Jamaica, a jewel in the Caribbean
PUBLISHED: 13:02 26 May 2011 | UPDATED: 12:02 28 February 2013
Eileen Wise revisits a favourite holiday spot and finds it even better than she had remembered
Eileen Wise revisits a favourite holiday spot and finds it even better than she had remembered
Some thirteen years ago I went to Jamaica to unwind after a particularly gruelling and stressful time at work. I stayed at a small and stylish hotel in the south of the island called Jakes it was lovely, laid back, the people were so friendly and Jamaica such a beautiful country that I vowed to return one day. That day finally arrived in January this year.
It was in the early 1990s that Jamaican-born Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records (who was instrumental in launching the career of Bob Marley), started Island Outposts, a group of delightful, small, luxury boutique hotels dotted around the island. They are charming, but different from each other in many ways. We were set to stay at four of them including Jakes.
Before boarding the plane, Roger and I enjoyed a complimentary pre-flight massage in the Virgin Lounge at Gatwick, perfect relaxation prior to the long but pleasant - flight to Kingston. Once there, we were met by Christopher Thompson, a driver used by Island Outposts (much more of him later). After offering us a strong but refreshing rum cocktail in the airport, he took us on a 45-minute journey up into the mountains above the capital city (which boasts the largest natural harbour in the Caribbean) to our first port of call, the delightful olde worlde Strawberry Hill Hotel.
We were pleased not to be driving ourselves because, aside from the steep hills, the roads were badly pot-holed and in some places only single track. Christopher blamed a recent hurricane for their poor state, but I think they were in poor condition anyway. In all our travels around the island it was amusing to see signposts with English names - Falmouth, Chelsea, Little London, and they even have their very own Ipswich!
Located in the sleepy village of Irish Town, Strawberry Hill was built in the 18th century as a coffee plantation. It was deeded by the British Royal Family to Horace Walpole and was named after Walpoles British estate, becoming a popular meeting spot for famous artists and aristocrats of the time. The property changed hands numerous times until Chris Blackwell bought it in 1972 later transforming it into an enchanting small hotel.
Located over 3,000 feet above sea level in the Blue Mountains, you can delight in the view of Kingston spread out before you; at night it is stunning with the city lights twinkling magically away in the far distance. The main house, where the restaurant and stylish bar are found, feels like it hasnt changed too much since the 1800s. There are twelve 19th century white timber cladded cottages dotted around the estate. Some have the spectacular views of the distant Kingston, but ours faced the other way overlooking the lush, green mountains. It was heavenly to sit on our spacious veranda and watch the colourful bird life, and at night we would lie in bed at in our four-poster bed listening to the raucous sound of busy crickets.
On our second afternoon we enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing massage in the small spa before venturing out to try some local food for dinner. Theres not much going on in tiny Irish Town other than the little but friendly Crystal Edge Restaurant, where we ate delicious curried goat and then popped next door to Cafe Blue for some yummy homemade cake.
The following morning we took a tour of The Craighton Coffee Plantation that was just a 15-minute stroll away. Our friendly guide Junior walked us up hundreds of steps into the hills for a panoramic view of the coffee fields, all the while giving us an entertaining talk on how the plant is grown.
The next day our driver Christopher returned to take us to Kingston for the day. When I told him we wanted to visit the downtown areas of Trenchtown, where in recent years drugs wars have raged, he was at first reluctant to take us. With our journalistic instincts, however, we were keen to see all sides of Jamaica and venture beyond the walls of our comfortable hotels. En route Christopher stopped at a little food stall where a friend of his served us the most delicious, nutritious vegetable soup in plastic cups; it cost just a few pennies and we also tried the local staple, tasty peanut porridge.
Trenchtown is very poor and many of the houses are little more than shacks, but the people are very friendly and welcoming and we loved walking around Coronation Market looking at all the unusual vegetables and spices. I bought the makings of Jamaicas national dish Ackee (a vegetable we saw all over the island growing wild on trees) and salt fish. Later the lovely chef at Strawberry Hill taught me how to make it.
