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Home sweet away from home

/ Source: Caribbean Travel and Life

It’s time for a reunion. What happens when you put three generations of family, plus some innocent newcomers, together in a villa on an island far from home? Will it be more sitcom or reality show? Docudrama or heartwarming special? Tune in to find out.

The clincher came when my 67-year-old dad threatened to call and sing “Cat’s in the Cradle” onto my answering machine every day until I agreed to a family reunion.

“‘When you coming home, son?’

‘I don’t know when,

But we’ll get together then, dad.

We’re gonna have a good time then.’”

Nobody needs to hear that. Let’s just say I got the message.

These days, deadlines and demands make time run downhill faster than ever. Meanwhile, parents get older, siblings become distant friends and nieces and nephews consider their aunts and uncles simply voices on the phone. Like most everyone I know who moved away, I get to see my family twice in a good year, and one of those times is Christmas, a blurry donnybrook of parties, presents and prior commitments. So there was no denying that a quality-time reunion was in order — even before the sappy song threat was thrown down. 

I got to pick the place and time, so naturally I chose the Caribbean. A cluster of rooms at a cool resort was my first thought, where there would be something for everyone — the guys could go fishing, the gals could head to the spa, the kids would play in the pool — and we’d all be together for sundowners and supper. But on second thought, what about a villa?

I knew that villa vacations were perfect for romantic escapes. Sequestering with a sweetheart on an exotic isle in a very private home where you’re free to romp around as nature intended always feels deliciously illicit — even those times when it’s not. But a villa for a family vacation? With kids and parents and grandparents? It could work, I figured — as long as I packed a lot more clothes — and it might even have some benefits over a resort.

Booking was easy. I considered our requirements: five bedrooms, pool, kid-friendly amenities; added our favorite activities: snorkeling, swimming, scenic drinking; and then conjured a couple of wish-list ideas: fishing and spa treatments. I found good options on St. Barts, St. John and Jamaica, but only the last had the advantage of direct flights from Philly — much easier on the little ones and thus on their parents and grandparents, who all live in Bucks County. So I clicked on the “Family Collection” at Linda Smith’s website and looked for a property that fit the bill.

One jumped out: Fortlands Point on Discovery Bay. It looked perfect.

That's why I find myself in a cold sweat on the motorcoach taking us from MoBay’s Sangster airport to Discovery Bay. I realize that I’ve set in motion something that’s potentially more social experiment than bonding experience. My family is fairly typical — not the Brady Bunch, but scoring on the civilized side of the Partridge Family/Manson Family curve. On vacations together when my sister, Carol, and I were kids, travel-stress-induced tempers could make our big Plymouth feel more like a circus car stuffed with edgy, sarcastic clowns. Only when we reached adulthood — or as close as we would get — did things become more laid-back. Now, though, we’ve added Carol’s husband, Gary, and their two kids — Meghan, age 5 going on 15, and Brendan, a terror at 2 — and my fiancée Sandi. And since Sandi’s folks had never met my family, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity.

From chic to rustic, expensive to affordable, tourists looking for some sun and sand can find what they're looking for in the Caribbean.

What was I thinking, I wonder as I turn around and see Jerry and Ginny sitting in the back, a little wide-eyed, as they’re welcomed by my family with flying bags of Doritos, Cheerios and 20 questions all at once. Our flight was delayed in Miami and no one has had more than three hours of sleep or a meal. I can sense some telltale fraying of nerves.

This, I’m worried, could quickly turn into a bad reality show: Fear Factor meets The Real Gilligan’s Island meets Survivor, except it’s family, so you’re not allowed to vote anyone off the island. We’re stuck together for the duration, all in one house. What if the kids start screaming and never stop? What if I can’t watch my language — Meghan’s already calling me Uncle Potty Mouth. What if Gary throws Brendan up in the air and he hits a ceiling fan? What if our parents don’t get along?

