Bring a CD player though – that’s all they don’t have. The staff was wonderful from our housekeeper to the manager to just everyone we came in contact with. Rondel is right on the beach, in a great location – a few doors up from Whistling Bird, a few doors down from Nirvana, Mariposa…nice and quiet at night but easy walk to nighttime adventure. The bar and restaurant at Rondel, Irie Village, is run by Maggie who was at Beach House Villas before, a lot of you know her. Bartenders Crazy and Milton took very good care of us on the beach. Good food there and they have a deal with Rondel so you can get room service, or pickup service, or a phone call when your food is ready. Sometimes we were just that lazy J . There is a pool across the street from the beach, where the standard rooms are. No one was there so the pool was totally private. There’s another jacuzzi there also. Our villas were on the beach side though, so we spent most of our time in the sea rather than the pool.

My son said the very first thing he was doing when we arrived was jumping in the ocean so we dropped our bags and changed – 10 minutes from van to beach, I’d say J . We arrived in plenty of time for sunset, too. I believe we ate that first night at the Boat Bar, which is next door to Rondel. We ate there a lot last trip – great food, great prices and Spencer is a wonderful host/chef. It’s nice to be remembered from trip to trip too, and he did. One other reason we eat there a lot is that it’s right on the beach and they aren’t fussy about wet sandy kids so the kids could swim and play while we waited for our meal. Big plus, that. We ate breakfast there most mornings, and dinner several times too.

However, our very favorite place in Jamaica is 3 Dives restaurant/bar, up by Xtabi on the cliffs, and we had to go up there and say hello to Lydie and Paula. P and I took a cab up and found it VERY crowded. Yay! There was to be a big internet board party the next night but this night they had their hands full as well. We had a little jerk chicken (have to do that – Lydie’s is the best in Negril), met some boardies there (hi russ!), enjoyed a couple of red stripes, and got caught up on the runnings with L&P. We visited 3 Dives several times this trip and it was almost always busy – a lot of people apparently have discovered their great food at great prices in a nice, natural atmosphere, and the hospitality of Lydie and Paula.

I miss the cliffs. I really prefer to stay up there – it feels like my neighborhood and I love the relaxed pace of the west end, snorkeling whenever we feel like it or just swimming in that crystal clear water, the lack of hassle and busyness that is the beach. But our kids are still small and I don’t want to risk an accident (the cliffs in Negril are open/unfenced – lovely but not great for small children) so we stay on the beach for now. It’s really perfect for them, so nice and shallow, calm, gently sloping – no drop-off. And all that sand to play in….

PART TWO

We woke up pretty early, not surprising since we went to bed pretty early the night before and everyone is excited to be here. This was a beach day, like many days this trip. It’s so easy to be lazy, to fall out of bed, walk the few yards to the sand, order some breakfast and jump in the water while it cooks.

I did not take very good notes this trip so I’m not going day by day from here, just going to note some things and talk about some stuff we did to break the beach monotony (I’m the only one on this trip who gets bored at the beach – everyone else could happily stay on it all day for 10 days, doing nothing. I get antsy after a day, knowing all of Jamaica is out there.)

This night was the sunset negril.com party at 3 Dives so we headed up around 4:30. We stopped by the Negril Yacht Club to say hi to Rasta John and Blondie and deliver some goodies to them. It was great to see them but they couldn’t come up with us to 3 Dives and we never made it back to the NYC, kids and all that. (Guys, we’ll make it up in April!) We arrived at 3 Dives just after 5 and it was crowded – and getting more and more crowded. The board party seemed to bring maybe 50 people and a bunch of other people stopped in just because there was obviously a party going on! I said hi to some folks I knew, met a few more, then took my red stripe down by the cliffside to watch the sun do its thing, which it did pretty well until it hit some low clouds. No problem, we got to see sunset almost everyday. Later on it got so busy I was called behind the bar (I was a bartender for 5 years – I don’t particularly miss it but it’s not that hard to open red stripes which is pretty much what I did for 2 hours!)

