Thursday, August 4, 2011

Our Adventure at Iberostar's Grand Hotel Rose Hall Resort in Jamaica. "Ya Mon!"

Thousands of gallons of water pressed down and around me at the decompression stop. Bubbles rushed around my face from the air regulator in my mouth. I was feeling ill but calmly designed a plan of action in my mind for the moment I couldn’t take it anymore. “How did I get here,” I thought to myself as that moment approached. My eyes, sealed behind a diving mask, frantically locked with Nicole’s only a few feet away. Here I was, scuba diving in the middle of the ocean in Jamaica, and we were a long way from home…

The Arrival

We arrived at Sangster International Airport on the island of Jamaica around noon, Greenwich Mean Time. As the hum of the jet winded down the passengers were making that unmistakable fidgeting sound. Safety belts started to unclick. Sleepyheads woke up. The seats crinkled with stretching and moving bodies that had just been safely pressurized in the airplane’s cabin.

The island nation was the home of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and Dennis Brown. Ian Flemming wrote his famous spy novels at the Goldeneye estate in Oracabessa. Johnny Cash had even spent significant time and money there. And now, Nicole and I were here on our first tropical vacation for four days and three nights.

After passing through immigration and customs, Nicole and I emerged from the airport looking for the Jamaican Tours shuttle that was headed to the Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall resort where we were staying. The airport sits just on the lip of east Montigo Bay and the resort is less than five miles away along the northern coast.

Instead of taking the shuttle, we nearly burst with excitement and jumped into a cab. The locals (who attacked us with "Ya Mon!") had practically begged Nicole and I to patronize one. Our driver's name was Baba.

Baba was an older gentleman who looked like he could have been any one of the old-timers stooped out along Columbia Road in Washington D.C. He seemed eager to set the tone for our trip.

Nicole and the driver chatted away as I peered out the window. My eyes absorbed colors of verdant foliage, sparkling aqua and bright rust. I noticed Jamaica's generally depressed appearance.

I knew about (although I hadn't quite expected) the island's dream-like beauty juxtaposed against its relentless poverty. Piles of trash littered some of the streets. Locals sluggishly strolled along or across the busy Jamaican interstate.

Eventually, Baba's taxi drifted leftward into a turn and large iron gates slowly opened. When we arrived bellhops scooped up our luggage and welcomed us with another "Ya Mon!" “They must be saying this for the tourists,” I thought to myself as I paid our cab.

(Later, we discovered this expression was not an act as I had suspected. Nicole and I actually came upon a couple of Iberostar employees - who didn't even know were were there - talking to each other and saying "Ya Mon!" with every other word. Jamaicans used it almost the way an American teenager says "dude".)

At the service desk Nicole and I were greeted with two chilly mimosas.

The receptionist asked us if this was our first visit to Jamaica and we replied that it was. She then informed us that our rooms were going to be upgraded to a beachfront view. We weren’t quite sure why but I remained silent so as not to disturb our fortune.

The Accommodations

The accommodations at Iberostar Grand Hotel were impressive. The bathroom was spacious with an ice cream white Jacuzzi-style bathtub for two. Next to the tub was an extended stall with a "waterfall" shower head that streamed down on you from above.

The security safe in the closet was big enough to fit a twelve to fourteen inch laptop and more. That same closet housed a mini-fridge stocked with an assortment of sodas and juices.

Of course, a pair of Red Stripes and a gang of airplane bottles were handy along with a couple of "grab-bags" of chips (presumably for late-night munchies).

I had read on blogs from Travel Onion or online forums that front-row beach seating at Iberostar was cut-throat. Our butler seemed to confirm this information while introducing us to our room.

But, Nicole and I found beach chairs mostly vacant. Why? Because we were in the Grand Hotel instead of the other neighboring Iberostar resorts. We had chosen our destination wisely.

In fact, while we were allowed to tour any part of the extended Iberostar resort shore, outsiders to the Grand Hotel were restricted from our particular stretch of beachhead. And many of those outsiders were kids. Their distinct wrist bands indicated that they had limited access, unlike ours.

