I’ve been charmed by Jamaica since my family visited in 1979. In fact, I may have been the only Wallace bitten by the bug, since my parents and sister Elizabeth mostly remember the poverty in downtown Montego Bay. Where I remember the cobalt blue sky, crystal clear sea, the incredible local cuisine, and the charm of the Jamaican people, my sister would recall a beggar with elephantitus.
In November of 1989, Katie and I honeymooned there. We remember that trip mostly for our limited funds, and more than a few meals were canned corned beef or guava jelly sandwiches on the always rock hard Jamaican white bread. Still, it was incredibly beautiful, and we’ve kicked around the idea of taking the kids ever since that trip.
This year we could have done a lot of wiser things with our tax refund and meager savings, but the vacation bug was calling, especially after the bitter and icy 2000-2001 winter in Wantage, and our recent and unexpected termination from Contactmania. We debated and crunched the numbers, and decided that since it had been over 6 ½ years since we took a vacation, and that was with my parents, we were going to take the plunge.
I obsessed on planning the trip. I combed through all possible airfares and hotel deals. We chose a fare on American Airlines, it would have been about $1500.00 for all five of us. Now I admit, I’m a little compulsive, well more than just a little. When we had completed the entire purchase at a local travel agent, he began to assign out seating. Folks, I love aviation, but hate wide-body aircraft, mainly because most people are stuck in the center section. I will not sit in the center. I REALLY prefer a window, but will take an aisle.
And since I can spout seating configurations from off the top of my head, our new found travel agent had his work cut out for him. Originally, we were going to be seated 5 abreast across the center section of an American Airlines Airbus A-300. No thanks, I wanted at least one window. There were none open, nor was there an aisle seat on the window side (2 across).
I know the guy thought I was nuts, but I told him I’d take the lowest fare on Air Jamaica instead if he could get me a window. He took a few deep breathes, and decided to humor me. I was willing to pay about $180 more for the family for my dammed window. I didn’t know it at the time, but I got a few other pluses from the decision to fly Air Jamaica instead. Air Jamaica had direct flights to and from Newark. American left an hour earlier from Newark, but landed two hours later after a stop in Tampa on the outbound trip. On the return, American flew non-stop into JFK instead and landed around midnight. So in all fairness, I did choose a better itinerary too.
Three weeks later, after a lot of staring at the calendar, it was departure day.
THURSDAY, MARCH 29: DAY ONE: An Air Jamaica adventure
We left the house at an ungodly 3:45 am, and turned back after a mile. I had forgotten a bag full of bagels and sandwiches for our breakfast. Cheap me was determined not to pay Newark Airport prices for food. We were in Newark after about 70 minutes, and parked in the monorail lot. We hauled 5 suitcases, and two carry-ons, plus a radio and a car seat to the monorail platform.
At the Terminal B station, we managed to grab a luggage cart. Too bad no one at Newark figured to put an elevator from the monorail level to the check in level. We scooted the gear up an escalator, and checked in for our 7:40 am flight.
The kids were hungry. We realized the bagels and snacks were in the van, back in lot D1. I considered going back, but was outvoted 3-1, Cormac abstained. We made our way to the gate area, and were among the first waiting to board. Boarding was scheduled for 6:55 am. I coughed up for some $2 coffees, and some candy to keep Cormac from running around the entire gate area. That plan didn’t work; he insisted on being on the opposite side of the gate area, so Courtney waited with him.
While we were waiting, the flight crew began to arrive. Katie pointed to a male officer with three stripes and said, “look Joey, there’s the pilot.” I looked at his rank insignia, and since he had three stripes, not four, I correctly stated, “that’s the first officer.”
At which he quickly turned his head and stopped walking. “What seat is he in?” he asked in a Jamaican accent, pointing at Joseph. “19G,” I answered. “O.K.,” he replied, continuing onto the jetway. I had an idea already where this was going, as I had been treated to an in-flight cockpit visit as an 11-year old by an Air Jamaica crew. A memory that remains vidid today.
We were delayed at pushback, and ended up as number twenty something for departure behind the normal 8:00 am Continental Airlines traffic. We departed about an hour late, and quickly climbed to 37,000 feet. After a very scary airline breakfast (thumbs down to Air Jamaica food service), we settled in to watch “Meet the Parents.” Below us the haze and overcast gradually gave way to clear skies and the varied blues of the tropics.
