Avra Jain, the Miami developer known in South Florida hospitality circles for the restoration of the historic Vagabond Hotel and Miami River Inn, remembers going to Negril seven times as a girl with her parents.
When Jain got wind of a hotel for sale in the Jamaican city, she jumped at the prospect of having her own piece of the laid-back town. Formerly known as the Moon Dance Resort, The Cliff Hotel opened after a multimillion-dollar renovation last December. The luxurious property takes its name from its perch overlooking Negril Cliffs.
Anyone seeking a party atmosphere, nightlife and a beach teeming with tourists can have that daily in South Florida. That’s how I pictured Jamaica, too—beach parties, booze and revelers until the sun came up. But west of Montego Bay, Negril couldn’t be further from that scene. The Cliff Hotel is, quite honestly, the edge of paradise.
In less time than it takes to get to Key West (the flight to Montego Bay is 1 hour and 40 minutes, then a 90-minute car ride to Negril), I was at The Cliff with a welcome drink in hand—a potent concoction of rum, ginger beer and juice, served in an ice-cold copper cup.
A look around the open-air lobby was a warm greeting itself. Large photographs of neighborhood residents—Theresa, the woman who owns the vegetarian restaurant around the bend, and Red, whose tiny store sells water and soda, and hosts a fish fry Friday nights—show Jamaica’s good vibes.
My room—Villa 1, a 1,000-square-foot, one-bedroom cottage with a sweeping view of the Caribbean Sea—came with a private courtyard in front and an inviting hammock on the grass that ended up being the perfect place to watch the sunset. In the back, just off the large bathroom, was a secluded outdoor bathtub for relaxing under the stars.
I sat out on the verandah at what would be my private paradise for the next three days, breathing sea air and gazing over the cliffs. Little did I know that by my third day, I’d be diving off the jagged rocks from 10 feet above. (Yes, cliff diving is a must in Negril for those who dare. You don’t do it alone, however. A lifeguard from the hotel helps you navigate the dive.) There also are opportunities for private snorkeling expeditions around the hotel’s cliffs. The turquoise water is clear enough to see the white sand at the bottom and schools of colorful fish.
As daring as the cliff diving can be, you can be equally experimental with the food. Every meal, served in chef Cindy Hutson’s Zest restaurant—a mere stone’s throw away from the villas, yet set apart in its own building—was an authentic blend of Caribbean spice and fresh-to-the-table catch of the fish. I watched in the morning as fishermen on small boats brought in their prizes, knowing that whatever would be served at dinner had been brought earlier in the day.
A popular Jamaican breakfast is saltfish mixed with ackee, an African fruit with a scrambled egg texture that grows locally and is used as a main ingredient in many dishes. Another authentic option is green banana porridge, a comfort food with a creamy texture and flavors of vanilla and coconut.
Breadfruit fish tacos are a perfect light lunch. The brilliant creation uses the starchy breadfruit, which tastes a bit like potato, to create an outer shell taco. To make the taco shell, the breadfruit is sliced thin, then molded into the shell, then fried. (And you don’t have to go to Jamaica to try them—Hutson serves them at her Coral Gables restaurant, Ortanique on the Mile.) Dinner typically is fish: I had fresh grilled grouper one night and a hearth-roasted whole snapper the next.
Afternoons, frozen cocktails are a fitting way to beat the Jamaican heat. Our bartender, whose nickname, aptly enough, was Johnnie Walker, created his specialty: the Bob Marley, a colorful, three-layered drink with coconut rum and White Overproof, a sweet-spicy rum specific to Jamaica, which I happily found in the airport’s duty-free shop.
If that isn’t relaxing enough, a massage at the KiYara Spa (translation: “sacred place of the earth’s spirit”) can put you into total bliss. Tucked away from the main buildings and built on the cliffs, the open-air building is small with only two treatment beds. No need for Zen music to be piped in. With the real sounds of the sea and the fresh air, the experience is soul stirring.
If you want to lounge on a beach, you won’t find it here. There are only rocks and a small patch of sand by the large pool. Guests of The Cliff, however, have access to Sandy Haven Resort, which is on Negril’s famous Seven Mile Beach and a 10-minute drive away. For travelers looking for a spring break atmosphere, stay in Montego Bay. But to be treated like a celebrity, tucked away in luxury, escape to The Cliff.
The Cliff Hotel
Address: West End Road, Negril, Jamaica, W.I.
Contact: 800.213.0583; thecliffjamaica.com
Rooms: 33 suites and villas in the main hotel, plus four cottages: two one-bedrooms, one four-bedroom and one five-bedroom