I brought Lydie and Paula some CDs. I trade live recordings of bands that allow people to tape and trade their shows (as long as you don’t sell them, it’s cool). Bands like ekoostik hookah, the Grateful Dead, String Cheese and, as it happens, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. I brought 2 Peter Tosh shows, one acoustic, and one Bob show, all from the mid-seventies taped in clubs in NY and Chicago. I know few people in Jamaica have a computer, never mind CD burner, and you can’t buy these shows anywhere. So I brought a lot of them down to give to people as gifts, and I brought some ekoostik hookah as well, since they’ll be in Negril in April and I figured I might as well warm people up for that. Lydie and Paula have already seen Hookah, when they were there in 1999, so they’re already fans – I brought them some CDs last time too. The reggae CDs were extremely popular – everyone from the housekeeper to the driver to a nice guy I met on the beach loved them. I’ll bring more next trip.

A lot of people ask about the weather in Negril. It didn’t rain one single moment our entire 11 days. No afternoon shower, no cloud-hitting-ocean drizzle, nothing. Sun, sun, sun – hardly even any clouds. Finally, on the way to the airport coming in to MoBay, we hit about 30 seconds of rain – literally. But we were lucky because according to friends down there, it had rained almost 2 weeks straight before that, including the time Hurricane Michelle passed by. People in MoBay said it did rain there several times during our stay but I guess none of the rain clouds had the energy to go all the way west to Negril.

People also asked me about hurricane damage. As you may know, Michelle didn’t actually hit Jamaica so there wasn’t any wind damage, but she sent one heck of a storm surge and a lot of rain. The beach was somewhat narrower in spots than it was, but for the most part, I couldn’t see any difference. Some properties up the beach, already affected by past storms, had little beach beyond their structures (beach bars, etc) – we had to walk in the water to pass sometimes. Kind of puts a dent in the long beach walk but the sand seemed to be coming back even during our stay, with some help from a barge pumping sand back towards the beach over by Country Country.

On the west end, the damage to Pickled Parrot and Rockhouse was easy to see from the water – the slide at PP is broken and so is the rope swing, and their cliff got beat up a bit. Still, you can dive and swim and they are working to repair it all – I’m sure by Spring Break at the absolute latest, everything will be back to normal. Could be much earlier than that. Rockhouse’s cliffside villas were being worked on – doors and windows replaced, a couple of roofs being rethatched. They also looked nearly done with their repairs. Post-hurricane, life goes on.

We took three different boat trips this time. Our glass bottom boat guy was Patrick, a really nice guy who uses the Captain Kirk boat. He took all of us out to the cliffs one afternoon and we had a great time. Negril is really different from out on the water, I think everyone should get out there at least once. Later in the trip, Patrick took P and the kids and I out to the reef to snorkel. We saw a lot of fish – Patrick brought some little cakes and the zebra fish just SWARMED around us as we fed them. Really neat, they’d take food right from our hands. We saw some gars also, and a couple of rays, and some nice coral. We got a deal on the reef trip, it being our second trip with Patrick this time.

My daughter, who is 4, really perfected her snorkeling skills this trip. We practiced just off the beach and when we got out to the reef she was good to go (we bring our own snorkels/masks – that way we know it fits but Patrick had all that stuff too). My son is 7 and he’s an old hand at it, doesn’t use a lifevest anymore at all. My daughter just started swimming this summer while my son has been for 3 years and was on a swim team this past summer. He also jumped off the highest cliff at the Pickled Parrot – it was too funny to watch him walk around all these adults who were standing there, working up the courage to jump I guess, and just pass them and go. I guess that cliff is 20+ feet, I’m not really sure. But it’s high enough that I don’t want to jump from it!

My husband and son also went parasailing – another activity that they love and I get nervous about. Parasailing is kind of expensive, about $30 per person, but they say the view is unbeatable. I may try it someday…

One thing we did this trip that we hadn’t before was SAIL around the bay. A kind gentleman named Keith cruised up to us in his Hobie Cat while we were swimming. We sailed up and down the bay, just the kids and I and Keith, for maybe an hour. We all did a little rudder and rope work, I was kind of rusty not having sailed in awhile but it’s like riding a bike…especially when the pro is right there to keep you from tipping. It’s really nice to be out there with no gasoline smell or engine noise, just us, the wind and the water. The Hobie Cat only holds maybe 4 people at a time.

