Getting Intimate In Negril

The inns at Jamaica’s hippest outpost grow up

By: David Swanson

NEGRIL, Jamaica The Caribbean’s original capital of cool, Negril has grown and matured over the last couple decades. Once the home of ramshackle guesthouses that catered to hippies and budget travelers, the town now boasts a series of several-hundred-room, all-inclusive resorts. The tiny airstrip that served puddle-jumpers has all but shut down, replaced by a smooth highway that cuts the drive from the Montego Bay airport to an hour.

Some of Negril’s original fans have moved on to other “undiscovered” beach hamlets. But Negril’s famed Seven Mile Beach still gleams, a laid-back attitude still reigns, and the beach hawkers still present ply their wares, perhaps a little more courteously than before. Plus, many of the original small inns have grown up with their guests, and a few others have arrived to lure upscale travelers seeking the island’s “no problem” milieu. The only obstacle these smaller properties face is to build awareness without breaking the bank. One answer: Intimate Negril, a collection of six hotels that joined efforts in 2003 to promote themselves to the North American and U.K. markets.

Linus Arnliah, manager of Moon Dance Villas, said veteran hotelier Lee Issa came up with the idea.

“He said it’s time to start marketing ourselves,” explained Arnliah. “The perception out there was that all the small hotels were budget, or not that nice.”

Lee Issa is best known for the Couples resorts in Jamaica. But in 1998, he and his wife, Jane, took a small piece of beachfront property the family owned and built Idle Awhile, a 13-room inn that caters to a very different market segment from their all-inclusive resort just down the beach. While the Issas have proven you can have it both ways operate a big resort as well as a smaller inn as a sort of pet project the Intimate Negril alliance gives their smaller hotel more marketing muscle.

“These hotels are boutique, intimate in scale and they provide good options outside of the corporate experience,” said Jane Issa.

Travel agents are paid a 10 percent commission on bookings (Idle Awhile pays 15 percent); add a 16.25 percent tax and service charge to rates (except as noted). Here are six options in the Intimate Negril collection.

Sea Splash Resort has small but well-appointed standard rooms, plus junior suites and one-bedroom suites. Each room has a king-size bed, mini-fridge, irons, coffeemaker, air conditioning and cable TV. There’s a small pool and Jacuzzi on property, or guests are allowed to use the elaborate sports facility of the nearby Swept Away resort. As a bonus, on-site shore-side dining is provided at Norma’s, run by famed Kingston restaurateur Norma Shirley. Standard doubles are $79 ($119 in winter) while junior suites and larger are $99-$135 ($149-$199 high season); prices for singles are $20 less.

Designed by acclaimed architect Ann Hodges, the 14-room Country Country is made up of cheery beachfront cottages, painted in bright Caribbean colors in patina, ringed by gingerbread and topped by tin roofs. Standard units have a mini-fridge, in-room safe, teakettle and air conditioning. Superior rooms add a pull-out single bed, and slightly more space heralding its minimalist appeal. There’s a beachfront restaurant, Country Peppa’s, serving Jamaican specialties. The family that operates Montego Bay’s Coyaba Beach Resort acquired Country Country in 2003, and an expansion is planned. Double rates are $115, or $135 for the superior units ($155-$175 in high season).

Also on Seven Mile Beach is the Issa’s Idle Awhile, a charming 13-room inn with oversized rooms and swank Caribbean styling. Most units don’t have beach views, but all are embraced by well-tended gardens. The restaurant specializes in Jamaican cuisine, and a vegetarian lunch special is offered daily. Guests here also get access to the nearby Swept Away sports facility. Doubles range $110-$190 ($170-$275 in winter).

