Five years ago, Mary and I were in Spain for the first time. Madrid, actually. So much to do, see, taste. There was no time to waste, we were tourists and we needed help.
“Buenos dias, uhm… can you please tell us how to get to the Prado?”
“¡Eeh si, claro! Here…” The concierge pulled out a map, laid it open onto the counter and proceeded to scribble along the route we were to take. “Her-e… her-e… and her-e. ¿Sí?” Good?” The concierge was now smiling at us.
We nodded, and just as Mary was picking up the map from the counter and we were ready to leave, the concierge blurted out:
“Eh…sorry but eh, you are star? American star?”
“Eh…you famous? Celebrity?” He was pointing to us as he spoke.
Mary and I glanced at each other and laughed out loud. She adjusted her massive dark shades, flipped back a couple of her braids and replied, with as much composure as she could muster:
“Oooh no, no, no…no superstar… We’re just a couple of lawyers. Abogadas!”
Superstars!? Of course, we had to be. Two young black females staying at a five-star hotel in Europe. Solo travelers on vacation, pampering themselves. Surely we were rich and famous?
Before she married, Mary and I were travel buddies. We went to Europe together at least five times. Wherever we went and could afford it, we deliberately sought out swanky places to stay. Not necessarily all-inclusive, but luxury. We worked hard, we deserved it, we told each other. We called it the “diva tour.” Our six-figure lawyer salaries allowed us to stay at some of Europe’s prestigious hotels, like the Pestaña Palace in Lisbon (Madonna’s hideout whenever she visits). Or at the Westin Palace in Madrid. Half the fun was doing the pre-trip research. We would ooh and aah at the online photos and wonder if the place would live up to its website; if it really would offer us the kind of relaxation and treatment that’s fit for a queen.
As much as we glorified lush hotels, we also loved roaming around in the day and night like real travelers. We hated organized tours. We preferred to walk the streets, find our way (discreetly with a map) and talk to people. Discover the locals’ favorite bars and the best foods, and go to museums and other such cultural spots. And later, get back to our “palace.”
Now and then, Mary and I reminisce about our diva tours and days of luxury. The massive suites with a view, the heated towel racks, the “Miss B” and “Miss Girma” and being mistaken for “superstars.”
The one thing I always swore I wasn’t, though, throughout my travels, was one of those tourists that never leaves their resort, except maybe to buy souvenirs. They laze around all day on the beach, they have no interest in going anywhere into the “real world.” They spend hour after hour getting pampered. I swore I’d never be that. I need to be outside, walk, see the country, meet the people and eat street foods and stroll in real markets.
What was it again, never say never? OK… I confess. Last month, I spent five days at a resort in Jamaica and never left the grounds.
Well, not other than to cross the street to dine at one of the resort’s fantastic restaurants. Five days of absolute relaxation, luxury, good food, spa treatment and unique activities. A property unlike any I have visited anywhere, in Europe or the Americas. Ah! how I’d missed that luxurious feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I still think staying at small guesthouses and outdoor exploration are what travel is about. You feel brave and alive when you have to plan every aspect of your trip, when you walk around in the streets and take in the novelty. But after the past three years of heavy travel and budget accommodations, I loved staying at a five star and not leaving the property. In fact, I kept hoping the entire time that I wouldn’t have to put one foot outside. It was that fabulous, and I was that tired.
One caveat: I wouldn’t be able to do that at a Sandals-type of all-inclusive property.
But the type of resort I got to experience – Half Moon in Jamaica – is not an all-inclusive. It’s a luxury resort and only all-inclusive as far as being able to stay and not leave for an entire week if you choose.
See, everyone in Jamaica knows of Half Moon. Located in Rose Hall, just 10 minutes outside of Montego Bay, it’s Jamaica’s most prestigious and famous property (not to mention the Caribbean’s). I won’t even bother listing all their awards. It’s a place where the “who’s who” often relax – European royals, the Kennedys, celebrities, and other “VIPs.” On the island it has a reputation as being “off limits” and only for the really rich people. As my Jamaican driver said to me when I mentioned my stay at Half Moon: “I’ve only seen it as far as my eyes can see.”
I realized he was describing me as well, prior to my time there. In four years and dozens of trips to Jamaica, I’d never ventured to Half Moon beyond going to the spa or the shopping center. And that’s the perception of the resort to the outsider: so exclusive you assume you’re not allowed on the property unless you have a room reservation.
So when the opportunity to stay at Half Moon presented itself (yes, I’m a lucky gal), I was excited. I had a chance to see whether the place lived up to its prestige.
And I came to find out that Half Moon is not only luxurious, but accessible and cozy. It’s five-star quality and certainly not cheap, but it’s not limited to the opulent. And surprisingly, it’s not stuffy at all.
