Words by Lisa Jackson

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The therapist lifts my feet from a footbath filled with sea salt and flower petals. “Let’s get you relaxed,” she says, before applying a soothing scrub with aromatherapy oils, and then gently massaging my calves with warm stones. I don’t think it is possible to feel any more Zen until she ushers me away from the spa and into a private cabana bath house overlooking the ocean. 

“Lie down” is the next instruction as she motions to a table.

She smooths healing herbs and citrus-scented oils over me, kneading the knots in my back. I doze off to the soundtrack of the surf crashing against the cliffs.

This is my first visit to Negril, a lively seaside town on Jamaica’s western tip, and it’s certainly worth the trek. Most tourists to Jamaica zero-in on Montego Bay, partly because of the proximity to the airport. But if you’re willing to make the 90-minute journey, an extravagant escape awaits in Negril.

It wasn’t always such a premium luxury and “spa- cation” destination. In the 1970s, Negril was a hub for hippies and musicians (like Bob Marley), but times change: It has since transformed into a dreamy destination renowned for its gourmet gastronomy, stylish spas and ritzy resorts that stretch across rocky cliffs – some as high as 15 metres – and the white sand of Seven Mile Beach, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Jamaica. Negril has become my “go-to” getaway whenever I need a relaxation reboot, and despite the uptick in tourism, I love that it’s retained its original character.

On my first visit to Negril, I check into the magical Rockhouse Resort – a cliff side boutique hotel that was once a hangout for Bob Marley, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, but today attracts luxury lovers craving a tranquil escape. Right away, I can see why The New York Times has called this property one of the “loveliest boutique hotels in the Caribbean." My “room” is actually a thatched-roof stone villa surrounded by flowering foliage and perched on a volcanic cliff. Opening the sliding door to the terrace, I inhale the salty air and marvel at the sea swirling with turquoise, azure and cerulean blues. In the distance, I spot a tiny fishing boat bobbing in waves.

“Is this for real?” my friend, Nneya, asks, surveying the scenery.

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It’s a question I ask while being spoiled at Rockhouse Spa. From rum wraps to Blue Mountain coffee scrubs, it’s easy to see why wellness seekers flock here to unwind. Treatments can take place in a cliff-edge cabana, a bathing pavilion with incredible sea views or a temple nestled among tropical gardens. After relishing in a Tropical Massage, I return for a spice bathing ritual – a soothing soak in a tub filled with turmeric, ginger, clove, lemongrass and other healing herbs. I marinate in the brew for over an hour, gazing at the blue sea and sky through the floor- to-ceiling windows.

“You smell like a dessert,” Nneya says afterwards.

The spa isn’t the only way to chillax. The resort offers an array of activities for guests, ranging from cooking classes to Caribbean Zumba to African drumming to painting classes (yes, you can learn to paint Bob Marley). One balmy morning, I unroll a mat in the open-air yoga pavilion that faces the Caribbean Sea. For an hour, I bend my body into puzzling positions and focus on clearing the clutter from my mind.

“Close your eyes and breathe deeply,” the instructor says. “Listen to your body.”

My body says that I’m hungry, so later, I follow the winding path to Rockhouse Restaurant to sup on blackened mahi-mahi, jerk grilled lobster, coconut chicken and other Jamaican delicacies. Sipping on Champagne, I watch a spectacular sunset unfold, streaking crimson, purple and orange hues across the sky, and lament having to leave the next day.
  

negrilJosh EatonI COME BACK FOR MORE OF Negril a year later, but this time with two kids in tow. While the destination makes an ideal romantic retreat, there are plenty of upscale options for families too, especially at Beaches Negril – a luxury property fronting on a stunning stretch of sugar- fine sand leading to crystal-clear water. Despite the spellbinding scenery, I’m a bit skeptical at first: My past experiences with all-inclusives have involved cramped quarters and boring buffets. But this isn’t your average hotel; at Beaches Negril, every guest is treated like a celebrity. For one, the amenities are amazing, boasting an all-ages spa, complimentary kids’ camps, an impressive 5,486-square-metre waterpark and flexible room arrangements to suit any family.

