Our Editor & Chief has a love affair in Jamaica and considers its history and reputation, whilst having an exceedingly good time
Jamaica is bewilderingly beautiful and is, contrary to contemporary popular perception, incredibly friendly and safe. In fact I would be hard pressed to say which is more completely charming the landscape or the people. Certainly during my limited travels in Jamaica, which have included some rather more obscure parts of the island, I never felt remotely threatened. This is corroborated by all of those I have met, who know Jamaica far better than I. The idea that Jamaica specifically is a dangerous place is terribly misleading, although obviously one has to take care as one would in any Caribbean or Latin American country or indeed anywhere in the world. Much of this unfair reputation from which Jamaica suffers is due to the drug wars in Trench Town Kingston, which first of all have dramatically decreased and secondly have hardly ever involved tourists.
This excursion to Jamaica with my wife Kate was my second visit. I had had the pleasure of being the guest (without Kate) of the legendary Butch Stewart for the Port Antonio World Marlin Fishing Competition in 2010 where I learnt to drink large quantities of Appleton rum and Red Stripe beer at sea whilst playing incredibly competitive dominoes with Butch’s Jamaican friends. With totally impassive poker faces they would slap the dominoes down so hard on the table that it soon resembled the surface of hammer hewn pewter vessel completely covered in tiny little nicks. This was an impressive skill to master and the inability to do so well resulted in the pieces being scattered all over the table and floor, much to the feigned chagrin of the other players. Most memorably on this trip I fell head over heels in love with Port Antonio and for the next seven years I repeatedly regaled Kate, and whoever else I had the opportunity to bore, with the extraordinary splendour of this natural paradise of untouched verdant coastal rain forest with perfect beaches and sea, in the foothills of the majestic Blue Mountains. Bigging something up, the degree to which I did, is a high risk business if you want to avoid causing disappointment. Managing expectations is my normal game and leaves the recipient of one’s enthusiasm with the opportunity for a personal journey of discovery. Anyway irrespectively I simply just couldn’t wait to show Kate Port Antonio and my opportunity was soon about to materialise.
Kate and I flew into Montego Bay with Virgin and for the first two days stayed at The Royal Caribbean Sandals resort which is only 20 minutes from the airport. Our accommodation was an unbelievable Tahiti style bungalow, literally built over the sea, with its own infinity pool, spa, hammock for two, and glass floor through which we were able to observe the abundant marine life. This was pure pampered luxury and the perfect way to relax after a long flight before embarking on an adventure. We had our own highly attentive uniformed Butler, called Ian, and mobiles with which to contact him. One felt sheepishly guilty, but anything you wanted, where ever you wanted it, was his pleasure, so to speak! We tried not to abuse it, but did get quite lazy and slipped into some bad habits. The hardest thing to resolve each day was deciding at what time we would have our first cocktail! Unfortunately we didn’t show much will power. The food was simply superb and the choice across five different restaurants staggering. Incidentally the all-inclusive house wines, Champagne and spirits were eminently drinkable. For pure unadulterated luxury it is a great way to start a fortnight in Jamaica and some would perhaps look no further for a life time! After a delicious lunch at the Jerk Shack on the third day we embarked for our five hour drive to Port Antonio along the scenic coastal road. Now Montego Bay is absolutely lovely and compares very favourably with any part of the Caribbean, but it has to be said that the closer we got to Port Antonio the more lush (no we weren’t drinking on the journey!) and verdant the landscape became as the Blue Mountains rose towards us. It was also clear that the amount of tourism declined dramatically from Ocho Rios onwards. As we approached Port Antonio the sun sank over the horizon and a blanket of complete darkness descended upon us revealing a brilliant starry sky as we climbed the foothills to our next place of stay.
A very brief history of Port Antonio and the stories of others who have succumbed to its magic are fascinating and I think construct a poignant background to the continuation of my story. The Caribbean including Jamaica until the mid-19th Century was known in North America and Europe and as the “white man’s grave”, but by the turn of the century the fatal tropical diseases, that had either deterred or killed visitors, had been overcome by modern medicine. The tourism that followed was literally built on the back of the banana trade as steam ships transporting bananas to New York began taking passengers.
At that time there were more weekly sailings from Port Antonio than Liverpool and the journey time to New York was only five days. With a reputation that rapidly spread of its unsurpassed beauty and the restorative health giving virtues of the water and atmosphere for invalids, the golden age for Port Antonio developed in the early 20th century. Magnificent hotels and houses were built and the likes of Randolph Hearst, JP Morgan and Rudyard Kipling became regular visitors. However it was short lived. A combination of banana crop failures, the great depression and the final blow of the New Montego Bay Airport opening in the 1950s, moved the tourism capital of Jamaica from Port Antonio to Montego Bay.
