Traveler's Tales

Jamaica's Coolest Joint

by Geren Lockhart

A Native American-inspired compound in the middle of Negril? Enough said to get Geren Lockhart on the next plane to an island nation of the Greater Antilles.

JAMAICA – Last Christmas I realized I needed a little sun. I regretted missing two invitations to go to Jamaica — here was my chance! I enlisted one of my best friends to share in the adventure.

We chose Negril, the beach resort for locals on the island (it's their Malibu or Montauk). Negril used to be a hippie enclave and has slowly evolved into a boho jet-set destination with great Chris Blackwell hotels and restaurants — my music video friends go there all the time. With very little research I came across Chippewa Village, a North American Indian-inspired compound in the middle of Negril. I know it sounds bizarre, and it is, but it's one of the best travel decisions I've ever made.

Chippewa is owned by John Babcock — he's friends with my friends, a sort of a real-life Facebook situation — and I booked in for a week. We rented a car for the journey and drove ourselves, which proved to be the right choice, despite having to change a flat tire one morning in the driveway of the resort.

When you think of Chippewa, think rustic with provisions. It's not for everyone, but it's built with love. This is not a cookie-cutter resort. It's a well thought-out compound on the edge of the Great Morass (a protected marshland for exotic birds and royal palms) with five tin-roofed buildings, each with its own style and details, built by John over the last 20 years. Book the rooms on the top floor of the larger houses for the best light. Sure, there's a little wear and tear, the kind that happens in a tropical environment, but the vaulted ceilings and charming makeshift kitchens make up for it. (Do not book if you are in the mood for the Four Seasons.)

John is like a magical genie. He had the answers to every question we asked. What to eat? Where to do yoga? How to catch the best sunset? He has lived an amazing life, from the military to Woodstock, Missouri to Negril. At some point, a young John got his heart broken — he took a walk to clear his head and ended up in Jamaica. Good news for us, since he gave us instant local access: After two decades in Negril, John understood exactly what we wanted to see, and do, and experience. Rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers of his time has left him with a wonderful sense of the world and how to aid in the planning of a very cinematic adventure.

Though we would have been perfectly happy sequestered in Chippewa, we did manage to go out and about. We spent a decent bit of time at the Idle Awhile Hotel beach (another good place to stay, but you don't get John). Beach chairs and umbrellas are free, as long as you tip the attendants and order your snacks from the kitchen. I highly recommend the lobster salad everyday for lunch. An a.m. or p.m. walk or run down the seven-mile beach is somewhat mandatory. From Chippewa you can also wander into the morass and climb the stands scattered along a path that John carved out and watch the sun come up. It's pure genius.

We did yoga at Negril Yoga Centre each morning with Fanette, followed by a trip to the Health Spot just east of the roundabout in the center of town for vegan patties and fresh juices. The Rastas are vegetarians, so there was a wealth of what I guess would normally be considered spa food at our fingertips. Dinner at Rastafarian restaurant Hungry Lion was wonderful. We had soup that was complex, and filling, and good for us (how is that possible?), and followed up with a nightcap at the club in the same building.

Make sure to have a meal at The Caves, dinner atPushcart, and jerk chicken at Mama's. We were lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve with John and Doc (the resident concierge doctor from Canada) at LTU Pub and Restaurant deep in the west end of town. There were more locals than you could count, which was a true pleasure (so was the pasta).

A day trip to Mayfield Falls did almost kill me in more ways than one (very rough roads, no signs, questionable maps, and a dicey fall off a rock), but it was a wonderful reward to hike up. By hike, I mean running up-river, where we waded and climbed over waterfalls — under a canopy of trees and dappled sun. It felt like we had a director of photography setting the lights for us. You can engage a guide to drive you to the falls and lead a hike. But we choose to take our lives into our own hands and go it alone. There were about ten times when I wasn't sure we would make it back. Hire the guide, unless you're a seasoned adventurer.

In the end, we survived! And so we celebrated at Chippewa with a sunset walk and cocktail.


See the locations for this trip. (Googlemap)


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