Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
Expansive views are the biggest draw, followed by the impressive property features
Strawberry Hill is owned by the same music mogul that transformed Ian Fleming’s historic estate into the uber-luxurious GoldenEye Hotel and Resort, and is also a very special place, if not quite as luxurious as its sister property. Nestled high above Kingston among the famous coffee-producing Blue Mountains, the former plantation might be the island’s most isolated property. The hour-long trip from Norman Manley International Airport is marked by hairpin turns, shoulder-less roads, and potholes the size of a small car.
Yet, upon arriving at the 12-room resort, the sense of relaxation is immediate. Twenty-six acres filled with local flora and expansive lawns overlook seemingly endless vistas of the jungle, city, and ocean below. No matter where guests decide to while away the day -- at the Ayurvedic spa, the pool, the restaurant and bar, the library, or within the privacy of their own cottage -- the views take center stage. And when it’s time to retreat indoors, the interiors are equally impressive: Rooms have plantation-style shutters, hardwood floors, and British colonial furnishings; while the restaurant, library, and bar have a laidback yet sophisticated style.
Like GoldenEye Hotel & Resort, Strawberry Hill has a certain air of authenticity that is rare on an island filled with megaresorts. The resort was built to seamlessly blend with the existing landscape, and massive birds of paradise and torch ginger bloom at nearly every step. The yoga pavilion and hydrotherapy center feel especially immersed in the lush surroundings. Of course, the resort might be too close to nature for some -- some rooms lack air conditioning, and the steep walks required to get anywhere may be too rough and tumble for the luxury traveler.
Given the polarizing nature of the resort -- some may love the secluded location while others may find it restrictive; some may prefer the hilltop views and breezes while others want to be by the beach -- the rates are exactly where they should be. They aren’t nearly as high as the over-the-top all-inclusive resorts found in Ocho Rios and Negril, and yet they reflect the quality and care with which the property is maintained.
Completely isolated on a steep hill overlooking Kingston
It wouldn’t be completely out of line to call the trip to Strawberry Hill from Norman Manly International Airport nerve-wracking. The hour-long drive is filled with hairpin turns, massive potholes, shoulder-less cliff-side roads, and drivers with little regard for their safety (let alone yours). Of course, if you are like Sting or Bono, that won't matter to you anyway, since you’ll be arriving via chopper to the hotel’s private helipad.
Once on property, all is serene and mellow. But should guests wish to venture off property, there's little beyond a few hiking and biking trails nearby -- pretty much anything else will be an hour away. The front desk can organize numerous tours to nearby attractions, from waterfalls and underwater caves to gardens and coffee plantations. Still, guests who don’t care to eat at the same restaurant morning, noon, and night for the duration of their stay might find the isolated location and lack of options (not to mention lack of all-inclusive rates) too prohibitive.
British colonial furnishings and private terraces
All of the rooms at Strawberry Hill have private balconies, four-poster beds, and lovely details such as hardwood floors and jalousie shutters -- but there is definitely a hierarchy here. The bottom of the totem pole starts with the Timbuk One-Bedroom Suites, which are the 400 square feet and lack air conditioning (though this is less of an issue at this hillside location than elsewhere). They also aren’t quite as isolated as other units (during my stay in Timbuk 2, I could hear virtually all of the goings-on of my neighbors in Timbuk 1, and they were an amorous couple to say the least).
Moving up the ladder, however, the rooms get bigger and better furnished, with some units featuring full kitchens, separate living rooms, expansive wrap-around terraces with lounge chairs and dining tables, stocked minibars, and air conditioning.
Amazing views and no crowds, plus a small hidden plunge pool
To find a beautiful pool with an amazing view and not a single person in it is an anomaly in Jamaica. Since Strawberry Hill has just 12 rooms, its infinity-edge pool is never crowded and often empty -- and the views are jaw-dropping. Cushioned lounge chairs, Adirondack chairs, and patio tables and chairs are all available.
Guests who wish to guarantee their seclusion further can forgo the views and head to the even more secluded plunge pool located behind the lawn, next to the yoga pavilion. Surrounded by flora, and neighboring the spa’s sauna, the mini-pool is indeed just for a plunge -- it's too small for a swim, though still a bit bigger than a Jacuzzi.
Expansive spa with a diverse treatment menu
A breezy indoor/outdoor spa complex puts the views at forefront when possible, incorporating a relaxing area at the edge of a cliff, an isolated plunge pool, an outdoor yoga pavilion at the edge of a blossoming lawn, and a hydrotherapy treatment room accessed via a winding jungle path. The remaining therapy rooms are housed in a quaint Georgian-style building, as is the spa reception area, which also features the resort’s boutique. For a 12-room resort, the spa is truly expansive, averaging nearly one treatment room for every two guestrooms. Likewise, the menu of therapies is diverse, including Ayurvedic and hydrotherapy treatments as well as a variety of massages, facials, wraps, and salon experiences. The Blue Mountain Elixir is a special treat, incorporating local coffee beans in a body scrub, followed by a massage and hydrotherapy session.
