Located in Montego Bay, RockResort’s gorgeous Half Moon resort stretches out for two miles on an expansive, secluded stretch of white sand beaches. Started by a small group of American, British and Bermuda families as an exclusive Jamaican getaway cottage community in the 1950s, it has gradually been expanded to include over 400 acres, and has hosted innumerable illustrious guests from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, to John and Jackie Kennedy for a month between the presidential election and inauguration.
The charming and sizeable original cottages that reminded me much of Cape Cod still stand clustered around the main Half Moon beach. With luxurious Plantation-style mahogany furnishings, Old World Jamaican charm, and modern amenities in large marble updated bathrooms, the rooms with their generous patios and pristine beach views welcome deep relaxation from the moment your bags get dropped off. I stayed in an ocean front room close to the main hotel area – one of nearly 200 such rooms, along with one and two bedroom suites.
Almost immediately you begin to settle into this exclusive retreat and the outside world fades away to a distant resolve. Even though wireless runs throughout the resort, by the end of day one your cell phone, iPad and computer gets tucked away into the room vault (unheard of for most of us!) and you find yourself unplugged. You settle into peacefully listening to the soft breaking lull of Caribbean waves and palm trees rustling in a steady ocean breeze.
But in case you worry about lacking things to do after lounging around on a tranquil picturesque beach, having that perfect beach-side cocktail and reading that book in which you just can never find the time at home to really immerse yourself, the resort offers up a packed selection of athletics, activities and pampering for grown-ups and kids alike. They have a very British (at least that’s my takeaway of the vibe) Equestrian Centre with an impressive stable of horses along with smaller donkeys and ponies on which kids can experience first rides. Behind the stables you see two huge riding rings, with lessons from the basics on up to finessing your polo moves. Where’s Prince Harry when you need someone to practice with?
As an avid tennis player, I toured longingly the 13 tennis court facilities without time to play a game and thought about how much my husband would love the property’s 18-hole championship golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, a rarity in the Caribbean. They also have a variety of sports on the main beach – from small sailboats to kayaks to windsurfers. I watch in sympathetic amusement at a windsurfing lesson – a sport I have yet to master as you turn one way and the boat another. But the instructor kept up a steady stream of directions – from straightening the left elbow to leaning forward – that made the venture seem doable and much fun.
But overall it struck me as not really an action-oriented waterfront, but one that was placid, peaceful, and terrific for swimming, snorkeling, lounging in comfy chairs, and sandcastle building. Being a half-moon shaped cove beach, there really are no waves, which makes it great for kids to splash and swim without worrying about an undertow. Half Moon also has its own dolphin cove, with two dolphins you can swim with in a dolphin encounter led by trainers.
Anancy Children’s Village
Anancy Children’s Village serves as the centerpiece for kids ages 3 to 12. Situated mid-property and centered around a large playground structure, the children’s daycare and camp features numerous individual cabins with distinct focuses – from cooking and crafts, to reading and acting out plays. Named after an original story of Anancy the spider and all her friends, there seems to be lots to keep younger kids happily engaged.
Royal Villa Breakfast
We went to one of the Royal Villas for a traditional Jamaican breakfast and experienced a slice of villa life. Each of the 33 villas comes with a cook, butler, and maid, and has between four and seven bedrooms. We ate an amazing breakfast cooked in the villa and served to us poolside. I tasted for the first time a Jamaican breakfast specialty, ackee and saltfish. It looks like scrambled eggs, but is made with the soft ackee fruit along with caramelized onions and small pieces of dried salt fish. And it was both unusual and delicious.
We then swam in the small private pool and sunned on the expansive patio. We had time to meander down to the beach and explore private spa treatment huts on piers out in the ocean. We also got to explore the white-washed three-story villa, with huge bedrooms each with its own private bathroom, large living room and dining areas, and gorgeous ocean views on Sunrise beach. The property came with two golf carts for easy zipping around the property. The villas would be perfect if you’re traveling with a large family group or wanted a girl’s weekend escape without the kids.
Fern Tree Spa
We got to experience a mini spa treatment at the Royal Villa, with masseuses from the spa coming to us for 20-minute foot or shoulder massages, which were wonderful. Some of the villas come with their own massage treatment rooms, and we even explored massage huts perched out on the ocean.
We then went for a tour of the sumptuous Fern Tree spa itself – with tucked away courtyards, hidden marble outdoor bathtubs, fountains, waterfalls, gardens and pools. The spa, recently renovated, is both beautiful and expansive- comprised of many buildings, a yoga pavilion, and separate men and women’s sections. Relaxation rooms have with long curvy individual resting couches with sheer gauzy curtains hanging from the ceilings, and herbal tea offerings. You can easily see losing yourself for half a day in the spa’s serenity.
Dinner at Seagrape Restaurant
Seagrape, the main Half Moon restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating and given balmy weather star-filled skies, and trees laced with small lights, we opted for the linen covered tables outside. The chef blends Caribbean influences into his classical gourmet cooking to come up with beautifully designed and palate-pleasing dishes. I’m a passionate gourmand, and I found the food simply outstanding. Ask the chef for his favorites, and one answer predominates amid the myriad offerings: pork. And he whipped up some hoisin and mango pork belly buns that beat Boston Chinatown hands down! Only caveat is that all this great food carries a fairly high price tag, and expect to pay about $75 a person on food.
It’s no wonder that year after year, Half Moon continues to receive the highest of travel awards and recognition, including this year being selected by TravelandLeisure.com as among the world’s best hotels for families. The wonderful layout and privacy of the villas also calls out for a multi-generational getaway where your whole family can vacation together. Yet while clearly welcoming and celebrating kids, Half Moon resort would be a place I would want to sneak away to for a long romantic weekend with my husband, with the grandparents enlisted as babysitters at home. Half Moon exudes timeless elegance, relaxation and romance, and I came away personally wanting to go back and renew my wedding vows! Maybe the kids could come along to that!
MONTEGO BAY EXCURSIONS
Scotchies for Lunch
Head to Scotchies if you want to try authentic inexpensive Jamaican cooking, with pork, chicken and fish prepared in specially designed smokers. The food gets slow cooked in large grills over low flames, with cut young trees serving as grill racks, and corrugated tin sections serving as the smoker lids. Everything arrives at your table wrapped in aluminum foil packets, which you unpeel to taste jerk meats and fish, Jamaican specialty breads, breadfruit, and other vegetables such as fried bammy made from cassava and callaloo, which are similar to spinach greens. You eat in a quaint roadside setting, behind a tall wooden fence, cascading flowers, and large thatched roof bar.
Chilling at the Chill Hut
For our last night, we ventured about 20 minutes from Half Moon to a seaside dinner “hut” with a huge open air indoor rotunda seating as well as smaller tables for four sprinkled along the beach under thatch umbrellas. With a live reggae band and singer, huge tropical drink concoctions and traditional Jamaica fare, we had a blast. With Jamaican standards such as jerk chicken, pork and fish, the sides included everything from roasted breadfruit to flash fried Jamaica sweet bread. And chill we did, Jamaica style.
Disclosure: I traveled as a guest of the Jamaican tourist board to facilitate this review. All the views expressed here are solely my own, and reflect my honest opinion.