School's out in Jamaica

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The Independent Travel

When Holly-May and Benjamin emerged from the warm waves, grinning from ear to ear and gingerly clutching a rather out-of-breath puffer fish, we knew our decison to come to Jamaica was right. Screams of childish delight echoed across the beach, as other kids converged on our seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to investigate the commotion. Like a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, my swashbuckling children waded through the surf on to the beach, displaying their prized booty for all to see. All that was missing was a Jolly Roger flag.

Our children hadn't been to Jamaica for a few years, and I wanted to reacquaint them with my home island now that they were a bit older. The Caribbean may be a traditional winter-sun destination, but it is a great place to visit in the summer too, not least because staying there then is considerably cheaper than during high season.

We had decided at the last minute to have a family holiday in Jamaica. We chose the low-key grandeur of the Round Hill Hotel outside Montego Bay, where I had stayed before and had been impressed by the secluded tropical setting and first-class service. Round Hill's long-serving managing director, Josef Forstmayr, told me that during the summer months the rates can be up to 40 per cent less than the more pricey winter season, and the hotel now offers 50 per cent off the rates for adjoining rooms for children.

If you arrive before the onset of the hurricane season, which officially starts on 1 June, you are more or less guaranteed brilliant sunshine all day, with no tropical downpours. And despite some of the bad press that Jamaica gets, many people will tell you it is their best-kept secret.

By now the puffer fish was quickly running out of puff, and Captain Dad ordered that the hapless creature be returned to the sea. It was the first full day of the holiday, and despite a tiring nine-hour flight from Gatwick, the children were desperate for another adventure. Thankfully, Round Hill has a full menu of water sports, and both Holly-May and Benjamin were keen to try them out. Sheldon, the very friendly watersports man, took them off snorkelling and kayaking, while Mum and Dad soaked up some much-needed rays.

Round Hill is best known for its celebrity history, understated elegance and tropical exoticism. The private luxury villas are set back in unrelenting lush vegetation. The rich and famous have been sipping martinis here for more than 50 years. Gloria Vanderbilt, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Truman Capote all partied on the sandy beach.

But it's not just the celebrated, or the old and stuffy, that have ensconced themselves in the privacy of its luxurious villas. Josef tells me that he is also trying to attract families that are younger, hip and cool. Round Hill now offers the less pricey experience of the Pineapple House hotel, where we stayed. Set on the beachfront, the hotel has 36 airy and spacious rooms, with interiors designed by Ralph Lauren (who also owns two of the luxury villas). Everything is crisp white, with bright pillows, throws and chaises longues. Wide jalousied windows frame the blue sea outside. Our adjoining rooms were spectacular - and that's putting it mildly. The kids played king and queen on their very own four-poster beds.

For lunch, we decided to venture out of Round Hill and head into Montego Bay. I had rented a car, and decided to show Mandy and the kids a bit of "my" Jamaica, starting with the food. We dropped in at Scotchies, arguably the best jerk chicken pit on the island. There are no airs and graces here - just good old-fashioned smoky jerk - and it's delicious washed down with an ice-cold Red Stripe beer. At the table next to us were about 20 rather boisterous American tourists. The dozens of empty beer bottles in front of them stood as mute testament to their lengthy lunch visit. They told me they'd heard of Scotchies' legendary fare, and decided to sample it. By the time we arrived, they had laid waste most of the kitchen's jerk chicken - we cleaned up the rest.

The next day, we drove to the old banana port of Oracabessa in the parish of St Mary. The roads on Jamaica's north coast are undergoing a massive and much-needed improvement, and driving east towards Ocho Rios along miles of unfinished surface was somewhat testing.

We went to Oracabessa not to drink copious banana daiquiris, but to swim with stingrays at the newly opened Stingray City on James Bond Beach. Stingray City is an eco-attraction, the first of its kind on the island. It offers visitors a chance to be with these often feared but generally harmless creatures, and even to stroke them. The attraction is set on a beautiful sandy bay with great views of Goldeneye, the former home of Ian Fleming, James Bond's creator. About 20 stingrays of all shapes and sizes were gliding effortlessly through the water. They had names too, such as Muscle Girl, Reggae Boy and Mischief.

On arrival, Mojo, the chief handler, taught us the Stingray Shuffle, a sort of disco dance you do in the water. The idea is that the stingrays buried in the seabed will hear you approaching and swim off, preventing you from accidentally stepping on their bony stingers.

Benjamin took to the water like a fish and in no time was happily petting Reggae Boy, but Holly-May was more hesitant. To be honest, I was pretty hesitant, too. Stingrays win no prizes in marine beauty contests, but it was a unique experience to have these slippery ocean-going ballet dancers tucked up against us, flapping their wings gently as they hovered inches from our faces.

The next day, we headed to Negril, a seven-mile strip of white-sand beach about 25 miles further west of Montego Bay, and Jamaica's most laid-back tourist location. Negril's top attraction is Rick's Café, a raucous pub and restaurant perched high on honeycomb cliffs. Tourists and locals jammed the place to soak up the fiery sunsets and voluminous rum punches, while madmen dived 40 feet off the cliffs into the inviting water below. Crowds surged forward to watch the aerial stunts of the cliff-divers, as a Rastafarian entertainer, his long dreadlocks flailing around him, belted out old reggae favourites. Holly-May and Benjamin frolicked in the pool and made friends with other children. We just chilled out on the wooden deck, drank a few rum punches and enjoyed the vibe. This was the Jamaica I wanted my kids to experience.

