One Final Thought on Jamaica

Exactly 4 weeks ago I was fresh off the plane in Jamaica.  It never ceases to amaze me how fast time passes by.  I looked forward to this vacation for months and it has already been a month since we were there.  I’ve been holding on to this post for awhile, mostly because I have a little white furball who consumes my life, but also maybe a little because once this is up, then Jamaica is over.  I’ve already developed the pictures, but up the souvenirs, and finally had to get a pedicure redo after my little toe flowers started to peel off yesterday.

As a recap, my other Jamaica posts are about what to pack, staying at a Sandals Resort, and a guide to all those fruity Jamaican cocktails.

So, here is my last post on Jamaica….our very small venture into Montego Bay.

As recent at 2005, Jamaica had the worst crime rate in the world.  In fact, most travel sites recommend that tourists stay safely within the walls of their resort after dark.  This is not only recommended in the country’s largest city, Kingston, but also in Montego Bay.  As Jamaica’s third most populous city, Montego Bay has a population of under 100,000, but has the busiest airport thanks to the tourist industry.

Despite the risk, Aaron and I made the decision to leave the safe compounds of the resort and venture into the real world for a bit.  TIP: Instead of taking a taxi in, we took the free shuttle to another Sandal’s resort (Sandal’s Carlyse) and walked from there into town.  The half mile walk from the hotel to the main street, “Hip Strip” was more of an inner city experience.  Lots of people sitting on the porch outside drug stores and businesses, lots of people driving erratically, and lots of people gawking at me in my big floppy hat.  Hip Strip is the “tourist approved” spot of Montego Bay.

Bobsled Cafe

To say that we really explored the city would be like saying that we explored Las Vegas without making it off the main strip.  We were in a highly tourist centered area.  For example, we walked by the Jamaican Bobsled Café (owned by Margaritaville), Harley Davidson Jamaica (come on…really?), and Margariataville itself which we had seen from the backside the day before on our Catamaran Cruise.

Harley Davidson Jamaica

Even that small venture into the real world was kind of stressful.  Jamaicans are amazing sales people.  Every person wants you to come inside their Jamaican store and they will offer you a special price.  Men wait on the side of the road offering their taxi services.  If you say no, then they suddenly become tour guides wanting to show you around Montego Bay.  People sell CD’s out of their backpack.  We were asked if we “Bob Marley,” which I can only assume was a reference to smoking pot.  We got lured into some back alley flea market where I learned about what the colors of Jamaica (and the colors of Rastafarian) represent.  The back alley itself and the people in it turned out to be ok, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend going off the beaten path.  With all of the interesting characters out there,  I didn’t want to pull my camera out too much though, so I didn’t get a lot of great pictures.

One of the main reasons we wanted to go into town was to get some good deals on souvenirs and folk art.  In all our travels, rather than bring back souvenir spoons or shot glasses or t-shirts, the Lavenders like to decorate our home with reminders of the places we’ve been.  We were in search of something less mass produced and more authentic.

Our artisan giraffe, Jethro

Jamaicans are a bartering culture, which I LOVE.  You get to name your price on anything.  It is like a 25% off sale wherever you! Obviously the resort store and the airport stores aren’t negotiable, but any street vendor or even drug store is willing to work with you in order to make a sale.   We did our research by stopping by the resort store and pricing items, so when we were bartering, we knew the estimated retail value of each.

For example, a similar version of this vase cost $40 in the resort shop (plus 17.5% sales tax), but I got it from a street vendor for $30, no tax.  Another great thing: everyone takes American currency! They name their prices in American dollars, and they give you back change in American dollars.  I don’t know if this would be the case further into town, but Jamaicans are well versed in the exchange rate.

We did exchange some of our currency as souvenirs.  Imagine our surprise when our $10 USD converted to $865 Jamaican dollars.  While the exchange rate seems to fluctuate, you can get anywhere between 85-90 Jamaican dollars to every US dollar. This explains why we saw lunch advertised for $1500.