Joey had befriended a girl about his age from Newark, who was traveling with her parents to visit family in Jamaica. She was very interested in airplanes, and asked me a lot of questions. Flying is something I always try to support in children, as aviation has been a life-long interest of mine. As we began to pass over the Bahamas, the first officer tapped on my shoulder (I had given my window to Joey to enjoy the tropical view).
“Would he like to visit the flight deck?” he asked. Afraid Joseph would say no, I answered, “of course.” We were about to experience something that never happens on a U.S. flag air carrier. U.S. cockpit visits require reams of paperwork, and a security review, and are often limited to pilots and airline officials. Air Jamaica, on the other hand, tends to do one or two each flight to treat kids, V.I.P.’s, and of course, airplane nuts.
I remembered how special the visit was to me when I was a kid, and I thought of his Joey’s new pal, and how something like that could really foster her love for aviation. Who knows, ten years from know she may be in flying the Boeing New Large Aircraft for United. I pushed my luck and asked, “Hey, she REALLY likes planes, do you think she can tag along too?” “Sure,” he replied with a smile.
We cleared it with her parents too, and went forward, passing through first class, and the little cabin crew lounge area. Once we were in the cockpit, the first officer got back in his seat. As they handled some in-flight chores, I started the tour. Reading off the instruments, I explained, “We’re at 37,500 feet. Our airspeed is 420 knots, that’s 81% of the speed of sound. We’re approaching Santiago in Cuba…”
I would have rambled on some more, but by this point both pilots had turned to face me, and were smiling. “Ok, what’s the story?”, the captain asked. “Well, I’ve been an aviation fanatic since I was a little kid, I’ve written for flightsim.com and Airways magazine, and I’ve done some public relations stuff with Flightsafety International. I’m a perpetual student pilot, and I have current sim time in a Falcon 900B (a high-performance French-built executive jet),” I replied.
You could feel the barriers drop, and suddenly there were five kids in the flight deck, with the three biggest ones trading plane stories. We chatted about their career paths, some favorite planes, and Teterboro Airport. Both were Jamaican, but had previously worked in the United States. The Pilot had flown for the Jamaica Defense Force as well. The first officer formerly flew Gulfstream IV jets from Teterboro.
After a few more minutes, the captain said, “look, why don’t you walk the kids back and get them settled, and then come back forward. We’re going to be crossing Cuba in a few minutes and starting our descent. I think you’ll enjoy this.”
“Oh yeah,” I replied and after I made sure the kids said thank you, I returned them to the rear cabin and told Katie I had been invited to stay up front, and I was definitely going. I promised to find her before we deplaned, and handed off my precious window seat to Courtney. I figured I’d get a better view anyway.
Upon my return, the flight attendants waved me into the cockpit. The first officer gestured for me to take the observer’s seat. An Airbus A-310-300 is normally flown by a two person flight crew, as it’s a fairly modern aircraft. It’s not fly-by-wire like the newer Airbus planes, and has a traditional control yoke, not a joystick. Directly behind the center console is an observer’s position, for check pilots, reserve pilots, or other guests. There’s also a small folding seat behind the captain.
I was told to strap in, using the crew style 4-point harness. I was pointed toward a spare headset, which I dug out from a bin under an auxiliary panel. I soon was also wearing my headset, which made it easier to hear the crew, and the radio transmissions. We chatted about Microsoft Flightsim, and various airliners.
Our conversation paused as we were handed off from Miami Center to Havana Center. We were now in Cuban airspace under Cuban Air Traffic Control. We crossed over Cuba’s Eastern end, which seemed very agricultural. Now we began descending across the famed Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. After a few more altitude clearances, we were at 25,000 and received a hand-off from Cuban control to Kingston center.
Kingston would handle our flight until we were cleared to land at Montego Bay and the MoBay tower took over. At about 12,000 and 150 miles out, the captain gave me the abbreviated version of the cockpit observer speech. The main rule was stay put, and no unnecessary talking below 10,000 feet. Keep quiet unless you need to point something out. He showed me where the smoke hoods were, where the oxygen mask was stowed, and where the cockpit exit was located, like I could squeeze my ass through a side window.
His final words, “enjoy this.” I replied, “Oh, I will.”
We were going to be delayed by construction at the airport in Montego Bay. Air Jamaica has seen explosive growth and is now a hub for the entire Caribbean. They were resurfacing the ramp area, and in order to go from one side of the field to the other, jets needed to taxi back on the runway. We were cleared to cross over the airport, and enter a holding pattern.
