2017-04-26 08:57:02
Frugal Family: A Jamaica Trip With the Ultimate Travel Amenity: A Nanny

It was our second night in Jamaica, and I was sitting at a picnic table on a small, rocky beach in Runaway Bay. We were eating a buffet dinner and watching a talent show that combined sideshow stunts by performers — walking on nails and blowing flames into the sky — with gymnastics and G-rated jokes by guests, who included children and a few brave parents. When the crowd applauded, my 18-month-old daughter, Roxie, clapped excitedly with them. In the show’s final act, an otherwise dignified Canadian father with Justin Trudeau-like good looks thrust his pelvis across the makeshift stage as if possessed by the spirit of Elvis Presley.

I had somehow stepped into a scene from “Dirty Dancing,” transported to a Catskills resort, circa 1963. It wouldn’t be the last time, during our five-day stay, that I’d feel this sense of generational disorientation — of being not so much in another country as in another era.

Though my husband, Tim, Roxie and I had already been on the island for two days, we had not yet left the walled confines of our resort. Not only that: We had no plans to leave. Not even once.

It wasn’t that we weren’t interested in seeing the island, birthplace of Rastafarianism, home of reggae and land of rum cake and jerk chicken. But as the parents of an increasingly energetic (and exhausting) toddler, our primary motivation for this trip — I’m embarrassed to admit — was not culture or music or even the lush expanse of the Blue Mountains.

It was babysitting. Affordable, reliable child care and the possibility, at least, of a vacation that actually felt like a vacation.

To that end, we had maxed out our modest travel budget on airfare ($430 per flight) and four all-inclusive nights ($340 per night) before we even arrived. If the trip went as planned, we wouldn’t spend another dollar — beyond tips, of course — after takeoff from New York’s Kennedy International Airport.

The obvious question, and the one that invariably nagged at me when I considered an all-inclusive: Why bother traveling to another country if you’re going to spend the entire time at your hotel? It was a question I didn’t have an answer to.

And yet since I became pregnant, I had been hearing about Franklyn D. Resort & Spa, a modest, charmingly dated property an hour’s drive from Montego Bay, a cruise ship port and the country’s fourth largest city. I had noticed that it was mentioned in Facebook moms’ groups and family travel forums, where I did a fair amount of anxious late-night lurking. F.D.R., as it’s known among its many fans, had devotees — families who returned year after year. And I wanted to know why.

Then we met Lisa Dixon, our “vacation nanny.” And I had my answer.

I had known, of course, that child care was part of the F.D.R. package. But I didn’t understand how it would work. Would I just leave my child with a stranger and somehow relax? I couldn’t imagine it. A year and a half into parenthood, Tim and I had hired a babysitter only once. A nanny — a word I associate with British period dramas — seemed impossibly luxurious, as out of reach for two working writers as a personal chef or a private plane. But at F.D.R., Ms. Dixon’s time and expertise was included in the price of our stay.

Having descended from a matrilineal line of women who were paid to care for other people’s children, I felt deeply conflicted about the “vacation nanny” concept before we arrived. I worried that it undervalued the work of women like my mother and grandmother. It seemed potentially exploitative.

But the balance between cost and convenience is something with which every parent on a budget must grapple. Most of us make choices, at least occasionally, that we aren’t entirely comfortable with — that raise questions we don’t have easy answers to.

I expected to feel uncomfortable in the hermetically sealed bubble of the resort, but the disorientation came as soon as we were on the airport shuttle bus. I felt uneasy at taking a vacation in another country with no intention of engaging with the people or culture, history or environment — or even just day-to-day life — of that place.

There I was, watching Jamaica from a shuttle window. The driver, doing his best to engage his passengers’ interest in the country they were visiting, performed a perfunctory call and response, quizzing us on the colors of the national flag: “gold for the sunshine”; “green for vegetation, including the ganja”; and “black.” “What is black for? Black is for the people,” he said proudly. His audience of sun-seeking Canadian and American tourists seemed disinterested.

After delivering passengers to three other resorts, we arrived at F.D.R., named for its owner, Franklyn, not the president. The place was compact and cheerfully bright. Unlike the towering white behemoths we’d passed, it was just three stories tall, with 78 rooms, cobalt blue shutters and turquoise and lemon yellow piers jutting into the ocean. Narrow walkways wound through gardens planted in Christmas palms, lantana and hibiscus. The beach was piled with kayaks and paddleboards. The staff seemed to outnumber the guests.

