The Lion’s peeps tonight

To reach the lush oasis of the Red Lion Inn’s Reggae at the Pool, you must trek through the hot-town-summer-in-the-city streets of Sacramento until much more than the back of your neck feels dirty and gritty. You must suffer the hot camel’s breath of bus exhaust and brandish exact change to ride upon said beast. Eventually, you must abandon your mount in the vast blacktop desert surrounding Arden Fair Mall and continue on foot, weaving your way through the gaseous ocean of heat waves curling off the asphalt. When the beams of sunlight bouncing like lasers off parked cars become too intense, you must close your eyes and stumble your way through the Red Lion parking lot by intuition alone. When you hear the melodic patter of Jamaican accents, you’ll know you’re almost there.

Of course, if you have an air-conditioned car, the previous scenario is moot. You can simply drive right up to the hotel lobby, and someone will probably even park your car for you, but that won’t strengthen your character, now will it?

I’d like to think my Reggae at the Pool experience was sweeter for my overheated pedestrian efforts at reaching it and that somehow, by not killing me, it made me stronger.

Or at least more relaxed. About two minutes after paying the $8 cover, I was sitting with my feet in the pool and a drink in my hand, nodding my sweating forehead to a plodding reggae groove. I was thrilled to see that the phrase “at the pool” didn’t mean merely standing near the water sipping drinks and looking fashionable. People were actually wading, swimming, diving and belly flopping! Unfortunately, I’d been so certain the former scene would prevail that I hadn’t arrived dressed to swim and had to be content with kicking off my flip-flops and dangling my legs in the water.

Certainly, some were there to be seen, rather than piscine—mostly women in dresses and cork wedges showcasing glossy pedicures—but the pool was absolutely bustling with children, teenagers and a few adults. The youngest swimmers were continually climbing out of the water only to throw themselves in again with loose-limbed abandon, never pausing to acknowledge the poolside loungers they inevitably splashed. Fortunately, the heat made their cannon-ball spray more of a relief than a nuisance.

As I sipped my icy club soda and felt the heat drain out of my submerged toes, I cooled enough to take in my surroundings. There was no sign of featured band Reggae City on the empty stage, but a DJ kept the air filled with music, and several couples danced in the interim. A nearby bar sold cocktails in plastic cups, so as not to violate the patio’s no-glass policy. Two booths featured the requisite red, gold and green reggae merchandise: flags with the Lion of Judah, tiny stickers of Jamaica and larger prismatic ones of Emperor Haile Selassie, knit caps, Bob Marley T-shirts and batik sarongs.

Around 8 p.m., the five-piece band took the stage, and even more people got up to dance. From the far edge of the pool, I could only make out the occasional chorus from the dreadlocked singer—“family man” or “Rastafari” or “natty dread”—but the bouncing bass notes reached me just fine. I discovered the astonishing fact that no one looks awkward dancing to reggae. Some people barely moved from side to side, and some jumped up and down with zany skanking moves, while others swung their sultry hips. They all looked perfectly in rhythm.

I also had the surprising realization that, if you sit with your feet in warm, aqua-colored water with the moon rising overheard and palm fronds rustling nearby; if you are cooled by the splashing spray of children playing Marco Polo as their parents dance to live reggae music; if you breathe deeply and exhale the memory of the hot, harsh journey that brought you to that spot, then a mall-bound chain hotel can suddenly become a Jamaican paradise.