In the Seagrape Restaurant, Miss Joy will take you to your favourite table, and you’ll eat lunch underneath a palm tree and overlooking the ocean beyond. Nicholas at the bar will wave to you as you go, and you might just spot Kingsley beating a tourist at table-tennis with his wicked back-hand that nobody can beat.
Jamaica’s Half Moon resort in Montego Bay may ooze old-school glamour – it’s one of the island’s oldest grand dames, having opened in 1954 – but it is this personable charm that elevates it into ‘best-loved’ territory.
Staff exude a friendliness that is authentic and welcoming, but which, nonetheless, remains on the slick side of service that you’d expect in a five-star resort. So, while there’s plenty of ‘Irie, Man’ moments, it means there’s no ‘manana’ mentality that can sometimes be found in the tropics. It’s not the only ‘plus’ that sets it apart.
First of all is the resort’s magical position. It is set on a 400-acre estate and extends along a horseshoe bay with two miles of private beach, thus offering tons of space to call your own. Despite it having 197 rooms and suites and 31 luxury villas, you never feel there are many guests here, even at the height of the season. Contrasting with the lush landscape of nodding hibiscus, towering palm trees and laden breadfruit trees, are the polished marble floors and Colonial style décor which add a touch of grandeur.
The al fresco lobby with its sunken garden sets the scene. The wide, breezy space is like a chic living room, albeit with sea breezes. It not only welcomes you in when you first arrive, but also tempts you to stay and, well, just chill out. Grab a freshly brewed cappuccino at Lester’s Café, pull up a chair to play chess or grab a book out of the library, which is adorned with photos of noted past guests (such as HRH Queen Elizabeth II and the Kennedys). Full-scale artworks by Polish artist Michael Lester Leszynski add a little panache. Born in Poland in 1906, he eventually made Jamaica his home, dying there in 1972 – and this is the largest known private art collection of his work.
Rooms and suites are spacious and traditionally decorated. You’ll find Queen-Anne-style oversized beds, marble bathrooms with limestone floors and French doors leading on to wide patios (most have delicious ocean views) but you probably won’t spend a lot of time in them. There’s so much to explore here – you can pootle about in a golf cart or ask for one of the baby-blue bicycles to get around – as well as a huge roster of tempting activities. There’s tennis on one of the 13 courts, golf on the pristine Robert Trent Jones Sr-designed course, every imaginable water sports and horse-riding at the equestrian centre, fitness classes and sunrise yoga in an overwater pavilion. Children are also entertained in their own brightly-painted Anancy Children’s Village – inspired by Jamaican folklore. If it’s ‘me’ time you are after, that’s ok, too – beaches are idyllic and you’ll have no trouble finding an isolated spot.
From the beach-BBQ grill – try the jerk snapper and fried dumplings for a mouth-watering sensation – to Cosimo Riccardi’s Italian cuisine at Il Giardino – dining is another pull, with enough choice of restaurants and wide menus to keep you interested and coming back for more.
Overseen by general manager Sandro Fabris, who joined the resort in 2015, the property has been quietly renovating guest rooms and public spaces over the past year. Part of its US$75 million revamp, the coming year, will see the second stage which will include 57 new rooms and suites, new restaurants and saltwater pools due to complete end of October 2018.
“This last year has been a dynamic one for us and there are more changes to come, which we are excited about,” Fabris says. “Hospitality is a cornerstone of Jamaican culture. We offer a high quality service which is authentic,” Fabris says. “Our guests come on holiday to experience local traditions and a vibrant culture; it’s not about formality, here, but rather a carefree and relaxing experience.”
In fact, throughout, Jamaican culture is wonderfully referenced. At night, for instance, instead of a chocolate on your pillow, you’ll find homemade ‘coconut surprises’. In the main restaurant, Seagrape, as well as the usual breakfast fare you’d expect (which is vast), you’ll also find traditional Jamaican dishes, such as ackee and codfish, fried dumplings, plantain and soursop juice. In the spa, treatments are also given a Jamaican ‘flavour’ with products specially blended using fresh, seasonal ingredients – think pumpkin seeds to use in ‘Thanksgiving facials’ and freshly extracted lemongrass oil to ease away tension in the golfer’s massages. The sprawling space is set amid lush gardens filled with plants, shrubs and trees that have all been selected for their therapeutic properties. For the ultimate traditional remedy, try the signature Jamaican Bush Bath – where you’ll soak in herbs infused water, in a stunning outdoor, stone bath.
For a beautifully finessed interpretation of Jamaican ‘roots’, however, head to the hotel’s noted The Sugar Mill restaurant, set apart from the hotel, just five minutes away, on the site of a 17th-century water mill. Here, you’ll find chef de cuisine Christopher Golding, who is making waves in the culinary world with his take on Jamaican fine dining. Having won Best Restaurant in Jamaica for the past three years, the restaurant is one of the hotel’s highlights (book ahead as it is always in demand). Dine at tables in a lush, exotic garden or choose the indoor, vaulted ceiling dining room with views onto an open kitchen.
Golding’s menu is what he calls the ‘reincarnation’ of Jamaican cuisine. Inspired by age-old recipes – learnt from his grandmother – the menu is a refined version of Jamaican soul food. To start, there are ‘Jerk Chicken Rolls with Cho Cho Slaw and Sorrel-Dark Rum Chutney’ or try the ‘Saltfish Brandade Ackee Flan and Mini Fried Dumpling’. Putting a modern spin onto Jamaican favourites – albeit with a nod towards Asian ingredients and modern techniques – the mains feature ‘Oxtail Ravioli with Sweet Potato Dough and Red Pea Foam’ as well as ‘Coconut Crusted Grouper Fillet, Steamed Cassava Bammy’.
“Our guests want to taste and experience our food, our cuisine,” Golding said. “My mission is to use our local ingredients in a different way to give them a whole new experience and take diners on a new culinary journey.”
A major focus of the menu, therefore, is a farm-to-table experience with fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen. Herbs are picked daily from the chef’s herb garden. The award-winning restaurant is also home to Jamaica’s only Josper charcoal broiler oven. Golding’s signature dish – the ‘Wagyu Striploin’ – is prepared on this (choose the ‘Jerk Potatoes Au Gratin’ to go with it for a real culinary high). You are left in no doubt as to why Golding regularly wins awards.
Another must is the specialty rum menu, including Jamaica’s own highly-prized 50-year old Appleton Estate rum, said to be the oldest available rum of which only 800 bottles were made. Be warned: it will go to your head but, hey, it’s irie, you’re in Jamaica.
Carrier (carrier.co.uk) offers seven nights for the price of six, from £6,550 per family, based on two adults and two children (under 12 years of age) sharing a Junior Suite on a room only basis, including return flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick and private transfers. Offer valid for travel until 27 March 2018. Book by 10 November 2017. (Price based on a departures 11 February 2018).
This article is also published on The Arbuturian