A BRUSH WITH THE REAL JAMAICA

Away from the plastic resorts filled with Americans downing pina coladas by the pool is another Jamaica of unspoiled scenery, genuine West Indian cuisine and a rare kind of tourism that demeans neither host nor visitor
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"Genuine" IS a dangerous claim to make for a product. As with Readers' Wives - "all genuine non-models!" - this is an attribute of varying appeal. A "genuine Jamaican holiday" can mean one of several things - a date with crack-head Yardie gunmen, say, or an overdose of tourist-trade Rasta tat. Or confinement on some all-inclusive plastic compound, in the company of fat couples from Idaho. One of the first Caribbean idylls to attract tourists, Jam-aica has been busier recently attracting a bad press - and, within hours of landing in Kingston, fears about the reality of any Jamaican holiday were fast being confirmed. The luggage failed to arrive, and the taxi driver had taken a thoughtful detour, lest we cared for duty-free shopping of the less legal kind. An unfortunate start to a trip which a PR lady had promised would prove Jamaican paradise was far from lost.

Having recovered the suitcases, declined to buy crack, and set off into the hills, my companion and I found such fears drifting off into the cool Blue Mountain air. Montego Bay and Negril may offer some sort of paradise, I suppose, for pink Americans guzzling pina coladas by the pool. For those of a mind to stray outside compounds (and not just to sample the rent- a-Rasta trade), the winding road to Strawberry Hill climbs into another Jamaica. Perched among the coffee plantations above Kingston, this mountain retreat is not so much a hotel as a fantasy home.

Which isn't far from the truth. Chris Blackwell, owner of Island Records, and the man who made Bob Marley, bought the 200-year-old estate house in the early Seventies as a private home. He only opened to the public - as a restaurant - 10 years ago; two years later, after Hurricane Gilbert had all but wiped-out the great house, Blackwell commissioned a local architect to build cottages on the land and in 1994, Strawberry Hill became the first Caribbean hotel in his Island Outpost collection of properties.

Not quite a private home, then, but certainly nothing like a hotel, Straw- berry Hill feels more like a sanatorium for discerning rock stars. (Again not entirely fanciful - it was here that Bob Marley convalesced after being shot.) Tucked off a lane at 3,100ft, the 12 timber cottages are both buried under a tropical jungle of flowers, and suspended in the hushed mountain air - your own private Jamaican retreat.

It would be an enormous shame to come here with someone you weren't very keen on. The bed - a hilariously big, fairy-tale mahogany four-poster, with muslin canopy and specially heated mattress - is truly the king of sleeping arrangements. Antique furniture and iron-sculpted lamps add to the impression that you are staying in the home of a grand plantation owner with uncommonly good taste, and while the style is Caribbean, laudable restraint has averted cod coconut cliche overload.

The disappointment of so many expensive hotels is their insufferable smugness. After a bit, the evidence that they've thought of every little detail gets slightly irritating. It's hard to imagine what Strawberry Hill has forgotten - the rooms have stereos, CDs, cordless phones and those great ashtrays which hide the butts - but the cottages don't feel haunted by some unseen designer, congratulating himself each time you go rummaging through the cupboards for camomile skin balm.

It is, of course, possible that we were the only guests staying at the time. It seemed more probable, though, to have been the careful design which contrived to create the impression of solitude. The cottages are scattered over 12 acres, each built into the mountainside on stilts, so the morning view from your private verandah offers only lush coffee plantations, licked by mountain mist, stretching down to Kingston and the Caribbean sea; above, Blue Mountain dissolves into clouds. The flowers framing every pathway and lawn look like they've been hand-polished each morning, and a freshwater pool is tucked away in a secret garden, ringed by furniture carved from stone.

