NEGRIL - We knew we were taking a gamble when we decided on a family vacation in Jamaica with our 10-year-old son in the month of August.
In the end we were lucky, but barely. Hurricane Dean struck Jamaica three days before we flew into Montego Bay. The immense Category 5 storm veered just south of the island, causing relatively minor damage in the tourist areas. As the storm approached, we spent anguished days watching weather channels and studying airline cancellation policies. The sea was still roiled the day we arrived.
But nobody forced us to leave New England at the height of summer and head for the steamy Caribbean. We chose tropical adventure over Cape Cod tranquillity - even in hurricane season. What's more, we opted to avoid the all-inclusive options in favor of the simpler hotels along the seafront in Negril, a laid-back onetime hippie haven on the westernmost tip of the island. The point was to experi ence Jamaica's proud, funky culture and to meet its people, not to vanish into a protective resort bubble.
While our style is hardly a typical child-oriented getaway, there were plenty of opportunities for adventure and relaxation for Daniel and his parents. It didn't hurt that air and hotel rates are a lot lower in the summer, especially for places without air conditioning.
And there was no pain in waking each morning in our two-story cottage at the 24-room Xtabi Resort, breakfasting on our private balcony on a cliff 30 feet above the sea, and climbing down rock stairs and a metal ladder into the sea for a couple hours of nearly private snorkeling amid the swirl of tropical fish along the coral reef. All for $120 a night.
A visit to Negril offers three main choices: the high-end resorts to the north, the smaller independent hotels on the lively main beach, and the quieter cliffside hotels to the south in the West End. You can pick one of the three areas and stay put, or split your time among them, as we did, with four days on the beach and four on the cliff.
The all-inclusives we excluded range from romantic getaways such as, surprise, Couples, to family-oriented complexes such as Beaches. There's the staid Grand Lido and the libidinous Hedonism II. Even if we could afford their rates, often north of $400 a night, they look more like suburban townhouse complexes than oceanside escapes.
Kuyaba on the Beach is a simple and delightful 24-room inn on the central beachfront. Like many of the smaller hotels, Kuyaba has a narrow beach, and the rooms are spread along a path that leads back a couple hundred feet to Negril's main road, Norman Manley Boulevard, a two-lane madcap avenue for taxis and buses.
Kuyaba and some of the other beach and cliff hotels have rooms on both sides of the street. Especially along the beach, be careful when booking to specify that you want to be on the sea side.
We stayed in one of Kuyaba's superior rooms, with air conditioning and ceiling fans, two double beds and spacious private bath, and otherwise Spartan - for $95 a night. A small fridge can be rented for $5 a day, worth it to chill soft drinks and beer bought at the market and avoid the hotel's hefty bar charges. Our ground-floor room had a pleasant shaded balcony, with a suspended hammock chair.
Kuyaba is well situated for the principal holiday pastime: strolling the 7-mile-long sand beach that is the heart of Negril, with reggae pulsing from the small hotels and restaurants, and Rastafarians hawking woven wristbands and more pungent Jamaican fare.
The beach is a constant, vivid assault on the senses, with the aroma of ganja often in the air. On our second day, a grizzled man in dreadlocks approached and asked whether we had met "Mr. Scratch-eye." We hadn't. So he pulled out of his shirt a plastic bag containing a sizable marijuana branch.
Ganja is of course a central part of Rastafarian culture. My wife and I were embarrassed, but the soft-spoken man looked at us and said to Daniel, "When I was growing up, my father said he wanted us to know everything and didn't want to hide anything from us." And he didn't try any further peddling, a rare soft-sell on the Negril beachfront.
One reality that pushes some visitors to prefer the sealed-off resorts are Jamaica's persistent beach vendors. They approach frequently, usually with trinkets you don't want or tours you hadn't considered taking. But we found that polite firmness dissuades them. Trying to ignore them or acting rudely seems only to encourage them to take up the challenge.
The narrow beach - often only 20 or 30 feet wide - is patrolled by strolling police and each hotel has a security guard to make sure that the peddlers don't harass guests. If you take it in good spirit, it's not a serious hassle. If you take it as an assault on your right to privacy, you'll spend days feeling affronted.
We kept meaning to try a couple of ambitious excursions, to destinations such as Mayfield Falls, a full-day outing available either by package through the hotel or negotiated with a taxi driver. But it was usually too relaxing to stay on the beach and the cliffs. We did make our own half-day trip with Delroy, our taxi driver, to Savanna-la-Mar, the provincial capital. It was eye-opening to see the extent of poverty in rural Jamaica and in the non-tourism towns.
At Kuyaba we took a snorkeling trip on one of the glass-bottom boats that operates from the beach. We motored to a reef offshore - and in short order I endured my first-ever jellyfish sting, which stung for several hours.
But we wanted more accessible snorkeling, and to escape the jet skis. We had booked at Kuyaba for only our first four days, assuming that because it was low season, we could find accommodation for the second four days. We popped into several cliffside hotels, some run-down (Samsara) and some wonderful but too pricey (Rockhouse and Tensing Pen). Fortunately, we found Xtabi and both of its two-story cottages atop the sea were available. We had four days near paradise.
On most days, just when the tropical summer heat became unbearable, a cloudburst arrived to cool things down. With just ceiling fans at Xtabi, it was plenty hot at night. It would be perfect in the slightly cooler winter, when the rates double.
One of Xtabi's treats is its caves. You climb down a stone staircase through one cave to a tiny sand beach, and can dally there or snorkel for hours in the waters in front of the hotel. There's also a sunbathing platform on a rocky outcropping, where the European guests seemed able to lie for hours without burning to a crisp, as I did my first day of snorkeling. After that I swam in a T-shirt. (Bring snorkeling gear; renting is expensive.)
The cottage, one of eight on the seafront, had a full kitchenette, two bathrooms, an outdoor shower, and a 1960s rustic feel.
Jamaican cuisine is imaginative and satisfying. Avoid fast food and plunge in, though it's sensible to avoid tap water and salads.
We ate jerk chicken, Jamaica's signature dish, almost daily. We enjoyed red snapper in brown sauce at 3 Dives, a family-run stand next to Xtabi, and we lunched at Cosmo's on the main beach, where you can relax for a few hours on the sand after eating.
We made the requisite evening trip to Rick's Cafe, a landmark of the West End founded in 1974, and thus all but historic. Cliff divers jump from outcrops into a tiny channel below, and crowds assemble, Red Stripe lagers in hand, to watch the rainbow sunsets and argue whether they saw the green flash at the moment the sun went down.
Certainly one of the finest restaurants in Negril was at Kuyaba. People came from all around the town to dine at the candlelit tables under the thatched balcony and savor the conch, lobster, and other seafood delicacies. While the hotel itself is affordable, the restaurant is a splurge. So we roamed the beach for cheaper alternatives, enjoying Mom's Place a few doors down, among others.
My wife and I preferred the cliffs, luxuriating in the snorkeling and the less hectic pace compared with the busy, sometimes noisy beach scene. Daniel loved the caves and the bats flying around at night as well as the snorkeling.
We all loved the sunsets - and Dan and I think we did see the green flash.
James F. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.