Perhaps the most high-end escape on the beach is Moon Dance Villas, a group of six two-story villas, all owned by Chicagoan Randy McKay, a Negril regular for three decades. According to manager Linus Arnliah, McKay has stayed in most of Negril’s hotels and in 2001 built the one that would most suit his needs. The villas range from one-bedroom (1,500 square feet) to five-bedroom (5,000 square feet) two are beachfront, and most have their own pool; all are tastefully appointed and the larger villas have extras like a full bar, PC with high-speed Internet and large-screen TV. Each villa comes with an attentive staff, including chef, bartender, housekeeper and laundress. Rates range from $400 for the one-bedroom villa ($550 in high season), to $1,500 for the five-bedroom villas ($2,000 in winter), and include airport transfers. An “all-inclusive” option (all meals and unlimited beverages) is available for $75 per person, per night.

Though there’s no beach on Negril’s West End, swimming along the dramatic cliffs is still pretty appealing (the beach is a 10-minute drive from these properties). Tensing Pen is a fantasy apparition built along the cliffs, a hideaway with a loyal following. The iconic cliff-hugging “pillar rooms” look like treehouses, with outdoor showers below and dreamy bedrooms that open onto sea views. There are also stone cottages and wood/thatch bungalows, though not all have a view. There’s a communal kitchen, and the chef cooks family-style dinners each evening; a small spa facility tempts guests with outdoor massages, and yoga lessons are offered most days. Rates range from one unit to the next, but start at $75 for a bungalow ($110 high season); $145 for a pillar room ($220 winter); or $285 for the Great House ($430 winter).

Situated on the westernmost tip of Jamaica and part of the Island Outpost family of trendy resorts, The Caves offers 10 handcrafted, thatch-roofed cottages perched at the edge of the cliffs. Each is steeped in bright colors and has hand-carved furniture, batik fabrics, original art and beds lavished with mosquito netting; two-bedroom units are also available. The narrow, 2.5-acre property is surrounded by a tall fence, making the experience Negril’s most private (and a celebrity-friendly one). There’s a tiny massage room for Aveda spa treatments, a swimming pool and even the caves underneath the bluff are utilized one grotto can be reserved for a one-of-a-kind candlelight dinner. The rates, which include all meals, drinks and taxes, start at $445, or $575 in high season (plus 10 percent service charge).

Cool out in NEGRIL

Situated at the northwest corner of Jamaica, Negril’s famed beach is seven miles long, but the town’s reputation is even bigger. The community offers one of the region’s most laid-back scenes, and draws a younger crowd than most island resort areas. It is the Caribbean’s original hip outpost, but some visitors may be taken aback by Negril’s in-your-face disposition. Yes, visitors are repeatedly offered ganja (marijuana) for sale, as well as any number of other illicit propositions, but if you don’t partake a simple “no thank you” usually keeps hawkers at bay. Visitors should take sensible precautions: leave valuables at home, and note that walking the beach solo at night is not a great idea. It’s also worth mentioning that Negril plays host to all-consuming Spring Break festivities around March. If a 24-hour frat-house scene and a relentless thump of music through the night aren’t your client’s cup of tea, avoid this destination during Spring Break. Otherwise, Negril is an excellent place to unwind. “It’s for anybody who needs to cool out, indulge in relaxation or escape the rat race,” said Jane Issa. There are two Negrils: the beautiful, seven-mile beach strip home to all-inclusive resorts, inns and guest houses of all sizes, costs and personality while just south of town is a two-mile-long series of rock cliffs fronting the ocean, also known as the West End. The latter has more than a dozen small hotels along the rocks, with steps, ladders or cave-like passageways that lead down to the water, where swimming and snorkeling is fine amid seductive grottos. (If beach access is important, note that the sand is more than a mile away.) Negril is located 50 miles west of Montego Bay. The taxi ride from the Montego Bay airport to Negril costs about $20, or regularly scheduled bus transfers run $20 per person through Jamaica Tours (876-953-3700).


Intimate Negril Collection

Sea Splash Resort 800-254-2786, 876-957-4041

Country Country 877-232-3224, 876-957-4273

Idle Awhile 877-243-5352, 876-957-9566

Moon Dance Villas 800-621-1120

Tensing Pen 876-957-0387

The Caves 800-688-7678, 876-957-0269