Nicole and I headed for a spot on the beach once we were settled in our room. It was time to do what we had come to Jamaica to do: relax and soak in the Caribbean sun.

The Beach (and The Cocktails)

We settled into a shaded spot on the beach. Iberostar staff seemed to sense our presence because a wonderful server named Raquel appeared out of nowhere and introduced herself to us. She was a skinny thing with a genuine, bright smile.

She was our favorite attendant and we got to know her more than anyone else at the resort. Nicole and I also made sure we were Raquel's best tippers.

We'd often found ourselves sitting in front of the beach gripping sand with our feet and sipping the last ounces of our cocktails. Suddenly, we’d see Raquel following up behind us with another round, more towels, or more sunscreen.

As cocktails go, Iberostar served what I expected: tropical potables like mojitos or rum punches as well as frozen drinks like dirty bananas or daiquiris. 

The frozen drinks came from prepackaged and preserved mixers which were thrown into a blender and spun into a perfect icy frappé.

I ordered each "boat drink" until deciding it was best just to settle on the tastiest one.

After a while, Raquel, who was fascinated with my dabbling in mixology, told me she was an aspiring mixologist too. She disappeared for fifteen or twenty minutes. And when she returned she carried a bright green drink filled to the brim.

I tasted the concoction. It was an attack of melon and rhum flavors.

"Nice work," I said, visibly adjusting to the potent spirit within the drink. Raquel smiled. As the buzz from the liquor quickly began to kick in, I realized it was time to eat something.

The Gastronomy

On the first day, Nicole and I had made the recommended reservations to four restaurants on the resort. The rest of the time we ate at the daily buffet that faced the beach.

I noticed that much of the seafood we had in Jamaica was rubbish. We figured out by the second day to stay clear of shrimp. We would later have a lobster experience that was delicious - but that seemed to be the exception.

In fact, some of the food was questionable and we resolved to make rather simple choices with room service. One guest we befriended claimed that the omelet he had received one morning was rather rank and inedible.

Some food was quite delicious. The jerk chicken, which is a native specialty, could be found in that buffet and was cooked perfectly.

The first restaurant Nicole and I visited on the island was a Teppanyaki-style place that opened in the evening. Guests sat at a table encircling a standard iron griddle with other couples. The chef was firing off of cacophonous rounds by hitting his spatulas on the surface of this large iron plate.

Our entree was a fried-rice dish with a choice of protein. Nicole chose lobster. I chose beef. We were happy to find both plates a success.

Our next meal was a surf and turf restaurant where we were served a filet and lobster dish. This experience was not a disaster. But it was unremarkable.

On one hand, the lobster was some of the better seafood we had tasted on the island. On the other, we seriously questioned the overall freshness of the plate.

The third restaurant produced a gourmet seafood platter that offered similarly weak results. The food simply wasn't fresh enough to pass.

The final meal was Italian-style which hit just the right notes. This food rivaled the Teppanyaki house from the first night. We ate fatly stuffed tortellinis that were full of flavor and Nicole was happy it was our last meal in Jamaica.

We took great care in evaluating other hot plates before actually consuming them. The rest of our food choices centered around the lush fruits that were available at the resort such as mango, melon, and guava.

Overall, we managed with our options. But some of the food in the resort should have been summarily deep-sixed into the depths of the ocean.

The Dive (or How I Almost Drowned, Twice)

We could have gone para-sailing or snorkeling. I wanted to go scuba diving instead. Had I really internalized the seriousness and commitment of this activity? Not really. Not even when the release forms were right in front of me.

To make matters more interesting, Nicole and I elected to get Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certified. The PADI dive center, Dressel Divers Club International, sat at the end of the Iberostar beachfront property.

Our first instructor, Tristan, was a handsome and likable fellow with an aussie accent. Our second instructor's name was Arnaud. He had a smaller frame and an accent as well - my guess was French.

To say the least, performing a barrage of exercises and procedures during a vacation was challenging, particularly for Nicole. Ultimately, she chose to not do the second dive and, thus, not complete her certification.

