Mellow with Marley at Jamaica all-inclusive

08/17/2008 3:01 AM

08/13/2008 1:21 PM

In retrospect, it was pretty unnecessary to go searching for Bob Marley in Jamaica.

At Club Ambiance, the all-inclusive resort at Runaway Bay on Jamaica's north shore where my friend Jay and I stayed for a long weekend, the gazebo bar at the end of the pier started playing the reggae star's songs at breakfast and didn't quit till sunset, and a three-foot-tall statue of the singer perched on the railing, his back to the Caribbean Sea.

By the end of the trip we'd cringe a little every time we heard Jammin', but our first morning there, we were eager to visit Nine Mile, Marley's birthplace and mausoleum, one of the excursions offered by the resort.

Our driver, an elderly Jamaican man named Clifton, steered the minivan up steep mountain roads that wound through a Jamaica far different from the palm-tree-studded highway along the coast by our resort. We drove past houses surrounded by high walls, scraggly goats grazing by the roadside, yam plants snaking up eye-high stakes and stripped red mountaintops being mined for bauxite, which Jamaica ships abroad to aluminum factories. A cow looked out the doorway of an abandoned house across the road from a half-built new villa, and Clifton pointed out a sprawling white house that he said belonged to a drug dealer: ``He has the beautiful house, beautiful pool, beautiful women, but he is not happy.''

As we pulled into Nine Mile's gates, a trio of teenage boys pressed up against the van, offering us joints and tours of a farm. (''All different kinds of ganja, man!'') But we were there to see the house and mausoleum, which serve as information center, shrine to the dead artist and source of income for Marley's family, which owns the property.

As our guide led us through the compound, he stopped here and there to sing Marley's songs, from Three Little Birds (accompanied on guitar by Marley's Uncle Floyd) to Is This Love, sung outside the tiny two-room house where Marley lived with his wife, Rita (and, indeed, shared a single bed).

On the way back to the hotel, Clifton stopped the van and hopped out to break off a few leaves from an allspice tree, which grows wild on the island and is used extensively in Jamaican dishes, including goat curry, the final destination for many of the goats we saw along the roadside. Had that tidbit of information not made us ravenous, we would have stopped in Brown's Town to browse the Saturday market, where vendors were selling food, spices, jewelry, CDs and crafts.

Back at the hotel, though, we had no goat curry, jerk chicken or even exotic fruit. The only dishes labeled ''Jamaican'' turned out to be disappointingly bland: a pork-and-beans casserole, boiled tubers and some fried dough. With only one buffet-style dining room and an outdoor grill, the food was plentiful but seemingly British-inspired, with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding one night, fish in cream sauce another. Breakfast quickly became my favorite meal: The bacon was cooked to a crisp, and Jay loved the omelet bar. The best dinner was Saturday night, with barbecued ribs, chicken and steak, some spicy enough to remind me that I was on a tropical island.

The resort's mellow atmosphere seemed appropriate to the warm and breezy climate. Though many smaller hotels offer all-inclusive packages, the island's larger resorts are almost exclusively chains. At Runaway Bay, for instance, our neighbors to the east were adults-only Hedonism III and family-friendly Breezes, and the Gran Bahia Principe, with more than 700 rooms, dominated the landscape to the west.

But Club Ambiance -- open to ages 18 and older -- wasn't a hopping place, at least not when we visited. Night life was limited to the small dance club, Fantasia, and waking hours were dominated by sunbathing and eating.

Jay and I quickly adopted a lazy routine: Start with a morning swim in the pool, eat breakfast, nap, float in the Caribbean, lie on beach chairs, read, drink Red Stripe, eat, play pool, sleep. The 90-room resort, about half-full at the time of our visit, was quiet, save for the reggae coming from the bars' sound systems. No one took out the kayaks or played volleyball, and the gym was empty; the tiny beach isn't even big enough for a stroll. So we ordered beers after another bacon-and-omelet breakfast, and the bartender smiled and said, ``No problem.''

We heard ''no problem'' over and over, whether or not there was actually a problem. When we discovered at the Montego Bay airport that Club Ambiance hadn't booked us a ride to the hotel, ''No problem!'' The shuttle bus company took us for $10 more than the hotel would have charged. When the dive shop wasn't open all day on Saturday, ''No problem!'' We went diving Sunday instead. Even the leaking ceiling in our bathroom and the TV on the fritz didn't faze us after a while.

Other than the watery loo, our room was very comfortable. The king-size bed, wide closet and adjustable AC were nice, but the best part was having only a sliding glass door separating us from a patio with waist-high bougainvilleas and a stunning view of the Caribbean.

When the dive shop finally opened Sunday morning, Jay, five other guests and I hopped on the small motorboat moored in the water right outside our room. While the others explored a sunken ship and two downed airplanes (nicknamed the Ganja Planes for ferrying drugs in the `70s), I snorkeled near the boat, keeping an eye out for the occasional fish and watching the divers far below. Back in the boat, I saw how the other resorts along the shore dwarfed Club Ambiance, which by then had begun to feel like a world unto itself.

In a few minutes, the scuba divers started bobbing to the surface. In the boat on the way back to shore, they recounted seeing sea slugs, a giant turtle and lots of fish. Back on land, we had enough time for a dip in the pool before lunch. Cheeseburgers and Red Stripe again?

Definity no problem.

DETAILS

Club Ambiance, Main Road, St. Ann, Runaway Bay, Jamaica, 800-822-3274, www.clubambiance.com.

BEST FOR: Low-key couples or groups lookng for an intmate environment with limited stimulation. If lying by the pool sipping daiquiris with family members or old friends sounds like th perfect getaway, this is the place.

WHAT WAS INCLUDED: Three nights' hotel room; unlimited drinks; three meals a day (lobster and steak cost extra) in the dining room or at the grill; late-night pizza and midday snacks; non-motorized water sports (kayaks and paddleboats); use of the gym (treadmill, exercise bike, stair machine, free weights, multipurpose weight machine); and round-trip airport transfer if you book through the hotel. Current pricing: from $90 per person per night.

WHAT WASN'T: Internet ($2.50 for five minutes), mini safe ($3 per day) and most excursions.

EXCURSIONS: Lots of trips are offered, including visits to Dunn's River Falls, shopping in Ocho Rios, tours of Kingston and rafting on the Black River; most cost from $10 to $85 a person. Our trip to Bob Marley's home cost $50 each.

BEST FEATURE: The relaxed atmosphere, which felt far from the ''meat market'' experience I'd imagined. In fact, several family groups were there, including parents with their adult children, and a local church group stopped by for brunch and a swim on Saturday, making the place feel like a wholesome alternative to its racy neighbor, Hedonism.

WORST: The food. I was underwhelmed by the cuisine and disappointed that there weren't more authentic Jamaican dishes. It wasn't until lunch on our final day that I finally had some jerk chicken -- at the Montego Bay airport.

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