The Jamaica all inclusive plan - on airmiles
Jamaica is not the kind of place we usually manage to visit as a family, being so glamorous and long haul. And we had never tried an all inclusive either, so how on earth did we end up on a Jamaica all inclusive holiday, and would it be brochure gorgeous or gangland wild?
The story begins, rather surprisingly with the loss of Husband’s job which had involved (too much) travel to the US. The upside was he had racked up a lot of British Airways air miles and, once he’d found a new regular-hours job, he had the time to use them.
Research was fun. You could pretty much go anywhere – was like winning the air mile lottery, there were almost too many options. Except there are only 4 tickets on any one flight which are redeemable against air miles, so we had to find a flight with all 4 tickets still available. And you still have to pay taxes, so long haul trips, although “free”, cost about the same as a European Easyjet break. (Check out my money saving tips post for details).
In the end we both (kind of) agreed on the Caribbean. It wasn’t adventurous Husband’s South America, where I was convinced the kids would be shot, but it was exotic and would have a travel-y reggae vibe, so cultural too. We’d read about the high murder rate and drug lords but were hoping to avoid the grittier areas. #I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Jamaica all inclusive online deals cost about the same as independent travel with food. No shopping or cooking for 4 for me! I was sold.
The journey - Kingston to Montego Bay
British Airways flights land in Kingston, a good 3 to 4 hour drive from the hotel we had booked in Montego Bay. Not my finest hour in holiday management. As I didn’t fancy heading with the jet-lagged kids into downtown Kingston to find the local bus as a first holiday activity, and we arrived too late for an internal flight, I opted for a pre-booked taxi for about $300 return. It sped us past the gangland prison and Bob Marley museum of downtown Kingston, along lush green rivers, and into the night. Tired and disorientated children wailed a lot in the dark. The driver was unimpressed.
After travelling forever along a surprisingly new motorway style road (recently built by the Chinese, who appear to have fingers in economic pies across the world), we arrived at the Hilton Montego Bay at our equivalent of 3am, and slept. The children were quite happy to keep to British time for the duration of the holiday, regularly nodding off at the restaurant table at 6pm.
Jamaica all inclusive hotel
The morning revealed the Jamaica all inclusive hotel to be as good as the brochure: swim up bar (always wanted to do that), lazy river with tubes, restaurants, beach cafes, hermit crab racing and a rope bridge. We stuck to the pools rather than the beach, where a foot wide rubber pipe ran the length of the shoreline and underfoot the sand was sharp as builders’ rubble. A storm had churned the gravel into the water making it cloudy and uninviting.
A couple of days by the pool with all you can drink rum were top of the holiday agenda, to ease us gently into Caribbean life. It was hard not to start the pina coladas at 11. Or spill your drink in the water. As a bonus, a go on the resort’s catamaran was also included. In the high wind it was a bit tippy for Child 1, and to distract him from trying not to fall off, the boatman told us tales of Rose Hall, the hotel’s namesake. The Hall belonged to the owner of the old plantation, and was apparently haunted by its late mistress. To this day no Jamaican man dares to cross its threshold. Interesting.
Time to explore
Jet lag slept off, we were keen to find out what we could do on a Jamaica all inclusive holiday. Get the bus to town? A firm, “No” was the receptionist’s answer. Apparently, there are no local buses. People will drive by and if they know you they will give you a lift, but for out of towners, we were informed, it is a dangerous world out there and anyone stopping for us would be likely up to no good.
A Taxi then? Only if you were up for spending £50 on the 10 minute journey into town. Taxi fares were displayed on the side of each vehicle. There were 2 rates, a local rate (looked pretty reasonable) and the tourist rate, inflated by adding a 0 to the price. Jamaican resorts are used to a particular brand of wealthy American tourists and were taking no prisoners or slightly poorer UK relations.
Montego Bay, the nearest town, sounds so idyllic and Peter Andre’s video looks downright tropical. But the guidebooks said otherwise. They pretty much ruled out all downtown areas as being unsafe for walking. This was not the free and easy reggae vibe I had anticipated.
Unable to secure our own transport anywhere, we flicked through the Jamaica all inclusive excursion brochure. A day out for a family of 4 to any destination was £300. Oh. Having come this far we had to see the place, and it being our 15th wedding anniversary n’ all, we pushed the boat out, booking 2 trips, which we would have to spread out over the 2 weeks.
Jamaica all inclusive trip 1:
Part 1 Dunn River Falls
The first Jamaica all inclusive trip promised a kilometre walk up Dunn River Falls and then swimming with dolphins. Sounded amazing. Although I was unsure how you walk up a waterfall. And what do you wear? We’d not planned to walk up any waterfalls so had to sacrifice a pair of holiday shoes for the occasion.
