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Jamaica. Lots of sun, sand and music.
Wednesday, February 20, 2019  
By John and Sandra Nowlan

We could see the cruise ships in Montego Bay but this time we were going farther afield.

We had just arrived in Jamaica after a comfortable non-stop Sunwing flight from Canada and were ready for a full week of sun, sand and fine Jamaican food. The music was a bonus.

Evening Showtime.

but the seaside route, filled with colorful houses and bustling villages, was fascinating.

The white sand beach in front of the low rise, three story buildings of the Riu Resort was surprisingly wide with lots of palm trees for shade and more than 900 loungers, enough for every guest. Unlike many resorts, the beach was never overcrowded. Non-intrusive peddlers roamed the beach – all are public – but the roving musical entertainers were especially good. Most carried guitars and drums but one energetic soul pulled along a large double bass.

Great beach. Plenty of beach loungers at Riu Palace.

There’s no seaweed in the warm, crystal clear Caribbean water and it was totally free of rocks or coral. The water remains shallow out to the buoy barrier, no more than chest or neck high. Some like that but we had wished the water was a bit deeper for better swimming.

Riu has six resorts in Jamaica and, as first timers to the brand, we were impressed with the overall quality of our Negril property.

Beach Sunset at Riu Palace Tropical Bay.

Thanks to an extensive $35 million renovation in 2018 most of the public rooms and all of the 452 suites looked and felt brand new. Our large, comfortable room, decorated in tasteful colors of cream and beige with turquoise accents, had a partial ocean view but was still very close the beach. The super king size bed had great reading lights and the television included a wide variety of international channels. Closet and drawer space was generous and the large bathroom included a shower with both a traditional and rain shower head. The mini-fridge was stocked daily with complimentary sodas and beer (Jamaica’s Red Stripe, of course) and there was a bar-style liquor dispenser for rum, gin, vodka and low-end Scotch.

All rooms at Riu Palace were renovated in 2018.

Excellent cuisine is vital for a top quality all-inclusive resort and The Riu Palace Tropical Bay was outstanding. Buffets can often be boring but we were impressed with the wide variety in the main dining room, particularly the Caribbean and traditional Jamaican fare available at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many guests stuck with North American dishes but we relished the chance to try ackee & salt fish, Jamaican patties, curried goat, braised oxtail, plantain and rice with red beans.

The chef with Jamacian dishes at the excellent buffet.

Wonderful jerk chicken is available at the buffet but there’s also a jerk shack on the beach with a superb chef, Jolly, who prides himself on his spicy and tasty product.

Jolly, the Jerk Chicken Man.

Employing 74 chefs and cooks, the Riu also has four specialty restaurants, no extra charge, that do not require reservations. Just come when you want. If it’s full, they’ll give you a remote buzzer.

We enjoyed the Japanese, Italian and Steak House restaurants but especially loved Krystal, the fusion restaurant with an extra level of presentation and service. We enjoyed braised sea bass with miso, lamb with yellow curry and cannelloni with braised ossobuco. The steak house is the most informal specialty restaurant (shorts and T shirts allowed). Our first New York strip loin was tough but it was happily replaced by an excellent fillet. The Caribbean lobster was especially good.

The colorful Japanese restaurant.

Caribbean Lobster at the Steak House.

In addition to the beach musicians, the Riu has nightly on-stage entertainment. Most shows have a Caribbean focus (the Jamaican theme was especially interesting) but touring specialty acts, like the Michael Jackson show, are very popular.

Beach musicians. Especially good.

The airlines have full time reps at the resort to solve problems and sell tours. We chose a delightful rafting adventure on the Grand River. In earlier days, 30 foot long bamboo rafts were used to transport bananas downriver. Now these sturdy rafts have been fitted with comfortable, elevated chairs for two and an experienced guide poles his way downriver, navigating mild rapids and pointing out the remarkable flora and fauna. The relaxing 45 minute mini-cruise was followed by a visit to a banana plantation, a Jamaican lunch (jerk chicken) and samples of unique Jamaican liquors.

Rafting down the Grand River

After our week in the sun we asked a few winter-weary Americans and Canadians about their Jamaica experience. All seemed to be delighted. The popular response? “We’ll be coming back for sure.”

John and Sandra Nowlan are food and travel writers based in Halifax.

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