No, not the movie. Not the city in Morocco, either. This writeup is about the Casablanca in Montego Bay, Jamaica, otherwise called the Casablanca Beach Hotel, a little-known gem of a resort my wife, Anne, and I discovered in 2001. We happened to be in Jamaica for a combination wedding/honeymoon, otherwise known as a destination wedding. We had flown in on September 4, 2001, and celebrated a beautiful seaside wedding at a Sandals resort in Ocho Rios whose name escapes me at the moment.
Our return tickets were for September 11, 2001.
Well, after Anne and I got over the initial shock of seeing the World Trade Center in flames on TV, and of hearing the plane hit the Pentagon over the phone while talking to her mother in Crystal City, we tried to figure out what to do. Although it looked like our ill-fated travel plans were about to fall through in spectacular fashion, we decided to go ahead and take the two-hour limo ride to the airport in Montego Bay. We’d already paid for it, and we figured we might catch a lucky plane to Canada and drive back down.
Fat chance. Unbeknownst to us at the time, all flights to and from Jamaica had been grounded indefinitely. We were stranded. In Jamaica, to be sure, but stranded just the same.
We grabbed a cab at the front of the airport -- which, by the way, looks pretty much the same as when it was filmed for Dr. No in 1961 -- and drove into Montego Bay looking for a place to stay. What with how crazy the day was turning out to be, we were genuinely concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay. As fate would have it, though, we managed to stumble, by sheer luck, onto the Casablanca Beach Hotel, just across the bay from the airport. We dragged our bags into the lobby, took a look around, and knew we had found our shelter from the storm.
Built in the 1920’s, Casablanca was the first resort hotel in Jamaica. Originally a world-class resort, with guests such as Errol Flynn and other Hollywood celebrities, Casablanca has since settled into a comfortable air of shabby chic. Situated on Gloucester Avenue, in the middle what is now known the “Hip Strip” -- it was just the strip when Anne and I were there -- Casablanca boasts easy access to restaurants, shops, and other tourist attractions.
The building itself is low-slung and long, extending perhaps two full blocks along the bayfront. The walls are stucco, painted various shades of yellow and white, and the roof is Spanish tile. The entire premises are surrounded by a six-foot stucco wall separating resort guests from the bustling street outside, an admittedly welcome measure of security for us in the jittery week after 9/11. When Anne and I were there, the lobby was under renovation. The service remained warm and laid-back, though -- it was still Jamaica, after all -- and the ambience was very “Old Caribbean.”
Our room was spacious and breezy, with French doors opening onto a beautiful, tree-shaded balcony that extended out over the water. Standing on the balcony, there was nothing between us and Cuba but 90 miles of open ocean. The flooring inside was solid wood planking, the furniture vintage 1920’s. The king-size, four-poster bed was particularly noteworthy, with heavy, first-growth mahogany, solid dovetail construction, and posts the size of small trees. Even though my wife and I were on what turned out to be an extended honeymoon, the bed never budged, and the headboard more than held its own.
You can choose one of two directions when walking out of Casablanca: to the beach, or to the street. Casablanca has its own private beach, and has access to Doctor’s Cave. Both beaches are excellent, with great snorkeling and coral formations an easy swim from shore. The atmosphere is relaxed, and you can take your time strolling along the sand, collecting seashells, or just lazing around. An amusing note. The beaches look out over Montego Bay and the airport, but for the first few days there were no planes in sight. On the day before we were to leave, though, Anne and I were standing on the beach and saw the first plane coming in for a landing. As it flew across the bay and onto the tarmac, I just couldn’t help but turn to my wife and say “Maybe tomorrow we’ll be on that plane.” It was Casablanca, after all.
If a visit to the beach side of Casablanca was restful, stepping out onto the strip was anything but. The streets were narrow and crowded, and filled with people offering to braid hair, take you somewhere, or to sell you all manner of innocuous tourist junk. After the sun set, though, the night crowd came out. While I didn’t see many hookers actually roaming the streets, there were plenty of dealers setting up shop on various street corners selling their wares. These guys even had hand signals to indicate what they had to sell. Thumb and forefinger pinched together, pressed to pursed lips while inhaling, meant pot. A thumb to the nostril while snorting meant coke. And a hand grabbing the crotch meant one could procure a woman’s services for the evening.
All this presumably illegal activity took place without interference, even though the Jamaican police routinely cruised the streets. The management at the Casablanca turned a blind eye, as well. On several occasions I saw dealers walk openly into the hotel lobby to complete a transaction with a guest. While I found all this quite interesting, even amusing, the more cautious among you might prefer to stay indoors after dark.
Today, Casablanca is no longer an all-inclusive resort, but that was not the case in 2001. Back then, the $140-a-night price included your room, meals, and drinks. Considering the $2,000 we’d just shelled out for our previous week’s stay at Sandals, the Casablanca was a steal. The food was pretty decent, too, with a heavier emphasis on American food, rather than the Jamaican-heavy cuisine we’d been eating for the past week. While dining at the Casablanca may not have been something to write home about, there was nothing to complain about, either.
In fact, the real upside to the included dining was the sense of community it fostered among the guests. There were 5 or 6 other 9/11 refugee couples from the States staying at the Casablanca along with us in that first week after the attack, and we all ate together in the dining room or the oceanside terrace. For the five days we waited for commercial flights to start again, we all exchanged news about the goings on back home, scraps from CNN, e-mails, or phone calls, it didn’t matter. We were stranded, away from home, and starved for news, and soon found ourselves clinging together for support.
On the night before the first of us were scheduled to fly out, our little group of expatriates held an impromptu party out on the terrace. The management, ever gracious, put staff out to serve drinks and snacks, while we guests talked warmly of our pasts and nervously of our futures. The couple from Manhattan was the most visibly anxious, having been unable to contact family or friends since the attack. Sadly, Anne and I never did learn how they made out back home. We did manage to exchange numbers with another couple from the D.C. area, but didn’t manage to contact them, either, once we got back to the States. But for that night, at least, as we walked out on the beach in the sunset, we were all friends brought together in the midst of tragedy.