A Weekend in the Caribbean After Months of Staying at Home? Yah Mon!
I am no stranger to Jamaica, having traveled to the island a good half dozen times over the years. But on this trip, my first international voyage since the pandemic hit, I did not want to go out exploring, or shopping, or reggae concert hopping. I just wanted to unplug. And for that, Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay was perfect.
Going to Jamaica is a great way to resume offshore travel. It’s remarkably close, just an hour and fifteen minutes away by air. Suddenly you’re in the Caribbean, where the waters are crystal clear and the air deliciously balmy. Jamaica is also a relatively safe place. The country adopted a national face mask policy early on, so the rate of infections and mortality is less than one tenth, per capita, of the United States. In other words, we had 10 times the chance of catching Covid if we stayed home for the weekend.
The trip itself also felt safe. We took American Airlines, which has a strict mask policy – you’re asked to disembark if you can’t wear a mask the whole trip and banned from further travel on the airline if you remove it inflight. Their aircrafts have high-velocity air circulation systems that continuously scrub the air with hospital-grade air filters. Safer than food shopping at home, according to the research. And if you want to feel extra safe, fly business class. Not only do you enjoy the privilege of first on, first off, the two comfortable seats on each side of the aisle instead of three (we flew a 737) means no sitting next to strangers if you are traveling as a couple.
As for the airports themselves, the system is not perfect. But they are less crowded than pre-pandemic, and people generally do their best to socially distance – and politely back off if you ask them. All visitors to Jamaica must show proof of a recent negative Covid test, and the airport in MoBay dispenses hand sanitizer relentlessly. Once you are past the final bag scan, Sandals takes over. Their lounge in the main reception hall immediately proffers a Red Stripe beer, a coffee, or a snack while they arrange a car for the 10-minute trip to the resort.
Sandals is all-inclusive, which means you don’t need to carry any cash. Tipping is prohibited. Instead you can wander from one meal to the next, or one bar to the next, in a kind of moveable feast. The rooms are laid out in a maze along a half mile of beach; offshore is a separate Sandals Island you can reach via ferryboat. On the shore side there is a French restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a Caribbean cuisine restaurant, a beachside seafood bar & grill, a pizza station, and a pub – along with a variety of shops. On the island there is a Thai restaurant that looks like a temple, and a jerk shack on the sand in a thicket of trees. There is also a swim-up pool bar on the island, and a hidden, clothing optional beach, which we carefully avoided.
Overall, the food at Sandals is fresh and well prepared, and the wait staff is friendly and efficient. All members of the staff wear masks, but once guests arrive and have their temperatures taken, they can go mask free. And most do. There is plenty of space for distancing, and a nearly perpetual breeze comes off the water as the Jamaican hills heat up during the day and draw the air inland.
We stayed in what is known as a “butler suite,” which comes with a butler on duty 12 hours a day. He or she will take care of anything you need, from unpacking your bag (too British for us) to reserving a pair of recliners on the “quiet beach” and placing a cooler of beers there for you. Our suite had a bathtub on the porch; inside was a living room with a stocked bar, followed by the bedroom, with its own oversized tub.
While water sports abound at Sandals, we were having none of it. We started with a beer at the airport, a rum punch for lunch, champagne in the room, and then vodka cocktails on the veranda of the Bombay Indian restaurant. Our butler had drawn a warm bath for us, and we felt pretty relaxed, watching Lester Holt on the NBC Evening News describing the ravages of the pandemic at home. We felt smugly safe, and only slightly guilty.