With more than one million visitors each year, this Caribbean island is highly praised for its warm hospitality, unspoiled beaches and sapphire waters. However, the fact that you can play on some world class golf courses is surprisingly little known...
Generally it's either the Bob Marley connection or some negative incident that draws media attention to Jamaica. Never is the island being headlined as a great golf destination, but after four visits I am in no doubt that it should be at the top of every golfer's 'must play' destinations list.
Not only is Jamaica a captivating, lush, mountainous island where you'll find some of the friendliest and most laid-back people in the Caribbean, but there's also elegant accommodation, myriads of activities and top-notch golf courses that are a pleasure and a challenge to play - positively wicked at times.
Classy area. There are many golf courses in Jamaica, but the joy of playing the surprising little cluster of them located in a classy area of Montego Bay is that they are all within about 10-15 minutes' drive from each other. They, together with a selection of luxury hotels, are all just a short drive from Donald Sangster International Airport - so no long distance airport-hotel transfers involved. After a long haul flight, that's a bonus worth considering.
There's two additional bonuses which I appreciated on this trip and are worthy of mention to other golfers. Firstly, using I Love Meet & Greet UK airport car parking valet service; no dragging heavy cases and clubs on airport bus transfers for me - I love being mollycoddled. Secondly, having my golf clubs with me, carried free of charge (worldwide) when flying with Virgin Atlantic Airways is a huge perk, saving hundreds of pounds compared to other airlines which all charge for golf clubs carriage.
Relaxing and romantic. Arriving at the airport, checking in at the dedicated reception area for Half Moon, A RockResort and being transferred (15 minutes) proves speedy and smooth. This long-established resort, with its high repeat guest stats, is spread over 400 acres of well-maintained landscaped gardens and offers a variety of accommodation options.
The Caribbean setting when I arrive at the resort in the early-evening is charming. The crescent-shaped beachfront is enticing and my cottage accommodation classy and spacious, and just steps from the beach. Furthermore, the Half Moon Caribbean welcome cocktail is delicious and the open reception elegantly furnished.
Later that evening, the spreading branches of almond trees are twisted with fairy lights and the Seagrape Terrace Restaurant tables are candlelit - definitely a relaxing and romantic place to eat. Before dinner, I sample a couple of the barman's cocktails, the 'Island Ambassador' and 'Half Moon's Magic', after which I have no doubt I will be a frequent visitor.
Delicious lobster. In the restaurant, the hotel's lobster dishes prove totally irresistible to me during my stay. I relish grilled spiny lobster tail with garlic and lime one night for dinner, lobster medallions another, and two days running a lobster and cucumber salad creation for lunch. It also boasts a charming terrace for outside breakfasting, with lovely views overlooking the seashore.
Il Giardino Restaurant is an Italian establishment immediately adjacent to the Seagrape. There are frescoes inside, casual candlelit dining outside, and a variety of authentic Italian dishes on offer. I can recommend the pork tenderloin fillet with mushroom and black truffle sauce served with potato and roast pepper timbale - it's scrumptious.
Other eating options on the resort include an expansive buffet with grills and savoury Jamaican titbits served at the beach barbecue at Sunrise Beach, or international cuisine with a Caribbean twist plus a melting pot of traditional Jamaican, Middle Eastern, and Indian dishes at Robbie's Kitchen in the Half Moon Shopping Village. With such gourmet choices on my doorstep I need to remind myself I am here to golf not to gorge.
Perfect weather. I'm planning to play the three courses that are members of the Rose Hall Golf Association which offers guests exclusive access to 54 holes of great golf at Half Moon, Cinnamon Hill, and the White Witch - a cluster of Jamaican championship golf courses each worth playing twice on any golf holiday.
There's a frequent shuttle bus that runs from the resort to Half Moon Golf Course, minutes away, where I discover good practice facilities before my first round and an inviting 19th hole for afterwards. It's a perfect November day for golf, not too hot or humid and the sun is shining, a welcome reprieve from winter weather in the UK.
Not well known. The sight of a mass of towering palm trees lining lush fairways make me impatient to get my shoes on and caddied up. The resident British golf pro Spencer Edwards joins me. He loves living here, he tells me. "It's a dream golf destination," he says, "but not enough golfers know it." He's coached Ryder Cup and European Tour players so I'll certainly take heed of his remarks about my putting stance and swing.