The coach took us through tropical palm fringed roads and, as a bonus, past Usain Bolt’s old house. On board the bus, as well as being encouraged to try out some Jamaican Patois, waterfall walking instructions were issued.
Whilst navigating the huge slippy boulders, to ensure you are not swept away as you forge up stream, you are required to hold hands with the person either side of you in a 30 person chain. It kind of made sense, but when you are being water-pushed over rocks, you really want at least one hand to steady yourself and also ideally to avoid dragging the next person down with you. We rebelled one-handedly. One man was carrying a baby – which was a bit of a worry.
The waterfalls were more horizontal than vertical, thankfully, and were spectacular. Some rocks were mossy and very slippy, and the part where they encourage you to slide down between them in a water chute came with the significant risk of a cracked skull. Only about 50% of the party were brave enough.
Having no waterproof camera and an unwillingness to part with $70 for one of the tour operator’s snaps meant we have no pictorial record of the event, but it lives on in our minds in the comedy section.
Jamaica all inclusive trip 1:
Part 2 dolphin tour
Having towelled off, it was back on to the bus for part 2 of the big day out – the dolphins at Ocho Rios. You enter a marina and are shown videos of how not to ride a dolphin. Some people had clearly spent a lot of money on having a terrible time near-drowning. We paid close attention to the technique.
With the knowledge of how not to do it (bent arms) at the forefront of our minds, we were dolphin-ready and getting very excited whilst queuing up on the decking next to the open sea. You jump off in groups of 6 and bob around in a life jacket, holding up your non-swimmer child with mad leg kicking and wait for your turn with your named dolphin. Even though you were born ready, it still comes as a surprise to have a dolphin shoot up in front of you. Next it is a question of grabbing its fin, keeping your face up and doing a fantastic 10 metres or so of white water surfing. You can then pose for a photo with your dolphin for another $100. We said no (to the photo).
- watch out for the friendly looking but knife-like tail slashing your shin when it drops you off at the end of your ride (and try not to think about the sharks);
- clinging on to a fin involves a surprising wrench of the old shoulder joints (bit like water-ski-ing, which I couldn’t do either);
- look up or drown.
To improve the tour operator’s chance of a dolphin photo sale, no self-owned cameras were allowed anywhere near the dolphin area, but I really wanted one. I did sneak a couple of surreptitious snaps on zoom from behind a bush, but once again the album is generally bare.
Back to the hotel for the dangerous swim up rum bar and a few days with Bob Marley tunes, piped out of every speaker at all times. We found ourselves in a constant if unintentional sing-a-long.
Jamaica all inclusive free shopping shuttle trip
Waiting for Jamaica all inclusive trip 2, we discovered we could get a free shuttle to the shopping area – and also that they get very cross if you pop over to have a quick look at the beach instead of in the designated shops. Having glimpsed the turquoise and crystal clear waters of the spectacular Doctor’s Cave beach, I sought to make the case to Husband that we really should stump up the £50 taxi fare for a full day here. Husband was happy to keep the fifty quid and stick with the middling to good hotel beach.
I looked at the map to see if there was anything else to tempt the family into a beach trip downtown, whilst avoiding walking its apparently dangerous streets. A compromise was reached. We would get the taxi to a Jamaican church on Sunday, walk to the amazing cove, but quickly past the intervening Dump Up beach (its actual name), renowned for its daily muggings, and taxi it back to the hotel from there. A culture/beach combo to justify the money.
Church and Doctor's Cave beach day
The taxi driver warned us that Jamaican Catholic services could be a bit on the long side. The boys slumped visibly in their taxi seats.
The sides of the church building were open, allowing the warm wind to blow through its wooden slatted shutters. The congregation had dressed for the occasion but were happy to drift in and out of the service, which did look set to last for several hours. The priest was of the fire and brimstone variety, and shouty in his delivery. Hurricanes past and future featured heavily in his prayers.
About 90 minutes in, we took our leave and were immediately stopped by a pair of concerned looking policewomen for attempting to walk in the general vicinity of the aforementioned Dump Up Beach. They escorted us, in the manner of the insane, up the road to the safety of jewel beach – Doctor’s Cave Bathing Club.
We hired a lounger, gazed out at the waters and generally spent a pretty idyllic afternoon swimming out to the yellow inflatable sea toy for some ocean based lounging. Even the child jellyfish sting incident, requiring lifeguard attention, was taken in the afternoon’s stride. Then the storm came in. The sky and the water darkened. Rain lashed. The taxi back was booked for 2 hours’ hence. We found it warmer for the last hour to stay neck deep in water than sit in wet clothes on the beach. Worth it though. Best beach ever. Definitely worth £50.
