OCHO RIOS, Jamaica Excitement, high expectations and I'm feeling like a kid going to Disneyland, as our traveling group of 40 leaves Salt Lake City on the 12:35 red eye to Atlanta. Montego Bay, Jamaica, is our destination. This is my first time in the Caribbean and my mind travels back to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, as I board the plane. Why such thoughts? I remember hearing Jamaica was competing in the Winter Olympics with its bobsled team. But there's no snow in tropical Jamaica. With that in mind, I drift in and out of sleep to Atlanta.
In Atlanta, we have a three-hour layover before our next flight. We take off and pass over Florida, then Cuba and out over the open waters of the Caribbean Sea. I can see a few small islands and a cruise ship heading for some exotic place. The plane starts to descend and I see Jamaica for the first time. As we get closer, I see that the island is covered in a carpet of green mountains. Montego Bay comes into view, and I hear the landing gear engage. I feel my blood pressure go higher, as the plane goes lower. Excited butterflies dance inside me, as I fidget in my seat and wonder where the bobsled team trains.
We land at 11:30 a.m., go through customs and I get a stamp of approval on my passport. My Jamaican adventure begins.
From the airport our group fills a bus traveling east for Sandals Dunn's River Villaggio in Ocho Rios, about 90 minutes away. Looking out at the scenery I'm pleasantly surprised to see that much of the land is still undeveloped. Taino Indians were the first inhabitants of the island, and Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit Jamaica in 1493. I wonder to myself, did Christopher Columbus also have a smile on his face when he saw Jamaica for the first time? With coconut and banana trees swaying in the breeze, we arrive at the resort around 1:30 p.m.
Sandals Dunn's River Resort has an Italian Renaissance flair and is named after the famous Dunn's River Falls. The lobby has an open breezeway and two beautiful winding staircases surrounding a water fountain. I check in with my traveling friend, and we take the winding staircase to our room.
Tired from a day of travel, we enter our room. It's decorated with Mediterranean-style furnishings and has a private balcony overlooking the plaza below. We both felt like we needed sleep, but decided to stay awake and go to bed early that evening. With disorientation from jet lag, we place our wallets and passports in the room safe, change our clothes and head for the plaza.
On the plaza I smell food cooking and realize, I'm hungry. I order Jamaican Jerk Chicken with french fries.
Jerk Chicken dates back to the Carib-Arawak Indians who inhabited Jamaica. The chicken is "jerked" with a sharp object to make holes in it, then stuffed with a variety of spices. The chicken is smoked heavily on the grill and the holes allow heat to escape, which keeps the chicken tender and juicy. I enjoyed this dish so much, I had it for lunch everyday. Sandals is an all inclusive resort, and with a thank you, I take a seat and enjoy my first Jamaican meal.
Feeling content, I head to the beach and lie in one of the many blue lounge chairs. Sandals offers a variety of things to do: canoeing, glass bottom boat, hydrobikes, kayaking, hobie cats, sailboating, scuba-diving, snorkeling and windsurfing. I'm content just taking in the beautiful aqua-blue Caribbean on my lounge chair.
The sunset was spectacular that evening, and the resort made preparations for a beach party buffet. There was such a variety of foods, it was hard to decide what to eat. With my plate filled I took a seat at one of the tables in the sand and listened to the sounds of Reggae music. Ahhh, now this is living!
The next morning my friend and I decide to check out the local tours and excursions. Sandals does not own or operate these tours; they are provided by outside organizations. Tour prices vary depending on your tour, from $10, up to $215. The average cost is around $75. Online, you can view the various tours offered by these companies and even pay for them with your Sandals package. Paying online assures you will be able to do a tour, without worry of it selling out. I didn't pay for my tours before I left and missed the famous Blue Mountain Bicycle Tour, a downhill bike ride through the Blue Mountains, which are where the famous Blue Mountain Coffee is grown.
The tours are a nice break from the beach. We signed up for two tours on our five-day vacation in Jamaica: Canopy Tour and 4x4 Off-road Safari Tour.
The Canopy Tour had two departures, morning or afternoon. We decide to sleep in, so in the afternoon a tour van picked us up at the resort and took us on the short drive to Chukka Cove Farm. The farm offers a variety of tours departing from there. Other resorts and cruise ships use their services, too.
Our group of 10 leaves the farm in a van and takes a narrow winding road high in the jungle. With Reggae music blaring and chuckholes rocking the van, we pass by small villages and see goats grazing near the road.
The van stops at a large covered pavilion where trained guides give us thorough instructions on safety and proper use of the equipment. With my gear on and feeling like Indiana Jones, we take a nature trail down through the lush Cranbrook Flower Forest.
The guides ask us not to touch any of the plants along the trail, because many of them can cause skin irritation. The forest is like a Garden of Eden. Birds calling out above us, flowering plants in every color of the rainbow, huge vines clinging to unknown trees and the sound of water racing in the dark green abyss below. To this day, I still wonder why I didn't see a single insect. Paradise!
There are nine platforms in the "canopy," which range from 105 feet to 660 feet apart. You swing through the Laughland River Gorge like Tarzan. Exciting, fun tour!
The 4x4 off-road Safari Tour gave me a chance to see the interior of Jamaica in a zebra-striped safari Jeep. It highlights Jamaica's beauty, culture and history, in terrain only accessible by Jeep.
The Jeep holds eight passengers, and I sit at the back with my camera ready for action. We leave Ocho Rios and drive into an area called Fern Gully. The road sits deep in the gully, and many of the locals make a living selling from roadside shacks. Our drivers name is Chin, and he stops at some of the stands.
We leave the gully and head to the top of the mountain on dirt roads. At one point we see the coastline of Ocho Rios and take a break in the country. Chin surprises us with a variety of fruits and punch.
As we leave the area, Chin stops under a tree and has us pick eight leaves to pass around. He tells us to rip our leaf in half and asks us what it smells like. I have never in my life smelled a leaf with such a wonderful fragrance. As I smelled it, I wanted to rub in on my body. The tree is called a Bay Rum Tree, and its leaves are primarily used in cologne or after-shave lotion for men.
As we made our way back to Ocho Rios, the elementary school was letting out for the day. The children, dressed in their uniforms, waved and smiled for my camera.
Kick up some dust in Jamaica, with the Safari Tour!
Our group's package tour includes the Dunn's River Party Cruise. We board our catamaran and rock out to Reggae music. Even the flying fish seemed to be skipping to the beat. We dock outside Ocho Rios and get in our snorkeling gear. In the reef, I see many colorful fish and drink half of the Caribbean.
We snorkel for about 45 minutes, then set sail to the famous Dunn's River Falls. I see the falls spilling onto the beach as the boat docks. There were hundreds of folks hiking the falls. You are asked to hold hands and make a human chain for your safety and the safety of others. The river currents are so strong, it makes sense to hold hands for stability. The climb is about 600 feet on natural limestone steps, and you get a nice massage in the many pools to the top. If you don't want to climb in the falls, you can walk next to it on a carefree boardwalk. If you only do one tour in Jamaica, make sure it's to Dunn's River Falls.I left Jamaica without seeing the bobsled team, but have fond memories of beautiful scenery, exciting tours, great food and, most of all, the hospitality of its people. As the saying goes in Jamaica, "Yeah man, no problem."