Delroy is my caddie for the day. He plays off scratch and is hoping to turn professional before too long, and what a great caddy he is too. Reputedly, Half Moon Golf Course has the best and friendliest caddies on the island. After 18 holes here, I won't dispute that.
A walk in the park. It's nice to have the option to walk 18 holes rather than have a buggy as is mandatory on many courses in Jamaica. The course, a 7,141 yard par 72 designed by Robert Trent Jones Snr in 1964 and renovated by designer Roger Rulewich (2004-2005), is pretty level so it's not too arduous to walk.
It's not windy when I play, fortunately; apparently eight holes can be particularly tough when it is. The greens are rolling and guarded by large bunkers, and the Bermuda grass is a lot trickier to play on compared with the type of grass used on UK courses.
The par-4 13th is memorable. It's the signature hole where two long and well-placed shots are essential to reach the elevated green guarded by bunkers and practically surrounded by palm trees.
Wicked Witch. The White Witch, the second course I play, is not far from Half Moon. It's an uphill drag all the way and the road is flanked by rainforest so thick that I begin to think the course should have been named after Indiana Jones rather than a wicked witch.
The smart clubhouse sits in a clearing on the top of the hill; overlooking the golf course with the Caribbean Sea in the background, it must surely offer one of the best panoramic views in Jamaica.
The first hole, a par-5, is stunning. The tee is up by the clubhouse, high above the fairway, from which I can see at least ten very large bunkers strategically placed, some guarding the table-top green which is hidden from view.
Black magic and murder. It is more wicked here than you realise at first glance - not because of the challenging holes, the mountainous terrain, the vultures circling above, the shifting winds from dawn to dusk, or the fact that playing 18 holes will cost you mega bucks in golf balls - but because of the legend attached to it.
The golf course winds through the dense rainforest of the historic Rose Hall Plantation where, in the 18th century, a beautiful woman called Annie Palmer lived. Supposedly, she dabbled in black magic and murdered no less than three husbands and several male slaves over the years, finally being murdered herself by a slave called Takoo. Some say she haunts the Great House and grounds to this day.
Breathtaking course. The course is carved out of 600 acres of mountainous terrain, where it winds through lush rainforest and features awesome vistas of the sea from no less than 16 holes.
Most memorable are the downhill dogleg 10th, a par-5 that edges a gorge; the 14th, a par-3 across water to a shallow green; and the 17th, a picturesque par-3 featuring a green fronted by a stone wall and a backdrop of the Caribbean Sea.
The White Witch, a Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril design masterpiece, is a breathtaking and wicked course. It can take around 5 ½ hours start to finish, even with mandatory caddies and a buggy. A 'risk-reward' course with long carries, it's also quite distinct, rather misleading and definitely intimidating. Absolutely a 'must play.'
Sugar plantation. The third round of golf is at Cinnamon Hill; less challenging than the Wicked Witch, but with holes named 'Witch's Reef', 'Caribbean Ghost' and 'Takoo's Revenge', you can't get too complacent.
Designed by Hank Smedley in 1969 but redesigned in 2001 by Von Hagge and Baril, the course enjoys an open front nine where the wind can play havoc with clubbing, and a hilly back nine that winds through dense rainforest where fairways get tighter.
Created on land that was once a large sugar plantation, and with an ancient aqueduct used to grind sugarcane still in evidence, Cinnamon Hill is a beautiful course. The signature hole, the par-4 5th, is one I won't forget in a hurry. This hole is aptly named 'Majestic Blue' as the fairway heads down towards the sea which creates an amazing aquamarine backdrop to the green. It's followed by another scenic hole, a tantalising par-3 called the 'Witch's Reef' that runs adjacent to the ocean.
Johnny Cash. Cinnamon Hill golf course is named after Cinnamon Hill Great House, an old plantation property once owned by mega star Johnny Cash which is tucked away to the left of the 14th fairway.
There are four great finishing holes on this course, particularly the 17th, a par-5 named 'The Ruins' because of the 18th century remains that still stand around the green. Your drive, like your second shot, has to be long, straight and well placed on this hole. This is essential as there are two wide ravines to cross before getting anywhere near the green.
