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Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel and Bookpleasures is delighted to have as a guest well- known author and travel writer, Christopher P. Baker.

Christopher is an expert on Cuba and Jamaica, as well as other venues in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Christopher was named Travel Journalist Of The Year by the Jamaica Tourist Board in 1998. He is here to discuss with us Jamaica.

            

Good Day Christopher and thank you for accepting our invitation to be interviewed.

NORM:

Please tell our readers something about yourself, your expertise and the
books you have authored.


Christopher:

I grew up and was educated in England, where I began my international travels while studying geography at university. After settling in California in 1980, I worked briefly within the adventure travel industry. I've been a full-time professional travel writer and photographer since 1982.
 Although in my early career I specialized in adventure travel, and also the Asia/Pacific region, during the past 15 years I have specialized in the Caribbean, with a particular focus on and fondness for Cuba. My love affair with Cuba began with publication of my

Moon Handbooks Cuba and

Moon Handbooks Havana.

 I've since written National Geographic Traveler Cuba and Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro's Cuba, a literary travelog that won both the Lowell Thomas Award as Travel Book of the Year and the North American Travel Journalists Association's Grand Prize. My most recent book is Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles (Interlink Books, 2004), a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book.

I've authored numerous other books, including Lonely Planet's guidebooks to Jamaica and The Bahamas and Turk & Caicos Islands, plus the Passport Illustrated Guide to Jamaica. I've also written about Jamaica (and other Caribbean islands and international destinations) for dozens of leading magazines and newspaper travel sections, including as a regular contributor to SkyWritings (Air Jamaica's inflight magazine) and Caribbean Travel & Life.

My other main expertise is in regard to Costa Rica. My first guidebook was the Moon Handbook Costa Rica (first published as the Costa Rica Handbook in 1992), now in its fifth edition, with almost 100,000 copies sold. I've since authored National Geographic Traveler Costa Rica and the soon-to-be-released Eyewitness Travel Guide to Costa Rica (Dorling Kindersley), and have acted as a consultant to INTEL, which recently opened a fabrication plant in Costa Rica.

I love public speaking and have been interviewed on numerous national television and radio shows. I'm particularly honoured to have been addressed the National Press Club and the National Geographic Society (as a member of the Live from& faculty), and to have been a faculty member of the lecturing staff of Cunard Cruise Lines. In January, and again in May, I'll be lecturing about old cars in Cuba aboard Holland America Cruise Line's M/V Maasdam.

Complete details about my books and writing career are available on my website.

NORM:

Where is Jamaica and could you tell our readers something about it from the point of view of climate, activities a couple can experience, etc

Christopher:

Jamaica lies south of Cuba in the western half of the Caribbean. It was for several centuries under British rule and has maintained close ties with the United Kingdom since independence in 1962. Jamaica is among the most distinctive of Caribbean isles, primarily as the birthplace of Rastafarianism, which suffuses the culture, as does the music of the island's most famous native son  Bob Marley.

Though rimmed by coastal plains and fine sandy beaches, Jamaica is predominantly mountainous. In the east, the Blue Mountains (known for the world-famous coffee grown here) rise to 7,402 feet. Despite its relatively small size, the isle boasts several distinct climates: the mountainous northeast, centered on the old banana-shipping port of Port Antonio, receives copious rainfall and is exceedingly lush, whereas the relatively flat south-central coast, centered on Treasure Beach, lies in a rain shadow and the predominant vegetation is cactus and thorn scrub.

Jamaica is remarkably well developed in terms of activities. Visitors can choose from jet skiing, scuba diving, and sunset boat trips to mountain biking, crocodile safaris, and horseback rides.

NORM:

Would you consider Jamaica a good choice for a romantic getaway or wedding and honeymoon destination? Why?

Christopher:

Jamaica prides itself on being a perfect wedding and honeymoon destination. Many resorts specialize in this market. Some, such as SuperClubs and Sandals (both known for their all-inclusive, couples-only resorts) even offer free wedding packages. The all-inclusive concept was born in Jamaica and no other destination has so successfully matured and marketed the concept.

I enjoy these all-inclusive resorts, which are run to very high standards. However, my favourite romantic retreats lie at the other end of the spectrum, in small boutique hotels offering a combination of ultra-chic ambience and intimacy that is synonymous with romance. Again, Jamaica excels, with local entrepreneur Chris Blackwell's Island Outpost group having conceived some of the most welcoming and delightful boutique hotels in the world. They draw notables from Naomi Campbell to Pierce Brosnan, but fortunately most are surprisingly affordable.

NORM:

What is the best time to visit Jamaica from the point of view of weather, costs, crowds, and the availability of flights from the USA, Canada and Europe?

Christopher:

Weather wise, there are only two seasons: wet (May-Nov) and dry (Dec-April). The best time to visit is during dry season, when rainfall is at a minimum and most of the island basks in sunshine.

In summer, prolonged afternoon showers or heavy downpours are typical island wide. Several days or even weeks of unbroken rain are also possible in summer, however, especially in the northeast, although this varies year to year. Summer and fall are also hurricane season, although the chance of a hurricane actually striking the island is relatively slim.

All that said, most of my guidebook research has been undertaken during summer, which has the added advantage of lower prices and less crowds in the most popular resorts, such as Negril and Montego Bay. Flight service to Jamaica  which is well served by both scheduled and charter service varies according to season, although there is daily service from throughout Canada and the USA year-round. The best airfare deals are off-season, in summer.

