A Villaful In Jamaica - My Family Travels

Family Travel Forum contributors and their two kids decide to “relax” for a change on a Villas by Linda Smith family vacation to Jamaica.

 When a travel writer friend recommended we check out Villas by Linda Smith for a vacation in Jamaica, we initially balked.  We confronted two stereotypes: to us, a villa is an expensive, uptight, don’t-sit-on-the-furniture proposition.  And we understood that Jamaica has a reputation for being unsafe.  Well – so much for stereotypes.

The first time we clicked on the Villas by Linda Smith website, we were confused.  The vivid, almost glamorous pictures said “luxury” while the prices said “bargain.”  Were we missing something? 

For years we vacationed in a variety of old and new houses spread over North Carolina’s Outer Banks, on a wide stretch of sand that we shared with, oh, perhaps hundreds of our closest friends.  We schlepped to Food Lion for provisions, cooked meals in strange, often under-equipped kitchens and fought for restaurant reservations.  Frankly, we loved it.  But the rental prices kept rising, the commute became more congested and the neighbors grew louder (or maybe we just got older). 

A Surprising Option

Villas by Linda Smith offered an unanticipated alternative.  In the time it takes us to drive from home to beach house, we could board a plane and arrive in a villa in Jamaica.  For the price of a modest oceanfront rental in the Outer Banks, we could stay in a private villa with pool, beach and (get this) a service staff.  Including meals.  And drinks.  We kept looking for the catch, a hidden cost, a “gotcha,” something to remind us that only the wealthy vacation this way.  We never found it.

Linda Smith’s portfolio consists of 75 villas for rent, many within a thirty-minute drive of chaotic Montego Bay airport, barring not uncommon traffic jams.  She inspects and chooses the villas she represents, and the owners agree to make the improvements she “requests.”  The villas range from a 250-year-old pineapple and mango plantation perched on a 2000-acre mountain top (the movie set for When Stella Got Her Groove Back) to an intimate, seaside honeymoon cottage. None would be described as rustic – no Cargo furniture to be found. 

Our stay in August at the sprawling villa “Noble House” was spectacular.  As our driver descended the driveway through jungle-like foliage, the staff of seven stood out front under the canopy of trees and welcomed us with warm introductions. They handed each of us a glass of fresh fruit punch, gave us a tour of the house and stunning grounds and unpacked our belongings. 

We initially were unsettled by the sudden reality of having a personal, attentive service staff, which here included a chef, a butler, two housekeepers, a laundress, and two gardeners/pool caretakers (type and number of staff varies based on the nature of the villa).  Come now, is it really healthy for our 8 and 10 year olds to be served by a butler for a week?  What will they expect when they get home?  But we struggled, persevered and got used to it in about thirty minutes.  Many of the staff have been serving guests at Noble House for years and years, as is the case at most Linda Smith villas, and they treated us like we owned the place.

The four-bedroom, six-bathroom, five-acre estate offered more than enough room for the two of us, our two pre-teen kids and their grandfather.  We chose the 2,000 square foot pool cottage while the kids and Pop-Pop stayed in the 6,000 square foot main pavilion with its “Asian-meets-Caribbean plantation” décor, open-air rooms and a water garden.  We could see no other homes from anywhere on the property, in stark contrast to our typical beach vacations.

Relaxing Leads to Reuniting

After a dip in the large pool, chef Valrie sat us down to discuss our likes, dislikes, spice tolerance and children’s requests.  We asked her to focus on Jamaican cuisine, with a few familiar items as backups for the kids.  And so it began – the delightful, steady march toward seven extra pounds.

Each morning the silver-service coffee appeared on the verandah in time for the early-riser (79 year-old Pop-Pop) as the sun rose over Montego Bay.  Once the rest of us had surfaced, the meticulous butler Lloyd would summon us to the covered verandah and serve fresh tropical fruits, a variety of juices and more Jamaican coffee, followed by homemade banana pancakes, Jamaican ackee (an odd but tasty tree fruit) or salt fish, as well as eggs, sausage and bacon.  Lunches included a spiced chicken salad, spaghetti with bolognese sauce or a pork loin with fried plantains. Valrie often included macaroni and cheese, homemade fries, ham and cheese sandwiches or PB&J for our kids, as we requested.

