My Celebrity Crush - Jamaica Me Crazy!
I just watched the latest episode of "The Bachelor" and couldn't believe that my celebrity crush was rafting, swimming, and saving sea turtles in Jamaica. Is it possible that we were in Ocho Rios at the exact same time? While it would have been awkward to see him on his date, I would have gawked and fainted anyway once I spotted this mega fine heartthrob.
A few minutes into the show, I kept thinking...Ben Higgins was in Jamaica? And then that internal voice started screaming, BEN HIGGINS WAS IN JAMAICA! Now that I shared my schoolgirl secret with the entire blogosphere, I will set aside my giddines and write my overall trip review once I stop staring at this gorgeous face. Jamaica me crazy, Ben!
It all started last Christmas when I received a text from my childhood friend:
"Jamaica. 13-20 February. Lodging is covered. No is not an option."
Most people would have quickly responded to this awesome message with at least one question...Who's joining us? Is there a special occasion? Where are we staying? How much are plane tickets? And so on.
But since I've completely let go of convention, I bypassed the typical follow up and immediately answered, "Done".
In the spirit of "Irie Jamaica" (an enlightened state of being), I essentially agreed to a carefree Caribbean escape with one of my previously vetted travel buddies, my childhood BFF. No details. No questions. No follow-up.
Guided by this "go with the flow" mentality, I simply showed up, played hard, and did whatever the hell I wanted. That attitude was entirely apropo since non-planning often leads to unencumbered travel moments like...
Showcasing my Zumba moves on a catamaran
Propelling from towering trees and intentionally dropping 20 feet to the ground
Kayaking during crazier than normal weather conditions
Drinking rum punches aplenty while sprawled across sofas, pool chairs, and hammocks
Simmering in the jacuzzi with newfound friends Sheri, Marc, Mila, Angus, Judy, and Nick
Playing "Cards Against Humanity" and "Exploding Kittens" like a boss
All this and more during one jammin' week. As Bob Marley would say, "we be jammin' jammin' jammin' jammin' and I hope you like jammin' too..."
Serenaded by these unforgettable lyrics, I offer the following recap of my unfettered tropical retreat sans Ben Higgins (sigh). And yes, this song is currently playing as I descibe one of my
favorite vacation accomodations ever.
A Modern Day Downton Abbey - Four Winds Villa
When I embarked on my 11-country backpacking trip several years ago, I drifted from hostel to hostel sharing bunk beds with total strangers from all corners of the world. With that in mind, you can imagine my extreme shock when I arrived at Four Winds Villa in Ocho Rios - Jamaica's version of Downton Abbey and the polar opposite of my backpacking experience. Imagine a 5-bedroom, 7-bath estate staffed by a butler, maid, cook, gardener, and a security guard. Ummm..wow!
I got there several hours before everyone else so I received a hero's welcome - a single file "Welcome to Four Winds" greeting, where I was immediately handed an ice cold rum punch. The surprises didn't stop there since I "oohed and ahhhhed" my way from room to room admiring our private beach, outdoor showers, grand living/dining room, patio bar, tennis court, jacuzzi, pool, lounge, deck, BBQ, gazebo, and so much more.
If we had nothing else to do but chow, imbibe, and lollygag within this self-contained paradise, I would have been totally and completely fine with that. But this story gets even better since my newfound friend, Sheri, had a few surprises in mind. What did I do to deserve such awesomeness?
Valentine's Day Treats
Waking up to gift-wrapped chocolate confections is as good as it gets, until the masseuses arrived to give us our 90-minute Swedish rubdown. Could life get any sweeter? I haven't been massaged since my Honolulu marathon so I was extremely happy when those calf and thigh knots were finally smoothed out. The massages were so heavenly that we booked a follow up visit for our last full day in paradise.
Relaxation turned into hysterics when I inadvertently captured a photo of what appears to be a plastic bottle jammed into my friend's butt crack. I would have included a full-sized shot, but he would seriously kill me if I did. Can you spot the protrusion in the lower left hand corner of this collage? That photo still makes me giggle.
Relaxing at the villa was one of my trip highlights since we were free to kayak, swim, read, and of course, eat fabulous meals cooked and served by friendly villa staff. Just look at these succulent dishes. The top left photo was a savory dish featuring Jamaican ackee, their national fruit. I want seconds, please!
Since I can't get enough of Jamaican cuisine, I have to give an emphatic shout out to Juici Patties. One of our drivers highly recommended this local food treasure, which sells freshly-baked meat patties that are akin to Spanish empanadas. Chicken, beef, and shrimp encased within a flaky crust? Who wouldn't want to shove several of these down his/her belly? Yum.
So this trip wasn't all about sloth-like days inside the villa compound. Sheri, my friend's cousin, scheduled some unforgettable outdoor activities as well.
Cool Runnings - Jamaican Bobsled Team?
While I would have enjoyed meeting the infamous bobsled team, we met up with several guides from Cool Runnings Catamaran Cruises instead. Apparently, we had 2 options: share the boat with over 100 fellow snorkelers or rent the entire boat for our party of 8. Do you want to stretch out comfortably while navigating semi-rocky water? If so, the latter option works best.
Activity #1: Snorkel with the fish for roughly 20 minutes in beautiful aquamarine water. Since I'm not the best swimmer, I was tethered to a floating lifesaver while clutching tightly to my snorkeling gear. Maybe next time those goggles will actually go on my face.
Activity # 2: Disembark at the highly-scenic Dunn's River Falls, where you can choose to form a wet human chain or stay dry while climbing alongside the waterfall. Since I had to snap photos for this blog update, I begrudgingly chose the drier, iPhone-safe option. Boo.
