Some places seem to call out to you and this was true for me with Jamaica. Perhaps it was the Jamaican native and legendary entertainer, Harry Belafonte song we sang in our youth, the one with the soulful lyrics: ‘Down the way where the nights are gay and the sun shines gaily on the mountaintop/I took a trip on a sailing ship and when I reached Jamaica, I made a stop….’ Or perhaps it was the rather violent history of this Caribbean island that drew me in morbid fascination – a history of conquest, colonisation and centuries of slavery. Perhaps I pictured myself on the proud ship that bore Christopher Columbus in 1494, into what is today called Discovery Bay, claiming the island for Spain even as he proclaimed it ‘the fairest island that eyes have beheld’. Or perhaps I imagined sailing in with the British who captured the island from the Spanish in 1655, turning it into one vast sugar plantation. It was only in 1962 that the country’s new black, gold and green flag was raised and Jamaica became an independent nation.
Visiting the island finally (a plane ride away from New York or a longer one from London), the azure blue waters, brilliant sunshine, central mountains and tranquil laid-back atmosphere belie the facts of Jamaica’s torrid history. Instead, I am reminded (well, almost!) of its Golden Age that made it the playground of the US and Europe. The post World War II years when Jamaica was a British colony, saw the rich and famous build their homes or second homes here like Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, writer-actor Noel Coward and actor Errol Flynn. It was inevitable that others followed to partake of their bit of island sunshine, including Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplain, Lawrence Olivier and Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1950s and early 1960s, celebrities from the US donned their dark glasses and let their finely coiffured hair loose in this island paradise. Unfortunately, after the country gained independence in 1962, it lost its ‘it’ status as it grappled politically with the socialist model. While the ’60s and ’70s saw the creation of traditions like Rastafarianism and reggae (remember reggae superstar Bob Marley?), it also saw violence and corruption.
Jamaica is poised for a re-run of its Golden Age with fabulous resorts, great cuisine and of course the natural magnets of breathtaking landscapes, clear seas, surf and sunny skies. Not to mention the pleasures of matured Jamaican Rum, the heady taste of Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee and a swish through the blue-blue Caribbean waters…. “Ya mon!” as they say….
‘BIG LITTLE ISLAND’
Jamaica, the social and cultural hub of the Caribbean and its third largest island, loves to call itself ‘Big little island’, having much to offer. Jerron Britton of the Jamaica Tourist Board, who leads us through four wonderful days, lists six resort areas – Kingston, the capital city; Montego Bay, touted as ‘the complete resort’; Negril, with its seven miles of continuous beaches; Port Antonio, picture perfect with an abundance of orchids; Ocho Rios, the garden of Jamaica and site of the first James Bond film Dr No and the South Coast, with its brand of off-the-beaten-track tourism – with an average driving time of two-and-a-half hours between them (intra island flights on Air Jamaica Express, speed things up considerable) make for touristic paradise. Stay in one area as I did (between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios on the North Coast) or travel to all and discover their diversity. There is much to do here besides soaking in the sun and time seems to pass languorously but quickly by. People are warm and utterly welcoming and the official language is English, though most Jamaicans speak a local patois influenced by a combination of several different languages. The ‘land of wood and water’ welcomes with its beaches, fishing parks, gardens, equestrian activities, historic and heritage sites, rafting, safaris, water activities and waterfalls. ‘Once you go, you know’ declares the country’s promotion tag, and believe you me, it is true.
ADVENTURE TRAILS AHOY
In the northern touristic town of Ocho Rios with its grassy hills and sandy coves, cruise ship pier and duty-free and curio shops, I am suspended high above the forest, at Mystic Mountain Rain Forest Adventures, an environmental friendly park. The sky-explorer is a relaxing 10-minute chairlift ride through the rain forest to the adventures that await 700 feet above sea level, even as we view the daring zipline through the undergrowth. I approach with great trepidation, the Rainforest Bobsled ride that promises a ‘whisk through the rainforest, Jamaica-style’. And away we go, rollercoaster-speed though the undergrowth, down the mountainside. It ends soon enough and I breathe a sigh of relief, having however enjoyed it to the hilt. A quick walk through the hummingbird sanctuary (the national bird is the red-billed streamertail hummingbird, affectionately called Doctor Bird which lives only in Jamaica) and a stunning view of Ocho Rios from the lookout tower 720 feet above sea level, help calm me down. Five minutes away, the world-renowned Dunn’s River Falls offers an exhilarating climb through warm cascading water.
