Jamaica Cool

Jamaica means reggae and Blue Mountain coffee, Bob Marley and Rastafari, and gorgeous beaches. Georgia Popplewell explores.

Photograph by Jamaica Tourist BoardPhotograph by Jamaica Tourist BoardPhotograph by Jamaica Tourist BoardRose Hall Great House: does the witch still walk? Photograph by Jamaica Tourist Board

Some years ago I took the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station in Manhattan. A few stops down the line is Jamaica in the borough of Queens, and as the train pulled into Jamaica station the conductor announced: “Jamaica — the station, not the nation.” I cracked up, of course. As though anybody could ever mistake the drab building-backs and grey skies (it was winter) for the nation of Jamaica.

For a land mass only the size of Connecticut, Jamaica has incredible presence. To many outside the region, the island represents the English-speaking Caribbean (much to the chagrin of the other territories, which tire of questions like “Trinidad? Which part of Jamaica is that?”). It helps, I suppose, to have been the birthplace of one of this century’s most charismatic musical styles. Who has never heard of reggae? Bob Marley? And what starry-eyed traveller has never heard of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Negril? What coffee connoisseur doesn’t count Blue Mountain among his favourites? Recent exports like jerk meat are gaining ground in big-city restaurants. And where in the world can one not find a real, live, Jamaican?

Part of Jamaica’s overriding success as symbol, as cultural force, may have to do with the idea of “cool”. Slogans like “Cool Runnings” and “Jamaica, No Problem” may obscure the fact that Jamaicans are some of the world’s most industrious folk; but slouching youths throughout the Caribbean imitate the Jamaican accent, and all over the globe dreadlocks sprout from the heads of all ethnicities.

And among tourists, I think there may be a secret belief that you can go to Jamaica and return home with a spring in the step, an attitude. The protagonist of Terry (Waiting to Exhale) McMillan’s latest novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back rediscovered said groove — where? Negril, of course.

On a global scale Jamaica may be tiny, but by Caribbean standards it is huge: the third largest island in the region, and the biggest of the English-speaking group. To travel from Jamaica to one of the smaller islands can feel like a voyage to Lilliput (mountains, if any, seem suddenly puny, rivers mere trickles). In an area of just over 4,000 square miles Jamaica packs all the varieties of landscape, climate and mood one could ever desire: sea, sand, pasture, rain forest, mountains, cool, heat, rain, sun, culture, music, crowds, solitude, city, country.

Kingston, on the south coast, is the political and cultural capital. It’s downplayed as a tourist destination, but that’s no reason not to visit. It is well supplied with good hotels —including the Pegasus and Wyndham Kingston — and with car hire services (the island’s largest, Island Car Rentals, has an office at the airport as well). A sprawling urban centre, Kingston, like its counterparts throughout the world, has its problems. But visitors need not necessarily experience urban trauma first-hand: the city is structured in such a way that, armed with a little advice and common sense, no situation need be sticky.

For those intent on having the full urban experience, however, a visit to the National Gallery of Jamaica in downtown Kingston might well suffice. There, amidst an impressive collection of works by renowned local artists like Edna Manley, Barrington Watson and Gloria Escoffery, is an installation by Dawn Scott entitled A Cultural Object. It’s a slice of the Kingston ghetto, a labyrinth of zinc sheeting complete with dust, debris, graffiti (“JLP Zone: Enter at Your Own Risk”, “Love Zone”, “Know Christ’s Followers are What? Please??”), and on the walls ragged posters advertising reggae concerts and establishments like Cynthia’s Beauty Parlour. There’s a surprise at the centre that I won’t give away. A Jamaican friend tells me the installation is quite authentic.

Reggae aficionados shouldn’t miss the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road. Housed in Marley’s mansion Tuff Gong, the Museum features an extensive tour highlighting the life of the superstar, an Ethiopian restaurant, and a cinema (Cry Freedom was showing when I was there). For craft items and some of the country’s best ice-cream, Devon House, another mansion complex on Hope Road, is also worth a visit.If theatre is your bag, there’s plenty of it to be had in Kingston. Jamaican drama is thriving in the capital’s several theatres, and a local play is probably one of the best and quickest methods of learning the Jamaican world view. The musical revue Jamaican Pepperpot, which I saw at the Barn Theatre, was a send-up of everything under the Jamaican sun: politics, government corruption, immigration, drug mules, class conflict, local radio talk shows. Nothing was sacred; everything was hilarious. The performances were remarkably good as well, although you might want to take along a translator if you haven’t yet mastered Jamaican patois.

