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Turtle Beach Towers: Ocho Rios, Jamaica

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Turtle Beach Towers is not for everyone, but it is a noteworthy choice for certain people, depending on your style of travel, or your personal circumstances. For me, it’s well suited to my purposes and the price is a good value when compared to other alternatives. If you go on any number of travel review sites, you will see a wide array of opinions on this property and more than a few are negative. In most of those cases, my impression is that the people who give negative reviews did not have an accurate idea of what they were booking in the first place. With this article, I intend to set realistic expectations of a property that is unique, but often misunderstood. Before proceeding, I should say that when I’m in Jamaica, I hire a rental car and have independence of movement. Getting to and from the airport to Turtle Beach Towers is a separate issue that I won’t cover here. If you don’t care to rent a car, you will need to work out alternate arrangements to get there.

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The four high rise buildings in the bottom left corner are the Turtle Beach Towers.

As I’ve said, I think it’s important for people to have realistic expectations (including of what not to expect) from Turtle Beach Towers. First of all, it is not a resort, as we normally use that word these days. By contemporary standards, it’s also very basic. Although Turtle Beach Towers used to operate as a typical hotel, it is now, essentially, a high-rise apartment complex. Many of its inhabitants are permanent residents, but many of the units are rented to vacationers. Think of it more as renting an apartment, rather than booking a hotel room. Aside from the people that live there, a significant percentage of guests tend to be people who have some personal affiliation with the island; maybe they’re originally from there, have extended family there, or are otherwise personally connected to the island. This gives Turtle Beach Towers a bit of a local vibe that you won’t get at most places, but not so much that a first time visitor should feel out of place, or uncomfortable.

One thing you should definitely know is that the property is somewhere around 50 years old at this point. When I was a boy, living in Jamaica, I first stayed here way back in the early 80’s. This is where my family would come when we wanted to get away to the beach for a few days. It has not had any major renovations or upgrades in the 30 years since then. I mean that literally. It has been relatively well maintained and, while it is in decent shape, it definitely shows its age and there is no other way to say it than to be blunt; it’s a little on the run down side – clean, but a bit shabby. To be clear, this was never some fancy or high end resort, but even at that, its heyday has passed. To be clear, I’m not saying the place is a dump. I’m saying it’s getting old and you can tell.

If you do some digging online, you will find information for Turtle Beach Towers on a variety of websites, not to mention getting the straight scoop from me right here. However, you will find that the quality of the information out there in the internet world varies quite a bit, usually skewing toward the worthless end of the scale. You can book these apartments through different portals, since the individual owners rent them out when and where they see fit. Several are managed through a company called My Silver Sands (they manage other properties, as well). Personally, I would suggest using them, especially if you’re new to visiting Jamaica, or at least new to Turtle Beach Towers. It just makes it a little easier and more convenient, at least until you get the lay of the land on your first visit. Other than reading my blog, I would recommend getting your info directly from the MySilverSands website (and, no, I get no kickback for referring you to them). What I find on other sites is, most often, simply incorrect.
Here are a few things to know, regardless of what other sites may say. There is no free Wi-Fi on the property. Individual units may have free Wi-Fi, but the property itself does not. To be on the safe side, even if your unit is supposed to have it, if it’s a necessary feature for you, I would confirm ahead of time, directly with the management company. There is not a functioning restaurant and/or bar on the property. There used to be, back in the day, but not anymore. Again, I’ve not seen this misinformation on the MySilverSands booking website, but unfortunately, I have seen signs on the property itself for their now nonexistent restaurant. They should change the signs. Maybe they have since I was there last. I don’t know. Lastly, there is also not a children’s playground, which is another claim I’ve seen on some sites.

Since the units are owned by different people, you can expect different amenities in each, as well as different levels of quality and upkeep. Generally speaking, I would say that they are all kept in clean condition, but it’s unlikely that any of them don’t show their age. Still, look at the pictures carefully before you book a unit to make sure it is what you want. There are studios, one bedroom and two bedroom units available. Unless you’re overly picky, you can probably find something to suit your needs. If you’re extremely picky, this probably isn’t the place for you, anyway. Jamaica is full of luxury resorts and all-inclusive properties. I’m sure you’ll find something (there are ads on the sidebars of this blog for that sort of thing).

I’ll throw out a few examples of things I’ve encountered, to help give an accurate idea of what types of issues you might come across, that a typical North American tourist might not expect in a rental unit. There may be poorly patched and unpainted spots on the walls, where damages have been repaired. The amount and quality of dishes and utensils in the kitchen may vary widely. Again, if kitchen equipment is an important issue for you, check ahead to get a clear idea of what your particular unit has. Cabinets may be rickety, plumbing fixtures may have seen better days. In my experience, everything is clean and taken care of, but once again, it’s an older property. When Turtle Beach Towers was built, it did not have central air conditioning. Heck, when I was a kid, there were very few places in Jamaica that had air conditioning, including our home. We had windows and fans. Luckily, these days there are wall mounted A/C units in the rooms. Be forewarned, though, that if you’re out and about during the day, your housekeeper may turn off your A/C to conserve electricity. If so, you may find yourself returning to a muggy room and will have to wait for it to cool back off.