PART THREE

The granddaddy trip this time, (we always do at least one big day trip), was out to Alligator Hole to swim with manatees. The only driver/guide I talked to who had ever been there and seemed confident about where to go were the husband/wife team of Carloyn and Errol Barrett. I have other drivers I love but none were familiar with that setup and since we weren’t either, we thought someone should be. Carolyn was in the states (she is American) but Errol was in Jamaica (he is Jamaican) and we arranged to have him pick us up at our hotel at 9AM. Only P and I and the kids are going – the others don’t feel like a 4 hour car ride and stay on the beach.

He was right on time. We grabbed some refreshments and were off. The drive to Alligator Hole (that’s the name of the attraction, not the town, I guess the closest town is Canoe Valley or Gut River – it’s about a half-hour further than Alligator Pond, on the far eastern end of Long Bay) took about 3 1/2 hours. This sounds long, and I guess it is, but I really enjoy driving around Jamaica. It’s a great way to see the countryside. We stopped for lunch in Black River, at sort of a banquet hall, and had some chicken and that was about half way. I will never forget the views from there on – the Santa Cruz Mountains are amazing and we passed pristine bay after pristine bay. Sometimes we were in the mountains looking out over coastal plains, sometimes we were on the plains close to the water. We passed through little towns like Bull Savannah, Junction, Pedro Cross – nice towns with surprisingly large homes and nary a tourist in sight. One thing that’s pretty unusual is that around Treasure Beach, which we did not stop at (kids…) there are cacti. Large cactus, not little aloe-type things but huge, saguaro-type things! Apparently the mountains stop most of the rain from getting to this area and it is very dry. Grassy plains in some spots, dry sand and cactus in others, or even both. Really remarkable eye candy, especially on this one bay – I forget which – where the mountains come almost right to the water’s edge. I had camera difficulties this day so the images of all this are only in my mind. (Unless someone else has taken pics of this area…?)

We arrived at Alligator Hole. This is a pretty casual setup – there is a little building with a few displays on manatees and some other endangered Jamaican animals (crocs, etc.), and the guy who will take us out in his boat doubles as a concession stand, with a cooler full of this and that and a bag of salty snacks for sale. No other visitors are around. Errol parks by the road and will wait by his van for us while we go out on the river. I call this a river but I don’t think it really is – it’s really a morass (swamp) with clear areas and reedy areas. The water is crystal clear, we can easily see the bottom and sides as we move along. This boat is a flat-bottomed rowboat and our guide paddles out a short way, silently, looking for the manatees. They are semi-fenced in – it turns out there are three in residence. There’s a net of sorts across the water that keeps them from swimming up the river too far or (I guess) out to sea. Our boatman says this is necessary because there are very few left in Jamaica – they get caught in boat propellers and are sometimes caught on purpose, by fishermen, to eat. Supposedly there are less than 100 in the whole Caribbean. I knew some of this, that’s why we came – I wasn’t sure how long it would be possible to see them since they seem to be on the way to extinction. However, since these manatees are looked after, they may be there for awhile.

The water, as I said, was really clear, and we could see the occasional eel or fish swimming near the bottom. We round a corner and our boatman/guide gets very quiet – he is looking for the fin that tells him the manatees have come up from under the banks on the sides to breathe. This is not, by the way, a take-a-boat-ride-and-see-manatees trip – there’s only one way to see them and that’s to put on a mask and snorkel and jump in. Now I’m looking around the reeds by the edge, thinking “whoa – what might be hiding in there besides huge water mammals that weight 800 pounds or so? Crocs? Snakes? Am I really jumping in here??”. Our guide sees the fin he’s looking for and paddles downstream a little bit so e can jump in and swim back up. This is where I’m not entirely sure I really, really want to see manatees….while the kids get their masks adjusted, I ask the boatman about crocodiles and he informs me that there aren’t any “in this part”. Okaaaaay…..I haven’t seen any and I didn’t drive all this way to chicken out so in the water I go, P and the kids right after me.

The water is a perfect temperature and so clear, and it is fresh, or feels like fresh water. I’ll admit to a short panic attack at first, as I remember the eels and get closer than I want to the edge where the reeds are. But the kids are in and they’re having fun already, off to see if they can catch the manatees, so I swim along.

