My father wasn’t thrilled with our family’s decision to travel to Jamaica for our annual trip this March.
Actually, he was horrified.
As he informed every person that we met while staying in Montego Bay for six days, when he traveled to Negril, Jamaica, 25 years ago, the hotel that he and my mother stayed at may have been reasonably priced, but it also had no hot water and one black-and-white TV in the glorified lobby that only played “Toma” reruns.
After my parents arrived at Sangster International Airport, they sat on a rickety, smoky bus for about an hour and a half and enjoyed what would eventually be pleasant countryside and colorful beachside homes but in 1990 was a collection of shacks with wood pallet roofs. Feral dogs and goats roamed the land and many were left dead on the side of the dirt roads. The two-lane highway that we took from Sangster International Airport to Montego Bay this time around didn’t even exist then.
Their arrival at the “resort” wasn’t much better. With barbed wire on the hotel property, they were often harassed to buy drugs by locals and hotel security guards. Leaving the hotel was discouraged, but they did make it out to a few Jamaican destinations, including Dunn’s River Falls and for river rafting on the Martha Brae.
Although I’m sure that this particular hotel did not define every 1990 Jamaican hotel, it certainly left a bad burn on my father’s memory — one that lasted 25 years, right up until our recent trip.
He was, however, pleasantly surprised when we arrived at our Jamaican lodging and were greeted by lobby-side drinks, friendly locals, clean, modern rooms and gourmet meals, alongside welcomed 84-degree weather. This came to $1,400 a person at the Hilton Rose Hall, including round-trip flights to and from Newark, six nights in a double-queen balconied room and unlimited food and drink, including alcoholic beverages, from six on-site resort restaurants and bars.
Locals were friendly and hospitable, always thanking tourists for their visit and urging them to share with their friends at home what a great destination Jamaica was. Although elements of poverty still exist, Jamaican infrastructure had clearly improved and was evident by a plethora of small businesses, paved roads and contemporary homes.
There are probably some tourists who remember wholly positive experiences regarding their early-’90s time in Jamaica, but the fact is that the ’80s and ’90s weren’t exactly kind to the tourism industry of the Caribbean island. After Jamaica was hit by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, its second-biggest industry, tourism, was also negatively affected by the Persian Gulf War from 1990 to 1991 and the U.S. and Canadian economic recessions in the early ’90s.
However, since that period, Jamaica has received more than 1 million visitors a year — a figure that has kept on growing. At the end of 2013, they celebrated a year of 2 million visitors.
These days, most visitors head to the north coast, which includes Montego Bay, my destination, as well as Ocho Rios and Negril. Tourists are lured by the white-sand beaches and ideal weather, especially from December to April, when it rarely rains and a pleasant breeze flows alongside reggae music.
Tourism is so important to Jamaica, which has over 30,000 hotel rooms, that one in four Jamaicans work in the tourism industry.
Besides the beaches, tourists also head to Jamaica to check out roaring waterfalls, lush mountain scenery and exotic wildlife.
One of those waterfalls is Dunn’s River Falls, named as a can’t-miss excursion for anyone who visits Ocho Rios. The flowing falls extend more than 600 feet and head straight into the Caribbean, one of few rivers to do so.
When I visited the Falls this month for $20 a person (not including bus tour fees, which vary per hotel), I figured that we would all strap on our sneakers and climb up a forest trail to snap some photos before getting back on the bus. Not so. At Dunn’s River Falls, you do walk up to the top — while you’re in the water.
Everyone bared down to their swimsuits and sneakers and created a human train led by a Jamaican guide to literally trek the falls, which are completely natural and made by the actual flow of the water, contrary to popular belief. On the way up the rocks, we took some pit stops to jump in passing lagoons and pools.
Jamaica also has lush greenery that can be enjoyed via bus but is better appreciated on horseback.
During our stay, we did a $70 per-person ride-and-swim tour at Braco Stables, in which my family and about 15 other people went on a two-hour tour, first heading down trails through undeveloped land filled with colorful birds and tropical foliage before stopping at a private beach to ride horses through refreshing water.
There’s another way that I checked out Jamaica’s wildlife too — through the trees. For $140 a person, we went to Mystic Mountain, which can best be described as a small-scale rain-forest theme park that includes a quiet ski-lift-style ride through the jungle, a ride on an independently controlled “Jamaican bobsled” that flew down the mountain similar to a roller coaster, and, the highlight of the park, zip-lining through the trees from cringe-worthy heights with a view of the ocean in the distance.
Jamaica certainly isn’t the tourist destination that it was 25 years ago — and that’s a wonderful thing. Instead, its tourism industry has grown to Dunn’s River Falls and Jamaican mountain-worthy heights, bringing an incredible influx of tourists to a reasonably priced yet hospitable island.
Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios is a formation of cascading waterfalls that flow into the Caribbean and cost $20 per person for tourists to trek.
Braco Stables in Duncans, Trelawny, offers several horseback riding tours, including those in which tourists can ride their horses into the water on a two-hour $70 tour.
Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios is a rain-forest theme park that offers zip-lining, bobsled riding and other attractions for $140 a person.
The Bob Marley Museum in Kingston is the former home of the reggae legend and can be visited for $20 a person.
River Rafting on Martha Brae in Montego Bay is a private bamboo raft ride over three miles of the Martha Brae River for about $25 a person.