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By Wes Orshoski
Published July 10, 2008

If you’re planning a trip to Jamaica, chances are Negril is on your itinerary, and there are a few things you should know before flying into Montego Bay.

First, despite what you may have heard, Jamaica isn’t for everyone. For all its natural beauty and laid-back rep as the birthplace of reggae music, the island is an economically beleaguered nation. To the majority of American and European tourists, it can look and feel very much like a so-called third-world country, with the local residents doing what they can to get by. If lushness and uninterrupted beauty are what you’re looking for, Hawaii might be a better bet.

There are two ways of experiencing the tourist destination of Negril: by mingling with the locals, or by signing up for the packaged tour. Sadly, it seems like the second option is the most popular, as the resorts that rule the Negril coastline—all-inclusive, corporate behemoths like Beaches, Sandals and Riu— offer little in terms of genuine out-of-country experiences.


The best way to see Negril is to avoid these places altogether, and to seek out spots like the Whistling Bird—a tiny and modest, family-owned-and-operated resort on the northern end of the beach. It’s far enough from the center of town to discourage visits from the pesky salesmen who work the beach—perhaps an odd attribute to point out at first, but an important one.


In Jamaica, those in need are generally too proud to beg, so they’ve perfected the art of the beach hustle. I’ve often thought that the jewelry vendors, jet-ski renters and drug dealers dotting the Negril beach could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about sales, and especially persistence. A couple walking the beach will almost always be approached, with each salesman routinely soliciting the man with a handshake before rather quickly getting down to business. Drugs might be the thing most peddled by the pushiest of salespeople, who will indeed get annoying— remember though, don’t lose your cool. Be firm, but not rude.


Ganja is everywhere in Jamaica, and its biggest dealers are probably cab drivers, bellhops and groundskeepers. Even though the plant is technically illegal, a huge percentage of people go to Jamaica knowing that they’ll be allowed to smoke in peace. The rule of thumb is to be discreet. Tourist dollars support Negril, so in general, police aren’t going to target spliff-smokers from abroad. Housekeeping staffs will even neatly organize your stash after straightening up your room, so tip accordingly.


Naturally, there’s nothing quite like a sumptuous meal and a relaxed atmosphere to accompany some fine herb. Back at the Whistling Bird, the menu offers gourmet dinners (have you ever had gourmet jerk chicken?) that you can order earlier in the day, while bonfires are lit at night on the weekend to set the mood. The fact that the Whistling Bird attracts its own talent is another plus. It’s not uncommon to find a Rasta quietly sitting at the bar with hand-carved cutlery, earrings and necklaces for sale, and they’re always worth the sometimes-high prices asked. By contrast, there’s rarely anything unique among the wares of Negril’s local art merchants, all of whom are generally selling the same stuff.