The top-tier suites also come with personalized butler service. Yes, this is a thing: Jeeves is on-call 24-7 to make your vacation dreams come true, whether it’s fetching your kid’s toy or arranging a family picnic on the beach or booking breakfast with Sesame Street characters. Lounging by the pool, I watch a butler surprise a family with a tray of freshly baked cookies.

“I thought you might be hungry,” he says. “Careful – they’re still hot.”

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Butlers aren’t the only over-the-top feature. There are nine gourmet restaurants and a slew of snack bars, each with a different theme and unique menu carefully curated by a team of international chefs.

Whatever your food mood, the eating options are endless. At Stew Fish, we eat breakfast on the beach, sinking our toes into the sand while chowing down on Caribbean Eggs Benedict. After zipping down waterslides all morning, we devour a spicy jerk rotisserie chicken by the pool, followed by ice cream and crêpes at Café de Paris.

Another night, it’s sushi starters at Soy, followed by a memorable meal at Kimonos – an Asian-inspired restaurant that puts on an epic show with Teppanyaki cookery. Seated around an iron flat-surface, my nephew, Yared, and niece, Aaliya, shriek with delight as the chef flings knives into the air, plays with fire and aims pieces of food into their mouths.

“I can’t wait to post this on Instagram!” Yared exclaims.

Rick's CafeRick's Cafe | Julia Joppien

On our final day, I manage to coax my family off-resort for a night out on the town. A private guide chauffeurs us around Negril’s West End, stopping at the famed Rick’s Café to watch daredevils jump from the cliffs into the surf below. It’s a three-ring circus with all the crowds, but our guide helps us score a plum spot to watch the show.

We hold our breath as a man climbs to the “OMG” diving platform, which towers over the surf at a dizzying height. My niece readies her camera on the brave diver, who springs off the board, back flips mid-air, and nosedives into the waves like a pro-athlete. Everyone hoots and hollers in approval.

“That was sick!” hollers Yared.

We celebrate by joining the dance party near the stage, where live reggae music is pumping. The singer pulls us on stage to belt out a rendition of One Love, and watching my two ecstatic kids singing to throngs of cheering onlookers, my heart swells with happiness. Negril never disappoints and I’m glad we got a glam getaway in this little seaside town where “everything irie.”

When You Go

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WHAT TO DO: Chukka Caribbean Adventures at Mayfield Falls: Located off- the-beaten-path in the Negril resort area, this hidden gem thrives with wildlife and cool, crystal clear waters. Experience the coolness of one of the island’s rivers or explore the land as you climb the clear watered waterfall and take in the beautiful and tranquil surroundings. Dream Team Divers was created to offer personalized service to its guests and to introduce certified divers to private sites where they will discover an abundance of corals, sponges and sea life.

WHERE TO STAY: Couples Negril: This adults-only, beachfront playground has a lively, low-key atmosphere that encourages guests to tap into their adventurous side, whether it’s snorkeling along a nearby reef, sailing, scuba diving or simply frolicking in the waves or enjoying a bon fire under the stars. Charela Inn Hotel: Located on Norman Manly Boulevard in Negril, the property has 50 rooms on 11,430-square-metres of Negril Beach. All rooms are built around a hacienda-inspired inner courtyard centred by a round, freshwater swimming pool.

WHERE TO DINE: Murphy’s West End Restaurant: Bringing freshness from the garden, the coop and the sea, expect bold flavours from the kitchen. The setting is modestly Jamaican and they are famous for their jerk lobster, curry shrimp and fish and delicious “devil chicken” (BBQ). Best in the West Jerk Spot: Located on the popular Norman Manley Boulevard, Best in the West is noted for its finger-licking jerk chicken and other delicious local offerings. An inviting atmosphere and refreshing cocktails make for a memorable visit.

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