Jamaica & the USVI—Not the Jimi Hendrix Experience

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Caneel Bay in St. John offers pristine surroundings.
Caneel Bay in St. John offers pristine surroundings.

Here’s why this reporter attended the Caribbean Tourism Organizations’ adventure travel seminar for agents in June: According to CTO statistics, “The rapidly developing tourism niche market [is] currently estimated at U.S. $263 billion.” Yes, billion. Add to that the income generated by other forms of experiential travel—activities focused on Caribbean history, heritage, music, gastronomy, photography, etc.—and pretty soon we’re talkin’ money.

How can travel agents better participate in this sector of the travel biz? Glad you asked. Let’s look at booking experiential vacations at two destinations, where each of our picks is geared toward a different kind of client.

Hotel Mockingbird Hill, Port Antonio
The gold standard for Jamaican eco-boutique hotels, this 10-room hideaway in the east offers views of the Blue Mountains and the sea. Mockingbird Hill offers free shuttles to Frenchman’s Cove beach, but above all, its guests go birding, hiking, rafting, or scuba diving, and they explore waterfalls, visit the original Blue Lagoon, tour historic Charles Town, or visit hallowed music sites in Kingston. Back at the hotel there’s a sustainable pool, wellness center, art gallery, award-winning restaurant, WiFi, and fab views. Serene, eco-chic Mockingbird Hill is committed to the proposition that “living green and living well can go hand in hand.”

Mockingbird Hill is for nature-loving clients who will treasure its breeze-cooled rooms as respites from artificial air conditioning, TV and telephones. Rates start at $230, but we recommend a Superior Room with a seating area (from $285) or a Deluxe with a balcony ($375). Clients should opt for the breakfast add-on, if not half-board. Mockingbird Hill also offers terrific naturalist packages and a unique 12-day Jamaican cooking package that, in addition to eight nights at the Bird, features three at Green Castle Estate plus recreation/excursions and some meals, from $2,800 pp dbl. Since many clients can’t break free for 12 days, ask for a 9-night version.

Coyaba Beach Resort & Club, Montego Bay
Hotels in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are so well served by outfitters like Chukka and Island Routes that even huge all-inclusives now offer good, offsite activities. However, Coyaba, a member of Great Small Hotels, is a family-owned, 50-room classic with an authentic Olde Caribbean ambiance. Its white pillars and clubby chairs evoke the days of Ian Fleming, and talking to the staffers, many of whom have worked there for decades, provides a glimpse into a more gracious era.

There’s a white-sand beach, three restaurants, non-motorized watersports gear, tennis, a kids’ playground, spa/fitness center, and (of course) complimentary afternoon tea and sunset cocktails. This hotel, therefore, pleases clients who want a traditional resort holiday while also wanting to go ziplining, bamboo rafting, tubing, trips to Dunn’s River Falls (warning: it’s crowded), sailing, horseback riding, or visit former plantations, a runaway-slave settlement, and a local school.

All rooms feature traditional chintz furnishings, balconies, TV and air conditioning. Rates start at $204, but clients, especially those with children, should stay in a Junior Suite (from $221). Breakfast and all-inclusive packages cost $18.35/$113.35 pp, with half off for children under 12. When booking by e-mail, supply your address and IATA number to earn 13 percent commission.

Jake’s, Treasure Beach
Located on the underdeveloped south coast, Jake’s is for cultural tourists, clients who want to bend elbows or bend it like Beckham with Jamaicans. To be sure, clients who just want to chill in the tropics can enjoy the pool, beach (the better beach is a short walk away), a restaurant that uses local ingredients, yoga instructors, media room, and 50 wondrously idiosyncratic rooms, 20 in cottages/villas, designed by artist/designer Sally Henzell. But there’s more.

This resort is not an enclave; guests stroll or take bikes into the nearby village, nurse beers at friendly local bars, or play soccer (or tennis, or almost anything else) at the comprehensive public sports park developed by hotelier Jason Henzell. If they go fishing or take a nature tour (birds, crocodiles), they go with real fishermen in hand-built boats; when they visit a historic settlement or a waterfall, they ride with a local in his car.

Unlike The Caves, another hip, south-coast hideaway with which it’s sometimes confused, Jake’s is neither all-inclusive nor adults-only. Almost nobody rents a car; guests either take a car service from Montego Bay or a small plane from Mo’Bay to Jake’s airstrip (about $400 for a six-seater). Rooms start at $95, but we recommend, at the very least, the Deluxe One Bedroom Ocean View (from $195) or One Bedroom Ocean Front (from $295). The Family Package ($1,705 for up to four for seven nights in a 2-bedroom cottage through Dec. 14) offers a little taste of what Jake’s does best: fishing with a local fisherman, bicycle riding in this safe neighborhood, and touring a small farm.