Jamaicans party with a vengeance, and Godfather’s in New Kingston or Mirage in Liguanea will give you a good taste of Jamaican club life. For a more laid-back time, the beach-bar atmosphere of Peppers on Waterloo Road, popular with the uptown crowd, is the place to go. To hear live music, especially jazz, try Countryside on Half Way Tree Road or the Junkanoo Lounge at the Wyndham Kingston. Top Kingston restaurants include the Terra Nova, Gloria’s and Norma; the Palm Court at the Wyndham Kingston serves up an interesting menu combining Jamaican and Italian cuisines.

A 30-minute drive up into the Blue Mountains above the capital will take you to Irish Town and to Island Records’ magnate Chris Blackwell’s resort Strawberry Hill, where the view (360 degrees of mountains, sea and city), and the sweet potato and dasheen gnocchi, are things to die for.

amaica’s North Coast is of course a different cup of tea. Local tourism was born in the north-eastern town of Port Antonio (see sidebar), when boats sailed out of port laden with bananas and sailed back in laden with human beings. Most Jamaicans I met talked about Port Antonio with great fondness, and it isn’t hard to see why. The area is lush, green and quiet compared with the other North Coast resort centres.

Travelling west from Port Antonio along the coast toward Oracabessa and Ocho Rios, you pass through the town of Port Maria, where composer Nöel Coward made his home. Firefly is an unpretentious one-bedroom villa, and the tour takes perhaps ten minutes — at which point you emerge to savour the view of the Caribbean Sea, which is spectacular even by North Coast standards. Nearby, Oracabessa is the site of James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s home Goldeneye, now owned by Chris Blackwell; it’s currently rented as a private property, so is not open to the public, but visitors are welcome (for a fee) to use the facilities at the nearby James Bond Beach.

Towards Ocho Rios you feel the growing presence of tourism. Resort properties such as Boscobel Beach and Sans Souci Lido occupy exquisite sites along the coast. The luxurious Ciboney, with a spectacular site above the sea, sports a European-style Elysium spa, with massage oils made from Jamaican ingredients. Harmony Hall, a restored Great House on the Tower Isle Road, accommodates a restaurant and art gallery and is one of the region’s leading centres for Caribbean art and craft: owners Annabella and Peter Proudlock and Graham Davis have assembled an impressive collection of Jamaican and Jamaican-inspired art, with a special emphasis on “intuitive” work.

Once in Ocho Rios, all roads seem to point towards Dunn’s River Falls. The twenty-minute climb up these gentle falls is well worth while (and not too difficult). Climbers go in groups, supervised by experienced guides; there’s a rare opportunity for modern humans to hold hands with strangers, as climbers are advised to form a chain for maximum safety.

As befits Jamaica’s most widely-visited attraction, an entire complex has grown up around the Falls. At the entrance is a massive stall with a heap of pink rubber shoes just slightly lower than Blue Mountain peak. (These you can purchase for $5, and it’s a good buy, since the limestone bed of the falls can be harsh on the soles). There are lockers and rest rooms, and a strategically-positioned craft market peopled by a band of vendors who would put any insurance salesman to shame. I challenge anyone to leave there without at least a carved wooden lizard.

Ocho Rios’s parish, St Ann, is known as the Garden Parish, and after a visit to the Coyaba River Garden and Museum in Shaw Park you understand why. Bananas, heliconia, pimento, tree ferns and other rare plants surround ponds of mirror carp and Japanese Koi. Running through it is a river which manager Toni Allen told me has a flow of 2 million gallons a day — more than the source where Evian is bottled. The water, filtered through limestone, is also exceptionally pure and equal to Evian in mineral content. (Instead of bottling its water, however, Jamaica lets it run through its citizens’ taps).

The Coyaba Museum is small, but it contains a treasure trove of information on Jamaica from Arawak times onwards, as well as artifacts like a rare Arawak zemi (ritual object) and a mantrap used to ensnare runaway slaves in the country’s darker days. At Coyaba I also learned that St Ann is the birthplace of two of Jamaica’s most famous sons: Marcus Mosiah Garvey, prophet of Rastafarianism, and Robert Nesta Marley, better known to the world as Bob. Olympic athlete Deon Hemmings is a native as well, though yet to make the Museum walls.