We were told to fly a DME-arc (basically you use DME, distance-measuring equipment, to fly an arc at a certain distance from a given point. They keep you in the arc as long as needed and vector you out to begin a normal pattern for approach). We were placed in a 12-mile DME arc from the Montego Bay VOR signal. This gave us a nice tour of Jamaica, and a view of the 7500-foot Blue Mountain peak near Kingston. Eventually it was our turn to start our approach.
Granted the weather was typical Jamaican perfection, but I suspect the crew was showing off for me when they requested to fly a VFR (visual flight rules) approach. Usually a crew will just fly in on autopilot and click it off at 100 feet for the roll out. That is unless they just come in on autoland and read a newspaper the whole time! Not us though, we were landing Cessna style. Because they were hand flying the Airbus, Montego Bay tower wanted us to call out as soon as we had the preceding aircraft in sight.
As fortune would have it, it was the American Airlines A-300 from Newark, where I was not sitting in the center seat of the center section of the coach cabin, but instead had a bird’s eye view and a big grin. I had been watching the panel, and listening to the AA jet, so I knew right where to look. I pointed, and said, “There she is, American Airbus, big silver sucker, at ten o’clock, ‘bout 1000 feet below us.” They confirmed my spotting, and informed the tower, “JM 18 Heavy has the Airbus in sight, our 10 o’clock, at about 4000.”
After they landed, we were next. The approach into Montego Bay under prevailing wind conditions takes you past the city and the Gloucester Avenue “hip strip” then passes the downtown beaches on approach over an aquascape of thousands of different shades of blue and green. And below the 1000-foot mark, the Airbus calls out the altitude in a robotic male voice. I can only imagine what is was like being on the glass bottom boat below us as we crossed overhead at 100 feet. That’s the point where I broke the silence rule for a second to remark, “this is just great.” They grinned right along with me.
After a perfect landing, we turned off the runway, and had to wait for clearance back onto the runway to cross over to our assigned gate, all the way on the far end of the airport. We’d have a long outdoor walk to the immigration area, but as far as I was concerned, it was “no problem mon”. I had to stay put until we were parked at the gate, and the main engines were off. As they completed the engine shut down checklist, I offered a very sincere thank you, and told them that I was worried the rest of my vacation might now be all downhill.
Next, I accomplished the kind of task only a guy built like a grizzly bear can do. I managed to walk from the cockpit back to row 19 against all the passengers in the aisles waiting to exit. I excused and shoved my way back to Katie and the kids, at which point Katie asked, “Did you land? Is that why we had to wait so long coming in?”
I couldn’t resist, since everyone around us knew I was an airliner nut, and had been up front for over an hour. “Hey, I don’t think I did that bad,” I said. “We had an 18-knot crosswind, and we had to fly almost to Kingston before we got clearance.” No doubt a few passengers are still convinced I landed our flight. At least I didn’t want to take us to Havana! Or worse.
Since we drew a distant gate, and the Jamaicans don’t believe in jetways, it was down the airstairs and an instant welcome to the 80-degree tropics. Jamaica amazes me in that you can buy beer long before you are legally in Jamaica. There are bars in the corridor at the airport as you wait for immigrations and customs.
We had to wait on a short line, but entering Jamaica was a snap. A few forms stamped, and a big, warm Jamaican smile, and we were exiting the airport with our bags and brood in tow. Let the haggling begin!
In Jamaica, taxi rates are all pre-published and serve as guidelines, but that doesn’t mean they are not negotiable. Everything in Jamaica is negotiable. I already knew the published rate for a transfer from the Airport to the Rose Hall area was $20 for 1-4 persons, and $5 for each extra person. I decided that we didn’t need to pay extra for Cormac, since we had so much junk we needed a van anyway.
The taxi dispatcher immediately disagreed with the $20 price, and wanted $5 more for the fare. I waved him off, telling him I was paying $20 no more. He asked if I’d ever been to Jamaica before, I replied yes, this is my third trip, and I’m feeling pretty good that once I go through those doors, someone will jump at the $20.00 fare.
He shrugged in defeat, and called over a driver named Nation. Nation had a van and agreed to the $20.00 fare, I promised I’d “take care,” of Nation for $20.00, but not for $25.00. He ended up getting $25.00 in the end, as already the irie Jamaican vibe was taking over.
A strong tip for future Jamaican visitors. Leave America with at least $100.00 in singles. You stand no chance of seeing singles once you get here, so more than a few locals made off with $5 tips.
