If a film director were handed an unlikely cast of characters -- say, an Austrian farmer-cum-dog musher, an American recording artist and a middle-aged romantic dreamer on a tropical island -- one might worry that the result would seem, at best, contrived.

Throw in a plot involving a pack of stray dogs headed for the death chamber, polo ponies swimming in the sea and a legendary impresario making bets on obscure talent, and you have a real mess on your hands -- or perhaps a successful venture into the genre known as magical realism.

It turns out that magical realism, the realm where dream logic and reality blend seamlessly, is not limited to fiction. An instance of the genre recently played out, with the elements described above, in the sphere of travel and tourism.

Two years ago, Danny Melville, founder of Chukka Caribbean Adventures in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, was shopping for a dune buggy in Canada when he spied a small, strange-looking, custom-built three-wheeled trailer off to one side. It was a dogsled designed to be pulled on land rather than through snow.

Melville intuited that a Jamaican dogsled team would have appeal as an oddball tourist attraction. But, in the spirit of the Jamaican bobsled team, he wanted to do something more, something inspiring and uniquely Jamaican.

The heat of Jamaica would be intolerable to snow dogs, but he recalled there was a surplus of sun dogs on the island, street mongrels collected by the Jamaican Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and, more often than not, euthanized.

Melville's love for animals is what got him into the tour industry more than 20 years ago. He ran a polo club then, and after matches he and other players would ride into the sea to cool the ponies down. The animals didn't seem to mind that the riders stayed aboard, and they'd begin to swim with the riders on their back. Melville began promoting horseback riding/horseback swimming tours.

After he returned from Canada, Melville approached the JSPCA and worked out a deal in which he would give strays on death row a "second chance" as sled dogs, and the JSPCA would monitor the training and care of the dogs. With that agreement in hand, he approached singer Jimmy Buffett, whose Margaritaville bars are popular in Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. Buffett agreed to become the primary sponsor for the team -- "the Godfather," Melville calls him.

Devon Anderson, Melville's top horse trainer, was dispatched to the Yukon to learn to mush under the guidance of Hans Gatt, an Austrian farmer who has become a champion dogsledder. Anderson, who had scarcely been off the island, not only learned to mush but to mush like a champion. By the time he returned to Jamaica, he had placed respectably in snow races above the 60th parallel. He then returned to Jamaica to train other mushers.

A film -- documentary, not magical realism -- was made about the project. Remember the impresario taking a chance on obscure talent? Chris Blackwell, whose Island Records nurtured a young Bob Marley, also owns a film distribution company. Blackwell agreed to be an executive producer of "Sun Dogs," a documentary about the development of the Jamaican sled dog team, and he hired a promising young Canadian director, Andrea Stewart, to make the film. The movie debuted earlier this month to positive reviews at the ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto.

The same week as the premiere, Melville added the Jamaica Dogsled Experience to his tour offerings in Ocho Rios. For $40, visitors hear the dogsled story, view an exhibit and short film and, most importantly, meet the dogs. (Tip: When standing near one named Smiley, lavish him with attention. Otherwise, he will get your attention by marking you as his territory.) For $100 each, two people a day can ride in a dogsled.

Though the exclusivity of the ride confers some bragging rights, the "experience" part of the tour brings plenty of emotional satisfaction. The magic is in the story, and its power is amplified by the opportunity to pet happy dogs that, in straightforward reality, have been given a second chance for life.


From Our Partners

2021 Family Expo
Family Travel Expo
Register Now
Air Astana 1366
Air Astana
Read More
2021 Caesars Webinar
Watch Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI