CocoLaPalm: a slice of the Midwest in Negril

A couple of thousand miles away, along the notable 7-Mile Beach of Negril in Jamaica, is a nice slice of the Midwest.

When The Guy and I decided to visit recently, we booked the CocoLaPalm resort for a week because it was in the middle of that great beach and it wasn’t an all-inclusive operation. We wanted to feel free to roam from one part of the beach to another, and not guilt trip ourselves about going back to home base to eat every meal and drink every rum punch or Red Stripe that we craved.

In more isolated locations – like Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic – we have opted for all-inclusive packages and had few regrets. The Negril beach area, though, is awash with great restaurants and live music. There is a patch of high-end all-inclusives, but otherwise it’s is an area to be explored at a laid-back pace, with no deadlines or worries, mon.

Little did we know, until after our arrival, that our seaside resort was owned and operated by a Minnesota family who used to work as builders near the Twin Cities.

Vice President Michael S. Mark, “38 and happily single,” says the bulk of his Negril resort’s winter and spring business comes from Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. Come summer, it’ll be the Dallas, Atlanta and New Orleans residents who come here to seek relief from the sweltering heat.

It’s hard to relate to that.

Mike oversees management of the 70-room CocoLaPalm until May, when he’ll returns to the Midwest for a few months, to market the beachfront property and Jamaica. His stepfather and mother, John and Judy Vosika, bought the resort in 1991. Ten years later, they bought the adjacent Silver Sands Hotel, gutted it and built family suites.

“He still gets the shakes if he doesn’t have a power tool in his hands by 7 a.m.,” Mike says of his stepfather, who is 60 and newly retired.

No building is higher than the tallest palm tree in Negril. We were grateful that CocoLaPalm was a respite from the spring break guzzling and gawking that were being pursued elsewhere along the beach.

There is zero tolerance for marijuana at the resort, an adults-only freshwater pool, a weekly manager’s reception with free drinks and appetizers. Our room fee included a daily continental breakfast of breads and rolls, coffee or tea, fresh fruit or juice.

Our only complaint was the nightly symphony of the patoo – owl-like birds that sound like squeaky hinges. Our oddest entertainment was watching an elderly man eat and breath fire, then lie on broken liquor bottles and eat a half-cup of glass slivers. He had a cup of water as a chaser.

Mike says he pays the guy – also a contortionist – $110 per performance, plus tips. This is a country in which 38 percent of adults are unemployed; one of four who work have tourism jobs. It is possible to live off the land and work seasonally, cutting sugar cane or whatever else grows profitably.

Before visiting Jamaica, I had visions of a high-crime, ganja-smoking population that lived in paradise but couldn’t be trusted. I have since seen plenty of maids blasting gospel music on TVs as they cleaned, 24-hour beach security, and tank-topped guys offering sunset cruises or “anything you need to smoke.”

The Guy perceptively concluded that it seems to be a city of hustlers but not con artists. Everybody wants to bring you a beach chair, fetch you a cold drink, tote your luggage, make you a wood carving – and make a buck in the process. (Take a lot of small bills; ATMs are rare, change given in U.S. dollars is rarer.)

At CocoLaPalm, the mood is less anxious, and Mike contends that’s partly because employees are treated well. The 38 full-timers, he says, split a $6,000 reward whenever the resort gets a “Golden Apple,” awarded by Apple Vacations for exceptional service and facilities. CocoLaPalm has six, so far, and Apple is one of about 30 tour operators with which the property is affiliated.

“About 70 percent of our guests are repeat visitors,” Mike adds. “Some have their own drivers here, people they’ve known for years. A few have their kids go to school, for a day, with the kids of our employees. Both sides learn something.”

He also counts Rita Marley, reggae musician Bob’s widow, as one of the regulars. For more about the resort, go to www.cocolapalm.com or call (800) 896-0987.

Our original plan was to visit a resort run for about 15 years by a Wisconsin couple, John and Kathleen Eugster, but that fell apart when he was shot to death in January.

The 49-year-old real estate developer in Little Bay, a fishing village near Negril, had bought oceanfront property that he planned to turn into residential lots. Squatters objected, and they were blamed for the death of the Dane County native, whose residence was in Presque Isle (Vilas County).

“Coconuts was closed the day after the shooting,” writes Carol Sykes, the reservation manager. “I canceled all the guests, and we locked the gates.”

The small resort’s once-vibrant Internet site also has vanished. Ask about the place when in Negril, and you’ll likely get shrugs of indifference or detachment. One person says the place has a new owner. Another says it’s still closed.

Yet another says it didn’t matter who owned the Little Bay property. You still have to respect the Jamaican way of life, particularly when someone calls a piece of land their home for 20 or 30 years.

“Any bad publicity haunts all of us,” Michael S. Mark says. “You could have a four-block area of trouble in Kingston (a city that’s five hours away), and pretty soon people are thinking that all of Jamaica is rioting.”