Quick escape to Montego Bay offers Jamaican sunshine and a feeling of safety from COVID-19

At Montego Bay airport, the hand sanitizer stations are monitored by members of the military. They’re smiling and welcoming — this is, after all, Jamaica — but their presence focuses the mind not on that pending, beachside Red Stripe beer but on the necessity of a squirt and a rub.

Nurses are present airside too, taking visitors’ temperatures and checking negative tests at least three times before they exit the terminal. Jamaica is taking its COVID-19 precautions seriously — so rigorously, in fact, that the island nation feels far safer than many places in the United States.

Early on a recent Saturday morning at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, crowds milled around the departure gate for a clearly packed, and costly, American Airlines flight to Miami. At the next gate, the nonstop flight to Montego Bay was almost empty. Not much farther than Florida with the same warm sun, Montego Bay is, arguably, a more interesting destination. And 30,000 miles roundtrip (plus taxes) was all it took to get a section of the plane to yourself.

The notable disparity in demand was likely because a weekend in Jamaica currently requires the traveler to jump through more hoops.

You have to get a negative COVID-19 test, which might be inconvenient but does at least guarantee that everyone on the flight has tested negative within the past 72 hours, which is not true on that flight to Miami or any other domestic destination. You must also register in advance with the Jamaican government through its Visit Jamaica site, provide information about your hotel from a drop-down menu, plug in your health declarations and passport number, and then wait for online approval. Once you get the nod after just a few minutes, the PDF that arrives in your inbox is enough to give you pause.

In essence, you are signing an official government quarantine order, attesting that you will not leave your hotel and its immediate surroundings. On pain of arrest.

Jamaica’s answer to the Caribbean conundrum of how to keep its people safe and yet maintain at least some percentage of its vital, tourist-driven economy has been innovative. The island has created so-called “resilient corridors” along the coastline from Negril to Port Antonio (the North Coast Corridor) and from Milk River to Negril (the South Coast Corridor).

Those corridors are narrow by design, encompassing the coast road and little or nothing more. Within those boundaries, tourism providers have been rigorously trained in COVID-19 precautions (everyone from store owners to cab drivers to servers), and all visitors are confined therein. The strategy has been very successful. At press time, the country had reported zero infections within the two corridors since the country reopened to tourists in June.

In Montego Bay’s venerable Hip Strip area, for example, it is fine to don a mask and walk from your hotel to, say, sit outside at the new restaurant Tracks & Records, developed by the great Usain Bolt, since that’s on the coast road, the newly renamed Jimmy Cliff Boulevard. (Bolt is a great hero of mine and apparently hangs out there. Alas, not this weekend).

But you cannot rent a car and voyage into the lush interior, as I’ve done on many previous visits. And you can’t go shopping in town or wander as you wish.

But so what? Why put people at risk? I was there for barely 48 hours. The sun was shining, and the hotel was beautiful.

I stayed at the 120-room S Hotel.

When it opened in 2019, the S, a boutique property developed by Chris Issa, was the first new hotel on the island in many years to not offer the typical Jamaican all-inclusive package, a choice that makes it much better for the surrounding dependent economy, at least in more usual times.

The S (the name is a nod to Issa’s Spanish Court Hotel in Kingston) has an enviable location, beginning with being situated all of five minutes from MBJ (aka Sangster International Airport). Even with all the COVID-19 checks, you can be in the lobby just a few minutes after landing. You can even avoid cabs and walk along the coast road from the terminal, if your masked self can stand the heat. Or you can ride with masks and the windows open for $5 per person.

The S is located on Montego Bay’s historic Doctor’s Cave Beach, a community beach long associated with good health dating to 1906. This famous patch of sand generally is crowded with both locals and cruise-ship daytrippers. Or that was always my previous experience. There are no ships calling on Montego Bay this spring; when I ventured onto the large beach, those assembled would not populate a cricket match.

Out on the Hip Strip, where folks are always happy to talk on the sidewalk, albeit at a safe distance now, the general, doleful word to the wise was that there would be no cruise ships coming this way until November. This, needless to say, was not good for everyone’s business. But hope was growing.

Aside from the beauty of Doctor’s Cave and the Montego Bay sunsets the hotel offers, you don’t get the usual feeling of being cut off from the islanders. You can also swim in the S hotel’s pool, which has a Miami vibe, play outdoor foosball and table tennis, or chill at a simple bar designed to resemble one of the famed refreshment shacks that often provided me sustenance when I traveled on the road from Montego Bay to Negril as a much younger man.

The hotel is filled with contemporary Jamaican art, reflective of the island’s renewed determination to celebrate its own. Turn a corner, and you can see the work of Tamara Harding, who uses recycled wood, and of muralist Michael Thompson, to name but two of the array of artists involved in the project. Each guest room also has a turntable and a bit of Bob Marley vinyl, alas only for disappointing, decorative purposes.

And like all fine hotels, the S comes with a great personality in the warm-centered person of Andres B. Cope, whose fancy “vice president of sales and marketing” title doesn’t seem to ever allow him to go home. I made my reservation by phone, since I find you do better that way and you avoid paying off the big U.S. travel sites, and Cope offered me a junior, ocean-view suite for $269 a night with breakfast and dinner included. (I paid my own bill and did identify myself as a reporter during my stay.)

Cope was there when I first cold-called the hotel, located in an area I know well. (I wanted to be very close the airport, and I am fond of Doctor’s Cave, having stayed before at the very modest Deja Resort across the street.) Cope remembered my name as I checked in and out, and he also took care of a COVID-19 test to get back into the U.S., pointing me to the nurses.

Since my stay at the S was so brief, the quick brain poke in a room off the lobby was $49, but guests staying for four nights or more do not have to pay to be tested. The room, by the way, was simply lovely: a head-on sunset view. I spent much of my time sitting on the balcony, staring. Or just walking on the beach, thinking, wondering, searching for some renewed personal groove. You know, the reasons receptive people have always wanted to go to Jamaica.

Nothing all weekend was any problem, frankly, except leaving so soon after arriving. Jamaica is always Jamaica.

Sure, the inside bar and nightclub at the hotel was closed (you’ll live) and the breakfast buffet was replaced with something much simpler. But with all the food and beverage service outdoors, and everyone staying well away from staffers or anyone not in their party, there was so much room to move around in relative sunny isolation that fear did not intrude.

Music did, though, and it truly was a tonic.

There aren’t really any interiors at all at the S; everywhere is open to the breeze with the exception of your guest room, and no one enters there while you are a guest, for everyone’s protection.

Although my data set is inevitably limited, I just cannot imagine any resort hotel anywhere doing better to stay open and offer balm under COVID-19 circumstances.

But then the Jamaican people deserve no less.