For years, I have obsessively perused Tripadvisor.com and closely followed its ratings. I don't always agree with the rankings, but there is no question that Trip Advisor is now the indispensable bible for discerning travellers. Over the past year a small boutique hotel in Negril with the most innocuous name, The Spa Retreat, has been silently and quietly climbing the ranks. After quickly becoming the Number 1 hotel in Negril, it then went on to briefly surpass towering Trip Advisor champion Geejam (Portland) as the Number 1 hotel in all of Jamaica. Yet locally no one was talking about it.
Now I pride myself on being au courant on all things travel, so I had to find out what was going on. I packed my bag and booked a solo two-day sojourn to investigate. What a find! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The travel gods have once again smiled on our little island. I have discovered another property to add to my very small catalogue of local favourites - Geejam, Jamaica Inn, Rockhouse and now, The Spa Retreat.
Shane and Christine Cohen are a Canadian couple who have been in the day spa business in Ottawa for 15 years. During that time they kept vacationing in Jamaica several times a year. Initially they came for the sand and sea, but ultimately they stayed because of that special Jamaican warmth. It had always been Christine's dream to have a destination spa to complement her day spa businesses in Ottawa. After serious soul searching on her part, Negril seemed like the perfect spot. So with a US$6 million investment and 140 Jamaican construction workers (including six women) later, they have carved out an exquisite cut stone oasis by the sea. Shane is the visionary and architect. Christine is the operational Rottweiler with a heart. Together they understand that high-end customer service tourism begins with property design, but is delivered through well trained amiable staff and tightly managed procedures.
The spot selected for the property is ideal. Perched at the start of the cliff road, it keeps guests away from the incessant hustlers that haunt the seven-mile beach, but within walking distance of said beach if they choose to take a stroll.
On arrival, guests are greeted with a welcome drink and a shoulder massage. Checking in takes a miraculous five minutes - a feat unmatched by most Jamaican hotels where checking in often takes an interminable 30 minutes or more, ruining a first impression.
The very affable front desk manager Heather conducts an orientation tour and gives each guest a cellphone with all the important numbers pre-programmed: the front desk, the bar, security, etc. I first saw this nice little amenity at a renowned five-star property in Portland. When I asked about imitation and flattery, the Cohens told me that they made an extensive tour of the best hotels in the island before opening in order to see what the other properties in their target market were doing right, and what could be improved upon. Bravo to sensible market research!
There are 18 mostly single-storey handcrafted cottages with thatched roofs overlooking the sea or the gardens. Wide open double doors and large windows help bring the outside in. Free Red Stripe beer and bottled water in the mini bar welcome you to your room.
There is a salt water pool with sandy knolls on the side, giving the feeling of a beach on Negril rock side. In effect, you can play in the sand with your toes and wash off in the salty pool. By carefully observing foreign visitor behaviour, the Cohens realised that affluent tourists love to be on the beach but rarely go into the ocean. Imagine that! This observation allowed them to create a product pitched perfectly to their target market.
Open-air spa cabanas continue capturing the perfect indoor-outdoor feel. "Why does any property in Jamaica wrap a spa in concrete so that the breezy air is locked out?" Christine asked me over cocktails, rolling her eyes. I have no idea. Magic-hands masseuse Michelle's on-arrival shoulder massage was so outstanding that I immediately booked a full body session with her for the next day. She did not disappoint. Heavy- handed deep-tissue rub with the right kind of oils-not too dry, not too oily.
Another special spa offering is reflexology with the charismatic Rastafarian, Peter. During my night-time in-room foot treatment with Peter, he educated me further on the wonders of the miracle plant Moringa.
Moringa is the multi-purpose herbal plant that has been well known in India for centuries and has recently been making its way around the health-conscious in Jamaica. It is abnormally rich in nutritional value with seven times more vitamin C than oranges, four times more vitamin A than carrots, four times more calcium than milk, and three times more iron than almonds. This is the new super food.
I am eternally indebted to Steven Euker at Sandy Haven Hotel who first introduced me to it, and I thank Ras Peter for furthering my education. The Spa Retreat offers Moringa-laced fruit smoothies as part of the breakfast staple.
The Blue Mahoe restaurant on property is a must-do even if you are not staying at The Spa Retreat. Christine is an oxtail connoisseur, and while I usually don't have oxtail at Five-Star locales, preferring my oxtail with more downtown flavours like at M-10 in Vineyard Town, she was so insistent that I had to try. Well -dear God Almighty-the oxtail was superb! It was also plated in a very interesting tower-like structure inside a small cast iron bowl. I sucked on the bones (yes, people, I felt THAT comfortable!) while sitting en plein air beneath the night sky.