Now I could do pages and pages on where we stayed, and my failure to trust my gut instincts, but that should be clear through this narrative. Originally we chose a small condo-style hotel called the All Seasons Beach Resort. I found them online through a webpage operated by a local booking agent. The place was well equipped, and very affordable, but it seemed quiet, and I knew the kids would prefer some hustle and bustle. The All Seasons only has 12 units.
About a week before we left, I stumbled upon a listing in the Lonely Planet guidebook that was complimentary to the All Seasons except for describing the beach as, “horrid” and being reclaimed by Mangroves. Uh Oh. I usually agree with Lonely Planet reviews.
I had built the whole trip budget around the All Seasons, and self-cooking mostly, and for once we were looking at going away with a good deal of money to spend. Another place was listed in the same section (the Rose Hall area just outside of Montego Bay). It was listed as a Comfort Suites, but they had adopted an all-inclusive plan. A little checking revealed that they had formerly operated as Sea Castles, then later as Comfort Inn & Suites Sea Castles, and had just recently been sold to Cameleon resorts, a subsidiary of the Montreal based charter airline, Air Transat.
My deep dislike for all things Frenchy should have been enough to wisen me up, but the rate was $270 per night for all five of us, and included meals and snacks, drinks, entertainment, and according to both their online listings and phone reservations staff, they had a supervised children’s activity program from 9-5. Woo Hoo! We crunched the numbers again, and decided we could go the all inclusive route, but it would leave very little to spend on souvenirs, or purchases beyond the resort. Like $156.
Our decision to go to Sea Castles was based on the kids. We thought they’d enjoy the kids program, the other children guests, and their ability to get food or a soda whenever they wanted (without our involvement). Plus Sea Castles offered entertainment every night, where All Seasons was really like a condo rental. So we reserved at Sea Castles, and I said a silent prayer that the food not be disgusting.
Plus, they also had full kitchens, according to the listings, so we could still bring some food from home, just like I had planned for All Seasons. And I admit the facilities at Sea Castles looked nicer, and they were on a 14-acre site. We figured the resort hotel atmosphere would be fun for the kids.
We all make mistakes, right? JGW’s rule number one, be wary of all things Frency, especially Canadian Frency. I violated my rule, and was given a few lessons.
Anyway, we arrived at Sea Castles, and it was stunningly beautiful. Jamaica in general overwhelms the senses. Just the ride from Sangster International to Rose Hall takes you past a variety of hotels, resorts, stores and residential areas. You pass by Rastafarians selling crafts or lobsters on the roadside, goats and cows wandering everywhere, and standing like a noble sentinel from the colonial past, the famed Rose Hall Great house.
We were impressed to see that in the Ironshore suburb outside MoBay, a whole little American enclave had taken root. They now have a modern supermarket, a movie theater, a Baskin-Robbins, a mini-mall with a pet store, and even a dyed in the wool McDonalds that looks exactly like one in Anytown, U.S.A.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d be sad if this US Style sprawl was everywhere in Jamaica, but just as there is a time and place for Jerk pork, there’s times when you need a Big Mac and fries. More on the whole Blue Diamond Plaza later, but lets’s say the kids had a few Mickey D moments on vacation.
When Katie and I honeymooned, there were no American-style grocery stores, and except for a KFC and a Shakey’s Pizza, there was no American food to be found. Also in 1989, it seemed no one in Jamaica had ever heard of dairy products, this despite the wandering cows and goats everywhere. We tried to buy cheese back then, and our best find was a plastic baggie filled with a Velveeta-like glop. Butter was in hotels only, and milk was always questionable. A lot changes in a decade, as the dairy situation is much improved, thanks to imported butter, milk, and cheeses from New Zealand, including some of the best cheddar we’ve tasted.
At Sea Castles, I paid for our stay, and we were escorted to our unit, A4. There were 5 or 6 buildings, each with a letter. We were in Alhambra, or A-building. Our room was at ground level, but did enjoy an ocean view, and air conditioning that worked in 2 out of 3 rooms. Good thing it was the kids room that wasn’t running, as for all we know maintenance still has A4 on their list.
I surveyed the unit, it was OK. We unpacked in a flash, and I began to notice some problems. For one, there was not a single item in the so-called kitchen. No pots, pans, forks, plates, or cups. Nothing. Not even a rack in the oven. Mr. Boy Scout thought to bring a pizza sheet, but without a rack I was still out of luck.
We had arrived right at the tail end of lunch too, so we debated waiting until dinner, or checking out the pool grill. We decided to check out the beach first, and walked down the 100 plus steps. Whew. We soon discovered two of Sea Castles main flaws.
