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Jamaica - Loaded with Natural Attractions & Family-Friendly Resorts

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica -- We climbed the slippery rocks, toehold to toehold, through the cascading waterfall up the steep incline.

The kids thought we'd found the best theme park attraction ever, but this was no theme park: We were climbing Dunn's River Falls, perhaps Jamaica's most famous natural attraction. Ocho Rios, in fact, got its name from the falls. The area's original name was Las Chorreras, ``the waterfalls'' in Spanish. English settlers later garbled that into Ocho Rios.

The morning we visited Dunn's River Falls, experienced guides were offering to lead the way up the top for a few dollars. The place was crowded with tourists of all shapes and sizes -- my daughter Melanie and nephew Kyle, both 6, made the climb easily, stopping at various points to splash in the cold, clear pools of water.

But my water shoes kept coming off, and I was decidedly nervous as we followed our own barefooted guide who pushed us faster to the top. Kyle's 9-year-old brother Michael thought I was mean when I wouldn't let him make the climb again. (I won my way back in Michael's good graces later when he had the chance to shimmy up a giant coconut tree. He didn't get very far.)

Jamaica offers plenty of natural attractions like the falls, exotic gardens, green mountains (you can go watch coffee being roasted) and, of course, water sports to satisfy any child and parent.

It also has, it seems, the greatest concentration of family-friendly inclusive resorts anxious to woo travelers with an array of packages and deals.

Another option for families, especially two traveling together or those vacationing with grandparents and other relatives, is to rent a staffed villa. Here's your chance to check out how the other half lives, complete with housekeeper, gardener and cook, frequently for less than the cost of a hotel for everyone. (Call the Jamaica Association of Villas at 800-845-5276.)

It's easy to get here, too, with direct flights from major cities. (Don't forget a passport or certified birth certificate. If you'd like to see other islands, check with Air Jamaica: It is offering new island-hopping options. Call 800-523-5585.)

But there's also a downside to visiting here: Jamaica is a terribly poor country whose residents aggressively pester tourists, hawking everything from guide services to boat rentals, souvenirs and hair braiding. Some parents complain they have fended off drug dealers as well.

``They try to broker everything they can and they push very hard, much more than in Mexico,'' said Chicago Realtor Rosemary Thomas, who has vacationed here with her husband and four daughters. ``But all of the people we met on a personal level were lovely,'' she added.

That's why rather than seek adventures like the Thomas family did, many families who come to Jamaica opt to remain safely ensconced at a resort or villa where they and the kids will be pampered from the time they wake up until they go to bed.

``In the week we were in Jamaica, we left the resort once,'' said a laughing Ray Carmichael, a Midwest executive who has vacationed at the FDR Resort twice with his wife and daughter. ``We were there for sun and fun.''

There's plenty of both for families, at Boscobel Beach, for example. The sprawling 207-room SuperClubs resort near Ocho Rios was designed specifically for parents and kids, from the cheery nursery for infants to the in-room refrigerators to the petting zoo, computers and room full of arcade games that was crowded with preteens when we visited.

I especially liked the adults-only restaurant and pool, where parents can relax knowing their children are happily engaged elsewhere under counselors' watchful eyes.

``We have to market aggressively these days because there are so many players out there for families,'' concedes Boscobel General Manager Richard Hall.

But he's convinced a seasoned traveler wouldn't worry about his safety on a trip here. ``You hate to say it, but these days you've got to vacation smart wherever you go. Jamaica is no different than anywhere else: You want to stick to the regular tourist organizations and ask a lot of questions before you go.''

Here are some Jamaica family deals this fall:

-- Until Nov. 15, kids under 6 stay, eat and play free at Boscobel Beach. You won't have trouble finding a sitter because nursery hours are extended and free baby-sitters are available any other time. Pay for six nights and stay for seven. Rates start at $2,038 for a family of four. Call 800-859-SUPER.

-- Go before Dec. 18 and kids 16 and under can stay and eat free at the brand new 225-room Beaches resort in Negril, built on a seven-mile-long beach. There are organized kids' activities available all day and in the evening for children aged 3 months and up. Call 800-BEACHES.

-- Go before Halloween to the Round Hill Hotel & Villas and you get a free nanny for five hours a day. Children 16 and under can also stay free in an adjoining room in Pineapple House and get half off meals. This deal is in effect all summer, too. Rates start at $190 per room.

-- Go by Nov. 6 to the all-suite, all-inclusive Franklyn D. Resort in Runaway Bay (where you get your own nanny for the week when you check in) and pay just $125 per night per adult for lodging, meals, drinks and all activities. Kids 16 and under are free. Call 800-654-1FDR.

-- Go by Dec. 20 to the newly renovated Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort in Montego Bay and get summer rates starting at $125 per person per night, including all meals, drinks and activities. There's a full children's program, which includes lunch and dinner, even for toddlers, and a separate kiddie pool. Children up to age 12 are free; teens are $50 a night. Call 800-HOLIDAY.

(Taking the Kids invites questions, comments or stories about your own family travels. While we can't answer every letter, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns. Write to Taking the Kids, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or e-mail eogintz@aol.com.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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