If you appreciate the good things in life and you have discerning taste, this is the place. And if you’re a resident looking for a city getaway, or looking for great restaurant options (as Montego Bay is very limited in food choices), Half Moon is just as open to residents as it is to guests.
From the 400-acre grounds covered with royal palm trees, to two miles of beach stretch to choose from, to the staff and the choice in activities and food - I finally understood why Half Moon is Half Moon. Oh I’ll warn you- the website’s gallery doesn’t come close to doing it justice (though the photos will soon be updated, I’m told).
In January 2011, Rock Resorts was hired to take over the management of Half Moon. It’s expected the resort will be somewhat updated to give it a bit more of a modern twist, as well as bring even greater attention to the meaning of “eco-conscious luxury.” Rock Resorts is known for its environmental programs, and the improvements will no doubt make an already superb resort, even more unique.
The history of Half Moon, in itself, is unique. About 50 years ago, a group of American, British and Bermudian entrepreneurs who loved to spend their winters in Jamaica had the idea to come together and create a winter escape for their families and friends to enjoy. So in 1954, 17 families purchased 35 acres of land on the crescent-shaped bay in Rose Hall and “Half Moon” came into existence, with 17 cottages and 30 beachfront rooms to start. Portraits of the original owners and their families hang around the lobby area, alongside those of Half Moon’s famous guests to date. It’s simply amazing to see how far this resort has become, just from the realized dream of a group of friends with a vision.
This review, by the way, could be ten pages long. I could literally go on and on about Half Moon, because that’s how fantastic it is. But I’ve highlighted only the parts I thought were just too good to leave out.
Rooms, Glorious Rooms
The Hibiscus Suite
The surprising aspect of Half Moon is the variety (and number) of rooms they have available: Superior Rooms, Deluxe Rooms, Deluxes Suites, Junior Suites (or West Cottages), Royal Suites, Hibiscus Suites, Imperial Suites and Spa suites, all in different locations throughout the resort. Not to mention, the Royal Villas. In total: 398 rooms, 54 swimming pools.
You’d think it would have that immense, monstrous resort look and impersonal feel but on the contrary, the fairly low-rise white buildings, the marble interiors in some suites and those endless tall palm trees everywhere give the resort that intimate boutique resort feel. I felt so at home, and everywhere I looked I wanted to shoot.
I stayed in a Hibiscus Suite for my first couple of days. A beautifully-furnished, spacious seafront suite. My favorite part was the cozy balcony with reclining lounge chairs and a spectacular view – literally steps from the water. The Hibiscus Suites are also located at a perfect distance – close to the reception area, close to the man Hibiscus swim-up bar pool and close to the beach and the restaurants.
The room also had free Internet service (cable, however). The bathroom – almost half the size of my suite, was heavenly (I love my bathrooms even more when on vacation). Massive tub, glass door shower, his and hers sinks and his and hers closets. And every night, at 7pm like clockwork, a knock on the door: turndown service. I loved my suite so much, that when two days later I was asked if I was ready to experience a cottage (the “West Cottage” side), I requested an additional night in Hibiscus. Oh how I regret it! Little did I know then, what was awaiting me at West Cottage number 4.
The West Cottages
Just past the marbled-floor lobby (by the way, I couldn’t stop staring at the two massive stone lions by the lobby entrance), across from the main restaurant called “Seagrape,” is an entire section of beachfront “cottages.” The West Cottages are one, two, three bedroom villas that literally align along the Half Moon crescent-shaped “Sunset Beach.” When I stepped into my cottage, already stunned by the private pool, the lounge chairs and the outside all-around verandah that was all mine, I gasped. The furnishings, from living room to bedroom, were so cozy and warm in colors (think orange, green, tropical yet subtle), and yet modern. The bathroom itself was an oasis of marble, massive tub and beautiful glass shower with his and her sinks.
The beach was literally just steps outside my villa (I just can’t call it a cottage!). I turned around in the living room and right by the table near the entrance: a router. My very own Wi-Fi router. And a flat-screen TV. For a moment, standing there, I forgot I actually was on resort grounds. The West Cottages are secluded enough that you can feel as if you’ve rented a private villa on the coast. And yet, step outside and the restaurants are just a little more of a walk than the Hibiscus Suites, but barely. Each “cottage” also has its own back entrance as well, with parking space for your car or rented golf cart.
There’s a room for every taste here at Half Moon, and price. And that’s what’s so unique for a luxury resort as spectacular as this one.
Note: Current season room rates at Half Moon begin at $200/night and up. There’s also the option to add a meal plan, which I highly recommend given that a-la-carte can get very expensive. There are also lots of seasonal specials, so be sure to check out the website for those.
