Where do Jamaicans go to relax a little? Treasure Beach, of course.
THE SKY was stuffed with stars. Every so often, one of them would break free and hurtle in a silvery streak towards the sea. Then the terrier dozing at my feet would stretch and yawn, before settling back with his head soft against my bare toes. If I ever managed to clamber out of this chair, it would be a miracle.

Inertia's a common problem at Treasure Beach. Here, on Jamaica's south coast, is a retreat far removed from the organised activities of the all-inclusive resorts. It's so laid-back that even the Jamaicans come here to unwind. But even though time passed so slowly, somehow there was never a dull moment.

For a start, there were all the hours that slipped away gracefully at Jake's, which could almost be called a hotel if that weren't such an inadequate description. A handful of artistically rustic cottages, each more fanciful than the next, is scattered around the grounds.

There's an adobe house, for instance, which has a first-floor room with double beds inside and out, for falling asleep by moonlight, or dozing off to the crash of waves washing beneath a room out on stilts from the sea shore. No wonder Chris Blackwell - of Island Records - has added it to his portfolio of Island Outpost hotels.

The handful of guests - there are only 10 rooms - looked quietly happy with their situation. Actually, even the resident dogs looked as if they were smiling. After a drink from the bar, so was I. We lined up our chairs and rum-and-Cokes on the terrace, looking across the scooped-out swimming pool at the sea. The waves crashed on to bare rock in the cove below us where Hurricane Mitch had decided to remove the beach. No one seemed to mind this natural re-arrangement; anyway, as everyone kept saying, the sand will come back eventually.

There was certainly plenty of the stuff in the bay below the nearby Treasure Beach Hotel. A stroll through the gardens and on past the pools brought me to a great sweep of dark golden beach. There was hardly anyone in sight, and palm trees hid any buildings. Further along, I could see a few painted wooden shacks and fishing boats pulled up on the shore. Otherwise, it could almost have been the shore of some desert island.

The most colourful hut was obviously a bar, though I couldn't see a name on it. It had a small shady verandah with weather-beaten wooden benches round the edge, and I sank on to one with a teeth-numbingly cold Red Stripe beer in my hand and my toes digging into the sand. The other seats were taken by a mixed clientele of locals and long-term visitors.

It promised to be perfect eavesdropping territory. Sadly, I hadn't counted on the local accent. I didn't understand a word, and had to make do with surreptitiously peeking at a flame-haired rasta with freckles and red eyes, evidence of both the many Scottish people who settled this area in the past and of the ready supply of weed.

Daylight brought with it a desire to explore. Bouncing along the half- paved pot-holed dirt track that passes for a road, we arrived at the small town of Black River just in time for the next cruise on the town's namesake, and spent the next hour gliding through clear water that appears black because of the peat riverbed. We passed egrets nesting in the mangrove and great mats of water hyacinth with lilac flowers; we saw fish-hawks and blue herons and watched the crocodiles being fed.

Back on land, a tractor-propelled carriage hauled us through parkland with huge spreading trees and horses grazing, then jungly greenery rich with the smell of warm dampness. At the foot of YS Falls, we clambered out and up, past cascades and pools to the top. People were recovering from the heat with a swim and we joined them before turning back to Treasure Beach.

After a wonderful dinner of kingfish in coconut cream, we sank into chairs by the sea. That, more or less, was the nightlife. There was talk in Jake's one evening of an expedition to Fisherman's Bar, a few hundred yards away, for dancing, drinking and the pool. But when we got there, the bamboo shack was deserted. Word is it's much livelier at the weekend. But, for now, it was back to the chairs and the dogs and the shooting stars.

Claire Gervat travelled as a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board and Air Jamaica.

Getting there: Air Jamaica (0181-570 9171) flies five times a week from Heathrow to Montego Bay and on to Kingston. British Airways (0345 222111) flies four times a week from Gatwick via Kingston to Montego Bay. Discount agents, such as Jetline (0171-360 1111), can offer scheduled flights on Air Jamaica from pounds 300 return to Kingston, or charters to Montego Bay for as little as pounds 315 in February (though few seats are available at this price).

There are also numerous charters operated as part of package holidays More information: the Jamaica Tourist Board is part of the High Commission, 1-2 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ. For brochures, call 0800 445533 (a call-handling agency, which sends out brochures). For other information, ring 0171-224 0505

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