Tourism is Jamaica’s number one foreign exchange earner. The island has reeled from the loss of income from this vital sector. Workers have lost their jobs or have drastically reduced hours. This in turn has affected many families whose incomes have disappeared overnight and has had a domino effect on other feeder industries which rely on tourists. Many hotels, lodges, villas and Airbnb properties have pivoted by offering huge discounted rates and are actively encouraging locals to take staycations. Nyam & Trod’s Social Media Manager and contributing writer, Stephanie Lumley, decided to opt for a budget staycation not typical for the average Jamaican who are often drawn to large all-inclusive chains. People are now looking at more intimate and affordable options. Smaller properties, without large marketing budgets, are often overlooked. They are typically operated by families or solo entrepreneurs and she was intentional to stay in these types of accommodations.
Travel has undergone significant changes, cancelling or redirecting many of our vacation plans for the near future. While I’m sure there are concerns with heading outside your residence, I ventured out to explore what staycations amidst a pandemic are like and to share what I learnt along the way. Hopefully, my experience may alleviate some anxieties with venturing outside for leisure.
The ultimate aim here is to provide an antidote to traveling during Covid- 19; and what destination is more fitting than Jamaica? Jamaica, the land of wood and water, recorded an impressive 2.7 million arrivals in 2019 alone. That number basically equals the population size.
The country’s Ministry of Tourism anticipates that although the hospitality industry has taken a big hit in 2020, that its economy will ultimately overcome and flourish again. This prediction is not only optimistic, but likely. I chose three iconic but very different destinations to explore: the parishes of Portland, Kingston & Westmoreland.
I deliberately sought out accommodations that were either family or locally owned and operated, because knowing that I’m supporting tourism on a grassroots level made staycationing across Jamaica even more fulfilling for me.
“Portland is historic in many ways, the most intriguing, yet not surprising being that tourism in Jamaica began in the northeastern gem of a destination in the 1800’s”.
I’ve visited Port Antonio, the buzzing yet understated town centre of Portland, many times before but something spoke to me saying this time would be different.
…I didn’t expect to be this accurate. Traveling during a global pandemic is something else. There are so many additional factors to consider such as remembering to take along enough masks and planning the best time to hit the beach so that social distancing can be observed. Whew! The anxiety of it all threatened the usual pre- travel excitement buzz that normally comes the night before I set out on a trip.
Portland is historic in many ways, the most intriguing yet not surprising being that tourism in Jamaica began in the northeastern gem of a destination in the 1800’s. I like to imagine in my head that in 1655, when Henry Morgan and his crew first sailed onto Jamaica’s shores to chase out the Spaniards and repeated the alleged words of the controversial figure Columbus in 1492 that “I’ve never seen such beauty in a country before” that it was indeed Portland that charmed the British soldiers instantaneously. Portland is home to historical places of interest including Moore Town, a remote village founded by Jamaica’s sole national heroine, Nanny of the Maroons.
The parish capital, Port Antonio is a magnet for the discerning traveler seeking to avoid tourist traps. At every turn, the surrounding environs of Port Antonio doesn’t seek permission to amaze you. From the lush vegetation, to majestic waterfalls nearby and crumbling colonial structures scattered throughout the center of the town, to the warm and hospitable disposition of her residents. It got a little more difficult to leave after my Covid- 19 friendly staycation.
I had the great fortune of being hosted in a recently renovated short term rental apartment aptly called ‘Inn D Town‘. Located a stone’s throw away from Port Antonio’s main taxi and bus stand that connects passengers to neighbouring parishes, owner/ operator Ral Chin Sue knows the value of having affordable lodging in a central location. On this staycation, I decided to be a purist and ditch my normal coach transportation company for an authentic Jamaican travel experience! And what characters I came across while traveling by bus from the west of the island eastwards to Portland. I would recommend any lover of adventure to take a trip using local public transportation out of town, at least once in your lifetime.
