Jamaica is synonymous with the Caribbean, the most African of these alluring island nations. It has a typical Caribbean tropical climate and topography of mountains, rainforests and reef-lined beaches. And it’s smack bang in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and so, was the centre of the slave trade. Runaways (called maroons) safeguarded the African traditions. Marcus Garvey founded the back to Africa movement here and Rastafarianism followed by reggae music (and Bob Marley), were born in Jamaica. (I’ve been to see the Bob Marley musical Get Up Stand Up to prepare. This is the home of jerk chicken, the world’s best coffee (apparently) and manatees, as well as the usual Caribbean white sand beaches and diving.
Jamaica’s main income is tourism, but it gets a mixed press. There is much poverty. And consequently, a more than average amount of hassle. Crafts, massage, jewellery and drugs. There’s ganja (and other unmentionable stuff) being hustled on every corner. (Despite the fact that possession is strictly illegal.) There are also warnings not to take photos of the marijuana fields.
More worryingly, Jamaica has the highest murder rate in the world for any country not at war. Most of the violence occurs in the ghettoes - I’m told. And a week before we leave, the news tells us that five parishes have been designated as state of emergency zones, due to escalating gang violence. I’m going to have to research where I venture very carefully.
Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno peoples, Jamaica came under Spanish rule following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. Many of the indigenous people were killed or died of imported diseases, after which the Spanish brought large numbers of African slaves to Jamaica as labourers. The island remained a possession of Spain until 1655, when it was conquered by the English. The country had been named Xaymaca "Land of Wood and Water" by the Taino, but this was anglicized to Jamaica. Jamaicans, however, refer to their home island as the "Rock".
Under British colonial rule Jamaica became a leading sugar exporter, with a plantation economy dependent on the African slaves and later their descendants. The island achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962, but the King of the UK remains head of state - for the moment.
This is a revisit, to Jamaica, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship in Ocho Rios counts. I’m travelling with Alison and I’m using my Air Miles. I keep reminding myself that the flight is free, as I’m squashed into a tiny seat, alongside a very large lady, who can’t help but overspill into my space. The flight is crammed with Jamaicans, returning home for a long Christmas break, before seat prices rise to extortionate levels. No-one has checked the amount of cabin baggage they’re bringing on.
It takes an additional hour to get everyone on the plane and all the overhead bins are overflowing. A stewardess has insisted I try to squash my backpack under the seat in front. Thankfully, it was agreed to be impossible to get it in there, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to flex any of my limbs. And the flight is almost 10 hours. ‘’It’s free, it’s free’. I repeat to myself.
Driving is also reported to be more than a little daunting. The roads are full of potholes and there are very few signposts. People buy licences, rather than taking a test. And speed limits are there to be ignored. It’s encouraging that the Jamaicans drive on the left, like we do in the UK. ‘De left side is the right side; de right side is suicide’.
As our flight lands after dark, we’ve booked a taxi to take us to Ocho Rios (where my first landing was made, though I’m not sure it equates to that of Christopher Columbus in 1494). The driver’s WhatsApp greeting sets the mood. ‘Blessed Love,’ he declaims. Sadly, the warnings about dangerous driving turn out to be true. This observation, coupled with the traffic jams through Kingston (rush hour seems to last from 3 till 9 – and why is it called rush hour ?), is bad enough for me to abandon my original plan to drive a hire car for a couple of days. We strike a deal with (Blessed Love) Kenroy instead. Yeah Man. Aw man.
But first, a very welcome couple of days on the beach at Ocho Rios. Our apartment has sea views and is just five minutes walk from Mahogany Bay. This little sandy cove is worn round the edges - collapsing wooden sunbeds round the old swim up bar in a little creek. But it’s shabbily charming, with its channels and canary yellow humped bridge. A few shops. Bright clothing draped over bushes, in the hope of attracting custom from tourists on their way to the small jetty, for boat trips. There's a gigantic Royal Caribbean liner looming over the horizon and big excitement amongst the vendors at Mahogany Bay anticipating, a large number of clients. They even wheel in a limbo dancer to entertain the crowds waiting for their catamaran cruises.
Other than the cruisers it’s thankfully quiet at this time of year, so we can bag an umbrella and two sunbeds in a prime spot by the water. There’s a somnolent dog under almost every lounger. Waders stalk by and the sea here is crystal clear, shallow and balmy. The beach vendors are friendly and it’s a very soft sell, not too persistent. We can also get high, free. The air reeks of ganja.