Staff, much as I imagine they do in sanatoriums, pad noiselessly in white robes, bringing everything you could ask for to the cottage, and it is really only the aching beauty of the restaurant which tempts you out. Curled around a cobbled courtyard, the restaurant serves what one would have thought would be unremarkable in Jamaica, and is actually almost impossible to find: up-market but authentic West Indian cuisine. Local food is treated like fine art, and dishes such as ackee (the national fruit) and calaloo flan, plantain-crusted snapper with passion fruit and lime butter sauce, and herb-crusted Jack fish with papaya are typical. As it is quite boring to read about other people's dinners, I shall resist further foodie rhapsodies. Suffice to say this. The oddly popular notion that West Indian food means a rangy bit of jerk chicken does not prevail here.

If Strawberry Hill was in any way flawed, in fairness the fault lay not so much with the hotel as with ourselves. Kingston is only a half hour's drive away and the mountain walks are stunning, but we were far too lazy to take advantage. There is also a purity about the place which seems to call for good conduct; where some hotels almost demand misbehaviour, to get drunk and messy here would feel a trifle vulgar. This is not a criticism - on the contrary, it's the point - but as we set off to try another outpost, there was a definite after-a-weekend- at-your-great-aunt's feel in the taxi.

The drive to Jake's, on the south-west coast at Treasure Beach, leads you first into the bedlam of Kingston, then the slums of Spanish Town, and on through sugar cane fields and pretty rural villages. (A cheering discovery: the houses inland are still painted in classic Caribbean colours.) It is easy to forget how big Jamaica is, and the journey gave time enough for our taxi driver to establish that he shares two cousins in Tottenham with my boyfriend, and tell a number of improbable tales about the local prostitute origins of world-famous celebrities. As the hours passed, so did the landscape - sugar cane giving way to blood-red bauxite, then to dry fields of onions and herbs, and the emptiness of Treasure Beach.

Like Strawberry Hill, Jake's is a collection of cottages. The similarities pretty much end there. Jake's is as earthy as the other is holy - a colourful, rustic ramshackle group of half a dozen or so stone and clay cottages, cluttered around a tiny cove, looking for all the world like an artist's scribble of barefoot beach utopia. If, as we did, you arrive at nightfall, you have to wait for the moon and the Milky Way to illuminate the place, for lighting, like most things at Jake's, is engagingly basic.

Jake's is described as a bohemian spot for the artist and the traveller. This is essentially accurate - such folk would certainly be very happy here - but we didn't actually encounter any. Just lots of likeable young backpackers, most of them slightly shaken refugees from Negril. Treasure Beach is probably a lot like Negril was back in the Sixties, when the resort made its name as a sleepy hippy haven for naturists and hedonists. Today, Negril has become - inevitably - a sleazy monstrosity of hookers and hustlers, and "fun-loving" tourists who couldn't afford to get to Bangkok. Poor misled souls who'd gone there hoping for some Rasta paradise turned up at Jake's every night, and they had made a very wise choice.

There was the good-natured computer programmer from south London, who spent much of his stay mending the manager's mother's Apple Mac. There was Tim, dear Tim, who makes scents and flavours for a living in New Jersey, and had bravely booked himself into the Hedonist singles' complex in Negril. An unconvincing hedonist, the only scandalous experience Tim left with was a $180 bill for one night in a room already occupied by a hormonal, hopeful college boy from Milwaukee. Jake's, Tim thought, was much more like it, and he was soon happily engaged in conversation at the bar with a Rasta called Quest, who was selling wood-carved souvenirs.

"Quest gets real philosophical and deep about his wood carving," Tim explained. "I hope to spend some more time with Quest." And presumably, some more money. Quest looked very pleased to have met Tim.

There was the local drug dealer who ambled in and out, could not have been less pushy, couldn't bear to charge pretty girls for his wares, and was quite keen to let you have a peep at his gun. There were the young South Africans, drinking long into the night, telling endlessly involved anecdotes with punchlines like "... and that's why I never wanted to get into bowel surgery!" All the while, Sally, the delightful and completely vague woman apparently in charge, drifted about in a sarong, smiling, looking a little confused.