I budgeted a total of 3 nights and 4 days traversing and learning all that Port Antonio had to offer. I capped my spending at J$15, 000.00 which is equivalent to USD $110.00 for food and activities. This is outside any cost for accommodation.
On my first full day, my only plan for the day was to have no plan for the day. I had no private mode of transportation and truly felt as if this solo staycation was a true adventure to experience and make memories. I arrived in Port Antonio and got checked in. A few minutes walk took me to some well seasoned pan chicken which I washed down with an ice cold Guinness. The next day I set out early in the morning to Blue Lagoon, one of my favourite places to swim with jaw dropping views at any hour of the day. Blue Lagoon is best known as the backdrop of the James Bond movie A Good Day to Die, filmed in 1968. It has since come under private ownership as part of billionaire Michael Lee Chin’s portfolio of real estate. It is free to enter and there are enthusiastic raft guides at the ready to take you on a memorable rafting experience.
Before departing Blue Lagoon, I contemplated what to prepare for dinner, hopefully a fresh catch? After making a tiny wish, luck was surely on my side as a fisherman had just come “from sea “with the freshest mahi mahi or “dolphin fish” for sale (not to be confused with the mammal dolphin). Nothing beats a fresh catch! I thoroughly enjoyed preparing it in the oven with a little jerk marinade and other select spices. So enamoured was I with the Blue Lagoon, I hardly noticed that five hours had passed before I realised I had to head back to my new temporary place of abode to get dinner started. What a joy it was to have a well equipped kitchen all to myself!! From the chrome six- burner stove to the brushed nickel refrigerator, I must have spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room while at Inn D Town.
One highlight of my trip to Portland, was the chance to visit the historic community of Moore Town where I visited the grave of Jamaica`s sole National Heroine, Nanny of the Maroons before taking a short hike led by a local tour guide, Luke Osbourne. He informed me that prior to becoming a tourist destination, Nanny Falls was a hiding place for Maroons that is still sacred to modern Maroons. Once immersed in the water, I felt an instant connection to Queen Nanny`s fighting spirit and felt privileged to visit a place that protected so many others from harm.
“I was curious to learn how hotels in Kingston especially were managing with the significant decrease in visitors to the island”.
Changing up the pace, I decided that Kingston was to be my next stop. I made reservations at the R Hotel Kingston for three nights and what a memorable and exciting experience that was! I am very grateful to the whole team for making my stay anxiety-free as they stuck to Covid- 19 protocols which put me at ease. Having spent the last two years living outside the city, I was excited to return and spend some well- needed bonding time with my brother and newly minted Head Chef of District 5 at the R Hotel. The agenda was to spend Friday evening bar hopping between New Kingston and Liguanea; from the newly established Janga’s Soundbar & Grill where we had excellent jerk pork to the swanky AC Hotel and finished up at the now defunct The Pallet, a buzzy tapas bar and restaurant that closed operations shortly after my visit in August 2020, a victim of the pandemic. To be safe, we wore masks, sanitized frequently and complied with curfew times mandated by the laws of the land. Over the course of my stay at the R Hotel Kingston, I was curious to learn how hotels in Kingston especially were managing with the significant decrease in visitors to the island. Stephen Whiteley, Marketing Manager shared that bookings have gone from pre Covid- 19 averages of 75% to hovering between 30 to 40% since restrictions have been in place which significantly decreased the number of international and local visitors who would visit for leisure. Since Kingston is densely populated, many Jamaicans have avoided non- essential travel to the capital which adds to the economic strain felt by the capital`s hospitality sector.
His marketing strategy involves being highly sensitive to sentiments around dining in restaurants and not totally ignoring the fear that people feel with venturing out during the pandemic. One winning innovation that has been reaping great success is their Private Dining service which offers three and five course dinners prepared by Brian Lumley; the hotel`s Executive Chef. Most recently, they have launched R360, a Friday evening rooftop bar where music and drinks are enjoyed by guests with Kingston lights providing a beautiful backdrop. Reservations are recommended as spaces are limited and are often booked by Friday afternoon.
