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Venturing Beyond All-Inclusive Resort: History, Art and Horticulture of Jamaica

There is a stigma attached to an all-inclusive type vacation. Namely, that it’s for simpleton folks who are not interested in the culture of the place they are visiting. Those who just want to lay on the beach and drink margarita. Well, I’ve got news for you! You can actually do both. We did. In fact, staying in a resort (preferably with kids club) is the only way I’ll ever visit Jamaica. And while I’m there, I’ll arrange a taxi and try to venture beyond generic food and pre-packaged entertainment.

History, Art and Horticulture of Jamaica

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with going to an all-inclusive resort and just staying put. If that’s what you need to recharge your batteries, who am I to tell you how to do your trip that you paid for? I’m not a  blogging “culture police” guilting people into doing stuff they have no desire for. That being said, I recommend you at least consider few things in Jamaica that don’t necessarily involve swimming with dolphins etc.

Very few people go here for history and culture. And it’s a shame, because the island is fascinating in that respect. Full disclosure: I was actually planning to visit Dunn’s River Falls, but things didn’t work out. It was a bit far from Montego Bay area (around`1.5 hours each way) and we didn’t bring enough cash for taxi and entrance fees. So,  I started researching various options in Montego Bay on TripAdvisor.

I was hoping to tour a historic estate. Most folks go to Rose Hall Great House However, many reviews indicated that it’s extremely crowded and touristy. Plus, the history of the place is kind of creepy. I’ll let you do research on Google. Instead, I decided to visit Greenwood Great House (see TripAdvisor reviews) It was incredible!

Greenwood Great House: a historic gem 

I didn’t know anything about the place aside from details I gleaned on its website. Short history:

“In 1655 Hersey Barrett, an officer in the expedition commanded by Admiral Penn and General Venables, was sent by Cromwell’s parliament to capture Hispaniola from the Spanish. It proved to be too strongly held so they took the easier prize of Jamaica. Hersey Barrett was granted lands in Jamaica and settled on the island. 

Construction on Greenwood Great House commenced in 1780 and the house was completed by 1800 — it was mainly used for entertainment. This Georgian-style building was the residence of Richard Barrett (descendant of Hersey Barret), who was a cousin of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. ” 

I called the guy who brought us from the airport to the resort few days prior, and he said he would take us to the estate and back for $60. He picked us up at the hotel around 9:30 AM and brought us back around noon, just in time for lunch. Easy peasy.

The house is located at the top of the hill and we had to get there by driving on a winding, pothole filled road. When we pulled up to the estate (20 minute drive from the resort), a lady unlocked the gate  and told us to head straight down the pathway, surrounded by various flower bushes.

Greenwood is one of only few great houses in Jamaica that didn’t get burned down during the slave rebellion in 1831. Apparently, it was due to the fact that slaves here were treated not quite as harshly as elsewhere on the island. Slavery in Jamaica was officially abolished in 1834.

We entered a dining area that had various historic documents hanging on the wall. As you can see, there are also beautiful vases and plates.

Our tour guide looks like she is ticked off. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a more mild-mannered person in my life! The older lady who took the payment for the tour was the owner of the place. She and her husband purchased the estate in the seventies and reside on premises. The cost of the tour is $30 for adult, $15 per child, and worth every penny. This is a museum unlike any other. Major credit cards are accepted.

Most of the things in the house are original pieces brought from various corners of Europe at the end of seventeenth century:

The chandeliers (made in Spain) are three hundred years old, and the only change is the fact that they now have light bulbs instead of candles.

This antique musical instrument (one of only three such pieces remaining in the world) was made in Netherlands. Apparently, Dutch delegation came over to the estate awhile back trying to negotiate a purchase. The owners said No. There were various paintings, old books  and antique furnishings, but I’ll let you go to TripAdvisor page for more details.

The view from the giant porch:

This second-floor bedroom is currently used by the owners. Don’t worry, they do have  modern bathroom and a TV.

After the tour our guide showed us various plants growing on the property before bidding us adieu.

I was concerned that my kids would be bored, but they really enjoyed themselves. During the tour I was petrified that my son would break something, so I had to watch him like a hawk. Phew, no incident! Can you imagine what the bill would be like for one of the vases?