Another glaringly apparent aspect of Montego Bay is the poverty.  Stepping outside the beautiful, luxurious resort is a wonderful reminder that while I see this place as paradise, other people live in abandoned buildings with no doors or windows.  I’d like to think that by buying merchandise straight from the artisans and local shop owners, I’m helping support the local economy.   This island depends on tourism to survive, and it is a little heartbreaking to realize that when our economy suffers, they suffer and they have very little control over the situation.

I'd like to think these cannons fought off pirates...

Right in the middle of Hip Strip...a beautifully peaceful cemetary

Red Stripe!

So, there it is.  My Jamaica vacation has been photographed and documented.   I’m glad I went, though I don’t know if I would go back unless I had a reason.  With all the places in the world that I haven’t seen, I think I can check this little piece of paradise off my list and head to the next destination.

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But Why Is the Rum Gone? A Guide to Jamaican Drinks

Through all the vampires, ninjas and zombies, I have remained a devoted Pirate Person.  I know  in real life pirates were (and still are) very bad, violent people, but from my first ride on Pirates of the Caribbean at age 5, Disney has convinced me that being a pirate might be a pretty cool lifestyle.

One of the ways I got to live out my Pirate life was of course to fly to the Caribbean and drink rum.  Jamaica has no shortage of rum or rum drinks.  Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me! Plus, the house wine was Beringer, so switching to rum was kind of a necessity.

RUM BY THE BOTTLE

Sandals carried El Dorado rum.  It was served at the bars, it was the bottle in our in-room stocked bar, and it was given away as prizes for all sorts of contests.  I even won my own bottle! I won’t tell you what I had to do to win it.  What happens in Jamaica stays in Jamaica.

El Dorado tastes like cheap rum.  Luckily we were clued in by another guest and started asking for the “top shelf” version….El Dorado 12 Year Rum which was waaaay better.  Because Sandals is all-inclusive, you pay the same for the cheap stuff as you do for the top shelf stuff, so why not get the better of the two?

We did our Rum shopping at the duty-free stores at the Montego Bay airport.  It was cheaper there than at the resort shop, plus you don’t have to pay that pesky UNREASONABLY HIGH Jamaican sales tax rate of 17.5%.

You can get rum that is more of a souvenir than drinkable:

You can get really expensive fancy rum:

Or you can spring for some Appleton’s like we did.  Appleton’s is probably the most iconic Jamaican rum, and is actually available at our corner liquor store (which we didn’t realize until we came back).  But it is tasty, and cheaper to buy in Jamaica than here.

NOTE: You are only allowed to bring back 1 litre of alcohol per person back into the US.  I suggest if you win a bottle of the cheap stuff, pass it off to some appreciative resort guest who doesn’t have the fully stocked bar, and then buy 2 bottles of something better.  ALSO: Once you get back in the country, you will have to go through security again if you have another flight, so if you do buy duty-free at the airport, remember to stash your bottle in your checked luggage that you get back at customs.

RUM DRINKS:

Going to a tropical location and not getting a fruity cocktail seems rather counterintuitive.  Sure they have about 500 calories each and will rapidly cause you to lose your bikini abs by the end of your vacation, but nothing says “vacation” quite like a colorful drink topped with an umbrella or pineapple slice.

We obviously weren’t thinking about much of anything including watching the bartenders make our drinks so we could steal their secrets and make our own at home, but here’s what we’ve come up with.

Miami Vice:

This was by far my favorite of all the drinks we tried.  We figured out that it was strawberry daiquiri and pina colada topped off with dark rum.  The day after we got back from our trip, we immediately bought the supplies and made our own.  The transition back to reality is a tough one.

 

American Flag:

As far as we can tell, it is a Miami Vice with Blue Curacao mixed in.  Curacao makes everything cooler.

Jamaican Hummingbird:

This was my first drink at the resort, and apparently it is a Sandal’s specialty.  It is like a smoothie with rum.  I liked it, but I don’t think I had another.

 

Purple Rain

I don’t know what this is, but it was recommended to us by a New Yorker.  It was also disguising unless you like the taste of cough syrup.  I drank half and then let the nice man take it away.