NORM:

How safe is it to travel to Jamaica?

Christopher:

I first hitchhiked around Jamaica in 1978 and have spent almost 30 years traveling the isle without undue problems.

Concerns over safety should not dissuade visitors from choosing Jamaica, except during times of civil unrest. However, Jamaica's reputation as being unsafe is based on several regrettable realities.

The first is the prevalence of drugs throughout Jamaica society, and the violence that is always associated with the trade is an ever-present undercurrent. Almost every visitor can expect to be approached to buy drugs at some stage during their holiday.

In places such as Negril, the constant entreaties to buy drugs, souvenirs, sexual favors, or similar services by seemingly (or actually) aggressive hustlers can be wearying and is one reason that the all-inclusive resorts have been so successful.

To its credit, the Jamaica Tourist Board has cracked down on hustling in the two other prime tourist destinations, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. I discuss how best to handle this in my Lonely Planet guidebook.

The other aspect that should be addressed is the irascible, quick-to-anger nature of a large segment of Jamaican society. The local temperament can be unusually volatile, and resolution of disputes is often sought through violence.

Many areas of Kingston are entirely unsafe for unescorted visitors. However, this all paints far too gloomy a picture from the perspective of prospective visitors.

The other segment of the Jamaican population comprises the most gracious and hospitable people you could encounter, and the standards of service at most hotels is world-class, not least thanks to the efforts and example set by the training programs and educational outreach of Sandals and SuperClubs, whose influence nationwide extends well beyond the tourist sector.

NORM:

Could you give our readers an idea of the costs involved if travel
originates from the USA or Canada and how accessible is it to fly Jamaica?

Christopher:

Jamaica is served by direct flights from major hubs and cities through Canada and the USA. Most flights serve Montego Bay, often with onward service to Kingston. There is great variation in airfares, not least between seasons and whether flying mid-week or on weekends.

For scheduled non-stop flights originating on weekends in high season, fares begin at about $500 from Miami, $650 from New York, and $750 from Los Angeles. Lesser fares can be obtained if visitors choose flights that require plane changes en route.

Air Jamaica, the national carrier, offers the most competitive rates and is an exceptionally well-run airline with excellent service. Charter operators offer flights from most major urban centers at prices about 10-20% below schedule flights. The cheapest deals are package rates combining airfare and hotel accommodation, offered by charter operators.

NORM:

If you had to choose 6 unequalled venues in Jamaica for a
romantic getaway, honeymoon or wedding destination, what would they be and why?

Christopher:

  • Treasure Beach, with accommodation at Jake's Place, a romantic, totally offbeat and laid-back yet well-run and chic hotel that epitomizes the unpretentious local spirit. It's perfect for couples who want to laze away their time doing very little but laze in a hammock between bouts of making love.

 

  • Negril is the beach-maven's favourite, perfect for couples seeking a great beach, lots of watersports by day, and a zesty yet unpretentious nightlife. There's a wide choice of hotels, including all-inclusive resorts for couples-only, as well as some excellent boutique hotels, including The Caves  a world-class contender for most romantic resort in the world.

  • Strawberry Hill, in the Blue Mountains. Old world ambience combines with contemporary savoir-faire at this mountain retreat a mile above Kingston. The cuisine is fabulous. There's a tremendous garden, plus mountain hiking nearby. Another chic boutique option from Island Outpost.

  • Hedonism II or III (both run by SuperClubs) are almost always booked solid with couples whose idea of a romantic vacation is to get nude, play sexy antics in public, or even to share them (literally) with other couples. Yes, many weddings are performed here& often in the nude.  No prudes allowed!

  • Mandeville. This modestly prosperous, easy-paced town in the central highlands is set amid stunning scenery reminiscent of the English Dales and best enjoyed by rental car. The town has some fine restaurants, and there are some pleasant hikes locally.

  • Port Antonio. If you like lush, this is for you, as the area receives large amounts of rainfall& but not all the time. It's famous for its fine hotels run to traditional standards, such as the somewhat aloof Trident and Jamaica Palace. My recommendation is to choose either the Hotel Mocking Bird Hill (a classy, eco-sensitive boutique hotel with gourmet cuisine, run by delightful artsy owners Shireen Agra and Barbara Walker), or to rent a private deluxe villa overhanging the Blue Lagoon.

NORM:

Are there any special requirements for couples wishing to celebrate their marriage in Jamaica?

Christopher:

Unlike most Caribbean destinations, visitors can get married after only 24 hours on the island. The following notarized documents are required: proof of citizenship; certified copies of appropriate divorce or death certificates with regard to prior spouses; and written parental consent for any party under 18 years of age. French Canadians need a notarized translated copy of all documents and a photocopy of the original French documents.

  • The Registrar General's Department of Jamaica WEBSITE has additional information, including a downloadable Online Marriage Certificate Application.

Norm:

What resources are available on the Internet pertaining to weddings and honeymoon vacations in Jamaica?

Christopher: The Jamaica Tourist Board has complete information on planning a wedding vacation at its WEBSITE.

NORM

Is there anything else you would like to add that we have not covered pertaining to Jamaica?

Christopher:

A visit to Jamaica needs careful planning to ensure that you're getting what you plan. More than any other destination I know, visitors have a love it or hate it reaction, most of which seems to relate to their particular interactions with locals. The island is physically beautiful, the food excitingly spicy and varied, and the music infectious.

Thank you Christopher for your most informative interview.

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