First time to Jamaica – it’s a state of mind as much as a destination. Sure, I knew it for many of the preconceived notions I already had. You know, things like rasta, reggae music, dreadlocks and lazing’ on the beach under a sky that is perpetually sunny.
It came as quite a surprise when I discovered just how lovely Jamaica really is, both for the romantic couple, the partying 20-something or the retired golf junkie.
Getting off the plane I jumped in the car and was reminded that Jamaica was, after all, an English colony for many years. In fact, it was only a mere 40 years ago that Jamaica gained independence from the British. Much of the British influence still exists though, but none quite as noticeable as the fact that they drive on the opposite side of the road than we do in the United States. And then, of course, there is the culture. The culture is refined too (afternoon tea and scones) with a Caribbean flavor that makes it just right.
And, tradition, well that’s part of life in Jamaica.
Other British influences abound as well; for example there’s James Bond – who can forget Ian Fleming lived here and wrote many of the Bond books here. Other influences are the 200-year-old great houses that housed the rich and oversaw the plantations. The few great houses that still exist on the island today taunt the visitor into a deeper look at the lifestyles of long ago. In fact, the great houses are as much a part of Jamaica as the sun and easy-going attitude. Many tourists have heard of Rose Hall because it is known worldwide for the legend of the White Witch, who was originally named Annie Palmer, the husband-murderer who ruled with cruelty and eventually met with a violent death. I visited Greenwood Great House in Montego Bay, which was owned by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s family, but there are others as well such as Brimmer Hall Plantation and Seville Great House in Ocho Rios or Belvedere Estate in Montego Bay.
The great houses link the past with the future in Jamaica and as I toured Greenwood I realized how little I knew about the history of the island. As I looked outside from the second story porch at Greenwood I could see the ocean down the mountain in the distance and imagine hearing music from 100 years ago when the owner of the house entertained guests from miles around – the dancing, the singing and the food. It was so simple in a world lit by candles and cooled by the ocean breeze.
Unfortunately, all things must come to an end and in 1831 during a brutal slave revolt hundreds of these homes were burned to the ground. Of the dozen that still exist, several are maintained for visitors and a few have been converted into bed and breakfasts. The houses are sprinkled around the island as a reminder of what used to be. As I toured Greenwood I searched in every nook and cranny for a ghost. They have one there, or at least that’s the rumor. In fact, there’s an old photograph on the wall of a past owner sitting in the chair on the verandah and there is the distinct outline of another person who was not present the day the photograph was taken, not physically anyway.
An island with so much tradition is bound to be ripe with stories of hauntings, I searched everywhere however, and was met with a tight lip. But even without the ghosts Jamaica is a place where you can do and find just about anything and you can feel the presence of an old-world Caribbean charm. Several days after I arrived I found myself floating down the Martha Brae River on a raft reminiscent of Tom Sawyer on a Sunday afternoon. The raft, a 30-foot bamboo raft, is a popular Jamaican experience holding two adults as they laze away the day for a little over an hour.
Jamaica is also known for jerked chicken, pork and fish. Therefore, you must try it in some form – I enjoyed the jerk chicken. You can’t miss it since jerk stands are all over the island. I drove to Walkers Wood, famous for their jerk seasoning. It was a sunny morning and I was eager to find out what all the excitement was about with their product. Two hours later and loaded down with three of their 20 seasonings, I walked away with a better understanding of the jerk process and with the knowledge of why Walkers Wood is the best in the business.
St. Ann, Jamaica
Jamaica is also equally famous for rum, Blue Mountain coffee and a homegrown liqueur called Tia Maria. Tia Maria is said to be a cocktail that was created in honor of the country’s independence in 1962.
Johnny Cash lives in Jamaica and a few other celebrities who prefer to remain anonymous. Several well-known figures such as Ralph Lauren and Robert Zemekis have villas at Round Hill Resort and Spa and Paul McCartney used to visit often with his first wife Linda. Even James Bond has a Jamaica connection because Ian Fleming, author of the popular books, lived at Goldeneye. Goldeneye is where the famous James Bond Beach is located.
The property is literally a place out of a James Bond movie (since they did shoot on the beach there), but the real specialty is the history. The house was built in the 1940s on a bluff overlooking a secluded cove and, with that seclusion, came house guests as well-known as Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor and Donald Sutherland. Nowadays, Chris Blackwell owns the place and there are private villas with a number of rooms available for rent. The activities abound too; jet ski tours, hiking, biking, snorkeling and kayaking.
Island Outpost – Goldeneye
St. Mary, Jamaica
Even more sprinkled with a history than Goldeneye is the traditional favorite among celebrities, Round Hill. Round Hill is old world charm with just the right amount of Caribbean thrown in for good measure. I wanted to move to Round Hill and spend my days in any one of the villas – there are 29 to choose from – all open air and many with showers and tubs in the back of the villa outside among the trees.
The property was once a 100-acre pineapple, all spice and coconut plantation, which explains the signature spa treatment, a pineapple scrub specialty that’s a must when you visit.
Round Hill Hotel and Villas
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Finally, after all the driving, exploring and discovering the tradition of the island, I made my last few days traditionally Jamaica enjoying the sand and sun. The place for that was Swept Away in Negril. It’s an all-inclusive resort that is as eclectic as Negril and just a few miles away from the town. Swept Away caters to those who want to get away and enjoy nature amid a spa, tennis in the afternoon and a good amount of time spent sunning on the beach or swimming in the crystal-clear water. There are 134 rooms at Negril’s Swept Away, but you wouldn’t know it because the property sits on 18 acres of tropical grounds facing the crescent shaped Bloody Bay on 1,000 feet of white sand beach.
Jamaica is a large island, about the size of Connecticut, so you probably won’t be able to see everything in one trip, especially since almost one-half of the island is 1,000 feet above sea level. So pick a few towns like I did; Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril and sit back and relax as you explore the rich colors and strong traditions that Jamaica has to offer.
Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios is Jamaica’s only dolphin attraction. The property is set on a natural cove, surrounded by four acres of tropical rain forest. You can swim with the dolphins and touch them or just relax on the white sand. There are other exotic animals too; stingrays, eels, sharks, snakes, macaws and other unique tropical birds, fish and reptiles.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Telephone: (876) 974-5335
The exchange rate fluctuates, when I was in Jamaica it was US$1.00 = JA$45.00.
There are many airlines that service Jamaica, but Air Jamaica is the best choice with many departure cities in the United States.
Climate: The average annual temperature is 82 degrees, but it may get as low as the 50s in the mountains.
Population: 2.5 million
Official Language: English and Patois (Jamaican Creole words and speech patterns used by most of the population).
Where to Stay:
Royal Reef Hotel is small with only 19 rooms, but it has everything you will need. Located on the north coast, the hotel sits on the beach with two swimming pools, a jacuzzi, restaurant and bar.
Where to Eat:
If you don’t eat anywhere else you must try Cafe Aubergene. The restaurant has a European feel, the music was great (for example, Grace Jones in French) and the food, the most important part, was the best I had on the island. Try the Soup of the day and the Prawns in “Grand Marnier” curry sauce.
11 miles from Ocho Rios on the Kingston Highway