Take me to Jamaica

Georgia Popplewell explores Jamaica’s many charms

  • Statue of Bob Marley. Photograph by Sean Drakes
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  • Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Photograph courtesy Jamaica Tourist Board
  • Bicycling through the Blue Mountains. Photograph courtesy the Jamaica Tourist Board
  • Patio at Shaw Park Beach Hotel, Ocho Rios. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Dunn's River Falls. Photograph courtesy Jamaica Tourist Board
  • Anglican Church Hall, Port Antonio. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Sentinel at water's edge. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Looking down on Kingston from the mountains. Photograph courtesy the Jamaican Tourist Band

If Jamaica were a drink, it would be one of those heady, multi-ingredient cocktails, with notes of both sweet and bitter, pungent, yet tongue-caressingly smooth; and, in spite of the crushed ice, it would warm your body to the core.

I began my journey, this time, in Portland, dashing straight from Kingston’s Norman Manley International airport up the A4 through the parish of St Thomas, which occupies the southern half of Jamaica’s eastern tip. More than a few parts of Jamaica qualify for the title of paradise, but Portland is my personal pick. Jamaicans speak of the area with deep affection, and while Portlanders complain that the parish doesn’t get the attention it deserves (a deep-water harbour, for instance, and better roads), Portland’s relative isolation is in fact one of its greatest charms.

Leafy, lush, idyllic, the parish encompasses the northern slopes of the Blue Mountain range (known on this side as the John Crow range), which accounts for the wealth of waterfalls and rivers and hiking trails. Yet there are quite a few white-sand beaches as well, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more elegant swimming hole than the Blue Lagoon.

Tourism Portland-style is a conspicuously understated affair. This is a land of secluded, foliage-enveloped hideaways tucked far in from the road. The classic example is the now only semi-functional Frenchman’s Cove, Jamaica’s first luxury hotel and once the haunt, according to V. S. Naipaul (who stayed here during the Caribbean tour that spawned the controversial travelogue The Middle Passage) of “millionaires and members of the New York social register.” Even larger properties like Dragon Bay have a hideaway feel, and there are several smaller eco-style guest houses and hotels like Mockingbird Hill. The exclusive Trident Hotel, with its croquet lawn and luxurious beachside cottages complete with personal butler, maintains the area’s standard of upmarket tourism.

Given Portland’s present-day serenity, it’s funny to think that mass tourism in Jamaica had its start here at the turn of the last century. In those days the parish was booming as a result of the banana trade, and with the arrival of steamer lines from Europe and North America, as well as curious travellers who started booking space on incoming banana boats, the parish capital of Port Antonio became the St Barts of its day, with movie stars pulling into harbour in their luxury boats. 1947 saw the arrival of the movie star whose name remains closely associated with Portland to this day: Errol Flynn. Flynn is credited with developing one of the emblems of the Jamaican tourist experience — the bamboo river raft, which, before he and his cronies turned it into a symbol of romance and tropical languor, was used for transporting bananas.

Port Antonio’s former glory is visible today in its central square, with its clock tower and fretworked Georgian courthouse. Just opposite, the nicely weathered Village of St George shopping complex, with its hodgepodge of architectural styles, belies the fact that it was built only four or five years ago.

But Portland’s real draw is its natural endowments. The Rio Grande, one of Jamaica’s great rivers, flows down from the John Crow range through a pristine valley of virgin forest. Today, rafting groups meet at Rafter’s Rest near the river mouth and are shuttled upriver by bus. Nonsuch Caves on the outskirts of the forest has impressive stalactites and fossils. The Rio Grande valley also offers hiking to suit all fitness levels and time constraints, ranging from the relatively easy Scatter Water Falls hike (.75 miles), to the 15-mile, two-day trek to Nanny Town, the 18th-century hideaway of Maroon hero Nanny. The Drivers River cascades down through a rock-filled gorge at Reach Falls, well worth a climb or a dip. Though the Falls have been an attraction for over 30 years, little has been done to “develop” the area — Dunn’s River Falls this is not, so walk with your own water shoes. A small fee admits you to the falls area, where there’s a good-sized pool of icy blue water said to be as much as 25 feet deep in places, deep enough for diving from the rocks above. Guides are on hand to lead you on a 30-minute hike through the gorge for an additional fee. The climb isn’t easy, and I’d recommend water shoes or snug waterproof sandals for the climb (take it from somebody who foolishly did the climb barefoot! Though I can say I won’t be visiting the reflexologist any time soon).