 

Sex on the Boat:

This was the specialty cocktail of our catamaran cruise.  It tasted a lot like Sex on the Beach but it apparently is a lot smoother.  The Rum Runner seemed to be similar in taste.

 

Margaritaville Rum Smoothie Thing

First off, I will say that if our catamaran cruise didn’t stop at Margaritaville I would NOT have gone.  I did not go all the way to Jamaica to go to Margaritaville.  That being said, jumping on a giant trampoline in the middle of the bay was pretty cool.  Anyway, I don’t remember what this was called, but the rum is Appleton’s, and the drink was tasty.  Unfortunately we paid $37 for 2 of them.  You best be giving me the souvenir glass for that price.  Yikes.

Steel Bottom

I did not try this, but the guys seemed to give it high marks.  It is a glass of Red Stripe with a shot of rum.  Sounds yummy.  NOT.

Jamaican Coffee

Like Irish coffee, but with rum cream instead of Irish cream.  Rum cream is also good on the rocks.  Or drizzled over the buffet dessert selections.

Red Stripe

This is not a rum drink.  And it isn’t exactly exotic seeing as how you can probably pick it up at your local 7-11.  It is also not the world’s best beer.  It is the Budweiser of Jamaica.  But for some reason, in Jamaica, it tastes AMAZING.  They also have the lite version for those girls (and guys) wanting a break from the 500 calorie rum drinks.

By tomorrow I will hopefully have come to the full realization that the blue Caribbean will not be outside my window when I wake up.  I will conclude my Jamaica series with a look at Montego Bay the city, or at least what we saw of it on our brief adventure outside the resort gates.  And then I will revert to talking nonstop about my new puppy, Giuseppe who we will get on Friday!

I Had The Time of My Life (Cue Cheesy Commercial)

Part 2: The Sandals Experience

When friend Katie suggested Sandals for our group vacation, my first thought was of Michael from The Office being excited about his all-inclusive Sandals vacation.  That, and the overly cheesy “Time of Your Life” commercials that tend to play every few minutes on early morning Bravo programming (I get my Housewives fix when I can).

So, even though I try and live my life by “What What Michael Scott NOT Do,” we ended up at Sandals Montego Bay.  After stalking the resort page on tripadvisor.com for 4 months, I was worried.  There were a lot of mixed reviews.  Some people have great experiences, some people would rather coat themselves in sugar and stand in a room full of blood thirsty mosquitoes then spend another in another night at a Sandals resort.

A little background on Sandals:  The Company operates several resorts around the Caribbean including Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, and Turks and Caicos.  Their family friendly version is called Beaches, but Sandals is adult couples only (in Jamaica, couples is restricted to heterosexual couples only.  I didn’t know this at the time of booking).  The big gimmick is of course the all-inclusiveness.  Anyone who has spent $10 for a Heineken at a Hawaiian resort can appreciate ordering drinks from a bar and not getting a tab.  Was this resort as nice as those Hawaiian resorts? Heck no.  But it definitely wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, and we never ran out of things to do. Our experience wasn’t bad at all.

Sandals has three levels of packages.  We went with Concierge service which is the midrange package.  You can get the basic package, or you can upgrade to Butler Service (which we think is worth it after seeing it in action).  Concierge service allowed us to check-in faster, make reservations easier, and have a fully stocked bar in our hotel room included.  Apparently staff was also more willing to help us out than people who didn’t upgrade to concierge.  The room also came with a 4 poster bed, bathrobes, and a Jacuzzi tub. You can check out www.sandals.com for more specifics.

If you are considering Sandals or Montego Bay, here are some of highlights.

The Good:

Airport Lounge:
While we waiting for a ride to the resort, we got to sit in comfy couches, got complimentary Red Stripe (the official beer of Jamaica), and got to hang out with Cookie Monster! The resort itself was only about 5 minutes from the airport which was pretty convenient considering some other resorts were a 2 hour drive away.  Unfortunately this also made for some brief, loud, plane moments.  You also get complementary transport to the resort but you are expected to tip the driver and baggage handlers who are not Sandals employees.

