In one rather out-of-date hotel in MoBay, I was amused to find a waterstained poster from the 1970s, extolling the 'sweet solitude' of Negril and its 'empty, expansive beach.' Back then, Negril was a farflung counterculture mecca, celebrated by beach-loving pilgrims for its 'far-out' setting and aura of permissive indulgence.
As we shall see, the Negril of today is a rather different place. The seven-mile-long beach and Norman Manley Blvd, the artery that runs beside it, now is lined with restaurants, hotels and bars. Occasionally crowded but still expansive, the beach is a barefoot promenade with steady traffic of bathers, baskers, beauties and would-be beatniks. Negril is no longer anyone's secret paradise - a fact that a coterie of old-timers lament nightly at cliffside expat bars on the West End - but somehow the place has managed to keep its singular personality. Here, it seems, permissive indulgence is a perennial value.
Sweet, insouciant Negril. My first visit to this sybaritic paradise during Spring Break some twenty years ago is but a hazy, unreliable memory. One detail I do recall is that after paying the driver for transport from MoBay, I was left with a scant US$35 to last the week. Ever the scruffy ragamuffin, I sponged off my friends, subsisting on nuts, berries and assorted herbs. At night on the beach, competing reggae shows vied for takers, each seeming more frenetic and uninhibited than the other. But perhaps there was too much 'space' in that 'cake.'
My editors will be glad to hear that for this trip I have a different agenda. To set the tone, I checked into a Thai-style cabin at a veritable yoga center, an old favorite of Lonely Planet readers. This morning, over a bowl of homemade yogurt and a pile of notes, I planned a day that would take me to six restaurants, two all-inclusive resorts, four guest houses, a rum shack, and the Great Morass, a giant mangrove swamp.
One of the interesting challenges of guidebook writing is fitting big places into small paragraphs. For the current assignment, a book that covers not just Jamaica but all of the Caribbean islands, I have precious few words allotted for Negril and every one has got to count. Happily, the beauty of blogging is that one is unconstrained by annoyances such as word counts. In this spirit, gentle reader, permit me to share with you some tidbits from today's notebook:
~ In spite of what you may have been told on the street, the public smoking of ganja is illegal. Uniformed and undercover cops are at work every day in Negril, and travelers regularly get pinched both on the beach and at roadblocks. The Jamaican jail tour is not worth the price of admission.
~ Rick's Bar, the legendary cliffside haunt on West Bay Rd, is undergoing a dramatic renovation following Hurricane Ivan. A friend of the proprietor told me that they are taking the opportunity to make some 'long dreamed-about changes'. They plan to reopen in time for Spring Break.
~ I met a Canadian gal heading home after three days to seek medical attention after crashing her rental scooter. Folks, if you rent wheels, be prepared to dodge goats and potholes big enough to grow watermelons in.
~ Many rooms in Negril, particularly in the budget category, lack telephones. Public phones are rare and only accept phone cards. I encountered a honeymooning Danish couple who proudly showed me their cool high-powered walkie-talkies (not recommended for those traveling alone).
~ Sand fleas are pernicious little buggers with bites painful enough to ruin a sunset.
Well, not quite. Actually, it was the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.