Actually seeing a manatee is tricky – my son was the only one who actually did. What I saw, periodically, were HUGE clouds of river-bottom silt being stirred up by something very large right under me. I saw this several times, might have caught a glimpse of gray, but mainly it was clouds of sand/silt. We followed them around for awhile, maybe a half hour, and finally were kind of tired. While I didn’t come face-to-face with one (this was partially because with the kids, we weren’t swimming very fast, and they only come to the surface to breathe then they head right back under the banks by the edge and I was NOT going down there! If you can move more quickly than we could, you can see them), I was very aware of their presence in the water with me and this was a real thrill. Not in small part because I was scared and I did it anyway – you know how something hits you AFTER you do it? Skydiving was like that for me – I didn’t realize what I’d done until I did it, and the good feeling lasted all day.

We paddled back to the van, got some snacks, and relaxed for the ride back. I should say at this point that Errol was a wonderful guide, he knows a LOT about plants and trees and veggies in particular – every kind of fruit tree was pointed out to me, also farms full of scallions and onions and even corn. Errol does a little farming at his place and so do I so we talked a lot about that stuff. His van is also the cushiest I’ve ever ridden in – it’s got A/C and upholstered seats and this is all very good when you’re in it for 4 hours!

On the way back, Errol asked if we wanted to stop and see a cottage in Bluefields Bay that a friend of his owns. It was close to sunset so we figured why not, good rest stop. This cottage (actually there are two, plus the owner’s house) is right in Bluefields, behind a high wall (this is a plus because it’s by the road and without the wall could be loud). It’s called Horizon Cottages, or Rasta Ranch and Sea Ranch, and is really cool. There is a private beach – small but clean and inviting, and two jetties that go out in the water with steps at the deep end. The jetties are partially covered and under the roof there are benches with throw pillows and cushions and hammocks – just made for a good book and a rum drink of some sort. Bluefields Bay has nothing on it that I could see – it’s like having it all to yourself. There’s a sea kayak and a raft to use, and the cottages are very funky and rustic, again with many cushions and tapestries and hardwood everywhere. I could easily pass a few days here, just chilling out and being completely alone. The sunset was beautiful. The kids didn’t want to leave, they loved the little beach and cottages and jetties, they asked if we could stay there next time, which we may.

One person was staying there, a friend of the owner, an American woman living elsewhere in Jamaica. P was wearing a Phish t-shirt which she saw and asked if we were from New England. P looked a bit blank, not knowing she was referring to the shirt (Phish is from Vermont). Turns out she and Trey, Mike etc are friends, they stay at her place in, I think, New Hampshire. I mention this only because we seem to always meet these people in Jamaica – an editor from High Times at Blue Cave, or Lee Weinstock who went to high school with Dave Katz from hookah – interesting people wind up in Jamaica.

We finally made it back to Negril, in time to grab a bite and collapse after our day.

(for those with eco/animal concerns, know that the manatees are taken care of there by the JA government, the nets are temporary so they can grow food (seaweed) for them, they are NOT making money there, and the manatees in JA really really do need protection, they are fished on purpose and caught in boat props by accident.)

PART FOUR – FOOD

With the big trip done, it was time to relax on the beach again, maybe go as far as the cliffs one or two times. One place I really enjoyed that was new to me was Easy Rock Café. It’s a cybercafe, actually, with (I think) 4 computers (which is 3 more than most cybercafes I’ve seen in Negril). It’s located where the west end begins, across from Tigress Lane on the cliff road. The restaurant is lovely, right on the water, and the view is of the beach and mountains behind. Sue, the owner, is British I’m told but we never met her. We did meet Zola, the waitress/manager/cook/cyberlady who is Jamaican and she was very friendly and helpful. I wound up there a couple of times, to check e-mail and have a snack. Very relaxed place with a tiny beach nearby that my kids played on for quite awhile. I had a sandwich one day and some fish the next, my kids had chicken – all were delicious. I could hang out at this place for a few hours easily, lots of cushions and such around.

While I’m on the topic of restaurants, I’ll mention our experiences at a few. One thing to keep in mind ANYWHERE you eat in Jamaica, if it is a sit-down place, is that food takes a LONG time to prepare. I mean, an hour was pretty standard except at breakfast, two hours not unheard of. So don’t go hungry or impatient, sit back, have a couple of drinks and relax. I believe the reason for this is that no restaurant I have seen preps food in any way. I’ve worked in restaurants and bars in the US and stuff is bought, sliced, chopped, parboiled, whatever hours or days ahead – not so in Jamaica. When I order a meal sometimes the proprietor will literally go buy the food (you know the old complaint – “what does he have to do, go catch the fish?” – sometimes, it’s close to that!) and then begin the process of slicing, chopping, cooking the sauces. This makes for some of the freshest, tastiest food I’ve ever had but it’s not a fast thing. If you’re in a hurry, stop at a jerk barrel by the road, that’s pretty much always ready when you are, or get patties from a bakery – they’re ready to go in cases. We always pick up a few to keep at the hotel for snacks. 3 Cs is the place we go, or pattymon comes by on the beach on his bicycle.