All-Inclusiveness:
Food (from cheeseburgers to Sushi and caviar), drinks (including top shelf liquors if you request them), entertainment and activities (like beach volleyball tournaments and concerts), and water sports including water skiing, kayaking, hobie sailing, and snorkeling are included.   This means never having to carry cash or worry about waiting around for a bill.  Tips are included too.  NOTE: excursions, room service (unless you get a Butler), resort shop products, photos, and spa servicesaren’t included.

HUGE Beach:
We always got a beach chair, and we always had our own ocean spot. The beach was immaculate and staff made sure that cups/plates were picked up promptly, and that the sand was combed multiple times per day.

The Staff:
Jamaicans are such wonderful people.  Funny, outgoing, and full of personality.  We noticed that the resort staff tended to be a young, attractive bunch probably hired as much for their appearance as for their personality.  Many people at the resort developed friendships with staff members and we even saw some newly arrived guests greet staff that they obviously met on a previous visit.  That being said, service is SLOW.  There were times when we had to wait annoyingly long between courses, not to mention the hour and a half we had to wait before getting our luggage delivered to our room after check-in.

Other Guests:
I don’t know how much this changes from week to week, but the resort was full of beautiful, young, friendly people.  There was a good mix of ages including a great couple we met celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, but I would say the crowd was younger (20s-30s) and full of energy.  Everyone was extremely friendly, and actually pretty clean and respectful.  Public toilets were flushed, nobody stole our stuff when we were off splashing in the ocean, and nobody cut in line or acted entitled.

Basically, aside from the luggage delivery incident, I have nothing to complain about.  If you are used to higher end accommodations, you might find some of the amenities subpar, or if you are looking for a secluded, peaceful vacation without noise you will probably get annoyed by the party people.  If you like huge, lush poolscapes, you might think the ones here are small and boring.  If you are looking for a culinary experience, or even some authentic island cuisine, you aren’t going to get it here (though the food was really good and diverse…just not 5-star cooking).  I would definitely recommend this place, and we are absolutely looking into celebrating Aaron’s big 3-0 next year at another Sandals resort on a different island.

What to Pack on Your Jamaica Vacation

Welcome to Paradise

So, I realized that I haven’t updated or even obsessively looked at the stats on my blog for over a month.  Since this probably isn’t the best blogging practice, I figured I better hop back in the game and start writing again now that the Jamaican vacation is 48 hours over and I don’t have to work out quite as much or scramble around trying to get ready to leave the country.  Plus, next week we get our puppy, Giuseppe (!) and I may have to fall off the planet while I play responsible dog mom for a few weeks.

So I spent the last week in Jamaica.  AMAZING.  There really is too much to write about for one blog post, so this is the first in a series of travelling to the land of sun and reggae.

PART 1: What to Pack on Your Jamaican Vacation

I am of the “always be prepared” school of thinking.  While this doesn’t apply to say leaving, 15 minutes early in case of unforeseen circumstances like car accidents or unusually long security lines, I do always try and have any necessary products that might come in handy.  This is why the bags I carry are usually bigger than I am.

Before cramming everything into my suitcase (which Aaron graciously uncrammed than packed again in organized fashion), this was my inventory.  I had shoes for walking on the beach, shoes for walking around the airport, shoes for casual evenings, shoes for more formal evenings, and shoes for working out (which I did once!).  I had several outfits to match each possible
scenario including sweaters in case it got cold, 5 days worth of workout clothes, and of course more than enough bikinis which did come in handy for morning swimming and evening hot tubbing.

Here are my other “must-have” items for vacationing on in the Caribbean.

1. Sunscreen: The sun is brutal.  Even after multiple applications, we still got a little red.  We fared far better than the average sunburn person we saw walking around.  Tan is cute.
Peeling Lobster is not.   Bringing it from home is cheaper than buying it at the resort shop.

The drink is pretty...and the manicure is intact!

2. Gel Manicure: after hearing rave reviews, I got one myself and I am a devoted fan.  It dries almost instantly, and looks just like regular polish.  After
a week of splashing in the ocean (not to mention an intense pre-vacation house cleaning), my manicure is still completely intact!

