Weekend Getaways

The Beach, by All Means

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Sunday, May 4, 2003

1. Love on the Rocks By Bill Heavey

Following an afternoon dip in what is essentially our own private turquoise lagoon at the bottom of a cliff, I pause for a moment at the ladder bolted to the cliffside after my wife climbs up. Holding on with my hands and feet, I curl into a ball as the Caribbean gently but inexorably surges in against the coral wall. A wave lifts my body and rolls it clockwise, pauses for an instant before rolling me back, then momentarily releases me until the next cycle. The gentle stretch in my arms, legs and back feels better than any massage I've ever had. I spend the next 20 minutes doing ocean yoga, until I'm so relaxed that I can't remember if I'm actually gainfully employed back in my real life or just a really lucky jobless person.

Thank God for Jane. It was only due to my wife's good sense that we ended up back in this little paradise. If it had been up to me, we'd have blown the money on cannelloni.

You see, Jane was turning 50, the age at which AARP membership applications come to us all. I wanted to make a big deal out of her birthday.

The question was: How? In moments like this, men of a certain intellectual bent turn to televised sports. Sure enough, halfway through the Redskins-Cardinals game, the airwaves brought me an answer. In the ad, a man in precisely my circumstances (okay, better dressed) was smiling broadly into the candlelight at the end of a convivial evening. The round-voiced announcer said something like, "Dinner for 20 friends at her favorite Italian restaurant: $1,320." Cut to the wife accepting a tastefully wrapped gift before the assembled crowd. "Leopard print lace teddy: $58." Shot of the woman giggling luminously as she hides her face in the garment. "Still being able to make her blush: priceless."

Good enough for TV, good enough for me. I immediately proposed taking a group of Jane's best friends to a swanky restaurant to celebrate her birthday. She smiled bravely, but I knew it wasn't the ticket. Next morning, she said, "You know, for what you'd spend on dinner for one night, you and I could go back to Negril." Suddenly I remembered that one of the reasons I had married this woman is that she frequently trounces me in the common sense department.

We'd been to Negril five years earlier, and had fallen hard for the whole package: the laid-back, pleasure-seeking vibe, the riotous greenery, the wonderful snorkeling, the way the sun there had a weight and heft that let you know you weren't inside the Beltway anymore. We'd always meant to return. But with one daughter acing driver's ed and another flunking potty training, we'd become so beset by daily life that our idea of a really good night out was finding a parking spot at Costco within a hundred yards of the door. It was definitely time to get back to Jamaica.

If what you seek is maximum decompression in the shortest amount of time, Negril, at the far western end of Jamaica, is tough to beat. The place has a long history of attracting those with nontraditional lifestyles, including pirates, artists and hippies. The buccaneer Calico Jack cavorted here with female pirates Ann Bonney and Mary Read. In the 1930s and '40s, Errol Flynn followed with his Hollywood pals. But it was the vagabond flower children of the late '60s and early '70s who really put this former fishing village on the map. They loved the peach-and-raspberry sunsets and the white sands of Seven Mile Beach. And the three R's of the counterculture -- rum, reefer and reggae -- achieved a sort of harmonic convergence here that was, like, cosmic. It wasn't until the '80s and '90s that the big money arrived, with resorts such as Sandals, Grand Lido, Couples Negril, and -- most infamous of all -- Hedonism II. (Curiously enough, there is no Hedonism I, as if the founders had decided they'd better do the sequel first.) All you really need at He-donism II is sunblock and a large bottle of aspirin, as the place features open bars operating 19 hours out of every 24, a nude beach, nude Jacuzzi, nude pool and nude misting pool.

If this isn't your cup of tea (please say it isn't), don't despair. Negril has shown an amazing ability to withstand tourism and keep its soul intact. That's because there are really two Negrils: the hotel-lined Norman Manley Boulevard along Seven Mile Beach, and the quieter West End. Here boutique hotels cling to the cliffs, with private stairways cut into the coral leading down to the some of the best snorkeling water in the Caribbean. The hotels, interspersed with little shacks selling jerk chicken, fresh fruit, wood carvings, T-shirts and marijuana, lie along a twisting road that was under construction five years ago and is only slightly further along today. This is where you should head.

Rockhouse, Tensing Pen and Xtabi are some of the hipper places. We returned to the slightly quieter Citronella, a fairly large piece of coastal property with just six cottages, the place where we'd stayed on our first trip. Junior, the barefoot, dreadlocked proprietor, looked virtually unchanged. He would still need bricks in his pockets to make it up to 98 pounds. The vegetation -- breadfruit, fig and almond trees, bougainvillea and plum bushes, tuna cactus and aloe plants -- had all grown even lusher. The sea still sighed against the cliffs. The smell of jerk chicken from a roadside vendor and the distant thump of a reggae tune softly infiltrated our cottage, which featured a kitchenette with a fridge and a gas stove, a bed tented with mosquito netting, and kerosene lamps for mood lighting.

The day we got there, we rented beat-up mountain bikes from a place down the road, and prepared to cycle the three miles into the center of town for groceries from the Hi-Lo. Stopping at our cottage to have a beer first, we soon found ourselves standing on the patio, looking out over the water to where fisher-men were checking their lobster traps.

"Beats any Italian restaurant I've ever been to," Jane said. "How 'bout we go for a quick swim before we go into town?"


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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