Falling For Jamaica

James Henderson explores the beauty and excitement of one of the Caribbean's most popular destinations

Classic Jamaica: Ocho Rios. Photograph by Roy O’Brien/ Jamaica Tourist BoardCreative Jamaica: Edna Manley, whose husband Norman was Jamaica’s pre-independence leader and whose son Michael was twice Prime Minister, was a first rate artist who nurtured a fine tradition of sculpting and painting. Photograph by Maria La YaconaLittle-known Jamaica: Trident Castle, Port Antonio. Photograph by Maria La YaconaThe famous Dunns River Falls. Photograph by Roy O’Brien/ Jamaica Tourist Board

It is extraordinary to think that an island the size of Jamaica can produce three of the eight fastest men on earth. But so it was at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Three finalists in the men s hundred metres — Ben Johnson (running for Canada), Linford Christie (running for the UK) and Raymond Stewart — were horn in Jamaica.

It is not the sort of thing you normally hear about: Jamaica is usually known as a holiday destination, as the home of reggae and Rastafarianism, and more recently for its other Olympians, the bobsled team.

But that is one of the best things about travelling: sorting the reality from the public image, discovering what a country thinks of itself. It works particularly well in the Caribbean islands, where you pick up all the new gossip within minutes of arrival, thanks to voluble taxi-drivers and landladies, market vendors and street encounters.

Most arrivals in Jamaica, particularly first-time visitors, are likely to end up in a hotel, in the comfort of a seafront enclave or hidden in the mountains. With luck you may be in one of Jamaica’s colonial-style hotels: sumptuous in style and manner, they are usually set around an old “great house”. A recent addition is Good Hope Plantation, which has been beautifully restored and looks out over a charming valley of fruit orchards not- far outside Montego Bay. If you are not staying in such luxury there are a number of classic plantation houses on view, including the legendary Rose Hall and the magnificent Greenwood Great House, which has a view from its verandah so broad that you can see the curvature of the earth.

In places like these it is easy to appreciate the irresistible hold that Jamaica can have on those who know her.

To get to the best of the island you have to throw yourself into the thick of it. The street is a good place to start. You immediately feel the energy, loud and lively with all the shouting and quipping and carrying on. Buses are heard long before they come into view, visibly shaking to the latest dub; posses of schoolchildren race by, vendors and hustlers tout their wares: “Box-drink! Bag-juice! So whatcannadoferyer man? An African carving? Mebbe I show roun’ de market? Hey white man, you want a lickle smoke?”

It raises mixed reactions, and can be a bit of an onslaught for a visitor not knowing what to expect. But those who know other Caribbean islands will notice common strains. It’s just that Jamaica is a relatively large island and things are raised to a higher intensity. The energy runs throughout the country, from market vendors to athletes.

The north coast, where most tourists spend their time, is legendary as a destination. Tourism is the Caribbean’s biggest industry, and here is where it all began. Amazingly, there was a 400-room hotel in Port Antonio more than a century ago (only one hotel today has more rooms than that). Illustrious travellers like Rudyard Kipling came down on the banana boats to take a break from the northern winter; Port Antonio became a home for Errol Flynn and the hedonistic Hollywood crowd. Other north coast devotees have included royalty from around the globe, Winston Churchill, lan Fleming (the creator of James Bond) and Noel Coward, who lived here till his death in 1973. His house, Firefly, outside Ocho Rios, was chosen with customary discernment: it has one of the finest views in the whole Caribbean.

Coward would not recognise Ocho Rios today. The town, which has grown from a small fishing village to a leading tourist centre in just 20 years, gives a good idea of the changes Jamaica has undergone. The bays all along the coast have sprouted hotels; some are popular all-inclusives, where you pay once and don’t need to touch your wallet again. The idea originated in Jamaica and has now spread across the Caribbean, becoming one of the success stories of the eighties and early nineties. Both Sandals, brainchild of Gordon “Butch” Stewart, and Superclubs, run by John Issa, have properties in other islands too.

Like all Jamaica’s main towns, Ocho Rios is well served with sights and sites: Dunn’s River Falls must be one of the most visited and photographed spots in the whole Caribbean. Once you have climbed the falls — which is quite fun, though not exactly the death-defying feat it is sometimes portrayed as – you will no doubt be encouraged to buy yet another African carving.

For there is quite a lively art and craft scene in Jamaica: if you want to scratch the surface a little deeper than the craft markets in town, go to Harmony Hall, a wooden building with gingerbread fretwork and green turrets; here there are examples of modern Jamaican art and some striking craftwork.

Kingston, the capital, is really the heart of Jamaicans’ Jamaica, and island life is at its most vibrant there. The National Gallery has a remarkable collection of paintings by the Jamaican “intuitives” and sculptures and carvings by Edna Manley (mother of the former prime minister Michael Manley). There’s a lively contemporary art and dance scene.

Most of the important institutions are located in Kingston, including the parliament, the university and the Gleaner newspaper. The market, down on the Parade, is one of the city’s liveliest spots — markets are important in Jamaican life since many country folk come into town to sell their produce, and of course are a rich source of gossip.

Popular places to visit from the capital are the beaches to the southwest, at Hellshire, Fort Clarence and Port Henderson. There are lines of raised beach-chairs made of driftwood where the crowds sit, surveying the screaming children or simply watching the passers-by, with a string of snack huts behind them grilling up fish or lobster and bammy. People have their favourite bars, where dinner will be cooked to order.

Another favourite Jamaican meal, now available all around the island, is jerk. It comes as a bit of a surprise to see a “Jerk Centre” beside the road; there are even a couple of Executive Jerk Centres around. But just as Trinidadian roti is making its way around the Caribbean islands, so jerk is spreading too.

Jerking is a method of barbecuing, developed originally as a way of curing meat by the Maroons (rebels and runaways who lived in mountain hideouts and caused the authorities such trouble that they were eventually granted their own region where they would be left alone so long as they did not upset the status quo).

It has a special seasoning, riddled with spices. Chicken, pork, fish and even lobster are marinaded in the seasoning, then grilled over pimento wood. The meal is hacked into manageable pieces and presented to you with a “festival”, a heavy sweet roll, and hot pepper sauce.

One Jamaican export which has reverberated across the Caribbean and beyond is dub music, the delight of bus drivers and their teenage passengers and the horror of parents. Any bus journey in Jamaica is likely to be taken to the latest sounds. One radio station, Irie FM, plays reggae all day long, ranging from Bob Marley classics to leading contemporary artists like Chakademus and Pliers. Once you’ve heard reggae in its home place, you’ll be transported back to Jamaica every time you hear it somewhere lese.

Reggae fans will find plenty of nightlife around the island, but for a good place to head for if you want to enjoy the music is Negril. Negril is a fun town, which retains some of the laid back feel it had in the sixties. It too has undergone change and development. There are a number of reggae parks in town, where you might find a big name Jamaican band playing for a home crowd. The most famous event in Jamaican music calendar is reggae Sunsplash, a five day extravaganza of bands, singers, DJs and guests held in Kingston in the summer.

Beyond the music world, one of the biggest events in the calendar is the Johnnie Walker World Golf Championship, a pre-Christmas tournament for the year’s PGA winners and some guests. It has been staged in Jamaica for three years, at Tyrall near Montego Bay, and will remain there for several years to come. Other big events include a popular triathlon at Negril and the annual Port Antonio marlin fishing tournament in October.

Whatever your reason for choosing Jamaica, you will find a lively and vibrant country. Some people fall for the island instantly, even from inside their hotel grounds, others take longer. But scratch the surface and you will begin to discover a life that you never imagined would exist beyond the stereotypes.