I did manage to capture stunning aerial shots as my friends carefully manuevered past each slippery rock. Since I was separated from my group, I occasionally ventured into the water using crane-like, "Karate Kid" movements. My guide, Charissa, captured footage of my mid-fall stumble, but that photo was somehow damaged during transit..cough cough.
Tip #1: Pack those water shoes and extra large beach towels. You will get soaking wet!
Tip #2: If you choose the "dry" tour, you can intermittently enter the falls through various access points along the path.
Chukka ziplining and a terrifying vertical drop
This is my third time ziplining, so I was pretty confident throughout most of our descent. I was having the time of my life until we reached the point where we had to drop 20+ feet in a 90-degree, vertical angle. Gulp! Thank goodness for the man with Popeye-like biceps waiting to catch my free fall. In retrospect, it wasn't as terrifying as it looked, but you may experience vertigo after that 2-second drop.
Tip #1: Pee before you start your initial climb. Those harnesses will press against your full bladder so plan accordingly unless you want urine spewing out while trapeezing.
Tip #2: Wear shoes with traction since I was sliding down a semi-muddy forest en route to our first jump. One of the guides offered his arm for the first 10 minutes so I wouldn't stumble. Jamaican hospitality is awesome!
Tip #3: Celebrate post ziplining with a coconut rum shot at Chukka's reception bar. Staff as well as fellow adventurers will celebrate and toast to a "faster, stronger, healthier, happier" you (the mantra emblazoned on my tank top).
Tip #4: Leave your bulky backpacks at the hotel. Chukka offers lockers at $5 a pop if you need to store your belongings. I strapped a money belt diagonally across my shoulder so I could easily access my iPhone for crucial blog photos. Sunglasses are not allowed either unless you purchase special ones that don't fly off your face at the gift shop.
Tip #5: Purchase the photo CD since you can't exactly snap photos while you're suspended mid-air. There are several price points, but the $75 option for all photos came with a bottle of Jamaican rum. That was a no brainer.
Jamaican Open Marketplaces
If adventure is not your thing, there are several low-key, open markets throughout Jamaica. Here are the three that I visited: The Original Ocho Rios Craft Park, Kingston Crafts Market, and the Coronation Market.
The first two are filled with local vendors selling bracelets, clothing, sculptures, painting, and other popular tourist knick knacks. I don't typically purchase tchotchkes so I felt uncomfortable getting approached by every single seller, especially when I just wanted to browse and snap photos.
Tip: Ask permission before you take any photos. I learned my lesson at the first market after I was instantly berrated. This was a major faux pas on my part so make sure to respect their wishes and get their initial approval.
The Coronation Market was a different scene entirely. Our driver mentioned that this market originally catered to the rich, middle class, and poor populations. Once supermarkets were introduced, this vast produce bazaar only drew the poorest of the poor. No wonder, we felt out of place. Someone even yelled out, "Hey white man. Why don't you talk to me?"
Our 10-Hour Excursion - Spanish Town, Kingston, and Blue Mountain
We spent most of our week in Ocho Rios, but we allocated one full day touring Kingston and its surrounding neighborhoods with our gregarious driver, Denton.
Since it takes roughly 2 hours from Ocho Rios to Kingston, we made one quick pit stop in Spanish Town before heading to Jamaica's capital. Since we parked for only 5 minutes, I captured just a handful of town square photos. Points of interests include: The Parish Council (top left corner) and the Statue of Admiral Lord Rodney. For additional information on what to do and what to see, visit the official Spanish town website.
Kingston is home to nearly a million Jamaican residents, which is why it's the largest and most dense city in Jamaica. The aforementioned Coronation and Kingston Craft Markets were 2 of our city stops. The last involved eating dim sum at Dragon Court Restaurant, one of the few Chinese dining establishments in the area. We made sure to fuel up on MSG before continuing onto Jamaica's Blue Mountain range for some much needed coffee.
Dennis Coffee Shop and Farm
So I fell asleep during the uphill ascent towards the Dennis Coffee plantation and can't fully describe the ride. I just know that it was a long and winding road (ooh, that's a Beatles song that's now stuck in my head) with incredible views of Jamaican flora and fauna. Our driver mentioned 2 possible plantation options: a bigger, more structured tour of a Japanese-owned plantation or a smaller, unstructured tour showcasing the roasting process. We unanimously chose the latter.
We didn't stay long (20 minutes or so), but we were able to sample the incredibly smooth coffee, which sold for $20. This was a steel since most supermarkets hawked Blue Mountain coffee for at least $45, and portions were so much less. Was it worth traversing Jamaica's incredibly scenic Blue Mountain for several hours? Absolutely!
There's so much to do in Jamaica that I know I haven't fully covered it all. We drove by Keith Richards House, stopped by Rio Nuevo (the largest battle site in Jamaican history), and even waved hello to this enterprising fellow...
I spent a lot of downtime in full decompression mode, especially on this lovely hammock overlooking our own private beach. It would have been nice to have Ben Higgins join me on this incredibly relaxing trip, but I know he's currently pre-occupied since he is "The Bachelor" after all.
Instead I got to hang out with an absolutely fabulous group of people from New York and San Francisco. Let's just say that we definitely livened up the place during our poker, Moniker, Exploding Kittens, Celebrity, and Cards Against Humanity game nights. I'm sure the overnight security guard was wondering if we were completely lit (not the case) since we were such an animated group. I guess that's what happens when you fully let go and embrace the "Irie Jamaica" spirit.
Goodbye for now, mon!
Next stop: China!