MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica -- Nathaniel Nelson has laboured for two months, releasing an elaborate carving from a two-metre piece of dogwood that washed ashore after Hurricane Tomas brushed Jamaica in early November.
Adorned with monkeys, birds, giraffes, lizards, fruit and "the king and queen of the jungle" (a tribute to reggae icon Bob Marley and his wife Rita), Nelson hoped to have the piece done by Christmas and sell it for around J$100,000 (about $1,200) to some well-heeled tourist willing to ship it.
It won't exactly fit under the seat.
But it's not the sculpture itself, striking as it is, that whacks a visitor upside the head. It's the venue: the beach promenade of the glitzy new, 700-suite, all-inclusive resorts of Secrets St. James and Wild Orchid on the outskirts of MoBay.
"They took it from the beach, and someone knew that I can do that work, so they asked me to do something for them," said Nelson, 59, who has carved "full-time from a boy" in Salt Marsh near Falmouth, about 25 km east of MoBay.
"We thought something good could come from it."
So it did, and all props to Secrets for allowing a slice of real Jamaica inside the walls.
But, even on a week's vacation, there really are memorable, wallet-friendly ways to get out and experience the unique sights, sounds, tastes and adventures offered by the most varied and dramatic Caribbean isle of them all.
Don't get me wrong -- the all-incs meet almost every immediate need and do it particularly well in Jamaica, notably SuperClubs (Breezes, Hedonism, Rooms on the Beach) and their arch-rival, the Butch Stewart resorts (aka Sandals and Beaches).
But unless you're near-fatally stressed, with no ambition beyond lying on a beach for a week, (and, frankly, there are cheaper all-inclusive Caribbean destinations for that), you'll want to get outta Dodge at some point.
Jamaica, which attracted a record 300,000 Canadian visitors last year, makes that easy. Many of its stunning natural attractions and myriad activities -- virtually everything that doesn't involve snow and ice -- are strung along an 85-kilometre stretch of the four-lane North Coast Highway (A1) from MoBay to Ocho Rios (Ochi).
So, how do you escape?
There are always the package tours via air-conditioned buses to major attractions, offered at your hotel's tour desk. But they're expensive and rigid, bypassing other fabulous venues that might be close by and not allowing you to roam. If you only have time for one excursion, this is your best bet. But, for the adventurous, opting for the do-it-yourself alternative pays big dividends.
First, do a bit of online research before you go. Try www.visitjamaica.com and www.seejamaicacheaply.com
Once you're checked in, grab every brochure the tour desk offers. Ignore the prices (unless you want to chortle about your savings later), but choose three attractions that appeal to you along the MoBay-Ochi corridor. Choose six if you're lucky enough to have two weeks. Try to combo activities that are close together into a day trip. Now that you know what you want to see and do, the big questions is ...
HOW TO GET THERE
Two words: Route taxis.
This is the intrepid army of small, usually white cars that convey the masses from A to B along the North Coast Highway and to nearby towns. You might get jammed in with six or seven others (plus the driver), but they're dirt-cheap and a great way to make friends fast.
Still, if you're going more than a short distance and carrying a few knapsacks worth of towels, bathing suits, change-of-clothes, sunscreen, bug spray, etc, your best bet is to charter a taxi for about twice the route rate -- still a fraction of 'official' tourist transport.
Example: The taxis sitting in the driveway of Sandals Grande Ocho Rios charge $30 to take you into town -- less than five minutes away. A one-minute walk to the highway gets you a route-taxi ride to the same drop-off for a buck or two pp. Do the math.
Route taxis are how your hotel maid, bartender and scuba instructor get around, so ask them for the going rate to where you want to go so you're well-prepared to haggle. Ask them if they can recommend a driver who can be chartered for a day trip.
But always look for a newer car -- without the stylish piece of rope holding the doors shut -- and settle on the fare and terms (one-way, return, all-day roaming) before you get in. And never hire a taxi that doesn't sport a red licence plate -- they're the only ones authorized to transport paying customers.
Outside of the Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt's Valley of the Kings, you'd be hard-pressed to find three such diverse, world-class attractions just a short walk apart: Dunn's River Falls, Dolphin's Cove and Mystic Mountain, all just a few minutes west of Ocho Rios.
Each of the Big Three is worth a day of your time, but you can easily combine a couple with an evening visit to downtown Ochi.
Dunn's River Falls
Still the champ, balls of fun climbing one of the highest waterfalls in JA, and inexpensive to boot ($15 adult, $12 child).
Bring or rent water shoes, don't climb the 300-metre falls without a guide, and tip the guy at least 10 bucks. After all, he took those great shots of you-and-yours clambering up to the congratulatory 'made-it' sign -- and saved your butt doing it.
On my last visit, the ambulance had just left with one broken leg and one broken arm. You've been warned.
Expensive and touristy (you have to go through a gift shop to exit), it's nonetheless a favourite among landed tourists and eight-hour, greenback-waving cruise-ship visitors alike.
It will cost you $49.50 to enter the grounds and watch the dolphins, captive sharks and defanged stingrays from the shore. Standing in shin-high water and touching the ever-grinning mammals is $73.70, while the 'Encounter Swim' costs $141.90. The whole-meal-deal 'Swim with Dolphins' program will relieve you of $285 for about 45 minutes in the water.
Even with glass-bottom kayaking, mini-boats, snorkelling and a short 'jungle trail', it's a considerable hit on the wallet, especially for a family. And they'll also entice you with $12 5x7 photos and a pricey video of your dolphin encounter.
Still, how much is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for your kid worth? (For the record, I ponied up $50 for the CD with eight pix. Sigh.)
