Eileen Ogintz, Taking the Kids, December 01, 2011
The mahogany dining room table is set just-so with silver candelabra, lace cloth and English china. The staff hovers, smiling, serving the perfectly-cooked dinner that includes everything from pumpkin soup to homemade pie.
We feel the gentle sea breeze and look out on a spectacular vista -- from the stone patio to our pool, tropical gardens and, of course, the sea.
No I'm not dreaming of an effortless holiday gathering that could never be real -- at least in my world. I'm actually wide awake in Jamaica, enjoying a pre-holiday moms' getaway with my three oldest friends from grade school at the most unusual all-inclusive resort I've ever visited.
Welcome to Bluefields Bay Villas ( www.bluefieldsvillas.com ) -- a collection of six fully-staffed seaside homes of varying sizes in the tiny community of Bluefields (just a couple of thousand people live here) a little more than an hour's drive southwest of Montego Bay and about 45 minutes from Negril.
We were whisked from the airport by amiable Percy Baldwin, who keeps up a running commentary along the way on the winding, bumpy road of Jamaican history and culture, as we pass through small towns named Redding and Anchovy, Montpelier and Rambell where we stopped for first-rate jerk chicken at "Border Jerk." We wave at school children in their brightly-colored uniforms on their way home from school and at women selling fruit at roadside stands.
When we arrive at "Hermitage," our four-bedroom villa, our staff is waiting to great us -- cook Rose Spence, housekeeper Sharon Plummer and major domo Marvin Forrest, who later will take us up Bluefield Mountain on a hike, passing locals who, because there is no running water, carry their water in jugs up the mountain from the river.
If we'd had young kids with us, there would have been a nanny waiting too. Marvin immediately asks us what we'd like to drink. For once, I'm not worried about getting groceries or making a dinner reservation. We change clothes and relax on chairs on our deck overlooking the ocean, drinks in hand. I can't think of a place more conducive to a relaxing family gathering or girlfriends' getaway.
Yes, this is an all-inclusive experience -- from all of the drinks we want (Marvin whips up different frozen concoctions from fresh fruit) to our meals and activities (kayak or snorkel, anyone? Maybe just a lazy hour on the hammock overlooking the beach?) There's even a reggae party at a neighboring Bluefields villa, featuring a local band.
But it couldn't be any more different than the traditional all-inclusive resorts so popular here. For one thing, we're ensconced in our own house with our own pool and private beach, where we're waited on from the minute we wake up (coffee is waiting when I get out of my canopied bed) until we go to sleep after a couple of rounds of Scrabble. There's no waiting for a table at a restaurant or to plan an excursion. There's Wi-Fi, but no TV. I enjoy one of the best massages (thanks, Nicholas!) I've ever had while in our villa overlooking the sea.
But what I love even more than being treated like a queen and not having to be the organizer and cook-in-chief is the chance to experience the "real" Jamaica. In case you are wondering, we feel completely safe -- no worries about crime in this sleepy area where locals greet us warmly wherever we go. But just in case, there are security patrols all night.
"We want to respect what people want on vacation and make that happen," says Debbie Moncure, who has been running the business with her husband since they bought their first villa here some 30 years ago. From the beginning, they've supported the community. Houston Moncure, 26, is now part of the business and continuing that commitment. (He oversaw a new computer lab at the local high school.)
We visit the pre-school that the Moncure family funds, delivering crayons and markers we've brought to the giggling children. I tour the local community center with Woldes Kristos who is developing nature-oriented excursions ( www.jamaicabirding.com ) and other community efforts to employ locals in tourism. We chat with artists working from tiny roadside studios that are not much more than shacks.
At our villa, we're served local Jamaican cuisine -- everything from fried plantain and jerk chicken (we learn pimento leaves are the key to the flavor) to local snapper, fried breadfruit and for breakfast Rundown, a saute of salt fish and vegetables in a coconut milk sauce.
Most important, we talk to our staff about their lives and families. Lest we feel guilty, we learn that the unemployment rate is more than 40 percent here, so our staff is glad for our presence.
"Getting to know the staff is the best part," says Paul Hawkins, a recent college grad here with his parents, sister and their significant others. So is the chance to do what you want when you want, he adds.
One morning, we head off with our driver Percy Baldwin to explore a small section of the Black River -- at 44 miles Jamaica's longest navigable river populated by crocodiles, birds and Mangroves. We head to YS Falls ( www.YSfalls.com ) where we cannot only swim in the seven-tiered waterfall (yes there is a rope swing) but we're served a fried chicken and banana bread picnic lunch prepared by our cook. It is beautiful and serene -- far less crowded than Jamaica's more famous Dunn's River Falls.
Bluefields Villas isn't cheap. (Rates depend on the number of bedrooms you are using, plus $125 per day per adult and $90 per day per child for meals, activities and staff.) But you may not be paying much more than at a big all-inclusive. Consider that off-peak weekly rental at one of the two-bedroom cottages is $3,500 and $5,600 for a five-bedroom house.) Split a villa with extended family or friends and you may find it comfortably affordable and also a special experience.
The hardest part, "You have to relax and let people take care of you," offers Bill Hawkins, who has vacationed here with his Maryland family four times. "Sometimes that's not easy."
(For more on Eileen's adventure in Jamaica, read her trip diaries at www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com , where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)