By Cynthia Cunniff:
If you don’t want to be stagnant on your vacation, yet you don’t want to come home feeling like you need a vacation because of the hectic vacation you just took, a soft-adventure tour is a wonderful combination of action and relaxation–and Jamaica is the perfect venue. I had three days to take advantage of some of the soft-adventure excitement this wonderful country has to offer.
Upon arrival at the all-inclusive Iberostar Grand Rose Hall in Montego Bay, I was given a brief property tour by the doorman and led to my well-appointed room, which had a large balcony overlooking the recreational area of the beach. The balcony had a comfortable outdoor couch perfect for post-activity snoozes and a swinging basket chair for reading or simply staring out over the sea. Your recreational choices are varied at the resort–everything from sailing to water aerobics classes held in the ocean. And, of course, you have the wonderful option to do absolutely nothing but enjoy the sun, water, and swim-up pool bar.
The Iberostar Grand Rose Hall provides 24/7 butler service, which is a nice touch to the ambiance of the hotel but not anything I would consistently use. The property is large, but not overwhelming, and is the more upscale of three sister properties linked together. Though it’s listed as a 5-star hotel, it’s better to not have high expectations about the convenience of having 24/7 personal attention: I forgot my razor and had to wait until housekeeping opened before my assigned butler could bring one up, which left me wondering why these items aren’t on hand to the butler staff at all times. I was scheduled for more than one adventure a day, so was off the property every morning at an early hour, and twice had issues with the wakeup-call service.
Dining and Entertainment Choices
There are several restaurants to choose from to suit just about anyone’s palate; however, you must have reservations for anything other than the general buffets, and business casual attire is required. Skip the diet while staying at this resort: the desserts are creative and mind-blowingly delicious. There’s also an after-hours dining area that caters to the post-disco crowd. Evening entertainment is nightly and I would recommend checking out the live shows that cover many genres of music and have a talented cast.
If you are in need of breakfast before 8 a.m., you must use the pre-order door hanger to request room service. The menu is a bit limited, particularly if you’re after something healthy. That said, after 8 a.m. the poolside buffet opens and the options are much better and include some delicious local fare. If you plan on adventures or outings during your day, you may well need the early-morning service–Jamaica is bigger than many would expect, and it can take some time get from one spot to another.
Good Idea To…
Make sure to bring a cache of small bills; using US dollars is acceptable and saves you from paying the currency exchange fees. Keep in mind that although the hotel is an all-inclusive, the staff are reliant on tips. A free safe is provided in the room, and I advise using it for your cash as well as your passport and any other valuables.
Current room rate: from US $216
Iberostar Grand Rose Hall
My first activity on the island was a thrilling ride on the Mystic Mountain Rainforest Bobsled in Ocho Rios. It was lots of fun!! To get to the bobsleds you ride up on the Sky Explorer chair lift, which offers dramatic views of the coastline and rainforest. The actual bobsled setup is similar to riding in a self-controlled roller-coaster car, but with the edginess of careening through the lush Jamaican rainforest. The bobsled facility also has a unique museum with some items from the original Jamaican bobsled team (of Cool Runnings fame) and other historical information on the area. After the ride down Mystic Mountain, you can regain your Zen by popping into the Butterfly Attraction Garden, which was full of wildly colorful butterflies and long-tailed hummingbirds.
Rainforest Sky Explorer: US$42 per person, unlimited rides. Bobsled Jamaica: US$62 per person, includes Sky Explorer.
They also offer zip-lining and you can enjoy the Tranopy Tour (all three adventures–Sky Explorer, Bobsled Jamaica, and zip-line Canopy Tour–for US$124 per person).
Rainforest Bobsled Jamaica at Mystic Mountain
Butterfly Attraction Garden
Dog Sledding – Jamaican Style
Located on an old polo ground, the Chukka Caribbean Adventures facility in Ocho Rios’s Chukka Cove offers the unique experience of dog sledding without the snow. They’ve done an excellent job on presentation and include a short documentary on how they are saving and rehabilitating pound dogs by training them to be mushers. The dogs are friendly and enthusiastically greet guests–particularly a pooch named “Smiley” who will actually give you a smile in exchange for a few pats on the head. I didn’t get the chance to ride the dog sled, but saw one of the trainers do a few laps with his team. The dogs seem to really love it and they are FAST! If the dog sledding isn’t for you, the property also offers a variety of other activities.
Chukka Dog Sledding Rates: Adult US$44, Child: US$31
If you love being on the water, I highly recommend the Island Routes Catamaran Cruise at Sandals in Negril. The property itself has a great Jamaican feel and looks to be a wonderful place for kids. There are plenty of vendors on the beach from whom you can buy local arts and crafts, get your hair corn-rowed, etc. Getting on the catamaran can be a little tricky, as you need to wade through waist-high water to get on-board. Plan on getting wet, and bring only the essentials with you. On-board you’re greeted by a full staff of high-energy people who help you through the process of getting your snorkeling equipment fitted and assist with any other needs on the boat. The cruise has a great DJ to keep the positive energy flowing–feel free to shake your booty; you’ll probably be joined on the dance floor by a staff member or two! The snorkeling was guided and a good intro for beginners. Though it’s their policy for all guests to wear a lifejacket, it is cumbersome and impossible to dive in. Ask one of the staff to tie the life jacket around your waist instead of putting it on in normal fashion, to allow for more movement. While snorkeling you can’t leave your guide, and though there’s wildlife activity on the reef, there’s not a huge amount.