I recuperated from my climb at the Blue Lagoon Restaurant, which, as the name suggests, sits on the edge of the peaceful emerald-green pool where the Brooke Shields movie was filmed some years ago. The lagoon is said to be the result of underground springs flowing down from the mountains, and after lunch I took the plunge. The water is deliciously brackish, and warm and cold currents mix teasingly to make swimming an interesting experience indeed. The restaurant serves good jerk and cocktails; swimming in the lagoon is included in the price of a meal.

To sample jerk meats in a setting closer to its maroon origins, however — for the real McCoy, in fact — journey back east to the jerk pits at Boston Beach, Jamaica’s jerk meat Mecca. On a weekend the street adjacent to the beach is lined with cars, whose occupants have travelled here (sometimes from as far as Kingston) to sample pork and chicken cooked in the traditional fashion, i.e., between two pieces of zinc sheeting over a pimento-wood fire.

From Portland, it was westwards to Ocho Rios — but not without a detour into the Blue Mountains for a spot of biking. From Buff Bay we took the B1, which connects the north coast with the Kingston side of the Blue Mountain foothills, snaking its way upwards through a terrain of boulder-strewn river beds, coffee-covered slopes and mountain villages.

Our starting point was Hardware Gap, 4,000 feet above sea level. Here, I got a taste of Jamaica’s “micro-climates”: waiting for the tour bus to arrive, the sun suddenly retreated behind some clouds and the temperature plunged several degrees; fortunately, I had a fleece jacket in my backpack.

At the start of the tour, head guide Vinnie gave a crash course in bike etiquette and signalling, making sure we responded to each point with an energetic “Yeah man!” or “Irie!”, and we took off on an exhilarating ride down the B1. Every few miles the group stopped for Vinnie to point out landmarks, local flora, or simply to take in the sheer splendour of the landscape. At one stop our guides entered a roadside hut and emerged with bananas and sticks of sugar cane, the Blue Mountains equivalent of the PowerBar. We stopped for lunch at the tour company’s lodge, then resumed our trek, Vinnie stopping once to give a short lecture on medicinal plants (including one that removed traces of marijuana from the bloodstream). The tour, 16 miles in all, ended at Fishdone Falls in the village of Avocat.

Heading west from Portland to Ocho Rios, in the string of quiet coastal towns in the parish of St Mary, two in particular stand out. Perched on a hill just outside Port Maria is Firefly, home of the late English composer and playwright Noël Coward. Now owned and managed by Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost outfit, the simple, one-bedroom Firefly remains largely in the state Coward left it, with the dining table laid as it was when the Queen Mother visited back in the 1960s. More remarkable than the house is the site’s stunning view of Port Maria and the Caribbean Sea, easily one of the best in Jamaica.

St Mary’s other notable town is Oracabessa, centrepiece of an ambitious community development plan spearheaded by Blackwell. Island Outpost also owns James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s villa Goldeneye, which has been redeveloped as an ultra-exclusive villa property.

The presence of tourism builds as you move towards St Ann, Jamaica’s oldest and largest parish. Tourism is St Ann’s main industry (bauxite is second), and this is nowhere more evident than in Ocho Rios. “Ochi” was the first town in Jamaica to be intentionally developed as a resort, and today it consists largely of a fringe of beachfront hotels, backed by a couple of crowded streets densely packed with duty-free plazas and inexpensive eateries. And when a cruise ship the size of Wembley Stadium pulls into port, the town’s population doubles.

