All the fruit's ripe, man; just shake the tree: Jamaica has many expressions for just how good island life can be. Sue Gaisford learnt a few while passing through the districts of Look Behind and Wait a Bit

THE ANCIENT Vauxhall lurched off the road on to the verge. 'Better get out, man,' said Patrick, the taxi-driver. The night was like draught Guinness - smooth, dark and heady. A sliver of moon hung close and very bright.

As we clambered out, another car, a vast chrome monster, swung round in front of the Vauxhall and stopped, pulsating with reggae, its braking announced not discreetly on its bumper but in coloured neon lights all round the rear window.

An extremely big man got out and walked towards us, drinking from a beer bottle. 'Hey Chambers,' said Patrick, 'I pick up a flat.' We all stood studying his rear wheel, and it didn't look quite right.

It soon became clear that Chambers was going to take over the job of driving us, which was unsettling. One of us made feeble noises about drinking and driving, another expressed gallant reluctance to leave a man alone changing a wheel, and I felt scared. This was, after all, Jamaica, said to be a dangerous place, and a very lonely part of it too. Hadn't Chambers turned up suspiciously conveniently? Was that tyre really flat? Could this turn into highway robbery or worse? But, whatever we thought, we were British, so, rather than cause embarrassment, we did as we were told.

This was, after all, Jamaica, where first impressions are often wrong. Inside the monstrous 1972 Chevy sat Mrs Chambers, cuddling four- year-old Dominique and three- year-old Sabrina. It was a family outing and they were off to the carnival in Falmouth. And why the carnival today? That question earned real scorn: why, because it was Ash Wednesday, when everybody with any sense begins his Lenten observances as he means to go on, dancing all night on the beach.

Yet even now, our relief at the domestic nature of the outing was short-lived. Chambers drove as if pursued by ravening wolves. It was too frightening to think about, so I concentrated on the unblinking, unbothered, unparalleled beauty of little Sabrina and just hoped to survive.

WHEN you fly into Montego Bay, the first thing you notice are the signs. One alarming one tells you to stop, lest you import some hideous plague called Newcastle Disease: this might happen if you carry steaks, chicken, ham, sausages or chops. Another announces that there are fewer then 100 sea-cows in Jamaica and urges travellers to help save them. I resolved to do my bit for the sea-cow, but, lacking specific instructions, the opportunity never seemed to arise.

We did avoid damaging a manta ray. This huge black-and-white fish rippled facetiously through the clear turquoise water, right up to the shore on our first night. It must have been six feet across (honestly) and its ruffled sides contrasted with the awesome grand canyon of its mouth. But they said there was nothing to be afraid of, that those things in its jaws were not teeth, merely 'grinding slabs', so that was OK.

There are signs everywhere. In the bar at Discovery Bay is a notice about drinking-up time, threatening a fine of pounds 100 if the 1960 licensing laws are infringed. Happily, the threat was empty, but the notice, like others we saw, pointing to the Mansion House or the Guildhall, or announcing that 'The PTA of St Hilda's High School invites you to a Valentine's Day Parish barbecue and dance', can make you believe for a mad minute or two that you are in England on a summer's day 20 years ago.

Driving on the left along narrow lanes with road signs straight from an old Frankie Howerd film, the grassy banks entangled vith vetch, a small herd of cows lumbering through a gate in front of you, it could be Cornwall. A Jamaican we met confirmed this feeling, saying that in the West Country he felt really at home.

But just past the cows is a field of sugar cane, and further up the road a coconut grove. Higher still, the famous Blue Mountain coffee is growing, each little bush shaded by a huge plantain. And it's only some of the signs that could in England. I've never seen an English school that boasted 'Enter to learn - leave literate'. Then again, not many English houses ask you to Bawray of Bad Dog. And few British hairdressers offer - as does Dian's House of Beauty - creaming, dry curling and beauty from head to toe, all provided in a little corrugated-iron roadside shack.

High in the mountains, an even smaller and flimsier hut, miles from anywhere, advertises electrical repairs, but there is no sign of electricity, nor even of running water. Instead, the hillside is decorated with a large triangle of concrete that funnels into a small shed. Here the tropical rain collects and descends into a 'parish tank': tiny children walk miles to fill buckets from these tanks and carry them home, often on their heads. As we pass, each child smiles and waves. Few tourists go up there.

Near the cockpit country, in the District of Look Behind, not far from Me No Sen You No Come and a few miles past Wait a Bit, a stone at the roadside recalls an Act of God: 'At this point the Reverend Spratt fell from his horse on July 18th 1883 which resulted in his death a few hours later. Be ye watchful also.'

We took the warning to heart and reluctantly gave up our quest. We had been looking for the Maroons, a band of people descended from slaves who had broken away from Spanish - and later English - rule to form an autonomous community somewhere near Accompong. Though we asked many people where and how they lived, answers were always vague and nobody even knew anyone who had found them. So still the only person I know who has been into their stronghold is my father who, as a young surveyor in the Thirties, walked calmly through their gates and made such friends with their leader that he was offered, as a gift, a 14-year-old virgin.

Confused as to the etiquette of the situation and anxious not to cause offence, he asked for time to consider and was told: 'Come back soon, she won't keep.'

