Flying into Montego Bay, Jamaica and looking out the window at the sandy beaches and the lush green mountains that rise up behind them, a visitor cannot help but see that this is one of the most beautiful spots on earth. There is no sugar-coating the fact, however, that in years gone by it has also been among the most troubled. The Jamaica Tourist Board knows the perceptions Americans hold of Jamaica, and knows also that the only way to prove to the meeting and incentive industry that this is once again a top destination is to bring planners in to see for themselves. And so participants in the Adams/Laux Showcase to Jamaica came in to have a look at the beautiful, peaceable resort areas of Jamaica's North Coast.
Not Only for Honeymooners When you think of Ocho Rios, your first image may be of honeymooners and all-inclusive resorts. But planners on this visit were all business--and were there to be introduced to the meetings and incentives side of Jamaica's resorts. Not that they didn't see a few weddings during their site inspections. At Ciboney Ocho Rios, the Plantation Inn, and Sans Souci Lido properties, it was hard to miss the young women in white gowns having that last hair put in place before posing for photos.
These properties do mean business, however. The 250-suite Ciboney has a 4,032-square-foot ballroom and two additional rooms for directors' meetings or breakouts, as well as a 7,000-square-foot tent, The Pavilion, for outdoor events. In the tradition of all-inclusive properties, Ciboney offers an inclusive meeting package with everything from airport transfers to pads and pencils, and a group and meeting coordinator to oversee it all. Bernie Rickman, VP group and incentive sales for Ciboney, assures that the property can be flexible in terms of special group arrangements.
For large meetings, the choice in Ocho Rios is the 720-room Renaissance Jamaica Grande, whose 11- and 14-floor towers rise up above the town's waterfront. The property has a 17,650-square-foot exhibit and convention center, along with additional meeting space attached to the North and South towers, for a total of more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space.
There have been reports in the consumer press that all-inclusive resorts discourage guests from leaving the property. Not so for Ciboney, which organized an afternoon jaunt to nearby Dunn's River Falls, where participants literally climbed a waterfall--emerging several hundred feet up, triumphant, a bit winded, and pleasantly soaking wet. The group's brief stay at Ciboney ended with a Barefoot Beach Party--on the beach, naturally--featuring a folkloric show as well as that homegrown Jamaican musical invention, the reggae band.
Jamaica's "Disney" The next morning, the group boarded an air-conditioned JamaicaTours bus for the trip back west toward Montego Bay. Among the stops along the way was the unusual Braco Village Resort, a combination 180-room resort hotel and re-creation of an old Jamaican village. The latter includes a reproduction of an old village courthouse, now used as a meeting venue. Located on the beach near the little town of Rio Bueno (32 miles east of Montego Bay), the resort/village has the usual accoutrements, including three restaurants and a nine-hole golf course, and such unusual touches as a resident artist, a sugarcane vendor, a coconut hat maker, and the Fruit Lady, who runs a little stand offering Jamaican bananas, pineapples, guavas, and other goodies. There are even a couple of elderly gentlemen sitting under an umbrella in the village park, whose main purpose seems to be to invite you to join them in a game of dominoes. Visitors were divided as to whether the Disney-like presentation was a good idea, but all agreed it was a pleasant and effective introduction to Jamaican culture.
Closer to Montego Bay is the 542-room Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort. The property bills itself as a family-friendly, all-inclusive resort, but it does have meeting space. While lacking such amenities as room service, it has one service that makes it very unusual in the adult-oriented world of Jamaican resorts: all-day day care for very young children at its Kids Spree Vacation Club.
The Wyndham Rose Hall Golf & Beach Resort in Montego Bay is another fine property for large meetings, with 500 rooms on seven floors and 11,000 square feet of meeting space, including the Grand Rose Ballroom and six additional meeting rooms.
The Cream of the Cream At the end of the 67-mile journey from Ocho Rios to Montego Bay was the Half Moon Golf, Tennis, and Beach Club. When veteran Caribbean travelers reminisce about the old days of high-style service at Jamaican resorts, this place provides a great example of what they're talking about. Participants stayed in the resort's five- and six-room Royal Villas, each of which came with a butler, maid, gardener, and cook, all of whom treated visitors as though they were guests in their home (and spoiled these guests shamelessly with food, drink, and such high jinks as impromptu dance lessons).