Verdict: Highly recommended.


Ahhh…Ras Natango Gallery and Garden

This is an actual name of the place: Ahhh…Ras Natango Gallery and Garden Emboldened by our first escape from the resort, I decided we should do something the following morning. Back to TripAdvisor I go. I really wanted to check out mountain scenery and maybe see a garden. I found just the place!

 Ahhh…Ras Natango Gallery and Garden is a unique and quirky attraction that gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor. The admission is not cheap: $35 per adult, $17.50 per child, but let me tell you why it was worth it. First of all, the price includes free roundtrip van transfer from  the resort. This alone would cost us at least $75. So, the admission price  naturally reflects that. There is no such thing as free lunch.

It was a unique experience in part due to interacting with the family who owns the gardens. The parents and the son are all artists and you can read about them as well as the history of gardens on this page. Basically, Ras (the father) bought this piece of land for $5,000 few decades ago because he liked the view:

He spent his entire savings and didn’t tell his wife about it. She wasn’t happy. After the purchase was complete, they discovered that he bought  a barren rocky hillside. Oops! What to do? They were thinking about abandoning it and then an idea occurred to his wife. They could compost the soil  and create terraced gardens. And that’s exactly what they did. They have to replace the soil by hand every few months! Oh, and they also managed to build a house on the property.

And the view, that view… I can see why Ras couldn’t resist buying this piece of land.

Our driver Nikko gave us a tour of the gardens and showed various plants and flowers, some indigenous to Jamaica.

They rent out this space for wedding ceremonies

My kids started getting a bit restless after few minutes, so one of the groundskeepers took them with her and entertained them for the duration of our tour.  I was a little nervous about letting stranger take care of my kids, but they did great. She let them swing in the hammocks and they were happy as could be. They still talk about it, in fact.

After the tour, the owner’s wife let them pet the puppies, another highlight of their trip. She also taught them how to  paint while using flower petals.

There were various art pieces around the gardens, some a bit on a quirky side. This project is clearly a labor of love for this family and they enjoy sharing it with visitors. It’s not just about money. I spoke to the owner for a good bit and he said  he can’t believe that  this barren rock he bought all those decades ago is now  a family business.

On top of it, he is an accomplished painter and you can see his art in many resorts around Montego Bay. There is a beautiful gallery on premises, but pieces  (featuring local Jamaican life) are a bit on expensive side. Obviously, they want folks to buy paintings (it is a business, after all!), but we were under no pressure.

They also sell locally-made souvenirs in a gift shop. I bought a stingray  wood carving for $35. Not cheap, but it’s a unique piece of art that benefits the local community. A neat fact. The wife was apparently an art teacher for several decades. She said she had to deal with as many as 80 kids in her class at one time, with zero help. Yikes!

I was struck by  humility and unpretentiousness  of this family, as well as their love for the island. After the tour we sat and talked about things that are currently  happening in the world, and their worry about the future. Naturally, they express those feelings through  art, how else? To me this family represents the best traits of Jamaica and its people: ingenuity, resilience and joy for life. It really was an authentic experience, and I will treasure this visit forever.

 Bottom line

Spending few mornings outside of the resort definitely didn’t turn me into an expert on Jamaican culture, but it did give me  a better sense of the place and its people. It’s a country that had a rough start, but managed to overcome great adversity and create one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Caribbean. Of course, there are many problems and it’s no paradise, but I’ve noticed that people try to focus on the positive and consider it a privilege to  live in such a beautiful place.

My husband was actually annoyed when I made the plans to venture outside of the resort, but he thoroughly enjoyed our adventures. And the kids did too. In fact, it was the highlight of our trip.

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Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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7 thoughts on “Venturing Beyond All-Inclusive Resort: History, Art and Horticulture of Jamaica

  1. Thanks so much for this very interesting, helpful and well-timed post! My husband’s background is Jamaican, though he’s never been there, and just yesterday I was reflecting what a shame it would be to just go to an AI there and not see anything of the country. In the other hand, my one previous experience with Jamaica, albeit very limited, did not encourage me to explore at will either. I’d agree that a resort vacation is the only way I’d visit. I’m not sure I would’ve thought of anything like what you did but it sounds like a perfect solution!