A trip to Kingston would not feel right without visiting the Bob Marley museum. The museum is in Marleys old house and it was fascinating to learn all about Jamaicas national icon and to listen to his rhythmic, hypnotic Reggae music in the place where much of it was written. Heading home we stopped at The Chelsea Jerk Restaurant, which looks somewhat like a Kentucky Fried Chicken joint, but the homemade jerk chicken cooked in wonderfully tasty hot spices was simply delicious.
When it came time to leave the restful Strawberry Hill, the lovely and loquacious Christopher returned to take us on the next leg of our journey to the exclusive resort Goldeneye, which started out life as the home of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. After an enjoyable and colourful ride through the mountains - where we stopped on the side of the road to drink coconut milk straight out of the shell, and sampled some of the locally grown mangoes and the native Jamaican apple fruit the drive ended with us ambling along a pretty coastal road. On arrival there was a warm welcome from Jenny Wood the hotels manager. Goldeneye is a small, stylish luxury villa resort set in 15 acres of tropical gardens with its own small white sand beach.
Positioned on the outskirts of the small village of Oracabessa on the north coast, this is an idyllic place to relax and unwind. Our spacious and comfortable villa, perched on the edge of a gorgeous lagoon (with steps leading down into the turquoise water, where Roger swam languidly around) only 50 yards from the sea, was beautifully designed and decorated to a high standard. There are villas right on the beach and a handful dotted along the banks of the lagoon.
You can book to stay at Flemings own villa, which, along with three private guest cottages, is set in its own secluded private gardens, with steps leading down to a private beach. The villa is full of history and its lovely to see pride of place given to his original writing desk, where he conjured up characters like Dr Julius No, Auric Goldfinger and Honey Ryder. Many famous people have stayed in the villa over the years and after the Suez crisis Anthony Eden and his wife spent three weeks at Goldeneye to recuperate; theres a Santa Maria tree planted by them in the villas garden.
From our lovely spot on the banks of the lagoon we enjoyed watching the colourful bird life, with stunning kingfishers sweeping by and egrets strolling disdainfully along the waterside. We also sampled the delights of the resorts spa, hidden quietly away on the opposite side of the lagoon from our cottage.
There are plenty of water sports on offer, from snorkelling to jet skies, as well as some sturdy surf boards that you can stand on as if you were on a Venetian gondola and just paddle around the lagoon or out to sea.
The food, mostly with an international bent, is good and is served from two restaurants. Theres a more casual one on the beach, where you sit just yards from the sea, and then theres the more formal dining Gazebo where people tend to dress in a casual yet smart fashion for dinner.
On Friday evening we took a 20-minute taxi ride into the lively local town of Ochio Rios, where we had supper in a friendly courtyard restaurant called Miss Ts. Throughout dinner we were entertained by a noisy church service going on across the road on the top floor of an apartment building. After dinner we went and took a look. Lots of people were packed in the room listening to various preachers; the one that impressed us was a young man who would not have looked out of place as a DJ in a club! But the old saying give any Jamaican a microphone certainly applied here! The town had a laidback feel, just people hanging out in the streets, setting up competing boom boxes for their own impromptu parties, with loud music blaring out everywhere. In a little bar, Roger was asked if he was a movie star!
Before leaving our Goldeneye haven we journeyed a short distance into the hills to look around Firefly, Noel Cowards villa. Coward adored Jamaica and spent a few months there each year. Photos around the walls are testimony to all his famous friends and visitors, including The Queen Mother, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Joan Collins, Charlie Chaplin to name but a few. Coward is buried at the bottom of his peaceful garden, looking out over the coastline he loved so much. Today the house remains much the same as it always was, and is open to the public for tours, by appointment.
With wanderlust taking hold of us we called Hertz and hired a car for a week and headed off to our next port of call, The Caves hotel in Negril. The drive along the coast was pleasant and the roads werent too bad - most of the villages we passed through had familiar sounding names and we stopped in Falmouth for lunch.
