An Ideal Christmas Present: The Secrets St. James in Montego Bay

We got home last night from a week in Jamaica. It was our Christmas present to ourselves and it was amazing!

I'm unpacked. The laundry is done. I've uploaded 136 pictures to Facebook. And I really should be working out right now, since I've gained three pounds over the last week. But I guess I can wait a few more minutes to resume my normal routine. I took the entire last week off from exercise, other than leisurely walking. The resort has a nice spa and exercise room, but I decided against both. All I wanted to do on this trip was spend time with John and totally relax. Mission accomplished, by the way.

John found and booked this resort months ago. He got an email solicitation from Cheap Caribbean and decided to book a trip for us in early December. I've told him many times that I would always prefer getting away and spending time with him over getting "stuff" (including jewelry), whether for Christmas or our anniversary or my birthday. There is nothing either of us needs more than time together. So this year our Christmas gift to each other was a trip to Jamaica.

John is a great trip planner. And I have come to greatly enjoy his arranging every detail and surprising me. All I have to do is pack and be ready to go. He planned this trip in July, which I also loved because I had months of anticipation prior to the trip itself.

Neither of us knew back then just how stressful the summer and fall would be for us. In addition to his usual work stress, John lost his sister to cancer in early November. And his mom began treatment for her CLL the first week of October. As you know if you read my blog, she is also under the care of Dr. Flinn in Nashville. He is one of the best and I strongly urged her at diagnosis to establish a relationship with him before she needed treatment. I did not want her to be treated by her primary care physician when she had access to a CLL specialist. And I knew already how helpful it would be for her to have me go with her to every appointment (because I was already so well-versed in CLL). So she has come here every three months for checkups since diagnosis. And when she needed to start treatment (after two years of watch and wait), she stayed with us for about ten weeks until her weekly appointments became bi-weekly. She went home to Evansville just one day before we left for Jamaica. (She and John are both doing well on CAL-101, by the way.)

When John originally planned our trip, neither of us knew our departure date would arrive on the heels of these unexpected events. I told John just before we came home that I thought this was the most relaxing vacation we have ever taken. And he said, "It's probably because this is the most we have ever needed to get away. Both of us." And I think he's right. But I think we also went to the perfect place for the kind of getaway we so needed.

We stayed at an Almond Resort in Barbados (in 2009) and it was very enjoyable. Barbados was a special trip in many ways and different from Jamaica. In Barbados, we enjoyed a "once in a lifetime" experience of dining at a world renowned restaurant (The Cliff) to celebrate my 50th birthday. It was outrageously expensive and we would never go again. But it was an evening I will never forget and it will always be an incredible memory. We couldn't have done that anywhere else. We also went to some natural underground caves and visited a wildlife sanctuary in Barbados. The resort was nice. But it wasn't the highlight.

However, the agenda for our trip to Jamaica was simply to relax and hang out together. We could have gone to Dunns River Falls in Ocho Rios, but neither of us wanted to spend hours riding in a car (coming and going). That was one of the reasons John chose Montego Bay as our destination. It was a fifteen minute drive from the airport. John had been to Ocho Rios many years ago and said the ride to and from the airport was awful. He went to the falls on that trip and said they were beautiful, but he didn't care to go again. And I've seen many beautiful waterfalls in Yosemite and Hawaii. So I was content not to go as well. For this trip, the resort itself WAS our destination and fortunately it WAS the highlight.

Secrets in Montego Bay was essentially (in my mind) one resort split into two sections. But they are each listed separately on the Internet. One end was the "Wild Orchid" and the other was the "St. James." We explored the entire complex and talked to some staffers who told us that the rooms are basically the same except for two things.

You can only get a "swim out" room in the Wild Orchid section. (These first floor rooms have access to the pool right from the room's patio area. You step down from your patio into the water and swim under a little bridge to be in the main pool. It's pretty cool, but not something I would really care about. I prefer not being on the first floor for the better view and the privacy.)

The other difference between the two is a matter of location. The Wild Orchid is in the middle of all the activity. All of the restaurants, the piano bar, the dance club and the entertainment venues are centrally located to the Wild Orchid buildings. The St. James buildings are a short walk from all of the activity, but much quieter at night. John booked our room in the Preferred Club section of the St. James. So we were at the furthest point from all the nighttime activity. And we really liked that. After we ate dinner and walked around a bit, we were ready to get away from all the people. And there were couples of all ages in both locations. So it wasn't simply an age thing. I'm sure a lot of couples were there on their honeymoons.

The spa and exercise facility are also on the very end of the St. James side. If I had wanted to work out, I would have been only a few steps away from the fitness room. Both had spectacular views and beach access very close to the pools. Both had pool bars/restaurants and swim-up bars.