The beach was nice to look at, but overwhelmed with sea weed. Thick green strips of junk. The beach was also frequented by locals intent on selling ganja (pot), beads, aloe, and other local crap. And these guys had never heard of the Nancy Reagan approach: just saying no was a waste of breath. The topper on the beach was Joey got zapped by a nasty jellyfish after about ten minutes in the water.
His arm swelled up with a huge red mark in the shape of the jellyfish’s crest. One of the local Rastas, a decent sort named Raymond abandoned commerce long enough to give Joey some fresh aloe. We headed back up to the relative serenity of poolside. I think a big reason we never really got into the all-inclusive mood was we were dead tired on day one. We had gotten up at 3:00 am, and been on the go ever since, so by 3:00 pm, neither Katie or I were thinking about booze.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I didn’t come to Jamaica to drink keg Red Stripe from 6-oz plastic cups, and somehow the popular local soda Ting was sounding much better. Ting is a grapefruit soda made by Jamaican Pepsi, similar to Citra or non-diet Fresca.
By now we had mixed feelings. The staff at Sea Castles was wonderful. The physical setting is gorgeous, but something was amiss. We looked toward dinner on Thursday to be a litmus test. To borrow a line from the Clash, the question was, “should we stay or should we go now”. Well, dinner was pretty good, plus we were all hungry, so it didn’t prove to be a defining moment. There was roast beef, lots of veggies, and fried chicken.
It turned out to be like the dinner they drag out at parent’s night at summer camp. It seems that a few hours before us, a planeload of Canadians had arrived, so dinner was a show of sorts. After dinner, I decided to take tired Cormac to bed, and Katie took the other kids to the show.
Cormac and I slept. Katie met drunk high school kids from Quebec. I always miss out on the good times, huh?
FRIDAY MARCH 30: DAY TWO: RECON MISSION
The next morning I was up by 5 A.M. I’m turning into my Dad, it’s very scary. I slipped on a T-shirt, shorts, and loafers, and was out to explore. Grabbed some coffee at poolside. I clearly won the first guest out and about award for the day. I decided to stroll out to the main road, the A1 highway, just to see what else was nearby. There was a craft village, and a few shacks, which pass for “rum” bars in Jamaica. But at 5:20 A.M. there were few signs of life off the hotel property, just traffic on the road.
Hotel staff was arriving from the local buses on the A1 and the staff dorm across the road. “Ya Mon, enjoying a stroll!,” shouted a smiling waiter I recognized from dinner. I returned to the hotel after a few minutes, and sought out some information from the front desk. Still, my questions about the kid’s program were not getting much response.
No worry, as they say in Jamaica (hint: worry when they say this), the activities desk opens at nine, and I’d get some answers then. Katie and I were desperate to farm out Courtney and Joey. We had already figured Cormac was staying with us. We had already looked at the children’s center the previous afternoon, and found it abandoned. The room had a large TV, a VCR, and one dusty Land Before Time movie.
At breakfast we were amused by the antics of the Greater Antillean Grackles, better known as the Kling-Kling or Tingling birds. They are jet black birds, smaller than a crow, with a fan like tail they hold upright. They are noted for their distinctive ringing calls, and their ethical shortcomings. Think Wildwood boardwalk and seagulls swooping down to rob tourists of pizza or cheese fries, and you’ll get the picture. The main difference is Kling Klings steal food, then steal away. They fly off with their prize so as not to share with the other birds.
The Kling-Klings love to steal bread or butter from the tables, and often try to join the buffet line. I asked one of the waiters about them, and was told they have a great life, starting with a bath in the pool at around 5:00 am, then meals and snacks all day long. The waiter waxed philosophical next. “You know mon, many years ago the kling klings live by picking the ticks off cows. They had to work very hard for a meal, and lived only on cow ticks. After the tourists come, they now have a good life, but they are thieves.” As he told this tale, his friends gathered around us.
“Now mon,” he continued, “the bird that eats ticks off the cow is the white bird (white cow bird). What does that tell you, mon?” I made their day with my reply, “It means the black bird is the smarter bird, and has a better life.” They grinned and high-fived each other, failing to note that the analogy has little bearing on the Jamaican people.
At around nine, I made reservations for the next two nights in the fine dining restaurants at Sea Castles. They offer a seafood and a Jamaican restaurant, but you need to scramble to secure a seating. After that, I went over to the pool area to find the activities director. Rude awakening time, folks. There is no child care, contrary to the brochure, and there were only a few children’s activities scheduled each day, between 9:00am and 5:00 pm. I guess Bill Clinton and his writers are now writing resort brochure copy. Yes, there are scheduled children’s activities, and they do run from 9-5, but not non-stop.
