Toby Young’s winter sun break in Jamaica with children in tow
I’ve always fantasised about taking a winter break in the Caribbean – and having spent a week in Jamaica, at Beaches Negril, with my wife Caroline and children, I’ve seen my dream come true. With all four offspring under seven, the prospect of flying anywhere together didn’t initially fill me with joy, but we eased the pain by leaving the youngest at home with the nanny. That just left Sasha, six, Ludo, four, and two-year-old Freddie. This is the diary of our adventures:
The train journey from Victoria to Gatwick is relatively pain-free, but getting all our luggage to the Virgin Atlantic check-in desk is hard work. My wife and children skip along in front of me as I wrestle with a trolley that’s piled so high with luggage that I can’t see over the top. We have so much equipment – travel cot, wetsuits, boogie boards – I feel like Sherpa Tenzing traipsing along behind Edmund Hillary.
Lap of luxury: Hotel Beaches Negril, Jamaica
The flight time to Montego Bay is nine hours ten minutes – at least nine hours longer than you want to spend on an aeroplane with a two-year-old, not to mention the others. The looks on the faces of our fellow passengers when they realise they’ll be within earshot of a toddler are priceless. As a general rule, most airline passengers would prefer to be next to a man of Middle Eastern appearance carrying a ticking suitcase than a two-year-old. ‘If only they knew Freddie like I know Freddie,’ I think. ‘They’d cancel their flight.’
Whenever I’ve flown Virgin in the past, I’ve always appreciated the fact that the in-flight movies aren’t ‘edited for airlines’.
Now that I’m sitting beside my children, I’m not so sure about this policy. There are several 18-rated movies available at the press of a button. I think about asking a flight attendant to activate the ‘parental block’, but Sasha and Ludo quickly become absorbed in V Kids, the children’s channel, so I relax and start watching the new Star Trek film. Approximately two hours later, as the closing credits are rolling, I glance over and notice that Sasha has been watching it as well. ‘That was brilliant, Daddy,’ she says. I hope she doesn’t have nightmares about the Klingons.
Getting through immigration in Jamaica takes about 90 minutes, but at least a Virgin Holidays rep is there to greet us on the other side. We’re whisked aboard an air-conditioned bus and set off on the journey to Negril. This should take about an hour and a half, but due to heavy traffic in Montego Bay it is three hours before we roll into Beaches. Total journey time: 16 hours. ‘This better be worth it,’ says Caroline as she hoists the sleeping children off the bus.
It was pitch black when we arrived and we were too cranky to take in our surroundings, but we awoke to find ourselves in a Bounty advertisement. This is my tenth trip to the Caribbean and, in my experience, Jamaica is the most appealing of the larger islands.
The sky is always picture-book blue – there’s no haze – and the locals are charming and friendly with a rich, indigenous culture. Everyone loves Jamaican music, but I’m even a fan of the national dish – Jerk Chicken.
Room with a view: The Young family are in two adjoining rooms
We’re in two adjoining rooms, each with a patio, and we’re attended to by Garfield, our own personal butler. I could do with one of these at home.
After we’ve changed into our swimming gear, Garfield leads us to Negril’s famous Seven Mile Beach, a stretch of golden sand that extends as far as the eye can see. Garfield has reserved a cabana for us and filled an ice bucket with fruit juice. The children, who are usually limited to one glass of juice a day, can’t believe their luck.
The great thing about this beach from an anxious parent’s point of view is that the water is very shallow. This means even our two-year-old can wander several feet from the shore without the water coming above his waist. The only hazard is the endless flotilla of jet skis, all manned by locals hoping to rent them to tourists for £25 an hour. But the children are safely ensconced in a roped-off area.
Freddie spots an aquatrike and is so overcome with excitement I rent one for 30 minutes. Sasha does her best to help me peddle, but powering the thing across the bay proves hard work. I vow to do more exercise in future.
After a morning on the beach, I’m ready to explore the rest of Beaches Negril and I lead the children on an expedition.
We don’t get any further than Pirates’ Island, a water park that includes two waterslides, a large swimming pool and the Lazy River, a current simulator that propels you round and round in a giant figure of eight. Best of all from the kids’ point of view is a machine dispensing free Mr Whippy-style ice cream. They’ve died and gone to heaven.
Water wheels: Toby Young and family take to the waves on an aquatrike
We have breakfast at The Mill, one of five restaurants in the resort. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet with a wide selection of freshly prepared food, most pretty good. I get Freddie a stack of pancakes and drizzle them with maple syrup, then go back to get my ham-and-cheese omelette. When I return, I realise I have made a textbook parenting error. I left the bottle of syrup within arm’s reach of Freddie. Result: a big sticky mess.
Having become acclimatised to the time difference – Jamaica is six hours behind – we now feel strong enough for our first ‘activity’, a snorkelling trip. We leave Freddie with Garfield and embark on a boat ride to one of the reefs about a mile offshore. On the way, Sasha solemnly tells Ludo that the Caribbean is full of ‘man-eating sharks’. As a result, he refuses to get in the water.
This means I have to stay with him on the boat while Sasha and Caroline float above the reef for half an hour. Note to self: Leave Ludo behind next time.
The evening brings the highlight of the trip so far: a Sesame Street Beach Party. I had assumed this would be a strictly kids-only affair, but the entire resort shows up. Grown men and women dressed as Sesame Street characters lead the holidaymakers in a giant conga line along the beachfront as Bob Marley and the Wailers blare out from two giant speakers.