I need a drink. When the driver stops for gas, I jump out and buy a big bag of beef patties and fill the cooler with Red Stripes. “It’s barely noon,” says my mom.

“That’s OK,” I say, handing around the frosty bottles and spicy turnovers. “It’s island time.” I consider slipping a binky full of beer to Brendan, but amazingly, he’s already down with the Jamaican vibe. He gives me a look that’s like: “Irie mon, no problem.” Then he wings a juice box at my head.

After 90 minutes on the road, I’m having an upside-down flashback to my childhood: My parents are asking, “Are we there yet?,” and I’ve been telling them, “just five more minutes” for the last half hour. Finally, at the end of Fortlands Road, just before it drops into the Caribbean Sea, a tall gate guarded by a cannon announces that we’ve arrived at Fortlands Point. Inside the compound there are more cannons along the driveway. Discovery Bay — first named Dry Harbor by Columbus who, on his second voyage, couldn’t find fresh water when he landed here — was an important port for the Brits when they took over from the Spanish. They built a fort and barracks hereabouts that bristled with some of these same cannons.

At the end of the long brick drive, we’re greeted by Desrine, the head housekeeper, and her assistant, Paulette; Gary the head butler and his assistant, Amos; and Pauline, who will be our cook. They escort us through the tunnel-like entranceway that the villa’s owner, a prominent seventh-generation Jamaican, added to enhance the fortress feel. At the far end is a small courtyard with a fountain and lily-padded koi pond. “Fishy!” says Brendan as he tries to squirm out of his dad’s arms and join them in the water.

From the back of the procession up the cut-stone ramp that leads into the villa I hear what sounds like a chimpanzee sing-along, a chorus of “oo-oo”s and “aah-oo”s. When I make it to the doorway I understand. All eyes are immediately drawn to a wide set of French doors, then across the lawn to the bright-blue Caribbean beyond. Through another large doorway on the west side lies the even brighter-blue pool, with the calm, dazzling waters of Discovery Bay beyond.

Desrine takes us on a quick tour. Inside, there’s no fortress feel. The 10,000-square-foot villa is warm and welcoming; spaces are grand yet not ostentatious, designed with intimate dimensions and finely appointed: Brazilian teak floors; Jamaican cedar shutters, doors and balconies; a staircase hewn from rich mahogany. Every hard surface is porcelain tile, hand-cut stone or slate. There are seven air-conditioned bedrooms — all with views, two with balconies, one with a garden patio — on four levels, and a family room complete with a big satellite TV and a video collection.

Everyone is tired from the journey, but there’s no thought of napping. We charge up and down the staircase — choosing rooms, stowing luggage, visiting everyone else’s room, rushing back to put on bathing suits. By the time we all meet up at the patio bar, the guys — it’s hard to think of these friendly young men as butlers — have set out salads and a big platter of fried fish, along with chicken fingers for the kids.

After lunch, Sandi and I test the water in the hot tub, which spills over deep blue tiles into the pool, and then walk down onto the broad lawn of spongy grass. Bougainvillaea, crotons, impatiens and star of jasmine grow in clouds of color at the side of the house. A stand of casuarinas creates a shady spot at the edge of the ocean, and a sprinkling of palms and sea grapes give depth to the 2.5-acre property. Just past a gracefully spreading almond tree, we walk down onto the villa’s private beach, where a heron is hunting at the water’s edge, staring intently at little ghost crabs that scuttle in and out of sandy burrows. Meghan catches up to us down on the sand and spots the bright yellow boats. “Uncle Bob, I’ve never been on a kayak before.”

She sits in the front of the two-seater as I drag it down the beach and into the warm water. Once she has instructed me on how not to rock the boat, we paddle into the bay. Small swells roll in from offshore, but Discovery Bay is protected by a thick reef, which breaks the waves and creates a marine-life wonderland. The water is very clear and Meghan is soon spotting fish. “What’s that one? That one? How about that one?” I tell her we can go snorkeling one of these days and meet them all up-close. “I’ve never been snorkeling before,” she says. “But I want to try.”

