Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
This gorgeous cliffside resort with a social conscience attracts couples of all stripes.
Designed by Jean-Henri Morin, the Rockhouse seems to have grown organically from the volcanic rock cliffs. Molding natural stone with concrete, the entire property settles snugly into the preexisting cove formations. Private, thatch-roofed Premium Villas are scattered along winding paths, enclosed by palms and exotic flora. On the cliff's edge, isolated duets of loungers rest on leveled platforms as high as 40 feet from the water, overlooking the most beautiful sunsets in the country. Of course, finding your way through the rarely marked pathways can be a challenge -- I circled the spa and the same "keep the vibes calm" sign three times before finding my room at the end of the night.
Fit young couples in snorkeling gear, American retirees living out the golden years by touring the world -- the hotel catches an intimate collection of guests who deliberately seek a hotel without a TV in the room. (However, for rainy days, the hotel provides VHS rental for $10 daily. The movies are mostly Academy Award winners and Jamaican favorites.) In the game room and lounge, just off the restaurant, Scrabble boards are wedged between overstuffed sofas.
Unlike the grandiose megaresorts elsewhere on the island (those luxury-branded high-walled properties that use fear to discourage any guest from spending a penny off their property), the Rockhouse strives to be part of the community. Rooms come with socially conscious (and far superior), locally made Starfish Oil soaps and bath products. All furniture is crafted from local timber. From its inception, the designer was forced to limit his impact on the surrounding jungle, and the hotel strives to operate in an environmentally conscious manner, including solar-heated hot water. The private owners have also established the Rockhouse Foundation, a registered not-for-profit based in New York that has already donated nearly $1 million to rebuild suffering schools in Negril.
Rooms are intentionally simple -- no TV, no Wi-Fi, and no radio. There was a phone in my room, but it didn't work. In general, the room was beautiful, but it lacked the artistic thrill of other design-focused boutiques. Plastic cups, scratched furniture, and limited space generally make the rooms feel a little dingier than what one might find at Round Hill, another TV-less luxury property that's considerably more expensive. But the draw at Rockhouse is clearly outside the room.
Next to the bed, someone had crammed in a miniature work desk; it was basically big enough to hold the plastic guest services binder.
The bathroom "proper" was just a small room, cramped with a toilet and sink, but it opened into the large outdoor shower (big enough for a wedding party, should the evening take that turn). The shower is enclosed on four sides by teal tiles. A slight, though significant, breeze came from beneath the thatch-roofed overhang. But the rusted piping and plastic showerhead rid the shower of any real luxurious feel.
The bathroom was stocked with locally made bath products from Starfish Oil, a company that works with Jamaica's impoverished Kingston sectors. They make soap and after-sun lotion well worth smuggling home.
The lime-green-and-magenta balcony (opening to a neighboring property and a shred of the sea) offered some wooden deck chairs as well as a small desk with wicker chairs for dining, playing cards, or, as a prior guest demonstrated, carving your initials (though I wouldn't recommend it).
The staff is pleasantly at ease, yet still professional. Restaurant service is excellent.
Unlike most other resorts, the staff here appeared comfortable, if merely because they were all dressed in clean-pressed cotton khakis and white Rockhouse polos. This was an appreciated break from the starched, polyester uniforms or over-the-top costumes found at the Holiday Inn, Iberostar, or Sunset Resorts. The harsh manager-versus-subordinate divide didn't appear as prevalent here (unlike everywhere else, where comfortable, classy uniforms distinguish those in charge from their sweltering lessers). As is typically the case, when the employees are more comfortable, guests become more comfortable.
Still, I found it difficult to test the service as I didn't have a working phone in my room (I would have called to complain, but ... ). On check-in, my room wasn't ready (at about 1:30 p.m.), so they needed me to wait at either the bar or just "wander around" for an hour and a half while they cleaned it. There was a porter to help with my bags, and he gave me a tour of the room (including a highly complex explanation of the AC unit's automatic start and shutdown, which I never really figured out). Service at the restaurant was polite, professional, and seemed oddly reminiscent of what one might find in Manhattan (perhaps because one of the coowners comes from a restaurant management background in New York).
Rockhouse is situated on beautiful cliffs with gorgeous clear water below. There is no beach, though. The resort's transportation shuttles guests to and from Montego Bay airport (two hours, $80 each).
Located directly on the cliffs of Negril's West End, there are no beaches. Rather, the hotel has rather rocky inlets sculpted into diving platforms and much clearer water than on the beachfront side of Negril. The major advantage is that the Rockhouse faces some of the most beautiful sunsets in the country.
A slight arts-and-crafts industry opened up just outside the Rockhouse gates (following the guests who have money), where guests can barter over the price of a marijuana-leaf scarf or carved wooden horse. Though there was a convenience store opposite the Rockhouse, we didn't find it to be of much use -- no phone cards, no fruit, no full packs of cigarettes (just these five-cig Marlboro containers that tear off at the top like a ketchup packet), no real food of any kind. Outside the shop, I found the local cocaine dealer, a polite young lad dressed a little too well for comfort. Still, it felt reasonably safe walking around the area (at least by daylight).
In the vicinity (either by long walk or short drive) are plenty of great jerk joints like Three Dives as well as "brownie" stands (which add, on request, illicit Jamaican seasoning to the standard cake).
Further up the mountain is Ricks Café, a Negril icon since 1974, which every cab driver from Negril to Montego Bay brought to my attention. With quality live reggae performances each night and their famous cliff-diving demonstrations, the place is the most popular spot in town for sunset cocktails. But once it gets dark and the techno starts blasting, most guests return home.
A two-hour drive from Montego Bay airport, the Rockhouse provides its own shuttle for $80 for each person.