One look down, and these are lost at the bottom of the sea!

3. Cheap Sunglasses:  My $80 Coach Outlet sunglasses got submerged in the pool, were worn in the middle of the ocean, got rained on, were left in the sand, and in general got a good beating.  If I had worn an expensive pair, I might be pretty mad about the damage that was done.

4. Underwater Camera: I found them for about $11 at Target while they were $20 at the resort.  This ensures you can have some crazy underwater pictures OR some good pictures of your snorkeling adventure. Equally awesome: Friend Katie lent us her camera sleeve protector thing that she found on Amazon.com which allows you to take your regular camera
underwater.

5. Dramamine:  4 out of the 8 people who went on boats got motion sickness.  Granted, we are a pretty landlocked bunch, but this little pill made the very bumpy Catamaran
Cruise much more enjoyable.

6. Curl Enhancing Mousse: The air is humid.  You are on a beach.  If you are trying to comb your hair, you will not only waste valuable beach time, but you will also have curly/wavy/kinky hair in minutes anyway.  I use Herbal Essences Totally Twisted, and my straight hair transforms into kind of wavy hair with the help of the humidity.

7. Insect Repellant: Paradise has a price, and in this case it is mosquitoes.  I didn’t use insect repellant, and 37 itchy little bites later, I kind of wish I had.

8. Snorkel Set: Yes, they have them at the resort, but I can’t help thinking of the yucky person who bit down on that mouth piece before I did.  We got ours at Costco for about $40 each.

9. A willingness to try new things and have a ton of fun!: During this trip I conquered my fear of snorkeling and water tubing, learned how to sail, and made friends with people from all over the country.  I had an absolutely wonderful time, and we are already dreaming of our next Caribbean vacation!

Countdown to Jamaica…Lots of Weeks Out

 

So, as if I needed another reason to be obsessive over our upcoming Jamaica vacation (and by obsessive I mean I can tell you how many hours it’ll be til we land, weeks out) , we received a little surprise package on our doorstep yesterday morning, and in a perfectly packaged leather (faux leather?) portfolio, we found our vacation itinerary!

Ooooo! Luggage Tags!

 

Even though we still have quite a bit of time before we get to relax on the beach enjoying our all inclusive drinks/water sports/amenities, we are kind of already on vacation mode, and we’ve absolutely started preparing.

Our treadmill has seen much more usage in recent weeks as we try and get our bikini/Speedo bodies into shape.  We are going with 4 other couples, meaning there will be lots of pictures posted on facebook, and I’d rather look like Audrina Patridge than a beach “don’t” in those pictures.  If anyone sees me eating a donut, please, just knock the sucker out of my hand.  

 

The bikini is also hanging up reminding me of the upcoming vacation.  This really doesn’t provide much inspiration for weight loss, but for whatever reason I collect bikinis that I don’t wear.  I have about 15 and I wear maybe 1 a year.  I live in a desert and I don’t know anyone with a pool.  We don’t have much use for bikinis, yet I buy them compulsively.  As hard as I try, there is a good chance I will have acquired 2 more by the time we go on vacation.

 

I bought new flip flops.  I am a littler person than average.  I require slightly elevated shoes just to reach mid-level shelves and cabinets.  For whatever reason, flip flops are not typically made to accommodate this need.  Almost every year I have to order Roxy sandals online because finding elevated flip flops in stores is next to impossible.  Meanwhile Aaron is slowly breaking in the Rainbows I bought him two years ago.

 

I did find this new dress at a kiosk at the mall and thought it might be appropriate…but I don’t know how well received I would be walking around Jamaica with their flag as my halter dress.  Plus, I’m not too much of a mall kiosk shopper…

 

Unfortunately I decided to wait until the last minute to change my name on my passport, so while I may have the itinerary, and the body, and the shoes, and the bikini(s), I have yet to receive the one thing I need to actually make it out of the country.  At least the Government Shut-Down was avoided, so it should be arriving in the mail soon.  And then I can go back to dreaming about paradise…