NEGRIL, Jamaica -- If I were to live in Jamaica, I am told by a man named ''Dopey," the only place I would want to live is the resort named Hedonism II. Dopey ''works" on the beach, harassing tourists who pass by the restaurant we have just chosen for dinner, encouraging them to dine. Dopey looks as if he has been smoking marijuana for the past 30 years uninterrupted. Our conversation has been a little disjointed since he invited himself to our table. But, having gotten introductions out of the way (''Everybody calls me Dopey! Do you need to buy any drugs?"), we've moved on to the topic of where we should live when we move here. The subject was chosen by Dopey. My fiance and I have no intention of staying longer than seven days.
''Hedonism," Dopey says authoritatively before becoming distracted by a flame atop a candle on our table. ''They don't wear any clothes there, mon. Crazy."
Coming from Dopey, ''crazy" is a strong admonition, indeed.
My fiance and I came to Negril, along the northern coast of Jamaica, to try to understand the all-inclusive resort. Over the past three decades, American tourists have emerged as a powerful economic force here. More than 2 million fun-lusting, sun-seeking, overworked Americans stampede this nation each year, spending $332.6 million. Jamaica is considered the birthplace of the all-inclusive resort, one of tourism's most influential innovations. It is a type of travel that preys on our gluttonous instincts and complete unwillingness to do simple math.
Following Dopey's advice, we started our investigation at Hedonism II.
Known worldwide by its motto ''Be Wicked for a Week," Hedonism II was the first all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, and perhaps the world. In 1976, a wealthy Jamaican businessman named John Issa discovered he could lure tourists to his Negril Beach Village with a simple promise: For one price, guests could have access to all the food, drink, and activities they desired. It was a fundamental breakthrough in hospitality science. By liberating tourists from carrying money, Issa discovered, he could create an environment where luxury equated gluttony, and so opulence was achieved by serving unlimited syrupy pina coladas. Guests had no problem paying far more for a resort where everything -- from dinner to scuba diving -- was included in the base price.
Today, 55 percent of Jamaica's 14,388 hotel rooms are all-inclusive, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study. There are more than 45 all-inclusive resorts in the nation, most of them on the 80-mile northern coastal strip connecting Negril, Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios. Almost 33,000 people work for the island's hospitality industry, the largest single employer in a nation where one-third of the 2.7 million population lives below the poverty line.
Issa, who oversees six Jamaican resorts as head of the SuperClubs resort chain, reopened his Negril Beach Village as ''Hedonism II" in 1981 (Hedonism I, apparently, is more a state of mind than an actual location). Since then, it has been one of the most consistently profitable properties on the island.
So when we began our tour of Hedonism II with the general manager, Richard Bourke, he was eager to clear up a few misconceptions.
''Hedonism," Bourke said, ''has been misrepresented in the press." Most media reports, he says, unfairly focus on prurient fantasies about the hotel rather than accurately describing its white beaches, opulent amenities, and friendly atmosphere. Hedonism II, its name notwithstanding, is ''really just a mainstream resort, with the option of a nude beach." That's not what we discovered. We found that the food buffets at Hedonism II, while not terrible, are also not good. The rooms are small and dungeon-like, except for the mirror on the ceiling above every bed. The only reason to come to Hedonism II, we concluded when Bourke finally left us alone, is to look at naked people and pursue activities best left to the imagination.
Hedonism II met every shocking expectation, and all before the sun set. Two Hedonism regulars -- a married couple who met while living at a nudist colony -- told us it got ''really wild" after dark. We fled at dinnertime.
Next door to Hedonism II is the Grand Lido, also owned by SuperClubs, offering the same mediocre buffets but much nicer rooms and facilities. Like Hedonism II, a frenetic friendliness pervades the Grand Lido. Faux camp counselors wander the grounds, inviting guests to organized activities and supplying an easy way for shy visitors to meet. The resort offers sunset yacht trips, and like all other megaresorts, scuba diving, windsurfing, and other sports that require no additional payment (the wait for popular activities like diving, however, can be days long).
Couples Negril and Couples Swept Away Negril, both owned by Couples Resorts and also controlled by the Issa family, are more genteel, better designed resorts, with tastier menus and better beaches (the rooms, however, are a little disappointing). Couples' main trade is honeymooners, and at mealtime the glint of unscathed golden bands rivals the sun's glare. Swept Away boasts an impressive sports complex, for those who feel no tropical vacation is complete without heat exhaustion.