So the ugly reality settled in. We were not going to be farming out the older two. I reviewed this new development with Katie, and we decided to go look at a few other places, and decide what to do. If we were not going to have a kid’s camp type program, we wanted to pay less elsewhere at a condo type place.
We rounded up the kids, and I walked over to the taxi stand, where 3-4 van drivers were playing dominos in the shade. I told their appointed spokesman what we wanted to do, and settled in on a fare. We wanted to go further east 4-5 miles to Greenwood, to check out our original destination, the All Seasons Beach Resort. Then we wanted to loop all the way back to Mobay, and check out the El Greco, a newish condo hotel on the Queen’s Drive.
$40 plus a tip, we agreed, and he gestured to an older gentleman, with bad teeth and a nice van. We were about to make the acquaintance of Sir G, Gerard, who later turned out to be the dean of local drivers, and a respected fellow. Sir G had a Nissan passenger van, which was comfortable and roomy, and he was mellow, not like the typical lead-footed young bull. Sir G was always getting passed, and that was fine with Katie and I.
Once we left Sea Castles heading East, we left the “beaten track,” and were in real Jamaica, not the manicured all-inclusive atmosphere that dominates MoBay and Rose Hall. We passed post card perfect beaches lined with Mangroves, fishermen at work in their wooden boats, and tiny ramshackle structures that passed for stores, homes, and restaurants. Jamaica is a sensory overload. Just the colorful hand-painted signs at stores and bars are enough to captivate one for hours.
Goats were everywhere, along with the typically scraggy Jamaican cows. We drove by a bus stop occupied by a cow and a few dogs. We passed through a few tiny villages, along the A1. Our route was dotted with crafts stands, fruit vendors, and even a few Rastas selling lobsters from a cooler. (I had to ask Sir G what they were selling, as they were laying listless on hammocks, and didn’t exactly work for a sale).
We pulled into the All Seasons a few minutes later, and were impressed right away. It has two rows of townhouse like structures facing a center courtyard. It was almost a displaced Jersey shore resort. We were greeted by two gleeful puppies, about 10 weeks old. A black and brown male, and his brown and white sister. The hotel’s “watch” dog had recently given birth.
We asked to see a room. Right away the day manager Ms. Watson pegged us as the previous day’s no-shows. I leaned over to look at the reservation chart and while some rooms were booked straight through by long term guests, a few were “wide open”, and the next U.S. clients weren’t due for a few weeks.
The unit was acceptable, modern and clean. The main drawback was the room where the kids would be had a double bed and a couch, but we could make it work. Our room upstairs was cozy, and neat, and the kitchen area and living room were comfortable. There was no oven, but I’d live and there was one at the beach bar, which I could use.
Ms. Watson quoted me $150.00 per night. I had the All Seasons booked originally at $95.00 per night. When I asked about the jump, she explained that I had been quoted the one bedroom rate, and this was $150.00 I wrote it off to a penalty for me not canceling before. The Irie mood again, calming me. The beach at the All Seasons was rough, the guidebook was fair, but still, it was no worse than Sea Castles. They did have a man-made island about 100 yards out. It seemed that swimming off the island would be better than Sea Castles.
There was a small pool as well, but the place screamed “quiet”. The sign says, “a quietly relaxing place,” which may not be grammatically correct, but it’s an apt description. Katie and I made some mental notes. We scored the All Seasons well on atmosphere, accommodations, and they had puppies! We realized the lack of other kids was a downer for Courtney and Joey.
Next stop, thrown in by Sir G’s friend, was the Royal Reef Hotel, just about a mile past the All Seasons. The Royal Reef is across the A1 from Greenwood, a small town. It was a nice looking place, very modern, in a Mediterranean style. It was a rich ochre color, and had wonderful artwork and décor. The room we were shown had a huge mahogany king bed, and nice furnishings. Sadly, they didn’t have anything with cooking, or extra space, like a condo. At this point, we needed to be able to self-cook sometimes to save money and please the kids. I did make a mental note to consider this place if Katie and I ever do our Jamaican rental car exploration. Sir G was waiting in the lobby, walking Cormac past all the fish tanks. Cormy liked Sir G.
We headed west again into town, to check out one other place. I had read a few reviews, and also seen ads for the El Greco. It’s a modern complex perched on the Queens Drive, a clifftop road high above downtown MoBay. They had an elevator to Gloucester Avenue, the MoBay “Hip Strip,” and hotel guests have beach privileges at Doctor’s Cave Beach, a wonderful place.
