Sandals Ochi Rios, Jamaica

with Brad and Huidi


So, there’s Jamaica, and there’s Sandals.  They are worlds apart… third world vs. first world, specifically.  Sandals is a little microcosm of the US on Jamaican soil.  It’s elegant and well organized and pretty much everything you’d expect from a four or five star US resort.  Which is remarkable, when you think about it.  I remember Belize, where the workers at the resort told us they didn’t have “wine” but they had something called “Merlot” that was pretty good.  And they offered Dramamine to Brie when she was running a fever (which is because that stuff is rare in the outback and local help is local help).  Flash forward to Sandals, and everything was great.  From the food to the water sports to the night clubs, it was all … maybe not flawless, but four star.  Oh, except for the coffee, which was five star Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  With sixteen restaurants, all themed (Italian, French, Seafood, Tapas, Jerk spiced meat, etc) so they stood out from one another, and from the cooks to the waiters to the cleanup crew, everyone could have passed for their equivalent in the US.  Minus the accent and the insistence on teaching the Jamaican way to say “groovy” (Ya, Mon!).
But let’s start with Jamaica, the island.  We had a long ride to the resort (Montego Bay airport is almost on the other side of the island from Ochi Rios) so parts of it then.  And during our visit, we also did a couple of day trips into the countryside, which was enough to see a lot of the shoreline and some of the mountains. 
Did I say mountains?  Yes, I did.  Jamaica, with a little over 4000 square miles of land, is about fifty times larger than most of the Caribbean islands I’ve been to, which gives it fresh water, terrain… like, 5,000 foot tall mountain type terrain… and trees.  Jungle, in fact.  You get off the coast and it pretty quickly turns into a Romancing The Stone style hack through the underbrush with a machete - I’m pretty sure I heard something large with teeth in those bushes - jungle.   Which lead to the question of why so much of what we ate at Sandals was imported?  As far as I could tell, other than Ackee and Salt Fish (Ackee is a fruit that is considered poisonous in most countries, making it the national dish for Jamaica) and papaya, it seemed like everything was brought in from … well, elsewhere.  Maybe not the US, but mainland something.  Seems like you could do sustainable farming on Jamaica. 
But Jamaica seems to follow the practice of most Caribbean nations.  Which means the local population is generally in grinding-poverty level conditions.  There are shacks that are nothing but a frame with plywood hammered to it and corrugated metal sheets held down by cinder blocks as a roof directly across the street from pristine, sparkling clean stucco resorts with pools and lover’s nooks with swings and elegant wooden tables with crisp white napkins and gleaming silverware on the patio.  It makes income inequality in the US seem trivial in comparison.   

The people seemed generally friendly; there were a lot of smiles, the island tradition of honking your horn to say hi (and to announce yourself at curves and just because it’s fun to honk the horn).  But we didn’t intact with anyone outside the guided tours much (one exception, which I’ll get into later), so it’s a little hard to tell. 
I will put in a bit about the reefs here, rather than compare and contrast in the detail section below, because it belongs in the overview.  Jamaica, like everywhere I’ve dived, is a little different.  There’s a lot of pretty spectacular coral, and some interesting sea life if you can spot it.  But the weird thing is there’s very little fish.  I can’t think of a place I’ve snorkeled or dived that wasn’t crawling with colorful fish, frequently travelling in schools of dozens or hundreds.  Here, they were around, but in ones and twos.  I’m not sure if that’s something to do with man’s influence on the reefs, or if it’s natural, but it was a little strange.  Having said that, while it wasn’t my favorite place to dive/snorkel, it wasn’t bad, and I did see a few things that were pretty awesome.
And that’s Jamaica.
Sandals was split into three sections, the Ochi Beach Club, the lower section, and the upper section, which probably had names as well but I never learned them.  The upper section was more pools and lawns and night clubs; the bottom section water sports and dramatic ocean views.  The beach club was a beach, a pretty nice beach, with an amphitheater in the back that was continuously showing kids cartoons (but Sandals Ochi Rios is a couples resort, so there were no kids, which made that a little confusing).   I have the feeling they were added at different times because it’s surprising maze-like to get from one area to another. 
That wasn’t a big deal because there was a shuttle bus that ran like clockwork every ten minutes to scoot you from one section to the other.  We spent the majority of our time in the lower section, where our room on the fourth floor had a patio looking out over the emerald-green and turquoise blue waters of Ochi.
It’s an all-inclusive resort, with high end spirits and a lot of alcohol poisoning from people that are trying to get their money’s worth out of the place.  There are sixteen restaurants across all three locations, some of which required reservations ahead of time (and which booked pretty quickly, which we got around by reserving one later in the week and accidently thinking it was for Wednesday night).  There are shows every night, where they brought in local groups to perform (including some where the people where all caucasian… which made me wonder if they have a show circuit where they shift from resort to resort each night).  The shows are a little amateurish, but fun, and you can’t beat free.  There’s also some activity every night; a beach party, a chocolate … soiree, I guess you’d call it, a sunset cruise.  Being old, we tended to go to bed about the time they were starting.  But I have to say they did a great job of noise control, and we never had a problem with a noisy party keeping us awake.   And they did a great job of making each one look glamorous with colored lights and laser shows and outrageous outfits.  I will say there was an odd sense of sameness to the events despite the different colored lights and the costume changing, but that might be psychological, knowing it was all the same people, just dressed differently. 

