WE WERE swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean when my wife Ildi uttered the dreaded words, “What’s that dark shape coming towards us?” I leapt up, wiping salt water out of my eyes, to see a majestic spotted eagle ray with a wingspan of about a metre make a diversion around us before continuing on its serene way down the coast. It was just one of many memorable moments during our seven-night stay in Jamaica. Our base was the five-star all-inclusive Riu Palace Tropical Bay hotel in Negril, situated on one of the most idyllic white sand beaches on the island, despite it being called Bloody Bay.
It recently underwent a Herculean renovation that saw every aspect of the hotel replaced or refurbished in a huge stylistic makeover achieved in just 80 days.
Our room had a cool, modern, Scandinavian vibe with sliding doors opening onto a balcony with a stunning view of the palm tree-lined beach and the sea.
Tempting though it was to laze around and indulge in the Riu’s 24-hour pampering, we were keen to explore and booked a trip to two of Jamaica’s must-see locations – the YS Falls and Black River.
Our driver Jermain was a fount of local information as we travelled along the south of the island between the aquamarine sea and forested hillsides where imposing gated mansions sat next to corrugated shacks, highlighting the disparity of wealth here.
En route we met the cousin of reggae star Peter Tosh when we stopped to take photos of his birthplace in the village of Belmont, fronted by a wall painted in rasta colours and the instruction to Lite Up Yu Spliff.
The YS Falls consist of seven waterfalls in beautiful tropical gardens, interspersed with natural pools for bathing, if you can stomach the chilly water issuing from natural springs. Huge guango trees abound, their massive branches colonised by drooping succulents and other plants. At the visitor centre, pots of sugar water hanging from the eaves are visited by tiny iridescent hummingbirds which swoop down to feed on the nectar.
After meandering back through meadows full of grazing cows, and stopping for a Jamaican snack at Juici Patties (lldi and I had traditional patties in a warm chunk of glutinous coco bread, Jermain went for chicken-foot soup), we boarded a boat trip up the Black River.
THE TOWN of Black River was once a thriving sugar port with a large market for African slaves, and was the first place in Jamaica to get running water and electricity, in 1893. It’s surrounded by 21,000 acres of wetlands famed for a population of 500 crocodiles.
On the cruise upriver, through overhanging mangroves with their root tendrils dangling down to the water, we got to meet several of them, including 55-year-old Eric who lazily swam over to us in the hope of chicken titbits from our guide.
After a day on the road it was wonderful to get back to the Riu and dive into the sea – the temperature of a tepid bath – before facing the daily conundrum of what to choose from the vast dinner buffet.The PalaceTropical Bay has four a la carte restaurants (fusion, Italian, Japanese and steak house, all part of your all-inclusive deal), plus a Jerk Shack. However, the buffet restaurant groans with a huge selection of fruits, salads, local and international hot dishes, and enough delightful desserts and exquisite little cakes to stock a patisserie.
We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner there most days, wandering around slack-jawed while trying to make a decision. Paella or conch curry? Roast duck or fried shrimp with yam and callaloo? Sated, it was a joy to then relax in the warm embrace of a Caribbean evening and have a few drinks while watching some live reggae on the outside stage of the hotel garden.
We also made good use of the gym, tried out the ScubaCaribe water-sports centre (sailing, snorkelling, paddle-boats) and the outdoor pools, and went for a massage in the Renova Spa.
Our final adventure was a catamaran cruise down the west coast. First stop was a snorkelling session a mile out at sea over a magnificent reef of fire coral. Face down in the water we entered a trance-like state as shoals of brightly coloured fish drifted past above black spiky sea urchins and starfish the size of dinner plates.
After another stop for a swim through a bat cave (no sign of Bruce Wayne) we reached our destination of the legendary Rick’s Cafe set on the clifftop near the Negril lighthouse (see panel) where we chilled out with a coupled of hugely overpriced bottles of Red Stripe as we watched brave (foolish?) souls jump from the heights into the cove below.
All too soon our last evening arrived and we finished on the beach with another tequila sunrise, watching a stunning Jamaican sunset.
You can certainly see why guests come back year after year.Would we? Yeah, mon. No problem!
Where to stay: From £82 per person, per night, staying on an all-inclusive basis in a Junior Suite garden view room at the Riu Palace Tropical Bay Hotel, Negril, Jamaica. Sea view suites from £122 per person, all-inclusive. See riu.com Virgin Atlantic flies twice weekly from Gatwick to Montego Bay with return fares from £653 including food, drink and in-flight entertainment. See virginatlantic.com or call 0344 874 7747.
Tourist info: visitjamaica.com
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