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TOURS - Negril | Westmoreland | Montego Bay
Excerpted from the book, Tour Jamaica, by Margaret Morris
NEGRIL is a world apart. The pristine beauty
that brought it fame is only a memory, but the magic persists. Like a gaudy
shell necklace, a conglomeration of tourist facilities fringes the coast
for 15 miles from BLOODY BAY to the Lighthouse and continues to grow
at both ends. The famous seven mile beach is now choc-a-bloc with hotels,
restaurants, cottages and water sports. The once deserted Norman Manley
Boulevard is a speedtrack for buses, vans, motorbikes and taxis. Across
the bridge, shopping plazas have proliferated. Even the WEST
END, (alias The Rock) where ironshore cliffs plunge to turquoise
seas and reggae throbs all night is overbuilt and congested. But, incredibly,
the magic persists. Realists say that Negril is a state of mind, cynics
say it's the marijuana.
Despite its recent explosive, unrestrained development, Negril is still
a place where dressing for dinner can mean putting a T-shirt over your swimsuit.
Where the most important event of the day may be to watch the sun set. (At
Rick's Cafe, after a particularly spectacular show, the sun gets a standing
ovation.) It is a place to laze on the beach, soak in crystalline seas,
to swim, sail or scuba dive over coral reefs formed millions of years ago.
Then feast on snapper and lobster or strengthen your structure with conch
soup or Irish moss. Negril is still the original land of the Lotus Eaters.
Beware! You may never want to leave.
For centuries, cut off from the rest of the island by bad roads and a
large swamp, it lay undiscovered and sparsely populated. Unlike most other
places in Jamaica it has very little history except as a haven for shipping.
A navy squadron mustered here in 1702 to sail against the French. In 1814
fifty warships and 6600 men sailed from Negril to tackle the American rebels
and were trounced in the Battle of New Orleans. And it was at Negril that
an infamous pirate Calico Jack Rackham was captured, then taken to Spanish
Town for trial and executed near Port Royal at a place known thereafter
as Rackham's Cay. Jack acquired his nickname because of his penchant for
wearing calico underwear. It is said that prior to his capture he was (true
to the Negril tradition) carousing aboard his ship with two of his crew
Anne Bonney and Mary Read. These female pirates who had the reputation of
being even more bloodthirsty than their captain were both pregnant for him.
At their trial they "pleaded their bellies" and were spared the
Bloody Bay, north of Negril's LONG BAY was
once a port for whalers. The whales were towed in to be disembowelled and
it is said that the waters of the bay frequently ran red with their blood.
One of the first persons to realize Negril's potential was Norman Washington
Manley whose administration cut canals to drain the swamp and built a highway.
The Negril Land Authority was established in 1958 to supervise development
of the area and has functioned intermittently and ineffectually ever since.
Regulations enacted to preserve Negril's unspoiled beauty have been honoured
more in the breach than the observance and even the oft-quoted rule that
no building must be taller than the tallest tree is disregarded nowadays.
Planning chaos has been compounded by the fact that much of the land falls
under another government agency, the Urban Development Corporation that
is allowed to make its own rules.
Initially, development was very slow. Then in the 1960s the American
"flower children" discovered Negril. Accommodation was very limited
and the few establishments on the beach did not appreciate or encourage
"the hippies". So these young foreigners, college kids, draft
dodgers, Vietnam veterans, gravitated to the West End and The Rock and lodged
in the humble homes of the local people: renting a room, a bed, or a space
for their sleeping bags and eating out of the family pot. It was a beautiful
example of symbiosis. Notwithstanding their modest rates ($42 dollar per week with breakfast and dinner), the landlords
in Redground and along Lighthouse Road prospered, extended their houses
and put in modern conveniences as the hippies came in ever-increasing numbers.
In the early days the more affluent landowners were worried about Negril
becoming a "Hippie Haven" and set up a committee to deal with
the problem of "long haired, ganja-smoking, loose-moralled foreign
visitors", but the reply from the villagers was "let those that
have the problem deal with it." Currently, an interesting echo of this
is the annual invasion of Spring Breakers who are welcomed by some establishments,
boycotted by others.
It is from the original clientele of hippies that Negril acquired the
spaced-out reputation that it has never shed. They smoked a lot of local
ganja (marijuana) and they also discovered hallucinogenic mushrooms growing
wild and tutored the locals in the commercial potential of mushroom tea.
Both commodities are still available.
WARNING: the ingestion of wild mushrooms
is legal in Jamaica but the effects are unpredictable and extremely dangerous
if combined with alcohol. The same effect is true of ganja, which is not
legal. Beware also, of tidbits such as ganja cake or cookies; the effects
can be devastating. Regrettably you may also encounter crack or cocaine
vendors. These are criminals, avoid them! Negril's reputation as a drug
haven is exaggerated. The fact is that the drug problem is no worse here
than in other resorts or in any city abroad.
