MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — I totally admit this is a first-world problem. But for the life of me I can’t remember what my private butler said about how to turn on the underwater lights so I can see through the window on my bedroom floor.
The headaches! The difficulty of being the first guest in this entrancing villa! I think I need a soak in my private infinity pool or a rest on the overwater hammock to calm down.
“Suddenly, a breakthrough. I push a small button labeled “ripples” on the wall. And although it is night, I now see the clear Caribbean sea beneath my feet and tiny fish swimming by.”
For decades, tourists have flown all the way to the South Pacific to find them: small thatched-roof bungalows on stilts strung out like a pearl necklace through quiet, shimmering turquoise lagoons and atolls, creating romance just by their existence.
Meanwhile, it has been nearly impossible to build similar bungalows in the Caribbean. Why? Tides, hurricanes, rough water and environmental regulations are impediments. You need a quiet location to make it work. Which is why the Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica, is the perfect test case.
It has a natural breakwater some way out from shore, so the water near the resort is a big lagoon. The brilliant aqua water is only 2 to 5 feet deep under the bungalows here. Tides still pull and push, but they are not strong.
So now, Sandals is putting the finishing touches on five spacious overwater villa bungalows, which link by walkway to its private island. You get there by a five-minute private water taxi ride from the main resort. You are served snacks and meals by your private butler on your private deck, after which you have many opportunities for private snuggling and private romance. (I’m extrapolating here; I was sadly a party of one at this ultra-romantic spot.) The bungalows opened Dec. 2, 2016.
Also going up are 12 smaller overwater bungalows that will open in February.
Does it sound intriguing? Get in line. Most of the bungalows are sold out through mid-2018. The five biggest start at $1,435 per person, per night (based on double occupancy.) The 12 smaller bungalows are $1,263 per person.
The high-end cost does not seem to be hurting bookings, says Sandals spokeswoman Sarah Royal.
And if the bungalows work here, “This is definitely a direction we are looking to take in other places.”
One of the first to test out the new villas was Gerard Christ, the resort’s general manager. He knows all about the sturdy steel and concrete pilings that were required in Jamaica (no wooden stilts here). He knows the environmental hoops that Sandals had to clear, the ups and downs of construction, the costs, the pros and cons. But the night he stayed, the super moon was out, illuminating the skies. He felt as awed as any guest: “I hardly slept,” he says. He was so excited that he rose before dawn to watch the herons and cranes grazing just beyond his deck.
The night I stayed I, too, found it hard to sleep. It was not because the king-sized bed was uncomfortable, but because I was afraid I was going to miss something. Why sleep through your time at one of the most beautiful hotel rooms in the world? I got up at dawn, too.
When all 17 bungalows are complete at Sandals, they will be lined up in the shape of a heart, if you were able to see them from the air, Royal says. It’s an unnecessary — but romantic — Sandals touch, a tribute to lovers.
While the overwater bungalows are beyond the reach of some travelers’ pocketbooks, Montego Bay beckons to visitors of all economic levels, says Janice Allen, who represents the Jamaican Tourist Board.
Still, this is a moment of glory for Jamaica — first in the Caribbean to make the dream of overwater bungalows come true.
If you go
Seasonal non-stop flights on Delta from Detroit to Montego Bay are about $540 and up, depending on when you fly. The Sandals Royal Caribbean resort is 10 minutes from the airport. To find out more about the resort’s new overwater bungalows see sandals.com/main/royal/rj-over-the-water-suites/, or call 888-726-3257.
Nearly all 125 overwater bungalow resorts in the world are in the South Pacific or in the Maldives, which are resort islands south of India and Sri Lanka, according to Roger Wade, editor of OverwaterBungalows.net.
Whoever can create similar romantic lodgings successfully in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America is likely sitting on a gold mine — provided that construction is based on science and engineering, not flimsy dreams that will collapse in a storm. Here are three competing projects:
• Aruba: Zöetry Isla Di Oro Aruba Wellness Spa and Resort plans 126 overwater bungalow suites, scheduled to open in 2018.
• Panama: Viceroy Bocas del Toro Panama will feature 42 overwater bungalows when it opens in 2019.
• Mexico: Karisma El Dorado Maroma resort near Playa del Carmen, Mexico, just opened 30 new palafitos overwater bungalows Sept. 1, the first in Mexico. Prices start at $695 per person and up, depending on the season (karismahotels.com/palafitos/index.html, only bookable through Karisma “Gourmet Inclusive Vacation Consultants”).
What’s new in Montego Bay
Jamaica is streamlining and sprucing itself up.
A new 143-mile highway, Highway 2000, just opened that cuts the drive time from Kingston to Ocho Rios from two hours to just 45 minutes, which also speeds up the drive time onward to Montego Bay on the northwest edge of Jamaica.
The area is enjoying a building boom and renaissance.
“Montego Bay is hot and busy,” says Janice Allen of the Jamaica Tourist Board. “We even have a Hard Rock Cafe opening in December.”
New resorts: Most notably, the Royalton Blue Waters all-inclusive resort just opened east of Montego Bay near Falmouth. Stunningly gorgeous, with 228 suites, all with ocean views, it also has infinity pools, lazy river, poolside cabanas, a wide beach and 11 restaurants; some amenities are shared with sister property Royalton White Sands. Children are allowed. “We expect Royalton to add quality here to the room stock in Montego Bay,” says Allen. I visited this pretty all-inclusive resort the week it opened and found an eager staff, a few technical issues with electrical and air conditioning, and relaxing surroundings.
The Royalton brand is owned by Sunwing Airlines of Canada. It is expanding throughout the Caribbean, including two new resorts coming in Negril, Jamaica, and on St. Lucia in 2017 (royaltonresorts.com).
Source: Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press