Five nights in Jamaica January 2014

Highlights of my recent trip to Jamaica (in two parts)
by Dennis F. Stevens: 



I just returned from a week of paradise on the Isle of Jamaica.  In case any of you are contemplating vacationing there, I kept copious notes.  Because of the length of this report, I will be sending it out in two parts; part 1 today, Wednesday February 5th and part 2 on Saturday February 8th.  


PART 1: 


On 28 January I caught the early morning Delta shuttle from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City where I transferred to a Jet Blue direct flight to JFK and was met by my longtime friend, Nicole.   It was approximately 5 degrees when the plane lifted off from Idaho Falls and a balmy 19 degrees upon my arrival in NYC.  


The first thing I did before leaving home is notify my credit card company (Barclay’s Bank) where I would be traveling and on what dates.  Barclays has a very good security system and will suspend your card until they get hold of you to confirm unusual charges. 


As is our tradition whenever Nicole picks me up from JFK, we have dinner at Le Bernardin, Chef Eric Ripert’s Michelin three-star French / seafood mecca in Midtown Manhattan. 


But first, we drove to Nicole’s Upper Westside (Riverside Park) townhouse (in the vicinity where “You’ve Got Mail was filmed) to have some champagne and change for an intimate evening with an outstanding meal.  While Nicole poured a bottle of Veuve Clicquot rose champagne, I changed into my black, pinstripe suit, Jeffrey Beene wrinkle proof yellow shirt, and red & black power tie.  She, of course, decked herself out in a designer outfit that I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for.  


Since we wouldn’t be back in time to watch it live, Nicole set the digital device to record the president’s State of the Union address and the GOP response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-Wash.) on the Fox News Channel, so that we could watch it later and fast forward through the bullshit.  Even a liberal Democrat like Nicole realizes that while Obama talks-the-talk he seldom, if ever, walks-the-walk. 


Nicole had made the reservation at Le Bernardin weeks before and we were immediately seated at what had become known as our table, a center restaurant booth against the wall, where you cannot help but be noticed, and indeed the former playboy model was.  Approaching 45 years of age, I swear she doesn’t look any different than when I photographed her for Playboy, when she was in her late teens and early twenties.   Aside from the celebrity centerfolds, she was one of Playboy’s highest paid models; albeit she was never selected for centerfold status. 

Chef Ripert was not on duty, attending some wine pairing out on the West Coast.   Nicole was particularly disappointed.

To start with, I had the pan fried, charred squid (calamari) a la plancha, with green olive and black garlic emulsion, sundried tomato sauce vierge. 


Nicole started off with slivers of Scottish salmon and baby radish salad with tomatillo-mezcal nage and lemon vinaigrette.  She said it was to die for.  


For the main entrée I naturally went for the crispy duck breast; snow peas, and sour cherry sauce. 


Nicole had difficulty choosing between the pan roasted filet mignon with wild mushrooms together with a mole sauce, and the duo of lamb, a roasted rack and braised shank, served with goat cheese, potato purée and red wine sauce.  She finally chose the latter.  


We were lucky the head sommelier, Aldo Sohm, was on duty.  We let him pick the wines, one bottle of 2010 Cakebread Reserve Napa Chardonnay and the rest by the glass.   Aldo confided that he had been saving the Cakebread Reserve for someone whom he felt could appreciate it.  I found it pleasantly buttery and yeasty with tastes of butterscotch and aromas of ripe peach and yellow apple fruit.  


For desert, I tried the Chocolate mille-feuille with caramelized phyllo, thyme gelee, salted milk and chocolate ice cream.  


Nicole chose the pistachio passion fruit gelee, with Meyer lemon and pistachio ice cream. 


Sommelier Aldo apologized for not having Pastis or the Greek Ouzo, but had a terrific Kir for me and a nice peach Bellini for Nicole. 


Wednesday morning we caught the 11:12 a.m. non stop Jet Blue 3 hour 56 minute flight to Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport.  Nicole booked us first class and accommodations were excellent; including the champagne and lunch service.  On this flight, first class was only $500 more than coach; with taxes, the entire airfare amounted to less than $950 each.  


It was below freezing when we departed Manhattan and 82 degrees when we landed in Jamaica.  It would get up to 84 degrees later in the afternoon.   Nighttime temperatures would drop by an average of 10 degrees.  As an aside, I later learned that as we departed JFK, Rexburg Idaho was working on a second foot of snow; the first foot having been dropped several weeks earlier but due to the low temperatures had not melted. 