Pumping less adrenaline than the bobsled ride is the gentle experience of rafting on the meandering waters of the Martha Brae or the Great River, the next day, at Montego Bay. The handmade bamboo raft has been crafted by Wayne, our ‘Raft Captain 51’ as his T-shirt proclaims him, who guides us through the gently-flowing murky water. This, he explains, is how bananas were transported down the river by slaves of yore. The lush forest surrounds us on either bank while bamboo shafts touch overhead. As we reach the bank, Wayne hands us the round of a kalabash fruit that he has etched with figures of trees and flying birds, a worthy souvenir to take back home. At that moment, we discover through a whoopee dance by some locals surrounding a radio on the bank, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth, takes the 200 metres for his seventh world gold medal!
IAN FLEMING’S GOLDENEYE
Fabulous resorts beckon the traveller to Jamaica. Perhaps one of the most luxurious is Ian Fleming’s former home, GoldenEye, a 52-acre property in the quiet town of Oracabessa Bay, 20 minutes drive from Ocho Rios. ‘Fleming loved it here’ writes resort-owner Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records which discovered local boy Bob Marley. ‘It’s why he could imagine the James Bond character and write all the books while he was living here…. The property has a creative energy.’ This was Fleming’s hideaway for penning 14 legendary James Bond novels. I wind my way through the lagoon with the lagoon cottages, in a glass-bottom boat and view the quiet serenity of the spa that borders the water. Bond suites, ocean front apartments and beach cottages aside, the resort features Fleming’s original three-bedroom home which is through a path marked ‘Strictly no entry’. A walkthrough reveals Fleming’s original desk and chair while much of the rest has been renovated. His garden-side wooden table and bench where he had his meals still stands while his office is now a bar, perched on the cliff’s edge.
Fleming’s home boasted an endless entourage of famous visitors including playwright and actor Noel Coward, painters Cecil Beaton and Lucien Freud, writers Truman Capote, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and the British Prime Minister and his wife, Sir Anthony and Lady Eden. James Bond enthusiasts may endeavour to trace his path through the island that he adopted as well as the sites where his films were shot.
RESORTS IN PARADISE
GoldenEye is only one of several resort properties worth exploring. My first experience is at Jamaica Inn, a property that styles itself as a ‘small grand hotel’ and is located on a private cove with an offshore reef two miles east of the Ocho Rios town centre. Owned by the same family for over 50 years, it boasts a private white sand beach and warm and friendly service. I begin my day more than pleasantly on the large blue verandah of my suite overlooking the Caribbean Sea, feeding the colourful shawls of tropical fish that gather at the hint of a breadcrumb. I later visit the spa room at the edge of the sea where Pouline kneads at my muscles undaunted, even as the wind whips my sarong away, at the hotel’s Kiyara Ocean Spa. This is bliss indeed I decide as we dine on the terrace to a live band that plays reggae under the stars as a Chinese lantern floats by in the sky, carrying wishes.
Offering the ultimate in luxury villa experience in Jamaica, is Round Hill Hotel and Villas, which marks its 60th anniversary this year. Situated on a lush 110-acre peninsula just west of Montego Bay, it boasts 36 Ralph Lauren-designed oceanfront guestrooms as well as 26 individually owned villas as well as a guest list of world leaders, cultural icons and Hollywood A-listers. Ralph Lauren himself owns two villas on this property and has been a regular with his wife, seen several times a year, walking along the paths outside the property. An Elemis spa is located in a beautifully-restored 18th century plantation house and I sprawl out on four-poster beds that have been seductively placed on the lawns outside, even as the water laps along the shore. That night, I dine on lobster at The Grill at Round Hill and sleep peacefully in understated Ralph Lauren luxury.
Over 400 beautifully-manicured acres lies Half Moon, A RockResort, with its 388 unique accommodations, numerous recreational facilities, shopping village (with Indian restaurant), varied cuisine and recreational centre, making it a destination in itself. Having moved into my beachside suite with Queen Ann furnishings and Chippendale reproductions, made at the resort itself by local craftsmen in Jamaican mahogany, I discover the story behind this unique resort. In the early 1950s, a group of American, British and Bermudian entrepreneurs spent their winter holidays in the cool tropical shores of the island’s north coast, creating a permanent winter escape for their families and friends. Thus began Half Moon in 1954 after a group of businessmen purchased 35 acres of land on a crescent shaped bay that was once the loading dock for Rose Hall’s sugar shipments.