Tourism in Jamaica has changed much over the years. Eco-attractions and adventure sports have sprung up - and tourists are encouraged to get off their sun loungers and get active. You can also swim with dolphins. I had done so on a previous trip to Jamaica and once they saw the photos my kids didn't stop pestering me for a chance to try the experience too. So I had arranged a return trip to Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios.

After a safety briefing, we donned floatation jackets and waded tentatively into the water, following our dolphin handler, Laura, to one corner of the lagoon. All around us, dolphins performed aerial stunts. Holly-May and Benjamin were beside themselves with glee and couldn't wait to get involved.

They didn't have long to wait. Breaking the surface to check us out, like submarine periscopes, came Mitch and Shoogie, two slippery bottle-nosed dolphins. They twirled around and teased us. The kids reached out and stroked them, before planting kisses on their rubbery snouts. With a helping hand from Laura, the children hung on to Mitch and Shoogie's dorsal fins and were dragged at some speed through the water. It was a moment I will never forget - watching the sheer excitement on their little faces. Both children were ecstatic and said it was the most fun they had ever had. Swimming with dolphins is a truly awesome experience - the kids haven't stopped talking about it since.

We'd worked up quite an appetite swimming with Mitch and Shoogie, so that night we decided to have dinner with a difference. Moored in the calm waters of the Bogue Lagoon in Montego Bay is The Houseboat Grill. It looks like an old Mississippi paddleboat without the paddles. It was once used as a green room for visiting actors on set, and legend has it that Steve McQueen stayed on board when he was filming Papillon with Dustin Hoffman in Jamaica in the early 1970s. We sat on the upper deck, which has great views over the mangrove-ringed lagoon. The owner Richard Nurse personally cooks the meals, and the attention to detail is meticulous. We had the New Zealand mussels in red Thai coconut curry sauce. The dish was so good, we nearly ate the plate. Tiger prawns followed, in a vodka and tomato sauce, and a steamed chocolate pudding for dessert. All told - one of the best meals we

have ever eaten in Jamaica. Back at Round Hill the next day, we dropped the children off at the kids' club and Mandy went off to the spa for a pampering. The club has everything from rock painting to beach athletics. By now, Holly-May and Benjamin had made friends with Richard, the resident Rastafarian basket-weaver.

Greeting Richard in the mornings had become a daily ritual, which had the kids in stitches of laughter:

"Morning Richard!"

"Jah [God] Bless."

"How are you today?"

"Everyting cool man."

"See you later then."

"Yeh man - guidance and love."

Every time Mandy scolded the kids for some minor aberration, Holly-May would reply "Guidance and love", while Benjamin would avert Mum's steely gaze with "Everyting cool man".

We'd heard about a rather unusual eaterie a mile or so down the road called the Lobster Trapp, and on our last night we decided to drop by. Run by a man called Durvy and his partner Aunt Gem, the Lobster Trapp is a uniquely charming place - a sign on each of the brightly painted loo doors simply says "He-Male" and "She-Male". A few rickety chairs and tables are perched by the water's edge - but the place has a priceless view of the ocean looking back towards Round Hill. The set-up may be refreshingly crude, but the clientele is top notch. When Lennox Lewis and Lionel Richie are in town, this is where they come for seafood.

The service wasn't exactly fast, but the food was excellent. Lobster was out of season so we had brown-stew shrimps. The kids probed the sand for seashells in the fading light as Aunt Gem cleared our table. She turned to the kids: "Yuh enjoy di food?" "Yes," said Holly-May, "But I hope you didn't cook our puffer fish!"

Darren Jordon and family travelled as guests of British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com), which offers flights to Jamaica from £690 return. Double rooms at Round Hill Hotel (001 876 956 7050; roundhill jamaica.com) start at £350 (£192) per night without breakfast. Family villas, for two adults and two children, start at $760 (£418) per night. A week's car hire starts at $349 (£192) with Island Car Rentals (001 876 929 5875; islandcar rentals.com). Dolphin Cove, Ocho Rios (001 876 974 5335; dolphincove jamaica.com). Stingray City Jamaica, Oracabessa (001 876 726 1630; stingraycity jamaica.com). Contact the Jamaica Tourist Board (020-7225 9090; visit jamaica.com).

My top adventure tour

Ever fancied being Tarzan or Jane for a day? Offered by the adventure company Chukka Blue (chukkablue. com), the tour allows you to glide along steel cables strung through the treetops of the tropical jungle canopy. It's a unique way to see Jamaica, suspended 100 feet in the air, zipping along from platform to platform. And the adrenalin rush is amazing!

My favourite festival

The world's greatest reggae music festival is back in Jamaica and promises to be bigger and better than ever. Last held in Jamaica in 1997, Sunsplash has been touring North America, Asia and Africa and this year will be held from 3-6 August at a new site in Priory, St Ann. In the old days, Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder graced the stage. This year's line-up includes Maxi Priest, left.

My top hang-out

Let your hair down in Jamaica's hippest spot, Rick's Café (001 876 957 0380; rickscafejamaica. com) at Negril. Negril has seven miles of white sand beaches and everything is laid back. The café has been around for 30 years and has just undergone a major refurbishment. Sample the huge rum punches and soak up the sizzling sunsets as reggae music booms out from monster speakers. Watch the cliff divers plunge into the deep blue sea below.

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