All three children are instantly captivated by Elmo, whom they’ve never set eyes on before.
One of the amenities available to people staying at Beaches Negril is a large catamaran, and we arrange to go on a Kitty Katt Cruise with another family.
Judging from the lively young crew, these excursions can be quite drunken affairs, but we keep the alcohol consumption to a minimum given that the average age of our party is about five. First stop on the cruise is a network of smugglers’ caves, so we drop anchor and put on our snorkel masks.
Time to relax: Toby and Caroline sit back while the children play in the water
I’m concerned about Ludo – will I have to stay behind with him again? – but he is enticed into the water by our 6ft captain who promises him he is more than a match for any shark. In the event, our snorkelling trip passes without incident.
After sandwiches on the Katt, we pull up outside Rick’s Cafe – or, to call it by its proper name, The World Famous Rick’s Cafe. I thought the only famous Rick’s Cafe was the one in Casablanca, but the boat’s crew assure me I’m wrong. This one’s claim to fame is that it has a number of platforms overlooking the sea that the bar’s patrons can jump off after a few too many rum-and-Cokes. By the time we arrive at 3.30pm everyone is so drunk that they’re lining up to hurl themselves into the ocean.
‘Will you do it, Daddy?’ asks Ludo. ‘Certainly not,’ I reply. Afterwards, I regret being such a wimp. How can I expect Ludo to be more of a man when it comes to things like snorkelling if I haven’t got the courage to jump 25ft into the water?
As part of our Virgin Holidays package we’re entitled to one of several tours of the island and we opt for a Black River Cruise.
This involves hopping back on to the same air-conditioned bus that ferried us to the resort from the airport, but there are no traffic jams this time. We arrive at the river bank by 10am and are met by a strapping tour guide who claims to be the Jamaican equivalent of Crocodile Dundee.
The great selling point of the Cruise is that the Black River is full of crocodiles, but I’m a little sceptical. Will we really get to see one? I tell the kids not to get their hopes up.
However, almost as soon as the boat weighs anchor we spot one. Crocodile Dundee immediately unhooks a kind of drawbridge at the side of the boat and, to my amazement, the crocodile swims up and heaves itself on to the boat. Freddie stands there, transfixed, as the crocodile gazes at him hungrily.
Our tour guide tells us not to worry – Jamaican crocodiles are quite sedate compared to their more aggressive cousins in Florida. Just as we’re beginning to relax, Dundee grabs some bits of raw meat from a bucket and tosses them to the crocodile, who whips his head up and intercepts them in mid-air. After his snack the crocodile departs and we continue on our way, but it isn’t long before we spot another – then another and another. At one point, there are so many crocodiles between us and the river bank that I’m tempted to do a Roger Moore and use them as stepping stones. Ludo wouldn’t be able to call me a wimp after that. But, er, I think better of it.
This is our last full day at Beaches Negril and we spend it trying to pack in as many resort activities as possible. While Caroline and Sasha get their nails done in the spa, the boys and I head to the Xbox room for a few rounds of Guitar Hero. After that, it’s off to Liquid, the ‘teen’ nightclub, where we hone our table football skills, then down to Seven Mile Beach where Freddie and Ludo have the pleasure of watching me trying to water-ski.
Our plan is to finish the day at Kimonos, the resort’s Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant, but we learn that a talent show is taking place that evening with a children’s section. I once appeared on the West End stage in a oneman show and the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Ludo is determined to strut his stuff. Consequently, he spends the rest of the afternoon rehearsing a dance routine that he intends to unveil later that evening.
The Japanese restaurant is a lot of fun, mainly because our chef is a gifted Michael Jackson impersonator. He chops up the chicken to the rhythm of Billy Jean and sings the words to Beat It as he tenderises the beef.
I’ve been reviewing restaurants for seven years, both in Britain and America, but I’ve never encountered an act like this before. If I were a talent agent I’d sign him on the spot.
Unbeknown to me, Ludo has brought his skeleton costume with him to Jamaica and he insists on changing before we go to the talent show. This turns out to be an inspired move. When it’s his turn to wow the audience, Ludo is introduced as ‘Mr Bones’ and he does a convincing impression of a Haitian witchdoctor in the throes of a voodoo trance. Admittedly, the song he is dancing to is Rock-A-Hula by Elvis Presley, but the audience doesn’t seem to mind. He’s a huge hit and wins the children’s section. Afterwards, as we walk back to our rooms, everyone we pass hails him as ‘Mr Bones’. He revels in the attention, performing a couple of quick moves in acknowledgment. I fear we have created a monster.
Winner: Toby’s son Ludo as Mr Bones
We were warned by Virgin Holidays that we’d have to fly back from Kingston – a 150-mile drive away.
The prospect of being stuck on a coach for up to four hours, followed by an airport for three and an aeroplane for nine, along with all our children, is too much and I decide to charter a plane to fly us to Kingston instead.
As a consequence, we don’t have to leave Beaches Negril until 3pm, giving us another five hours on the beach. Gazing up at the clear blue sky from under our gazebo, Caroline declares that it was definitely worth it. ‘A perfect family holiday’ is her verdict.
Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, www.virginholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights at Beaches Negril Resort & Spa on a luxury-included basis from £1,459 per adult and £829 per child. This includes return flights from Gatwick and transfers.