Since then, the suites and cottages have been a home-away-from-home for luminaries like HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles, Prince Rainier of Monaco, Princess Caroline of Monaco, and John F and Jacqueline Kennedy. The Kennedys spent a month at the resort prior to his inauguration as President of the United States. Over the years the resort has added a 68,400-square-foot indoor/outdoor spa oasis, Fern Tree, A RockResorts Spa where I thoroughly enjoy a signature massage by masseuse Sophie Kerr who kneads away with oil spiced with ginger and tops it up by rubbing spiced rum on my back and feet. While I do not emerge smelling like the neighbourhood drunk, I do totter from too much relaxation! Another addition has been the Robert Trent Jones Sr-designed 18-hole championship golf course and Half Moon Golf Academy. Not to be missed at Half Moon, is the dolphin experience with trainer Daniel.
HAUTE AND HOT
I am being hosted by the very interesting David Barber, of Half Moon, at the 43-year-old Sugar Mill Restaurant, by the ancient waterwheel, on a gentle slope overlooking the golf course. The restaurant offers an exquisite selection of dishes and an award winning wine list. Barber is an unabashed fan of the culinary creations of Christopher Golding, the chef de cuisine. He has prevailed upon the chef to prepare a tasting menu and what follows is a rare treat for the taste buds. This is Caribbean fusion at its best and is what the chef does best – marrying cultures through food and adding a Jamaican twist to world cuisines while making use of the best ingredients that the island has to offer.
Chef Golding explains that Jamaican cuisine is extremely diverse. It draws from an interpretation of East Indian, Chinese, African, Spanish and British influences. Jerk cooking is typical to this country, devised by the Maroons (slaves who escaped and disappeared into the mountains) as a method of spicing and cooking pork underground so that smoke would not reveal their hideout. “Earlier, it was a process to preserve and keep the meat,” says Golding. “The most important thing in Jerk is smoke.” Scotchie’s Too at Drax Hall, serves jerk pork, chicken and fish, accompanied typically with breadfruit, peas and rice and festival (somewhat like a donut). The wood-stoked spit is covered with whole splayed marinated pigs with a zinc sheet covering. The secret of course is in the marinade, a truly Jamaican blend of spices and seasonings with a key ingredient, the Scotch bonnet pepper, that gives it a particular piquancy. The food arrives hot in silver foil and we wash it down with chilled coconut water and the local Red Stripe Beer. Tasty as sin!
At a beachside restaurant, Chill Out Hut, under large umbrellas, on another afternoon, we devour goat curry, a special-occasion food that shows the influence of East Indian cuisine. I do not get to taste the vegetarian cooking of the Rastafarians but learn that Ital Cuisine is all about the nutritive value of food and its medicinal effects.
A JAMAICAN BREAKFAST
On my final morning on the island, at Round Hill, I opt for a Jamaican breakfast. Jamaicans typically eat a large breakfast and a plateful of food is set before me. There’s ackee and salt cod, Jamaica’s national dish. Ackee, the national fruit is poisonous unless sun-ripened and when prepared, has been described to look like scrambled eggs. This is accompanied by lusciously-sweet fried plantain, chunky grilled breadfruit, and callalloo, a spinach-like vegetable. Bammy, a cake made from the cassava root, a seasonal plant, may also accompany this wonderful repast that I enjoy to the dregs!
I have but touched upon a tip of the North Coast of this beautiful island and been only to the enclaves of luxury and great living. The real Jamaica eludes me and I tell myself that I shall return and see so much more. Meet again the artist, Gary Briscoe, in his wooden stall hung with paintings, on the corner of the highway. Or the server who brought me room-service breakfast, tray perfectly balanced, no-hands, on his head while he whistled a cheery morning tune. Perhaps have a bank-side chat with raft-captain Wayne, while his water-logged raft dried in the sun. Or dance with the group of young store vendors who broke into a spontaneous jig as Usain Bolt broke his own record. ‘Sad to say I’m on my way/won’t be back for many a day….’ laments Belafonte. The common parting expression here, translates ‘Walk good’. And I, I intend to walk right back, soon!
FAR AND AWAY
INTERNATIONAL AIRPORTS: Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay and Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston.
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: English.
VISA: Visa on arrival for Indian travellers for tourism. England and USA being the closest entry points, Indian travellers require a transit visa to reach Jamaica.
TRANSPORT: JUTA is a transport service specifically for visitors, equipped with air-conditioned cars, buses and coaches with drivers certified by the tourism board.
BEST BUYS: Appleton Estate rum, Blue Mountain coffee; batiks, baubles and mahogany sculptures from crafts markets; paintings and pottery.
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