“The view from my room was so picturesque and I savoured watching the sunset in my birthday suit!”
Rounding out my staycation spree was a visit to Negril, Westmoreland. Negril is a special destination punctuated by its iconic Seven Mile beach, which was marketed by hoteliers in the 90s as a laid back adult playground so well that many visitors in the 90s had no idea that Negril wasn`t its own island getaway and not part of Jamaica, Land we Love!
I was hosted by twin properties, Le Mirage and Charela Inn that is family owned and operated. Le Mirage is a 12 room, adult only, clothing optional property located on the West End and my first stop for my Negril getaway. The view from my room was so picturesque and I savoured watching the sunset in my birthday suit! I spent one night and before departing for Charela Inn, was treated to a memorable breakfast spread prepared by the manager on duty. She did an amazingly good job making me feel at home for my too short of a stay and we spent quite a while chatting and laughing as she recounted memorable travel stories, including catching naughty dine and dashers!
After waiting what felt like hours, I finally jumped on a taxi that took me to Negril`s bus park and from there, another short ride to the famed Norman Manley Boulevard nicknamed the Hip Strip where I checked into Charela Inn, a quaint boutique hotel l instantly fell in love with for their farm to table supplied French Jamaican fusion restaurant Le Vendome. It was pure bliss to wake up at sunrise and take less than 50 steps before feeling the cool sand between my toes and having one of the world’s most beautiful beaches all to myself for a moment.
Most of the staff at Charela Inn have been employed there for 15 years and more, which gave me the feeling of visiting family for my entire stay. They were knowledgeable, compliant with Covid- 19 regulations and very hospitable. Even though I was solo, they respected my privacy and were attentive to my every need.
Expect slightly higher prices when dining out in Negril, as many places cater to a mainly international visitor clientele. The sole negative experience I had was dining at Rick`s Cafe, which charged a Covid- 19 surcharge of USD$1.00 for each item ordered from their menu, even though I was a local and not a visitor to Jamaica. The entertainment was very blah and I am not inclined to return anytime soon. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I was invited out by my good friend Leethan Grandison to check out Chill Pops Jamaica, a gourmet paletas outlet serving up delightful frozen treats incorporating local fruits, all led by entrepreneur Damir Tufail. Chill Pops Jamaica is located inside the New NCB Plaza on the hip strip and boasts flavours such as Watermelon, Mango Passion and Whiskey Sour for those who don`t mind a boozy treat. It is a must visit if you are staying in town or simply visiting on a day trip!
“Please reach out to properties when planning your staycation as many of them have specials for locals!”
Overall, I gained a deeper appreciation for the dynamic nature of staycationing in Jamaica; from the laid- back understated cool of Port Antonio, to a slightly faster pace in Kingston with loved ones and ending with an ultra private solo getaway in Negril. I spent on average J$15,000.00 in each stop excluding accommodations. Please reach out to properties when planning your staycation as many of them have specials for locals! As long as regulations are respected, there’s no reason to stay cooped up inside, live a little and get planning for your next staycation, you may never see rates like these again.
Thanks to Inn D Town, R Hotel Kingston, Le Mirage and Charela Inn for their warm hospitality.
Stephanie Lumley is a digital communications creative who has for a decade, worked across several disciplines in the regional and global communications industries; both analog and digital. The UWI alumna is passionate about all things Caribbean- the food, it’s culture and people. Eternally curious by nature, Steph enjoys writing and producing podcasts discussing issues affecting new and newish entrepreneurs at WI Love Creators. Her passion for advocacy also saw her establish SR|PR Consultants, and amplifying brand messages for such clients as Rituals Coffee House (Jamaica), Budding Chefs and Spur Tree Spices. Being the ‘washbelly’ and only girl of three siblings, there’s little wonder that her voice also extends to the boardroom where she serves among other esteemed directors for the Postal Corporation of Jamaica. You may follow her on Twitter @Stephylumz.