When I say quiet, I mean not very busy. There’s reggae music blaring from the beach restaurant, which boast huge speakers and a resident DJ. Every so often, the moored catamarans enter into competition turning on their own sound systems. And the bay features on the local boat trip repertoire. We’re intermittently subjected to a loud commentary, as a group of tourists are encouraged to admire us and our environment from the water. It’s like being an exhibit at the zoo.
We’re having a splendid time until we set off down the coast road into downtown Ocho Rios. Ochi (as the locals call it) continues the Caribbean ramshackle vibe and is best described as having character, rather than being pretty. The bays either side of downtown are more upmarket. Mick Jagger has a house here, which he lets out at exorbitant prices. But then he has a house in many places, including Mustique.
Lines of yards, concealing paint and tyre shops. Tourist markets. Everything branded in Jamaican colours. Miles of overhead cables. It’s thronging. We’re marked out and accosted with varying degrees of civility as we bump up and down the ledges on the sidewalk. Everyone wants to know our business and issue offer an opinion. Whatever we say, it is safe to expect that we will be judged to be doing it wrong. 'Turtle Beach is not the same thing as Ocho Beach, even if the internet says it is.'
I finally make it through the centre of town, to the bay that is the main beach (and apparently not Turtle Beach), as I want to retrace the steps of my earlier visit. But we’re not allowed through the gate. ‘The beach closed at four’, snarls the hefty female attendant. (We’ve been told it closes at five). I beg Stern Faced Lady, for just 2 minutes. She eventually relents. 'But you can’t use a camera in there. Just a phone. Just one phone.' Alison is not permitted entry. I admire the powdery white sand and recall my trip down the cruise ship pier in solitary splendour. Surely, the guard has to be making all these rules up. Perhaps it’s the Jamaican version of the doctor’s secretary.
To the supermarket to buy something easy for dinner. But it’s the same story as in Anguilla. Deli doesn’t seem to exist. No coleslaw or salads, no cooked meats. So it’s frozen meat and fish or cans and packets. I’ve got crisps and a can of corned beef for dinner – again. And even that makes a huge dent in the wallet. Food is far more expensive than in England. On our return to our apartment I look up delis in Ocho Rios on the internet and am deluged with pictures of bakeries.
Our 'condo', in a quiet part of town 'with ocean view', seems perfect, despite the dozen assorted pots of artificial flowers displayed artfully on chests, tables and in every alcove. It seems to have every convenience, once I’ve reset all the controls on the three TVs. We retreat from an early night, still jet lagged, but I emerge from my bedroom to find we’ve now got an indoor swimming pool. A huge flood in the middle of the living room floor. Needless to say, no-one is available to deal with it and its origin is a mystery. Though the recently used washing machine seems to be the prime suspect.
Alison mops and I helpfully hum a hornpipe. There’s half a bucket of dirty water collected. A plumber calls next day and can’t find anything wrong, but I’m not sure how hard he looked. I refused to spend my holiday time waiting around for him to come. And he didn’t take up the sodden rug, which is now best described as stinky.
Kenroy turns up, as agreed, almost punctually to take us to Montego Bay, as agreed. Respect. 'One Love'. Fist bumps in fingerless gloves. There’s a huge whiff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. I had attributed it to a local drains problem, but at least part of the noxious smell seems to be coming from the engine of his car. The bonnet is propped open and the battery is steaming. It's definitely not the same vehicle he picked us up in, on Monday. ‘Licence expired’. he raps. ‘Dis my brother's’. I’m not convinced Kenroy’s brother’s car is going to make it to Dunn’s River Falls, a few kilometres up the road, let alone all the way to Montego Bay, at the western end of the island.
Kenroy is confident however and we set off. I’m even more alarmed when I notice that the fuel gauge arrow points to empty. Kenroy agrees that he will sort out the problems with the car, whilst we 'Enjoy da falls, man'.
Dunn’s River Falls are Jamaica’s number one tourist attraction. This is at least partly due to the fact that they are within easy driving distance of all the main cruise ship ports – Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios.
I should have heeded the advice I got last time I was here. The falls are not especially exciting. There are a couple of pretty cascades, which we are fortunate enough to see before the cruisers arrive. The main attraction here is to terrify yourself by clambering up the smooth water covered rock. The climb has to be done with falls guides (distinguished by their tee shirts), who insist that everyone link hands and shout 'Ra-ra-ra', before they start each part of the ascent. The falls are soon bestrewn with lines of would be mountaineers. We’re not convinced that some are fit enough to make it. We’re not even going to try.