Swimming with dolphins. Early morning rounds of golf and the Wicked Witch have taken their toll so, after three days, it's time to chill out. A visit to the Spa and a swim with dolphins is on the cards for my day of rest.
A sleep-in, a swim, and a late breakfast on the shaded terrace - what bliss. I drag myself away from laziness and summon a golf buggy to take me to one of the other bays on the resort. I have a date with a dolphin.
Safety drill done, life jacket donned, instructions on how to handle the friendly creatures received, and I'm ready to be approached by the dolphins, Toni and Pepe. My 30-minute experience is something I'll never forget. It is limited to four people at a time who are able to swim with, touch and sometimes kiss the dolphins. They even managed to push one girl back to shore.
This attraction is just one of many activities at Half Moon resort: others include an Equestrian Centre, an array of water sports, a state-of-the-art fitness centre, thirteen lit tennis courts and four squash courts.
If you want to explore the island, popular activities off-site include ziplining, bamboo rafting, Mystic Mountain adventures, climbing the Dunns River Falls, and the Bob Marley tour.
Day at the Spa. It makes a change to have a Spa menu in my hand rather than a restaurant menu, but deciding on which particular pampering treatment I'm going to succumb to is not easy. I finally decide on the hotel's Signature Massage at the Fern Tree, A RockResorts Spa at Half Moon.
The ritual starts with a welcome warm footbath of calming Jamaican Cerassee (Jamaican bush tea) and my body is massaged with an oil blend of allspice, ginger and orange, then spritzed with a Jamaican Rum Splash before my feet are wiped with a towel infused in nutmeg oil. The Spa tranquil gardens match my mood so I sit there and meditate. must sort out my golf swing.
A Caribbean treat. As a condolence for the thought of leaving Half Moon the following day, I dine at the hotel's sophisticated Sugar Mill Restaurant, located near the golf club's 19th hole. What a Caribbean treat it is too: crab, papaya and cucumber timbale as an appetiser, followed by coconut and saffron poached snapper, then a mango cheesecake - all accompanied by perfectly chilled sommelier-chosen wine from the restaurant's fine wine cellar (it boasts over 150 different wines from around the world), and enjoyed in a chic and relaxing al fresco setting.
Even before I leave Jamaica, I know I'll return again with my golf clubs in tow. In fact, wild horses couldn't keep me away from the little cluster of championship golf courses I've discovered on this visit, and certainly not any old Wicked Witch.
Good to know
I LOVE MEET & GREET offers an efficient car parking service at Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted and Birmingham - virtually kerb-side to check-in within minutes. A driver meets you at the terminal: collecting, returning, and parking your car in a secure authorised car park until your return.
Tel: 01293 577988, www.ilovemeetandgreet.co.uk
VIRGIN ATLANTIC operates three flights a week from London Gatwick to Montego Bay, Jamaica
DESTINATION GOLF working in partnership with VIRGIN ATLANTIC is an established market leader in select golf holidays for individuals. They also specialise in group travel and organising Pro-Am, Corporate and Golf Society events. Tel: 01737 771613,www.destinationgolf.co.uk
TOTAL GOLF EXPERIENCE: Contact Destination Golf for information on Half Moon's Total Golf Experience package which includes unlimited golf at Half Moon GC, a cart and caddy for 18 holes daily, a sleeve of Half Moon golf balls and range balls, and one round of golf at one of the other two courses in the Rose Hall Golf Association - either the White Witch or Cinnamon Hill.
The package includes accommodation, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, drinks at hotel bars and return Jamaican airport transfers
HALF MOON, A RockResort in Montego Bay, is a 400-acre luxury resort situated on a crescent-shaped white sand beach, with 198 rooms, suites and cottages as well as 33 four-, five-, six- and seven-bedroom villas - each with a private butler, cook, housekeeper, and its own swimming pool. Additionally, Half Moon features a Spinning® studio, 13 lit tennis courts, equestrian centre, fitness centre, several swimming pools, Hype Zone for teenagers, a colourful Anancy Children's Village, numerous water sports, an exclusive dolphin lagoon, shopping village, and numerous bars and restaurants.
GOLF IN JAMAICA - caddies and golf carts are mandatory at most courses and are in addition to green fees, so do check exactly what costs are involved and the tips expected with the Pro Shop before playing. US$ are accepted.