Many of Negril's early visitors decided to buy their own "piece
of the Rock" and today much of the West End is owned or part- owned
by expatriate residents - including celebrated sites like Rick's Cafe, Xtabi,
Samsara, Rock House and Summerset Village.
The travel trade discovered Negril in 1977, thanks to a brilliant advertising
campaign promoting Hedonism at the newly opened Negril Beach Village. At
the time Jamaica's politics made it unfashionable, so the hucksters marketed
Negril in a vacuum to the extent that some clients were surprised (and not
delighted) when they landed in Jamaica. Negril Beach Village enjoyed phenomenal
success from the start and helped to lead the way for a regeneration of
Jamaica's tourist trade. The hotel was built by the governmentís
Urban Development Corporation and operated by Issa Hotels, headed by the late patriarch
of Jamaican hoteliers, the Hon. Abe Issa. Its format was patterned on the
all-inclusive Club-Med concept and the tone was, to put it mildly, uninhibited.
tales of bacchanalia and nude beaches shocked Jamaica, lured the tourists,
and launched Negril. Today, the hotel is owned and operated by Super Clubs
- an international all-inclusive chain headed by John Issa. Renamed Hedonism
II (Hedo to its fans) it swings around the clock with an appropriate package.
Right next door, Sandals Negril is equally popular and slightly more
staid (no nude beaches, nude jacuzzis or nude volleyball). The juxtaposition
of these two hotels underlines the intense rivalry between Jamaica's leading
tourism moguls - John Issa and Butch Stewart and their Super Clubs and Sandals
North of Hedo is The Point Village - a large condo complex built by the
UDC. Adjacent is Super Clubs' Grand Lido - noted for its cuisine and the
first hotel to be built on Bloody Bay with another Super Clubs property,
Couples Negril, scheduled to go up beside it. Opposite Bloody Bay, Villas
Negril, a formerly small and unique hotel (wooden cabins set on stilts in
lush swamp forest) has added rooms, a tennis court and pool. The owners
have leased five acres of Bloody Bay from the government and undertaken
to operate it as a public beach park.
The 6000 acre Negril Morass to the east of the highway is owned by the
government. In the 1980s a scheme to mine its extensive peat deposit was
squashed thanks to the Negril Chamber of Commerce, the IUCN and Dr. Edward
Maltby, international wetlands expert. Beyond the market, the Negril river
draining the Morass is stained dark brown by peat. Over the bridge and by
the roundabout Negril's Town Centre comprises Plaza de Negril and Adrija
Plaza. Above them, the newly refurbished hotel CHUCKLES
has arguably the finest view in Negril.
From here the Lighthouse Road meanders towards the setting sun offering
kaleidoscopic variety: bars, clubs, cottages, castles, restaurants, stalls,
shacks, campsites, fortresses and sad, to say, squatters. Most West End
establishments are small and owner-managed and no two are alike. Such is
the magic of Negril that even the ugliest buildings appear original and
appealing. Totally out of character, but welcome nevertheless, is the urbanized
Sunshine Village with bank, craft arcade, shops, large supermarket, fast
food outlets, and restaurant topped by Singles - an apartment hotel set
in a roof garden.
The West End, previously innocent of hotels now has several small ones:
Summerset Village, Mariner's Inn, Ocean Edge, Thrills, Hog Heaven. The latest
an elaborate confection with swim-up pool bar is named Devine Destiny. Otherwise
accommodation runs the gamut from tents and hammocks to sybaritic suites
complete with waterbeds, private jacuzzis and room service at Dream Scape.
Most of the intriguing sites are not open to the public you have to be
staying there to enjoy them. Blue Cave Castle clings to the cliffs above
the sea and evokes, depending on your mood, either a medieval fortress or
a Disney confection with bed-rooms in the turrets and access to the ocean.
Like many places in the West End it boasts a seacave. This one shelters
a diamond clear grotto with purple seaweed and swallows nesting overhead.
Then there is Tensing Pen, where footpaths wind through lush tropical
foliage and a swaying bridge spans a turquoise cove. There is elegant accommodation
in thatched tree-high pillar houses and cottages, and a rock-walled communal
kitchen from which managers Dave and Bernice dispense complimentary coffee
and fresh orange juice. Offshore here, scientists headed by expert Dr Tom
Goreau are growing a reef: wire structures are placed in the sea and fed
with low-voltage electricity, this precipitates the dissolved calcium carbonate
in sea water and hey presto! a new reef begins to grow!
Swimming and seclusion amidst the beauty of tropical nature can also
be enjoyed at nearby Banana Shout or at Catch A Falling Star where Margaret
Trudeau used to come to get away from it all.
Perched on the south-westernmost point of the island is the Negril Lighthouse
which stands 100 feet above sea level with an automatic light flashing every
two seconds through the night. You can, at your own risk and by arrangement
with the resident Superintendent, climb 103 stairs to the top for a birds
eye view of the coast. En route you will see the brass lamps and pistons
dating from 1894 when the light was lit with kerosene. Today, solar energy
The best view of the lighthouse itself is from cliffside Light-house
Park which offers tent sites and rustic cabanas in a lush garden, the flora
of which is rivalled only by murals covering the exterior of manager Sharon
Fraser's cottage and painted by Toronto artist Michael Daniels Thibert.
