Hotel Review: The new heart of Montego Bay’s legendary Hip Strip is the S-Hotel

In its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Montego Bay’s Gloucester Avenue, curving past the palms and white sand on Doctor’s Cave Beach, was the place to be—and, of course, be seen. Attracting the global glitterati to Jamaica—movie stars and singers and even, at one point, John F. Kennedy—the days here were hot, and the nights, even hotter. But as the decades passed, and mega-sized all-inclusive resorts with ten pools and five buffets and stage shows on property were built further and further from the heart of “MoBay,” the Hip Strip started to sag.

But now, with Gloucester renamed for legendary ska and reggae artist Jimmy Cliff, this strip is coming back. And a primary engine for its reinvention and growth? Last year’s opening of the proudly non­-all-inclusive S-Hotel, which last year was voted Condé Nast Traveller’s favourite hotel in the region that includes the Caribbean, Atlantic and Central America.

Rolling up and coming through the front doors, the hotel’s two central themes become quickly clear. The first is celebration, and revival, of the Hip Strip. Just outside the front doors sits a replica of Katharine Hepburn’s 1953 Singer convertible, which she drove around the island for a month with friend (and famous playwright) Noel Coward—told she could only rent or borrow a proper tin-roofed car in Jamaica, she apparently brought her own—and just inside the doors, a photo of the two inside it, on Gloucester. Other, similar mementos of that time decorate the lobby, including a black-and-white photo of JFK on the Hip Strip.

But even more evident is the hotel’s pride in promoting Jamaican culture. Jamaican-owned, this theme is found throughout. In the lobby, straw hats coloured red, gold and green line the front desk. Rattan and cut-stone echo traditional dwellings on the island and the work of local artists hangs on the wall (including one, Tamara Harding, who made use of wood re-purposed from trees removed during the hotel’s construction—a clever and interesting touch). And a wooden boardwalk runs right down the middle of it all, connecting the hotel’s entrance to the on-site restaurants, a stylish testament to the hotel’s desire to welcome local residents inside, for a meal, or a drink, something that gives the whole place an undeniably local feel, and one you would never find in a larger hotel.

The hotel has two main restaurants. Rocksteady—a restaurant named for a home-grown musical genre that helped give birth to reggae—features prints from Jamaican artist Michael Thompson, and at Marketplace, where guests eat breakfast, local-interest books line the walls, and wood carvings of Bob Marley and other quirky knick-knacks populate shelves. Both serve up local favourites, and the latter has the recipes (for example, for preparing ackee and saltfish) colourfully displayed. Rooms are chic and feel a bit Miami, decorated primarily in white, but furnished with empty, stubby bottles of Red Stripe (Jamaica’s famous lager) that double as vases, as well as record players, each paired with the requisite Marley recordings. Bathtubs are wrapped in faux-wicker, which evoke the baskets that were long a staple handicraft here.

Tubs in sky suites evoke wicker baskets

But it’s not all culture—you are, after all, coming here on vacation. With just a relatively intimate 120 rooms, most of them (92) face the ocean, and the views are some of the best on the island—standing on my balcony, my field of vision is filled with aquamarine seas, and, every night, an Instagram-ready sunset, the streaks of pink playing off the sea, the lights coming up on the waterfront, a line of dark mountains, outlined to one side.

The hotel has a full-service spa outfitted with hot, warm and cold pools, and you can lounge outside at two main pools, each with a very distinctive feel. The largest is by the beach, with lines of loungers and big red and white umbrellas. From there, it’s about twenty steps to Doctors Cave, through a small (security monitored) gate. Spend the day on the sand, then head to the rooftop infinity pool for a sunset swim and, afterward, a pre-dinner drink and finger food at the pool bar and grill.

A replica of Katharine Hepburn’s convertible

And then, head out on the reinvented Hip Strip—maybe just next door, to a small plaza that’s now breathing new life. There, statues in the Montego Bay Legends Circle, honour national heroes, including Marley and Cliff, and you can grab dinner at Tracks & Records, a new restaurant opened by Usain Bolt—Jamaica’s fastest man in the world.

When you go

Both Air Canada and WestJet offer direct flights from Toronto to Montego Bay, and Air Transat flies direct from Montreal

Rooms at S-Hotel start at $269 USD per night

Research and book your room at https://www.crissahotels.com/s-hotel-jamaica/

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