The all-inclusive concept, however, achieves its pinnacle outside of the megaresorts. Moondance Villas offers visitors accommodations at one of six dwellings clustered around a private garden on the beach. Residences vary from one to five bedrooms, each with its own chef, bartender, and housekeeper to cater to your whims. There's none of the entertainment or camaraderie of the large resorts, but for families with children, it can be a relaxing respite.
The summit in luxury and grace is The Caves, one of the most beautiful resorts in the world. Located on the cliffs of Negril, The Caves is a short drive from the beach. Ten handcrafted cottages spill along paths overlooking the ocean, with private sunning areas and hammocks nestled in the cliff's facades. Each meal is cooked to order, served in rooms vibrating with color. It's almost misleading to call the Caves an all-inclusive -- although meals and drinks are included in the base price, there is none of the gluttony that pervades large resorts. Instead, it is a private Caribbean paradise, whispering relaxation and soft comfort away from the drab burdens of calculating cost.
All-inclusives thrive because handling money is inherently depressing for most Americans. The burden of constantly assessing expenses muddles the perfumes of paradise, and a sunset is cheapened when a price tag is attached.
So maybe Dopey had it right after all. Before leaving the restaurant on our first night, we asked him how he affords to live in this expensive tourist destination. ''Aw, you don't need money here, mon," said Dopey. ''Everything that is good should be free!" We stood, and started to leave. ''But," Dopey blurted with some slight anxiety as he saw us departing, ''you've already paid the bill, right?"
Charles Duhigg is a freelance writer living in Boston.
How to get there
Lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and Kingston available at press time started at $384 on Delta Airlines, connecting through New York. Negril is approximately a 11/2-hour drive from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Air Jamaica offers flights between Kingston and Montego Bay; lowest round-trip fare available started at $166. You can rent a car or take a taxi from the airport to Negril.
What to do
A number of websites offer general information on Negril, Jamaica. Be warned, though; many are sponsored by resorts or tourism groups and present a less-than-objective viewpoint. They include www.negril.com, www.negriltoday.com, and www.negriljamaica.com.
Where to stay
Prices listed for large resorts are those quoted by resort representatives. Extreme discounts are available if purchased through a travel agency, online, or as part of a promotion. All prices are for all-inclusive packages, including unlimited meals, drinks, and activities.
876-957-0270 or 800-688-7678
The pinnacle in romance and grace. A boutique resort with 10 cottages on the cliffs of Negril, a short taxi ride from the beach. Each room is hand-designed, and echoes the vibrant beauty of the estate. Meals are prepared to order (no buffets) and served on decks overlooking the ocean. Small ensconces for sunning or lounging in hammocks dot the cliffs below the property, and stone staircases descend to the water for snorkeling and swimming. The food is superb and the staff, like the clientele, discreet and relaxed. Visitors should ask for rooms that overlook the ocean. Rooms are approximately $445 to $575 per night per couple.
A resort best described by its motto: ''Be Wicked for a Week." The resort is one of Negril's oldest, and is directly on the beach. Children under 18 are not allowed, but singles are. Rooms are approximately $278 to $380 per night per couple.
Grand Lido Negril
Grand Lido is the sister property of Hedonism II, right next door and owned by the same parent company. But the resort is much more upscale and family friendly (i.e., much less nudity). The food is not great, but rooms are spacious and sunny. Unlike other resorts, Grand Lido Negril has a yacht that offers sunset cruises. Rooms are approximately $522 to $726 per night per couple.
Also on the beach, Couples Negril caters primarily to honeymooners. Singles and children under 18 are not allowed. The rooms are a little disappointing, but the beach is romantic and the service exemplary. Rooms are approximately $390 to $555 per night per couple.
Swept Away Negril
The sister property of Couples, Swept Away Negril offers better rooms, a beautiful beach, and the largest sports complex in Negril, featuring tennis courts, a weight room, yoga, and aerobics. Rooms are approximately $355 to $480 per night.
Moon Dance Villas
A small resort on the beach, offering six condos from one to five bedrooms. Each has a bartender, a cook, and a housemaid available at all hours. Unlike other resorts, there are no communal dining areas -- each property is self-contained. Perfect for families seeking an easy way to spend time in Negril, and hoping to avoid crowds. Activities like scuba diving are not offered, but the small size, substantial staff, and private Jacuzzis and swimming pools ensure access to the resort's amenities. Condo prices range from approximately $400 to $550 per night for a one-bedroom to $1,500 to $2,000 per night for a five-bedroom. All-inclusive options, with unlimited food and drink, are an additional $75 per adult per day. Children under age 5 are free.