Around tea time (happy hour!) Lloyd would surface with light hors d’oeuvres and our favorite cocktails.  Dinner on the verandah consisted of course after course of Jamaican specialties such as curried pumpkin soup, jerk chicken, flying fish, breadfruit, several side dishes and homemade desserts.  Lloyd told us that many guests choose to serve the children’s dinner earlier so adults can dine late and linger, but we chose to have dinner with the children each evening.  After these long, luxurious dinners, we typically stumbled away from the table with barely enough energy to play a game of cards before heading to bed.

On the second day we looked at each other and realized that we had never been this relaxed on a vacation.  Or perhaps ever.  All our vacation needs were covered.  We even had a laundress who scooped up our dirty clothes every day – just imagine arriving home from vacation with a suitcase full of clean clothes!  (We bragged to our friends back home about dropping underwear on the floor only to discover it a few hours later, laundered, smelling better than it ever has, folded like a peace dove with a Belgian chocolate on top.  Totally true, except for the dove and chocolate part.)  The contrast between Noble House and our typical beach vacations left us with silly grins that easily come back to us today.

At any villa there is little or a lot to do.  Noble House sits on 500 feet of beachfront (private except for a few Jamaicans who use it for commuting) on a bay with little wind or waves, so it’s more suited for families with small children than for sporty kids looking for body surfing.  (Check the web site for activities at individual villas.)  Villa renters can hire one of Linda Smith’s drivers for numerous excursions, such as bamboo raft rides down the Martha Brae River and tours of Rose Hall to discover the legend of the White Witch.  Many of the villas have privileges at resorts such as the exquisite Round Hill Hotel and Beach Club, Half Moon Golf, Tennis and Beach Club and Tryall Club, all of which offer water sports, kids programs, beach barbecues, steel drum or reggae bands or Jamaican floor shows.

We chose to reconnect as a family.  We lounged on pool rafts, played cards, chess and Scrabble, created scavenger hunts that sent the kids scrambling all over the compound, read, talked and raced each other beneath almond trees. Like other family travelers, we had concerns about security, based on press reports and word of mouth.  Turns out that crime in Jamaica is centered in a few neighborhoods in Kingston, over 125 miles from Montego Bay.  A tiny percentage of visitors to the north coast experience any crime, usually a theft of belongings left on a public beach, much like European or American beaches.  Linda Smith villas have no history of crime, and each villa is staffed with a night watchman.  Ours greeted us around 9pm and patrolled until dawn.

As a farewell on our final evening, our gardener Patrick built a bonfire on the beach, using palm fronds, dried underbrush and bamboo stalks that exploded in the night like gunfire.  When we departed the following morning, the Noble House staff lined up out front as they had upon arrival.  We found ourselves rather teary-eyed as we said goodbye to these delightful people who had helped create a vacation that we would always treasure. 

Then we headed home to deal with Lloyd withdrawal.

Details, Details

Here’s our best advice on how to do a villa rental successfully. Begin by exploring Linda Smith’s user-friendly Jamaica Villas web site.  Although children are welcome in all villas, the site identifies especially child-friendly villas that feature grassy lawn and outdoor play areas, a safe distance between house and pool, membership in the kids’ club at a nearby resort, proximity to other activities for children, videos, cribs, adjoining bedrooms for parents and children and other necessities  (use the “child friendly” link under “choose your villa”).  Narrow down your choices, then call to ask questions about your specific needs and wants Linda and the staff know the properties intimately.

Rates listed on the site are for seven days and seven nights with arrival and departure on any day of the week you wish.  There is a five-night minimum in low season (Apr. 16 – Dec. 14) and a seven-night minimum in high season (Dec. 15 – Apr. 15), which can be waived in some instances.  Weekly rates in 2008 start as low as $1,900 for a fully staffed two-bedroom cottage in the low season but can be stratospheric for a handful of the palatial villas (such as the 20-bedroom Trident Castle in Port Antonio).  Portions of villas can be rented in most cases.  For example, a  small family can rent two bedrooms of a six-bedroom villa for a reduced rate, and the remaining space will not be rented to other clients!  In addition, for large groups and family reunions, many sister villa options are available.  Budget approximately $45 per day for each adult (including alcohol) and about $20 per child, an absolute steal compared with resorts and restaurants.  Also, budget for staff gratuity at end of the stay: 15% of the weekly rate in low season, 10% in high season.

In addition to cribs, high chairs and playpens, villas can be pre-stocked with Pampers and formula for those traveling with infants.  Smith also has a cadre of nannies available for babysitting with rates ranging from $35 to $65/D (not per child), depending on whether you want them to swim with your children and live in at night.  Also, two staff members always stay overnight in staff quarters to tend to any middle of the night needs, such as changing sheets if a child were to become ill.

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