A night out in Ocho Rios would begin well with a dinner at Evita’s, “The Best Little Pasta House in Jamaica”. Its Italian-born owner, the vivacious Eva Myers, told me she was “blown to Ocho Rios by Hurricane Gilbert” after her Montego Bay establishment, Evita’s Bamboo Bar and Nightclub, was laid waste in 1988. Ocho Rios should thank Gilbert heartily, because Evita’s serves some of the best and most original food in the country, including Pasta Capriccio (a spicy concoction of linguine with shrimp, mushrooms, walnuts, cumin and soy sauce), Jerk Spaghetti, and Jamaica Bobsled di Cioccolata e Gelato. From the restaurant balcony there is also an incredible view of Ocho Rios Bay. Eva told us that the members of UB40 had dined there a few nights before; the Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards is also a regular.

And after three courses at Evita’s you can work off the calories at one of Ocho Rios’s nightspots, like Silk’s or Jamaica Me Crazy at the Jamaica Grande.

estward from Ocho Rios toward Montego Bay lie some of Jamaica’s finest beaches and resorts: Discovery Bay, where Columbus landed; Runaway Bay, named for the runaway slaves who took refuge in caves in places like the Green Grotto. Polo is played at Drax Hall and Chukka Cove, now also the venue for the Reggae Sunsplash festival.

Just before Falmouth, the Martha Brae River comes down to the sea: one of the premier rafting spots in the country, it winds through country that is at turns pastoral and amazonian. Vendors on the river banks sell everything from Rastafarian tams to Red Stripe beer. You climb on board a two-seater, 30-foot bamboo raft upriver and are gently propelled downstream by raft captains, 94 of whom work the river in rotation. Mine was called Morris; he told me he’d been in the rafting business for 25 years.

Montego Bay is Jamaica’s second largest city, but in the tourism universe it looms far larger than Kingston. Most visitors enter the country at Mo’ Bay (as it is called by locals and by anybody who stays there long enough), and the area has a higher concentration and wider variety of hotels, villas, golf courses and facilities than any other part of the island. Jamaica’s second international airport, Donald Sangster, lies not more than five minutes from the main hotel strip, and the Air Jamaica Express shuttles to Port Antonio, Ocho Rios, Negril and Kingston. In the summer, Montego Bay hosts Sumfest, the music festival which was created by locals when Sunsplash moved a few years ago to Chukka Cove. Visitors can move easily and inexpensively around the area via the Soon Come Shuttle, a new mini-bus service.

One of the attractions in the Mo’ Bay area is Rose Hall Great House. This is not just any Great House: it’s the home of one of Jamaica’s most notorious figures, Annie Palmer, otherwise known as the White Witch of Rose Hall. Her ghost still roams the grounds (as a result of which the place is empty by 6 p.m.), and odd streaks and shadows appear occasionally in photographs taken by visitors. The house is beautifully restored, and with the right guide the tour can be a real treat; for the only way to relate the tale of Annie’s atrocities (which included killing off several husbands and torturing slaves) is by lacing it with some wry humour. Our guide, Vinette, did this with skill, and at the end she sang us a song about Annie written by Johnny Cash.

Night-life in Montego Bay is well-organised, since local entertainment spots have formed an association which coordinates events among the various venues — just ask a local where to go on which night. Hot spots include Pier One, Walter’s, and Planet X. The Margueritaville Sports Bar and Grill, overlooking the ocean on Gloucester Avenue, is very popular with the Spring Break crowd, and features a giant water slide, a rooftop terrace with jacuzzi, and karaoke and wet T-shirt contests at weekends. Popular Mo’ Bay eateries include the Pelican, the Pork Pit, the Native and Marguerite’s.

From Montego Bay you cross Bogue, Reading, and the Great River into the pastoral parish of Hanover, whose capital, Lucea, has a lovely old court-house. Hanover is the birthplace of Jamaica’s first Prime Minister, Alexander Bustamante, as well as Olympic sprinter Merlene Ottey.

Then you come to Negril, on the island’s western tip, straddling the parishes of Hanover and Westmoreland. Tourism here was started by hippies in the sixties, and today, in spite of its numerous hotels, Negril still has a laid-back feel — it’s a place to lay claim to a patch of beach and chill. Many of the beachfront resorts are all-inclusives, and there is a wide selection to choose from, including Sandals, the Grand Lido, and of course Hedonism II for the “clothing-optional” crowd. Negril offers some of the best bathing, diving and snorkelling, and the most breathtaking sunsets, which are traditionally watched (and endlessly photographed) from the Rick’s Café at the West End.