Back at the patio bar after the fantastic little voyage, I sink into one of the plump couches and catch up with my parents below the spinning ceiling fan. Gary — the butler, not the brother-in-law — blends a pitcher of piña coladas for us, and my dad uses up his one allotted, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Carol comes through carrying Brendan, who’s wearing a floating swimsuit that makes him look like he’s smuggling bricks of Velveeta. Brendan’s dying to get to the pool, but he wants his best buddy to come, too — so Pop-Pop pours his piña into a plastic cup, puts on his big sun-beating safari hat and jumps in. An hour later, with a thunderhead climbing above the hills south of the bay and starting to spit lightning, Mom-Mom calls the boys out of the pool. Brendan fights like a barracuda to stay in, but the promise of a Thomas the Train play session lures him out.

Not only does the villa completely cover all our needs, but two calls even fulfill our wish-list. Linda Smith finds us a sport-fishing boat, and the captain says he can motor right up to our seawall tomorrow morning. My second call is to Carolyn Jobson from Jamaica Inn’s Kiyara Spa, one of the island’s best. We make arrangements to turn the villa into a spa as a special Mother’s Day present for the ladies. I even assure Jobson that we menfolk will drag ourselves away for, oh, about six hours ... eight if the fish are biting. The last detail for the perfect day is handled by Desrine, who knows a good nanny named Charm. How can you go wrong with a nanny named Charm?

After a sunset happy hour on the seaside deck, dinner is served in the formal dining room as a first-night occasion. Once we’re seated around the big mahogany table — an heirloom that’s over 100 years old — Gary and Amos serve five courses — six if you count Brendan’s special order of hot dogs (the chemical-red-hued Jamaica kind). The rest of us have to make do with a main course of fresh snapper in local spices with a homemade sweet-tooth-tantalizing coconut-cream pie for dessert. Pauline, who tells me she learned to cook at her grandmother’s side, is a crowd-pleaser, and there’s not a crumb of leftovers.

Once the kids are snug in their beds the grown-ups and the really grown-ups settle around the patio bar. We plug a reggae-filled iPod into the villa’s sound system and turn on the pool’s underwater lights to provide a cool glow below the star-packed sky. Gary the butler makes us a first round of drinks, but then Gary the brother-in-law takes over. Talk and laughter lingers late into the night until, two by two, we head off to bed.

In the morning, coffee is ready and waiting before even the earliest risers get downstairs. Breakfast is on a garden patio, where we dig into a pile of bacon and eggs and slices of sweet Julie mango, pineapple and passion fruit. A rumble out past the cove signals the arrival of our charter boat, and the men walk out to the point and hop aboard the 48-footer.

Lines go into the water as soon as we clear the Discovery Bay buoy, and the crew says we could hit barracuda or kingfish close in, dolphin (mahi-mahi), tuna or marlin just a mile or so farther out. The real secret to a successful fishing trip is in the stories: the tales of other trips, other fish — ones that got away and ones that didn’t. As my dad and Jerry alone are stocked with about 100 years’ worth of anecdotes between them — none of which either has ever heard — the talking part is a huge success, even if the actual fishing isn’t.

The captain is working at it, though, steering for every stick of bamboo or clump of sargassum he can find in the hopes there’ll be a dolphin or two shadowing beneath it. After several hours of unproductive trolling, we duck into the cabin and break out the sandwiches the villa staff packed. Another secret about fishing is that nothing happens until you stop paying attention. Sitting on the couch with my mouth full, I see first one and then another of the six rods take serious dips as simultaneously we hear the snap of an outrigger clip. I’m out the door, in the fighting chair and tied to an angry 25-pound mahi-mahi before I can even swallow. My dad grabs the other rod, and we fight both fish to the boat. We’d release anything not quite so savory, but these beauties will give the entire family a taste of the freshest possible fish; our mouths are watering just imagining how a pro like Pauline will prepare them.

