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.
Negril’s beach (Norman Manley Boulevard) is the place to stay if you want to be right at the centre of the town’s party culture. Many hotels have commandeered areas of beach with sun loungers and security, while smaller hotels and those on the inland side of the road (including a couple of backpacker hangouts as well as undistinguished apartment blocks) use whatever piece of sand is closest. Those inland back straight onto the Great Morass, so bugs can be a problem in rainy season. The West End is quieter with a degree of privacy, and boasts several of the loveliest hotels in Jamaica as well as some attractive budget options; bear in mind that those right over the (steep and open-access) cliffs are a bad choice if travelling with children. Much accommodation in Negril is in traditional palm-thatched or tile-roofed cottages; though cooler than concrete, many are ludicrously easy to break into. Wherever you stay, check doors and windows are secure and ID anyone before you let them in.
Most bars want you to spend the sunset with them and offer happy hours as an incentive. As the cliffs give the best view, bars along the West End tend to be livelier at dusk, with the action most nights moving to the beach later on. If you want some local flavour, try the darkened interiors of the rum bars and beer shacks along Sheffield Road or West End Road near the roundabout. There is only one proper club in town, The Jungle, so most of the weeknight dancing is offered by beach bars using sand as a dancefloor – though there are a couple of West End options, too. A nightly rotation system shares business around. DJs play reggae, dancehall and dance music, and there is plenty of live music, from Marley covers to soul and jazz. Ask around to see what’s happening – you can usually walk from one beach venue to another. Negril’s risqué reputation means it has a number of go-go clubs: scantily-clad women gyrate for drinkers and post-Jungle clubbers; these clubs draw a mainly local clientele of both sexes.
Negril’s cosmopolitan dining scene offer some of the finest cuisine in Jamaica. There are good vegetarian options alongside chicken and fish, and you’ll also find a lot of pasta and pizza, with some restaurants run by Italian expats – popular with the large number of Italians who visit in the early summer. Jamaican food tends to be lower-priced, with numerous vendors in shacks along the first stretch of West End Road selling roast or fried fish and soups, and jerk vendors wheeling out their oil-drum barbecues as dusk falls. Many of the smarter restaurants offer free pick-up; call in advance.
Rapid growth and unplanned development have had a devastating effect upon Negril’s ecosystems. Norman Manley Boulevard cuts straight through what was originally swampland, jet skis and anchors have played havoc with the reefs, and mangrove-felling has allowed the sea and hurricanes to slim down the precious beach and smother portions of reef with earth and sand that the trees once filtered. A 2012 study demonstrated that the shoreline at Long Bay has retreated on average 23cm every year since 1971 – a trend expected to accelerate with sea-level rise.
The population explosion meant that houses built on captured land lacked water supplies, garbage removal and sanitation facilities until relatively recently. Now, thankfully, Negril has a US$15-million water treatment plant and reservoir, which has minimized the amount of untreated sewage flowing into the sea, although link-up is still proving beyond some people’s means.
With healthy support from Negril citizens, the Negril Coral Reef Preservation Society (NCRPS) has placed 45 mooring buoys at key points on the reefs and successfully lobbied for marine park status like that afforded the Montego Bay waters (and jpat-jm.net); it was granted in March 1998. The Negril Environmental Protection Trust (NEPT; nept.wordpress.com) has a wider brief, declaring 128 square kilometres from Green Island to Salmon Point as the Negril Watershed Environmental Protection Area, with action required on all fronts: from reforestation projects to combating the burning of hardwoods for saleable charcoal, and to rescuing sea turtles deprived of their beach nesting grounds. An environmental education programme in local schools is also under way in collaboration with the Negril Education Environment Trust (neetja.com). Among other successes, NEPT also engaged larger hotels in the Blue Flag Campaign, which provides beach marine certification to those active on beach erosion and effective coastal management – not an easy task. To find out more about these groups, visit their Marine Park office next to the main craft market (t957 3736).
