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A Culinary Tour of Jamaica

Our own adjoining suites, done entirely in white (the original black-and-white floor tiles peeked out beneath the new), shared a large pool, as well as a full kitchen that hummed with activity early the next morning. A breakfast table was set for us on the porch, and it was here that we were introduced to ackee, a tropical fruit (Blighia sapida) native to Africa. Ackee is firm but soft—tofu-like—and is sautéed with salt cod, onions, and tomatoes to produce the Jamaican national dish, "ackee and codfish," a salty, nutty, fishy, and delicious stir-fry that resembles scrambled eggs. Like bagels and lox, it's perfect brunch food.

Christie, the pool tender, noticed our interest in the citrus trees that grew around the pool and offered to take us on a botanical tour of the property. The predominant specimens included green oranges and yellow limes, bougainvillea, avocado, ginger lily, hibiscus, and our newfound friend ackee—whose fruit is an almost fluorescent scarlet red and must be carefully harvested and prepared to be edible.

Although it was tempting to remain in our roost and request one of the resort's chefs to cook for us, we emerged later that day to check out the dinner scene at the beachside cabana. The remodeled bar delivered on the kind of Newport-style elegance we had heard about, with white-jacketed waiters, a bar resembling the deck of a vintage Chris-Craft, boldly striped upholstery, and framed photos of Round Hill family and visitors, including Paul McCartney, Demi Moore, and Bob Hope.

We'd arrived early for dinner, so we lingered at the bar, nursing rum punches. Suddenly, a piercing voice shattered the quiet cocktail din.

"Excuse me!" a woman shouted across the room at a waiter taking a couple's drink order. She wore a sheer beach sarong with a matching bikini and head scarf. "Those chicken skewers we had Tuesday?"

The waiter looked up from his pad.

"Get me some," she said. "Now."

It was the first time that we wished the front gate had been more effective.

Things had lightened up considerably by dinnertime, which at Round Hill invites something swankier than flip-flops: a few women had put their hair up, a couple of men had willingly donned jackets. We managed to insinuate ourselves into a group of "moms gone wild" (their words), three young ladies from the New York area who had left husbands and children behind for a weekend of reading and massages in the Caribbean. As we all dug into escabeche—snapper with pickled onions and peppers—and lobster, a reggae quartet of senior citizens serenaded the table. Be sure to have the name of your favorite reggae classic at the tip of your tongue; if you don't, the default is "No Woman, No Cry."

The drive into Negril the following morning represented a comedown from the beauty of Round Hill; the lavender bunkers of the Rui resort were followed closely by a nightclub compound called the Jungle and a concession that rents chopper motorcycles by the hour. But our own hotel, on the far side of town, was something else entirely, a hip resort for design mavens, as imagined by Fred and Wilma. The walkways and the octagonal, thatched-roof huts at the Rockhouse Hotel are constructed of a bright sand-colored stone with the texture of coral. The villas sprawl along craggy, wave-swept cliffs; next to the chaise longue on the terrace of our lodging was a narrow staircase that led into the Caribbean 20 feet below, where we could enjoy a refreshing mid-afternoon snorkel among the coral reefs.

Negril is a town with a partying spirit, and at the Rockhouse—which has a guard gate but no guard we ever saw—the social center is the hotel's restaurant, an indoor-outdoor terrace cantilevered over the water. The menu brings local food up to date in smart, refreshing ways: a crisp, oniony conch fritter came with a papaya-and-lime salsa that was bracingly sweet and tart. Fried red snapper was beer-battered with Red Stripe, and—finally!—on each table was a bottle of the condiment Pickapeppa, an aged purée of tamarinds and Scotch bonnets that to our minds is Jamaica's best, and most overlooked, export.

Ten minutes into our meal, the proprietor of a shop across the street dropped by the tables, introduced himself as Beezy, and offered us island exports of a more rarefied sort.

"I got good ganja, good blow, good jerk chicken," he said. "One-stop shopping, mon."

We took a rain check and made a beeline for the infinity pool. If overtures from local merchants are the trade-off for not feeling penned-in, we figured we could handle it.

Soaking up to our chins, we listened in as the staff hustled around in white polo shirts, delivering fruity drinks to a party of creative types from an ad agency who were nattering on about "the Volvo shoot." Where Goldeneye seems to court an aging jet set of rock-and-rollers and supermodels, and Round Hill an old-money, spa-and-golf crowd, Rockhouse's free Wi-Fi and pulsing sound track caters to young swells who network as hard as they play. Take away the thatched roofs and the coral, and we might have been on the roof deck of the Meatpacking District's Soho House.


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