It’s a scenario familiar to any golfer venturing to the north shore of Jamaica. No matter who you are or where you’re from, that first day on this singular, subtropical, mountainous island will, more likely than not, turn into a rum and Red Stripe-fueled, jet-lagged, jerk-flavored blur.
Yah, mon. Bring it on.
For me the party started at Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall just east Montego Bay, rolled through rounds at White Witch and Cinnamon Hill — two of the best courses in Jamaica and, indeed, the entire Caribbean — and didn’t let up for three days. Though I was there to join more than 150 fellow competitors for the annual Jamaica Invitational Pro-Am, the fun endures for anybody, any time of year.
Actually three hotels in one — adults-only, suites-only and family oriented, each with their own pools and restaurants and shops sharing a substantial stretch of beach — Spanish-owned Iberostar makes for a perfect self-contained home base. Start with the staff, many of them locals who constantly sport wide smiles and “ya mon” bonhomie. They make every guest like family, especially when that sometimes unwieldy financial barrier — tipping — is lifted: This an all-inclusive resort. Pay once and you’re done, and that includes alcohol and a 24-hour on-call butler.
Iberostar’s food, meanwhile, is first-cabin, from the buffet — a vast edible jungle of sushi, fresh seafood, charcuterie, cheeses, fruits, pastries and sweets — to higher-end eateries serving Italian, Asian and classic steak house fare.
The golf is a cut above, too. Both White Witch and Cinnamon Hill — winding side-by-side through dense jungled hills, breaking to the sea itself for a brief two holes on Cinnamon’s relatively flat front nine — compose the best resort experience the island has to offer.
Designed by Robert Von Hagge and Rick Baril, White Witch is the tougher go, at least 10 shots’ worth on average. Swooping and diving through ravines and across rocky expanses like some huge emerald serpent, it plays with the strategic mind while dazzling the eye. It bears virtually no resemblance to many of the flat Caribbean courses I’ve played, reminding me more of various mainland mountain trackd. Well-bunkered and boasting ocean views on 16 holes, it’s bewitching indeed.
Let’s just call the whole thing a signature hole, though some are more memorable than others. White Witch begins with a blazing 5-par, serving up a soaring Caribbean view from the tee, then tumbling severely downhill to the fairway and slightly back uphill to the green. The front nine meanders mostly among the hills’ lower reaches, then turns skyward for the inward set, unveiling one staggering vista after another. No. 15 is a short par 4 that climbs a ridge and doglegs hard right around a jungle-choked ravine, presents so much spectacular visual distraction that you don’t realize there’s actually a lot of room to play. Meanwhile, every par 3 is a beauty and acute challenge; No. 14 asks for a sharply downhill tee shot over water to a rock-faced green, while No. 17 tops them all, literally and figuratively, seeming to teeter on the edge of forever.
Cinnamon Hill, too, has its moments of challenge, especially on the hillier inward nine. Rock outcroppings make for fine aiming points and not-so-fine ricochet spots for line drives and cold-tops. But overall it’s easier on the swing and golfer’s fragile psyche, making it the perfect “moving day” foil to the Witch’s gut-it-out majesty. Holes 5-7 comprise the course’s most memorable stretch, diving down to the sea, across a crashing cove for a tricky par 3 and back inland over a crumbling section of old aqueduct.
But the back has its magic, too, such as the eponymous 14th, an uphill par 4 where you might even feel some quiet, deep-throated encouragement from another ghost — that of the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash. His and the Carter Family’s vacation home is tucked away in a grove of trees just left of the fairway. Sneak a peek between shots and you might picture the late master strumming his six-string on the front porch.
There’s no lack of après-golf options to keep the Jamaican high life rolling. You might make your way to the Grand’s well-stocked cigar lounge for a Cuban stick and a well-deserved nightcap; take a stroll or jog up the beach or just take up residence underneath an umbrella, daiquiri in hand; commandeer a half-submerged stool at the pool bar and line up the Red Stripes while soaking up the sounds of steel drums and thumping reggae bass from the house band; or maybe take a detour downtown for some funky local flavor, including a stop at Scotchie’s for a plate of authentic jerk chicken. Still got energy? Book a boat trip in the bay or a zipline adventure up on Blue Mountain, home to the world’s best coffee.
Yeah, Jamaica is a foreign land, and you’ll need a passport, but it’s also American-friendly: U.S. greenbacks are in common circulation and Miami International Airport is only a 90-minute flight away. It’s as low-stress as golf destinations get. What did homegrown hero Bob Marley once sing? “Every little thing/Gonna be all right.” Indeed. And the big things, too.