Tired of characterless, cookie-cutter Caribbean islands that rely on holiday hounds for their color?Try Jamaica. It's spicy. It's quixotic. It's edgy. Of course, you don't go for the food—even by regional standards, the cooking is uninspired. But the hotels, oh, the hotels. From world-class golf resorts to a high-society hideaway, they're the island's glamorous and dignified dowager duchesses, institutions whose wrinkles are worn proudly because—as old girls—they figure they've earned them.
round hill hotel & villas
Society chronicler Slim Aarons's photograph of Mrs. William S. ("Babe") Paley at Round Hill perfectly captures the mid-century fashion idol's exquisitely attenuated, Capri-panted glamour. Forty years after the CBS chairman's wife was snapped at the resort, her perfume lingers, as if she had just left the room to change for dinner. The cocktails-and-laughter aura of another founding Round Hill habitué, Noël Coward, is also felt. His world-weariness is as much a part of the compound's fabric as the woven raffia on the stools in the bar, redecorated with brio not long ago by Ralph Lauren.
But more name-dropping later. Huddled on a 100-acre thumb-shaped promontory sloping down to the water 10 miles west of Montego Bay, Round Hill is made up of 28 two-, three-, and four-bedroom private villas—most with pools—that are hired out when their owners are not in residence. (Lauren himself has a unit, but it is not for rent.) Villas are let in their entirety or as suites, each of which has its own entrance and living area. In the interest of privacy, when units are shared, the number of suites that may be occupied is capped at two. "Skeletal staff," if you can believe it, means a housekeeper and a gardener and a breakfast cook fluent in the Round Hill tradition of banana pancakes with Jamaican rum syrup. Golf carts are the only means of locomotion.
There's also Pineapple House, operated as a conventional hotel right by the shore; it has 36 perfectly okay guest rooms on two levels. But coming to Round Hill and staying in Pineapple House is like going to a salad bar and ordering a sandwich. The villas are the thing.
My villa turned out to be owned by Louis F. "Bo" Polk Jr., the former head of MGM. All schemes to catch a glimpse of the Lauren digs were thwarted, but I'm confident the Polk cottage is stylistically the next best thing to Ralph's. Open on two sides, with nothing but grommeted sailcloth curtains between me and nature, the living room faced the Caribbean beyond lush gardens planted with jasmine and frangipani. The lulling metronomic tick-tick of the lawn sprinkler invited a nap in a caned planter's chair in the morning, and in a settee fashioned from elephantine bamboo in the afternoon. In the bathroom, someone had remembered to put a box of matches beside the candlestick on the lip of the sunken tub, faced in tiny mosaic tiles the same jade as the sea.
Personnel is professional if occasionally maladroit. (Note to check-in clerk: lose the lecture about how all tips are included, but guests can leave more if they like.) Babe Paley abandoned Round Hill against her will because her husband preferred Nassau's cooler climate for playing golf. Today it's the terrace of the resort's Plantation Grill, which has plastic furniture and synthetic napkins, that might have sent her packing.
And yet, and yet. For its confident air of tropical and colonial chic, Round Hill is unbeatable.
Rte. A1, Hanover Parish, Montego Bay; 800/972-2159 or 876/956-7050, fax 876/956-7505; villa suites with pool $700 in high season; Pineapple House doubles from $390.
A few curves west along the coastal road, Tryall is as different from Round Hill as it is similar. The same concept is at work—rentals in the form of 56 individually owned two- to six-bedroom villas with pools.
The difference is that Tryall is a top-flight golf resort whose mahogany-trimmed white stucco villas are never shared. In addition, staff members are in tippy-toed attendance virtually around the clock, and meals tend to be taken "at home" rather than at the on-site restaurants.
Another difference: Tryall's gorgeously pitched grounds stretch over 2,200 acres. As a result, where Round Hill has a snuggly feel, Tryall impresses with its wide-openness—at check-in, breathing deeply of the wonderfully balmy air is an instant reflex. And while there is no hotel, there are 12 one- and two-bedroom Great House units, complete with kitchens, in a building adjoining the resort's nerve center, an elegant 19th-century stone plantation manor. While these much more affordable lodgings should not be ruled out, they unfortunately have the rather chilly, ghostly atmosphere of vacation condominiums.
Designed by Ralph Plummer, Tryall's 18-hole, 6,772-yard championship golf course is perhaps the best in the Caribbean, its only possible competition being the newer Trent Jones Jr. course at the Four Seasons on Nevis. Half the holes are among the hills, half on more level ground by the water. As New York Observer columnist Michael M. Thomas has noted, the links at Tryall avoid the "bulldozed, gouged look" of many contemporary courses. The resort's course is also famously uncrowded, with the number of rounds held to about 50 per day. For entertainment as well as refreshment, caddies are known to crack open coconuts with machetes mid-game. One veteran caddie, the much-photographed Hubert Russell, transports golf bags on his head.
Considering that each owner is responsible for the decoration of his villa, the low-slung houses have a surprisingly uniform look: cool, bright, and fresh, with lapses in taste mercifully few. Count on lots of wicker furniture, louvered shutters, local straw mats, lamps with cast or carved pineapple bases, and good squishy upholstery covered in juicy, four-alarm florals that would look hilariously garish almost anywhere else. Treillage is a big motif; it masks cathedral ceilings, edges towering canopy beds. As villas grow in size, so does the staff—to the minimum of three might be added a butler. Service is efficient and discreet in the best Jamaican tradition.