Jamaican joy at Azul Beach Resort Sensatori

One of the Azul Beach Resort Sensatori's swim-up suites.
One of the Azul Beach Resort Sensatori's swim-up suites.
The yacht that had carried me to the Negril Cliffs rocked away from the cove, captain at the helm. A lifeguard and I stood on the 40-foot ledge at Rick's Cafe and watched it go. Wind and rain had driven the other visitors and staff indoors

"The cliff's closed for jumping," the lifeguard repeated for the seventh time, and then looked aside. "But your swim to the boat is getting longer, so go before anyone sees you."

I thanked her. Then I leapt through the open air and down into the white-capped Caribbean Sea alongside the rain.

I had traveled to Negril, Jamaica, in June for the grand opening of Karisma's Azul Beach Resort Sensatori. An hour drive from Montego Bay afforded me views of a green landscape rich with guava, breadfruit, tamarind and star-apple trees amid the occasional family of goats.

After entering the Karisma's gate, I was greeted with live reggae melodies and refreshments in the Champagne lounge lobby. The bright music, gold-leafed ceiling and the view that extended past the swim-up suites and out to sea set my mind at ease.

A deluxe oceanview room at the Azul Beach Resort Sensatori in Negril, Jamaica.
A deluxe oceanview room at the Azul Beach Resort Sensatori in Negril, Jamaica.

Azul, a 149-room expansion of Karisma Sensatori, provided me and other American and Canadian guests with all-inclusive, five-star amenities, services and views. I was invited to dine and drink at Karisma's nine world cuisine restaurants and nine bars, including four swim-up bars; relax with steam rooms and a massage at the 9,400-square-foot Vassa Spa; and select designer pillows from the 24-hour room service menu.

During the opening ceremony, prime minister Andrew Holness, tourism minister Edmund Bartlett and other dignitaries arrived to give their blessings. From Azul's sky wedding patio, the prime minister announced that the growing tourism market from the U.S., Canada and Europe will create jobs for 5,000 Jamaicans by 2021.

He then praised Karisma CEO Rafael Feliz for his company's $70 million investment into the now 285-room resort. He added that he would ensure Negril had the resources and infrastructure required to support the growing industry, including hospitality training. Feliz responded by revealing plans for a $1 billion Sugarcane Jamaica resort project, which would add 5,000 rooms to the island by 2027.

After hearing the speeches and witnessing a ribbon-cutting ceremony, I joined the other guests downstairs for a global cuisine that included saltfish ackee and jerk chicken, Croatian mussels and tender lamb ribs.

Seated beside one of the prime minister's bodyguards and former Miss Jamaica Sara Lawrence, I pieced together a brief history of the region. After centuries of harvesting sugarcane and decades of exporting aluminum ore, Jamaica separated from England in 1962. Around the same time, Negril was founded; it is thought to be named "little black ones" by the Spanish after its black sea cliffs. Negril's splendor attracted visitors and soon afterwards resorts, until it became the Negril of today, which Bartlett referred to as the capital of leisure and the heartbeat of the Jamaican tourism industry.

I reflected on these insights that afternoon as I climbed into the pool from my suite's private swim-up terrace, swam under the walkway bridge and stepped out onto Seven Mile Beach.

I considered enjoying butler service from one of the wicker-style seafront cabanas. After all, the sea's gradation from teal to aquamarine was mesmerizing. But I wanted to discover what thrived beneath its surface. I took my mask and snorkel out into the clear waters, where I saw lionfish, pita-size sand dollars, pufferfish and a starfish large enough to spread across my shoulders. I wouldn't have minded seeing schools of tropical fish, but in the end I felt satisfied.

During brunch, I had noticed an island through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Palms World Cuisine. When I had the chance, I visited Azul's beachfront recreation center, which rented out catamarans and kayaks and chartered PADI-certified scuba trips to the nearby coral reef.

A ferry at Booby Key Island, named after the birds that once inhabited it.
A ferry at Booby Key Island, named after the birds that once inhabited it. Photo Credit: Dan Peel

I hired a guide to ferry me across the channel to Booby Key Island, named after the birds that once inhabited it. While it didn't have the shoreline tai chi, top-shelf rum tastings or luxury decor of Azul, it contained treasures of its own such as coral beaches, butterflies and energetic hermit crabs. Walking on a dirt path under a canopy of seagrape trees and the thick vines that twisted down to their roots, I came across a pair of locals who had built a fire with twigs and were boiling lobster from the traps, complete with garlic and butter.

These men told me Jamaicans are happier than any other people on Earth. Their happiness, they said, required nothing but the elements of their flag: yellow for the sunshine, green for the plants and black for the people.

Similar to holding a piece of sea glass or listening to the whispers within a shell, Negril impressed me with its intrinsic joy. I came to hold its thriving landscapes, expansive views and charismatic people in high regard. And in the wake of those thoughts, I found that Karisma's gourmet dishes, open-aired atmosphere and exotic swimming pools complemented the influential value that is the Jamaican west coast.

Rates at the Azul Beach Resort Sensatori Jamaica by Karisma start at $198 per person, per night.

See www.karismahotels.com.

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