The Royal Villas
If you think the cottages look fabulous – you haven’t seen Half Moon’s ultimate in luxury: the Royal Villas.
On the other side of the 400-acre property is an entire section lined with tall, majestic white villas. 32 of them. Some have five, even six and seven bedrooms. Each villa comes with its own staff: a butler, a cook and a housekeeper. The staff are dedicated to each villa and make sure all is taken care of: food, dinner reservations, excursions and even laundry.
I can just imagine renting one of these fantastic villas with a big group of friends, or even for a wedding party (I witnessed two weddings during my stay).
I won’t bother telling you how gorgeous these villas are, particularly those facing the sea. The pool area alone is fit for a queen. Like a friend and I always say when we see a house in the islands that we love: “I could live there!”
Kissed By A Dolphin (Or Two)
The morning after my arrival, I had a surprise appointment. I was told to be ready at 9 a.m. for an activity. I’m used to early mornings, but on a Sunday? What could it be?
We drove through the property on a golf cart. I was busy ooh-ing and aah-ing along the way, until finally I noticed the arrow we were following. It read “Dolphin Lagoon.”
Dolphin Lagoon? Yes, Half Moon has a Dolphin Cove on site. It’s the only hotel in Jamaica to have one. It’s probably one of the least-known facts about Half Moon. When I told a couple of residents about it, they had no idea. And the best part: it’s for resort guests only.
So while other tourists are sent to the Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios or to the one in Hanover, Half Moon’s patrons get a one-on-one experience, without leaving the resort.
I’d never swam with dolphins before. It was on my list of the 1,001 things I want to do before I die. Just that one activity made my entire stay – I was on cloud nine for days. If you’ve never swam with dolphins before, it really is worth the experience. Not to mention, I learned a lot about them. Dolphin Cove assigns a staff member pre-swim, to go over fun as well as important facts on dolphins, and the do’s and don’ts around them. Afterwards, you swim up to a platform that is far enough from the beach, where two trainers await with the dolphins in the water, ready to play and perform tricks.
Just having them all to ourselves, on a Sunday morning, for a whole hour was priceless.
Of course I wanted photos and was worried I wouldn’t have any of this wonderful moment. But not only did a Dolphin Cove staff take them for me (using their own camera) but they also recorded the entire encounter, for me to view right after my swim.
Also, for those who aren’t able to swim or have children who can’t, the Half Moon Dolphin Cove has a beach program – the dolphins swim way up to the beach to interact with the guest(s). And if you’ve always wanted to be a certified trainer, that program is available as well, on site.
Seriously – just this one experience would’ve made my stay!
Beaches galore, Gorgeous Swimming Pools and Endless Activities
From the outside, you can barely tell that Half Moon has long, long stretches of beach. Sunset beach (where the sun sets, and by the main bar), and Sunrise Beach (both in that half moon shape). And a little further away, more beaches again by the Royal Villas. It’s impossible for it to be so crowded you have to even come close to thinking of saving a chair.
And if you’re not the type to laze all day, there are watersports, of course – everything from parasailing to banana boats and the like. Other activities on-site include horse riding (Half Moon has an equestrian center), golf on an 18-hole course, 13 tennis courts, squash and…swimming. Lots and lots of swimming!
You may think “who needs a pool when there’s beaches”? But Half Moon has the swimming pool factor down to an art form. There’ the Hibiscus pool, a large gorgeous swim-up bar pool with a relaxing fountain stream in the middle, and free hotel-provided floaties. There are also jacuzzis, fountains and for the Internet addicts, wi-fi by the Hibiscus pool area. Just a little past that, for the more ambitious, there’s a stunning Olympic size lap pool. There’s also a pool by the Oleander Restaurant – which was closed for the summer season, so I didn’t get to experience that.
The other surprising element I found to Half Moon is that it’s a very family-friendly resort. They have a wonderful children’s playground called “Anancy Village” – with lots of play areas, a pool (yes, another one!). There’s even a Camp Half Moon program for kids ages 6-15, from July 4 to August 11 for $180/week, which includes activities, lunch and snacks daily. Even cuter: Half Moon’s “VILP” check in – or Very Important Little Person check-in. Kids receive a special gift and welcome drink.
More resort perks: free Wi-Fi in the lobby and surrounding area, and delicious free bar snacks with your drinks at happy hour – like jerk peanuts and other yummy munchies.
Half Moon also rents out bicycles and golf carts for the independent souls who want to roam around freely.
I highly recommend a bike – it’s fun to ride around the property and get to deserted beaches and areas. It’s also only $5 a day for a bike.
