Jammin in Jamaica – Riu Reggae

On a whim, my bestie TW and I decided a few months ago that we wanted to take a girls’ trip, preferably to a different country. I was recently engaged and in the midst of wedding planning…so while the idea of a tropical getaway sounded appealing, I didn’t want to spend too much money on it. Enter Riu Reggae.

With a bit of research, TW and I stumbled upon a sweet deal in Montego Bay, Jamaica: For less than $1,300 apiece, we found an all-inclusive Jamaican vacation including round-trip airfare from LAX, 6 nights at a brand-new 5-star resort, and all meals/drinks/entertainment at the resort. Sold.

I mentioned brand-new…well, Riu Reggae – the latest addition to the family of Riu resorts – was so new that as of our booking, it was still under construction and not yet open. In fact, when Riu Reggae finally opened a couple weeks before our trip, reviews online revealed that parts of the resort were still under construction! Was this why the deal was so cheap? Would we soon be waking up to the sounds of drills and cranes? But upon calling the resort, we were told that construction would be completed by the time we checked in.

We crossed our fingers and hopped on a plane.

And thus began our Jamaican journey.

The Check-In

As we stepped off the plane in Montego Bay, the muggy air pressed against my skin like a warm, damp towel. A transportation desk at the airport helped find a legit cab driver for us, since we were nervous about hailing a random taxi ourselves. The driver was friendly and immediately tried to sell us weed. We had been warned that the offers would be plentiful, but we hadn’t expected them to come so soon!

Fifteen minutes later, we pulled up to Riu Reggae, a scalloped white compound in the St. James Parish of Montego Bay. We paid $20 U.S., which apparently, is standard fare for the short trip between the airport and the resort.

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TW and I rolled our luggage up to the front desk. The lobby was a clean, bright open space with modern furnishings and colorful accents. And the staff was very pleasant and jovial. As TW and I checked in with Garfield, Gavin brought us glasses of cava as a welcome refreshment. Things were looking up!

But there were a few hiccups. Although we had requested a partial ocean-view room, we had been assigned a garden-view room. This was remedied, but at a cost – we had to accept one very large bed instead of double beds. Our initial calls to complain about this went unanswered, and since we had already unpacked, we decided to just go with the flow since there was still plenty of room for each of us.

And the partial ocean-view was pretty sweet.

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The room also included liquor dispensers and a mini-fridge stocked with other beverages/chasers…again, all-inclusive.

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The room itself was fresh and modern – clean lines, blue and white color scheme.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

The Lobby Area

After freshening up, TW and I ordered drinks at the lobby bar. This area had a shifting mix of tourists – new arrivals, last-day vacationers, those waiting for a tour, people coming from the pool and passing through before returning to their rooms.

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I sipped on my sugar-sweet rummy cocktail. Mmm.

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The bar overlooked the path that led out to the rest of the facilities – the restaurants, spa, gym, stage, and – of course – pools and beach.

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Nearby, a touch screen displayed the activities and events taking place at the resort in the coming week.

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Pool Area

After finishing our drinks, TW and I explored the pool area of the resort – that is, the area of the resort where we would be spending most of our time.

The azure infinity pools, bordered on one side by a wet bar, seemed to shimmer against the horizon of the ocean. Palm trees peppered the sand.

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In the days to come, we would wade through the infinity pools, sipping drinks and getting to know the other tourists. After tiring of the too-sweet rum cocktails, we would switch to Red Stripe, a Jamaican beer that became near and dear to our hearts.

There would be hours spent lounging on chairs, drinking and reading and people-watching. Relaxing. Usually, a DJ played reggae music on the beach…sometimes, a live band performed.

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Periodically throughout the day, the entertainment staff would organize various activities. In the morning, there would be water aerobics. TW and I watched with amusement as a skinny Jamaican guy led several larger, middle-aged women in graceful movements in the pool.

The entertainment staff led games of beach volleyball, slip n’ slide water games, and other activities. They even choreographed dances to entertain the guests.

