In June 2017 daughter Erika and her family moved to Jamaica for a new job (husband Pat) and adventure (the whole family) so we had a new holiday destination.
In August 2018 we jumped on a plane to see them for the first time in their new home and country.
By now – with our two sons in Australia – we are used to one 11 hour international flight to reach the country of final destination. Now we would be flying via the USA, which implies an extra customs and immigration process. We have Belgian passports so luckily, the online visa application was quick and painless.
Early morning we arrived in the USA. We flew in over Breezy Point and the islands in Jamaica Bay and the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge – very appropriate for our kind of visit – and could see our plane approaching the runway visible mid right just under the wing (photo top right). Unfortunately – by the time we flew over the Bahamas later in the day, it was getting dark and we couldn’t see very much.
We were warned by Pat to keep unpredictable custom procedures in mind when booking the connecting flight from New York (USA) to Kingston (Jamaica), but when we arrived at JFK it was our lucky day: in just more than one hour we were through customs and at the counter of Caribbean Airlines for our connection flight to Kingston. And that is where our luck ran out. They were not yet open and we had to wait a few hours. When we eventually checked in and went to to our gate for boarding, several delays resulted in our flight- which was supposed to leave around 2pm- only taking off at about 5pm, arriving in Kingston, three, four hours later. Biiiiig bummer!
Some more thoughts about our time on JFK Airport.
What we mentioned about Melbourne Tullamarine Airport in another blog seemed to be applicable at JFK too: airport signage is very often not clear for first time travelers. JFK was not much different. Signage was poor and at least half of the staff if not more was anything but friendly or helpful.
Another disappointment while spending time at JFK: food places! With our huge time-gap between clearing customs and being able to check in at Caribbean Airlines, we went for coffee and breakfast in terminal 4. What a disappointment! One diner and one dunking donuts! We are so used to OR Tambo in Johannesburg with a whole assortment of food places. Fair enough … we only have one building that houses all domestic and international flights, but still, a few more coffee shops or fast food places might have been very nice, thank you. And yes, it seems we are spoiled in South Africa with cheap/affordable labour, because our airports are clean,clean,clean! After having run around in a few international airports over our years of travel, in our books OR Tambo is on top of our list regarding friendliness, cleanliness, helpfulness, sense of humor… we have it all.
Another painful experience: the so-called free airport WiFi is virtually non-existent. We got a seat at our boarding gate and tried to get connected to the free wifi so we could chat or whatsapp with the children. We tried for longer than an hour and eventually went to drink a beer in one of the pubs to connect to wifi. Even they complained that the wifi connection was bad and it seemed to work in only selected spots of said pub. So yes, at this moment not too impressed with JFK terminal 4!
On a more fun/entertaining note: the wheelchairs and the luggage. Although we like to play by the rules and carry one piece of hand luggage on the plane, we saw several travelers at our boarding gate carrying multiple bags. That didn’t seem to be really an issue there. Soon we realised that as long as you declare your extra luggage at the counter and pay your $-fee per bag then the luggage goes aboard. (this was an observation at our gate – can’t speak for other airlines or boarding gates). Later our kids explained that it is cheaper for Jamaicans to pay their $-fee per bag overweight, than to shop in Jamaica! The wheelchairs were another oddity: anything between 5 to 10 travelers are wheeled to the gate in wheelchairs. While waiting, some will get out and walk to nearby stalls or shops to buy stuff so we couldn’t figure out if all of them were for genuine medical reasons or if some play it so that they can be on the plane first.
Back to Jamaica: the first thing we felt when exiting the airport: Jamaica is hot and humid! As mentioned before, it was eventually somewhere between 8pm and 9pm when we touched down and the temperature must still have been in the 30’s! I was still dressed with a few layers of clothing (winter time in South Africa, chill on the airplane, temperature controlled airport JFK) and within mere minutes I was sticky… very sticky. But the reunion with kids and grand-kids was wonderful and we spent many hours catching up (and of course dishing out presents and special eats and treats from home.)
While we were in Jamaica we tried to see and do as much as possible with the family. And we got spoiled rotten!
While Pat had to work Erika took us on a few day trips in and around Kingston.
