Couples Ocho Rios & Runaway Bay, Jamaica
David and I go to Jamaica for at least 2 weeks each year. You think we’d know every single thing about this island, but because we go there to escape our busy lives, our main goal is to chill, so I don’t have a list of 50 Things You Can Do In Jamaica. To me this is a good thing, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed when there is a multitude of possibilities. Scroll down to see everything or use the quick llinks below to view specific sections.
Places To Stay
Couples Resorts - Why we stay here
The Couples franchise is a small collection of 4 resorts located in Ocho Rios and Negril. Our experience is limited to the couples resorts in Ocho Rios, but the Negril resorts are likely equally rated.
- The first part of the name: Couples. Meaning couples only, which means adults only, which means NO KIDS. This is a big deal for people (like me) who don’t want someone else’s kids interrupting their Zen thing, to borrow a phrase from Tron. When we take our kids to Jamaica, there’s another resort we like, and I’ll get to that later.
- They are truly all-inclusive. Food is included. Alcohol is included. Room service. Tips. Diving (Seriously. If you’re certified, diving is included. They do at least 2 dives a day). Going to Dunn’s River Falls? That’s included! Couples does a great job at making you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.
- The chill vibes. The rooms are beautiful, the staff makes you feel like you’re at home, and the atmosphere is conducive to total relaxation. For me it comes down to this: I can take naps whenever I freaking want.
- The rewards program. I’m not about to turn this into a brochure about their rewards program. I’ll just say that it’s very good. The more nights you stay, the more credit you get added to your account, which to me translates into free massages and stuff from the gift shop.
- The food. I was raised to be a major food snob by my food snob parents who always took me and my sisters to 5-star hotels in big cities and made us try escargot and other fancy food, who took us to Chinatown in Toronto for dim sum, and who taught me how to make elegant things in the kitchen from scratch. So when I say that the food at Couples Resorts is really good, it has to be true. Also they’ve won numerous culinary awards, particularly for their pastries. Apparently I judge a place by how good the food is and pretty much nothing else.
Couples Resorts - Couples San Souci
Since this was the first Couples resort we visited, this is our favorite of the two. For us, Couples Tower Isle is the appetizer and San Souci is the main course.
San Souci is on 35 acres and only 150 suites. The property is built on and around cliffs and forest, so it feels very private throughout. There are little hideaways such as hidden hot tubs, a small spring water grotto, and hammocks tucked away in the trees. The place can be completely full and it’s hard to tell because the place is so spread out. There is a pond with wildlife, tennis courts, a golf course across the street (you have to pay for a caddie but the golf itself is included), multiple pools, breezy cottages for massages, and a separate au natural area that has a large pool and spacious beach. The resort, also an older property that has been undergoing renovation in stages, has an authentic Jamaican feel that we really love.
The entertainment is a pleasant surprise for many resort guests. The resort has nightly entertainment, as well as a beach party and a Friday night gala, where they go all out with amazing food as well as fantastic musical talent. There is even a Cirque du Soleil-style show once a week that is very impressive.
One thing to know about Couples San Souci is that there are a lot of stairs that wind up and down the property. If stairs are a problem, stay in rooms that are in the A or B block, which is where most of the restaurants, bars, and beaches are.
If you really like peace and quiet, consider staying in the D or E Block. This group of rooms is near the spa and is physically higher up from the part of the property that has most of the bars and nightly entertainment. The higher up you stay in these blocks, the quieter.
Couples Resorts - Couples Tower Isle
This is one awesome resort. We visited for a day while we were staying at Couples San Souci and decided to make it part of our stay every time we went to Jamaica. It’s a renovated 1940s resort with beautiful rooms and great restaurants. The lobby area is breezy and gorgeous, with orchids everywhere and regularly updated decor. The spa has a wading pool, outdoor hot tubs, and amazing services. It’s popular with honeymooners and wedding parties. In addition to regular rooms, there are private cottages on property that can be rented for an upcharge.
The “isle” part of Tower Isle is a small island about a minute’s boat ride from the hotel. The island can be rented privately for weddings, but its main purpose is to serve as the au natural part of the resort. There is a bar, pool, small beach area, plenty of sun and shade, bathroom, and lookout tower.
When we go to Jamaica, we stay at this resort for the first 4-5 days, then we head over to Couples San Souci for the remainder of our 2-week stay. We love the ambiance, the massages, the fresh coconut water at the juice, bar, the Thai restaurant, and the rooms (we usually try to get a room on the top floor; if you’d like to request a room on a specific floor, you can ask at check-in, as they don’t assign rooms until people get to the resort).
Jewel Runaway Bay Resort
When we take the kids with us to Jamaica, we like taking them to Jewel Runaway Bay resort in Ocho Rios. The rooms are very reasonable, they often have special offers like “Kids Stay Free” (!!!), and the rooms are lovely. We’ve stayed in a suite with its own private plunge pool with a waterfall and patio area. The food is amazing and they get bonus points for having a lot of vegetarian options, traditional Jamaican food, and spacious buffets. The beach is huge, and the property itself is very spacious. The staff is awesome (our room steward went to the market one day after finding out that I liked jackfruit and brought me a whole bag of it and asked for nothing in return. I left her a bunch of Sephora samples as a thank you).