Mention of the Maroons still causes a frisson of fear. The same sensation is provoked by Annie Palmer, the white witch of Rose Hill. Though long since dead, she walks her old plantation house every night. Nobody visits after six. She is said to have strangled three husbands and been murdered by her slave Tacu, who might have been her fourth. Dead but refusing to lie down, she belongs with the other supernatural women of the coast.

One, an old fortune-teller called Time Time, can cure any ailment; another, whose name sounded like Modest Cat, is the one to use if you are in trouble and end up in court. She will find a way of getting you off, but only for the first offence: after that you're on your own.

I asked several people about the levels of crime on the island. The most interesting answers came from an English zoologist and a Jamaican economist. The zoologist had lived in Kingston for 40 years. In the Seventies, he recalled, the Government had flirted with Cuban communism and Jamaica had gone through a bad period of instability, violence and emigration. Since then, almost imperceptibly, more peaceful times had returned. The economist said that the proximity of the Miami drug culture was part of the trouble.

Both agreed that, outside Kingston, there was nothing to fear. Tourism is vital to the economy, and we even heard the radio reminding people to be nice to tourists. They really don't need reminding. Jamaicans are very religious, proud of having more churches per head than anywhere else in the world, and, as a Seventh-Day Adventist explained, if you expect the end of the world any minute, you are always on your best behaviour.

So it seemed on the north coast, where the welcome is warm and the beaches are unspoilt, uncrowded and beautiful. There are clusters of modern hotels, but Marbella it isn't. You can take a raft and float down the Rio Grande, or a small boat out to a coral reef and see practically nobody else all day. You can eat wonderful ackee-

and-saltfish, curried goat, rice-and- peas, sweet potatoes, and every imaginable fruit for very little money (or drink rum punch for slightly more).

There are rather more people about at Ocho Rios, where the challenge is to climb the long succession of waterfalls at Dunn's River. It is terrifying trying to keep a foothold in the torrents of icy water, and only the sight of an elderly American further up convinced us that it was possible at all, but I know nothing to beat the sense of incredulous achievement you get when you emerge.

Back in the bar on the last night, our friend Donovan Washington Sinclair was teaching us the language. There's a good word for expressing how fine everything is. It is 'irie', pronounced almost like iris. If things are even better than irie, you could say they were 'coppercertic' - come to think of it, all the words we learnt were ways of expressing how good life can be. That is probably because in Jamaica, as they say, 'All the fruit's ripe, man, you only have to shake the tree'.

CARIBBEAN FACTFILE: HOW TO GET THERE, WHERE TO STAY

Getting there: Major tour operators, flushed with their success at selling Florida, are now turning their sights to promoting the Caribbean as a mass- market destination. Operators such as Thomson and Airtours are now running year round charter flights to a part of the world that has always been considered to be too hot in the summer (they should have known that it can never be too hot for the British) and too expensive in the winter (declining business from North America has persuaded Caribbean hoteliers to set cheaper rates). Thomson, for example, has charters to the Dominican Republic, Barbados, St Lucia and Jamaica with seat-only deals from around pounds 400. Airtours (0706 260000) has charters to Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica; it has seat-only deals from Gatwick or Manchester to Montego Bay - on 11 July, for example, a 14-night seat- only deal costs pounds 299. Unijet (0444 458611) has charter flights to Montego Bay and has been offering late availability deals from as little as pounds 200 return. Faced with this competition the scheduled airlines BA (0345 222111) and BWIA (071-839 9333) are taking a more aggressive attitude to pricing: if bookings are slow they will cut prices to around pounds 300 return - ask if they have any 'seat sales' running.

Flights: The best way of seeing the Caribbean islands cheaply is to buy an airpass. The two main passes are offered by the Trinidad and Tobago-based airline BWIA (071-839 9333) and the main inter- island airline LIAT (represented in the UK by British Airways (0345 222111). The BWIA pass costs USdollars 356 (roughly pounds 237) for an unlimited pass valid for 30 days. To get the pass you don't need to travel to the Caribbean with BWIA but you must book and pay for your airpass trip before you leave the UK.

The LIAT pass must also be bought in the UK - and it must be purchased in conjunction with a BA ticket. LIAT has three main deals: a three-island ticket, to be used in 21 days, which costs USdollars 199 ( pounds 132), a five-island ticket for USdollars 300 ( pounds 200) and an unlimited 30-day pass which costs USdollars 367 ( pounds 244). The LIAT pass covers even the smallest islands, from the Grenadines up to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Covering every Caribbean island in the lifetime of a 30-day airpass must come close to the perfect holiday.

Money: While the islands have their own currency - Barbados has its own dollar, for example, and the Windward Islands have the East Caribbean dollar - nearly all traders are keen to conduct transactions in US dollars; and since most people have relatives in the UK, British pounds don't receive the incredulous response they normally get in other parts of the world. So change the bare minimum into the local currency.

Accommodation: It is easy to find places that cost around pounds 150 per night - but it is also not difficult to find reasonable accommodation in guest houses and bed and breakfast places for around pounds 15 per night. The Caribbean Islands Handbook (Trade and Travel, pounds 12.95) is a reliable guide to accommodation, listing a good range of places at budget prices.

Hurricanes: The most likely month for a hurricane is September and the rest of the autumn can be wet and fly-ridden.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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