The area has been cleverly turned into a park, to justify the 25 USD entrance fee. There’s a zip line, a pretty golden beach and several viewing platforms. But these are all closed due to pre Covid damage, not yet repaired. It seems that Jamaica has only just begun to emerge properly from the pandemic, though it opened up last year.
There’s also a tranquillity garden. Sadly this is not so quiet as I had hoped. The gardeners want to take you on tours to explain the purpose of the various plants - for tips of course. There are also lines of souvenir shops and stalls, with exit signs carefully placed to lead you past (it’s a bit like being in an outdoor Ikea), instead of directly to the car park. Small carved turtles are pressed on us ‘as presents’, as we search for the escape route.
Kenroy isn’t waiting when we emerge from the falls, so I call him – no answer. He eventually meanders across the car park, munching from a polystyrene take out box and announcing that he now needs to go back into Ocho Rios to buy a new battery and fill up with gas. What’s more we’re paying. We swiftly disabuse him of this notion and remove our gear from the vehicle. ‘What about money for my gas?’ he wails. ‘Respect’. I point out that turning up with a car that isn’t roadworthy isn’t exactly respectful and we walk away. Though more panic struck then we are admitting. What now? Our plans for the next two days are all in shreds.
We’re standing forlornly in the car park. I’m waving my fins around. Some waiting taxi drivers eventually act as the Fifth Cavalry. They summon friend Oliver, who arrives complete with minibus to take us to Montego Bay. Smiley Desmond then volunteers to do duty the following day.
So now we have enough space for 12, and can try out all the different seats. Oliver is a reassuringly careful driver and an informative guide, as we take the westerly highway. Running to the south, limestone escarpments and low peaks. before long the road is actually hugging the coast. It’s not the most attractive Caribbean shoreline I’ve seen. There are some lovely beaches and cerulean bays, with waving palm trees, juxtaposed with enormous container ships, moored on crane lined piers. They’re being loaded with bauxite from the trains (only cargo tracks still operate here) and conveyors that carry the red ore down to the harbours. It’s one of Jamaica’s most lucrative exports.
There’s Runaway Bay (from which all the slaves disappeared) and Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus first landed. There’s even supposedly, the ship that he sailed in, though it’s being renovated and we can only see a tip of mast. Rio Bueno (Good River), so named as it was the closest decent drinking water they could find. Oliver stops to show us the memorial plaque on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. The late queen opened the road in 1953. Falmouth Bay is prettier, lined with silvery sands. But there are huge cruise ships moored up there.
As is common with colonial destinations, there are a plethora of UK place names. Jamaica is divided into three counties (Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall), which run in sections north to south dividing Jamaica like a vertically striped flag. Each of these are subdivided into parishes. We’ve just crossed from Middlesex into Cornwall.
Nearing Montego Bay, dilapidated gives way to designer. Very recent hotels have appropriated the prime coastal spots and there is new construction ongoing in any gaps. There are larger fancier supermarkets and plate glass fronted shops on pink plazas that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida. Signs even promise delis.
Up on the hill to our left, as we approach the city, Rose Hall, the most well known of the great Jamaican plantation houses, dating from the 1700s. It was owned by the Palmer family. One of their number, Annie (the wife of owner John) was famed as a witch. According to legend Annie came from Haiti, where she learned voodoo and magic. She murdered not only John, but two subsequent husbands, becoming rich in the process. Then she engaged in liaisons with her slaves and murdered them too, when she tired of what they had to offer. She came to a bad end, when she encountered a more powerful magician, a slave called Takoo. who disposed of her, in her turn. Rose Hall (named after the first Palmer wife) fell into disrepair in the 1960s, but has now been renovated and opened as a historic house museum.
Montego Bay is the second city in Jamaica, founded on sugar cane. It’s very much a place of two halves. There are ghettoes, poverty and gang violence. One area is included in the latest state of emergency declaration. And then there’s the ever expanding Hip Strip. A line of the most upmarket, boutiques, hotels and manicured beaches. Doctor's Cave Beach is a gorgeous stretch of sand - paid entry of course - with scarlet Baywatch emulating lifeguards, every 30 metres or so. It’s named after a doctor (who was followed by an osteopath, sometimes the two are conflated), who used to direct his patients to bathe in the springs that bubbled into the bay. In those days you had to enter through a small cave, which has now collapsed and disappeared.
There are reefs (mostly dead, but there are some live pockets) and a few fish wandering around in the warm turquoise water. The best snorkelling in the world, or even the Caribbean, it is not, but it’s an entertaining and relaxing way to pass the time. Unless you want to bounce up and down on the circular striped trampolines that dot the bay.
