Discover Negril
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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 death penalty.

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.

On the other hand it is no secret that the ganja boom of the 1970s and '80s provided much of the impetus (not to mention the capital) that has fuelled Negril's development and started many a now respected citizen on the road to success. As one naturalized Negrillo says : "I came here as a kid, hoping to get into the ganja trade. But I became a hotelier instead."

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 chains.

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.


Public access to the famous beach on Long Bay is confined to two small areas and even the swampside of the Norman Manley boulevard is rapidly being built up. From Swept Away - the most complete sports resort in the Caribbean - to Risky Business (24 hour bar and grill), from Beachcomber Club to De Buss, the variety along the beach is mind-boggling.

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 is used.

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.


Ponciana's Anancy Family Fun and Nature Park is located opposite this popular hotel on the edge of the morass and offers miniature golf, mini go-kart track, fishing in peat lakes and a mini nature trail.

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.


Miskito Cove Beach Picnic at Bamboo Bay: Transport-ation, snacks, barbeque lunch, open bar, calypso band and a variety of watersports are all included in this picnic at a private beach overlooking Lucea harbour.

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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