At the Jamaican airport, there was an air conditioned shuttle ready to transport us to our resort, The Caves, an hour-an-a-half drive, basically south by southwest of the airport.  The town of Negril, where The Caves is located, is on Jamaica’s west coast.  Since neither Nicole nor I like to be tied down without our own transportation, we rented a Ford Mustang 5.0 GT at the airport, taking out full insurance. 


Although I had recently renewed my international drivers’ license, since Jamaicans drive on the left, which can be confusing to Americans, and most of the roads are unpaved and further taking into consideration the fact that Jamaicans have a need for speed, I suggested Nicole do the driving.  Her reflexes were far better than mine. 


We arrived at The Caves, on Lighthouse Road, Nigril, at a little before 5 p.m.; beating the bus by only 12 minutes.  Incidentally, Jamaica is on Eastern Standard Time, so Nicole didn’t have to reset her watch and I mentally added two hours to my own time piece.  


The resort staffs have a reputation of being absolutely wonderful and ours was no different. 


The all-inclusive resort sits atop the scenic cliffs in Negril overlooking the ocean and a more peaceful site I cannot recall.  In contrast to some of the larger “mega-resorts” the Caves is a small boutique-style place with less than 20 rooms on the entire property, giving it an intimate, secluded vibe.  Each room (designated by names, not numbers) has a unique architecture and décor and is equipped with a bottle of Blackwell rum, white and red wine, fresh-ground Blue Mountain coffee, an obscenely comfortable bed, a large flat screen satellite HD TV; and a collection of reggae CDs which a note explains the staff will be happy to copy for you, if you like. 


Nicole had previously requested the Moon Shadow, a two level cottage with a sitting room and fully stocked bar which she managed to get for the price of an upstairs room.  It had a great view of the ocean and was very spacious.   


The Caves is not a place of pretention, rather, it’s the kind of place where you can walk around barefoot, eat breakfast (oh, those banana pancakes!) in your bathing suit, enjoy a soothing sunset and laugh with like-minded people.  And, as I mentioned before, the staff is the most helpful and accommodating I have ever encountered.  


Whether you want vegetarian fare or nostalgic cuisine from your island childhood (as was the case for one guest who had grown up in Martinique), the answer is “no problem.”  I was even scolded for getting out of the hot tub to order drinks from the bar.  But the other guests at the hotel were half of what made our stay so memorable. In the case of Nicole, jumping off a 30-foot cliff into the Caribbean is so much less intimidating when you have a crowd cheering you on.  


The Caves also includes several experiences that would be considered “extras” at your standard all-inclusive resort.  How does an hour in the private hot tub at sunset with champagne, fruit & cheese sound?  Or dinner for two in one of the caves for which the resort is named?  Personalized snorkeling and diving tours?  


Many of my newsletter emails ask me, that at 74 years of age, what it is that seems to draw me to scuba diving.  I hadn’t really thought about it, but the answer is probably that I find maneuvering in the water much easier than on land.  I guess it just boils down to the freedom of movement.  On land, I’m at the mercy of my legs; the reason that for the second year in a row I have not gone skiing at my world-class Targhee Resort.  


Given all The Caves has to offer, it’s easy to see why everyone there walked around with a huge smile on their face, until it was time to leave, that is.  On those days, you could tell who was checking out because they looked as though they might burst into tears at any moment.  In a word, the whole experience was rather magical.  


The Caves has no beach (the 7 mile white sand beach is a couple miles further south).  But the natural beauty of limestone cliffs and caves masterfully carved by the relentless ocean tides is a marvel in itself.  Sunsets that are breath taking, an ocean so turquoise it looks artificial, and the erotic breezes that blow nonstop are just more natural beauties.  I can think of no other place where you can have an ocean cave grotto all to yourself...without standing in some kind of line or making some kind of reservation.  Just descend the stone staircase to your private respite. 


That first night, Nicole and I took our dinner in one of the romantic grotto caves.  It was definitely memorable.  We both enjoyed a fresh seafood sampler dinner washed down by an indigenous white Caribbean wine and a bottle of Roderer Cristal champagne.  I should mention that at most Caribbean resorts premium drinks are extra.  They want to stuff you with inexpensive rum and exotic juices.  


Excellent French champagnes come with the dinner but for a mere extra US$75 (charged to your room) you can order a Dom Perignon or Roderer Cristal.  And for an extra $45 you can order a RD (recently disgorged) Bollinger.  For an extra US$35 you can have a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (including the Rosé), instead of the all-inclusive included champagnes such as:  Krug, GH Mumm, Moet & Chandon Imperial, Perrier-Jouet, Nicolas Feuillatte, Laurent-Perrier, Piper Heidsieck, Pommery, and Veuve Clicquot (although I think we might have paid a slight premium on the Clicquot).  My Jack Daniels didn’t cost extra, although a Hennessy XO and Paradis Nicole and I ordered later in the week did appear on our room charges, albeit heavily discounted.    


