Friday, June 6, 2008

Negril Jamaica vacation report

So I figured I should give people a run down of my experiences in Negril in case anyone was considering a vacation in the area. This was my first Caribbean vacation though, so I can't really compare it to much down there, but Anna did visit Puerto Rico and tooled around Mexico for a while so I can probably supplement this with some of her opinions later. We were trying to keep our airfare/hotel costs below $1500 total, and the closer to $1000 the better... I can't remember exactly, but I think we ended up at $1300-1400 with half of that being airfare. We saved a lot of money by going "off-season" which is after April 15th in most places(our seafront cottage at Xtabi would have cost $210 a night in January but was only $120 in May), though I think that our selection of flight times was much lower because of it. In addition, it really was pretty empty, with even the big resorts seeming half full at best... so if you want a vibrant party atmosphere then off-season may not be your best bet, but I can't really comment on how much (if any) of that is also due a general downturn in tourism in Jamaica or the US economy specifically.

I should note that this is also a country with some poverty going on. Like I said, I can't speak of other Caribbean islands, but I'm under the impression that many of them do a better job at hiding any poverty out of view of your typical tourist... so if that's something that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to pick somewhere else. In addition, everyone sells drugs. I do mean everyone. It may have been that we are a relatively young couple without children in tow, but we were offered ganja all the time... sometimes with a nod and wink "Are you sure you have everything you need?" but more often completely openly. Drugs are illegal there though, and there are cops walking around... but it definitely didn't seem like it was enforced. So if that's something that's not going to work for you then Negril is definitely not the place for your vacation. As it was, neither of us minded it's presence, though neither of us smoke so it really wasn't a boon either... and I have no idea about prices or reputed potency of the local product if you're planing a pot vacation either. Beyond the drug dealers is just a general dominance of beach hustlers... this is probably worse when the hotels are empty on the off-season, but they tend to be fairly persistent. A certain subset walks up and down the beach while another sticks by their business... say a glass boat or jet skis or local crafts. None are too bad, but they do tend towards the hard sell. The big all-inclusives have security guards that mainly keep the hustlers away, though by law the beach to the shoreline is public property. Walking along the beach involves a near constant stream of "No thanks!" though.

That concludes the major "not a vacation for everyone" caveats.

There are two areas of Negril, the 7 mile beach of white sand and the West End which is where the dramatic cliffs and coral reefs are. We decided early on to avoid all-inclusives because Anna is a vegan and being locked into a meal plan was probably not going to be all that good for her. The biggest resorts have multiple restaurants and certainly they could have made her a vegetable plate so maybe it wouldn't have been too bad... but with our budget and flying from Boston it didn't seem worth it. We probably would have cut back to 4 or 5 nights to keep it to about $2 grand for both of us. We would have ended up doing more activities since they were included certainly, incurred less additional expenses, and probably had less issues with beach hustlers... but we also would have been walled off from the community we were staying in, which has it's perks (see beach hustlers), but also seemed to us to defeat some of the purpose of going to another country. YMMV and I'll revisit whether I think a resort was the way to go at the end.

We were in Negril for 7 nights. 3 nights at the beach followed by 4 nights on the cliffs of the West End. We didn't actually stay on the beach but at a place across the street from it. The hotel(The Rayon Hotel) itself was quite clean and served our needs fine, but it was almost completely empty and it didn't really have it's own beach area. This wasn't a problem for us because the lack of crowds meant that any place that did have beach chairs and umbrellas was happy to have our business. In retrospect I don't think I'd stay at a hotel without direct beach access, as it just seems so much nicer. The Palms is the hotel we ended up hanging out at for two of our three beach days and based on the service, food, and setting is probably where I'd want to stay if we went back.

Xtabi on the other hand was a completely different experience. We were secluded, having our own cottage with it's own access to the ocean, but we didn't feel completely isolated since there were guests in nearby cottages and enough guests in the hotel at large that someone was always at the bar/restaurant(definitely not true of The Rayon). The streets are much more narrow in the West End though, with no sidewalks and lots of blind corners so walking around there takes significant courage. Cabs are all over the place, and most places have drivers, so it's not like you are trapped in your hotel... but be aware. We walked a fair amount, but I found it pretty nerve wracking. Snorkeling was the key activity for us there and a definite must for anyone staying in the West End. I think even if you stay on the beach you can get the glass bottom boats to take you out to reefs as well, and I'd say it's totally worth it. We were both amazed at all the life down there and it was pretty cool to have that kind of constant access to it. It was really relaxing out on the cliffs, but I think if we didn't do the beach too we really would have missed it however you could definitely take cabs or shuttles down to places like Margaritaville for a day at the beach.

Anna did get her Ital cooking too, at a place called The Hungry Lion. Run by an old rasta who just made three different dishes that he changed daily. Simple food but good food. Otherwise I'm not sure there was as much Ital influence as we had been hoping for... there was always a vegetarian option, but not so much choice as we had hoped. The food overall was pretty good, though there wasn't a ton of restaurants really. In 7 days I think we pretty much exhausted our options.

So what would I have changed? Like I said, I would have stayed at a hotel on the beach for the first three days, but otherwise not much. I think we should have done a glass bottom boat ride... especially if they do indeed take you to really neat reefs. I think the balance between the beach and cliffs was perfect and that was probably the best idea we had (Anna had actually).

Would it have been better if we had stayed in a big resort? Hard to say since I've never stayed in one, but I think I was happy with a longer stay than a more luxurious shorter one.

Any way, that's the review. You can check out the rest of my pictures here.

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