“Can you believe that landing?” This was the conversation I was having with a fellow lover of Jamaica while recounting the details of my recent trip to the island. Indeed it is a spectacular landing in Montego Bay. I had trouble making sense of how a flight that flies north to south can end up over land, then over water, then land again all within a few minutes time. I thought we were flying over Cuba until my 12-year old scolded me. “Mom, look how low we’re flying. We can’t be over Cuba!” This was my introduction to Jamaica: an island of contrasts.
Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall Room #2347, an oceanfront one-bedroom butler suite Michele McIntyre
Visitors often want to know if they should choose Montego Bay or Negril for their Jamaica vacation (Ocho Rios is a popular resort town too!). But why choose one when you can have both? Spend a few nights in each region for the best of both worlds. Here is the scoop on where to stay and how to get around Montego Bay and Negril.
Montego Bay – Sangster International Airport (MBJ) is the leading tourism gateway to the island of Jamaica.
The arrival hall can be a chaotic mess, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. This was exacerbated by our arrival on a weekend during the busy April holidays. Some visitors report 2+ hours to clear immigration and customs before finally being freed to begin their vacation. To avoid this nearly alltogether, Club MoBay’s VIP Arrival Meet & Greet is an absolute must. You’ll be personally greeted by a dedicated Club MoBay representative holding a sign with your name on it. You’ll be fast tracked past the hot, tired and cranky lines of almost-on-vacationers and leads you through the immigration, customs and baggage claim process. You’ll then be escorted to the Club MoBay lounge where you’ll enjoy a cold beverage and delicious snacks while you await your ground transportation. You’ll pay a pretty penny for this service: $50 for adults for arrivals and $80 for adults for the arrival/departure bundle. If you want to get your vacation off to a less hectic start, Club MoBay is worth every penny.
The airport is a quick 15-20 minute drive to most Montego Bay Resorts. Montego Bay is nestled between mountains and the sea. But let’s face it: What you’re really in Jamaica for is the beach. Montego Bay beaches are more rocky and cove-like, but still swimmable, with tons of character and natural beauty. While the beaches in Montego Bay are not for people looking for the perfect beach, they are nonetheless stunning and worthy of gazing at with a fruity drink or a Red Stripe in hand.
Negril – Negril is located 1.5 hours from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Some hotels and websites report that it takes less time, but there is only a single main road going in and out of Negril and the speed limit in Jamaica is 50 km/h (30 mph) in the towns and cities and 80 km/h (50 mph) on the open roads. Translation: You’re not going anywhere fast. Your driver will have to slow down to avoid a dizzying array of potential hazards: pot holes the size of small craters, goats, men carrying pieces of driftwood and bike taxis. Yes, bike taxis. But let me be clear: nothing should keep you from visiting Negril. The drive is interesting and your driver will act as your informal tour guide, showing off his or her island proudly and sharing details about life in Jamaica.
Where to stay in Montego Bay
Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall (families)/ Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall (adults only)
Following a multi-million dollar renovation, this former Ritz Carlton still has the bones of a classic island destination Ritz, bearing a striking resemblance to Ritz’s classy Grand Cayman property.
With the exception of the under-18 crowd, guests are free to move back and forth between the two properties. Although most facilities are shared, the 3 Zilara restaurants are off-limits for Ziva guests. Early opening bumps and blemishes seem to be behind this goregous property. The guests are mostly Americans and Canadians with a few Europeans thrown in.
Ziva is extremely kid-friendly with a water trampoline, blow-up obstacle courses, kids cocktails at the swim-up bar, kids club with activities throughout the day (even dinner) and a small teen lounge open at varying times. Rose Hall Village, where the restaurants and entertainment are, has foosball tables and an ice cream shop.
Recounting my personal experience: I sit at the Zilara pool for hours and watch the classy, sophisticated adult scene develop. The moment I’ve been waiting months for finally arrives: pool service in my billowy curtained cabana. Would you like a drink, the pool server asks? I thought you’d never ask.