The boat drops us back at the villa around 5. Apparently the spa day was a winner, too: Carol, my mom and Ginny float down the lawn to greet us, massaged to the melting point, serenity in their smiles. Brendan had been Charmed all day, and Meghan shows me her fingernails; one of Carolyn’s crew gave her the whole soaking, buffing and painting treatment — another first. I find Sandi up at the villa, getting the final touches applied to her own manicure, with her toes freshly pampered and her whole being still aglow from a piña colada body scrub performed at the edge of the sea beneath the casuarinas.

Normality is now totally banished. We take all our meals on one of the patios, never out of sight of the water. Shoes are lost; bathing suits are the uniform of the day. Meghan has been practicing her swimming and is bursting to break out of the pool. We find a dive mask that fits her just right and head down to the beach for her very first snorkel. She climbs on my back like a baby otter and I swim along the rocky walls inside the cove, following a school of tiny bar jacks. When Meghan gets comfortable leaning over my shoulder and putting her face in the water, I fin out to the reef. We start shallow, but soon the water is over 10 feet deep, and still she’s totally at ease — too busy watching fish and the myriad other critters we find to worry. She quizzes me on everything, our heads popping up every minute so I can explain some new wonder. Soon she’s off my back and beside me, hanging onto my arm.

When Sandi swims out to meet us, I hand Meghan off so I can dive down to bring up some curiosities. When we finally haul ourselves out of the water, Mom-Mom is there to meet us. As she wraps Meghan in a towel, she asks her what she saw. I try to remember a couple of things to prompt her, but before I can say a word, Meghan starts rattling. “Oh Mom-Mom, we saw a baby French angelfish, a school of silversides, lots of sea urchins — which you have to be careful of but they won’t hurt you if you don’t bump into them — and trumpetfish, two big ones and then a baby one, and then a blue tang and two butterflyfish and then ... oh, yeah, a scorpionfish that looks like a rock and doesn’t move much but you still shouldn’t try to touch them, and then an ‘enemy’ that looks like a flower and has colors like my fingernails and then Uncle Bob found two brittle stars that look like spiders and I didn’t want to touch them, and then he found a sea cucumber that I didn’t want to touch either, but I held the sea biscuit and then you wouldn’t believe it: A cute little baby fish was living inside the skeleton of a sea urchin! He swam out but we caught him in our hands and made sure he went back inside so no big fish would eat him, and then Uncle Bob caught a pufferfish that puffed up and got all spiky but I didn’t touch him either.”

I’m stunned. And humbled by the abilities of a sparkling-fresh brain. Meghan and Mom start up toward the villa, but Meghan runs back to me. “Uncle Bob,” she confides, “snorkeling is my favorite thing in the world.”

And that’s enough to make the entire trip worth it. Seeing a little loved one embrace something I enjoy so much is a genuine family moment. As I’m rinsing the sand off the masks and fins, I look around. Sandi’s folks are relaxing out on the point in deck chairs, Carol is stretched out on a lounger watching Brendan and Gary splash in the pool, and Mom is applying yet another layer of sunscreen to Meghan — who’s filling her in on a hundred more details about our snorkel. Dad is wandering around taking pictures of everyone and everything. Sandi squeezes my hand and tells me to meet her in the hammock under the casuarinas. A delicious smell is wafting from the kitchen where the staff is preparing lunch — I bet it’s mahi-mahi.

I realize that by staying in a villa like this, we have our own private resort, with all the amenities, activities and attractions possible. The family factor? We all eased into a rhythm. In a natural, comfortable ebb and flow, everyone from age 2 to 67 gathers to play and laugh and enjoy meals, and then moves off to relax and renew in a more private manner before coming together again as one big happy family.

Now I wonder, What the hell — oops — what the heck was I ever worried about?

Bob Friel is the Editor in Chief of Caribbean Travel & Life.

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