The area’s high concentration of inland pleasures are, however, within easy reach, and St Ann’s reputation as the “garden parish” is richly deserved. Extending for three miles along the road to Kingston, the cool, densely vegetated tunnel of trees and arboreal ferns known as Fern Gully is one of the country’s well-known beauty spots. Minutes outside of Ocho Rios, the Shaw Park Botanical Gardens offers good views of the town and has a small waterfall.

Its neighbour, the Coyaba River Garden and Museum is more intimate and manicured, and a place of almost Zen-like tranquillity. Visitors to Coyaba choose between guided tours or a ramble among the wooden walkways and bridges spanning the garden’s natural spring; there’s also a bird watching programme. The small museum features old maps, everyday artifacts, post-emancipation documentation and tributes to St Ann natives Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley (Bob was born and buried at Nine Miles in the middle of the parish, now a pilgrimage site for devotees).

No visit to Ocho Rios — some would say no trip to Jamaica — is complete without a trip to Dunn’s River Falls. Jamaica’s most-visited attraction is also one of the country’s most enduring images, and though it has grown over the years into the centrepiece of a complex dominated by water shoe vendors and craft stalls, the falls themselves are still picture-perfect, and, moreover, an excellent climb. There’s a good beach at the end of the falls that is also accessible by sea.

In general your palate won’t be bored in Ochi: the area has a good variety of eateries, from the down-home, rum shop ambience of the open-air Ocho Rios Jerk Centre, to the more sedate hotel restaurants.

For night owls, Ochi has several bars and discos, including Amnesia and Jamaica-Me-Crazy at the Jamaica Grande. The Reggae Strip (James Avenue) has weekly sound system parties and occasional outdoor shows, and the Little Pub puts on regular cabaret-style floor shows. One of the best options is Mahogany Beach, which offers themed activities and dancing on the beach. In June, the town comes alive for the Jamaica Ocho Rios International Jazz Festival (www.ochoriosjazz.com), arguably the better of Jamaica’s two international jazz events.

West of Ocho Rios, a diminutive monument of Christopher Columbus marks the entrance to St Ann’s Bay, the unassuming parish capital (and birthplace of Marcus Garvey), and the ruins of the old Spanish capital of Sevilla Nueva (known today as Seville). Tourism is a low-key affair on most of the coast here, with most of the development concentrated around the resorts of Discovery Bay and Runaway Bay, home of the “clothing-optional” Hedonism III, the younger (and allegedly racier) sister of the Negril original. A nude mass wedding held at the property on Valentine’s Day 2001 attracted worldwide attention. While churches organised a protest outside the property, the Jamaica Gleaner bore a front-page photograph of four of the brides — bouquets strategically positioned — with the headline “Brides Grin and Bare It”.

Located between the two resorts are the Green Grotto and Runaway Caves, the area’s only managed tourist attraction. The limestone caverns, thought to be about 500,000 years old, were apparently used as a hideout by Spanish soldiers; an open clearing between the caves may have been a Taino council ground. The young, knowledgeable guides run an informative and entertaining tour, pointing out stalactites and stalagmites in the shape of everything from the Virgin Mary to Bob Marley. There’s also an underground lake and wishing well.

The next parish over, Trelawny, is the home to Jamaica’s longest river, the Martha Brae, also a popular rafting spot.

Trelawny’s capital of Falmouth has been declared a national monument, with plans for its eventual restoration and development as a heritage site. The town, founded in 1790 to serve the surrounding sugar estates, quickly became one of the busiest ports in the Americas. Settled by wealthy planter families like the Barretts (family to poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning), Falmouth became an important social and commercial centre, and also played a role in the anti-slavery movement (abolitionist Baptists, most notably missionary William Knibb, also settled there). The grid arrangement of Falmouth’s streets make it one of the best designed towns in Jamaica, and the presence of fine, if dilapidated, colonial buildings give some idea of what it might have been in its day.