In real life, they would all probably get on your nerves. In the eccentric laze of Jake's, they were enchanting. As were the hit-and-miss service, the bric-a-brac furniture, and the kittens who lapped at your toes through dinner, eyeing lobster with cool desire. The food was basic, scruffy and lovely - curried goat, rice and peas and local fish, emerging languidly from a kitchen the size of a cupboard. We ate by candlelight, and passed the nights at the bar, a rum shack of sorts tended by a tiny schoolboy who liked giving stern lectures on smoking. In the morning, awoken by the ocean, we drifted along the lane to the Trans-Love bakery, where ackee and saltfish, fresh bread and vats of fruit salad are served on battered trestle-tables in the sun.

It would be easy to stray no further than breakfast at the bakery, but that would be a mistake. The beauty spot everyone will tell you to visit is Ocho Rios, the waterfalls on the north coast. These are undeniably beautiful - and, every day, are gang-raped by millions of Americans spewing out of cruise ships. By extraordinary good fortune, the Camcorder army doesn't seem to have heard about YS Falls, half an hour from Treasure Beach. Equally surprisingly, Sally can get it together enough to organise a hire car there.

There wasn't much to direct us to the cafe where we had to park, and - as we paid about pounds 5 and clambered on to a tractor - even less to suggest what lay at the end of a rickety ride through lush meadowland. Suddenly, we turned a bend, and found ourselves at the foot of a mini-Niagara Falls. It is exactly as a waterfall should be. Cascades of thunder and spray plunge into the glassy green pools below, and a nice boy is on hand to point out the dangerous bits, hoist you on to vines, and try not to look too bored when, inevitably and embarrassingly, you go into Tarzan fantasy mode. There are no souvenir shops, no ice cream, no song and dance, and, as we made our way back on the tractor, heady and awed, no suspicion that our pounds 5 had gone towards trashing the place.

A short drive from YS Falls takes you to Black River, a modest seaport town rich with smells of jerk chicken and old fish. You won't find trinket shops here either, but boats are moored along the fishermen's wharf, offering river safaris. As we chugged through avenues of mangrove and water hyacinths, the Santa Cruz mountains rippling the skyline, our guide assured us we would soon be making the acquaintance of some "shy and inoffensive" crocodiles.

Indifferent would be a better de-scription. Despite the guide's efforts - much banging of the boat, and "Here, George! Where are you, Herbert?" - only one croc made an appearance, but was in no mood for guests. Like a near- submerged dinosaur, eyes surly and glazed, Big Tom wouldn't even flinch as our by now exasperated guide lobbed chunks of chicken onto his nose. Soon, clearly bored, Big Tom slunk back into the reeds, a triumph of disdain.

Some of the others on the boat looked a little disappointed. A few were indignant. Which is odd - Big Tom seemed to me exactly what a sensible tourist would want - and what an Island Outpost holiday in Jamaica offered. Neither fawning for the yankee dollar - or chunk of chicken - like a performing dolphin, nor gobbling us up, Big Tom was happy to accommodate us but wasn't much bothered either way.

Leaving Jake's, we went to stay with my boyfriend's mother in Kingston. Day-to-day domestic Kingston life inevitably puts the Island Outposts' claim to a "genuine" Jamaican experience in some perspective. Taxi drivers in Treasure Beach, for example, do not carry cutlasses, and the menu at Straw-berry Hill does not contain cow's head. But as downtown Kingston is nei- ther an accessible nor, probably, a very attractive holiday option, Jake's and Strawberry Hill are more usefully compared to the plastic resort palaces so admired by the fat Idaho people.

Among the pleasures of Island Out-posts, the greatest delight of all was the sense of having experienced that rare and remarkable thing - guilt- free tourism - where neither host nor visitor is demeaned by the encounter.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Air Jamaica (0181 570 7999) flies direct from London to Jamaica from around pounds 450 return.

STAYING THERE: Decca Aitkenhead booked through Island Outposts (0800 614790). For Strawberry Hill, rates are US$250 per night plus 22 per cent tax and for Jake's, US$75 per night plus 15 per cent tax.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Jamaican Tourist Board (0171 224 0505). Holders of British passports do not require a visa to visit Jamaica.

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