The kitchens are small and dated and, even though the dishes and cooking equipment may vary, the fact that there is a kitchen at all is a big plus for me, personally. If you are staying for several days, especially if you don’t mind doing a little grocery shopping, it’s nice to be able to cook some meals for yourself. When you’re out in town, you’ll find seasonal fruits and vegetables available at produce stands and there are a few different supermarket options in Ocho Rios. Is grocery shopping in a foreign country a new adventure for you? No worries. The Progressive Foods Supermarket, in particular, is very comparable to the grocery stores in the U.S., or Canada. The layout will feel familiar and there will be many of the products you’re used to, although you’ll find a good variety of Jamaican products that may be new to you. Be adventurous and try something new. Oh, and here’s another tip for you. The supermarket is a good place to buy alcoholic beverages. They have a good selection and, typically, the prices are geared more towards locals than tourists, so it may be a little easier on your wallet.

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Having a fridge comes in handy for keeping your beverages cool. 

I’ve pointed out the things that the property does not have, but one thing it does have is a clean, extra-large swimming pool. Most of the time, there is a lifeguard on duty. Much of the time, they may not be paying a lot of attention and, as likely as not, they won’t be sitting up on the raised lifeguard chair. For that matter, they may not even be sitting where they can actually see the swimming pool. I say all of that less as a criticism as to make the point that if you have children in the pool, keep an eye on them yourself. Many places don’t hire lifeguards, anyway, so taking responsibility for your own kids should really go without saying. While the pool itself is clean and fairly nice, don’t expect the same from the surrounding lounge area. Some, or most, of the chairs may be in a rather dilapidated condition. Some may be downright ragged. Some will be okay. Hopefully, this has been addressed since my last visit, but I wouldn’t assume so. Despite these issues, you can still find a place to relax by the pool and nothing is so bad that it keeps my family from enjoying the pool on a daily basis.

You’re a short stroll to the beach. It’s Jamaica, so the water is gorgeous. I learned to swim at that beach, many year ago. Despite all that, the main beach in Ocho Rios is not my personal favorite and we don’t spend a lot of time there. If you don’t have a car, though, maybe you’ll spend most of your time there. It’s not a bad beach, mind you, it’s just not my favorite. I prefer to go somewhere less crowded and less heavy on tourists. However, if you’re staying at Turtle Beach Towers, it’s right there. There is absolutely no beating the convenience factor. And there’s some stuff to do. You can buy a beer from a vendor, you can book a ride on a glass bottom boat. If you’re not looking to venture too far afield from where you’re staying, it should work out fine for you. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, though, that you may encounter another collection of ragged chairs, but they’re free to use. I guess they have that going for them. If you’re like me, though, you don’t mind spreading out a blanket and plopping down on the ground.

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What about security, you may ask. Clearly, this is not some all-inclusive compound where you are detached from the surrounding world. Right? I know some people get a little a fidgety about such things and, unfortunately, Jamaica gets some occasional negative press abroad regarding crime and safety. Please know that Jamaica, like most developing countries does have its struggles with both poverty and crime, but it is nowhere in the ballpark of being some lawless war zone. Like in the U.S. and elsewhere, high crime areas are not really where the tourists are flocking to in the first place. Furthermore, tourists are very rarely targeted by criminals. I use common sense safety precautions when I go about my life at home. Do the same when you travel, in Jamaica or anywhere, and you should be fine. Making yourself an easy target for petty criminals is a bad idea wherever you might be. All that being said, Turtle Beach Towers is a fenced property. I would not call it a high security property, though. Personally, I don’t feel like there’s enough of a risk to require it to be a high security property. They do have a security guard manning the gate into the parking lot and another at the walk-in gate that leads to the beach. There are a lot of people that live in these apartments full-time and there are quite a few children living there. It is safe enough that young children can be found playing freely on the grounds at most any hour.

The location of the property itself is great. You are in walking distance of most of the shopping in Ocho Rios. You’re right across the street from Island Village and Margaritaville (the only place nearby with free Wi-Fi) and just around the corner from the Taj Mahal shopping center. At Taj Mahal you can find a cambio for exchanging money, get a drink at a bar, buy souvenirs and eat a meal (if you want an authentic Jamaican breakfast, get the ackee and calaloo at the downstairs bar/restaurant). A fairly short stroll toward downtown gets you to even more souvenir shops and the craft market. Major attractions such as Dunn’s River Falls and Dolphin Cove are easily accessible from there, as well, although they may be farther than you want to walk. Ocho Rios is one of the primary tourist locations in Jamaica, but it is also a town with a local population. If you get off the main drag, you will find other restaurants and shops that are not necessarily geared toward tourists. Ask people for recommendations and see beyond the beach a little.