The Barrett family has also given Jamaica what in my view is one of its most underrated attractions, the Greenwood Great House. Perched on a breezy hill overlooking the otherwise unremarkable residential community of Greenwood in the neigbhouring parish of St James, Greenwood was one of the few great houses to survive the slave rebellions of the 1830s intact. The access road isn’t great, but once you get there you’ll want to spend some time. The interior has been lovingly restored and houses a fine collection of antiques; among the treasures is a series of antique musical instruments, including a working polyphon, barrel organ, and wind organ. To top it off, there’s an almost 180-

degree view of the Caribbean Sea from the back terrace.

A few miles down the road from Greenwood is Jamaica’s most famous Great House, Rose Hall, former home of the infamous Annie Palmer, otherwise known as “The White Witch”. An inveterate murderer of husbands and torturer of slaves, for bad behaviour Palmer was sentenced to a lifetime as the property’s resident ghost. As a result, the Rose Hall grounds are usually clear by 6 p.m., and odd shadows occasionally appear in photographs taken by visitors.

Montego Bay, or Mo’Bay, as it is locally known, is the capital of St James and Jamaica’s second city. The bulk of Jamaica’s one million yearly visitors enter the country through the city’s international airport (Donald Sangster), which lies not more than five minutes from the main tourist strip. (Shuttle flights are available to Port Antonio, Ocho Rios, Negril and Kingston.)

When Columbus anchored here during his 1494 voyage, he named it El Golfo de Buen Tiempo, or the Bay of Good Weather. The healing waters of Doctor’s Cave Beach attracted an early wave of wealthy health-seekers, and Montego Bay developed over the years into the ultimate tourist town. Today the activity has toned down considerably, but Mo’ Bay and environs still have an incredible range of accommodation, including some of the country’s most luxurious hotels and villas. In recent times, Gloucester Avenue, the main hotel and bar strip, has been spruced up and re-christened the “Hip Strip”, and the Doctor’s Cave and Walter Fletcher beaches have been outfitted with new facilities. Special Resort Police patrols have also been introduced.

There are certain times of the year, however, when Mo’Bay positively ignites with activity. You’d also be hard-pressed to stick a pin anywhere in the town either during the North American university students’ Spring Break, or Reggae Sumfest, the country’s largest music festival (www.reggaesumfest.com). One of the newest additions to Mo’Bay’s roster of events is the International Jamerican Film and Music Festival, piloted by Jamaican-born actress Sheryl Lee Ralph. The Festival’s “sun, sand and cinema” concept has attracted film business luminaries, as well as up-and-coming locals who come to take advantage of the festival’s workshops (and to party, of course). On a more regular basis, there’s live music at various venues on the Strip, and sound-system nights at the beaches. The Coral Cliffs Hotel hosts an annual dominoes competition in January. The city has a good selection of restaurants, including the long-established Pelican, Marguerite’s (quieter sister to Margueritaville, a Spring Break favourite), and the Native. Just east of the Strip on Sunset Boulevard, Dolly’s is a chic little eatery serving Jamaican specialties, sandwiches, salads and the like.

In sharp contrast to the slick establishments on the Hip Strip, the atmosphere of downtown MoBay is strictly down-home, with a bit of history here and there. Sam Sharpe Square at the centre of town commemorates the leader of Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion, a week-long uprising in which nearly 160 sugar estates were burnt to the ground, and which essentially ended slavery in Jamaica. Sharpe has been designated a National Hero. The St James Parish Church on Church Street, the Town House (now one of the town’s best restaurants), and Dome House on Dome Street, are some of downtown Montego Bay’s other notable sites. A new Town Hall complex is being constructed on the site of the old courthouse and will incorporate a theatre and museum. East of downtown, Jarrett Park was the site of the first Reggae Sunsplash (forerunner to Sumfest), and is now the town’s main cricket ground, attracting regional first-class and international practice matches.