Spacious villas with full kitchens attract families
While the property has no specific kids' programs, and is not all-inclusive -- something that may be a drawback for families hoping to save money on food -- it does feature accommodations well-suited to families. The one- and two-bedroom villas include separate living rooms, full kitchens with cookware (though the lack of nearby shopping poses something of a problem), and spacious wrap-around decks featuring dining tables and lounge chairs. Some villas even have special additional features, such as Birdshill Villa, which features its own hammock-strung gazebo.
A breezy restaurant with amazing views is the only on-site option.
Strawberry Hill is not an all-inclusive resort -- something of a drawback given the resort’s isolated location. Still, the restaurant here features plenty of outdoor seating that takes advantage of the amazing views, and serves meals even at odd hours (lunch at 4 p.m. is no problem). The menu is simple yet well-executed, focusing on Jamaican delicacies such as jerk chicken, conch fritters, and coconut shrimp. A word to the wise: Do not skip dessert. Even the simplest of dessert items are worth trying -- for instance, the homemade vanilla ice cream, which was easily the most amazing ice cream I’ve ever had.
The resort also has room service, though the menu is a truncated version of the restaurant's, and it is only served during limited hours.
The intimate bar has hosted A-list guests and serves excellent cocktails
Once upon a time, Strawberry Hill had a famous mixologist, Desmond. It was during his tenure as the doyen of drinks that owner and music mogul, Chris Blackwell, welcomed an elite A-list roster of guests (from Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh to the king of reggae himself, Bob Marley) for cocktail sessions that lasted well into the night. Though retired, Desmond still stops by to mix his legendary rum punch for the average guest from time to time. Even when he’s not around, though, the drinks are divine, as is the ambiance, which still feels like an insider’s club with its leather furnishings, grand piano, and stone field fireplace.
A reasonable number of amenities for the rates
No fitness center, but plenty of hiking and biking trails nearby
While the resort does not have its own fitness center, simply walking the hilly and stair-filled grounds is a test of physical endurance. Those seeking additional activity can sign up for a yoga class in the spa’s pavilion, rent a bike from the front desk, or embark on a hiking excursion (trails are just a 20-minute walk away). Additional activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling can be arranged via off-site tours.
Amazing views and lush grounds make a scenic wedding backdrop
Strawberry Hill knows it’s sitting on prime real estate for gorgeous weddings, and as such, provides a number of packages for brides. Options for ceremony sites are numerous, including gardens, lawns, pavilions, villas, and hilltops. Receptions can take place outdoors on the lawn for parties of up to 250, or in the open-air restaurant, which can accommodate up to 100 guests.
However, the hotel itself can only accommodate about 40 guests, and the closest hotels are located in Kingston proper, an hour-drive away -- a longer commute than wedding guests may like.
A celeb magnet, thanks to a music mogul owner
If Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Chris Blackwell isn’t a household name in his own right, his background as the man who brought countless musicians to fame certainly makes him a celebrity by association. Photos of famous past guests line the walls at Strawberry Hill’s bar, including big names such as Bono, Mick Jagger, Melissa Ethridge, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Marley, whose rise to fame can be credited almost solely to Blackwell. Meanwhile, downstairs in the conference room, platinum records and industry awards line the walls and shelves.
A former coffee plantation turned private celebrity oasis turned resort
Originally deeded by the English Royal family in the 18th century, the site of Strawberry Hill dates back to 1780 as a coffee plantation, as well as meeting place for Britain’s many aristocrats of the time. Over the centuries, the property changed hands nearly a dozen times, at one point serving as a Naval Hospital, before being restored to a coffee and strawberry plantation in the early 20th century.
Island Records founder Chris Blackwell purchased the property in 1972, converting it into his private estate for nearly 15 years. It was during this time that the property’s legend grew, with rumors of A-listers such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Marley frequenting the joint.
In 1986, Blackwell opened the property to the public as a restaurant, but just two years later a storm completely devastated the land, and the music mogul was forced to start over. Fortunately, his vision for the property grew larger still, and in 1994 the resort at last opened in its current state. Blackwell and his well-heeled friends still hang around the property today.
Nestled in a steep hill and not suited for those with mobility impairments
Even able-bodied guests might complain from time to time about the steep hills and seemingly endless stairs it takes to get from one place to the next on Strawberry Hill’s grounds. While there are a few villas that can be accessed via just a handful of steps, steep hills are unavoidable, and all of the resort’s amenities require a good hike. Those with mobility impairments ought think twice before booking.
Isolated and gated, but little security during off-peak hours
Strawberry Hill is located at the top of a mountain and guarded by a heavy gate. All rooms feature safes and guests are issued keys for their rooms, though most choose not to use them. The downside to Strawberry’s isolation, however, is the fact that it becomes quite literally deserted during the wee hours. Those who might need service in the middle of the night are, quite frankly, out of luck. Attempts to reach the front desk or even security at 4:30 AM during my stay were completely unsuccessful. Only after hopping in my car and driving to the entrance could I find any human being on the grounds.
This former coffee plantation nestled among the steep and winding hills of Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain is a little oasis above the very un-resort-like city of Kingston. The resort offers plenty of intimacy and privacy, with just 12 cottages on more than 26 acres. It also has the features of a larger property: an expansive spa, a breezy restaurant and bar, a hilltop pool with panoramic vistas, lush gardens, and ample relaxation space. Rates might be considered a steal given the property's level of luxury -- if it weren’t for the inaccessible location and lack of beachfront.