Flying over Kingston Harbour into the Norman Manley International Airport under a hazy midday sun, you get a panoramic view of Jamaica’s sprawling capital. The city spreads around the huge harbour, the Blue Mountains rising majestically behind i, the long finger of the Palisadoes curling out into the sea.
Kingston grew out of the settlements on the Liguanea plain at the foot of these magnificent Blue Mountains. You are hardly aware of the city when you land, for the airport is located well away from it, near the end of the Palisadoes peninsula which leads on to the ancient city of Port Royal, once the “wickedest city on earth” in the time of old Henry Morgan and now mostly buried beneath the water. A strong breeze sweeps from the east or north-east almost constantly, buffeting the planes as they land and the taxis and cars as they race towards the capital. A daytime arrival is bright and intense: a bracing welcome to the tough and vibrant city of Kingston.
Kingston, with its 750,000 people, is quite different from the Jamaica of those seductive TV advertisements with their palm-fringed beaches, their lush landscapes, the cool ambience of Fern Gully or gambolling at Dunn’s River. Apart from the mountains looming to the north, Kingston is not in the business of scenic splendour; it deals more in excitement and intrigue.
Jamaicans are proud of their identity and their nation; they have a spirit of solidarity, confidence and optimism which is infectious and endearing. They have a reputation in the Caribbean for their fiery spirit; you can sense it in the way they slam down their dominoes or boast about Jamaica’s natural superiority.
For many of Jamaica’s myriad visitors, the island is the north and west coast — Negril, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Port Antonio — with maybe a trip to the Rio Grande for rafting or to Dunn’s River to clamber up the rocks. Kingston is often under-rated as a destination and a capital city. Unfairly, because it is one of the most fascinating cities you can find, throbbing with music, crowded with painters and artists and singers and dancers and writers, humming with reggae and dancehall, buzzing with entertaining talk, the home of Rastafari, a study in all sorts of contrasts.
A regular visitor to Kingston, I have spent far more time in the city than any other part of the country. Understanding a city and its people can be difficult during short stays, but then that’s half the fun of it.
Downtown Kingston faces the harbour and the sea. Set out in the familiar colonial grid pattern of many Caribbean cities, it has suffered the decline of inner-city areas the world over: offices and shops have moved out towards New Kingston and the suburbs. But the arcaded downtown sidewalks and wide-fronted shop openings are attractive, and there are several striking new buildings along the waterfront which include the Bank of Jamaica and the Jamaica Conference Centre which contains the excellent National Gallery (one of the places in Kingston not to miss). Here is also the headquarters of the UN Law of the Sea secretariat. The 18th-century Gordon House on Duke Street is the seat of the Jamaican legislature. The large downtown area, with its shady arcades and ever-present breeze, is a much more attractive location than most Jamaicans give it credit for, and I have enjoyed my wanderings there.
To the east of the harbour front, for example, in the centre of Kingston, is an area called Southside. Pat Stanigar, a leading Jamaican architect, has his office there and has designed a number of office buildings in the area which reinforce the idea that there are alternatives to conventional high-rise structures. In spite of the apparent exodus from the city centre, he has managed to make new commercial activity a viable option. Stanigar’s own eclectic office includes a little pottery studio where local children from the surrounding Southside come to make clay objects. The buildings he has designed are colourful, playful and humorous additions to a largely sombre urban landscape, and are the cause of great pride among local residents. This is successful urban regeneration on a human scale.
An invisible divide between uptown and downtown is quite distinct in terms of people’s perceptions. North of the downtown area, developed during the 1960s, New Kingston is more respectable, and houses the big banks and insurance companies, the office blocks, the business hotels, and some of the more attractive restaurants and entertainment sites. Devon House, once a “great house” dating from the 1880s, is one of the places to visit: at the corner of Trafalgar and Hope Roads, its grand interior is supplemented by craft shops, restaurants and gardens. It is a pleasant venue for lunch and dinner, and among its restaurants is the celebrated “Orchid Room” which serves excellent Thai cuisine. King’s House (where the Governor-General lives) and Jamaica House (the Prime Minister’s residence) are nearby. Some way to the east, the Bob Marley Museum is a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in music in general and reggae in particular. This is where superstar Bob Marley lived, and has been turned into a Marley archive (complete with bullet-holes in the walls, remnant of an assassination attempt). Further up Hope Road are the Hope Botanical Gardens and zoo.
Slightly further out of the city in the other direction is Port Royal, founded in 1650 and destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1692, when it was part military base and part pirates’ nest. Although it never regained its 17th-century glory or notoriety, it was still used as a military garrison for much of the British period, and quite a few of the fortifications remain (including the so-called Giddy House, a Royal Artllery store left at a 45-degree angle by the earthquake of 1907).