Jamaica’s westernmost parishes of Westmoreland and St Elizabeth stand in stark contrast to the lusher, more mountainous west. Here, the landscape is dry and flat or gently rolling, with the sand-coloured Santa Cruz mountains rising gently in the distance.

Lying on a narrow strip along the coast on Westmoreland’s westernmost tip, Negril is “irie” Jamaica at its best. Beaded, braided, bicycle-riding, the Negril tourist is usually young, adventurous, and very, very laid-back. Tourism was pioneered here back in the 70s by North American hippies, who co-opted the deserted beaches and pitched tents, or boarded with the locals. The quiet and the deserted beaches are a thing of the past, however, though Long Bay is still one of Jamaica’s most splendid stretches of white sand. Negril’s main strip is now a cluster of small hotels and guest houses, yoga spas, bike rental huts and restaurants, mostly designed in accordance with Negril’s roots ‘n’ culture/small is beautiful aesthetic.

The scene on Negril’s West End is quieter and far more atmospheric, thanks primarily to the dramatic limestone cliffs which drop sharply into the sea. A cliffside property is prime real estate, and the establishments thus situated take full advantage. Even if you aren’t staying in the West End, you’ll probably find yourself among the hordes who gather there to watch the sunset, most famously at Rick’s Café. The more intrepid might be persuaded to engage in some cliff-diving. Sunset catamaran cruises are another popular option.

The nocturnally inclined won’t be at a loss for action in Negril — only Kingston offers more options in terms of entertainment. There are beach parties practically every night of the week, and regular live music events, often featuring major performers.

In the 19th century, the indigo trade turned St Elizabeth’s capital, Black River, into one of Jamaica’s most prosperous towns. (It was the first town to get electricity and one of its citizens owned the first motor car.) Today, however, sleepy Black River is more notable for its river safari tours. There are three licensed tour operators based in the centre of town; the best tour, from an informational point of view, is probably Irie Safari, but all offer similar types of facilities (canopied pontoon boats, refreshments). Tours may include bird-watching and swimming, but the Black River’s most popular attraction by far is its crocodile population, which today numbers around 200. Irie Safari also offers specialty bird-watching, sunset and moonlight tours, and sport fishing.

Treasure Beach is the flip side of the north coast, dry and scrubby, its beaches covered with dark-brown sand. Hotels and guest houses are few, with most of the activity concentrated in the area of Frenchman’s Bay and Calabash Bay. The area advertises itself, when it does advertise, as “The Home of Community Tourism”, and drivers are gently reminded that “This is Bike Country. Expect a Rider. Drive courteously”. The trade-off is utter tranquillity, almost constant sunshine and a chance for lots of contact with the locals.

From Treasure Beach, a drive down through Southfield takes you to Lover’s Leap, where the Santa Cruz Mountains drop 1,700 feet to the sea. The view alone — which extends as far east as Rocky Point in the neighbouring parish of Clarendon — is something to behold.

The main road back to Kingston passes through Mandeville, Jamaica’s fifth largest town, and (thanks to bauxite) one of its wealthiest. The area doesn’t offer much in terms of visitor attractions, but the town centre is bustling, and the surrounding districts have a gentle, pastoral feel somewhat evocative of the English countryside. Mandeville’s cool climate and relative quiet have made it a popular settling spot for returning expatriate Jamaicans.

