On the arid western tip of Jamaica, Negril has had a reputation for bacchanalia, hedonism, marijuana, and nude sunbathing since hippies discovered its sunny shores during the 1960s. The resort became more mainstream during the early 1990s as big-money capitalists built megaresorts, many of them managed by SuperClubs, Sandals, Couples, or the relative newcomers, the Spain-based Riu chain. But despite the creeping sense of corporate encroachment on a domain once dominated by laid-back hippies, some resorts still reserve stretches of beach for nude bathers, and illegal ganja is still (more or less discreetly) peddled.

Clothed or unclothed, visitors are drawn to the white sands of Seven Mile Beach and some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Jamaica. Opening onto a tranquil lagoon protected by a coral reef, the beach here is set against a backdrop of sea grapes and coconut palms. Resorts, in synch with local building codes that forbid the construction of buildings that rise above the canopy of trees, are invariably low-rise designs that blend more or less gracefully into the flat, sandy landscape.

There are really two Negrils. The relatively earthy and funky West End is the site of modest cottages, boutique-style hotels and guesthouses, and local restaurants loaded with Jamaican spirit. The more formal and more upmarket Negril is on the East End, set on either side of the highway leading into town from the east (from Montego Bay). The best and most substantial resorts line this panoramic beachfront. The town center itself offers bucketfuls of Jamaican zest and color, but little of formalized interest.