One of the best aspects of this resort (besides its all-inclusivity) is the water park. Yes, a flipping water park. Our kids had so much fun, and so did we. It’s well-maintained and spread out so it’s never insanely crowded, at least in our experience. There are splash pools, water slides, a beach lagoon, private cabanas for rent, plenty of lounge options, a snow-cone hut, and more. This place alone is worth taking your kids to this resort. You can literally spend an entire day at the water park, and since it’s on property, it’s minutes from your room.
Jewel Runaway Bay also has a golf course, a lot of kids’ programs such as a kid camp and Red Ruby Ranch (contrary to what it sounds like, there is not horseback riding; there is horse grooming of the carriage horses). The only thing I wasn’t crazy about was the care of the horses (and as a horse owner, I couldn’t help but comment on this because I noticed). They all could have used some weight, the stalls had little to no padding, and their coats were rather dull. Their hooves were okay, which is important, but for a resort like this, whose parent company is Hilton, those horses should have been in immaculate condition.
Aside from that, we highly recommend this resort for families. There are several thousand reviews online that agree.
Things To Do
Because there plenty to do on resort, and we basically come to Jamaica to do as little as possible, we honestly haven’t done a whole lot in Jamaica besides go to the resorts and stay there, so this is a limited list of what we do in Ocho Rios when we head off property.
Featured Activity - Dunn's River Falls
This is one of the places that is included in the “all-inclusives” at the Couples Resorts in Ocho Rios (This is a $20 per person savings). The resort shuttles guests on designated days and returns them a few hours later. It’s a guided tour and requires water shoes so you may want to bring your own instead of buying them at the resort or at the Falls. Everyone in each group holds hands as they meander up the falls to the top. There are photo and video ops, which are fun if you are part of a large group (DVDs/photos are extra, of course). The falls are beautiful and the tour doesn’t eat up your day.
Climbing the waterfalls is a popular tourist activity and is often, but not exclusively, performed with the help of tour guides from the park. It takes about 1-1.5 hours to climb with short breaks for photographs and video recordings taken by the guides. There are also stairs alongside of the falls for those who do not want to get wet or are unable to manage the rocky, uneven terrain of the actual waterfall.
Featured Activity - Mystic Mountain
Mystic Mountain is an environmentally friendly attraction, located in the heart of Ocho Rios, only 5 minutes away from the cruise ship pier or Dunn’s River Falls. Mystic Mountain offers a unique array of adventure tours for all ages. Explore the forest’s rich ecosystem, sparkling river streams or simply enjoy the spectacular views. The Sky Explorer, positioned at the park’s entrance, is a state-of-the-art chairlift that sends guests soaring above the treetops up 700 feet to the top of Mystic Mountain. The Bobsled Jamaica attraction features a 1000m long gravity-drive through the rainforest on custom designed, high-tech sleds. The Zip-line attraction whisks travelers through the verdant rainforest canopy, gliding from one platform to another. Visitors can top it off with a short ride down the Rainforest SkyExplorer. Recommended clothing and gear include lightweight clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses, camera, comfortable footwear
Couples Resorts (and most other resorts in Jamaica) has an excursion desk in the lobby that offers off-resort excursions like horseback riding, swimming with dolphins, tours of the Appleton Rum Estate, ziplining, Mystic Mountain, and more. These trips are not included, but to many, they are worth the extra expense. We’ve had friends stay here who really loved the horseback riding and the trip to Mystic Mountain.
Avoid Driving Yourself
My advice on transportation in Jamaica is limited to taxis and tours. First, the ride to and from the airport is always included in the price of the all-inclusive resorts that we recommend. Next, Jamaicans drive on the left side of the road (like the British do), their cars are almost all right-hand and their road signs are poorly marked. For us, additional travel is always either part of a tour or we call a taxi.
Many resorts in Jamaica offer authentic Jamaican food in addition to the typical resort food. This is pretty much all we eat when we’re in Jamaica. Here’s a short list of things you might want to try while you’re in Jamaica:
Jerk chicken – This is probably the most well-known Jamaican food. If done right, it’s smoked to the bone and the spices are delectable. It can be pretty spicy, though, so keep that in mind.
Callaloo – This is the turnip greens of Jamaica, but to me they are SO much better. You’ll often see these served at breakfast.
Boiled green bananas – These are often served at breakfast with boiled dumplings that are like chewy biscuits. They are sort of potato-y and I love them.
Brown stew chicken – This is also served at breakfast and is really good, even though it seems like a strange thing to eat at breakfast. It’s basically chicken and gravy.
Ackee and saltfish – This is the national dish and I can see why. Ackee is a tree fruit that, when cooked, takes on the flavor of the salted codfish, onions, tomatoes, and other ingredients that make up this traditional dish. It’s definitely a must-try.