I ended my Jamaican sojourn back in Kingston. Jamaica’s capital city doesn’t get the best press, but this is really the country’s heartland. And in spite of rampant urban problems, it is still in some ways an attractive city, given dimension and drama by its Blue Mountain backdrop. The junction at Cross Roads divides the city into “downtown” and “uptown” — an all-defining distinction. Uptown is by far the more user-friendly, but downtown Kingston isn’t the war-torn monolith some make it out to be. Jamaica’s National Gallery is located downtown, near the waterfront, and offers a fairly comprehensive survey of Jamaica’s fine arts up to a certain period. The island’s major cricket ground, Sabina Park is another downtown venue you’re likely to visit, especially during the regional first-class or international season (March-May). The waterfront Craft Market has a good variety of items at prices far lower than the resorts. Considerably more daunting are the ghettos of West Kingston, though the community of Trench Town is making attempts to turn the area, long associated with reggae luminaries such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, into a heritage site (a “Culture Yard” and museum are already in place).

Uptown, however, is where visitors will spend most of their time. The business district of New Kingston has the city’s major hotels, and a strip of fast food restaurants including JamRock, a bright, busy restaurant/sports bar with a good take-out section. Also in New Kingston, Hot Pot serves excellent Jamaican breakfasts.

The grounds of graceful Devon House, home of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, now houses a complex of small boutiques, including a pottery company. The Brick Oven serves a “wicked” carrot cake and Devon House’s deservedly famous I-Scream. The complex also has two good restaurants, the sophisticated Norma’s On the Terrace, and Gordon’s. The Grog Shoppe Pub is a popular hangout and often has live music in the evenings. Guided tours of Devon House itself are available.

The Bob Marley Museum, housed in the reggae god’s former home on Hope Road, is another obligatory stop, and not only for fans. The guided tour ends with a moving film comprising vignettes from Marley’s illustrious career. The Museum complex incorporates an “ital” hair salon, juice bar and gift shop selling the Bob Marley clothing line and other regalia.

One of Kingston’s new attractions is the Sculpture Park at the University of Technology campus on Hope Road. Sculptures symbolizing Utech’s various divisions were commissioned from Caribbean artists, including Barbados’s Lance Bannister, Jamaicans Laura Facey and  Basil Watson, and Trinidadian Ken Morris.

Kingston is the country’s entertainment capital. There are often plays on at the city’s theatres, and if you’re lucky you might catch a performance by Jamaica’s excellent National Dance Theatre or the innovative LACADCO. Popular bars include Pepper’s, JamRock, and Red Bones Blues Café for jazz. Mingles at the Courtleigh Hotel is packed in the evenings, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. For dancing there’s Priscilla’s rooftop, the long-established Turntable Club, and the inimitable Asylum, which attracts a colourful crowd especially on its dancehall nights (people sometimes park their cars outside simply to watch the outfits). On a Friday evening Port Royal’s fish-and-bammy restaurants put tables and chairs out in the street and host droves of Kingstonians. For live music, keep an ear out for the Heineken Startime vintage music concert series. Jamaica’s annual Carnival, modeled on the Trinidadian festival, takes place over the Easter weekend.

The nearby Blue Mountains offer a respite from the bustle of Kingston. Blue Mountain Inn has an exquisite setting in the foothills and excellent (if pricey) fine dining. Higher up the mountain is Irish Town. Strawberry Hill has a panoramic view of sea, city and mountains, great food, and an atmosphere to match.

Within easy reach of Kingston are the old capital, Spanish Town, and Port Royal, two of Jamaica’s most important historic attractions, though both await the restoration work that will turn them into full-fledged heritage sites. The day this happens, they will further  enrich the visitor’s experience of this awe-inspiring land called Jamaica, which arouses in those who come to know her well the deepest feelings of affection and appreciation.

For information on BWIA’s services to/from Jamaica, fares and ticketing, visit the BWIA website at www.bwee.com

or call BWIA at:

208-577-1100 (UK)

1-800-538-2942 (USA & Canada)

868-627-2942 (Caribbean)

For vacation packages call:

1-877-386-2942 (USA & Canada)

1-800-744-2942 (Caribbean)

868-625-7543 (Trinidad & Tobago)

The publishers wish to thank the Jamaica Tourist Board and Barrington Mattis for their assistance in preparing this article.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.