3 Dives remains our favorite place for good food and vibes at low prices (or any price, really). The seven of us had a HUGE plate of lobster one night, with that signature garlic butter, callaloo and rice and peas – my relatives had never eaten there and they raved – we even had to take some lobster back to the hotel, we couldn’t finish it all. We also had Lydie’s chicken several times – often you can get that pretty quickly, if he has some on the grill.

The Boat Bar is the beach place for us, Spencer the chef is a wonderful man who cooks the heck out of fish or chicken or ackee – never had a bad meal there and it’s also very reasonable. I’d say we ate there 10 times in as many days. Lots of fish, chicken, Jamaican breakfast and the kids’ favorite – french toast.

We had one meal at Ristorante de Gino, on the beach. It’s Italian and very good but not that cheap, at least at dinner time. Still ,they have a seafood salad appetizer that is amazing – fresh seafood in a cold vinaigrette-type of sauce. Yum.

Irie Village was “our” restaurant at Rondel. Their food was very tasty too though a little more expensive than the Boat Bar which is next door. One thing I can recommend, especially for kids, is their pizza. We had the lobster pizza and the kids liked the cheese pizza. My kids actually do very well with Jamaican food – they mainly eat chicken, stewed, fried, whatever and eat it all, and rarely ask for anything American. Still the pizza was a nice break once or twice. I also enjoyed the fish there (I ate fish at almost every meal in JA, I can’t get enough of it – escoveitched (vinegarey sauce with peppers and onions), steamed, fried, stewed…I don’t care it’s all delicious).

We had one meal at Xtabi, it was our somewhat fancy dinner out at sunset and we were all a little disappointed. It was OK, but not worth the money I think. We arrived right before sunset and had to go away for 20 minutes because they weren’t ready yet (we went to 3 Dives for a drink to wait). Odd for a sunset place, not to be ready at sunset. P’s uncle kept looking wistfully over at 3 Dives, talking about how much better their lobster was. I think we’ll try Rockhouse or LTU for the fancy cliffside dinner out next time, if we do one.

P and I checked out the Chinese restaurant at Country Country (Hunan-something, Garden maybe?) one night. Walking there from Rondel was a little tricky – right before Country Country we had to climb up a fence-thing on a log – the beach is badly eroded right there and hadn’t been repaired yet. We made it to the restaurant where we had a very nice meal – P ordered shrimp and I had fish (of course) and we shared – both were very tasty and not too expensive. The hot and sour soup, of which I am a big fan in the US, was too spicy to finish, – I’m no lightweight but this was HOT.

We had a snack while we hung out at the Pickled Parrot – seems only right to buy something if we’re using their cliffs, and as usual, it was mediocre and expensive. But we knew that and just ordered one thing for all of us to share. We did get some cool cups with tops to take home that said Negril 2001 on them – we used those the rest for the trip for drinks, great for the little ones especially.

3 Dives has $70J red stripes (that’s about $1.50US), Irie Village has $50J red stripes – between the two I don’t think we ever paid more than that for a beer. One warning – other beer is rarely this cheap, even red stripe light was $100J at Irie Village. $50J red stripes are kind of a loss-leader, to bring folks in. Blended rum drinks at Irie Village were $150 – a little over $3US, and they were great – pina coladas, dirty bananas, whatever you like (if you visit Crazy at Irie Village he might serve it on his head, which is bald – he did that for us a lot).

We didn’t even pass by Rick’s this time! Can’t say I missed it.

..that’s it for this particular report. Can’t wait to get back in April with hookah!

Links to stuff I talked about in this report:

Carolyn and Errol Barrett (Barrett Adventures): http://www.barrettadventures.com/

3 Dives: http://www.maherconsulting.com/3dives/

Thoughts? Questions? I'd love to hear them!