For a tiny island nation, Jamaica punches way above its weight. It’s not just reggae rhythms that tranquilly bend knees around the world, the Red Stripe to cool you down after, Blue Mountain coffee to pick you up again, or Rastafarian spiritualism to bliss you out altogether, but a palpable magic in the air that inspires adventure, intrigue, and sensuality. It’s no wonder novelist Ian Fleming created and wrote all his books about James Bond from his home, Goldeneye, on the north coast.
For the first time visitor, as I was, last October, all these fantasies were packed along with the sunscreen, swim trunks, and snorkel in my carry-on, and they quickly began burning a hole as soon as my flight landed in Montego Bay. After heading east along the coast for about an hour to Discovery Bay, and turning onto a road known locally as “Millionaires’ Row,” I was finally able to able to let it all out at Sundown Villa.
The first thing Sundown Villa does is narrow your field of vision, down a mosaic stone walkway and long green lawn dappled with hibiscus and bougainvillea to a postcard image of the gold-sand beach and aquamarine sea framed by the main door. Immediately, the light at the end draws you towards it, lifting you off the ground like the aroma of a baking pie cooling on a window sill of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
The effect is strong enough that if the hotel reception area; with its usual array of corporate staff, furnishings, and protocol; were just inside the door, I might not have noticed it at all. But the villa experience pleasantly dispenses with all of this, preferring instead to slip a rum punch in your hand and lead you to the lounge area to the left (with 36″ satellite television, film library, stereo, and board games) or dining area on the right, with a large, expandable table for meals—all gazing dreamily to the open sea.
To immerse yourself deeper in the paradiso, merely step off the tile onto the sand of the 125-foot-long private beach, where lounge chairs, sofas, and covered cabana await, or dip into the water itself, either under the gentle waves with a snorkel or riding them from above on a Hobie Cat sailboat, paddle boards, and kayaks. The most picturesque view, however, is under the second cabana at the end of the curved dock that extends about 20 yards. From here, the neighboring millionaires are visible with a slight neck crane, while in the water down the steps below is the best snorkeling, as tropical fish, eels, sea urchins, and other creatures flit and perch among the crags.
The only obvious blemish on the scene (along with a few pesky mosquitoes) is across Discovery Bay, where a rusty, industrial bauxite (used in aluminum) mining operation scars the hillside. Indeed, it was the Bauxite mine 20 miles east in Ocho Rios, that looked evil enough to serve as the lair of Dr. No in the first James Bond film.
The bedrooms at Sundown Villa (stays starting at $1,500 per night, all inclusive, with four-day minimum) share the same sense of hominess as the property, with five arranged around the main common areas in the main building and four more in a newly built cottage (2013) out front. Inside each, the furnishings are luxurious and very comfortable, but not astonishing in terms of design. All have air conditioning and Red Lane bath products, and a couple have king-sized four-poster beds, whirlpool Jacuzzis, and semi-private terraces. However, beyond a brief respite from the heat, or a long night’s sleep, the rooms are not really where you should spend most of your time anyway.
It’s in the common areas and beach that villa life palpitates and where the action takes place. That Sundown Villa achieves this so effectively is almost entirely due to the wonderful staff, who strike all the right notes of hospitality more from a natural ability that assiduous training (although I’m sure that is part of it). They are always at hand when you want them to be, always away when you don’t, and warm and embracing throughout.
Inevitably, it’s Chef Norman Stewart who becomes the favorite member and source of the each day’s most highly anticipated moment: dinner. Throw your diet out the window and savor the grilled lobster, sautéed callaloo, saltfish fritters, caramelized plantains, baked cassava, and brown stew chicken, followed by hand-made ice and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.
It’s also through the staff that you’ll also get as close to “Jamaica” as you can without leaving the property. If there’s anything that’s obvious about the people of Jamaica is how proud they are of it. All you need do is ask, and you’ll learn everything you want to know, and more. That said, going off-site is strongly suggested. A great place to begin is the River Bumpkin Farm, a former sugar plantation along the nearby Martha Brae River. If Jamaica’s very clear gap between the have and the have-nots weighs on your conscience, more philanthropic activities in education, environment, and communities can also be arranged through the Sandals Foundation’s many local charities.
Otherwise, a stay at Sundown Villa is probably far more a Caribbean experience than a particularly Jamaican one, which is totally fine if that’s what you want. Indeed, you may be hard pressed to find something better anywhere else on the island or in nearby archipelagos, as the pursuit of pleasure is so consummately achieved at the Sundown Villa. But it’s the richness and depth of Jamaican culture outside the gates that will make memories for a lifetime.
Lead photo by Sundown Villa; all other photos by Mike Dunphy
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of Sundown Villa