The seafood samplers included a number of Caribbean Sea foods, seasoned to perfection with sauces to match.  


After breakfast the following morning, we decided to make the three and-a-half hour drive to Sandals Grande Riviera at Ocho Rios, a two hour drive on the north coast Highway A-1, such as it is, from Montego Bay; thanks to the tourist trade, most of which is paved.   


First, we drove up the west coast to Montego Bay (which is located in the northwest corner of Jamaica) then headed east along highway A-1 to Ocho Rios.  About 45 miles east of Montego Bay we arrived at Falmouth, the harbor where the giant Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean cruise ships dock and unload their passengers for sight seeing.  We spotted a huge cruise ship docked at the port but were too far away to see which cruise liner it was.  


While there isn’t much between Montego Bay and Falmouth, east of the ancient port there is Coral Spring, Rio Buero, Discovery Bay, Runaway Bay, St. Ann’s Bay, and finally Ocho Rios, home of the Sandals Grande Riviera and Royal Plantation resorts.  


Studying the map provided by Avis, as we approached Sandals Grande Riviera, I noticed that Oracabessa Bay and Goldeneye, the Jamaican home of Ian Fleming, and where he wrote the James Bond novels, was only about a 15 to 20 minute drive ahead.  I suggested we visit the Goldeneye resort first and then double back to the Grande Riviera. 


Nicole readily agreed and so we transitioned onto highway A-3 and continued eastward on an unpaved (gravel) road, passing small resort after resort.  We soon spotted Golden Head on our right and a minute or two later Goldeneye on our left.  Many of the locations for the Bond films “Dr. No” and “Live and Let Die” were filmed nearby.     


Since Goldeneye is now part of the Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost hotel chain we figured it might not be an all-inclusive resort and thus decided to take a chance on being able to stop by for lunch, even though we weren’t registered guests.  


We approached the private entrance to the resort and were greeted by the friendly guard who, because we weren’t part of the usual shuttle from the airport, proceed to check us out thoroughly. 


To speed things along Nicole handed the guard one of her publishing house business cards and asked me to show him my academy card.  By that she meant my Academy Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) membership card; which I readily produced and handed to the guard.  Just as Nicole was coming up with a logical explanation for the purpose of our visit, the guard took one look at the recognizable golden image of “Oscar” emblazoned on the plastic and fell all over himself to be helpful.  


Nicole was giving the guard some nonsense about looking into the possibility of publishing a book on the fabulous resorts of northern Jamaica and their highly professional staffs and great chefs.  She explained that we just wanted to have lunch and take some notes on the food.  We would pay for our meal and drinks, of course. 


Keeping my Academy card, the guard and told us to pull over to the side of the road and park while he made a phone call. 


We waited about four or five minutes before the guard came across the road from his station, a big smile on his face.  Returning my Academy card, he gave us directions on where to go and where to park.  Nicole put the Mustang in gear and was just about to pullout when the guard called out that Jenny, the resort manager, and Clayton, the concierge, would meet us in the parking lot. 


As we headed for the designated parking area, Nicole and I looked at one another, wondering what can-of-worms we might have unleashed. 


At the parking lot, we were indeed greeted by the manager, Jenny, and the concierge, Clayton who greeted us warmly and led us to Jenny’s office.   It was then that we surmised that it was indeed an all-inclusive resort and that we were probably in well over our heads.  But at this point there was no alternative but to go along with what we had started.  


In the manager’s office, Jenny informed us that she was taking us to lunch and that since the main restaurant was only open for dinner, we had two choices as to where to have brunch; the Bizot Bar or the Gazebo; which were both open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.   Jenny handed us a menu for both venues.  


Located on the western arm of Low Cay Beach, just steps away from the sea, Bizot Bar is the spot for stylish low key dining.  It serves breakfast and lunch that includes fresh salads, yummy burgers and tasty pastas, as well as famously authentic and delicious Jamaican specialties. 


The Bizot Bar is named for French counter-culture connoisseur, Jean-Francois Bizot (1944 - 2007) and good friend of Ian Fleming, in Fleming’s later life.  A journalist and music tastemaker, Bizot founded Radio Nova in Paris and introduced World Music to French audiences. 


Built in an aerie, tree house-style, the newly designed Gazebo (with lounge and restaurant) serves up dishes with an international flavor.  Overlooking Low Cay Beach and The Lagoon, the Gazebo is the sexy, open-air spot to enjoy cocktails while watching fiery Caribbean sunsets.  Dishes range from grilled lobster tail to seasoned rack of lamb, complemented with an outstanding international wine list.