The Rockhouse Spa lies in the center of the resort, flanked on all sides by signs that read "Keep Vibes Calm." The spa offers a broad range of holistic treatments for singles or couples. Treatments can be performed in either the dark, Zen Buddhist-themed facility or at "massage point," a three-walled hut overlooking the sea.
Though Rockhouse lacks a fitness center, the hotel typically hosts daily yoga sessions (for a fee). But these classes were on hiatus while I was there (due to poststorm cleanup efforts).
The Rockhouse does not allow kids under 12, and only four rooms can accomodate more than two people. But mellow teens may dig the vibe.
Kids are rarely allowed at resorts along the Cliffs, a combined result of their precarious cliff-top location and a typically mellow, intimate atmosphere. Nearby Tensing Pen is the only exception to this rule, allowing kids of all ages.
Although the Rockhouse is on the quiet side, water-loving teens will love the infinity pool and the resort's various diving ledges. The hotel also lends out snorkel gear, and has a basic game room with board games, but that's it, as rooms are intentionally devoid of Wi-Fi, radios and TV's.
Of its 34 rooms, the Rockhouse only has four "loft villas," which feature a queen bed downstairs and an upstairs sleeping loft with a double bed and a twin bed. These can accomodate up to four people, and are great for mellow, self-sufficient families that don't mind the lack of high-tech features.
Younger guests should also bring a sophisticated palate; the menu at the vaunted Rockhouse Restaurant, though reasonably priced, lacks chicken fingers and mac 'n' cheese (the closest you'll get is calamari or seafood linguini). The more casual Negril Pushcart also emphasizes local seafood and spicy Jamaican flavors. Jerk sausage: yes. Grilled cheese: No.
Rooms are generally clean, and the staff does a good job of maintaining the property, even after storms.
Rooms were generally clean -- fresh sheets, clean floors, scrubbed toilets -- though the outdoor shower generated some rust, as is to be expected. There was also a thick soapy film on the faucets and showerheads.
I couldn't fault cleanliness issues on the property (strewn dead leaves, construction debris, etc.) because saltwater and flooding destroyed most of the plants and brought heaping debris into the pool. However, I was astounded by how successful the cleanup efforts were only five days after the storm. Essentially, the staff replanted an entire jungle; team members worked thoroughly (and noisily) around the clock to get the property ready for a wedding that weekend.
Very clean, all things considered.
Two amazing restaurants, with some of the best cuisine and views in Negril
The cliff-top Rockhouse restaurant has a casual atmosphere (no aristocratic dress code required) and locally focused cuisine (with veggie options), making it one of the best restaurants in the West End. I was referred to the restaurant by cab drivers, other hotels, and several guests from nearby resorts who didn't know I was staying there. I even spotted the CEO of the Negril Escape Resort eating there with his family the day after I reviewed his hotel (awkward).
Cuisine here is simple and local but wonderfully executed, with dishes such as the jerk snapper filet easily on par with the fare at the island's ultra-luxurious resorts. Better still, Rockhouse is about a third of the price of its costlier counterparts.
Rockhouse also added a second restaurant in 2009 called Pushcart, a reference to the island’s famed bobsled team (during Olympic training, pushcarts were used in place of the bladed bobsled given the lack of ice in these parts). The restaurant is distinctly Jamaican in both menu and decor. The menu is filled with local delicacies that go far beyond the standard jerk chicken, such as curried goat, fish with bammy (cassava bread soaked in coconut milk and deep fried), and homemade jerk sausage. The space features a wooden bar lined with director’s chairs; paintings of local heroes such as Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey; red, yellow, and green-painted picnic tables; and of course, an authentic pushcart.
The views from Pushcart are spectacular, and the restaurant's open-air overlook, perched on a cliff above the rest of the resort and strung lights and tiki torches, is a romantic spot to watch the sunset.
Excellent food, attentive serivce, and an exclusive, intimate setting, and one of Jamaica's most beautiful locations -- but it's not cheap
In an effort to create a memorable experience, the Rockhouse goes to great lengths when it comes to service, cuisine, and all the extra little touches that make it one of the most desirable destination wedding hotels in Jamaica. But plan to book early. The hotel only permits 20 weddings throughout the year, only during the off-season (the summer and fall), requires a great majority of their rooms booked for at least three nights, and only schedules one wedding per week so that the staff has enough time to adequately prepare the grounds (the majority of all-inclusive wedding factories churn out upwards of four or five weddings each day). However, for a comparable experience (and one that allows children under the age of 12) Tensing Pen might be an equally beautiful yet more affordable option for slightly smaller weddings.
A small, tranquil treehouse-style spa
“Spa Zone: Keep the Vibes Calm” proclaims a sign along the winding jungle path that leads to the Rockhouse Spa. The vibes are indeed mellow at this earthy, thatched-roof spa, which is centered around a pond filled with lily pads and a trickling fountain. Made up of just a couple of treatment rooms, a mani/pedi room, and a relaxation lounge, the space is quaint and serene.
All treatments begin with a soothing foot soak and massage using local natural ingredients such as cinnamon and brown sugar, while guests recline on one of the bamboo-lined couches in the relaxation lounge. Therapists are exceptionally talented, and my treatment was never interrupted by any loud sounds (perhaps that sign really does its job).
Treatments are extra special at the Spa Pavilion, a freestanding thatched-roof hut that stands at the edge of a cliff among the Premiere Villas’ private sundeck. The sound of waves crashing into the rocky outcroppings below are part of the immersive and holistic experience that is integral to the Rockhouse Spa concept.
The lush, laid-back Rockhouse creates a holistic haven -- gourmet dining, morning yoga, cliffside loungers, a premium spa, no kids under 12, and beautiful eco-appropriate design. But most astounding are the reasonable rates. (The slightly chicer Caves costs about three times more.)