“What’d you get Mom and Steve?” my older brother, Tom, asked me the day before Christmas last year. “I framed two photos that I took of them when they came to visit me over the summer, plus another shot of them chilling at home in Rhode Island.”
I may be a grown-up 33-year-old woman who goes running in the morning and does her taxes each spring, but let’s be real here: I will never not compare my Christmas gifts to my brother’s and my sister’s. Considering Tom is a professional photographer, I had no doubt that his gift would be amazing—and I started to doubt my own.
I’d gotten my outdoors-loving stepdad a big Yeti growler, so that he could drink his go-to IPAs on the beach or out in his tool shed without worrying about them getting warm. That gift was fine: thoughtful (hooked to his IPA obsession), high-quality (Yeti), and actually useful (because warm beer is the actual worst). It checked all the boxes, and I felt good about it. Boom.
But for my mom, my lovely, beautiful, always-there-for-me mom, I’d settled on a bright blue scarf I’d snagged for her on a recent trip to India. I knew she’d love it, of course, especially because I’d picked it up for her on my travels, and she always loves everything I get her from the road. But in that moment, fueled by a healthy dose of sibling rivalry and a larger, more genuine desire to make my mom happy, I began to feel as though the scarf wasn’t…enough. Something was missing.
One thing to know about my mom is that even though she has the heart and mind of a traveler, she doesn’t travel all that much. She is a very curious person by nature—she was a history major in college, and often researches the places I visit more than I do—but she’s also a self-described penny pincher who has a hard time spending money on “unnecessary” things, like herself. And travel. She is the type of mother who has no problem buying her kids new clothes for school, but will continue to wear the same pair of socks until they are as holey as a slice of Swiss cheese. And, as such, she is also one of the 54 percent of Americans who don’t use all their vacation days each year.
Knowing my mom wouldn’t book a just-because trip on her own, I decided to do the work for her and give her a gentle nudge—more like a swift kick in the butt, really—in the form of a last-minute “travel gift certificate” for a Mother-Daughter trip anywhere in the world. “Merry Christmas!” I wrote in her card, which was originally only supposed to be for the scarf. “This card entitles you to one Mother-Daughter trip of your choosing anytime in the next 365 days. I will do all of the planning. Just tell me where you want to go, and I will make it happen.” I’m pretty sure I also wrote something dorky at the end of the card, like, “Look out, world, we’re coming for you!” but I’m too embarrassed to fully revisit that word choice at this time.
When my mom opened the travel gift certificate, her eyes lit up with joy. We’d never taken a Mother-Daughter trip before, so she loved the idea, proving that last-minute panic is indeed the best inspiration in town. She even let out a little squeal of excitement: “Woo hoo, a girls trip…this is going to be so much fun!” And then, without missing a beat, she said: “Let’s go toalways talking about how much you love it there, and I want to experience this country that you love so much with you. And we’ll take Meg [my younger sister], too.”
And just like that, the trip planning began.
I decided to book us a room at The Rockhouse, a boutique hotel in Negril that’s known for its mix of luxury and reggae vibes. The Rockhouse is owned by the same guy who owns Miss Lily’s, a popular Jamaican spot in New York City where I took my mom for her 60th birthday dinner when she came to visit a few years ago. She really took a liking to their “jah-garitas,” to the point that she still talks about them years later, so I figured it’d be extra meaningful to take her to what’s essentially the Miss Lily’s of Jamaica. Plus, I’d recently turned her on to Chronixx, a Jamaican reggae singer who’s performed at The Rockhouse multiple times—so it was the obvious choice.
For the months leading up to the trip, my mom and my sister and I texted back and forth about our upcoming vacation, including what to pack, which books to bring, and—most importantly—which reggae songs to listen to in anticipation. I introduced them to another up-and-coming reggae singer, a friend of Chronixx’s named Jesse Royal, and my mom texted me a bunch of times to let me know that she was listening to him. I travel a lot with my fiance and my friends and by myself, but planning a trip with just my mom and sister and sharing that pre-trip excitement was a delightful new experience. I felt so happy just knowing that they were pumped. My mom even bought a new bathing suit for the occasion, which, as you may infer from the whole holey-socks situation, was a huge deal!
By the time we got to The Rockhouse, we’d daydreamed about it so much that I felt as though we were still in our dream when we arrived.