Sangster Airport, at the end of the Hip Strip is also being extended (more JCBs in action) to facilitate the transport of tourists to all those new hotels. It’s already the busiest airport on Jamaica.
If Oliver was good, then Desmond turns out to be an absolute treasure, totally atoning for all Kenroy’s misdemeanours (at a price). Even if he does include Yeah Man in (literally) every sentence. He has been tasked with taking us into the famous Blue Mountains, home of the world’s best coffee ( they boast) and then to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, before delivering us back to the airport at Kingston for our flight to Grand Cayman. He starts by avoiding the toll highway to Kingston (built by the Chinese) and taking to the delightful mountain roads. First, through rainforest proper in Fern Gulley. Magnificent dappled vegetation, tall, tall trees, lianas dangling and giant figs. The roots of one such are so huge there’s a murky cave underneath.
Colgate and other mountain communities give a real flavour of life in the Jamaican countryside, as we criss-cross the new main road. Roadside stalls, jerk centres, salted cod cooking on coals. Folk waiting at bus stops and taxis ferrying children to school. Education is not free in Jamaica and no transport is provided either. The route is much more interesting than the highway and good for Desmond, who doesn’t have to fork out for the 32 dollar toll. We are surrounded by manic drivers, determined to overtake, come what may. Unlicensed cars, freshly delivered are a particular hazard, they’re uninsured and totally uninhibited. Desmond says these drivers are known as CJs - Crazy Jamaicans.
Eventually, the road drops into Spanish Town, the Spanish (hence the name - it was originally Villa de la Vega) and British capital of Jamaica from 1534 until 1872. The town is home to sepia brick government buildings and white porticoes, falling into disrepair. The old governor's residence is just a façade. There are numerous memorials, the national archives, and one of the oldest Anglican churches outside England. Some what misleadingly it still bears a Spanish name, Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega.
Through the edges of Kingston and then a very winding climb up to the ridges of the Blue Mountains. This is St Andrew, (now we're in Surrey), where the rich and famous, like Shaggy and Usain Bolt (though he went to school near Montego Bay) have their villas. There’s a gorgeous, if hazy, view back across Kingston. The valley walls plummet and the whole is covered in the lushest of emerald vegetation. Vines lace the mountainsides.
Right up top, Craighton Plantation (perhaps surprisingly founded by a Japanese) offers coffee tours and more stupendous outlooks. And there’s food and still more panoramas to be had at the Strawberry Hill Hotel or the Crystal Edge Café. We partake of jerk chicken and rice and ‘peas’ at the latter.
The Bob Marley Museum is the other tourist must see in Jamaica. There are two of them, in fact. Bob Marley’s mausoleum is at Nine Mile, at the house where he was born (to an English father and Jamaican mother). I’ve read that it’s mainly a place to hang out and smoke grass. My sources say that the museum is more interesting. This house, on Hope Road, in bustling Kingston, was gifted as part of his Island Records deal. It was previously owned by producer Chris Blackwell.
The museum is small. Downstairs is stuffed with memorabilia, record album covers and the recording studio. Upstairs, his bed (he had twelve children by nine different women, including his wife) and the kitchen where he mixed cocktails which were supposed to assist in his many sexual endeavours. Out back, the main kitchen area with the framed bullet holes that mark the assassination attempt that failed. The garden walls are covered in bright murals. It’s a worthwhile visit. Though I learned more about this complex icon from the stage musical, and from the Booker Prize winning novel - The Seven Killings of Bob Marley.
The traffic in Kingston is still moving very slowly. ‘Friday is market day’, says Desmond, winding up the windows and instructing us to hide our valuables. Past more colourful plazas. Millionaires’ Corner, where three very wealthy Jamaicans built mansions, in the late 1800s. The most notable is Devon House, constructed by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. It was declared a national monument in 1900 and is now a park with shops and a bakery. Next, the presidents’ residence (we’re not allowed anywhere near that).
It was dark when we arrived, so we didn’t get to see that the towering cement factories on the airport road are sitting on the water’s edge. Kingston lies on a huge bay, Much of the capital is very industrial. Warehouses, manufacturing plants, depots. Not to mention the areas where no one enters, unless they have a pre-arranged appointment with the men in charge. And we definitely don’t.
Next stop, Grand Cayman.
