I had a struggle trying to find somewhere stay for our first trip to Jamaica’s north coast back in September 2015. This might sound surprising as Montego Bay is the north coast’s largest town and a major tourist destination with an international airport bringing tourists directly from the US, Europe and South America. A new modern highway now cuts directly from Kingston on the south coast, making the trip easier and faster than ever. The new road connects seamlessly with the north coast highway, which dashes past giant signs for resort after resort, but little can be seen from the road. The resorts, palm trees and the beaches themselves are hidden away. Most offer luxury at an all-inclusive price, which is a popular option for tourists, as it includes accommodation and all you can eat food and drink. The problem is that is its very expensive. Prices get cheaper in the rainy season, but even after substantial discounts for locals, $250/night for a “room only” package is considered a deal. Prices typically go way higher than that.
Our first experience in Montego Bay was pretty much a disaster. I had shunned the expensive resorts in favour of a mid-range hotel on the supposedly famous “hip strip” in town, hoping that while Robert was working, I could walk, shop a little and enjoy the town. The hip strip was anything but hip, with nowhere to hang out and just vendors bugging me to buy things I didn’t want. Worse, the whole area had a feel of decay with closed down hotels and not a lot going on. Clearly the all-inclusive resorts with their captive clientele had taken a huge toll on the town. I didn’t like the room they gave us and when they refused to move us to another in a hotel that was obviously not full, we packed our bags and left.
We moved to a mid-range resort hotel within per diem and were suddenly in the world of mass tourism and package holidays. The beach was beautiful, but only accessible to hotel guests, and I wandered around a little watching the new arrivals relax into their new tropical surroundings. One young woman stood beaming. She literally grinned from ear-to-ear. I smiled back and said, “You look happy.” “Yes,” she said. I’m in Jamaica!” Suddenly I saw a person who had saved all year to come and who had probably escaped from somewhere cold and urban to feel the warmth of the Jamaican sun on her face. I felt ashamed that I had been so grouchy at my experience to date, and resolved to enjoyed the privilege of being in a place that others may never have the opportunity to visit. But the truth remained that mass tourism is not our cup of tea and the likelihood of returning to that resort was slim.
On later much-needed trips out of Kingston, we turned to smaller, local hotels and struggled there also. We kissed quite a few hotel frogs before we found our Prince in a privately-owned Negril development, which became our favourite spot. There are charming, affordable places to be found with a local flavour. It’s just been a little harder here to find them. Security issues and bad roads have added to the struggle. There are independent tourists and Jamaicans who are looking for quality bed and breakfast places at reasonable prices, but the fact remains that the tourist volumes come for the convenience, quality and security of the all-in resorts and that’s where the focus remains.
I do hope that places like downtown Montego Bay develop in the future. Clearly the old days are not coming back, but I do see the opportunity for smaller, boutique hotels that offer an alternative to the resort experience and widen the type of tourists who visit. Mobay could be the artisan capital of Jamaican with cool, independently-owned shops and businesses. The city center needs redevelopment though, and that looks like it’s not happening any time soon.
Jamaica has a reputation as a tourist paradise, and for good reason. We discovered the pricey but stunningly beautiful, plantation-style Half Moon Resort pretty late in our stay. The last minute discovery has been kind of a blessing for the pocket book, as we surely would have returned if there was time. I liked Half Moon so much more than the modern resorts we encountered. There are plenty of beautiful beaches, romantic palm trees and lots of very attractive resort hotels in Jamaica but, in our limited time and experience here, its not been an easy fit for us, but we did manage to find our sweet spot in the end.