Going south and east from Negril, you leave tourist country and return to deep Westmoreland. The beaches remain excellent, however; particularly impressive is an astringent-blue stretch known as Bluefields, popular with locals and visitors in the know. Small hotels, cottages and villas in the area tend to be secluded, but word-of-mouth ensures that they do a brisk trade.

Sugar cane, logwood and pimento made the town of Black River one of Jamaica’s most thriving ports — it was the first town in the country to receive electricity. Today, the Black River itself (thought to be the longest in Jamaica, though recent discoveries on the Martha Brae may have nudged it out of first place) is perhaps more famous for the Safari Tours which take visitors six miles upstream to look at wetland flora and fauna, with a special emphasis on crocodiles. The safari guides know the local amphibians by name: we encountered George, Josephine and Charlie, who, in return for morsels of raw chicken, posed for photos — a credit to his species.

In the next parish over, St Elizabeth, Bamboo Avenue is one of Jamaica’s most spectacular sights. For several miles, tall bamboo plants form a cool green canopy over the road — it’s like driving through a tunnel of leaves and light. One of the area’s finest attractions, YS Falls, is approached through fields of papaya and citrus: they are on private land, reached via a tractor-pulled trailer through a series of meadows. They are large and powerful, a surprising sight in the midst of pasture.

Jake’s Village, where I ended my Jamaican sojourn, may be a source of that “cool” for which Jamaica is famous. A cluster of multi-coloured duplexes sitting on a rocky outcrop in the quiet, south coast village of Treasure Beach, Jakes is possibly the hippest little resort in Jamaica.

It was 11 p.m., and I found myself lying out on the balcony, looking up at the stars, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks below. Wafting from the CD player in my bedroom were the Mystic Revealers, singing a song of praise to Jah.

Historic Falmouth

When the new highway linking Jamaica’s major North Coast tourist spots is completed, the Montego Bay-bound traveller will no longer have to pass through Falmouth. So the town, recently declared a national monument, is laying plans which it hopes will still lure visitors off the highway.

Founded in 1790 to serve surrounding sugar estates, Falmouth quickly became one of the busiest ports in the Americas (some say busier than Boston). Settled by wealthy planter families such as the Barretts (family to English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning), Falmouth became an important social and commercial centre. It played an important role in the anti-slavery movement, becoming home to abolitionist Baptists, most notably the missionary William Knibb. His house still stands today, and smaller dwellings on side streets tell the story of freed slaves who used the income from small market gardens to purchase homes of their own.

The logical, grid-like arrangement of Falmouth’s streets makes it the best laid-out town in Jamaica; and the presence of fine, if dilapidated, colonial buildings gives some idea of the kind of place it must have been in times gone by. Over the next few years — funds permitting — several buildings will be restored to their previous glory. In the last six years, the Town Hall and the Albert George Market (now a centre for art and craft) have been refurbished. William Knibb’s residence is being restored by the Baptist Church with assistance from private entrepreneurs; an African Slavery Museum is also planned, with assistance from another famous restored community: Colonial Willamsburg, Virginia.

Saying “I Do” In Jamaica

Sandals calls them WeddingMoons™. They are simply combination wedding/honeymoon packages, and a popular choice among enterprising young couples these days. (At Sandals Negril over 500 weddings took place last year — four every three days!)

Jamaica’s hotels and resorts offer a variety of options for the conjugally inclined. Wedding packages start at around US$400, and the typical one includes Marriage Officer and licence, witness, wedding coordinator, cake, photos, bouquet and boutonniere. Extras like a best man and maid of honour, professional videotaping, and breakfast in bed the morning after, can all be arranged. The $2,500 Imperial Plan at the Half Moon Club in Montego Bay throws in a horse-drawn carriage, musical ensemble (classical or calypso), and a set of lingerie (newlyweds get to plant their very own palm tree on the hotel grounds). Ciboney at Ocho Rios even provides a bridal boutique.

There are, of course, conditions. Non-nationals wishing to tie the knot on Jamaican soil must be present in the country for at least 24 hours before the ceremony, and documents such as birth certificates, death or divorce certificates (where applicable) and information about the occupations of the couple and their parents must be sent to the hotel beforehand.

All-inclusives like Sandals, Breezes and the Sans Souci Lido are a practical choice for couples with a wedding party in tow. I witnessed a wedding at the Jamaica Grande in Ocho Rios where bride and groom took their vows under a gazebo on the beach, then celebrated with family and friends at the Grande’s L’Allegro restaurant; the next day I ran into the wedding party (all 15 of them) sunning themselves around the Fantasy Pool. Those who prefer a less communal honeymoon might opt instead for a honeymoon suite at Ciboney in Ocho Rios, which comes with private courtyard, jacuzzi, and attendants on call.