Rush hour in Kingston, especially during school term, is a reminder that this really is a city. Traffic snakes wearily through the streets for mile after mile. Wealthier Jamaicans endure this rite from the lofty vantage point of glistening four-wheel drives or BMWs, cruising in from Jack’s Hill or Beverly Hills, chattering away on cellular phones or gesticulating at vehicles behind or in front. Everybody is tuned in to the various call-in talk shows which process the latest scandals or political controversies, seemingly round the clock, with the help of an articulate and animated populace. Ancient mini-buses trundle precariously along the main routes, with the braver passengers dangling off the sides. Imported used Japanese cars — called “foreign used” in Trinidad but “deportees” in Jamaica — race through the traffic as mini-cabs.
If you are staying in Kingston for a few days, you have a good choice of accommodation. The Pegasus and the Wyndham, both in New Kingston, provide excellent facilities, with all the amenities and services that the modern business traveller expects, and are well located in the heart of the commercial and banking centre. The most popular smaller hotels, also very well equipped and located, are the Mayfair, the Terra Nova and the Courtleigh, all in the same general area.
Latin night at the Junkanoo Lounge in the Wyndham is a popular event for all versed in merengue, salsa et al (there are some serious dancers there, so go prepared!). Cuban bands play at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, in the lounges, and outdoors on occasion — a pleasant and affordable diversion. The hot spot for young Kingstonians seems to change from month to month, the latest being Mingles at the Courtleigh Hotel in New Kingston. There’s a lively pub atmosphere at Peppers, in north-east Kingston in the Barbican area. Godfather’s (New Kingston), Bleacher’s (Constant Spring Road) and 24 Carat (Manor Park) are other after-dark possibilities. Check the local papers to see if there are any good dance or theatre productions at the Ward Theatre, Little Theatre or The Barn.
If you prefer colonial style to modern luxury hotels, The Liguanea Club provides accommodation for members and guests. The Liguanea is a wonderful structure which has resisted the modernisation of surrounding New Kingston; its decor is darkly majestic, the service is excellent, and the atmosphere. The Liguanea Club is well worth a visit, if you can persuade a member to take you there for drinks or tea on the verandah.
When you hit the shopping trail, you’ll find that, apart from one in New Kingston (Dominica Drive), most of the shopping malls are on the Constant Spring Road, north of New Kingston, and in Liguanea.
Don’t stay stuck in the city itself, though.
At weekends, some Kingstonians head out for the beach at Hellshire, where peppery fresh fish and “bammy”, made from cassava, can be bought from stalls along the beach and washed down with a chilled Red Stripe — a relaxing way to spend a Sunday. Just past Mona (where the University of the West Indies is based), about 15 minutes’ drive from New Kingston, Papine is a teeming gateway between the Blue Mountains and all points north-west of Kingston. If you risk a rickety climb up what seems like a fire escape for dwarves, you reach the excellent Roof Top Lounge bar/café where, for an alarmingly small amount of money, you can have a good meal of rice and peas and chicken, on an open-air concrete roof overlooking Papine’s bustling main drag. All the hurly burly of Kingston life takes place below: scooters, motorbikes, taxis and buses jostling with one another and blaring the lyrical cacophony of Jamaica. I could spend hours on this rooftop, sipping Red Stripe or Appleton Rum and gazing up at the hills towards Newcastle. In the background, mammoth speakers expel dub music, reminding patrons that conversation in Jamaica must, wherever possible, be undertaken at maximum volume.
Also in Papine is the Papine Jerk Garden. This is a traditional jerk pit for one of Jamaica’s foods, dry and hot, where one can sit outside and attempt to consume super-peppery pork and chicken. The jerk should be accompanied by a “festival” or two: a dry, sweet biscuit-like bread which tempers the fire. I am told by hard-core Jamaican jerk lovers that there is better to be had, and no doubt they are right, but I certainly found it up to standard and recommend it highly.
Kingston, no matter what the north-coast fanatics say, is actually a very good base for exploring Jamaica. Within easy driving distance are the old Spanish capital of Spanish Town, only 14 miles to the west; and the foothills of the Blue Mountains, which provide glorious views over the city and the harbour, and secrete some extremely tempting restaurants and resorts. Drive up to Irish Town and Newcastle to see what I mean, or on to Holywell National Park.
If you have a full day or half-day free, take a drive north-west out of Kingston, through bustling Papine, and climb the winding road to Strawberry Hill in Irish Town in the Blue Mountains. One of Chris Blackwell’s Island Outposts, Strawberry Hill is an exotic and beautiful mountain retreat. You can stay there or simply stop for refreshment. Sunday brunch is served on the terrace overlooking Kingston to the south-west or the Blue Mountains to the north-east. The view and atmosphere are stunning. It is advisable to call ahead and let them know you are planning a trip, as it is often booked up or being used for a fashion shoot.