Blue Mountain coffee is world famous, so living on the slopes of Blue Mountains, there was no way we would miss out on coffee on the Mountain. The road up the mountain reminded us so much of rural parts of South Africa: potholes and rubbish, bundles of wires knotted together on telephone poles that could fall over at any given moment, shacks and shops haphazardly scattered on the mountain slopes and valleys, very often ram-shackled but proudly decorated in the Jamaican National colours: black, green and gold! We had our coffee on a wooden balcony overlooking a valley with lush tropical forest and houses precariously hanging on to the mountainside between the banana trees and vibrant tropical flowers. A colourful humming bird was helping himself to the nectar in the bird feeder hanging from the top of the balcony. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a streamer-tail or doctor bird – also a hummingbird species – which is the national bird of Jamaica. Bummer!
On the road up and back we stopped a few times to enjoy the views. From one lookout we had views as far as the harbour.
Another comparison with South Africa (and other countries that we have visited in the past) is the severe lack of maintenance. The signboard for the National Park was such a mess and the environment was not much better. Add to that the goats roaming free on the road … it felt like home!
Just as an extra observation when we were negotiating the road up the mountain: the roads and road users are atrocious. When Stefaan went back home and I joined Erika on the daily school run, we took the shortest road… over the mountain. Jamaican drivers are kamikaze pilots, although the destruction might be aimed at somebody else instead of themselves. Daring other drivers on the road seems a sport on those winding mountain roads… playing chicken to see who gives way first! They drive in the middle of the road or come around the bend at full speed without even the slightest inclination to reduce speed and no concern whatsoever for other road users.
Jamaica and Reggae are synonymous, with Bob Marley being the greatest icon of reggae ever. And Stefaan is crazy about reggae so a visit to the Bob Marley museum and Trench Town thereafter was non-negotiable.
First stop (closest to home) was the Bob Marley Museum. For us the guided tour and video presentation was interesting and our guide was friendly and fun, but the guided tour was not totally Lara and Chloe’s cup of tea. Their favourite part, and probably the only part they enjoyed, was feeding the koi fish afterwards.
Just a sidenote: due to the tropical nature of the island, fruit grows with abandon and everywhere. Because fruit bearing trees line yards and streets, you regularly see signs to warn for falling fruit. Believe you me: a mango or coconut falling from that height will give you a serious headache!
Just a hop and skip away from the Bob Marley (house) and museum is Trench Town, where Bob Marley grew up. Trenchtown exudes real rasta life: weed, taking life easy, making music, keeping the spirit of Bob Marley alive! We got a little tour of the place and were invited to listen to a group of artists singing reggae for us live. Yes, we bought the cd !
Some military history: Fort Charles
Another morning Erika took us to Fort Charles in Port Royal: once again, interesting for us, not so interesting for the kids. They preferred running around and climbing on things. The ultimate fun moment was Giddy House, originally a weapons storage house that partially sank away when it was struck by an earthquake in 1907. Its nickname comes from the weird feeling visitors experience when trying to stand or walk inside the house with its quite slanted floor of at least 25%.
Beach weekend in Negril
Then came the biggest spoil of all: the kids took us for a weekend to Beaches, a family resort from the Sandals Group in Negril on the western side of the island: a 2,5 hr trip via Highway 2000, a 280 km toll road which is a surprising modern and well maintained first world highway compared to most dilapidated roads elsewhere on the island.
Along the way we stopped at Scotchies – a not-too-miss roadside eating place – where we were introduced to the all famous Jamaican spicy jerk chicken. Dozens of flattened chicken are cooked/barbequed simultaneously on a bed of wooden poles, covered with corrugated roofsheets over ever blazing fires. It’s hot and sticky in Jamaica and these guys work in an even hotter and smokey cookhouse (you can’t really call it a kitchen). When the chicken is done there is no refinement of picking the meat of the bone. No: a few hefty hacks with the meat cleaver and it’s put on a plate ready for serving. I personally am not a big fan of bones, but the rest of the family seemed to enjoy nibbling at the cut up chicken pieces on their plate.
(photo top left courtesy of tripadvisor)
When we continued after lunch there were another few things that seemed to be part of the typical Jamaican landscape:
Very patriotic: many buildings/houses/shacks are decorated in the National Jamaican colours.