The staff was awesome. With a vibrant spirit, they always made sure everyone was enjoying themselves and frequently struck up conversations with the guests. Most of the staff consisted of younger Jamaicans, probably ages 18 through 25. Many of them confessed dreams of one day visiting Los Angeles.

One of the staff members, Dwayne, revealed his dream to be a songwriter. Upon receiving some encouragement, he gave us a preview of his talent. TW and I were impressed.

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Beach Party

One of the nights during our stay, the resort hosted a beach party.  The sun had set, the pools were glowing, and torches were lit. Colored spotlights cast ovals of purple and green upon the sand. The palm trees swayed in the breeze.

The staff began by teaching the guests the choreography to a dance. People gathered around the beach to watch. A girl, drunk, stumbled into the shallow pool. The dancing continued. Another girl fell into the pool. This was starting to get good. A dance competition was announced. A handful of female guests, a few of them middle-aged or older, joined the competition.

What type of dance competition was this, you ask?

Twerking.

Sipping on our cocktails, TW and I joined the throngs of onlookers as the music blasted on – hip hop and Caribbean beats – and the ladies began to twerk. It was hilarious…yet mesmerizing. One WASPish lady, Sue, began twerking and gyrating onto the palm tree next to her. She looked over 60.

After the twerking competition ended (Sue won), the music continued to throb into the starry sky while new forms of entertainment emerged. A couple of fire breathers showed off their skills. A game of limbo commenced. A song came on, and when the guests realized this was the song whose choreography they had learned hours earlier, they all began to dance with surprisingly good synchronization.  Dance party!

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Entertainment

Riu Reggae also presents nightly entertainment in the form of stage shows: musicals, dance numbers, live bands, karaoke. Sometimes, before the nightly entertainment show, the stage is used for bingo or other game shows. The stage area is still adjacent to one of the several bars, as well as the pool and beach area…so you always know when something is going on.

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TW and I only checked out a couple of shows during our stay, since we spent most of our days on tours that let us explore the other parts of the island (more on that later). The best show, which we only caught a part of, was the Michael Jackson tribute. The MJ impersonator was spot on with his look and his dancing.Shamon!

The other show I saw incorporated dance styles from around the world and throughout the Caribbean. The dancers were very talented, and there was always a fun energy permeating the air.

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Riu Reggae’s sister resort, Riu Montego Bay, also features a nightclub that can be freely accessed by any Riu guest. It’s about a five minute walk from the Riu Reggae resort, either through the front parking area or through the beach in the rear. The nightclub wasn’t really my scene, with its cheesy feminine silhouettes on the walls and drunken people on the prowl, but that may be because I’m over the nightclub scene in general at this point in my life. The music was decent, a mix of hip hop and Caribbean jams, and the bartender was a great source of entertainment unto himself. When mixing drinks, he would balance the bottle of liquor on his head while shimmying, pour the bottle over his shoulder in an arching fountain of liquid that landed straight in the glass, and whoop as he banged on the grate with euphoria. Apparently, drink-making is a rousing, soul-shaking ritual.

Watersports

Since the resort is right on the beach, a variety of watersports and water activities are offered for a reasonable price (these are not all-inclusive). From the bar and pool area, I could look out at the sea and see people kayaking, paddle boarding, and boating. But there are also boats that take people farther, out of sight from the resort for snorkeling and scuba diving, as well as for glass-bottom tours and party cruises. For $30 apiece, TW and I went snorkeling, which was a wondrous experience…

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 The Food

Although my expectations for resort food were low, given the all-inclusive nature of the meals, I was pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of the cuisine. The resort features the Jerk Hut, which only serves lunch, as well as four restaurants: Ackee, Bamboo, Dolce Vita, and Kulinarium.

The Jerk Hut is a popular lunch spot by the pool where jerk chicken is grilled fresh before your eyes. The chicken flavor has a great kick to it, and the chef tends to sing while he cooks (not sure if the two are related).