Our plane lands over an hour late, when we return from Grand Cayman. That’s given the traffic in Kingston plenty of time to build up, on another Friday afternoon. So, the last two hours of our journey on the south coast are dark and terrifying, as the CJs speed past us on the narrow country roads. But we do get a chance to admire the ridge of the central mountain chain that hovers above us, as we venture west. And we catch a glimpse of St Elizabeth Parish. The garden of Jamaica is found in the long valley here. The south provides the island with all of its vegetables and much of its fish.
Today, we have driver Maurice. He is not a CJ, but he informs us, somewhat worryingly, that he can be when he doesn’t have any passengers. We stop for spicy beef patties and fried chicken. The Jamaicans boast that the KFC is much better here. Spicier. I’m sure it is, but I’m opting for the local version. Juici. It’s delicious.
We’ve saved the best till last. Negril is stunning. We’re on another Seven Mile Beach and this one really is seven miles long and really could be a contender for best beach in the Caribbean. I still think Anguilla and BVI are better, but this stretch is truly lovely. A crescent of beautiful powdery white sand backed by sea grapes, palms (none of them bent though) and casuarina trees. True, it’s also backed by resorts, restaurants and bars. But these are all low rise, set back from the sand and generally add to the gentle beach vibe. The sapphire and azure bay is sprinkled with small boats touting for business, glass bottoms, para sailing, snorkelling, banana boats.
We have a timber ‘cottage’ at Nirvana Resort, just behind one of the widest stretches of sand on Seven Mile Beach. It’s charming (at a stretch), with shutters and ceiling fans. It’s marketed as private and secluded, which is relatively true during the day. This is carefully worded advertising. At night, we can hear the drinking bouts and games in the other cottages continuing until late. On Saturday evening there’s ‘a boogie night’ on the Wavz Beach lot, right next door. It starts at 7.30 and goes on until almost 3.30 a.m. The sound stage is right next to our cottage. The bass is so strong that the whole building vibrates. The windows rattle, the bed shifts and my chest pounds. Ear plugs are not going to cut it. Nirvana it is not.
Next morning, I complain to Errol, the security guard. He says he could hear the noise up on the top of the cliffs, right at the end of the bay. Errol has a mess of gold teeth that seems to move around in his mouth. He could audition to play Jaws in James Bond movies.
Hawkers march up and down the strand, but the beach is broad enough to maintain a distance and the selling is not overly oppressive, though I’ve had one too many an arm hoisted around me. A massage might relieve the stress of no sleep. I arrange with a beach vendor waving a price card that she will collect me in the afternoon. She arrives whilst I’m dozing under the sea grapes (beset by mosquitoes). Five minutes down the beach and she tells me we’re taking a taxi. I’m only wearing my bikini. No shoes. I inform her that we are not. She says she will use a friend’s facility instead - there are plenty of little massage tents under the trees - and shoots off into the distance. Friend’s place is, predictably, shut. Tomorrow? I don't think so.
I find another masseuse asleep on her couch. She’s happy to oblige, when she's woken up.
I’ve had little more luck with booking a boat ride. The first guy doesn’t return to follow up on the deal. The second agrees a 2 pm departure and doesn’t show up. Finally, the third, Captain Mike's Glass Bottomed Boat, takes us both in a glass bottomed vessel with space for 25 and we have a great trip, across the bay to the limestone cliffs. The hotels and apartments here have ramps and stairs down to rocky pools. There’s interesting, if not great, snorkelling in the many caves and a spotted ray accompanies me, to liven up proceedings.
Rick’s Café is the must-visit venue here, where all the boats pile in. The foolish fling themselves off the cliffs into the pool below - if the lifeguards judge them to be fit enough. They also buy drinks in the soulless, crowded bar and burger restaurant. The original owner has cashed in and moved on.
We’re still searching for really good food. Negril is not as expensive as Ochi, (though definitely not cheap), but the menus look identical. Jerk chicken, jerk pork, rice and ‘peas’, fish, shrimp curry, conch (pronounced conk) curry or fritters and fried plantain. So far, the patties are winning in the taste stakes. Jerk corn rolled in spices and coconut is also pretty good.
We wander up the beach trying the different restaurants. Then it’s a toss up, as to which route to take home in the dark. We’ve been warned not to walk on the beach at night. But does that mean later on or now? The coast road - Norman Manley Boulevard (Kingston's airport is also named after this prime minister) - is deemed to be safer. And there are pretty Christmas lights to admire on the way. But there are also some deserted patches where we need a torch. And there’s the constant horn honking of taxis determined to remind us of their presence.
Last night in Jamaica - barbecued lobster on the beach. It’s a shame it rains.
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