It was a no-brainer.  Both Nicole and I were anxious to begin enjoying some of the authentic Jamaican specialties washed down by inexpensive local and international wines. 


The two main wineries in Jamaica are Appleton Estates and Journey’s End, both located in Kingston, where most of the indigenous grapes are grown.   These grapes include Verdejo (a white grape from Spain), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Durif (Petite Sarah) and Sauvignon Blanc.  


At the Bizot Bar and Grill, Jenny suggested a wine pairing of Petite Sarah with Jerk Chicken or Jerk-Spiced Shrimp with the Verdejo.  I chose the chicken and Nicole the shrimp; sharing, of course.   Both dishes were incredible and the wines were indeed a perfect pairing.  


After lunch, Jenny suggested we might want to take one of the resort’s canoes and paddle ourselves out to the Ian Fleming Villa, which Clayton (the concierge) arranged, and we did. 


Beaching the canoe, we climbed the steep steps to the top of the lagoon.  It is easy to see where Fleming got his inspiration.  The view from his villa is breathtaking.  It is said that when writing Fleming had to draw the curtains otherwise the view was too much of a distraction.  


Before we departed Goldeneye, Clayton insisted that he buy us a farewell drink at the Gazebo, in case we should want to include it in our writings.  Since Nicole was the designated driver, she opted for the Blue Mountain coffee and entertained Clayton while I proceeded to get acquainted with the bartender and the islands indigenous rum drinks; the popular ones which included, but were not limited to:  the Dark and Stormy, Mango Sling, Black and Blue, Golden Ginger Mojitos, Sailaway, and Pink Flamingo. 

Nicole later told me that Clayton asked questions about my career that indicated he had looked up my film and TV credits on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).  My only comment was that at least he and Jenny had done their homework.  She added that she had told the concierge of our plans to visit Sandals Grande Riviera next.  “He said that he would phone Rocco, the hotel manager, and tell him to be on the lookout for us.”  My comment to Nicole was that I wasn’t sure how to interrupt his statement, “be on the lookout.”  She assured me that it would be alright. 


It was a little after 2 p.m. when we headed back to Ocho Rios and Sandals’ Grande Riviera.   Twenty minutes later we arrived at our destination.   Compared to the boutique resorts of The Caves and Goldeneye, Grand Riviera is huge…or maybe it just looks that way because another Sandals resort, The Royal Plantation, sits next door.   Nevertheless, it is large. 


In fact it’s so large that it has expanded on the other side of a fenced (freeway style) road the cuts through the property.  Jitneys running every five minutes transport guests staying on the other side to the restaurants and beach area.   The cottages on that side of the “freeway” have private pools and butler service at no additional cost.  Since the ocean-side has no butlers, many consider this a distinct advantage. 


Parking the Mustang in the lot closest to the administration building, Nicole and I decided to go for it.  What the hell could they do but kick us out.  


We presented ourselves to Lydia, the concierge and, handing over one of her cards from a major publishing house, Nicole asked to see the manager, Rocco.   One of the lines on Nicole’s card reads, Executive Assistant to the VP & Executive Editor; except the line actually mentioned the well known  VP & Executive Editors name.   Glancing at the card, Lydia breaks into a big smile and turns to me, “You must be Mr. Stevens,” she surmises, then addressing us both: “the manager is expecting you.”   


The whole scam we were perpetrating had gotten totally out of control.  Awaiting our arrival in the manager’s office was not only the Grande Riviera manager, Rocco but, as he was introduced, Mark Starkey, the general manager of the neighboring Royal Plantation.  I couldn’t help feeling that our luck had finally run out and that we were in for it.     


The high profile publishing house, in which Nicole was the executive assistant to its executive editor, previously published a non fiction account of my coverage for Reuters of the final months of the Zimbabwe War of Independence and its aftermath.   This made me no stranger to Nicole’s boss.  


Upon my introduction by Rocco, Mark stuck his hand out for me to shake.  A little taken aback, I hesitantly complied.  But the shake was sincere and no cuffs were slapped on my wrists.  


It appeared that Rocco had definitely been briefed as to the purpose of our visit and that he had bought into the scam, such as it was.  


But Rocco was no dummy.  My mouth dropped as he informed Nicole that he had talked to Nicole’s boss at the New York based publishing house and that the VP and Executive Editor had requested that the Grande Riviera give us its full support and cooperation.  


All I could think of was that Nicole had a lot of explaining to do once she returned to work.   But that was then, and this was now.  Despite the fact I initially wished I were somewhere else, I found myself finally getting with the program