To me, Turtle Beach Towers is most distinctive as a place where you can enjoy the local tourist attractions, while still being able to bite off more of the local lifestyle and culture than you are likely to experience in other venues. The best of both worlds, you might say, as long as you have realistic expectations of the property. So, I would primarily recommend Turtle Beach Towers to people that want a more budget friendly, or local experience than you will find in the big resorts. Yes, it has its shortcomings, but they really aren’t that significant to me. I think it is actually one of the better dollar values to be found on the north coast of Jamaica. If you’re picky, or high maintenance, looking to be pampered, or completely unadventurous, I doubt this is the place for you. After all of my long winded description, I guess the single thing I would say in terms of a recommendation would be this: it’s where I stay with my family.

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One Size Does Not Fit All

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When it comes to travel accommodations, I’m of the opinion that one size does not fit all. These days, many socially conscious travelers expound the merits of slow tourism, eco-tourism and other variations of a supposedly low impact travel philosophy. At the same time, you still have more traditional tourists who want and expect things such as all-inclusive resorts and attractions that fit a more mainstream, American consumer model. Between these end posts are a plethora of tourism styles and, often, people hold to their favorite version of traveling as a matter of principle.

Personally, I’m not committed to any single way of traveling and, by extension, to any specific type of accommodation. In general, I am interested in absorbing as much local culture as possible and I don’t usually gravitate toward the most touristy of tourist traps. So, my typical travel plans may not be quite as mainstream as the average American. In short, I consider myself more of a traveler than a tourist, more of a student of the world than a consumer of it. On the other hand, sometimes I just want to have fun for the sake of having fun. If that means going on a cruise, or staying at an all-inclusive resort, then so be it. Different moods and different goals call for different approaches.

Staying at someone’s house in a new and distant location is arguably the best way to get to the heart of local life and culture, not to mention save some cash. I’ve done it and it has made for some of my most memorable adventures. The down side is that you have to  actually know someone who lives somewhere you want to go, which is usually easier said than done. In the age of the internet and, more particularly, social networking, there are now innovative ways to reinvent the idea of staying with a friend. Couchsurfing has become popular in some circles, especially with young, independent travelers. You need to be safety conscious, of course, but basically this is a digital age equivalent of crashing on someone’s couch. These days, though, that someone may be a person you’ve never met before, but connected with via the internet.

A step up from Couchsurfing is a Homestay. It may sound like semantics, I suppose, but to me, the Homestay difference is that seems a little more formal and may not skew quite as much toward the younger crowd. With a Homestay, you are more likely to go through an agency and you are more likely to be staying with a family. Of course, there is some overlap between these two distinctions, including the fact that you are staying in someone’s home and as a result will, hopefully, enjoy some insight into your destination that would not be possible by staying at a hotel.

Renting a house, or apartment, is another option that also inserts you a bit more into the local culture, while remaining on your own. I personally like this option when I know I’m going to be in one spot for a week, or so. It allows you to having a little more of a homey feeling than a hotel, often in a residential area that gives you a better peek into the lives of the locals. Simple things like shopping for groceries and visiting the corner store may not seem earth shattering, but it’s just these sorts of small, mundane tasks that provide a glimpse of everyday life in a new locale. The two powerhouses of the home rental world are VRBO and Airbnb. I’ve used VRBO more often, partly because they were around first, but the basic premise is the same with either platform. My advice is to search both websites before you book your travel. For some locations, I’ve found the house that suited my needs on VRBO, while for other locations, Airbnb had the property that I liked the most. Comparative shopping is usually wise, just as with other aspects of travel planning.

Whatever the merits of staying with a local, or at least staying on your own, sometimes you just want, or need, a hotel. One consideration when renting a house, or condo, is how well you can negotiate the area you’re in. If you’re in a country where you don’t know the language, or don’t feel overly comfortable on your own, due to significant cultural differences, a standard hotel may be the right answer for you. Hotels provide a fairly consistent, predictable product. For short trips, or longer trips where I’ll be moving from place to place, I’m usually looking for a hotel. What type of hotel I’m interested in is usually determined by a combination of budget and the purpose of my travel.

If I’m just stopping overnight on a road trip, I can get pretty cheap and basic with my hotel choices. If I’m traveling with my family and know that we’ll be spending our evenings in, rather than out on the town, I’ll want something a little nicer with more amenities. For a romantic couples getaway, it’s hard to beat a cozy Bed and Breakfast. Although it’s not often, sometimes I may even want the hotel to be a destination in and of itself. At the far end of the hotel as destination equation would be the all-inclusive resort, which has been epitomized throughout the Caribbean and is represented by properties such as the industry powerhouse Sandals Resorts.

One size may not fit all, but there is a size for everyone and for every occasion. Don’t be afraid to shop around within a variety of property types. You may unexpectedly save money by doing so. For instance, renting a house is very often cheaper than a hotel. Better yet, you may experience a side of life in your target destination that you would have otherwise missed. Time, place and purpose all play a factor in what options are best and that may very well be different from one trip to the next, even to the same destination.

 

 

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