By Alan Solomon, Special to Tribune Newspapers
December 1, 2013
OCHO RIOS, Jamaica
Unless you're old enough to remember when Harry Belafonte was selling millions of calypso records, visiting Jamaica, for most leisure travelers, has come to mean three things:
1. All-inclusive resorts, most equipped with beaches.
2. Being advised by timid staff in your chosen all-inclusive resort to remain in the all-inclusive resort at all times.
3. Cruise ship shore excursions designed to get you back to the ship for the sail-away mango mojito, unless, of course, you're advised by timid members of the ship's crew to remain on the ship at all times. (Plus ackee and oxtails and jerk chicken, etc., and Bob Marley and reggae and coffee and Olympic runners and Rastafari and versatile botanic substances, but we'll save all that for a longer story.)
What scares the bejeebers out of the resorts and cruise ships is that guests will leave the grounds to risk an unescorted visit to one of the country's major population centers — say, Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios, Port Antonio or, scariest of all, the capital, Kingston.
Which, by the way, Jamaican tourism people insist isn't all that scary. One of them, Carey Dennis, is a destination marketing assistant with the Jamaica Tourist Board. He lives in the city.
"Kingston is the cultural capital of Jamaica," he said as we drove around his hometown. "If you want reggae music, if you want culture, art, drama, history, it's all over, but in Kingston it's all concentrated."
Can I walk around on my own?
"Yeah, mon," he said, followed by a thoughtful pause. "Within the center of downtown, you can go anywhere. It's safe. It's safe. It probably would be safer for you than for me.
"If they see you, you'll hear, 'Hey, mon, what you doing down here? You want some help?' He might want to find out if you're lost or something like that. They treat visitors better than they treat our own. People know. They know that tourism is important for us."
My schedule didn't allow time to test that theory in Kingston — someday, for sure — though a nighttime solitary sojourn through downtown Ocho Rios was both incident-free and, it being a Thursday night, not particularly interesting. (Weekends, I was assured by congenial Ocho Riosans, are livelier.) But the $3 Red Stripe beers at John Crow's Tavern were nicely chilled and graciously served, and the wings being devoured by the locals to my left looked very tasty.
What we will feature here are four escorted off-campus experiences in Jamaica that qualify as very soft adventure, worth leaving the resort/ship for and from all indications, terror-resistant, aside from some weather issues on the bike thing.
The last three are standard excursions sold on ships or made available by resorts for guests who refuse to yield to timidity. The first experience, too remote and (especially) too time-consuming for the ships but fine for everybody else, was the best.
Blue Mountain Bicycle Tour
In theory, it's an easy 10-mile bike ride, almost all of it downhill, aboard equipment that's simple enough (hand and coaster brakes, one gear) and sturdy enough to survive occasional bumps and the incidental spill. In theory (again), it's a lovely ride above and through lush tropical rain forest, past waterfalls and breadfruit trees and ginger flowers and the coffee plants that generate some of the world's most coveted beans, on a winding road little used by motorized traffic, ending at a waterfall and pool perfect for a post-ride dip.
Reality: For the dozen or so on this ride, the first raindrops were felt just after lunch (the meal being hot, tasty and included) and evolved into something truly apocalyptic. We're talking torrents, accompanied by lightning that made wet arm hairs rigid and thunder that, well, scared our bejeebers. We didn't stop. Neither did the deluge. The storm — rain forest, remember? — made the major waterfall redundant, the dip in the pool was dismissed as pointless, and the local boys who regularly jump off rocks for photos and tips were left unphotographed and, by extension, untipped.
However: That the boys were there to compete for our attention and dollars with sellers of bags of Blue Mountain coffee beans (who were also having a bad day) suggests this bike ride doesn't always include what it included on our day. Besides, the storm added adventure to the adventure. So by all means, if you can handle a two-wheeler, try it — maybe it won't rain.
The cost: $98 from most centers ($145 from Montego Bay), including transport, brunch, lunch, bikes and protective gear. bmtoursja.com
Chukka Horseback Ride 'N' Swim
A 21/2-hour combo. The first part is a standard trail ride aboard gentle and healthy-looking horses (not a given in the tropics) through what once was a sugar plantation, with stops for eco-explanations.
The highlight, undeniably, is Part 2, when riders change clothing and horses and are led from the property's private beach into the Caribbean. For those of you who have never ridden a horse into the Caribbean, where it's deep enough that the horses actually are swimming — and I suspect that's many of you — here's what it's like: kind of weird. Nonswimmers might think twice, though staff is never far.
The cost: $79, including transportation from most hotels. (Costs for cruise ship excursions may differ.) chukkacaribbean.com
Cool Runnings Dunn's River Falls and Catamaran Cruise
The cruise, which includes a stop for middling-quality snorkeling, is a prelude to the drinking, dancing and party boat merriment found just about everywhere tourists gather near saltwater. Only the music changes, though Jamaican music is particularly bounce-inducing.
This program combines that with a visit to (and an optional slippery climb along) Dunn's River Falls, which in Jamaica is as inevitable as Old Faithful is to Yellowstone but without the sulfur. It's especially fun to use the steps alongside the falls to take photos of climbers who obviously would much rather be back on the boat, fueling up for bouncing.
The cost: $80 (less for kids). coolrunningscatamarans.com
This is essentially a theme park set in a thickly rain-forested mountain above Ocho Rios, though that description makes it sound tackier than it really is.
Here, in one stop within easy ship-excursion range of Ocho Rios, can be found a butterfly garden, a water slide and infinity pool, a zip-line experience, a sky-lift ride above the trees and a bobsled ride.
The bobsled is a hoot.
Riders are strapped in and shuttled to a launch point — and only then, boys and girls, do you discover you're in your own private roller coaster. You can control the speed — somewhat — but the instant you understand that the sleds really aren't going to jump the tracks and send you slamming into a mahogany tree (or worse, a zip-liner), you just let it go and hang on.
Remember the sensation the Jamaican bobsledders were in Olympic Games past? Well, this will jog your memory while jostling your innards.
The cost: $68.20 (includes sky-lift ride). rainforestadventure.com
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