herald

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Caribbean dream

A holiday in Jamaica lets Melanie Finn switch off and enjoy the laid-back vibe

Losing my iPhone would normally send me into spasms of panic. As a self-confessed text/Twitter/gossip addict, losing all connection to the modern world is my idea of torture. I was still fretting as our Upper Economy flight with Virgin Airways arrived at Jamaica's Montego Bay.

I was promptly handed a cool Red Stripe and told: "No worries, mon!"

To which I thought: "Ah, I could probably do with a technology detox anyway."

The Caribbean island is picture-postcard gorgeous and lush with palm trees and tropical flowers. With azure-blue seas, beautiful sunny skies and the ultimate laid-back vibe, it certainly lives up to the hype.

Our visit coincided with the 30th anniversary of the death of Bob Marley, so the locals were on a total charm offensive with tourists jetting in for the special events. It also meant we had to listen to Legend for the entire duration of our trip which, as I'm a reggae fan, was no bad thing.

Our home for our four-day visit was Round Hill, a seaside hotel and spa founded in 1953 by Jamaica's first director of tourism, John Pringle. He knew what he was doing as the venue is breathtaking. Set on a peninsula west of Montego Bay, it's comprised of ocean-fronted suites and villas that were refurbished by Ralph Lauren.

It's something of a celebrity haunt, having been visited only the previous week by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood. Former US president JFK stayed there, reportedly with Marilyn Monroe. Other guests have included Bob Hope and Clarke Gable, not to mention that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music here.

Fortunately, there are no lederhosen in sight -- just gorgeous views of the calm, blue sea.

Manager Josef Forstmayer is Austrian, though, and welcomes us for drinks and dinner. Local delicacies, ackee and curried goat, were washed down with the hotel's trademark cocktails. The food is top notch.

Saturday night in Montego Bay is a sight to behold and there's only one place to go -- Margaritaville. A lively club for locals and tourists alike, the music is pumping and there's no shortage of 'winding and grinding' going on inside.

The following morning starts with a buffet breakfast al fresco on the terrace before a trip to Dolphin Cove Negril. I'm slightly obsessed with dolphins and swam with them in the wild in New Zealand. Despite my initial reservations about the ethics of marine parks, I needn't have worried. The resort was immaculately maintained.

Set in 23 acres, it prides itself on being the largest natural dolphin resort in the world and was recently nominated for a World Travel Award. We spent nearly half an hour in the water with the adorable dolphins. Having experienced a wet dolphin kiss for myself (I didn't even know their names), I can highly recommend it.



FAMOUS

Then it was off to check out one of Jamaica's most famous bars: Rick's Cafe. This is the place where half-drunk tourists try to prove their mettle by diving off the cliffs into the sea -- only the locals regularly put them to shame by scaling a 30ft tree and performing Olympic-style backflips into the water. There's a party atmosphere and it's the ultimate chill-out venue.

Dinner that evening means a trip to Breezes Grand Negril where we sample its quirky Japanese restaurant in the company of the charming Sue McManus, PR for Superclubs. She hails from Mayo and is full of gossip about what life is really like on the paradise island.

I also get an introduction to the more liberal side of Jamaica after I accidentally wander onto the 'clothing optional' side of the resort and get an exclusive of a different kind.

A few cocktails later, to erase the searing images from my mind, and it's an early night for us as we have an action-packed day ahead.

The following morning we visit the sprawling former plantation estate of Rose Hall, said to be the most haunted house in Jamaica. Even the most sceptical were riveted by the tale of its former mistress, the blood-thirsty Annie Palmer -- who was also half Irish. Her fondness for voodoo prompted locals to nickname her the White Witch -- that and her penchant for killing her husbands and countless lovers.

Our guide finished off the tour at Annie's burial place with a graveside rendition of The Ballad of Annie Palmer, written by Johnny Cash while he was living a few miles from Rose Hall.

It made sense that thoughts of death were still foremost in our mind for our next stop -- a zipline canopy tour with Chukka Caribbean. For the uninitiated, this means being brought to the top of a rainforest and careering from one lofty platform to another attached only to a steel wire by a tiny clip. Think I'm a Celebrity . . , only higher -- 1,200ft above sea level, to be precise. I decided to give it a go and, initial squeals aside, I'm glad I did. It offered amazing views over the rainforest canopy.

After all that activity, it was time for a Red Stripe and dinner at the Secrets Resort.

On our final day, there was just enough time for a spot of horse-riding at Chukka. At the end, we got to swim with the horses and we led them into the sea for a quick splash.

Then it was off to the airport to check in to the Club Montego Bay Lounge for our last taste of the VIP lifestyle. We also stocked up on local rum before bidding Jamaica farewell. But as the locals say, it's never goodbye, it's see you later.

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