And in a way, we were. We spent five days there, and they were absolute, total bliss.
We developed little daily routines while we were there, which I love doing while traveling—it’s a great way to feel at home in a new place. Each morning, we’d wake up, go for a long swim in the Caribbean-blue ocean outside of our villa, and then walk to breakfast in our bathing suits. We’d start with a steaming hot cup of fresh Blue Mountain coffee, which Jamaica is famous for, and then leisurely move on to our meals. My mom and I got hooked on the green moringa smoothies and the “fitness omelets,” which are omelets with callaloo (Jamaican collard greens, essentially), while my sister was a bit more adventurous and favored the full-on Jamaican breakfast with ackee and saltfish.
The Rockhouse has a special where you get two-for-one drinks every day from 5 to 7 pm, so taking advantage of that happy hour deal became our daily tradition, too. We befriended the bartenders (shout to Chevron!), and chatted about all sorts of things—from Meg’s dating life to my Brooklyn apartment to Mom’s new house—over sweet reggae tunes and Rum and Ting cocktails. It was so much fun to just chill with my mom at a bar in Jamaica—she can totally hang! We even helped Meg craft the perfect “thinking of you while I’m in Jamaica” text to send to the new guy she’d just started dating—including a cute selfie art-directed by my very own mother.
The Rockhouse had a Caribbean dance party one night, where they brought in an instructor to teach us how to dance Caribbean style. My mom killed it. She was a serious ballet dancer all throughout high school and college, a fact I often forget but was reminded of that night when she totally dominated the dance floor. The instructor picked up on her pro moves right away, and brought her to the front of the class, where she proceeded to nail every step with style and grace as her two daughters struggled awkwardly in the back (yo: Caribbean dance is hard). When the class was over, she stayed on the floor and kept dancing, and her fun vibe was so infectious that everyone else joined the party. By the end of the night, my sister and I weren’t just Annie and Meg, we were “Wendy’s daughters”—and we wore that label with pride.
My mother continued to impress me with just how well she could hang. One day, we traveled to Zimbali Retreats, a natural organic farm about an hour outside of Negril down a bumpy dirt road and into the jungle. My mom was laughing and chatting with our driver the whole time. “Oh my!” she’d laugh after we hit a bump, in a way that only mothers can. “What an adventure!”
When we arrived, the owners, Alecia and Mark, greeted us with a glass of juice made from fresh sorrel, the Jamaican name for the dark red hibiscus plant, and a couple slices of fresh organic cucumber sprinkled with coconut oil and flaky sea salt. My mom loved the juice, a welcome upgrade from her usual Ocean Spray cranberry juice with seltzer, and immediately started wandering around the property, running her hand over all of the smooth wooden furniture along the way. “What a relaxing spot,” she sighed as she gazed out into the lush jungle below.
As we were leaving Zimbali that afternoon, a Rastafarian named Fyah told us that he could feel our happy energy from across the room. And you know what, he was right. We had reached peak positivity.
“I’m not sure what it is—maybe it’s all the callaloo, or the sorrel juice, or maybe it’s the salt air—but I feel incredible!” She didn’t have to tell me twice. I could see it on her face, and in her overall being: Her step was a little bit lighter, her smile just a little bit wider. It was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
And that’s why I can say with full confidence that my last-minute travel gift certificate was the best gift I’ve ever given my mom. Not only did we have a ton of fun and get to spend major quality time together, I also got to help her improve her well-being, and shift her perspective. Is there anything better than that?
Actually, there is, because she kept it up after returning home. We agreed at dinner that she would try to keep the good vibes going by being more intentional about actually using her vacation days in the future, even if it was just to go somewhere local for a couple days. And we also agreed that she would try to eat fewer processed foods and go for as many fresh options, instead, like we’d been doing in Jamaica.
And she has. Since that trip, she’s stopped eating boxed cereal in the morning, and switched to fruit and yogurt. She’s also started buying more fresh veggies for stir fries, as opposed to picking up the pre-made kind that you have to just heat up in a skillet. These are small tweaks, yes, but they are sustainable—and they’re all inspired by our time at The Rockhouse. I’m so happy I got the chance to help motivate and teach my mom a thing or two, after she spent a lifetime teaching me so much. But she still needs to teach me some of those sweet Caribbean dance moves.
By: Annie Daly