About 20 guests, half of them kids, gathered on Sunrise Beach on the east end of the sprawling Half Moon resort complex in Montego Bay, Jamaica, late one September afternoon.
We weren't there to swim, snorkel, build sandcastles or sample the specialities at the just-opened Moonchies Beach Grill but rather to witness the release of 242 just-hatched hawksbill turtles as they scrambled across the sand on their journey to the sea.
Game wardens Mickey Williams and Dwayne Henry told us that the babies had all come from one of the nests on a protected area of the beach.
"Turtle season here runs from April to November," Williams said. "The mothers swim ashore, build their nests in the sand, deposit their eggs and then leave to return to the sea. They come back every year to the same place where they were born to lay their eggs again.
"Many of these turtles will live for up to 100 years, but most stop laying their eggs when they're 60 or so years old," he said.
The kids were enthralled and excited. So were all the adults. The large tub filled with seawater into which the babies had been placed right after they were born was upended, and the journey to the sea began.
We lined up on either side of a wide swath of sand to cheer them on.
Each turtle was no bigger than a child's fist, and some struggled up and over the dips in the sand. There were a few laggards, but all eventually made it to into the water, where their perilous journey would continue.
"All sorts of dangers lurk in the waters, from other marine creatures to fishing lines and boats and debris from what people toss overboard," Henry said.
Most of the baby turtles I saw that day were headed downstream to Mexican waters, although some of them as they grew would head much farther afield.
Half Moon’s signature entrance and arrival area in West Bay, which will continue to receive groups after the Great House check-in area is built. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
The encounter was, for me, an enchanting experience, one that was promoted and publicized at the front desk in the days leading up to the turtle release.
Half Moon has many other activities available to guests, including Rise and Shine Hatha yoga; kickboxing and spinning classes at its fitness center; catamaran sailing; turf and surf horseback riding at its Equestrian Center; nearby golf; and off-site tours and excursions.
"Our guest activities are second to none and help define our hospitality program," said Shernette Crichton, the recently named general manager and the first woman to hold that position at the 400-acre complex.
"It's an exciting time here. Half Moon is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, and we're capping off our five-year master plan that has included renovations, room and facility expansions, new culinary offerings, upgrades and the refreshening of the entire hotel product," Crichton said.
Half Moon began in 1954, with 16 families purchasing a 35-acre site fronting a crescent-shaped bay on a former sugarcane plantation. The owners built a small hotel and several modest seaside cottages so their families and friends could escape not only the cold winters of North America but also enjoy the warmth and hospitality of Jamaicans.
Milestones in ensuing years included the purchase of the neighboring Colony Cottage Hotel in 1979, the opening of the Equestrian Center in 1986, the debut of Royal Suites in 1989 to replace cottages destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the debut of the Fern Tree Spa in 2007.
The current room count stands at 210, not including the 28 Rose Hall Villas, which range from four to seven bedrooms.
Fast-forward to 2019, when a $75 million renovation program is nearing completion. It will add 57 rooms and suites in an area of the resort called East Cove.
Of the 57 new rooms, 32 oceanfront units are in four two-story buildings called cottages, and 16 rooms and suites are in four estate homes next to the new Great House, which will have eight rooms and one suite.
The cottages, which face the water but are set back a bit from the shoreline, offer connecting rooms as well as some units with a tub/shower combination for the family market.
An oceanfront infinity pool and several restaurants from casual to fine dining will debut in East Cove as will a Jamaican village on Sunrise Beach, with barbecue and musical entertainment during the peak season.
The resort's signature, award-winning Sugar Mill restaurant on the site of an old sugar mill was redone three years ago, and Ital, a vegan eatery, opened earlier this year at the spa.
"The new Great House will be the focal point of East Cove and will serve as the signature moment for the arrival and check-in of our leisure guests," Crichton said.
Groups, meanwhile, will be welcomed at the airy lobby in West Bay that has long been the reception area for Half Moon guests.
The Sea Grapes restaurant just off that lobby will become the Seaside Lounge. The Cedar Bar, also near the current Great House lobby, has been redone and upgraded and is popular for watching sunsets.
Ital, the resort’s vegan restaurant, opened earlier this year at the Fern Tree Spa.
"Bookings for the upcoming winter season are looking very strong," Crichton said, "We're expecting occupancies at 85% or higher. We're full for the December holidays and at 90% for next March."
Half Moon, managed by U.S.-based Salamander Hotels & Resorts, employs close to 850 team members, many of whom have served resort guests for years.
"Our employees are the heart and soul of this resort and are who make it tick," Crichton said.
The starting rate in late October through mid-December for a basic room with buffet breakfast is $300 per night, double, plus government tax, service charges and a $4 per night accommodations tax.
In mid-January, an ocean room starts at $590 per night, double, plus taxes.
Half Moon is offering several anniversary packages to celebrate its 65 years.