- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica, Jan. 19 (UPI) — "Tropical island" has a far-away lilt for most North Americans, a destination only to dream about. But Jamaica is surprisingly close and affordable. The villa vacation is one way families of modest means can enjoy unforgettable holidays without dipping into the college fund.

An alternative to hotels, villas are self-contained dwellings that come with a staff. They are available at a wide range of prices. If families or couples share a villa, some can be rented at rates comparable to reasonably priced U.S. hotel rooms. Tips for house staff are customarily 10 percent during the winter season and 15 percent in summer, when rates are lower.

Well into middle age, I had never visited the Caribbean, so I happily accepted when the Jamaican Tourist Board offered to sponsor a trip. My first thoughts on the island were, "Why didn't you come sooner?" It really is a beautiful place.

The Air Jamaica flight from frigid Baltimore-Washington International Airport lasted less than three hours. I knew that Cuba was close to the United States, but it had never registered that Jamaica is just south of Cuba. A short hop from the Middle Atlantic region, and it's as if you're in Graham Greene novel.

This former British colony gained its independence in 1962. For Americans who don't like to go anywhere English is not spoken, no problemo!

I was met at the Montego Bay Airport by Nicky Richardson, a fifth-generation Jamaican of Scots and Irish ancestry, who would act as my guide for five days.

The first stop was lunch at the nearby Half Moon golf, tennis and beach club, at the high end of the north coast villas. If you've got the bucks, this place is NICE — and it has everything, including horseback riding. Assistant Manager Julia Ben-Nyah gave us a tour in a golf cart, which is how guests get around the 400-acre gated complex.

The lovely main lobby, with its black and white marble tiles, is open to the sea. Nightly accommodations range from $195 for a room to $3,500 for the four-bedroom Fern Tree House, which looks like a setting for a W. Somerset Maugham story. Dcor and furnishings are tasteful, not tacky. Villas come with housekeeper, a cook and a butler. Starting next month, guests will be able to swim with two dolphins in a large natural lagoon at a cost of $145 per person.

Those who can afford Half Moon — or Roaring Pavilion, to the east, near Ocho Rios — have their own sources of information. My two-night stay at Island Breeze, one of the Sunshine Villas managed by Doris "Parchi" Parchment, made me aware that you don't have to be a millionaire to vacation like one.

Island Breeze was at the mid range of the three privately owned holiday homes Parchment showed me, each of which had its own charms and view of the sea. The food was delicious and the service attentive. The villas have spacious bedrooms — many with balconies — living areas, patios and sun decks. Most have private swimming pool, whirlpool spa or a beach.

Packages can be booked with or without meals. Plans include breakfast only, breakfast and dinner, or three full meals at a lower cost than restaurants. Upon arrival the cook consults with guests in meal planning and preparation. Visitors may accompany the staff to the local market to personally select the foods they will eat.

When was the last time you returned from a vacation with clean clothes? The housekeeper will do the laundry. "Some guests say they don't want to bother people," Parchment said. "Bother us! That's what we're here for."

And what about those private times that couples prize? I was assured the staff knows when to fade away.

Baby-sitting services can be requested, as well as chauffeured transportation or a personal tour guide. Parchment said she encourages guests to buy a day or evening pass at all-inclusive hotels or spas, giving staff the time off.

This winter, it would cost six persons $1,900 to occupy the three Island Breeze bedrooms for a week, excluding food and gratuities. That's less than $272 per night, or about $90 per couple. One couple in one bedroom would pay $1,500 per week. Corresponding rates from April 16 to Dec. 15 are $1,500 and $1,000.

Ten persons can occupy the somewhat more luxurious five-bedroom Osbourne Villa for $4,500 per week. That's about $643 per night, or $129 per couple. Six persons in three bedrooms costs $2,700. Corresponding off-season rates are $3,500 and $2,100.

JAVA — the Jamaica Association of Villas and Apartments — advises travelers to choose the slice of the island they would most like to visit, decide on a budget, invite their friends, or plan a family reunion. For information and reservations in North America, call 1-800-VILLAS-6 (1-800-845-5276), 305-673-6688, and JAVA Jamaica 876-974-2508.

"Staying at a Jamaican villa is the ultimate vacation indulgence," Parchment said, "where the choice is all yours."


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