Jamaica's roster of new attractions this winter includes four flippered, bottlenose friends; a two-resort complex with a coffee bar that puts Starbucks to shame; and a familiar property that sports a new name, new management and some unusual tweaks.
On a recent visit, I met Cuban-born Shaquira, Sandra, Miguel and Bruno, who surfaced as I entered Dolphin Cove Negril.
At a signal from trainer Romanio kneeling on the dock, the dolphins raced to his side.
They knew the drill. A few tricks for the audience rewarded them with mouthfuls of fresh fish, which they caught in midtoss.
Each dolphin consumes 20 pounds of fish per day, so a few rollovers, back splashes and waves of their flippers were part of their daily routine.
Dolphin Cove Negril had a soft opening last month, and more activities are being added for the winter season.
It joins Dolphin Cove at Treasure Reef in Ocho Rios, which is a top visitor attraction according to the Jamaica Tourist Board. The only other swim-with-the-dolphins facility in Jamaica is at Half Moon Resort, which is open only to guests of Half Moon and the Ritz-Carlton.
"These dolphins were beached or injured," said Stephen Bethel, Dolphin Cove Negril's general manager. "We brought them from Cuba, and they will be joined by four others."
Tourists are beginning to discover the site as word spreads through hotel concierges and local operators.
Three programs currently are available: Touch Encounter lets visitors caress a dolphin while standing in shallow water; Encounter Swim offers some interaction with one dolphin; and the Dolphin Swim program offers a close-up encounter with two dolphins.
Rates range from $34 to $172 per person. Commission is 15%, and the facility provides pickup and dropoff at area resorts.
"While the dolphin program is the highlight of a visit, we've got 24 acres of land surrounding the natural lagoon and four beaches, so we're adding a crocodile habitat, a 'swim, hold and feed the nurse sharks' program, an interactive stingray program, a ride down a lazy river, camel rides and paintball games," Bethel said. There are plans for a 500- to 700-room hotel next to Dolphin Cove, as well.
An unexpected niche market spinoff has been the wedding business, Bethel said. "Guests came from nearby hotels to have their ceremonies here, and we've trained our dolphins to act as aquatic ring bearers."
Here's how that works: The trainer places the wedding ring in a flotation device in the water. A dolphin dips under and surfaces with the device balanced on its nose.
During my Jamaica visit I stayed at the 350-room Secrets St. James. The resort is linked to its sister property, the 350-room Secrets Wild Orchid, by the Promenade, a large plaza and open-air courtyard ringed by a la carte restaurants, shops and the popular Coco Cafe coffee bar.
The adults-only, all-inclusive complex represents Secrets' foray into Jamaica.
Secrets, one of four brands under AMResorts' umbrella of properties, opened last spring. While business is beginning to take off, the sparse landscaping and concrete structures of the five-story guestroom buildings do not yet lend much of a Caribbean feel to the place.
It has all the bells and whistles, however: seven restaurants, nine bars, several pools, a spa, a beach club and meetings space. Through mid-December, rates begin at $296 per room, per night, double in an oceanview junior suite; from January through March, rates begin at $374.
My site inspection of Jewel Dunn's River Beach Resort & Spa in Ocho Rios had a deja vu quality to it. Until last June, the resort was Sandals Dunn's River Villagio, where I'd stayed in the past. Some of the Sandals trappings are still there in the form of marble statues, fountains, a swim-up bar with tower, and butler service in the highest of eight room categories.
The 250-room, all-inclusive resort reopened under the Jewel name on Sept. 1, managed by Dallas-based Aimbridge Hospitality.
"We've added a dive-in movie program at the pool on Saturday nights, a pool concierge and a sushi restaurant called Jade Samurai," said Sharleen Scott, sales manager.
There's candlelight dining on the pier, Jamaican rock candy at nighttime turndown and Internet in all rooms ($11 for 24 hours).
High-season rates start at $359 per room, per night with meals, drinks and transfers from the airport in Montego Bay.
For more on Dolphin Cove Negril, visit www.dolphincovejamaica.com. For Secrets, go to www.secretsresorts.com. For the Jewel Dunn's River Beach Resort, visit www.jeweldunnsriverresort.com.