As any aficionado can tell you, Jamaica’s best ganja (marijuana) – well-flavoured and incredibly potent – grows in the fertile local Westmoreland earth. The trade to eager tourists plays a significant, if covert, part in the local economy. Many devotees make annual pilgrimages to find a place to chill out and partake of the local weed. Herb is a part of daily life in Negril, so don’t be surprised if your first potential supplier is your hotel porter, and you lose count of the men who hiss “sensi” as you pass them in the street. Don’t feel that you can light up wherever you choose, though – marijuana is as illegal here as it is anywhere else on the island, and there are plenty of undercover police around who can and do arrest tourists and locals alike for possession.
Though Negril has been an unofficial ganja centre since its hippie heyday (ganja remains illegal, however, despite talk of liberalization, see The Hurricane effect), there’s also a great deal of cocaine and crack use around town. It’s not especially noticeable, but a certain furtiveness around the late-night beach bars lets you know that it’s there for the taking. Negril is also one of the few places on the island where you’re likely to be offered locally abundant (and legal) magic mushrooms, considerably larger and stronger than those in cooler countries. Some restaurants include them in cakes or omelettes and serve foul-tasting mushroom tea, for instance Jenny’s Favorite Cakes (also serving up potent ganja cake) on the West End Road, while Tedd’s on Sheffield Road (ask a taxi driver for Tedd Brown’s) mixes up mushroom-flavoured daiquiris and more.
The sunset view from the West End, Jamaica’s extreme westerly point, is the best you’ll see. Most evenings the sky blazes with absurdly rich oranges, pinks and blues that intensify as the sun dips behind the horizon, eventually merging into the deepest of blues, with the moon reflected way out to sea. Sunset-watching is an institution; most bars and restaurants offer sunset happy hours and the half-hour or so before dusk is the closest the West End gets to hectic. Coach parties descend in droves upon Negril’s biggest (and rather tired) cliché, Rick’s Café, the venue of sunset cliff-diving demonstrations by local boys, who enjoy being the centre of attention while cameras click, drinks are paid for with plastic tokens and (very average) bands churn out Marley classics. Though the cliffs are at their highest around Rick’s, many other hotels and restaurants are superb for a sunset drink and swim; best is probably the LTU Pub (next to Rick’s), though the Sands bar at the Caves hotel has an exclusive air, and the Rockhouse boasts sea access from a stylish bar and restaurant, and complete seclusion. Drumville Cove also has a friendly attitude towards non-guests and a spectacular portion of cliff.
One of Negril’s proudest moments came when the reign of Calico Jack Rackham, the most notorious buccaneer to terrorize Jamaican waters, was brought to an end here in November 1720. Rackham – called “Calico” in reference to his preferred underwear – and his crew had moored their captured sloop in Bloody Bay to celebrate recent plunders, unaware that their every move was being shadowed by one Captain Barnet of the British Navy. Made inattentive by rum punch, the pirates were quickly overwhelmed. Some surrendered instantly, but two, in particular, put up a mighty struggle – even turning their weapons on their more malleable crew members. Eventually, they were subdued – at which point naval officers were astonished to find that they were women in disguise. Famously bloodthirsty in battle, Anne Bonney, Rackham’s former mistress, and Mary Read formed a ruthless double act and were instrumental in earning Rackham his infamy as a freebooter. At their trial, victim Dorothy Thomas noted that “they wore men’s jackets and long trousers… each of them had a machete and a pistol in their hands, and cursed and swore.”
Rackham was executed, his body displayed in an iron frame at the Kingston cay that now bears his name. Bonney and Read were also sentenced to death, but were spared when they declared themselves pregnant and were eventually reprieved. Anne Bonney disappeared from recorded history, while Mary Read died of yellow fever and is buried in St Catherine.
Jamaica is a carnal kind of country, and monetary-based holiday liaisons are a well-established convention. Fuelled by tropical abandon and the island’s pervasive sexuality, the lure of the “big bamboo” prompts some unusual partnerships. Middle-aged women strolling hand in hand with handsome young studs have become such a frequent sight that pejorative epithets – “Rent-a-dread” or “Rastitute” – for the young men who make a career out of these cynical liaisons have entered the lexicon.