Our roomfaced the other way overlooking the lush, green mountains. It was heavenly to sit on our spacious veranda and watch the colourful bird life, and at night we would lie in bed at in our four-poster bed listening to the raucous sound of busy crickets.
Before reaching Negril we took a detour up into the mountains to visit a small bird sanctuary wed been told about. Started by a Jamaican lady Lisa Salmon (known as the bird woman of Jamaica) over 50 years ago, its run today by her old retainer Fritz, the most delightful gentle, softly spoken man youll ever meet. Over the years, Lisa (who died at the grand age of 96 in 2000) patiently managed to tame the wild birds.
Fritz sat us down on chairs under tropical trees in a courtyard, and then gave us each a tiny bottle filled with sugared water, with a cork stopper with a hole punched in it. He told us to hold our hands up with the bottle visible. After only a few minutes the most beautiful, colourful, tiny and delicate hummingbird landed on my finger and fed from the bottle for 30 seconds. They feel as light as a feather and the constant, energetic fluttering of their wings is a delight to hear.
They kept coming back time and time again - it was most moving and special, bringing a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. Roger put some corn on his trousers and a whole host of finches settled, feeding happily away. This wonderful and privileged experience was the highlight of my trip.
When we eventually dragged ourselves away from the beautiful birds we drove on to Negril. On the whole holiday, Negril was the only place we didnt like. It was over - and unsympathetically developed, probably because it is located on a seven mile sandy beach, thus attracting the crowds. There were long stretches of gigantic, unattractive resort hotels sprawled out by the sea, and it was difficult to locate a town centre with an identity and its own culture.
Our hotel, The Caves, is an unusual destination to say the least. Perched 30 - 40 feet above the sea and built into honeycombed cliffs, one could be forgiven for being wary of tumbling down to the water below! We stayed in a little cottage called Sea Turtle, where we could lie on our bed and look out of the window to spectacular sea views and pretty sunsets. All the cottages are slightly different with loungers outside, and there are very steep steps built into the side of the cliffs leading down to precarious ledges from where some brave people leap 30 ft into the sea.
Roger is a strong swimmer but he was nervous of plunging in when you could see jagged rocks just below the surface. I asked the manager if theyd ever been any accidents, but if there had she didnt let on! We were happy enough with their small swimming pool, and in the evenings we enjoyed lolling and laughing in the outdoor Jacuzzi watching the sun go down.
The Caves offer an all-inclusive stay, breakfast and dinner included, plus all drinks. The menu changes daily and staff tell you about the tasty specials. The food was plentiful and Jamaican in flavour. You can wander down the steep steps into various grottos where, if you fancy, you can dine privately over a special five-course dinner. The waves breaking against the cave walls were so noisy that intimate conversation was impossible but nonetheless its a really unusual dining experience.
Being keen on golf, Roger was delighted to discover the Negril Golf Club where he spent two days with a friendly caddie playing what he described as a pretty challenging course.
If we had not been able to stay in a cocooned hotel away from the main drag we would not have been happy, but there were lots of tourists of different nationalities that seemed to be having a good time. Negril was just not for us.
We got back into our little car and headed once again inland towards our final resting place, the fondly remembered Jakes. A few miles before reaching the sleepy little fishing village, Treasure Beach, where Jakes is situated, we stopped off in the small town of Black River (more on that to follow). There we had a scrumptious lunch of curried goat (again!) with rice and peas in Tasty Restaurant, a caf packed with locals and not a tourist in sight.
Id been told that since my visit to Jakes some thirteen years ago that it had grown considerably in size from eight small cottages to around twenty, so I was nervous that the relaxed little place Id remembered might have been spoilt. Luckily that was not the case. Jakes was opened back in the 90s by Sally Henzell and her husband Perry (well known for directing the classic reggae film The Harder They Come). Later their son Jason took it over and has successfully grown the business. The new cottages dotted along the coast are lovely. Each has a private deck on stilts balanced over the sea, an outdoor shower and comfortable contemporary-designed bedrooms. If you like being near the sea, nothing could be more idyllic. Strangely enough we stayed in a cottage called Abolone, the same one Id been in all those years ago. Fate or what?