Here's the contender, coming in from the outside, trying to blow away the comp. And darn near succeeding.
Just a short walk down the highway from Dunn's River and Dolphin Cove (or a buck pp taxi ride), this three-in-one eco-adventure is a thrill-a-minute bargain.
With your feet brushing the treetops, the Sky Explorer chairlift takes you 200 metres up a cascading rainforest to a mountaintop pavilion with lookout tower, gourmet restaurant, infinity pool, waterslide and small museum.
There, you can take a 1,000-metre rainforest bobsled run that evokes the Jamaica Bobsled Team's exploits at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, or zipline through the canopy. You can also do all of this after dark, touted as the only night rainforest canopy tour in the world. (Not me, mon.) They even hold concerts and offer weddings.
The chairlift (unlimited daily usage) costs $46.20, or $68.20 with the bobsled run and $114.40 with the zipline. The Tranopy (all three) costs $136.40.
There's the usual pix of your adventures offered at $12 a pop. But, then again, how do you shoot your own lift, bobsled or zipline pix when you're on the lift, bobsled or zipline? I bought three.
I also jammed out on the zipline. My 9-year-old didn't.
GET THERE IF YOU CAN
Near the Big Three off the highway near Ochi is Enchanted Gardens, offering a serene nature-walk among rainforest flora and 14 waterfalls, plus an aviary with rare tropical birds. Admission/guided tour costs $12.
Chukka Cove Adventures offers ocean horseback riding, ATV safaris, dune-buggies, ziplining, river tubing and kayaking, even dogsledding, at operations near MoBay, Ochi, Negril and (coming soon) Falmouth. These tours are professional, kid-friendly and reasonably priced.
If you're staying in Ocho Rios or visiting the Big Three from MoBay, stop in at the Green Grotto Caves about 20 km west of Ochi. There's a one-hour guided tour of 1,500 metres of caves and tunnels and a subterranean lake. A very different Jamaican experience. Cost: $20 adult, $10 child.
Near MoBay, the principal attractions are Rose Hall Great House, where the famous 'White Witch', Annie Palmer, knocked off three husbands before she was murdered by one of her slave lovers in 1831 ($20 tour), and bamboo rafting on the Martha Brae River at Falmouth. $55 for two adults and a child up to 10).
If you're a culture buff, a new 90-minute live-action and A/V journey through Jamaican history "from Taino to Rasta' is offered at the Outameni Experience near Falmouth. Energetic young actors and audience participation make this a treat, especially for kids. Cost: $36
You just have to try Island Grill, a Jamaican fast-food chain with locations in both MoBay and Ochi, for jerk and BBQ chicken, jerk fish, red pea soup and even jerk burgers. Cheap and yummy.
Mother's, another local chain, offers a range of Jamaican patties (beef, chicken, fish). Compare them to Juici Patties, with similar fare.
In Ocho Rios, try Little Pub or BiBiBips, both on Main St., for lunch and drinks, the Ocho Rios Village Jerk Centre on Da Costa Dr. for jerk, barbecue and fish, Miss T's for seafood and stylish Jamaican fare, Evita's or Toscanini's for Italian, and, for great dining and unmatched ambience, The Ruins at the Falls.
In MoBay, there's The Brewery and Pier One for light fare and drinks, and Scotchie's or the Pork Pit for jerk chicken and pork.
If your mission is jerk, and you can't travel way west to Boston Bay where the spice-rubbed, pimento-grilled technique originated, Ultimate Jerk Centre on the highway in Discovery Bay takes top eye-popping honours, IMHO.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Snapshot: Breezes Trelawny
Despite the Sandals-inspired couples-only mantra, fully 34 of the 50 Jamaican resorts offered out of Winnipeg welcome families, and four others allow older kids.
So, how to choose?
Well, after three visits over a decade of Jamaica-hopping, and with apologies to the others, Breezes Trelawny (formerly Trelawny Beach Hotel and Starfish Trelawny) gets my vote.
It's not the most luxurious, and doesn't have the most a la carte restaurants (two, plus the buffet and beach grill) or the biggest pool (Bahia Principe has that amenity). But it has everything you need in an unpretentious, laid-back package at a price that won't set your wallet on fire.
All alone in a spectacular North Coast setting, this 349-room mainstay of yellow-and-white towers and cottages is a favourite of tourista and Jamaican families alike. With a great beach, a man-made island reached by a shallow causeway, four pools, two waterslides, mini-golf, rock-climbing wall, kids' club, comfortable no-frill rooms, decent and varied food and a cheerful staff, Breezes Trelawny doesn't over-promise or under-deliver.
And, located about 30 km from MoBay and 55 km from Ochi, it's convenient to both east and west attractions.
Memo to SuperClubs boss John Issa: Put a few bucks into sprucing this place up a tad -- but not so much as to spoil the real-folks ambience.
HOW TO GET THERE
Airline Snapshot: Westjet
Several charter outfits offer direct weekly flights to Jamaica out of Winnipeg during the winter season, but Westjet has just bet on the island in a big way.
The airline is running two direct flights a week (Wednesdays and Saturdays) out of Winnipeg until the end of April, with a whopping 34 resort choices on offer.
The investment was part of a recent move by the Calgary-based airline to expand weekly winter flights to Jamaica from seven more cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Montreal.
The extra Winnipeg flight was a natural expansion from multi-flight Toronto, and the best use of an available plane, said John Mcleod, Westjet's VP of Network and Revenue.
"We've also specifically chosen to fly Winnipeg-Montego Bay in the daytime," he said. "That's a more popular time. ... So, for Winnipeg, we're putting our best foot forward with expensive airplane time, and we think it will work out fine."