I, on the other hand, believed enduring a few hours of instruction for the experience would not matter once I was hovering on the ocean floor. My mind was fixated on that goal.

If I were really lucky, I thought, maybe I’d even see a shark.

Our first dive began a little awkwardly. We started our tour in a spot called Jamaica Reef. It took us a little time adjusting to the disorientation of the ocean current and our buoyancy.

Finally, we relaxed and enjoyed the view of rocky coral, swaying vegetation and tropical fish. The lionfish was a spectacular aquatic animal to view in its habitat, as poisonous as it is.

Tristan (perhaps in an effort to distract us from any discomfort we were probably feeling) herded us together and placed a strange little crab into our hands. The tiny crustacean danced around in my palm first, then Nicole’s.

Unfortunately, our trip almost ended in a nightmarish fashion while decompressing.

I had already felt slight nausea from the ride out to the dive spot. The motorboat had vigorously bounced off the choppy island waves taking us out there. The sick feeling stayed with me while we explored the bottom of the sea floor.

At a decompression stop, I looked up to judge how much farther we had to ascend with Tristan before it was safe. I could see the light of the sky undulating.

Eventually, after locking eyes with Nicole, I lost control and was forced to vomit ten to fifteen feet underwater.

During the ordeal, so that I did not asphyxiate, I had to rip the air regulator calmly from my lips and allow everything to go. When I finished, I jammed the regulator back into my mouth and reset it before finally returning air to my lungs.

We reached the dive center and my entire body chemistry felt as though it had been turned inside-out.

Secretly, I worried I had decompression sickness. The inert gasses that had been trapped inside my body as a result of ambient pressure could have rendered me demented or paralyzed.

I immediately consumed a can of cola in our room as recommended by Tristan. It seemed to be a quick and easy way to help rebalance the gases in my body. I spent the remainder of the day recovering. Eventually, I found myself making light of the ordeal while eating dinner with Nicole.

Would I quit? Absolutely not. The next day, I returned to the Dressel dive center eager to complete the rest of our scuba training.

We practiced a series of standard and emergency dive procedures in the resort pool. Then, later that day, we made our way back out to the deep blue waters to a spot called Rocky Shallow and descended down amongst the coral.

Having taken Dramamine the previous hour, the nausea that I had felt the day before was held in check. I had also revised my behavior to ensure I did the activity with more safety and efficiency. Yet, despite my caution, another perilous situation emerged.

During the final stage of our tour, our instructor, Arnaud, checked my air gauge and seemed alarmed by the amount of air that remained. My tank was running low sooner than expected.

My heart raced as Arnaud rushed to Tristan with the remaining time I had. At this point, I began to review the emergency procedure I had been taught only two hours earlier.

When Tristan arrived, I quickly tethered myself to him using his secondary regulator. We then began to slowly ascend while Arnaud, still at the ocean floor, gathered the rest of the trainees.

Tristan signaled, “You ok?” I signaled back in the affirmative. I was shaken but I was fine. After a few minutes we finally made it back to the boat.

On the boat, I kept my eyes on the Jamaican shore nearly a mile away. Once everyone was on board, all I could feel was the engine vibrating the entire vessel as it headed back to the dive center.

I had completed the final exercise for PADI certification and my diving experience in Jamaica was ending. I reflected on the two dives and felt lucky. I still do.

Even now, when dreaming about the two incidents here at home, my breath shortens a bit and I recoil. Yet, despite those unfortunate developments the entire activity was priceless.

In the final analysis, I had taken my body to extreme levels of pressure and unfamiliarity to experience something I would normally only have seen on television. Being in the deep, as well as Jamaica, had taught me something new about myself.

Final Thoughts

Moving forward, I hope to gather information from a gastronomical perspective. I hope to take some time, form a plan, return to the island and search for more authentic local fare.

In the end, Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall was a fitting introduction to the island of Jamaica. The resort had certainly secured a slice of paradise there. And, while some aspects of the vacation were less than perfect, Nicole and I were very satisfied with our stay.

Note: This post has been revised since its original publication


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  2. An amazing property for a great vacation!

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