The catamaran takes you up the coast to the famous Rick’s Café in Negril, where it’s moored in front of rock divers who hurl themselves off the cliff, putting on a good show. If you get the opportunity, swim out to the caves underneath Rick’s to catch a glimpse of some very large bats and a cave bar that was once used to serve patrons and maybe a pirate or two.
After Rick’s we headed back down the coast and stopped at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville where we used the ocean trampoline. This was a highlight of the trip: I have to say, hurling myself onto a trampoline in the ocean made me feel like a kid again! Everyone enthusiastically gave it shot, ending in extreme fits of laughter by all.
ATV to the Top
The Chukka Caribbean Adventures in Sandy Bay offers an ATV Safari that takes you through dense rainforest and a small village 2,200 feet up the side of a mountain. The guide was knowledgeable and friendly and kept a close eye on the beginners in the group. When we reached the top of the mountain he gave us a tour of the various fruit trees and coffee plants. He also went into detail on the use of plants and the history of the area. The views were nothing short of spectacular, and I felt like all I needed was a good book and a blanket and I could’ve spent the whole day relaxing in silence up there. I would only recommend the ATV Safari if you’re sure you can handle the machinery–it’s not overly complicated, but you do have to muscle it in a few spots and you should expect to get dirty.
Adult: US$83 (must be 16 years old to participate)
What a Rush! – Zip-Lining in Good Hope
The Zip-Line Canopy Tour at Chukka Caribbean Good Hope, Falmouth, was an absolute blast. You have got to be OK with heights, but if you do decide to give it a try be assured the team assisting you through the five zip lines are complete pros, and are also extremely entertaining. Flying through the Jamaican rainforest is an experience I would advise to any adrenalin junkie! Scratch that one off my bucket list. The property itself is an old sugar plantation and I really enjoyed the historical setting–it’s full of informative signs, and if you’re a shutterbug, there’s plenty to snap. For a more in-depth history of the plantation, they offer a guided historical tour with lots to see. To add to the interest of this property, they also have a resident artist, David Pinto, who works on-site, and you are welcome to go to the studio to watch him work on his pottery pieces.
Chukka Zip Line: Adult US$60, Child US$42 (must be at least 6 years old to participate)
Home-Grown Hospitality and Adventure
I have to say, the highlight of my stay in Jamaica was the Braco Hike & Bike Tour. The land is privately owned by the Parnell family, who has been a part of Jamaican culture for several generations. The warmth of the Jamaican people was represented at its fullest by this staff and particularly by family member Moyra Fitzroy, who is also the director of the farm and the activities business. The mountain biking was a challenge going up, and I wouldn’t advise it to beginners–though if you’re feeling high energy and decide to go for it, the staff don’t mind if you need to walk your bike at any point. On the hike you’re accompanied by a local who gives you an education on the flora and fauna and answers any questions you may have about the property.
Tradition is evident on this magnificent piece of land, and whether you’ve hiked or biked to the top of the property, the vistas are astonishing. The end point of the climb is a small butterfly-filled garden including a gazebo with 360-degree views spanning from the ocean to the densely green hills. Coming down the hilltop, we headed through the fields with horses freely grazing, cruised down a bougainvillea-lined gravel road and into a private beach alcove where Moyra met us with freshly opened coconuts–the epitome of graciousness. She later had us up to the family great house, where we sat in the poolside gazebo and heard some stories about the history of her family and the farm.
The Hike & Bike Tour is the newest adventure to be had at Braco, where they also offer several types of horseback and river-rafting tours.
Hike & Bike Tour US$60
Highly Recommended Local Eats:
Scotchies, Ocho Rios – Jamaican Tradition
There’s nothing more traditional in Jamaica than eating Jamaican jerk, and the one place you must go for that is Scotchies. The chicken, pork, and fish were all beautifully cooked and a dollop of the house-made Scotchies Scotch Bonnet Pepper Hot Sauce added an extra kick not to be denied! To cool down your palate, try one of the local drinks: fresh coconut water, Ting soda, or a Red Stripe beer. You eat family-style outside at your own hutted table, and the air is thick with the smells of heavily spiced meat grilling. If you aren’t hungry when you arrive, give yourself a few minutes to take in the tantalizing aromas and your stomach will take over. There are many traditional side dishes that accompany the main course, from rice and peas to roasted breadfruit–try everything, it’s all good. Location.
Juici Patties – Franchised in every parish of Jamaica
Sometimes it’s the simplest things that give us the biggest pleasure. This is true of the very traditional Jamaican meal staple called the patty. Juici Patties offers the best version of this meat-filled pastry that is baked to perfection. There are also vegetarian choices, but I fell in love with the shrimp patty. The flavors burst through the slightly chewy, slightly crispy crust in all their Jamaican glory. Buy two, you won’t regret it.
My stay in Jamaica was full of activities, food, history and making local and international friends – at the end of each day I felt I had experienced something new, rich and vibrant. The overall tone was always fun and I felt the people of this country saw me as a personal guest, treating me with the utmost courtesy and kindness. Regardless of whether your goal is to fly through the rainforest canopy hanging from a cable or to simply take in the richness of the land and sea (I advise a bit of both) – Jamaica will fulfill you and leave you with wonderful memories.
Cynthia Cunniff’s writing background spans marketing, PR, magazine editorial and travel blogging. She’s a graduate of the creative writing program at CSU Long Beach and went on to UCLA to further her writing skills. Growing up as a military dependent, she lived in several foreign countries and throughout the US. Post college she returned to international living and resided in London for close to a decade. She currently lives in the beautiful South Bay of Los Angeles, and Tweets about traveling like a local in Los Angeles @localpathLA and throughout the world @localpathWorld.