Beyond here the road gets lonely and if you do not look carefully you might
miss Jackie's on the Reef - where Jackie Lewis, a former dress designer
from New York, provides space to find yourself and rejuvenation through
yoga, sunset meditation, massage, reflexology and herbal scrubs.
As we go to press, the outer edge of south Negril is marked by Hog Heaven
Hotel with a virtuous sign in the bar announcing: "I say No to ganja
use in my bar - Management". But by the time you read this there may
well be several other outposts.
The infinite variety of Negril's restaurants, eateries and bars has to
be experienced to be believed. Among the long established favourites are
Cosmo's and Charela Inn (on the Beach) Chicken Lavish and Hungry Lion in
the West End. Not to be overlooked are Margaritaville (on the Beach), and
Penny and Ingeís Light-house Inn (in the West End). Negril has lots
of seafood, plenty of pasta (not to mention Rasta Pasta), I-tal, vegetarian,
French, German, Chinese and Jamaican cuisine so do your own research. Many
restaurants offer transportation for dinner.
Negril still teems with interesting and hospitable people: Grandma "Malalee"
Porter one of the first to welcome the "Flower Children" long
ago is still alive and living in Redground. Others include Katy Thacker
who spearheads the Negril Coral Reef Preservation Society's mission to rescue
the overstressed reefs; or Raquel Austin of the Negril Yoga Centre who makes
yogurts and specialty cheeses. Or Robert "Tom" Harris, an ex-boxer
and much decorated Vietnam veteran whose Dream Scape Boxing Club has produced
national and international champions with Olympic aspirations. Dr. Craig
Travis is the catalyst behind the reviving Fisherman's Co-operative. His
West End home and surgery, the oldest building in Negril, is shaded by centuries
old cotton trees and, it is said, still frequented by the "duppy"
of the original owner Dr. Arthur Drew. A World War I army surgeon and later
physician to the British Royal Family, Drew retired to Negril where he held
garden parties for the gentry on Empire Day and treated the local kids to
a rare delicacy - ice-cream. He named his retreat The Hermitage, but the
next owner, the late Leyson Ewen, hotelier, subsequently rechristened (and
used) it as Llantrissant (Lover's Tryst).
The Negril Chamber of Commerce is vigorous and unorthodox. After their
successful anti-peat mining campaign, the NCC coalesced around stalwarts
like Daniel and Sylvie Grizzle of Charela Inn, Nehru Caolsingh of Crystal
Water and ex-fisherman Ray Arthurs of Golden Sunset. A civic group that
sees development not so much in terms of business, but mostly in terms of
social development in close co-operation with nature, the NCC is the only
Chamber of Commerce in the world to seek and receive membership in the World
Conservation Union (IUCN). As we went to press the NCC was fighting to secure
the last remnant of woodland along the Beach as a national park. Recent accomplishments include the
establishment of a public library, and the provision of adequate sanitary
facilities at the Negril schools. A project in progress is a Vendors Plaza
in the West End to relocate street vendors and provide storage and sanitary
facilities for itinerant food vendors. The NCC's office in Adrija Plaza
has free copies of their useful Guide to Negril, an annual publication.
Tours are available through the Royal Palm Reserve and Negril Morass
Nature Park on the road to Sheffield and Savanna-la-Mar. The government
spent millions to construct a boardwalk, observation towers and ponds here,
a pilot project for their peat scheme, but the proposed nature park never
materialized. The area, now leased to the proprietors of Negril Cabins,
is ideal for birdwatchers and nature lovers.
Art and Craft: Apart from two official craft markets at Rutland Point
and by the river, there is a long-standing one beneath a huge cotton-tree
on the Beach, a Yan and Ying craft shop along the Lighthouse Road and craft
stalls in numerous and unexpected places. There are hidden treasures and
ingenuous oddities amongst the hundreds of souvenirs. Selective shopping
and persistent bartering are indicated.
Lloyd Hoffstead Gallery, Shop 23 in Plaza de Negril has a selection of
paintings, drawings and sculptures displaying this Jamaican artistís
meticulous and versatile techniques. Artist Geraldine Robins, twenty years
resident in Negril has a home and studio in the West End offering water
colours, pens and ink, oils and original handpainted clothing.
Reggae Vibrations: It is reggae Sunsplash all year round in Negril with
frequent live reggae shows and top line artists at Kaiser's Cafe, Sam Sara,
MX III, Central Park in the West End, and De Buss on the Beach.
Belvedere Estates (owned by Pat McGann of Beachcomber Club), Horseback Riding on a working farm at Paradise Park, just out of Savanna-la-Mar, Black River Safari and YS Falls in St. Elizabeth, and Freedom Village at Roaring River, Westmoreland are all within easy reach of Negril.
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