Being in the Preferred Club section gave us some extras like free Internet access, our own 24-hour spread of snacks and drinks from continental breakfast to light lunch items, appetizers before dinner, and late night snacks or cocktails. There were always bottles of champagne, red and white wines, plus other drinks, juices and soft drinks. Also, the Preferred Club rooms had soaking tubs on the balconies. They were not jetted tubs. They were just outdoor tubs. I never used mine. I preferred the spa tub in my bathroom -- and the privacy. I didn't see anybody using the soaking tubs. I don't know what the upgrade fee was for the Preferred room. John said after he added all of the upgrades, the initial "deal" went up almost $1,000.00 from the original offer. But he not only upgraded the room, he upgraded the view, added an extra night, and paid extra for a private car to and from the airport (rather than a shuttle with other guests).

The food was good. It was not the highlight of the trip for me. But I heard many guests telling other guests that the food was great or amazing or wonderful. So I guess I'm just spoiled. How great the food was would have a lot to do with what you are comparing it to. We eat out primarily on the weekends, but when we do, we eat at really good restaurants. I didn't think any of our meals were as good as the places we eat at home. But we had good food and I didn't consider any meal a bad meal. The menus were limited and I found it a little frustrating when an item was not available. For instance, we went back to the Italian restaurant a second time. John had really enjoyed their Caesar Salad. But when he ordered it (from the menu) he was told that they didn't have Caesar that night. Instead, they had a Greek Salad. That didn't appeal to either of us. We had the cream of tomato with basil soup instead. And that turned out to be really good. So it was fine in the end. But on the night we were planning to eat Mexican, they turned the Mexican restaurant into a buffet of all kinds of stuff. We had planned which nights we were going to eat certain foods and might have tried the Mexican restaurant sooner if we had known it would not be available on other nights. But even that wasn't a big deal. It's not like I can't get Mexican food at home. I was pretty adaptable when it came to eating because the purpose of this trip wasn't the food. I was just happy I was getting to spend a whole week with my husband in a beautiful setting.

We didn't think the desserts were all that great in any of the restaurants. They were kind of like cruise ship desserts on the midnight buffet (fluff). The best desserts we had were at the buffets where there was more variety and you could see what you were getting. So on two nights we skipped dessert after our meal and went to a buffet restaurant just for dessert. That was fun. Breakfast was great every day. They do breakfast very well. I overate every single morning. So did John. But we didn't go crazy at dinner because the portions were not large. And I didn't feel compelled to finish everything simply because nothing was "the best I'd ever had." : )

The calamari at the Italian restaurant was delicious. The appetizers and the Hibachi grill were excellent at the Japanese restaurant. John had a chicken dish with a bleu cheese cream sauce at the French restaurant that he really enjoyed. My steak was just okay. The most fun restaurant was the Japanese. We ate there twice and also twice at the Italian.

I left on this vacation worrying just slightly about all the bed bug issues I've read about in other places. I did get bitten by a few mosquitos in the evenings and wound up having some weird dreams one night about bed bugs because my legs were itching from the mosquito bites. That was pretty funny. Once I knew John was also awake, I threw on the light and pulled up the mattress to look for any signs of bugs. But everything was spotless. (That was a reaction to my bad dream.) One of the things we were both impressed with about this resort was how clean everything was. It was spotless inside and out. Even the pool and beach restrooms were clean. I really liked that. And there were NO bed bugs or bugs of any kind in our room. I always make the mistake of wearing my usual body lotion, which smells sweet. And I learn the hard way every time I'm in a tropical environment that I should not. In the future, I will not wear any kind of scent and I will also take vitamin B-1 (a recent tip from a friend) to avoid being bitten.

We spent the majority of our time either relaxing on the beach or relaxing poolside. We took walks. We ate. We played ping pong and pool one day in the gaming area. We sat in the piano bar a couple of times and listened to a live band outside the piano bar another night. But I think this was the first time we've gone somewhere and both been so content to do nothing but relax and enjoy the view. We've never spent so much time in lounge chairs. And it was wonderful. We talked and laughed and just enjoyed being happily married. Times spent that way are precious. I savored every moment. And I must have told John "Thanks for doing this" a hundred times. I know how hard it is for him to get away and the stress he comes home to after being gone. I also know how important it is for him to take time to rest his body for the sake of his physical, mental and emotional health. So I appreciated him doing it for himself as well as doing it for me.

I read about half of Laura Bush's memoir (Spoken From the Heart) and I am really enjoying it. I've read the biographies of numerous presidents, but this is the first time I've read the memoir of a first lady. Laura Bush has always been a personal favorite of mine. And as I've read about her, I realize more and more why I relate to her so much. In one word: values. At one point she mentioned that she would rather collect memories than things and I so identified with her. That's why I take so many pictures. I'm preserving memories. I love to look at my pictures over and over, remembering each moment and the little things that made our time so special.

In my forties and now fifties, I seem to have developed this intense awareness that I am living the best years of my life right now. I want to appreciate every moment for the gift that it is. And this week really was the perfect gift.


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