Famous for its free-spirited, come-as-you-are attitude and distinctly hedonistic vibe, Negril was "discovered" by American hippies 30 years ago. The rural fishing village that was once the hang-loose, dropout capital of the Caribbean now attracts couples, families, spring breakers and backpackers in search of their place in the sun along its seven-mile, white-sand stretch. Relaxed indulgence is the order of the day on Jamaica's largest and most famous strand, and if wiling away the day doing nothing more strenuous than sipping a Red Stripe as you take in the colorful cast of characters is your kind of thing, you'll find a carefree flock of like-minded sun seekers to keep you company. T-shirts, flip-flops and swimsuits are all that you'll need to enjoy this chilled-out oasis, where the days unfold to a relentless reggae beat and a mellow, live-and-let-live vibe endures.
The intimate, midstrip Idle Awhile is the perfect base camp, with 15 airy and colorful rooms right on the powder-white sand. Its restaurant, Chill Awhile, offers Jamaican fare on a canopied, beachfront deck. Large and luxurious all-inclusive resorts dominate the strip, shoulder-to-shoulder with several small, family-run hotels, humble guesthouses, water-sports concessions, souvenir stalls and restaurants. As dawn breaks, the beach becomes a hub of activity, with vendors strolling the sand, offering everything from morning newspapers and fresh fruit to hair braiding, aloe vera rubdowns and snorkeling excursions. When offered recreational drugs, a firm "no thanks" will suffice. Perhaps the best thing about Negril's strand is that, in spite of its popularity, it never feels crowded, and you can always find a quiet spot.
If you decide to stir, there's no shortage of options. First, get your bearings with a walk along the sand, during which you'll encounter guitar-strumming reggae singers and at least one party promoter with a megaphone trumpeting the night's show. Take to the air on a parasail flight, or board a glass-bottom boat for snorkeling and a lobster picnic on the offshore islet Booby Cay – named for the birds that roost there, not the nudists who ferry over to its swimsuit-optional shore. Or break for a casual lunch on a beachfront bench at Cosmo's (next to Beaches resort), which has been dishing up heaping plates of curried goat and fried conch for more than 30 years.
FLASH 'N' SPLASH
Tear yourself away from the strip for the traditional afternoon pilgrimage to Rick's Café. Set on the rocky cliffs of neighboring West End, it is the place to witness Negril's famous sunsets; look out for the legendary and elusive green flash, a phenomenon that sometimes occurs as the sun meets the horizon, and whose sighting supposedly guarantees your return to the island. Rick's main attractions, however, are the muscled divers who plunge from the 30-foot-high cliffs and even higher pine trees into the turquoise water below. Idle Awhile offers a complimentary taxi for the 10-minute trip, but consider taking the long way 'round on a three-hour catamaran cruise aboard Wild Thing, which stops for swimming and snorkeling.
Later, head for Pushcart, a new open-air, cliffside eatery that offers local specialties, live music and a flip-flop friendly vibe. Try the fried-to-perfection escoveitch fish or spicy pepper-pot soup, washed down with Pushcart's house cocktail. The blend of pineapple juice, peppery ginger beer and white rum will have you coming back for more – whether or not you saw the green flash.
Jet into Montego Bay from North America on Air Canada, Air Jamaica, American Airlines, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Northwest, Spirit, US Airways or WestJet.
Idle Awhile - Casual-chic beachfront rooms and suites from $130 in low season ($210 high). 877-243-5352; idleawhile.com