I’m going to go on record as saying I liked this one best in terms of surroundings. In retrospect I’m glad we stayed at the All Seasons because of the many wonderful people we’d meet, but the El Greco was very nice. The rooms were stylish, and well appointed. The bed was another stunner. The kitchen was on a par with the All Seasons. I suspect Katie disliked the fact that you had to walk up two flights to enter the unit. These were very modern and condo-like.
There were a few kids there, so I lobbied for the El Greco. I liked the idea of being close to downtown MoBay with it’s shops and dining. Katie wanted to be far from MoBay. The rates were the same, $150.00 a night. We figured at the All Seasons we could let Courtney and Joey swim, and we’d only be steps away. At the El Greco the pool was further, and the beach was an elevator ride then a street crossing away.
I should have weighted the fact that it was Doctor’s Cave Beach higher, but we opted for the All Seasons.
It was back to Sir G’s van, and back to Sea Castles, at least for one more night. Sir G asked if we could go to where his wife worked so he could drop off his cell phone, so we made a brief detour on the way back. Once on our way back, we passed a familiar site. In 1989, Katie and I were taken to a bar on Queens Drive for a drink, and to take in the amazing panorama of city and seascape below. I had snapped a picture of Katie then, with the view in the background, and I wanted to try to grab the same shot, all these years later.
I recognized the place immediately. It’s just a bar & restaurant, with an attached souvenir shop. I asked Sir G to stop so we could grab a drink, and take a few pictures. We were able to recreate the shot except I placed the hotel in the background on the wrong side. That being done, we Sea Castles bound.
The plan was now to inform Sea Castles we were leaving the following day, and to reserve the All Seasons. We cleared this with Sir G, who would move us over the next day, plus take us shopping for groceries.
I went to the front desk, and explained that we were unhappy for a few reasons, and were going to check out tomorrow. The front desk clerk tried to invoke a three-night cancellation fee. WHOA! I figured hotels in Jamaica have to be a little similar to in the U.S., so I said, “Fine, just show me where it says that on the registration card.”
The clerk looked dumbfounded. “In order to charge a cancellation fee, you need to have it either on the card, or posted in the office where guests can see it,” I added.
He needed to speak to his manager, and went into the back end. He came back and said, “Sir, there’s a three night cancellation fee.”
I went back into the, sure, just show me that in writing bit. Finally his manager came out, and intervened. On the back of the card it stated that there was a one night cancellation fee if the guest failed to provide 24-hour notice of departure. “Well it’s 11:44 I said, check out is noon. We’ll be leaving at noon tomorrow, so there’s your 24 hour notice,” I said, thrilled with my victory.
They agreed, and promised to have my refund ready in U.S. dollars.
We did some minor re-packing, and loafed around Sea Castles. We tried to get into the drinks, but neither of us made a dent. Katie and I were looking forward to our dinner at their Seafood restaurant. We figured Courtney would hold down the fort and we’d be a few buildings away having a nice dinner. And we were even going to splurge; they offer Lobster, but at a $15 per person surcharge. Highway robbery Sea Castles style, but hey, we knew we’d not likely get another chance for a candlelit private dinner.
We walked over to the great house, the restaurant is upstairs. It was a lovely setting, but not air-conditioned. We were seated in the center of the room and it was almost 90 degrees. We asked if we could move over by the balcony, and we were moved. There was a slight breeze. The service was very nice, and we gave our drink orders.
Our waitress came over and said, “let me tell you what we don’t have tonight.”
They did not have Lobster. Arrrrrggggghhhhh. They did not have shrimp, or grouper. They did not have conch. Me being pretty quick on the uptake realized that since the menu had 5-6 choices, they only had two things left. Brown Fish Stew, a Jamaican favorite, and Seafood Pasta (which featured the same fish from the stew, but not shellfish). We looked at each other, and right away, she knew I was pissed.
I asked Katie if there was anything she was interested in. Nope. We apologized to the server, telling her it wasn’t her fault, but we were upset and not going to stay for dinner.
The restaurant is directly upstairs from the office, so it didn’t take me long to spout off. I asked for a manager, and the best they could produce at present was a front desk supervisor. I launched into a four minute tirade about the food service overall, the recycled meals, the lack of a children’s program, and the poor management of the overall food and beverage service. I cited a list of failures. Stuff being recycled into later meals, etc. I commented that it was funny that they had a whole roast pig left from the night before, then we were all treated to it the next day, soaked in barbecue sauce.