Jamaica all inclusive trip 2:
Part 1 Black River Crocodiles
Time for Jamaica all inclusive trip 2 – a crocodile tour of the Black River, and home by way of the Appleton Rum distillery (one for the kids). To add to the drama, it had been raining copiously. The unpaved roads ran with rivers of mud and the crocodiles were 3 hours away even on a good day. But with a few diversions around the bigger road-lakes , we made it, to the Black River, which ran brown with floodwater mud. There was a slight worry that all roads would be submerged by the time of our return. But the driver wanted his money and we wanted our crocodile/rum combo.
The driver was a mine of information. He thought the country had lost its way post colonialism, and longed for the days when all school boys were given a cricket bat. Jamaicans, we were told, tended to save up to build their own homes rather than buy them second hand, but as houses attract more tax when complete, they would usually be left unfinished resulting in tax efficient shanty towns. Also, KFC is huge in Jamaica. Every KFC had a queue of about 50 people. They just love the way Colonel Sanders does chicken, he told us.
3 hours after setting off we found ourselves climbing on to our very cool river boat. We were advised to check the pontoon for stray crocodiles, and although we couldn’t see any, it got us quite excited. We pootled around through mysterious mangroves on our boat safari as what looked like trees slunk up out of the water next to us to reveal their beady eyes. The afternoon was surprisingly more relaxing than terrifying, and an all round winner.
Jamaica all inclusive trip 2:
Part 2 Appleton Rum-init
Next stop on the Jamaican all inclusive trip 2 was the home of rum. Massive cardboard cut outs were placed under palm trees on the grass, in case you had forgotten why you were there.
As soon as you arrive, everyone is offered a complimentary rum at the bar (cola for kids, you will be relieved to hear), and this was an indication of the way the day was headed. The prospect of the post-rum 3 hour journey back receded with each sip.
The tour encompasses rum manufacture through the ages, tethered donkeys as spoon mixers to post industrial metal chimney stacks and VATS.
Sugar cane is tasted, processes were explained and then it was on to the next rum bar where we were offered a whole selection of all you can drink rums, in all the flavours of the world. After this, they cannily show you the shop. Husband is a big rum fan in normal life, even before drinking a bottle’s worth and inevitably we over purchased.
The heavens had continued their deluge throughout the afternoon, and it was time for the return white knuckle bus ride against time and nature back to the hotel. The rum made the event misty in my memory and definitely took the edge off the fear, but I do recall it was a long, windy journey involving forging quite deep water channels in a very un-waterproof looking saloon car. Everyone managed not to be sick and we were not washed away down the Black River but lived to tell the tale and to head to the final free-rum hotel bar of the day for a night cap.
Final free Jamaica all inclusive trip - Rose Hall
With the Jamaica all inclusive trip budget well and truly blown there was no way we could go for another. Would have loved to do trip 3, night swimming in phosphorescent waters (although swimming in the dark with sleepy non-swimmers may have not been the wisest of plans).
We did, however, find another free souvenir shop shuttle which would let you off at Rose Hall Estate – so manged to squeeze in a final trip to this infamous local haunted house. The lady of the manor, Rose, had murdered a succession of husbands, getting slaves to carry the bodies down to the beach through secret tunnels before then arranging for the slaves to be killed in turn. She would watch the workers being beaten from her balcony and was generally a very unpleasant woman.
When she died, the plan was to seal her spirit with her body in her grave. The problem was that the people burying her did not know whether her spirit was inside the coffin at the time. In the end it was decided to leave the tomb unsealed at one corner so as not to trap her out of it forever. As a result, her spirit is reputedly now free to come and go as it pleases. Hence the reluctance of any Jamaican man to go anywhere near the place.
The Hall is filled with replica period furniture and spooky paintings of children whose eyes appear to follow you around the room. A display of photographs of Rose’s hauntings can be found in the basement bar, where she can be seen popping out of the grave and up in tourists’ photographs to this day. I am not sure how these were taken as, once again, no unofficial photography was allowed. (Although I did manage to sneak these 2 in from the lawn when no one was watching):
The tales of life on the plantations and the history of slavery were as fascinating as they were unsettling. Although the cruelty of the colonial masters was not universal, it was widespread. Years after the abolition of slavery, Jamaicans were in effect slave labourers for the new landowners in all but name.
Independence and Emancipation party day
We happened to be in Jamaica for Independence Day (from Britain) and Emancipation Day (from slavery) and wondered how welcome, as UK tourists, we would be during these ceremonies.
In the end, no one seemed to mind us being there too much. The hotel threw a party with an outdoor buffet, parades and the whole staff joined in dancing on the lawn.
Summary - Jamaica all inclusive with kids
More than Bob Marley and rum, Jamaica is the land of plantations, crocodile safaris, dolphin swimming, no-photograph rules and expensive tours – it can be at once pretty as postcard and gritty as a drug dealer.
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