The butt of many jokes, the stereotypical Rastitute is a muscle-bound model of the latest mini-trunks and sneakers, with a head topped off with dreadlocks – or extensions if he can’t manage the real thing. However, not all gigolos come in the same package; a Rastitute can also appear as an Ital-style Rasta, wooing with talk of natural living and preaching sex with white tourists in the name of racial unity.
In a country of scant possibilities, becoming a gigolo is a very practical career move. Negril is a centre for this kind of trade-off, and many women regularly return for an injection of “Jamaican steel”, some forming relationships that span several years’ holiday time. As a result, single women are universally assumed to be out for one thing only – prepare yourself for a barrage of propositions.
Male tourists are less involved in the holiday romance scenario, but female prostitutes are common and men should expect to be frequently propositioned.
If you do choose to indulge in any kind of holiday liaison, practice safe sex; syphilis and HIV rates are high.
The 289-acre Royal Palm Reserve was created in the 1980s at the southern side of the Great Morass as a means of protecting this crucial wetland. While very sadly officially closed due to a lack of funding and visitor interest, it is still very much worth a visit and there’s always someone on hand to show you around for a small tip. The royal palm cluster here is one of the largest single collections of the tree in the world; tall and magnificent but devoid of coconuts, the palms have a stately presence that lends the reserve a patently tropical air. Wreathed in creepers and vines springing up from the nutrient-rich bog below, the trees are thick enough in places to block out views of the hills behind. Fishing is possible in the peat channels, and there’s a rickety birdwatching tower.
A tour of the reserve makes use of a system of boardwalks, which is the best place to view this rare habitat without getting wet (though boat trips are also available from the Kool Runnings Adventure Park). Jamaica’s second-largest wetland comprises six thousand acres of rivers, peat bogs and grasses that back right onto Negril’s beach; fed by rivers from the Orange and Fish River hills, the area is crucial to freshwater supply, acting as a giant natural filter, protecting reefs from being smothered by silt and providing a sanctuary for insects, shrimps, rare plants and birds – commonly seen are Jamaican euphonias, parakeets and woodpeckers. Land crabs enjoy one of the few remaining perfect habitats in Jamaica and are a common sight during the summer breeding months. The morass has long been threatened by pesticide and sewage pollution and proposals to remove peat fuel, but so far the cut-and-drain activities of the government-owned Petroleum Company of Jamaica (PCJ) have been contained.
The onsite small museum is predictably desultory and poorly kept since NEPT withdrew its permanent staff, but there are still explanations of wetland ecosystems and bird varieties on the walls. The informal guides that are still to be found on site are unpaid and expect to accompany visitors on a 45-minute tour; most are informative and enthusiastic, however, and justify their tip. Dawn or dusk birdwatching as well as fishing for tarpon and tilapia are especially worthwhile activities here (also guided should someone be on hand).
Every year, between the end of February and Easter, ten thousand American college students arrive in Jamaica for Spring Break – and most head straight for Negril. Though not reaching the levels of debauched hype that Cancun has become famous for, it’s a non-stop carnival of fun if you’re 19, and a rude shattering of the (relative) peace if you’re not. If wet T-shirt competitions, drinking challenges and dancing in piña-colada flavoured foam are your thing, then this is the time to head for Negril – otherwise be warned. Margaritaville, Risky Business and Rick’s Café are the self-appointed headquarters for Spring Break; most other beach bars put on special events, and the season is sponsored by Red Stripe and Appleton. This is also a good time to hear live music, with some of Jamaica’s best DJs and bands making the most of a large, enthusiastic audience.
Travel agents specializing in Spring Break packages include Student Travel Services (1 800 648 4849 in US, ststravel.com) and Sunsplash Tours (1 800 426 7710 in US, sunsplashtours.com). For further information check negrilspringbreak.com.