Good to know: Zilara guests can dine at all Zilara and Ziva restaurants. Ziva guests must dine at Ziva restaurants only, even if traveling without children.
Minor service flaws: one bar or another always seemed to be temporarily out of something: champagne at the Zilara swim-up bar (no mimosas), Red Stripe Beer at Calypzo’s bar, pineapple juice and frozen drink mixers at the Ziva swim-up bar. On more than one occasion I had trouble ordering the famous island drink – a dirty banana – because the bar ran out of bananas or one of the other key ingredients.
Our family enjoyed every square foot of our large, one bedroom ocean front butler suite (#2347). I’ll be honest: when I checked in I had no idea what I’d do with one butler, let alone 3. By the time I checked out, I didn’t know what to do without them. While dinner reservations for the Hyatt’s a la carte restaurants aren’t required or allowed, your butler can get you a table in an instant. This service alone is worth the price of the upgrade.
The Iberostar complex is actually three distinct properties along the same section of beach. Iberostar Rose Hall Beach is the budget-friendly property, Iberostar Suites offers mid-level pricing and a few extra amenities (more specialty restaurants, a lazy river and an activity pool) and Iberostar Grand is for adults-only luxury in a tranquil setting.
Hilton Rose Hall
The Hilton appeals to families thanks to its kids under 12 stay and eat free policy, water park and kids club. But know this: this property can be very crowded and the beach is narrow and nothing to write home about. Still, Hilton Rose Hall is a solid choice for a mid-priced all-inclusive in Montego Bay.
Secrets St. James and Secrets Wild Orchid
These twin adults-only properties lie side-by-side on a pretty stretch of beach. When you book a stay at one Secrets Resort in Jamaica, you get to play at both. The rooms are lovely, the spa is excellent and there are plenty of restaurants and evening entertainment options. For extra luxury and exclusivity, book a room in the Preferred Club. Receive an upgraded room or suite in a premium location, access to a private Preferred Club Lounge, special concierge service, Preferred resort status and other enhanced amenities.
Half Moon has a tremendous sense of history. After all, this grand resort has been in business since 1954. It is one of the most beautiful and idyllic properties I’ve ever laid eyes on. But this luxury and timelessness doesn’t come without a price: Half Moon isn’t for the budget conscious. Deluxe rooms offer the best values and there are nearly a dozen categories of rooms and villas at price points from a little bit out of budget to shockingly pricey. Still, it’s worth the splurge to stay at one of the finest family-owned hotels in the world.
Villas are the place to take the family on vacation, featuring four to seven bedrooms. Each villa comes with a staff of three: a cook, housekeeper and butler. It is the ultimate luxury while still having access to all the facilities and amenities of the hotel.
Where to stay in Negril
Looking for the perfect family friendly getaway? You’ve found it! Families flock to Beaches Negril for what some have called Disneyland in the Carribean. It’s true: Beaches offers more for kids and families than any property in all of Jamaica. Water park, outstanding kids programs, water sports including scuba diving and snorkel excursion and of course all meals, snacks and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The property is a beauty with carefully manicured gardens, lush vegetation and a long stretch of near-perfect beach. Restaurants and bars are scattered throughout the property, with Kimonos and Soy being extremely popular choices.
CocoLaPalm isn’t Negril’s fanciest resort, but it doesn’t need to be. The percentage of repeat guests at this resort speaks for itself. Just take a peek at the very active Facebook group and you’ll see what I mean.
Our group of three had plenty of room in our Superior ground floor accommodations (room 330) with two queen beds and garden view terrace. Extras such as a mini-fridge and wet bar are appreciated. What some guests may not appreciate is WiFi that rarely works, outdated bedspreads and rough bedding and fees like a $25 deposit for a TV remote and a $200 deposit to charge incidentals to your room via credit card. The hotel is clean enough and the staff are welcoming enough, but complaining about what luxuries are missing from the room and the extra fees would be to miss the spirit of the place entirely.