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Ackee is the main restaurant, where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all served. Behind the buffet display are food stations where each dish is cooked fresh.  TW and I spent most of our brunches piling up food from the buffet and taking our plates to the outdoor patio overlooking the pool and beach area so that we could people-watch and catch the water aerobics show. Most of the breakfast food was Western fare – eggs done every type of way imaginable, bacon, sausages, potatoes, toast, bagels, pancakes, waffles, a wide array of fruits, smoothies, coffee and tea…and so much more. There were also a few Jamaican dishes – mostly involving lentils and savory fruits – including the Ackee fruit, which takes on the consistency of scrambled eggs when cooked.

But the best breakfast item by far, the treat TW and I craved constantly – was the beignet. These sugary, deep-fried goodies were to die for.

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The lunch buffet at Ackee included a burger and hot dog grill, quesadillas and salsa bar, sandwich buffet, salad bar, and other standard lunch fare. The dinner buffet at Ackee, however, strayed from traditional Western food to feature international cuisine, some of which was familiar to me (chickpeas, lentils, plantains, etc.), but some of which I found exotic. A surprising new favorite of mine was the oxtail – so rich and flavorful!

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But when I tried to get another serving of oxtail at Ackee on a different night, it tasted foul and gamey…which was because, I later learned, the dish I had thought was oxtail that night was actually a phony lookalike….kidney. Ew!

Ackee also featured a fruit and dessert bar with some beautiful sweet treats.

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The other restaurants –Bamboo, Dolce Vita, and Kulinarium – only serve dinner and dessert.  Bamboo is a buffet-style Asian fusion restaurant. The food was pretty good and encompassed sushi, tempura, stir-fry, and various other Japanese, Chinese, and Thai dishes. I think this restaurant is the one that had the most pleasing ambiance.

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Dolce Vita is a half-buffet, half-traditional Italian restaurant. The décor basically consists of huge photographs of Italian food displayed on the walls. While you can serve yourself appetizers and desserts from the buffet stations, you order the main dish with your waiter/waitress to be served at your table. Of course, you could easily just fill up on “appetizers,” which include full pizza slices, various pastas and lasagnas, bread rolls, salads, and other Italian favorites. But our main dishes were worth saving some space for…the seafood is quite tasty!

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Kulinarium is a specialty restaurant with a full four-course seated meal. You can choose from a small selection of options for each course. This restaurant felt the most “fancy” in terms of food, which was quite good. I especially liked the pumpkin soup. But the dessert, though pretty, didn’t taste like anything special.

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Throughout all of our dinners, the waitresses served us beverages (we always asked for champagne) and refilled them as needed. Again –all inclusive!

Shopping

Conveniently, the Whittier Village shopping center across the street from the resort offers plenty of souvenirs. Bargaining is customary. While the resort provided a free car to drive us across the street to the shopping center, we felt safe enough to walk back to the resort afterward. The only person who talked to us as we walked was a panhandler who insisted on “helping” us cross the busy street in exchange for some spare change. There was a crosswalk and traffic light that would have assisted us just fine…but in all fairness, some of the drivers are a bit aggressive.

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The Tours

Before coming to Jamaica, TW and I made a list of the different sites we wanted to see, but we didn’t book anything until we arrived on the island. We spoke with Ingrid, an awesome planner at the tour desk in the Riu Reggae lobby, and she helped organize our vacation based on our desires and budget, as well as the geography of the island. Ingrid booked our tours and worked out better prices for some of them.

Check out my blog posts below about our tours and activities:

Tips and Thoughts

  • We got around exclusively using U.S. dollars, which worked just fine for us.
  • Sunblock is your friend.
  • Mosquito-repellent is a must for the evenings.
  • Bring multiple swimsuits so that you can wear another while the other is drying.
  • Bring headphones/music for long bus trips.
  • Bring reading material for the pool.
  • Bring plenty of cash in small denominations for tips. Tips are expected by tour guides and drivers, and are much appreciated by servers, bartenders, and entertainers that have left a positive impression on you. Remember…Jamaican service workers have a small salary and rely on tips for a large portion of their income.
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