No hotel in Jamaica blends better with its surroundings than the aptly named Rockhouse, a string of villas clinging to the top of a sea cliff at the western tip of the island. Local stone, timber, and thatch are the building materials, and a harmony of design and setting is the result. The feel is rustic, but not rough (the showers might be outdoors, but the rooms are air-conditioned), and the feeling carries over to the pool, which sits on a rock platform halfway down the cliff face, from where sunbathers can don snorkel and mask and clamber down into a usually calm Caribbean. Even the restaurant hangs over the water, adding emphasis to the promise of dishes being fresh from the sea.
As does practically every hotel in Jamaica, Rockhouse has its celebrity stories, going back to the early '70s when Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones added their names to the guest register. But it wasn’t until 1994, when a group of Australian owners took over, that Rockhouse began to evolve its reputation as one of the most Jamaican of Jamaican hotels. It happened in part because Rockhouse has none of the formality that some of the island’s best-known hotels, with their British colonial roots, still possess. And in part because of its active role in funding local education projects, it's a valued, and popular, part of the community. That, and the restaurant’s homemade jerk sausage is legendary.
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An hour west of the airport at Montego Bay, Rockhouse is a few miles from the white-sand beach that helped make Negril famous, but it sits atop cliffs that ensure its privacy. There’s no need to go away for the sunsets, because they don’t get better anywhere else in Jamaica. But the best place for watching a crowd watching a sunset is nearby Rick’s Café. It’s like Key West, but with cliff jumpers and Red Stripe, often not in that order. Rockhouse has no beach, so a trip or two to Seven Mile Beach, all 4.2 miles of it, is usually required. Expect to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the sand, and the persistence of the vendors. Along with Burger King and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Negril has some great little restaurants specializing in Rastafarian-influenced cuisine, among the best of them Just Natural, whose Jamaican breakfast, served at tables scattered around what amounts to a botanical garden, is a memory-making experience.
Need to Know
Rooms: 34 rooms, including 20 villas. From $95 low season, $180 high season. Check-in: 3 p.m.; check-out: noon. Dining options: A happy meeting place for guests and locals, the Rockhouse Restaurant, under executive chef Warren Rowe, whose résumé includes time in the kitchen with the famed Jamaican chef Norma Shirley, serves lighter interpretations of classic Jamaican dishes. As with the rest of the resort, the look is thatch-roof, with a balcony suspended over the water, and the dress code—strictly enforced—is shoes optional. Less formal, the next-door Pushcart Restaurant & Rum Bar specializes in samplings of traditional Jamaican street food, such as peppered shrimp, and Caribbean rums. At the Pool Bar & Grill, open for lunch, do try the jerk mayonnaise. Spa and gym details: Rockhouse Spa, directed by longtime spa consultant Linda Hall, offers treatments at the clifftop massage cabana or the new spa pavilion, each of its eight rooms designed to accommodate two treatment beds. From the Blue Mountain Coffee Scrub to the Jamaica mocha-rum wrap, all treatments use products indigenous to the Caribbean. There’s no gym, but yoga classes are held daily.
Who’s it for: People who like a funky/chic setting, mixing with locals at the bar, and knowing that some of what they spend will go toward community improvements. Because of the cliffs, it is not for children 12 and under. Our favorite rooms: Premium Villa 10 is not the most private, but for guests wanting everyone else to be envious of their view at sundown, it is far and away the best. Explore the area: Thursdays at 11 a.m., guests are invited on a tour of the Negril Library and the Negril Basic School, two projects funded by the Rockhouse Foundation, a New York–based, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to which Americans can make tax-deductible donations.