For a longer trip, go past Strawberry Hill and the military camp at Newcastle, snaking through the precipitous heights of the Blue Mountains and descending to Buff Bay on the north coast, through villages scattered along the rocky river. This ride is not for the faint-hearted — many of my Jamaican friends were surprised that I had attempted it, let alone accomplished it. It was midday but, up at that altitude, we were driving through low clouds and had to put up the windows of our four-wheel drive as it was too chilly.
When you reach the north coast, you can either continue to Port Antonio or return to Kingston via Castleton. The journey reveals how large the island is. It’s a longish trip, but it offers some compelling and awesome landscape.
Inspired by this foray, you might try another expedition to the Parish of St Thomas, the south-eastern point of Jamaica. Morant Bay, the town where Paul Bogle led his slave rebellion, still has a colonial feel, with historic buildings still in active use and the court square filled once a week with characters waiting for their turn to appear in the charming old courthouse. I strolled behind the court to look over the battery at the sea and the site of Paul Bogle’s grave. There were several people there, puffing away on what seemed like some particularly potent herb, apparently calming their nerves before sentencing.
After Morant Bay you can travel on to Bath, which has natural springs and a spa just like (well, actually rather different from) its English namesake. After the grinding ascent from Morant Bay, through some stunning landscapes, we passed a massive river bed of huge, flat, grey stones which reminded me of the mountainous terrain of Dominica; it resonated with an agelessness that was difficult to grasp.
After a 30-minute drive from Morant Bay, where you feel must be near the top of the Blue Mountains, you emerge into a vast flat landscape surrounded by hills, with cattle grazing in the far distance. It is reminiscent of English 18th-century landscape paintings: no fenced-in fields for cultivation, just simple, expansive pasture, a pastoral idyll. The altitude tempers the heat.
The village of Bath has an attractive church and exquisite botanical gardens. The towering palms shade and shelter the gardens from the rain and sun; their roots have begun to ruffle the paved pathways, adding to the decaying splendour of the gardens.
From Bath, the drive up to the natural spring is narrow and winding, leading to the unassuming Bath Spa Hotel. The spa dates from 1727 and looks a little run-down and out-of-sorts, but still functions for those who wish to relax in natural hot water spring baths.
This is not a long trip. An early morning departure can get you back into Kingston by mid-afternoon, ready for a cool drink and something to eat.
Kingston has plenty of interesting dining spots. Two of my personal favourites are the Red Bones Blues Café and the Upper Crust Restaurant. Red Bones is in a converted house; jazz can be heard in the garden, and there is a pleasant little bar separate from the restaurant where you can enjoy the music. The conversion of the house has been done with flair and style, and the ambience is relaxing.
Upper Crust is set in a discreet location in an area called Barbican, and is a little difficult to find unless you’ve been there before (so make sure you get good directions if you choose to visit). The menu is derived from nouvelle cuisine, with some bizarre and delightful juxtapositions of taste and texture; food is lovingly prepared and well presented. The star turns are the desserts: cheesecakes and a host of other tempting treats arranged near the bar. Stupendous. I have friends who sometimes dispense with the formality of entrées and head straight for the desserts. Prices here are not cheap, but are good value. The setting is attractive, designed by Jamaican-based Italian architect Salvatore Autorino.
For those who prefer more rootsy pleasures, there is an excellent seafood restaurant at Port Royal: the Cabin on the Sea. A drive to the end of the Palisadoes adds to the anticipation. Sitting on the old timber ferry pier, dining on piquant sauced fish, is an enchanting experience. The twinkling lights of Kingston, on the other side of the harbour, and the occasional brightly-coloured jet descending overhead into Norman Manley International, add some colour and glitter to the occasion. Among other notable restaurants in the central area of the city are Kohinoor (Indian) on Holborn Road, Lychee Restaurant (New Kingston Shopping Mall, Dominica Drive), Norma (Belmont Road), Heather’s (Haining Road), and the Indies Pub (also on Holborn Road).
After dinner, you can do much worse than to find your way to the Moonstruck Café, a discreet little bar tucked away in the north of Kingston and ideal for drinks (food is also served). The enormous bar and the courtyard create a pleasant, tranquil atmosphere. This is a spot favoured by the embassy crowd and the jeunesse d’orée of Kingston, so it also has a glamourous air to it.
This is just a beginning. No city reveals itself in a day or two. There is plenty to do in Kingston if you look around, far more than you might think at first. Kingston unveils itself over time; an attentive visitor soon sees that it has just as much to offer as its sun-drenched cousins on the north coast.