Most if not all houses/buildings have serious burglar proofing. And even though you see a fair amount of the plain square steelwork, some houses put in a lot of effort to have really artful designs to close in balconies and windows.
As mentioned before from our drive on Blue Mountain: lots and lots of dilapidated buildings. Poles with telephone and wires like yarn balls fallen victim to the paws of a cat. We’ve seen this same kind of neglect in Mauritius, Mozambique, Thailand.
Health and safety rules: non-existent. We saw bamboo scaffolding two or three stories high and fruit hawkers in the middle of streets and even construction sites.
Eventually we arrived at our weekend destination for summer days of chilling with no worries in the world: Beaches Resort in Negril with its silky white sands, clear turquoise waters, and the ever-friendly island spirit. From an iconic Jamaican Carnival style welcome party at arrival day to nothing to want for during the next few days. The kids were spoiled with all things Sesame street, we were spoiled with having the girls sleep in our room and Erika and Pat were spoiled with a few days handing over responsibilities to us as grandparents.
We enjoyed a never ending choice of wonderful food, pina-colada’s on the beach, swimming and boating in the sea, playing in the Pirate Island water park, screaming when going down the water slides in the pools, building sand castles with the girls… you name it… we got it all! All day every day we had free access to the all the entertainment facilities of the resort, free drinks for kids and adults at the swim-up bars in the pools and beach bars, and just enjoying an island holiday lifestyle on all levels.
Because the resort is specifically aimed at children, the children are indeed treated like royalty. The staff are always smiling and pay very much attention to the wishes of the children. They always get down to their level and show genuine interest in all the stories children want to tell them and things they want to show. Even for the adults is paradise: they never stop asking if they can help, if you need something or if they can bring something.
While spending the these few days at Beaches, we took a day trip to Appleton Rum Estate where we had a walkabout the estate to see the different aspects of the rum making process, but the most important was of course the tasting!
Just a short ride away we visited the YS Falls: a waterfall complex just off Black River in the west of Jamaica. The falls were quite full and the guides were extra careful to ensure we were all safe in the river. Only our two men (Pat and Stefaan) were brave enough to swing from the trees and jump in the falls. Even though the sea water in Jamaica is warm, the river and falls were just too darn cold for me. And the girls too seemed to prefer the warmer water from the pool afterwards.
Halfway our stay at Beaches, we celebrated my (60th) and Erika’s (33th) birthdays. Pat surprised us with a personal message in the swimming pool and a personal family day bed cabana on the beach. It was a day of fun in the sun, playing in the sand, going on boat trips, etc, etc.
After a day of carefree playing and enjoying the tropical beach life, Erika and I went for a massage pamper session. You could choose what you wanted and the level of firmness. I chose a “medium” body and foot massage and boy … that was sore! It felt good afterwards, but during the session I had tears in my eyes of the massage being so painful. Guess I better had chosen the “soft” version!
In the evening we were guided to our family table on the beach for a romantic dinner at sunset: crisp white table linen, flower petals, tiki torches, palm plants … the stuff that tropical dreams are made of! The girls were over the moon when the waiter brought their drinks and food on his head and the girls could take it from their head. That was really fun and cool! While the adults winded down after supper, the kids went wild playing and dancing on the beach against a backdrop of a pink and purple sunset.
Our last morning at the resort, the girls were once more spoiled with a Sesame Street breakfast party. I think they really love Sesame Street! Then it was unfortunately time to pack up and go home.
On our way back home, however, we made one more significant stop: we went swimming with dolphins. Once again, this is one of those things that you see often on on all sorts of media, but it’s quite different to experience it in real life. Yes, it is guided and the visit and interaction happen according to strict schedules and scripts, but it is still a unique experience. After our time with the dolphins, we went down to another enclosure for a close up encounter with a manta ray. That was something different. Of dolphins we accept they are happy to see people, want to play and are fun and easy to interact with. With a manta ray, you don’t really know how they are and how they interact with people. It was a pleasant surprise.
After such an exciting weekend it wasn’t difficult to believe the girls would fall asleep 5 minutes after we started driving home, and they did just that.
Our resort weekend was an amazing end to the holiday. A few days later Stefaan had to return to South Africa for work while I fell into everyday life and school run routine on the island for the next three weeks, till it was my time too, to go home!