Additional standard fare includes succulent lobster slow-cooked in curried rice with root vegetables, whole roasted steam fish with head and all (yes, they serve fish head to the tourists!) and stuffed chicken with callaloo and cream cheese served on a bed of grilled pineapple. These are the kinds of recipes that we would expect from Colin Hylton or our dear deceased Norma Shirley. Take Jamaican food and give it an interesting twist. Blue Mahoe is successfully positioning itself as one of the best restaurants in Negril.
In general, The Spa Retreat staff are first class. They are attentive and friendly in a very authentically "Jamaican" way-unlike so many other properties where the staff are trained as automatons, and neither they nor the guests feel quite comfortable. I think the staff treat the guests well because they are treated well and are happy to work there. They see themselves as part of a winning customer team. "Miss Christine is a special kinda person. Me work inna di hotel industry for 15 years and nobody ever treat me so nice yet. She respect people." Nice indeed! Select spa practitioners have been sent to the Canadian operations for training. Others have attended the travel shows representing the company abroad. These owners are truly investing in the employees.
As Christine says, "I tell my staff that all mistakes we can work to improve, but they must respect each other, don't steal from me and don't lie to me because those are the fireable offences." Preach! Sista Christine! Preach di truth!
Christine is often seen around the compound doing all the hotel jobs including folding laundry, making beds, and serving food to guests. By these actions, she sends an unusual signal to the employees that no job is beneath her. She positions herself as the on-call back-up for every department. I would hazard a guess that there is no hotel in Jamaica with more than 10 staff members where an owner or manager would clean the room or fold the laundry. In the Jamaican context, Christine Cohen is a service pioneer, breaking a national behavioural mould. We should all watch this hotel ecosystem, and see how "wutless, lazy, tiefing Jamaicans" behave when treated with compassion, respect and dignity.
The Spa Retreat is still a developing proposition, so unsurprisingly there are a few minor problem areas. There is insufficient closet space in the standard rooms, so fashionistas, be warned that it's best to pack light on this trip. The salty pool lounge area is unbearably hot during the hours of 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. They need to incorporate a few more shady alcoves in the design. Operationally, breakfast takes interminably long to serve. On both mornings I waited 40 minutes for ackee and callaloo. Breakfast is not the meal to embrace our motto of "soon come".
But all these issues are easily rectifiable and won't keep me away from this property nor from shouting its name loudly in the right circles. The Spa Retreat is DA BOMB!
The guests in house while I was there were an eclectic and fun crowd. J'Americans Carol and her daughter Tiffany jetted in from New York for a few days of mother-daughter spa bonding. Janet from Toronto was in for a few weeks sporting the most unique collection of very fashion way-forward shoes that would make even Lady Gaga proud. And of course, there was the usual assortment of honeymooners and couples. Most guests hailed from the USA, a few from Canada but no one besides yours truly from Jamaica.
The owners live on property and they are keen observers. They engage with everyone and you feel like you have been welcomed into someone's home, which the guests appreciate.
What's next for the Cohens? First they want to build out The Spa Retreat. They now have 22 employees and expect it will grow to 45 in the next couple of years. Christine wants to make sure that she directly interacts with, gets to know and train everyone personally, so that they are infused with her personal philosophy of customer service and respect for the workplace. After the Spa Retreat is on track, she is hoping to build out her own international line of Jamaican-inspired organic spa and beauty products. I am already impressed by what they have built and wish their ventures continued success.
What Jamaica has to offer naturally is far, far better than East Hampton, Capri, Santorini, the French Riviera, Punta Del Este, etc. The reason we can't command the prices and the cachet of these global high-end beach town brands is that we continually sell and market ourselves cheap. We don't build out the right infrastructure or products or train our staff to serve the high-end client. This may be changing. I am delighted to see a gradual expansion of the high-end boutique offering in Jamaica. Trident and The Spa Retreat are welcome additions to the great properties like Geejam, Jamaica Inn, Round Hill, Rockhouse, Tensing Pen, Goldeneye, and The Caves. For so long Jamaica had abandoned this very lucrative segment of the market. Negril's West End and Port Antonio are on the verge of a renaissance. It's time for our well-heeled locals to more fully embrace the Jamaican Rivieras.
The Spa Retreat
PO Box 3095
West End, Negril
Tel# 1-855-843-7725 Or 957-4329