What CocoLaPalm does boast is an extremely loyal following, a beachfront bar with well-priced drinks and a much loved bartender and solid accommodations in a tropical setting. Annual events like the Halloween Party draw much attention. A beachfront continental breakfast is included (coffee, tea or hot chocolate, juice or fruit and a basket of fresh, delicious pastries).
Azul boasts four restaurants, two Gourmet Corners (a coffee bar and a grill) and five bars and lounges on a stunning stretch of Seven Mile Beach.
Recounting my personal experience: Our family of three stayed in room 1101, an ocean view family suite on the far outskirts of the property in the sherbet-hued family section. The two-room suite was generously sized with extremely modern amenities: remote climate control, stocked mini-fridge, a smart split bath layout with separate toilet room, double sinks and private luxury rain shower room. This may be one of the best hotel bathroom designs ever!
The best part? There was an underutilized activity pool right outside our door and we were just steps from the beach.
Staff are warm and welcoming, always stopping to ask if you’re having a good time. You’re never more than a few steps away from a bar where the drinks flow freely. And thank you, Azul Sensatori, for having cocktail menus at the bar. It was fun trying all the different suggested drink combinations.
Favorite dish: Try the spaghetti carbonara at Di Romagna.
Things we love about Azul Senatori: a different fruit and herb infused water at every meal, ice delivered to guest rooms every evening for our in-room champagne and hand sanitizer is offered at every dining outlet.
Before you get too excited, you should know the following: Azul Sensatori Jamaica by Karisma is available for guests originating anywhere in the world to book directly via Karisma’s website. However, the hotel is often sold out due to its overwhelming popularity and an agreement with TUI to market and sell Azul Sensatori Jamaica to travelers from the UK. Plans to open an upscale boutique Azul Beach property next door to Azul Sensatori Jamaica, catering to US and Canadian travelers, are in the works.
Getting around Jamaica
Your taxi driver is your key to the island. We used and loved Stanli Solomon of Stanli’s Tours (no website, 876-817-9372), Paradise Travels, and a guide simply known as Jeff (876-377-7503). Let’s say you’re planning to take an excursion to Rick’s Cafe (a touristy but much recommended Jamaica attraction). The hotels in Negril all have cab drivers stationed at them. (Always use a taxi with a red license plate, vetted by JUTA – the Jamaican Union of Travelers Association, and not a local “route taxi”.) Your driver will take you to Rick’s and give you his card. He’ll quote you the round trip fare and ask you to call him when you’re ready to get picked up. When you’re ready to leave Rick’s, the door man will call your driver for you. Your driver returns to pick you up and this is when you’ll pay him for the round trip fare. It’s an honor system that works because you will eventually have to walk past this same driver when you return to your hotel, even if you decide to use another driver. Once you get comfortable with a certain driver, you can use them throughout your stay for transfers, general transportation and tours.
A side note on tipping: Gratuities in the travel industry is a very much misunderstood topic. While there are general guidelines that are fairly clear ($1-2 per bag for the bellman, $1-$2 for the valet each time he brings you your car, 15-20% on food and beverage), all the rules seem to go out the window at an all-inclusive resort. While not required and technically gratuities are generally “included” in your all-inclusive rate, a dollar or two to your pool server and a few dollars a day to housekeeping goes a long way.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer and her family were provided with some discounted and some complimentary accommodations and transportation for editorial consideration. While this did not influence the writers review, Nextcolumn.com believes in full disclosure.
Michele McIntyre is a freelance writer who covers spas, travel, fitness, wellness, beauty and healthy living/eating. She is happiest when lying face up on the treatment table, writing about her spa and travel experiences or testing new products to share with her readers. She lives near Syracuse, NY with her husband and son. Michele is a regular travel contributor to LivingBetterat50+ and has written for Today’s Central New York Woman Magazine and online at Tripology, TripAtlas, and Splash Magazines Worldwide. Michele blogs about the spa and travel industry. When she isn't writing about or visiting spas, Michele loves traveling, hiking, skiing, camping, yoga and reading. If any of these pursuits can be combined with a visit to the spa, even better!