    • @Audrey How neat! Honestly, my goal with this post was to show that it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” type deal. Both of the outings were super easy and took only few hours of our time. With small kids I’m certainly not going to trek through the jungle in the middle of nowhere. I felt safe at all times, and Montego Bay area is safe in general.
      The government goes out of their way to ensure that tourists feel comfortable. Tourism is bread and butter for local economy. Obviously, bad things happen, but they happen in big US cities as well.
      I recommend you consider doing at least one of the tours I’ve highlighted. Of course, I suggest you research TripAdvisor and other sites because you may find something even more appealing.

  2. It looks like you booked some really neat tours. I need to do more of this on trips. I can be guilty of staying put in one place and just trying to relax at the resort.

    We went to Jamaica about 15 years ago for hurricane relief work. We stayed for two weeks and stayed with local families in their homes. Let me tell you, we saw REAL Jamaica. It is a beautiful island full of beautiful people. We went way up into the mountains and into towns where we were told locals may have never seen a white person before. I was taking a break by the truck one day and little girls came and wanted to braid my hair and asked me all about the US. I remember them talking about what they imagined the US was like and they said we were all rich and it snowed all the time. One mother asked me to take her daughter home with us so she could have a better life. It was quite the experience.

    • @Jennifer Thanks for sharing your experience! No need to feel bad about staying put at a resort. We do that as well on many of our trips. Relaxing is a good thing, so don’t feel guilty.
      I’m just a super restless person with ants in the pants (though not literally). I can’t sit still for very long, though I did force myself just to lay at the resort’s beach and stare at the blue water. It did wonders for my anxiety issues!
      Jamaica is a country of contrasts, for sure. That’s why I said that it’s no paradise. On the one hand, you have these expensive resorts, some with overwater bungalows that go for $2,000 per night.
      On the other hand, there are folks who live in shacks and have almost nothing. It’s very sad. Our driver Nikko was talking about saving up money so he can one day buy a 1991 Toyota Corolla. We told him we had one for many years!
      I do believe vacationing in Jamaica helps the local population, even if indirectly. The Holiday Inn we stayed at provides jobs for many people. Those folks would be in absolute poverty otherwise. So tourist dollars are welcome with open arms.

  3. Wow. Definitely a different side of what I typically hear and see of Jamaica. It kind of makes me think about what my wife and I could do on our Mexico trip that’s coming up. Nice work and thanks for bringing opportunities like this to our attention.

    Also, if there’s a wood carved stingray any where near my wife and me we have to get it. My daughter loves sting rays. My son did a report on jellyfish so we’d have to get a jelly fish thing for him. My wife likes alligators for some reason. It’s fun to grab special things like that. We always look back on those purchases with fondness and relish the memories for s moment.

    I like what you said about Jamaica: a nation with a rough start that’s been able to build a bit of something for itself. Maybe I’ll have to put Jamaica back on the list.

    • @Cheapblackdad Thank you! Glad it was useful. These experiences made the trip truly unforgettable. It’s funny, our taxi driver told me: “You guys have done some weird stuff here in Jamaica that nobody else does! I like it.” 🙂

      I was actually surprised by how much the kids enjoyed it. I thought they would be bored out of their mind at the estate. But nope! They paid attention and even commented on some things. I just wanted some unique experiences because I’m not sure when or if we’ll ever make it to Montego Bay. It’s not exactly dirt cheap (those airline taxes, ouch!), even on points. Oh, and my daughter actually promised the stingray to my mom, so it’s going to Belarus. Ha!

      Jamaica is a bit of an acquired taste. There are some real problems, for sure. The poverty is very real, though you probably won’t see much of it if you only go to the resort. We drove to the top of the mountain through some very poor neighborhoods and it’s not a pleasant site. But that’s why tourism dollars are vital to the economy. Our driver told me to please encourage my readers to come to Jamaica. I personally think it’s a wonderful destination as long as you view it as a package deal. It’s not a “sterile” type of an environment when you venture outside of the resort. But people are the same everywhere.

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