Our very first night, tempted by the prospect of a dinner date, I broke my own rule and spent $18 to hire Ms. Dixon to return for a two-hour babysitting stint outside her normal 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift. Ms. Dixon had short cropped hair, an unaffected smile and a 14-year-old daughter of her own. She had worked at F.D.R. for 16 years. She was about my age, and it was clear she took her job seriously.

The $9-an-hour splurge was worth it, not to be stuck in the room — a pleasant, but spare two-room suite with floral bed spreads and tropical prints on the walls — after Roxie’s usual 7 p.m. bedtime. Tim and I sat at a patio table above the beach, ate escovitch fish and eavesdropped on the neighboring table’s political conversation about the recent United States presidential election before joining in ourselves. The two families, from Montreal and the Washington, D.C., area, had both been coming to the resort for years and had become friends.

The Canadian family had three children, while the other had four adopted special-needs children (F.D.R. gives a 50 percent discount for such families). Both families loved the place and knew it inside and out. I could see immediately how, for families with multiple children, the resort would have particular appeal. The older kids were free to take turns whooshing down Big Blue — the resort’s looping 100-foot water slide — snorkel at the small, sheltered beach or play video games in the teen club house, while the younger children were looked after by their nannies, who hover over them in lavender uniforms. (Though the resort declined to specify the hourly rate it pays nannies, an additional daytime nanny costs just $25 per day, which comes to a troubling $3 an hour in a country where a 10-pack of diapers costs $12.)

Having worked with hundreds of children over the years, Ms. Dixon was almost certainly a more competent caregiver than I, a first-time parent, not yet two years in. Still, I had to force myself to step back, let Ms. Dixon do her job and not feel guilty about sitting at the open-air bar, sipping a rum and pineapple, watching Roxie on a beach cluttered with primary-colored play structures, content among the other children and their respective nannies.

During our first two days on the island, the weather was moody. But having narrowly escaped a New York nor’easter, we were unbothered by the choppy surf and darkened skies that kept us from the ocean. Tim and I, slowly getting used to being freed from child care, did childish things. He joined a ragtag collection of guests and played beach volleyball for the first time in his life, bloodying his knees diving for the ball. I rediscovered my love of water slides, racing up the wooden stairs to Big Blue again and again.

When the sun finally came out and the wind relented, we outfitted Roxie in the smallest life vest we could find and climbed aboard F.D.R.’s glass-bottomed boat — a shabby vessel with a picture frame bottom. After days of stormy weather, the water was cloudy, but Roxie was nonetheless enamored by her undersea view of the sandy bottom, occasional head of coral and hungry schools of shimmering fish, which jumped and churned for dinner rolls tossed overboard.

Our tall, sinewy captain called himself Jack Sparrow and, in a running narration that veered into magical realism, referred to the fish as his “babies” and melded characters from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Finding Nemo” with local legends about sunken ships and crashed airplanes. This was a man who enjoyed his job.

Before returning to F.D.R., Captain Jack did a Hollywood tour bus-style drive-by of Unity House, an 18th-century stone structure that resembles a Georgian mansion, but is actually a former banana warehouse where the cast of Monty Python stayed in 1982, while developing “The Life of Brian.”

That night, our last at F.D.R., was Friday and dinner came with a show. Footsie, “the one-man band,” played techno remixes of wedding party classics like “Y.M.C.A.” on a synthesizer as blue, green and red lights pulsed overhead. The elaborately costumed “Bridgette” exhorted the audience for volunteers. The performer wore a bustle and heavy makeup that may have blended into a crowd raucously celebrating Caribbean Carnival festivities but felt cringingly out of context in front of our small, seated audience of clapping foreigners.

Despite lifelong stage fright, I bowed to pressure when I was summoned to the center of the room. With dinner guests looking on, I followed Bridgette’s instructions, popping my hips forward and back on her one-two-one-two command. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Tim recording the mortifying moment on his cellphone — in case, presumably, he ever needed to blackmail me. My performance was clumsy and embarrassing, but also strangely exhilarating. It made me realize how long it had been since I was forced outside my comfort zone and how the resort bubble itself offered something valuable — it offered focused, undistracted time. Time alone, time together as a couple, and time as a family.

Read more: “Five Tips for Finding Child Care for Your Next Vacation”