U.S. virgin islands
Concordia Eco-Resort, St. John
Created by ecotourism pioneer Stanley Selengut, this hillside collection of eco-tents and bona fide cottages has a swimming pool, restaurant (in season), washing machines, yoga and watercolors instructors, massage therapists, movie nights, traditional crab races, weekly cultural events in season, an excursions desk, and free parking. The hideaway also sits right next to the National Park, which brings us to its raison d’etre.

Although St. John has dreamy beaches like White Sand Beach, just a 15-minute walk or 5-minute drive from Concordia, this hideaway is designed for nature lovers who want to engage with the whole island, not just the beach. (Therefore, 95 percent of them rent cars.) Concordia serves clients who’ll want to hike in the 60 percent of the island that is part of the National Park, go diving and snorkeling (St. John’s underwater trail is also part of the park), rent kayaks, and maybe hang out in Cruz Bay, a laid-back village whose vibe is equal parts surfer, Bohemian, and West Indian.

Rates start at $126 per night dbl for an “eco-tent,” but we strongly recommend some real walls and kitchen facilities: the Full Kitchen Loft for families (from $175 to Nov. 14) or, for couples without kids, the just-renovated Ocean Queen (from $232). Both have kitchens, as mentioned, plus balconies with water views and proximity to the grill deck and pool.

Caneel Bay, St. John
This genteel classic might not seem to fit into the same article as a full-bore eco-resort like Concordia, but remember: It was created by the same Rockefeller who donated the land for St. John’s National Park, and despite ownership changes Caneel’s mission remains the same: recharging amid nature. There are no high-rises, casinos, loud electronic games, speakers playing techno music, and buzzing jet-skis, and there never will be.

Caneel Bay arranges scuba diving, fishing, and day-trips to other islands, but it also offers plenty of onsite experiences: art and exercise classes, spa services, tennis, a pool, seven(!) beaches, hiking, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and spectacular snorkeling (the corals are in good condition, and each beach attracts different creatures, including giant turtles). The exceptional children’s program (3-11) helps kids understand and enjoy Caneel’s natural wonders. And talk about experiences: At Zozo’s, guests can dine in an historic sugar mill.

The 166 rooms and suites have an old-money, restful look that employs natural materials, earth tones, and instead of TVs and telephones, lovely views. (A few years ago Caneel finally installed air conditioning, but many guests still open their louvres to the breezes and turn on the overhead fans.) Rates start at $399 with breakfast; the Beach Front rooms start at $529. In addition to the four meal plan options, there’s an Allure package (from $879) featuring transfers, breakfasts, dinners, one private dinner on the beach, an art class, massage, and a sunset cocktail cruise. FAMs are offered to loyal agents.

The Buccaneer, St. Croix
The Buccaneer, whose tag line is “Experience the Legend,” opened in 1947, incorporates a 17th century estate, and is a member of Historic Hotels of America; guests can even stay in the same Great House where young Alexander Hamilton lived. The Buccaneer offers plenty of non-historic diversions, too, with three beaches, two pools, watersports gear and instruction, free scuba lessons, eight tennis courts, golf, a newly renovated spa and fitness center, art classes, a kids’ club, and nature and history walks.

Getting back to history, St. Croix offers a chance to see how Danish settlers survived in the tropics, of all places. Guests go on guided tours or rent cars to take the St. Croix Heritage Trail, visiting historic Christiansted and Fort Christiansvaern, the Danish Custom House, the Whim Plantation Museum, and a 300-year-old rum distillery. They also go snorkeling at Buck Island Reef National Monument, kayaking in a bioluminescent bay, and horseback riding.

Each of the 138 rooms and suites (of which there are 13 categories) has a private patio or balcony, cribs and rollaways are available, and breakfasts are included. Rates start at $271. We recommend upgrading to a Great House Ocean View Junior Suite ($390) or a Beachside Doubloon (from $561). The $200-a-night Buccaneer Treasures deal may interest some clients, too: It includes a welcome basket, a 2-day car rental or guided island tour, a $100 dining credit per room with a 7-night stay, 20 percent off room rates beyond seven nights, and a choice (for each of two adults) of a 25-minute spa treatment, greens fees, three hours of tennis, or a sunset sail. The Buccaneer offers visiting agents 50 percent off rack rates. ●


contact information

The Buccaneer: (800) 255-3881; thebuccaneer.com
Caneel Bay: (855) 226-3358; caneelbay.com
Concordia Eco-Resort: (800) 392-9004; concordiaeco-resort.com
Coyaba Beach Resort & Club: (877) 232-3224; coyabaresortjamaica.com
Hotel Mockingbird Hill: (876) 993-7134 or 7267; hotelmockingbirdhill.com
Jake’s: (877) 526-2428; jakeshotel.com