The only down side some *might* find to the resort, is that nightly entertainment is lacking. Seagrape Restaurant usually has a solo performer during dinner hours, but don’t go looking for DJs or a party scene. It didn’t bother me one bit though, I knew I came for some real relaxation. From what I’m told though, Rock Resorts will be adding more of a “fun factor” to the evenings.
Food, glorious food
A meal at any one of Half Moon’s restaurants is an absolute epicurean delight. All three restaurants I tried served top notch cuisine – Seagrape (the main one for breakfast and lunch), Il Giardino, the Italian restaurant, and Sugar Mill, with upscale Caribbean food. From presentation to the originality of the dishes, and the daily specials – I couldn’t believe that there was this much good food in one resort.
At Seagrape, several dishes had a Jamaican twist – like the Jerk Chicken salad entree or the “trio of Blue Mountain coffee” dessert, of cheesecake, mousse and ice-cream.
Il Giardino is also easily one of the best Italian restaurants I’ve been to in the Caribbean so far (let alone Jamaica). It’s open to residents as well, just like Sugar Mill, the more exclusive of the three. So you don’t have to be a tourist or staying at Half Moon to try them. For those who live in Montego Bay or Negril, it’s worth the drive and worth every penny. I still dream of the meat lasagna at Il Giardino, and the slow-braised lamb shank.
Sugar Mill, across the street from the resort, has a centuries-old sugar mill wheel in the yard, lit up at night. You can even arrange a romantic dinner on the space set for it around the wheel. There are also several terraces that have a view onto the yard. It’s a really beautiful choice for a romantic date. Most memorable dish: “Solomon’s Boston Jerk Brochette” – skewered jerk pork, chicken, fish, sausage and beef, flamed (at your table) with aged rum jerk. Bliss!
Under The Fern Tree
No luxury resort would be complete without a spa. And Half Moon’s “Fern Tree” Spa is just four years old, and a getaway within a getaway. A spa with so many different pools, jacuzzis and relaxation areas that I never ever want to leave when I visit. In fact, just one spa service is enough, because I want time to enjoy the property. And this time, I got to see many more areas – including hidden waterfall-like pool, another pool area perfect for a private group, and a massive relaxation lounge filled with photo books.
I had an 80-minute Signature Fern Tree Massage and foot bath. The foot bath was more like a foot rinse to be honest – a little too quick for my taste – but the massage was heavenly. I know it’s working when I’m completely relaxed and drifting off to sleep. Sitting by the pool afterwards was pure joy. Unfortunately, it was raining so I didn’t stay long.
Service Is King
A resort can have all the amenities fit for a king and food straight out of Gourmet magazine. But if the staff and service are lacking, none of those things matter. Luxury does not always equal warmth and it certainly does not buy genuine staff. And that’s exactly Half Moon’s greatest asset: its employees. I have never, ever been to any big hotel in Jamaica with such top notch, well-trained and yet super warm staff who are all consistent – and I mean 99.5% of the folks I encountered. Going above and beyond the usual courtesies. Not one sour or even plastic face. They were not just doing their job, believe me I’ve been around enough to capture the nuance.
When I asked several of the staff I met how long they’d worked at Half Moon, I was struck by the answers. Twenty years. Thirty. Ten.
They’ve been there for decades, and are happy. Wherever I drove on the resort property in my golf cart, at any time of day or night, not once did I pass an employee who didn’t smile and wave, or return anything other than a positive vibe. Imagine, it’s a 400-acre property and I was around and about for five days – how is this even possible? All I know is, Half Moon should hold training sessions so other big hotels from around the Caribbean can come and learn how to get such happy and on-point employees.
Leaving Half Moon: Traveler Turned Vacationer
After Half Moon, I had two days left to my vacation. I decided to spend them in Negril, an hour and 15 minutes drive away and usually my favorite place to be based when I stay in Jamaica. But honestly, I ended up wishing I’d stayed at Half Moon. And I finally got it. I got why people prefer to stay on their resort and relax. When you only have a few days to tune out the stresses of home, when your body and mind are exhausted, sometimes you don’t even want to hear the hustle and bustle of a town, any town.
I felt guilty about it at first. After all, this was Jamaica, my second home, my favorite island in the Caribbean where I’m used to exploring, shooting, documenting. But then I realized that sometimes it’s about travel, and sometimes it’s just about being on vacation. Taking a break, pampering myself and tuning out the world – even me, the travel photographer and writer, even in Jamaica. And that’s exactly what I got at Half Moon – a vacation fit for a queen.
For More Information on Half Moon, including rates and Summer Specials, please visit their website here. And if you’ve vacationed there before, please feel free to share your experience right here!
Note: All articles and photos are Copyryight Lily Lebawit Girma, All Rights Reserved.