Take it from me, first impressions aren’t necessarily the best impressions when you arrive at an all-inclusive resort after a long day of traveling. After a seven-hour trip on two flights from our home in Boston, my family and I were famished by the time we got to the Riu Palace Tropical Bay Resort in Negril, Jamaica. We headed straight for the snack bar, where the pasta was far past the al dente stage, more like al soggy. What looked to be busloads of Canadians stood in the water at the swim-up bar, drinking gallons of alcohol in oversize mugs they’d brought from home.
Oh no, I thought to myself, not another generic tourism experience where local culture is replaced by vats of alcohol and mediocre American food.
But at the sublime beach, there were signs that my thinking was wrong. A jerk chicken hut prepared the Jamaican specialty and local reggae musicians serenaded beachgoers. The sand sloped gently into a protected bay of aquamarine water. We changed into swimsuits faster than Clark Kent spinning into his Superman outfit and dashed into the soothing salt water, a warm salve to any winter-weary body. There we stayed until the reddish-yellow orb of a sun melted into the horizon, a ritual we would savor daily during our week-long vacation.
As an intrepid traveler who strives for an authentic experience, I’d never been keen on all-inclusive resorts, where you step through the gates and are treated to all the food, drink and entertainment you can handle. I’ve visited more than a dozen all-inclusives since the birth of my first child 15 years ago, seduced by the comfort of not having to search for restaurants every day and night with toddlers in tow. Yet by the third day of a week-long visit, I’ve usually found the gluttonous buffets lacking in inspiration and spice, the pool-dwellers singing Saskatoon ditties tiresome, the youthful entertainment urging relaxed beach loungers to put down their novels and dance the merengue to be loud and obnoxious and, well, the whole experience devoid of local culture and intrigue. Much like a cruise ship, it’s a sanitized version of travel.
Then I visited Jamaica’s Riu Ocho Rios with my extended family several years ago and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of American fare, there was a barbecue hut on the beach featuring grilled chicken doused in spicy scotch bonnet pepper sauce, creating some of the best jerk chicken I’ve ever tasted. At the buffet, there was a sampling of other Jamaican specialties, such as oxtail stew, ackee and salt fish, curried goat, yams, breadfruit and purple-colored dasheen. The nightly entertainment included local reggae bands that played on the beach. Indeed, the Spanish-owned company seemed to embrace local culture.
“Was it a fluke?” I wondered. But this past February, I decided to give the company another go and try the Riu Palace Tropical Bay on the drier western end of the island. And it confirmed my suspicion that perhaps every all-inclusive doesn’t deserve the bum rap I’ve been giving them.
Smack dab in the middle of the Bloody Bay shoreline, the beachfront locale overlooks the placid water, a favorite of Hobie Cats zipping back and forth. In the shallow sea, you can walk on soft sand for at least 50 yards with the water reaching only chest high. At the jerk hut, I lined up with my plate for lunch, then headed back to the beach chair to be serenaded by guitarists singing Bob Marley tunes while I dug into my food, washing it down with a cool Red Stripe beer.
Just off the famed 7-Mile Beach of Negril, Bloody Bay has far less of the hustle and bustle of the main strip. Reclining on our lounge chairs down by the ocean, we watched the occasional musician strolling by, along with folks selling cigarettes, cigars, marijuana and sundresses, and women offering to braid your hair, but we never felt hounded by hagglers.
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I’ve often wondered why Jamaica, a country with arguably the richest native culture in the Caribbean, is home to so many all-inclusive resorts that seem to care little about the place they’re in as long as it has beaches. Perhaps the all-inclusive serves as a barrier between visitors and the steady stream of locals selling their wares.
Jamaicans, for their part, have a love-hate relationship with the all-inclusive concept. Tourism is the country’s No. 1 industry, and resorts such as Sandals, Swept Away, Breezes, Iberostar and Riu certainly help create jobs. But they can also act as gated communities that visitors never have to step outside until they leave the country. This upsets many Jamaicans, who simply want travelers to savor the full island experience, from viewing the scenery to dining on genuine Jamaican food to visiting local artisans and seeing their latest wares.
“We hear that some of these hotels tell their guests that it’s dangerous to travel around Jamaica,” says my driver, Courteney Smith, on the 90-minute ride from Montego Bay Airport to Negril. “These rumors make us angry, because they’re simply not true.”
Having been to Jamaica more than a half-dozen times, I can say that you’d be foolish not to leave the resort premises and experience the island’s varied topography, from long stretches of shoreline to thick forests tangled with bamboo and ripe with mangoes, bananas and coffee, to the 7,400-foot apogee of the Blue Mountains. To see the real Jamaica, you have to go for a drive into the countryside, where churches are filled with bonnet-clad women on Sundays and children walk to and from school in their blue uniforms on weekdays.
My family has rafted down mountainous rivers with water as clear as white rum; taken horseback rides high up the hills, past the dilapidated walls of former cotton plantations that date to the time of Spanish rule in the 1600s; snorkeled with stingrays at the cavernous westernmost part of the island, just past the cliff divers at Rick’s Cafe; and hired a driver to take us far away from the congested coast up to Bob Marley’s final resting spot. We’ve tasted sugar cane from the fields, watched guides climb tall palms to cut down a coconut and offer us the milk to drink, and stopped at seaside huts that serve only freshly caught lobster. A funny thing happens once you leave the resort towns. The proud Jamaicans don’t want to sell you anything. They only want you to enjoy their land. That’s why I find myself returning to this island in the sun so often (that and the fact that I need a serious dose of humidity come midwinter).
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Perhaps it was because I’ve been to Jamaica so often that I didn’t feel the need to venture outside the Riu Palace every day. On the contrary, I immersed myself in the all-inclusive experience. Instead of laughing at the people swayed by the entertainment leaders to participate in their silly games, I shook off my haughty aloofness and dove into the ocean to jog in place during the morning water aerobics. Within minutes, I was winded.
Every evening before sunset, my family played bingo and came away having scored three bottles of Appleton rum and a T-shirt by the end of our stay. One night before the stage show, I was chosen to be part of the daily Icebreaker, forced to go on a treasure hunt to find T-shirts, watches and other items that you had to persuade audience members to lend you. The last one to return with all the items would lose his seat and be forced to sing, do push-ups or, unfortunately in my case, dance the Big Bamboo, a slightly off-color affair that can’t be described in the pages of a family newspaper.
Eventually, I got into a routine. Breakfast at 8, tennis at 9 with my son; water aerobics with my wife and daughter at 10; the jerk hut around noon; Scrabble and cards in the shade of the main lobby after lunch; another swim in the afternoon; shower and change; bingo at 5:30; the magical sunset on the beach shortly thereafter; dinner at one of the four specialty restaurants, including a steakhouse and Japanese choices; then the nightly dance show that started at 9 p.m.
Not feeling the need to go off-property every day and see the sights, I could often be found lounging on the beach reading a book, listening to a singer blurt out his rendition of “One Love” or “Banana Boat Song” (“Daylight come and me wan’ go home. . .”). Feeling restless, I would grab my wife and kids for another baptism in the sea, and for the first time in a long time, I actually relaxed on vacation. So much so, in fact, that after returning home, when the clock struck 10 a.m., I found it hard not to jump out of my office seat and perform some silly dance move.
Alas, my fling with water aerobics will have to wait until next February, when, yes, I’ll most likely be found at another all-inclusive Caribbean resort.
Jermanok blogs daily at www.activetravels.com.