Some people would describe Jakes as shabby chic as its somewhat bohemian with a very laid back feel about it. The guests are worldly types, many flying in from New York for a few days of relaxation and some, like us, from further afield. Theres a friendly outdoor restaurant next to the mosaic tiled seawater pool, where people drift off to sleep in lazy hammocks hung from the beautiful palm and ackee trees. They have opened a second restaurant called Jack Spratts which has become quite the destination for discerning Jamaicans who travel all the way from Kingston for some of their delicious pizza.
A lovely thing to do when staying at Jakes is to hire a fishing boat; ours arrived with the charming Captain Dennis. He whizzed us off along the coast on a 15-mile journey where we watched diving pelicans an amazing sight to see these agile birds feasting on their catch (sometimes dolphins are also spotted). Our destination was Black River, as we wanted to go up the river inland and enjoy the sites along Jamaicas longest tributary that stretches for 44 miles.
The area either side of the river is known as the Great Morass, a 125-mile square mile of wetlands spreading north. Along the way we spotted four crocodiles, some sitting sleepily in the hot sun on the river banks and others moving quietly and menacingly through the dark black water. We also spied Osprey, white and blue Heron and numerous nesting Egrets.
After going inland for a few miles and enjoying the lush mangrove swamps, we stopped off at a little crab shack on the way back the sweetest most delicious crab Ive tasted, sadly even better than Cromers best! On the ride back along the coast we loitered briefly at The Pelican Bar, a rather ramshackle thatched bar on stilts a quarter of a mile out to sea; a different kind of watering hole, to say the least.
I took a watercolour-painting lesson with Ginny and Tom Meniham, two charming Americans who are Jakes painters-in-residence for a few months each winter. It was very satisfying to sit on their veranda looking out to sea and try my hand at painting the sea and the clouds. Ive brought one of my efforts back home to frame and remind me of a lovely, creative, peaceful afternoon.
As is obligatory on all my holidays, I like to go to a local church service. The small church right next door to Jakes gave me a friendly welcome and we all clapped hands and sung spirit raising gospel hymns; the sermon ran for over an hour and was rather hellfire and brimstone in content!
It was good to catch up with Jason the owner, to hear all about BREDS, a local charity he set up years ago to promote education, sports and cultural heritage in the area. They are currently in the middle of building a sports and community centre which will house a professional cricket and football pitch. We saw the digger levelling out the land and I hope the next time we visit well watch an exciting game of cricket with the successors of Vivian Richards and Chris Gayle at the crease!
Virgin Atlantic fly twice a week from Gatwick to Kingstonfrom 606 per person in Economy and return fares in premium economy from 1001 per person and three times a week from Gatwick to Montego Bay from 603 per person in Economy and return fares in premium economy from 999 per person. www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770.
To book hotels independently:www.islandoutpost.com or call01895 422 476: Goldeneye from 275 per person a night in a Lagoon Suite, Strawberry Hill from 120 per room per night including continental breakfast, The Caves from 270 per room per night on an all-inclusive basis and Jakes from 60 per room per night, room only.
Island Outpost packages for Jakes, The Caves, Strawberry Hill and GoldenEye.
7 nights at GoldenEye with Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels, including Virgin Atlantic flights & accommodation with breakfast and private transfers starts from 2,075 per person based on 2 adults sharing a one bedroom cottage.
7 nights at Jakes with Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels, including Virgin Atlantic flights and accommodation on a room only basis with private transfers starts from 1,139 per person based on 2 adults sharing a deluxe garden view room
7 nights at Strawberry Hill with Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels, including Virgin Atlantic flights and accommodation on a full board basis with private transfers starts from 2,075 per person based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a one bedroom cottage.
7 nights at The Caves with Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels, including Virgin Atlantic flights and accommodation on an all inclusive basis with private transfers starts from 2,19 per person based on 2 adults sharing a one drop suite. Visit www.vhiphotels.co.uk or call and speak to a VHip Travel Guru on 0844 573 2460.