“The guests don’t eat the dozens of hard-boiled eggs served for breakfast, no worry, make them eat egg salad for lunch. The breakfast sausage that not even the French-Canadians would eat, it made it back to the buffet line for lunch, disguised as sausage and peppers,” I rambled.
One Jamaican woman who worked in the kitchen interrupted me, “Sir, that was fresh cooked pork.” She kept repeating this like a mantra.
But she didn’t deny my other complaints. Finally I asked, how hard would it be to plan food service in the fine dining restaurant. I ran through the basic math, they had 10 tables, some seat 2, other fours. But each sitting is full and has about 30 diners. I explained that I could see not knowing what to order for the first few days, but after a while a trend would develop, and they’d know to buy 20 lobsters, 10 lb. of shrimp, etc.
The shame of the food service ills is that the resort’s new chef is a charming guy from Montreal, who takes the time to greet all the guests, and while mostly the picture was dour, he did turn out some nice presentations under adverse supply and staffing situations. I envied him cooking in the Caribbean, but not on a Sea Castles budget.
“How can they be out of everything?” I asked. “It’s that no one cares, they’d rather use up what they have instead of put out anything good.” I happened to glance over to the doorway and I realized I had a small audience, composed of the noble Sir G. He was grinning from ear to ear. I think he smelled a fare about to come his way.
I was promised that the manager would see me, but they couldn’t locate him at the moment. I had other business to attend to since Katie and I were famished, having held out ‘til 8:00 p.m. for our seafood dinner. Now we couldn’t both go since we wanted to be close to the kids, but I was going to go fetch some takeout. Sir G said he knew of a decent Jamaican restaurant nearby, I think he said Miss Emmas.
I knew I’d eat anything they had, but Katie was an issue. She wanted either Lobster, shrimp, or chicken, fried or jerked. No curried goat, she ordered. We set out in his trusty van, and about a mile up the road we passed a crowded place, the Lilliput Jerk center. The smell was wonderful just in passing. “They have very good jerk back there,” Sir G advised. “You want to go back there?”
Did I? We pulled back in the jerk center. The pimento wood smoke wafted in our direction. The jerk center was actually part of a very Jamaican shopping center. There was a barber, a reggae music store, another small restaurant, and a bar, which faced the restaurant’s main counter. Some soul searing reggae wailed from the sound system.
The prices were all in Jamaican dollars, but I was doing O.K. mathwise, and the prices were also geared toward locals, so I wasn’t going to damage my budget for this meal. The main specialties were jerk chicken or jerk pork, both drenched in jerk seasonings, then slow cooked over a real wood fire.
Both items are sold by the pound. I ordered a pound and a half of chicken, and a pound of pork, which is boneless. Now here’s where the term jerk comes into play. The meat is “jerked” apart by a few quick blows from the chef’s cleaver. Whack, whack, whack! Which leaves you with bite sized morsels, although the chicken has bones. Now two concepts which have yet to invade Jamaica are packaging, and side dishes. The packaging part is for the best, since recycling and trash removal are also not Jamaican priorities.
Culturally, they have side dishes, but of items to their taste, like festival, a fried dough thing, and bammy, a fried cassava dough thing. Of course there’s also roasted breadfruit, something which is actually neither bread-like or fruit-like. That’s the plant they had Captain Bligh bring to the West Indies from the South Pacific to feed the slaves. Boiled pumpkin is a staple breakfast item.
They’re also fond of serving jerk chicken with their peculiar hard white bread. I opted for some festival to cut the heat, and ordered a few cold beers and sodas from the bar. They wrapped up our food in foil, and when I asked for a bag, they had to rummage for one. The extra jerk sauce I bravely wanted was also wrapped in foil, a clearly superior method of packaging fluids. Silly us in the U.S.A. with paper cups and plastic containers. (On an aside, since the Jamaicans aren’t too concerned with recycling and with proper trash disposal, they might as well stick to the foil, which breaks down pretty quick.)
Sir G and I had a beer while we waited, and once the food was ready we got in his van. The smell was amazing. “I think I should get me some of ‘dat,” Sir G remarked. I didn’t mind, and in a few minutes we were headed back to Sea Castles with our foil wrapped treasures. Katie met me at the hotel entrance, and we went back to our room.
That jerk was amazing fiery stuff, I rate it as the trip’s second best meal. We were in heaven with our foil pouches, our so-called “satellite TV” with 3 fuzzy channels, and the knowledge that we were checking out in the morning.