S Hotel mixes contemporary and Jamaican vibes

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The soaring lobby of the S Hotel is walled with native coral stone and connects to the hotel’s main pool and Doctor’s Cave beach beyond.
The soaring lobby of the S Hotel is walled with native coral stone and connects to the hotel’s main pool and Doctor’s Cave beach beyond.

MONTEGO BAY -- There's a hotel's pre-opening hype, and then there's the first view of the property. And, sometimes, those first impressions just don't match the expectations set by the adjectives injected into the avalanche of press releases prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

But I recently toured a property that not only exceeded my expectations in term of design but went far beyond my expectations in regard to showcasing contributions to Jamaican culture, history and vibe.

The new S Hotel in Montego Bay is as cool, as contemporary and, at the same time, as Jamaican as they come.
Its location on MoBay's Hip Strip promises to rejuvenate, uplift and breathe new life into the area, which has long been the center of the city's nightlife, art life and restaurant scene but had gotten somewhat seedy and tired in past years.

There's already a lot of buzz about the S, which officially opened in late January. It is on site of the Breezes property that closed in 2011 and was bought by Chris Issa in 2015.

Issa, owner of Crissa Hotels (as well as being a combination of Chris Issa's name, the word Crissa is a play on the Jamaican patois word "kriss" meaning "excellent"), which also includes the Spanish Court Hotel in Kingston, described the hotel as "South Beach Jamaican style."

"We put our heart and soul into it," he said. "We've created a new kind of hotel in Montego Bay that infuses Jamaican culture with the sophistication of an urban hotel and the laidback style of a beach resort."

It's a European-plan hotel -- rates cover room only -- one of few in Jamaica. As Issa said, "Montego Bay is either all-inclusive hotels or older luxury properties. We want to attract a mix of guests, from millennials to people who came to Jamaica as college students but who now want to experience Jamaica as an 'it' island, a cultural destination that is constantly evolving."

It's an apt description and is exactly the irie (another Jamaican patois term meaning excellent, awesome) vibe I felt when I toured the property.

Jamaican culture is the heart and soul of the S Hotel, from the artwork, photographs, wall murals and wood sculptures crafted from native hardwood to accessories that feature a vinyl copy of Bob Marley's "Legend" album on wooden turntables in the guestrooms and wicker-wrapped soaking tubs in the spa suites.

Bookshelves in the Ska Cafe were stacked with well-worn novels and tattered history books, antique Jamaican chairs and colorful painted boxes on which the old Jamaican board game of ludo is played.

The walls of the cheery Market restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch, were splashed with black and white photos of Jamaican artists and writers. The black painted columns in the restaurant highlighted chalk-written recipes for local Jamaican dishes, such as such as pumpkin soup whose ingredients included "a fistful of pungent fresh thyme."

Lisa Gardner, general manager, told me that the business and travel community in Montego Bay is excited about the S Hotel. "It's going to rejuvenate this area, and already a lot of Jamaicans are part of our clientele," she said.

The guestrooms I toured were airy, white and spacious from the entry level Essential rooms to the spa suites with the aforementioned wicker-wrapped soaking tubs and the two-level, three-bedroom Presidential Suite with soaring ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach below.

The sleek Sky Deck, reserved for the exclusive use of guests booked in concierge rooms on the fifth and sixth floors, boasts a glass-enclosed pool surrounded by cabanas and loungers.

The towering 25-foot lobby has a wide central walkway that leads to the main pool bordered by swim-out cabanas and Doctor's Cave beach beyond. "Our walkway is the perfect place for a bridal couple to make a grand entry," Gardner said. The hotel has several weddings booked and offers wedding and honeymoon packages.

I was intrigued by the car parked at the lobby entrance in the circular driveway. It's an exact replica of the green 1953 Singer convertible that Katharine Hepburn, also known as Caribbean Kate, brought with her when she visited Jamaica for a month in 1952 to tour the island with her friend Noel Coward, who owned a villa called Firefly in Oracabessa, 70 miles west of Montego Bay, and is now a National Heritage Trust site.

The prominent presence of the car at the S Hotel spoke to the details that Issa and his design team incorporated into the property.

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