Jamaica’s shrine to permissive indulgence, NEGRIL metamorphosed from deserted fishing beach to full-blown resort town in three decades. By the 1970s, this virgin paradise with eleven kilometres of palms and pristine sand, offering beach camping, ganja smoking and chemically enhanced sunsets, had set the tone for today’s free-spirited attitude. Thanks to deliberately risqué resorts like Hedonism II, Negril is widely perceived as a place where inhibitions are lost and pleasures of the flesh rule. The traditional menu of ganja and reggae (Negril has a deserved reputation for nightlife and live music) draws a young crowd, but the north coast resort ethic has muscled in, too. All-inclusives now pepper the coast and undeveloped beachfront land is sparse. With rare foresight, however, the authorities have stipulated that hotels must be no taller than the highest palm tree, which prevents high-rises taking hold and encourages smaller independent properties.
Negril’s dramatic expansion and reputation as “sin city” certainly does draw an over-quota of hustlers – though an active year-round tourist police force prevents occasional edginess from becoming anything more than a minor irritation. The resort shrugs off minor annoyances and remains supremely chilled-out – conversations start and end with “Irie” or “no problem” – and addicts come back year after year for the best sunsets in Jamaica. Pristine kilometres of sand with comprehensive watersports, open-air dancing to rated Jamaican musicians, a wide range of eating and drinking joints and gregarious company are all on offer. Many visitors have stayed on permanently, and the consequent blurring of the distinction between tourists and locals makes for a relaxed, natural interaction that’s a refreshing change from other resort areas. For an entertaining introduction, read Mark Conklin’s novel, Banana Shout, based on the outlandish real-life events that shaped the beginnings of Negril as a tourist resort.
There’s no real “town centre” in Negril, just a roundabout that feeds its three roads: beach-ward Norman Manley Boulevard, which runs parallel to Long Bay, Bloody Bay and the Great Morass wetlands; quieter West End/Lighthouse Road (renamed One Love Drive to the confusion of just about everyone) winding along the cliffs; and Sheffield Road, the less touristic route inland toward Savanna-la-Mar.
Negril’s isolation – before the coast road was laid in 1959, it was completely cut off from the rest of the island by the Great Morass – is central to its history. Even its Spanish name, Punto de Negrilla or “dark point”, referred to its remoteness as much as to the black eels that once thrived in its rivers. During British rule, Negril’s seclusion was used both to protect British ships and to attack Spanish vessels en route to and from Cuba. It also provided an ideal hideout for pirates in the eighteenth century, and for the export of ganja in more recent years. In 1996, overzealous coast guards opened fire on a plane owned by Island Outpost boss Chris Blackwell, assuming that the cargo was drugs rather than, as was the case, members of the band U2 and country singer Jimmy Buffet; fortunately the volleys missed and a tragedy was averted. The town has also played a part in war: in 1814, fifty English warships and six thousand men, including one thousand Jamaicans from the West Indian Regiment, sailed from Negril to Louisiana to fight the Battle of New Orleans.
Though it’s hard to imagine once you’ve seen today’s overdeveloped strip, in the late 1960s Negril’s population was under a hundred; it was only in the 1970s that the town’s charms were brought to wider attention by hippies from overseas. Developers were quick to step in, and by the early 1980s the once-empty curve of beach was smothered with all the trappings of a full-blown resort. International attention was captured by tales of debauchery at the notorious Hedonism II resort, and Negril’s reputation as Jamaica’s devil-may-care hot spot was assured. Though summer hurricanes slow the pace of development by altering the shape of the beach, 1990s infrastructural projects and a new highway to Montego Bay in the 2000s ensured continued growth, often at the expense of local ecologies. Even Bloody Bay, until 2000 untouched by development, now has five all-inclusives on its sands. This said, particularly at the “cliffs” end of town, it is still more than possible to find the laid-back charm and gorgeous scenery that first brought tourists here.