Half Moon, Montego Bay


True to its name, midway between two lunar phases, Half Moon resort is undergoing a transition. Estella Shardlow gets a sneak peek at the ‘new moon’…

Circles seem to be everywhere today. The driveway loops around towering columns of Washington Palms, drawing up to the gleaming Great House, its portico crowned with a circular emblem, half black, half white. There is the deep curve of pale gold sand fronting the Caribbean Sea; my feet pedalling furiously in the spinning class; the vinyasas at morning yoga on the beach; the sun that sinks as a perfect orange ball on my first evening.

And the cyclical nature of time, as it occurs to me that trips to Jamaica book-end my stint living in the Caribbean: two years ago, a visit to Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios; this time, I’m at Half Moon in Montego Bay.

Over that period, Half Moon resort has been undergoing major changes of its own, a $75million renovation and extension plan that will be officially unveiled in November 2018. Thanks to the spaciousness of the resort, spread over some 400 acres, this work has gone on out of sight and earshot of guests. From the terrace of my oceanfront suite, I listen for the distant whirr of diggers and drills, but don’t hear so much as another voice, except for the friendly greeting of the waiter who brings my room-service order at lunchtime. The soundtrack is purely the rush-hiss of breaking waves and rustling of leaves from skinny palms propped skew-whiff on the sand, as if they’ve had too many of the house rum punches.

It’s only when exploring the grounds in Half Moon’s primary mode of transport – golf buggy – that I eventually come across the main construction site, where 57 rooms and suites are nearing completion. They follow the same low-rise, colonial architectural style as the existing buildings, all white fluted columns and broad verandas, and are joined by two new restaurants, an adults-only swimming pool and landscaped entranceway with lobby (the existing Great House reception will be dedicated to group check-ins come autumn).

Several additions and revamps from the first phase of the project are already in full swing, though, including Moonchie’s beach barbecue hut, which hits the spot for a casual and authentic jerk-spiced lunch, and refurbishment of award-winning, fine dining restaurant The Sugar Mill.

Clearly, Half Moon isn’t a place to rest on its laurels, even though it has some serious heritage credentials it could rely upon. Almost a full set of Windsors – the Queen, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and most recently Prince Harry – as well as Prince Rainier and Princess Caroline of Monaco have unwound in the resort’s manicured grounds in its 60-year history. JFK and Jacquie Kennedy spent a month here prior to the former President’s inauguration.

Stately yet unshowy, it’s easy to see why this was the retreat of choice for such figures, who could take over its secluded East End villas with their attendants (these boast up to seven bedrooms, plus a personal butler and cook). Attention seeking travellers should stick to the pool at the W or Fontainebleau; skimpy bikini selfies flaunting bottles of Armand de Brignac just aren’t Half Moon’s style.

There is instead a sort of refined country club charm to the property, which an 18-hole, par-72 golf course only adds to. The peaceful gardens and two beaches (aptly named ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset’) are also a refuge to various wildlife; under the cerise bows of bougainvillea and oleander trees, I encounter a trio of tabby kittens and a mongoose, and dozens of turtles clamber out of the waves to dig their nests on the sand during the second half of the year.

My ‘cottage’ (okay, the name is slightly disingenuous for a seemingly endless suite complete with grand piano, three flat-screen televisions and possibly Jamaica’s deepest bath tub) on the western edge of the resort would be perfect for a paparazzi-shy monarch. Waves lap right up to the private terrace. Looking across the beach to the Great House, other guests’ cottages are merely glimpsed among thick swathes of palm and sea grape trees. And though lacking an actual throne, there seem to be enough places in the suite to park one’s derriere for every day of the week, from chaise longues to sofas, antique occasional chairs to cushioned sun loungers.

One of the loveliest touches are the local artworks dotted around the rooms. Where hotel canvasses can often be twee or formulaic, these seem pulsing with all the colour and vitality Jamaica’s lush natural landscape.

It all falls into place when I take an excursion to the gallery, home and garden of self-taught artist Ras Natango, who has produced hundreds of paintings for Half Moon, and his green-fingered wife Tamika in Camrose in St James. Originally an accountant by trade, Ras was laughed at (and incurred Tamika’s wrath) when he spontaneously purchased this steep, rocky plot of land some 2,000 feet above Montego Bay. But together, over three decades, they transformed it from a barren scrubland to an Eden of lush, colourful terraces. Today it draws visitors from as far afield as China and Uruguay.

Every few steps there’s something quirky and endearing to stumble upon, from themed miniature gardens, including a fairy town and model dinosaur park, to a ‘Zen’ sand garden for meditation, handmade sundial and waterfall; orchids and bougainvillea cascade over bamboo arbors, and one of the resident swallow tail hummingbirds, Tad, flits between the passionfruit and avocado trees.

With such natural beauty around him, and an eagle’s nest valley panorama, Ras understandably does most of his painting outside, right here among the flowers. He even turns his brush to the stones and tree trunks when the forms suggest different animals or figures to his imagination – that log becomes a twisting serpent, a tiger snarls from a nearby rockface.

Indigenous flora is also the inspiration back at Half Moon’s Fern Tree Spa, where botanicals cultivated in the courtyard herb garden become part of the therapies. After a spell in the steam room scented with fresh peppermint, I am treated to a blissful signature massage by Cynthia, which utilises a favourite of local folk medicine, the cerasee plant (also called bitter melon), along with a citrus inhaler and a splash of Appleton rum to finish.

My stay at Half Moon was just two nights long, but enveloped in these gardens, the spa and the Caribbean Sea, I leave so relaxed it may as well have been a fortnight.

For more information about Half Moon resort, visit www.halfmoon.com.

Ahhh… Ras Natango Gallery & Garden offers a complimentary shuttle to guests in and around Montego Bay. Entry (including a drink) is US$35 per person. For more information visit www.rasnatango.com/ or call +1 876 578 2582.