Our guide's name was Mama Love, and she was braiding my hair in cornrows on the tour bus back to Montego Bay from Negril. Though we were tired and relaxed from a full day in the sun, our group still had the energy to break into song when "One Love" or any other Bob Marley song came on the sound system.
It was an only-in-Jamaica kind of scene, and these occurred with regularity thanks to the joyous and spontaneous nature of the Jamaican people, which I experienced as a guest of the Hotel Riu Montego Bay on a recent hosted trip.
The expansive property looks like a fairy tale castle compound. White buildings with ramparts and endless rows of balconies hold 681 rooms, nine restaurants and bars and high-ceilinged common spaces.
The triumvirate of Montego Bay, Palace Jamaica and Reggae are part of a mega-beachfront property with 1,424 rooms on the northwest coast of the island next to the town of Montego Bay. There's also a Riu Negril and Riu Palace Tropical Bay 90 minutes to the west in Negril and the Riu Ocho Rios 90 minutes to the east near St. Ann's Bay.
This adds up to 3,116 Riu Hotels and Resorts rooms on the relatively petite island of Jamaica, which is just shy of Connecticut in square miles. The sheer size of Riu boggles the mind; how, it makes you wonder, are such large hotels always so full of guests? The answer lies not just in Riu's all-inclusive formula, with rates as low as $120 per person a night, but also in its consistency.
One of the 3,116 Riu guestrooms in Jamaica.
As soon as I got my wristband, I could enjoy any of the 17 restaurants and bars at Montego Bay and Reggae as well as the many pools and a full schedule of daily activities and nightlife options. Add to that dance and music shows by local performers (fire breathing and lots of reggae) and a full selection of kayaks, paddleboards and the like to use from the beach.
My group took a windjammer cruise (additional fee) with Scuba Caribe to snorkel at Montego Bay Marine Park. This included music and dancing on deck with the lively Jamaican crew as well as complimentary minimassages from Renova Spa masseuses.
The all-inclusive nature of Riu hotels can make it tempting to never leave the resort. While that can be a relaxing vacation in itself, I found the food at the buffets paled in comparison to the more authentic festival bread and jerk chicken, fish and pork at popular local places like Scotchies. Also, it was the excursions into island life that connected me to the joyful spirit of the Jamaican people.
This is where Mama Love and the ride with Paradise Tours came in. Under the care of our expert local driver, we explored the country between Montego Bay and Negril on the narrow roads.
Stops included Rhodes Hall Plantation to ride horses through a crocodile reserve with Jamaican natives who taught us about plant lore and the history of the island. Though I didn't see any crocs, we got to ride on horses as they swam in the ocean, which was a truly thrilling experience. The day was topped off at the iconic Rick's Cafe for a live reggae band at sunset and a jump into the ocean from cliffs ranging from 10 to 35 feet.
A guest enjoys a massage at Renova Spa at the Riu Montego Bay. Other Riu hotels in Negril and Ocho Rios are 90 minutes from Montego Bay.
After two days of active explorations, a lazy morning at the hotel was a welcome change. Even though I departed that afternoon, the Montego Bay Airport is only 10 minutes away. I enjoyed a blissful full-body massage at the Renova Spa (additional charge) before meeting a friend from our group to linger over breakfast on the outdoor terrace by the pool. Then I went for a swim, read in a hammock near the water and took a leisurely walk on the long stretch of beach bordering the Riu property.
Jamaicans often paddle along the beach in sea kayaks with polished conch shells and other local items for sale. One man pulled up to me, but rather than hawk his wares, he got out and taught me a Jamaican handshake that symbolizes peace, love, respect and unity. It's this genuine local spirit that made the visit much more than just a sunny vacation.
Rates at the Hotel Riu Montego Bay begin at $125; visit www.riuhotels.com.