As my flight descended into Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica, my first sight was blue. But not just any blue — it was a clear-to-the-bottom, almost fluorescent shade of cerulean that forced me to keep looking out the window, just to be sure that it was real. It’s the kind of ombré blue-green water that travel magazines plaster on their covers every month, just to sell more issues; the kind of blue that, just by looking at it, you can naturally breathe a little deeper.
After landing, I was immediately met by a representative from Club MoBay, a VIP airport service that escorts you through a customs and immigration fast lane, then to a private lounge where can you mix yourself a cocktail and have a snack (plantains!) while you wait for your shuttle. When I was told that the service was “truly Jamaican,” I was confused. But when I met my Club MoBay rep, I understood. Genuinely warm and friendly, she re-filled out the customs form that I had botched in my early-morning haze, and enthusiastically filled me in on everything I had to see and do in Montego Bay.
My driver, from the island’s largest DMC, Jamaica Tours Limited (JTL), was equally warm and garrulous. Sullavan “Steve” Biersay has worked for JTL for 15 years, and the company has served the island for more than 50 years. From Sangster — the largest airport on the island, and one of the busiest in the Caribbean — we drove about seven miles to the newly opened Hyatt Zilara in Rose Hall, an oceanfront stretch of hotels, attractions, and beaches that most people who visit Montego Bay (MoBay, as the locals call it) end up visiting at one time or another.
The new, adults-only Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall and the connected, family-friendly Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall (formerly a Ritz-Carlton) underwent a rebranding last year. The two hotels share the same campus, including a 1,200-foot stretch of pristine private beach, with Zilara as a new build that opened in December and Ziva undergoing an extensive renovation to match around the same time. Between them, the properties offer a total of 620 rooms, 16 restaurants, 18,286 square feet of indoor meeting and conference space, and 30,000 square feet of outdoor event space, with most of it overlooking that perfect blue sea.
Both the Zilara and the Ziva are completely all-inclusive, and unlike at some “all-inclusive” resorts, almost everything (with the exception of spa treatments) is included — cabanas, non-motorized water sports, all 16 restaurants (even à la carte options), and any and all alcoholic beverages. My suite, on the Zilara side, was as expansive and as finely tuned as the rest of the massive property. And because the property is spaced out — it took me a little more than 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other — it never feels packed, even though capacity hit close to 100 percent during my stay.
ROOM TO SPARE
After the flag switch, Hyatt Zilara and Hyatt Ziva retained much of the Ritz-Carlton–trained staff, many of whom had worked at the property for a number of years. I found that to be a recurrent theme the more hotel properties I visited in Montego Bay — such as at Half Moon, where I had a proper British lunch of Scotch eggs and salad with the group sales manager, Damion Thompson, who said that Solomon Gardener, restaurant manager at the property’s Sugar Mill restaurant, has worked at the hotel for 51 years, while Wordsworth Watson, Half Moon’s estate manager, has been there for 55 years.
Even at full capacity, the 398-accommodation Half Moon feels wonderfully empty because it’s spread out over 400 acres. Guests get around via bike or golf cart, and the activity options are endless — a 68,400-square-foot labyrinth of a spa, 54 swimming pools, an equestrian center, a dolphin lagoon, and more than 27,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space. Groups can take over one of 30 villas — private beachfront homes with multiple bedrooms — and the staff is masterful at creating unique programs, including villa-vs.-villa cook-offs and Jamaican-themed evening barbecues complete with a mini version of the local crafts market.
In total, Montego Bay has more than 4,000 hotel rooms, and that number represents a wide range of price points and property types. I spent a full day checking out a number of all-inclusive properties close to the Montego Bay Convention Centre (MBCC), such as the 681-room Riu Montego Bay and the 352-room Royalton White Sands Montego Bay, which plans to add 150 adult-only suites by summer 2016. Sandals also has three all-inclusive properties in Montego Bay, including the Royal Caribbean Resort & Private Island. The historic, Georgian-style hotel is well known for its lush gardens that are thick with pink bougainvillea as well as for its over-the-top rooms (guests can choose from 17 different accommodation types). The Royal Caribbean is also the only resort in Jamaica with its own private island.
Boutique hotels and budget-conscious options exist, too. I stopped by the Holiday Inn Resort Montego Bay, which has 4,000 square feet of meeting space and a beautiful half-mile stretch of private beach. The 518-room hotel is the first all-inclusive property in the brand’s portfolio, and recently added an adults-only section. Ideal for smaller groups and room blocks, the petite and well-kept, 50-room Coyaba Beach Resort & Club feels like a secret hideaway I happened to stumble upon, while the Relax Resort’s tucked-away location on a verdant hillside gives guests a bird’s-eye view of the Caribbean Sea.
MEET AND GREET
When I spent a morning touring the MBCC with its senior marketing and public relations manager, Michelle Parkes, I was struck first by how un-convention-center-like the facility appears. An open-air, blue-roofed complex with three buildings — exhibition hall, ballroom, and conference center — the MBCC has a wide, resort-like layout that gives groups plenty of breathing room. There are also two views from which to choose: from the front, the Caribbean Sea; from the back, steep hillsides that climb into low, rolling mountains. Meeting planners who can’t get enough of the oceanfront view can hold a reception or special event on a 25,424-square-foot courtyard that fronts the ballroom, or on a 17,954-square-foot terrace that directly connects to the exhibition hall.
The MBCC, which is managed by SMG, has more than 142,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor event space. Taking up 57,525 square feet of that is the exhibition hall, which spans the entire right side of the facility. On the left is the MBCC’s conference center, offering nine meeting rooms and a boardroom that come equipped with all of the technical amenities groups could want or need — Wi-Fi, VOIP phone systems, fiber-optic-cable infrastructure, dual-power outlets, fully integrated audiovisual system, and built-in projectors and screens.
In the center of the complex is the 18,417-square-foot ballroom. Details like mahogany-trimmed walls and ceilings and track lighting help craft an elegant atmosphere, while surround-sound audio and a 15,000-square-foot catering kitchen make the ballroom one of the most well-equipped meeting spaces on the island. Although the MBCC is outfitted with all of the high-tech amenities you would expect in a modern-day convention center, you can still pick up traces of classic Jamaican Georgian architecture in its design, including cut-stonework and colonnaded walkways. Interestingly, traces of Chinese influences also turn up, such as in the ballroom’s lattice-work ceilings.
“We know that successful meetings don’t just happen, and we take time to understand the individual needs and concerns of meeting planners and the priorities of our guests,” said Dittie Guise, the MBCC’s general manager. “This allows us to offer seamless organization, fault-free equipment, impeccable presentation, the appointment of a specialized team to provide top-notch service for every event, well-equipped meeting rooms, creative food-and-beverage offerings, and qualified technical assistance.”
MORE TO EXPLORE
Breaking out of the resort cocoon, as lovely as that comfortable cocoon might be, is key to seeing the real Jamaica, and I found that many local haunts are perfectly group-friendly. I spent one evening feasting on jerk chicken at Scotchies, a place beloved by residents as much as tourists. A casual roadside stop, Scotchies roasts its jerk-seasoned chicken and pork over pimento wood (also ask for festival, a delicious cornbread fritter).
About five minutes from Scotchies, the open-air Shoppes at Rose Hall has 28 stores, a number of them duty-free, carrying everything from clothes to jewelry to locally produced coffee and cigars, with complimentary shuttles servicing nearby hotels from the Montego Bay Convention Centre throughout most of the day. Across the street from the Shoppes is one of the area’s biggest historical attractions, the Rose Hall Great House. The home and former plantation — said to be haunted by its 18th-century owner, Annie Palmer — is famous for its evening ghost tours (even my mid-afternoon tour raised a few goose bumps).
The activity highlight of my trip, a hike up the famous Dunn’s River Falls in nearby Ocho Rios, in Saint Ann parish, makes the perfect team-building excursion for groups. Starting at the beach, groups hike up the 600-foot waterfall, holding hands for guidance and balance. Also in Saint Ann, the Green Grotto Caves appeal to both history and nature lovers. According to our guide, the caves served as an escape route for runaway slaves in the 18th century, and today house a large number of bat species, along with stunning stalactites. The tour is quick, under an hour, and makes an entertaining yet peaceful stop after the adrenaline rush of Dunn’s River Falls.
On my last evening, I made a point to stop by Pier 1, a waterfront restaurant near the Hip Strip that turns into a nightclub in the wee hours. With typical Jamaican hospitality, Pier 1 owner Robert Russell went out of his way to personally pick me up and treat me to dinner. Over lobster and cocktails, Russell, a sort of Jamaican Renaissance man, regaled me with stories late into the evening about his fascinating life, from opening nightclubs and working on movies like “The Harder They Come” in the 1970s to starting Reggae SumFest, the island’s largest music festival, about 22 years ago. Ending the trip the same way I started it — telling stories, enjoying yet another perfect view — how could I not fall in love with Montego Bay?