In the world of Caribbean destinations, Anguilla, St. Lucia and Turks and Caicos seem to corner the market on pristine waters, deserted beaches and small, private hotels. But while these other islands are beautiful, dreamy and relaxing, friends told me that Jamaica was “interesting”. Some went so far as to state that if I hadn’t been to Jamaica, I hadn’t really been to the Caribbean. I had to go.
I began planning this trip with my friend Amy, but she had to postpone when responsibilities of parenting her young children took priority. Maybe she wasn’t in the mood for my proposed itinerary which included staying in off-the-beaten-path hotels, riding public transportation and rocking the Kingston live music scene? Don’t get me wrong, Amy is bold. Our last journey together, before we became mothers, saw us lacing the rice paddies of Southern China on rickety and slippery bicycles in an absolute downpour.
When I started making sounds about scrapping the trip, my mother called and said, “Please take me to Jamaica.” Five minutes later she called back and said, “My friend Pam wants to come too.” Mom had witnessed my early research phase and understood what I wanted out of this trip. Still, I reminded them that this would not be an all-inclusive beach vacation at a five-star hotel. This would be a classic Map + Muse adventure. If they wanted to come, they would have to be ready to move around by car, boat, bike and foot. The goal was to get to know three different parts of the island, sleeping and eating in cool, authentic places and journeying overland to experience less touristy points on route. My mother and her friend said, “Yes!”
So, where to go? We would have five days. I did lots of research, spoke with friends and found my answer on the map: Airport is near Montego Bay, and Negril is on the way to Treasure Beach. These three towns have different vibes, yet are within a few hours drive of each other across wide swaths of open space. We would road trip across Jamaica’s agricultural landscapes, weave through small villages and hug golden sand beaches along the coast.
I set up a car service for transportation between major landmarks and hoped this would go smoothly. As it turns out, this was a sweet, defining characteristic of our Jamaican adventure. We were linked up with a minivan and its driver, Percy, who became our new best friend. Traveling across the island, he would be in charge. Exploring locally, we would find our own way. Percy was cheerful and animated, like the many bobble heads on the dash of his van. His broad smile and laughter reflected the famous warmth of his culture. We had so many questions and he enjoyed answering them with personal anecdotes, as well as with what he referred to as “well known stories.” To tunes from the local radio station, the van bounced and swayed through quiet villages and bustling marketplaces, like Savannah-La-Mar and Ferris Cross. We hit gridlock traffic in ratty Black River and kicked up dust on seemingly deserted country roads. We passed fields of watermelon in St. Elizabeth Parish (the country’s “bread basket”) and heard from Percy about the red pepper, sweet potato and callaloo harvest schedules.
Our favorite time of day to travel was afternoon when the world seemed especially joyful. Local children poured out of school wearing brightly colored uniforms, dotting the fields and lining the edge of the road. Each town had its own color: In Lucea, cornflower blue and white, and in Treasure Beach, emerald green.
Percy dropped us on a quiet stretch of beach near Montego Bay, where we spent our first night. Honestly, I am not sure what the real Montego Bay is like, for I was immediately bathed in warm hotel lobby smiles and folded onto a pretty chaise lounge by the pool. Once I had a drink in my hand, that was that, I liked it. I soon wondered: Perhaps Amy and I should have booked a week here at the Half Moon Hotel. We could walk the beach and swim in the sea, drink Red Stripe with Jerk Chicken from nearby Scotchies and dine every evening at The Sugar Mill Restaurant. We could stay up late laughing and drinking rum and wear large black sunglasses to breakfast like Grace Kelly did here in the sixties. After breakfast, we might wander nonchalantly toward a shady spot beneath a very pretty umbrella and pull out a book. What’s not to love about Jamaica?
In Negril, we shuffled between casual hideaways along the cliffs and a long crescent beach strewn with crowded hotels. We were challenged every time we tried to move from one neighborhood to another. Too far to walk. Too hard to walk. No taxis in sight. Public buses zoomed by. When they stopped occasionally, they would mysteriously turn into taxis that cost about ten times more. Sometimes our taxis suddenly turned into buses. I never did figure out the difference between private vans and local buses, except that our flexibility made the drivers super happy and the rides became more fun. We made lots of friends while trying to figure it out and we always made it to our destination. I’d like to give a special shout out to Wilton (aka Willie). He explained to me in full, immodest detail why girls in Jamaica like Rastas more than non-Rastas, and why non-Rasta guys wish they were Rastas, and why he himself has tried to be a cool Rasta, unsuccessfully.
Like everyone, I had been told to visit Negril’s cliffs at sunset. We experienced cliff charm by staying at the lovely little Tensing Pen Guesthouse, with its sweet, tucked-in bungalows and delightful outdoor breakfast lounge. I had arranged dinner reservations in advance of our trip and I am glad I did; we had a great meal perched above the waves at Rockhouse Restaurant.
I was lured to Treasure Beach on the island’s east end with tales of less development, small hotels, great restaurants and a laid back countryside vibe. This slice of “Old Jamaica” is still little more than a fishing village dotted with the occasional colorful holiday maker’s cottage or bar. We chose Jake’s Hotel for its great reputation. The food and drink, rather than the grounds and accommodations, won our hearts. Rum drinks mixed with fresh fruits by friendly bartenders at Dougie’s were the perfect start to dinner at Jake’s Country Cuisine, a few steps away. We dined on the local harvest and just-caught seafood under the sparkling branches of a far-reaching tree. We ate white fish drizzled with olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon, which was so outstanding that we’re still talking about it! We nibbled on ackee and salt fish, banana pancakes and bammy. I tasted the best fresh arugula of my life (so far).
From Treasure Beach, we took a boat out to The Pelican Bar, a curious bird’s nest of a bar which sits half a mile offshore in the middle of the sea. I attempted, by email and phone, to reserve our place on a small row boat, but I was told, “Wait until you get here. When you get here, if the weather is good, you can go.” I really wanted to go to The Pelican Bar, so I arrived at Treasure Beach with crossed fingers, scanning the cloudy skies. “He’ll take you anyway” said the girls at the front desk and gave us vague directions, pointing across the grass toward a path. When we finally made our way to the water it was high and wavy. We could see a few long ropes and boats around the bend, but they required us to travel a considerable distance in waist high water. Surprised, but adventurous, we clutched branches for balance, climbed sandy walls, crawled over rocks and swam to reach the cove. We made it, but not without almost giving up several times. Captain Tomi reached out his large, capable hand to shake mine and smiled a great big reassuring smile. “Let’s go,” he said as he waved goodbye to someone in a bright green school uniform. “That’s my daughter,” he said all smiles and laughter. Suddenly I felt at ease.
Our boat ride to The Pelican Bar in half stormy skies and big swells was a true adventure and would have been down right scary if not for Captain Tomi’s steady stream of laughter and smiles. A huge pod of dolphins circled our boat most of the way, making us feel blessed. When we arrived at the bar, it was empty (abandoned would be a better description); no one was there but a large flock of birds. It was fabulous.
While in Jamaica, we enjoyed a few special hotels and restaurants, each one unique. We strolled on sandy beaches, relaxed poolside and admired the sunset from a hammock. We met cool people, shared laughs at the bar and even fit in a perfect nap. But when I remember Jamaica, it is the crossing of the countryside in Percy’s van that springs foremost to mind. I close my eyes and imagine the intermingling of grassy hills, trees, water and friendly faces. I hear the hello honk of passing cars. I see the the welcoming, spray painted shacks along the road: Whinsome Tasty, Hazel’s Cook Shop, The Well Bar.
Posted on February 20, 2014