Jamaica is a place people can love even if they have never visited. Its rich cultural legacy is remarkable given this is a nation of fewer than three million people. But play a song by any number of music stars – from Toots Hibbert to Lee Perry – and you’re immediately transported to a Caribbean world of wonder. Numerous literary giants – from Ian Fleming to Noel Coward – have written of their love for all things Jamaican. The island is a shared experience even for those on the other side of the Atlantic.
Experiencing it first hand is the dream of many. With white sand beaches, five star resorts and tropical heat, Jamaica is a tourism mecca. More than two million visitors arrive each year, supporting one in four jobs in the local economy. But how many of these holidaymakers ever venture beyond the gilded gates of their hotel gardens? It’s no secret the island, like many Caribbean nations, faces a range of social problems that few people living in Europe can truly appreciate.
It’s a given that many tourists are happy to forget about such things and focus on enjoying their vacation. Yet I was eager to explore the Jamaica beyond the brochures and meet some of the remarkable people who are working to make the island a better place. Happily, the Sandals Foundation – the non-profit arm of Sandals Resorts International – allows you to do just that. Established in 2009, it supports a variety of educational, community and environmental programmes across the island. Much of its work goes unseen by guests – but there’s still ample opportunities to help out.
I was invited to stay at the spectacular Sandals Ochi beach resort, a small slice of heaven on the island’s north coast. I was housed in one of the many villa suites, meaning it was a journey of ten feet from my kingsize bed to my own private pool. The main hotel and its numerous restaurants, bars and giant pool was a five minute stroll away. But each time I attempted it, a golf buggy – the easiest way for staff to travel across this huge resort – would pull up and a friendly face would insist I accepted a lift.
The morning after I arrived, I joined three of my fellow guests for a trip to Ocho Rios primary. The school is one of many supported by the Sandals Foundation, which has helped pay for its refurbishment as well as support staff training. We were here to take part in a reading skills programme. While it helps younger pupils with their language, it also acts as a cultural exchange that facilitates interaction between local children and overseas guests.
I was introduced to a group of four pupils in primary three. “Why do you have a beard?” one of the smiling children asked me. It’s cold in Scotland, I replied – the first excuse I could think of. “It’s cold in Jamaica as well,” she immediately responded. Outside it was a balmy 34 degrees. My tenement flat in Glasgow seemed a world away.
Karen Zacca, Sandals Foundation projects coordinator, explained the hour-long activity session was meant to be fun for the children. If they wanted to ask me questions rather than read – beard-related or not – that was fine. “It’s an opportunity to get out of your hotel, see Jamaica live and direct and give something back by opening the children’s eyes to the world,” she said.
More than 8,000 guest volunteers have taken part in the Reading Road Trip since its inception in 2011. The benefits are structural as well as personal. The refurbished school buildings in Ocho Rios are sturdy and designed to withstand sudden downpours – an important consideration in a region that is no stranger to hurricanes.
First-time visitors to Jamaica will be struck by the unfinished look some private residences have. “Most building materials have to be imported,” a staff member explained. “They cost a lot. Some people start a second floor for their house but never finish it.”
Jamaica’s tropical climate means it is blessed with an extraordinary ecosystem, and as a result environmental conservation is an increasing priority. I learned this first hand on Gibraltar beach, a short distance from the famous Goldeneye home of Ian Fleming. The sand is a natural breeding ground for hawksbill sea turtles, a critically endangered species. Helping to protect them is local wildlife warden Melvyn Tennant, a Birmingham native who’s not lost his accent despite his years in the Caribbean. In days gone by, local fishermen viewed turtles as a source of food. But education programmes supported by Sandals have helped change attitudes.
Melvyn monitors every nest and supervises the release of baby turtles making their first journey from sand to sea. This was where my group could help. Following Melvyn’s lead, we learned to pick up the baby turtles carefully, and gently wash them before placing them back in the nest. When the time was right, Melvyn allowed the hundred or so creatures to make their move. Suddenly, there was a stampede of mini turtles scampering over the sand and swimming out to sea for the first time. It was an incredible spectacle to behold. Those turtles that reach adulthood will in years to come return to this same stretch of sand to breed themselves.
The following day I chose a different way to explore the Jamaican countryside, driving a dune buggy around a well-worn forest track. All groups travel in convoy to ensure no-one gets lost, and everyone ends up equally muddy by the end. If the weather is dry, staff will ensure there are still giant puddles for you to crash through. Having fun is what holidays are all about. But thanks to innovative programmes like the Sandals Foundation, it’s possible to enjoy yourself while also learning more about the place you’re staying in. And when it comes to somewhere as fascinating as Jamaica, that can only be a good thing.
Seven nights staying in a Butler Village Poolside One Bedroom Villa Suite at Sandals Ochi Beach Resort, below, costs from £1,969 per person (saving £2,102) if booked by 31 March, 2017. The price covers Luxury Included (all-inclusive) accommodation, return flights with BA from Glasgow (via London) and resort transfers. The price is subject to availability and based on departures between 1 September – 13 October, 2017. For more information call 0800 597 0002 or visit www.sandals.co.uk.
Wet and Wild Dune Buggy Adventure is available through Island Routes Caribbean Adventure Tours and costs $115 per person (www.islandroutes.co.uk).
For more information on the Sandals Foundation visit www.sandalsfoundation.org.
Gatwick Lounge access is available from No 1 Lounges (no1lounges.com).