The people at the adults-only Hedonism II in Negril told me that they, too, see their fair share of nuptials. Which naturally raised the question: are clothing-optional weddings allowed? The answer is no, though apparently it isn’t unknown for couples to forgo the flowing gowns and tuxedos and take their vows in tasteful G-strings.

Jamaica’s exquisite botanical gardens make excellent wedding locations. When I visited, Coyaba River Garden and Museum in Ocho Rios was preparing to host a celebrity wedding, though, even after much pressing, manager Toni Allen wouldn’t reveal the identities of the couple.

Port Antonio

Name an Errol Flynn movie!” The chairwoman of the Port Antonio Branch of the Jamaican Hotel and Tourism Association looked me squarely in the eye, and I, in turn, looked at the Blue Lagoon, hoping perhaps to see the answer surface from its aquamarine depths. “Captain— something?”

The chairwoman rests her case. She’s tired of Flynn’s name being evoked in connection with Port Antonio: the era during which his glamour and bad-boy sex appeal rubbed off on the town and made it the Caribbean tourist destination is long gone; and the generation for whom Flynn was a screen idol doesn’t get around much any more.

The built environment of Port Antonio is a far cry from what it was in the days when fleets of banana-laden ships sailed out of harbour and Flynn and his posse co-opted banana-transporting river rafts and turned them into the gondolas of the Antilles. Back then, the jet-set rubbed shoulders at establishments like the Titchfield Hotel (now the site of a school) and the balcony of the Bonnie View (still open today and one of the longest continuously-operated hotels in the Caribbean).

But the demise of a movie icon and the changing fortunes of the banana trade could not suppress for long a region of such astounding natural beauty. Today, glamour can still be had at elegant resorts like the Jamaica Palace Hotel, or Trident Villas and Hotel, where secluded beachfront suites complete with personal butler continue to attract many a movie star.

Port Antonio is still a choice location for magazine and movie shoots. But the emphasis in the area has shifted to take advantage of the fact that the parish of Portland is one of Jamaica’s lushest, richly endowed with rain forest, rivers and waterfalls. It is home, for instance, to the picture-perfect Blue Lagoon (where the eponymous Brooke Shields vehicle was filmed). It boasts some of Jamaica’s most impressive waterfalls, including Somerset, Reach, Scatter Water and Nanny Falls, and the Nonsuch and Foxes Caves. The famous Rio Grande (where Flynn and co. rafted) winds its way through the valley and meets the sea at Rafter’s Rest.

The tourist brouhaha has travelled west, towards Ocho Rios and Montego Bay and Negril, leaving room for a slower pace and exciting possibilities for eco-tourism: quiet mountainside retreats like Hotel Mockingbird Hill, Goblin Hill and Spicy Hill; beachside resorts like Dragon Bay and the villas along the Blue Lagoon. Rain forest hiking is fast developing as a result of initiatives such as Valley Hikes; so is bird-watching, at sites like the San San Bird Sanctuary. Horses can be ridden on the banks of the Say River. For history buffs, Valley Hikes offers tours into Maroon country, where the descendants of escaped slaves continue to live in self-governing communities.

The future is looking up as well for what Hotel Mockingbird Hill’s proprietor Shireen Aga calls “eco-cultural tourism”: the Gallery Carriacou, recently opened on the hotel grounds, stands poised to attract small exhibits of Jamaican and Caribbean art and craft, as well as conferences and other cultural events.
For culture of the edible variety, the Port Antonio area is also home to Boston Beach, the centre of the jerk universe, where this Maroon-invented cuisine (which has become as synonymous with Jamaica as reggae) is practised by jerk pit operators who ply their trade from smoking huts along the roadside.
“First, I kill the pig. Then I drain him blood and then the Health Inspector come and examine him,” the operator of one of the largest pits explained, as though to convince me of the seriousness and safety with which jerking is pursued — though I strongly doubt that any organism could survive the process, which involves impregnation with incendiary spices and hours of smoking with pimento wood.
The Eric Flynn film, by the way, was Captain Blood.

For further information: Jamaica Tourist Board, 2 St Lucia Avenue, Kingston 5, Jamaica; tel. (809) 929–9200/19, fax (809) 929–9375.

The Jamaica Tourist board hosted Georgia Popplewell’s visit