The term “hidden gem” may be overused, but when you stumble across one, it seems acceptable to use. We visited one recently, Moon Dance Cliffs in Negril, Jamaica, a relatively new resort built in 2008. It’s small, with 35 rooms, mostly in the property’s arching hotel building and others scattered in villas on either side, but seemed big when we were there. We were two of only a handful of guests and pretty much had the place to ourselves.
“Next week,” he said, creating a rum drink specialty, “This place will be hoppin’, mon, we got anudder weddin’ comin’ in.”
There’s a lot to like at Moon Dance. The rooms are spacious, decently appointed and the deluxe rooms come with balcony Jacuzzis, a huge plus and great place to relax after relaxing all day -- easing into hot, bubbling water to watch fabled Negril sunsets. There is no beach, owing to the location on corral cliffs, but the sprawling pool suffices for cooling off. And in the middle of all that coral in front of the hotel is a paved patio section, a pretty cool spot to take lunch, or if you’re adventurous, leap off said cliffs to bob in the ocean. There is a small ladder for easy return to land, but it’s an adventure best reserved for the at least marginally physically fit since the ocean churns up pretty good on the rocky coast.
The place is fairly luxurious and well appointed, and very affordable. Off-season room rates start at $125 a night. For another $125, you can upgrade to all inclusive.
The pool is more than adequate, but if it’s sand you desire, cab over to nearby Seven Mile Beach. Moon Dance has a villa property there, now closed and up for sale, but maintains a private section of beach - which does not mean you won’t be accosted by Jamaica’s aggressive beach vendors, selling just about everything. Be firm with your “no thanks,”and they’ll hustle away seeking an easier mark.
Annie’s is the main restaurant at Moon Dance Cliffs, an open-air eatery by the sea wall where a giant almond tree twinkles at night with white lights, and you can get genuine Jamaican food, like salt fish and ackee for breakfast, and goat stew for dinner.
A word to the caffeine addicted: Island time rules here, meaning if you want early-morning coffee forget it, you won’t find any until at least 7 when Annie’s opens (there aren’t in-room coffee machines, but soon will be, I was told). Alas, it’s worth the wait: They use Jamaica’s own Blue Mountain Coffee, arguably one of the world’s tastiest.
It’s always good to get out and about on vacation, and one worthy spot to visit is the Negril Craft Market, a ramshackle place of tin-roofed shops jammed with colorful Jamaican things, from masks to jewelry to clothing, marijuana pipes, art and more. The shop keepers are relentless and pushy, which turns many Americans off, but seemed charming and harmless to me. I negotiated prices on a cool Rasta infant hat for $12 and a bathing suit for $18. Did I get taken? Maybe, but the bartering experience was worth it. Another interesting spot that we passed but did not visit: The Scrub a’ Dub, a car wash by day, strip club by night. You have to admire that sort of commercial adaptability.
One key to Moon Dance Cliffs’ success: The staff. I’ve been to many Caribbean resorts, but never have I seen a staff so friendly and helpful, from the front desk to the landscapers. Our favorites were Hassan and Trevor, the latter dubbed Johnny Walker, both young men with electric, contagious energy, style and personality, both with young children of whom they are immensely proud, and quite happy to show pictures of. They told us about their family history, their lives, opening up a personal portal between us that made us feel connected with workers in a way we’d never felt at larger resorts.
Our first day, Hassan walked us around, proudly pointing out the highlights and telling us he’d like to open his own business someday, which I’ve no doubt he will. He, Johnny Walker, and the others, view their work not as a job, but a calling, putting all they have into it.
“This is beautiful, mon,” he told us standing on wave-pounded cliffs. “This is the best resort in Jamaica.”
Was he stretching the truth? Probably. Did he mean it? Definitely. And with this lovely resort pretty much to ourselves, we realized he was quite right.
Photos by Paul E. Kandarian, from top: Moon Dance Cliffs pool; the cliffs at the resort; sunset from Annie's restaurant; a vendor at Negril Craft Market; and Trevor, a bartender known as Johnny Walker.