Half Moon is hardly a secret; the staff can rattle off a lengthy guest list that includes movie stars, pop heroes, and captains of industry--and these just the ones who were there in the last week. What may be a secret to meeting planners is the reasonable room rates--hardly inexpensive, but a good value given the luxuries on hand. Half Moon also offers an unusually wide range of accommodations, from the luxurious villas where the group stayed to more modest--but still lovely--one-bedroom suites. And for heads of state and modern robber barons there is the Imperial Cottage, a kind of super-luxury villa, which serves double duty as a meeting facility for small groups. Of equal interest to meeting planners was the property's 4,650-square-foot conference center, which opened in June 1995. The space divides into two street-level wings separated by a reception area and three meeting rooms on a lower level.
Giving Half Moon a run for its money in the luxury category is the Tryall Club Resort & Villas, located on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, 12 miles west of Montego Bay. This 2,200-acre resort has a 47-room hotel with the usual amenities, but the real attraction here is the 18-hole, par-71 golf course, and the 57 privately owned villas, which are booked through Tryall. The group visited a four-bedroom villa owned by the chairman of a New York investment bank. Built in the round with an open central courtyard and spectacular ocean views, the planners agreed that investment banking was a good career choice and that even the most jaded incentive winner would find staying there a jaw-dropping experience.
The last property on the group's itinerary was the most unusual. Lethe Estates is a converted private home with 17 guest rooms high in the hills above Montego Bay. Alongside the rooms runs the Great River, its gentle sound providing a subtle sonic therapy. The shoulders relax, the knot in the lower back works itself out, and a sudden desire to be still takes over. A feature of the place is a 45-minute ride down the river on a bamboo raft built for two, poled along by guides who can name all the trees and flowers, will pull up to the bank to demonstrate how the "sensitive plant" gets its name, and may even sing to you.
It was a gentle conclusion to a fast-paced trip along Jamaica's north coast. The planners on the trip agreed it would be a great place to unwind after running a conference or incentive program in Ocho Rios or Montego Bay.
* All expenses incurred by U.S. companies for conducting and attending conventions or meetings in Jamaica are tax-deductible. As far as the Internal Revenue Service is concerned, meetings in Jamaica receive exactly the same tax treatment as meetings in the U.S.
* There are not eight rivers in Ocho Rios. Spanish buccaneers landed near Dunn's Bay in 1657 and gave the area the name Los Chorreros, which translates roughly as "waterfalls." Over the years, this was corrupted to Ocho Rios.
* Unlike many other Caribbean islands, Jamaica's long-distance telephone service is competitive. Check with hotels about rates.
* The ride from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay to Ocho Rios is scenic, but it takes a while. Expect transfers to take an hour and 45 minutes.
Of Jamaica's nine golf courses, four are in or near Montego Bay. Best known is the 18-hole, par-71 course at Tryall, home to the Johnnie Walker World Championship. Tryall's rolling fairways, uphill greens, and scenic water hazards are praised by golfers from around the world.
The Wyndham Rose Hall Beach and Country Club, located east of town on the road to Ocho Rios, has a reputation as Jamaica's most challenging course. The first nine holes of this 6,598-yard, par-72 course run along the coast. The back nine climb up into the hills inland, providing a worthy challenge to the most experienced players.
The Half Moon Golf Club, part of the Half Moon Golf, Tennis, and Beach Club, is an 18-hole, par-72, Robert Trent Jones course. Less imposing than the hills of the Tryall or Wyndham course, Half Moon's challenges, say local pros, are in the tricky crosswinds that blow at inopportune moments. Nerves are soothed, however, by the beautiful ocean views.
Ironshore is an 18-hole course inland from Montego Bay. It lacks the ocean views of the other courses, but is known for its sprawling, wide-open fairways.
On the road to Ocho Rios is a nine-hole executive course at Braco Village Resort and a demanding 18-hole course at the Superclubs Resort in Runaway Bay. Just outside of Ocho Rios--a long drive from Montego Bay--is the 18-hole Upton Golf Course, a public course near the Sandals Resort.
Jamaica Golf Tips When costing out play at Jamaican courses, remember that the use of caddies is mandatory. Also, expect to encounter dress codes, which will be rigorously enforced. Nobody golfs in a bathing suit in Jamaica.