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Finding Nature and Self Near Negril

NY Times - December 31, 2000

A New Yorker treats her urban angst with yoga, body scrubs and reiki at a laid back spa in Jamaica.

Looking for and apartment in New York City is enough to undo even the most centered person. Frazzled by my search and with winter approaching, I decided it was time for a physical and spiritual tune-up. I settled on Jamaica and Jackie's On The Reef, which had been described in its brochure as Negril's New Age Spa.

With a quick call to Spa Finders, a special travel agency, I booked four nights in mid-November at Jackie's and an Air Jamaica flight to Montego Bay. I could have flown into Negril's small airport, but I figured the 90-minute drive to Jackie's would give me a better introduction to Jamaica.

Desiree, the driver Jackie arranged for me was waiting for me at the airport and greeted me with the typical Jamaican friendliness. I gazed at the lush countryside while she negotiated the lush countryside.

After stops for some vegetables, soup and Jamaican meat patties, we pulled up outside of Jackie's. A simple stone-and-concrete building, the spa resembled a Buddhist Temple surrounded by Bougainvillea and Hibiscus, cactus and Aloe plants. Incense and soft music lured me down a dark hallway to a verandah, with a soaring wood-beam ceiling and tin roof, the verandah, with tables, daybeds, hammocks and comfy chairs, is the center of activity. Where classes, meals and some spa treatment takes place. My eyes went immediately to the expanse of the sky and ocean. In keeping with the surroundings, my room was charming but with few frills. Just two twin beds made of Bamboo, a polished tile floor, wicker tables and mosquito netting draped over the rafters and around the whole room. There was no TV or radio and no air conditioning, but the room was designed foe maximum ventilation. There were three other identical rooms in the main building, which can accommodate eight in double occupancy. Unless it's crowded, the owner, Jackie Lewis, sleeps in one room. There is also a small stone cottage with a double bed, where couples often stay. The spa wasn't full, so I had a room to myself for a $125.00 a night.

I especially liked the bathroom, partly open to the air and with a lovely stone shower. When I showered, using a wonderful herbal soap called sweetgrass, I could feel the warmth of the sun and watched the small birds darting in and out of the Hibiscus tree. Later I learned that water is a precious commodity at Jackie's, because the government does not supply it. Instead the water is collected in a concrete cistern. Drinking and cooking water are purified in the kitchen. In her former life Ms. Lewis modeled in Paris and owned a clothing boutique called Grand Hotel in New York. She still has a home and office there and seems to know what the city dwellers need most: a total change of scene, a chance to slow down, let go and as the Jamaicans say, cool out. She calls her spa holistic because it focuses on the body, mind and spirit.

Besides a morning class (Yoga and meditation mainly ), there is no structured program. There are no exercise machines, but there are plenty of new age and self-help books and tapes. Many people come to Jamaica especially Negril, to Party, but at Jackie's they have little choice but to get away from it all.

Jackie's invites her guests to "read, sleep, draw, write or just look out in space and feel." As for the traditional spa treatments, I decided to follow her recommendation and have an Aroma therapy deep-tissue massage with Nadine on my first day. After changing into a Kimono hanging in my room, I walked the steps of the verandah to a small thatched hut that was open to the ocean and sits on a landscaped area on the rocks.

With the sun on my back and the sound of the waves crashing nearby, I relaxed into Nadine's, capable hands. She seems to know where every knot and kink was. I just wish she could have spent a little more time working them out. About halfway through the hour long massage, I drifted off to sleep and when I finally woke up she had finished. Dinner, served at a small table on the Veda, was an intimate affair. We all held hands while Ms. Lewis non sectarian blessing. Then we feasted on curry conch, pigeon peas and rice, vegetable succotash with okra and corn, and a beet and carrot salad with pineapple dressing, all arranged artfully on our plate.

Jackie's does not serve alcohol with dinner but guests can buy Red Stripe, the Jamaican beer, from the kitchen. After the meal we had a lemongrass herbal tea. Ms. Lewis makes all the teas from herbs grown on her property and serves them with honey from her own own hives. It was only 8 PM when we finished dinner, but I headed for bed, falling asleep to the sound of the ocean.

The next morning, after tea and coffee, we five guests too an hour long Yoga class with Gaby, a German expatriate. She took us through poses from two different Yoga styles, challenging both the beginners and advanced students. Ms. Lewis gave me a herbal body scrub. First, she applied a clay mask to my face; then I lay in one of the salt water pools while the sun baked the clay. Then Ms. Lewis led me to another hut by the reef, where she applied fresh aloe to the feet and massaged various points on the soles. Next she applied a mixture of herbs to my body and gently brushed my skin a bundle of Rosemary leaves. She finally scrubbed me down with a herbal soap using exfoliating gloves. When I started to feel chilly, Ms. Lewis explained that the herbs had opened my pours to real toxins. She finished by applying pressure to my face, especially my sinuses, washing away the clay with an Olive soap. Over the next two days my face broke out, my left eye became red and irritated, and my allergies kicked up. Again Ms. Lewis said my body was detoxifying. I was skeptical, but eventually the food , the fresh air, the extra sleep, the body scrub and the massage seemed to have a positive effect.

A breathing class with Ms. Lewis and two Tai Chi classes with Ossie helped to clear my mind. Reiki, a kind of energy treatment involving crystals and therapeutic touch, helped me to release some negative emotions and had me crying at one point. For the remaining three days of the stay, I was content to stay nestled in the spas cocoon and read, nap, soak in the salt water pool and at night, sit by the fire and gaze up at the night sky. By the end of my stay, I had exchanged stories and phone number with other guests and got some book recommendations from Ms. Lewis. She also commented on how clear and glowing my skin was. I definitely look better then when I came. I felt better, too. Now, if I can just hold on to that feeling until I find a place to live.

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At Jackie's on the Reef in Jamaica, "the sea and sky are part of the cooling out process" -- Writer: Luchina Fisher.
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