Jackfruit – When this is in season, you should get your hands on some jackfruit. It tastes like Juicy Fruit gum. I could eat my weight in jackfruit.
Naseberry – This is also seasonal and looks sort of like a kiwi on the outside and pinkish or brown on the inside. It’s my favorite fruit in the world. To me it tastes a lot like creme brulee.
Breadfruit – I’ve only had this starchy fruit at Couples Tower Isle and from street vendors. It’s often cut into strips and fried like French fries. It’s bready and so great.
Festival – This is basically fried cornbread with a slightly sweet taste. Delicious.
Fried dumplings – These are often served at breakfast and are like big doughnut holes minus the sugar.
Curry goat – This is a popular dish that is worth a try if you like lamb or slightly gamey meat. It’s often served over rice.
Beef patties – These are like empanadas or pasties. They consist of ground beef and spices tucked inside a pastry shell. You can get chicken or veggie patties too, but the beef ones are our favorite. They are usually found at resorts and often found from street vendors. There’s also a Juici Beef shop or two that you’ll find in downtown Ocho Rios and other Jamaican cities. Our local friends swear by that place.
Soursop juice – Don’t let the name scare you off. It’s tangy and sweet, made sweeter with a little sugar, and it’s my favorite juice on the planet. It’s not super easy to come by sometimes, so if you have a chance, grab a bottle at the local market or serve yourself if you see it at breakfast on resort. It’s milky white and thick, and soursop apparently has a high nutritional value.
Jellies – A young coconut is called a “jelly” by the locals. It’s named that because the inner edges of the coconut have a jelly-like consistency, and when you order coconut water at a resort or on the street, they slice off the top of the coconut with a machete and stick a straw in it. After you drink the water, you can scrape out some of the coconut and eat it.
Sweet potato/yams – Jamaicans serve up a lot of veggies, and root veg dishes are popular. They are usually boiled and make a great side dish.
Bammy – These triangle-shaped type of flat bread that is made from yucca/cassava, which is a starchy root vegetable. They are chewy and great as a side dish.
Coconut rundown – This is one of my favorite dishes and it’s amazing with bammy. It’s basically mackerel fish that is stewed with onion, garlic, tomatoes, and spices in a coconut milk reduction. I’ve made it at home and it’s divine.
Off Resort Dining - Scotchie's
There are a lot of restaurants outside resorts in Jamaica, but the general manager of Couples San Souci chose to take us to the nearest Scotchie’s restaurant for some amazing local food. It’s pretty rustic – they cook the food on outdoor grills and serve it wrapped in foil and on paper plates, and there’s outdoor seating only – but the food is ahhmazing. The chicken, sausage, festival (sort of like fried cornbread), everything is so delicious. A cab can get you there and back.
On A Budget
Make sure "all-inclusive" is REALLY all-inclusive
Our first recommendation for travelers on a budget who are going to Jamaica is to book an all-inclusive resort, as I’ve recommended throughout this section, but to also go a step further if you are looking at an all-inclusive that is different from the ones we recommend:
Some “all-inclusive” resorts may charge extra for alcohol (or for all alcohol that is better than well brands), or for room service, or other amenities that you may not expect. Read the fine print, because some resorts have hidden charges that you don’t see until the end of your trip when you get the bill.
Bring your own water shoes (and fins and snorkel)
If you go to Dunn’s River Falls or another off-resort excursion that requires water shoes, or if you decide to go snorkeling, and you don’t have this equipment, you’ll likely find them in abundance, but you’ll probably pay more. While on resort fins and snorkel will be provided for you.
Bring your own medicines and other necessities
This is sort of a no-brainer, but part of being on a budget is planning for “just in case” issues that may pop up. If you get a cold or feel ill, the resort gift shop may have what you need, but again, you’ll likely pay more than you’d pay at one of the big box stores at home. I’m speaking from experience. Bring at least 3 bottles or cans of sunscreen or you’ll end up paying $24 for a single container in the gift shop. Make sure you have enough tampons, for example, or you’ll end up paying 10 bucks for a box of generic crappy paper ones. Even if you can catch a cab to a local pharmacy to get a few necessities that end up being cheap, you have to pay for the cab. So plan for the what-if stuff and you’ll save money.
Don't drink and shop
A lot of tourists will go to a bar, like Margaritaville, during an afternoon off-resort, down a bunch of margaritas or Red Stripes, and then decide to go shopping because they don’t have a care in the world. First of all, if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, you can limit the alcohol when you’re off the resort, since drinks almost always add up to a big tab at the end (by the way, you need to be somewhat sober to make sure that the tab is correct, because even bartenders at home can add an extra drink or two to your bill and figure you won’t notice). Then, if you’re sloshed and make the brilliant decision to look in a few stores, you’ll likely end up either buying a lot of crap you don’t need, you’ll pay full price for items that you may have been able to negotiate for a lower price had you been sober, and, worst case, you could get pickpocketed by someone who decided to take advantage of your inebriation.