Despite this a new glamorous era was about to begin for Port Antonio. In 1948 Errol Flynn one of Hollywood’s greatest global celebrities fell in love with Jamaica describing it as, “More beautiful than any woman.” He was also incidentally truly captivated by the people and after he married Patrice Wymore in 1952 he bought a cattle ranch near Port Antonio and put it right back on the map. I had the exceptional privilege of meeting Patrice Flynn. She joined Peter McKay and I for dinner at the Geejam Hotel’s lovely restaurant near Port Antonio in 2010. She had driven through a savage tropical storm to join us and arrived soaked to the skin with a Marlboro Red hanging from her lips requesting an urgent tonic with a large dose of gin. We had a marvellous dinner and she very generously told us all the stories we wanted to hear about the glory days of Port Antonio and of course her Errol. She left us, after a good quantity of wine was enjoyed by all, just before midnight saying she had to leave early as she had to be up at 5.00am to feed her cattle! She was one hell of a lady. A massive treat to meet and astonishingly 84 years old!
This is principally because the world has opened up to more convenient tourism and there is still no international airport in Port Antonio. Having said that it is only a 3 hours gorgeous drive from Kingston over the Blue Mountains or now with improved roads a 5 hour drive from Montego Bay. But because of its somewhat inconvenient location, Port Antonio is unspoilt and underdeveloped and has retained a lovely atmosphere of gentle faded grandeur.
Now back to us. Kate and I arrived that night to the gorgeous house we had rented called Panorama. This had been the home of Rita Hayworth in the 1950s and is situated on top of a hill at around 2000 ft above sea level over-looking the Port Antonio coast. The next morning we woke early. I was full of trepidation and we immediately went out barefoot into the garden to take in the view. Kate was initially and very uncharacteristically uncommunicative. I thought something was wrong. She then turned to me with a smile and said, “Nothing you have said has prepared me for this!” We had a wonderful few days. What to report? There’s plenty to do (big game fishing, nature trekking, and dramatic waterfalls to see etc.), but with our private beach and the stunning aquamarine sea we weren’t that adventurous. A particular highlight though was again the quality of the food. This is true of Jamaica as a whole, but Port Antonio was no exception. We ate in small local restaurants (Geejams with live music, Soldier Camp Bar & Grill and Wilkes stood out as being the best) and in Panorama, our house chef Jamie, was amazing and the local seafood was exceptional. My favourite day’s activity was rafting down the Rio Grande River through virgin rain forest. This was made popular by Errol Flynn in the 1950s when he and socialite friends would have large parties punting down the river in convoy. It is an utterly enchanting experience drifting down the river with a glass of chilled wine and a good Cuban cigar. The titillation of alarm when we hit the rapids, skilfully negotiated by our punt man, was exciting and swimming in the cool clean green river water totally exhilarating. The highlight was stopping off at Bellinda’s for lunch. She has a ramshackle home-made out-door charcoal stove on the river bank from which she produces heavenly food. We ate just caught enormous river cray fish followed by a sublime goat curry.
After six magnificent days in Port Antonia we drove across the Blue Mountains to Kingston. It is a spellbinding road journey through impenetrable rainforest that lifts you up above the clouds through steep sided gorges covered in dense tropical vegetation, teaming with life and colour. When we descended the other side, Kingston is laid out for you on a fringed carpet of green reaching to the glittering sea. There is nowhere better to view this scene than Chris Blackwell’s beautiful hotel retreat Strawberry Hill. It is absolutely stunning and, in the nicest possible way, is like staying at the home of a cherished, rather grand, distant relation. Fabulously romantic rooms, wonderful staff, delicious food and one of the finest views in Jamaica make a visit here a must if you are coming to Kingston, and if you are coming to Jamaica it would be a massive shame not to visit the capital of this great country: it tells so many stories. Kingston is bustling, colourful and full of life and has many delightful restaurants and bars of which my favourite is the Redbones Blues Cafe, which serves great Caribbean fusion food and has fantastic live reggae, soul and blues every night and is quite similar in a way to Boisdale. A visit to Bob Marley’s home was inspiring and the tour of the once no-go areas of Trench Town was a fascinating and surprisingly warm experience. My number one venue though was the Kingston Dub Club in the hills overlooking the City where bowel shifting reggae is performed and played to a friendly, extremely relaxed, Rastafarian crowd who mostly appeared to be in a state of sublime meditation, no doubt assisted by the sweet smelling ganja that mingled with the evening breeze. There is nothing like enough room in this article to describe all that we did or how wonderful our trip was, and there is still so much of Jamaica that I have not seen. My overriding message to you is that Jamaica is a beautiful country full of amazing people that is there to be explored and enjoyed as a tranquil adventure of both the senses and the mind.
BEST PLACES TO STAY IN JAMAICA
Sandals Royal Caribbean
Strawberry Hill Hotel