And there were weddings.  Pretty much around the clock.  Which makes sense if you think about it; if you’re going to do a destination wedding, why not do it some place that can line everything up for you with a minimum of fuss. 
So that was Sandals in a nutshell.  Other than a few minor quibbles, I have to say it was a great experience.
The details
We flew out Saturday, April 2nd, breezing through TSA pre approved security.  Well, almost.  We’d somehow managed to pack our aerosol based sunscreen in carry on and were stopped by security.  I was explaining to the TSA agent checking the bag that I knew why it had been flagged, and it was just lead weights for the dive camera.  Felt a bit foolish when he hauled out four cans of sun spray.  But Platinum Frequent Flyer has two free checked bags, so I stuck the aerosols in the lunch-box-sized dive camera bag and returned to the check in counter.  The lady looked and said “you know, something that size you might just want to carry on.”
“Not an option” I assured her. 
Back through the empty TSA pre line, and we headed to the nearly empty Admirals club, waited for the flight to board, and hopping into upgraded first class seats.  All that travel in years past does have some rewards to show for it.  The flight was uneventful.  The Montego Bay Airport in Jamaica was controlled madness, but there was a Sandals lounge and a lot of polite young men who herded us to the correct location to have our bags picked up and to get on a bus.  The bus ride was a couple of hours, but staring at the countryside made it pass quickly. 

We arrived at Sandals late in the afternoon, with just enough time to settle into our room before joining Brad and Huidi.  There were fountains with Egrets and other water birds, elegant reception areas, and a rather spectacular view from our balcony.  We ate at Neptune's, a thatched open-air restaurant that sat on the white sandy beach overlooking the water.
Sunday was an easy day; we had a orientation with a tour of the complex, then wandered until Brad and Huidi returned from morning golfing.  Alison went to the spa with Huidi, while Brad and I tried one of the sail boats.
Monday we signed up for an off-resort activity; biking in the Blue Mountains, home to the world famous Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee.  It turned out the bus ride to the Blue Mountains was about two and half hours, but it was interesting to see the countryside; the poverty, even around the churches, but some other things as well, like a typical Caribbean grave sight (the dead are not buried underground, but in crypts above it, arranged in such a way that the place feels like “a city of the dead”) with one crypt designed to look like a Disneyland castle and another like an airplane.  And, of course, the shitty bus stop.  Biking down the mountain was fun, but not very strenuous.  There were awesome views of the mountains, with the occasional waterfall thrown in.  There was a stop at a local school, which was a squat little cinderblock building, where the cutest five year old girls came out in their school uniforms and sang songs to us, and then the teacher gave out hand written notes where you could send checks or money orders to her in her name.  Which seemed a little dicey, particularly when they were adamant that you were not allowed to take pictures.  We ended up donating to the "Sandals Foundation" instead, which splits money between reef preservation and support of local schools, and where 100% of the money actually goes to the end recipient; the hotel pays all the administrative costs. 

Another day, we did a off-site river tube rafting and zip line excursion.  It was a rainy day, and a lot of other people bailed because they did not want to get wet drifting down the river in a tube.  It wasn't quiet the eco-tour we were expecting; with around 60 people in the party, it was noisy enough to scare away any wildlife.  But we did have a couple of thirty foot bamboo poles fall on us... only to be caught and tossed aside one after the other by one of the tour guides.  And while these things were hollow, they were still probably twenty pounds, so we were impressed.

I did two scuba dives and snorkeled once with Brad and Huidi; by the time the snorkeling trip came around, Alison was coming down with something and she stayed by the pool to take it easy.  First dive was the Katherine's wreck dive, the second a reef dive, with sea snakes and lobsters and fairly nice coral.  The snorkeling was on Dickie's reef (named after me), and I managed to run into a group of half a dozen squid that were swimming in formation (you can see one of them in the picture to the right of the scuba board).  They were moving in a perfect straight line, and when I'd swim down to take a shot of one, they would divert for a minute, then line up again. 

We did a couples massage on the end of the pier, which looks much more fun and romantic than it really is, because it's hard to control the heat and noise when you aren't in a closed room, and you're not looking at the scenery anyway. 
At the tail end of the vacation, Alison came down with some weird tropical virus, and then immediately gave it to me.  She was down for the count on Friday; I didn't really feel bad until Saturday when we were travelling, and we spent most of Sunday and Monday in bed.  But all in all, a really fun vacation plus a chance to get to know Brad and Huidi better = nothing at all to complain about!