Blue Mountain rhapsody in Jamaica
On a visit to tropical Newcastle, Simon Turnbull discovers echoes of England, tranquil scenery, and some very smooth coffee
Saturday 07 December 2013
So, there we were on the outskirts of Newcastle, sitting on the veranda of a coffee plantation, talking defecated coffee. "You do know the most expensive coffee beans in the world, don't you?" Carey, my Jamaican companion, enquired. "That's civet coffee from Sumatra. It's harvested from the poo of the civet cat."
Thankfully, we were sipping the non-defecated variety produced in the grounds of the Craighton Estate Great House. This is the home of the Jamaica UCC Blue Mountain Coffee Company, the Caribbean outpost of the giant Japanese coffee combine. There was no bitter after-taste. There never is with the beans harvested on the slopes of the Blue Mountain range, 2,600ft above sea level, just 15 miles – but a world away – from Kingston town.
"It's more alkaline than acidic," Jerome Thomas, the Craighton Estate tour guide, said. "That's because the slow maturity process produces glucose and sucrose. You should never get a sour after-taste drinking Blue Mountain Coffee. It's smooth." It is that, the perfect accompaniment to sitting back and drinking in the ambience of the Newcastle area.
It was all rather different from the Newcastle area I'd left the day before: the slate-grey Tyne seething below the Scotswood Bridge, the temperature gauge at minus four and the runway being de-iced at the airport. Sitting on the Great House's pink sand-dashed veranda in the Jamaican Newcastle, the mercury was up past 20C, yet Carey and Jerome kept rubbing their bare forearms. "This is cool for us, with the breeze up here," Carey said.
It was a cool setting in many respects. Half an hour from the chaos of Kingston, the only noise I could hear was the soothing chirrup of children enjoying morning break-time in the yard of Craighton Primary School next door and the whir of hummingbirds in the mango trees.
It was home-from-home in one respect, though. "Yeah, man," was the routine preface to the response to any enquiry – as agreeable and reassuring as the standard "Why-aye, man" 4,621 miles away in chilly, English Newcastle.
Up the hill, on the coffee plantation, a handful of labourers were hacking away at the vegetation with machetes. "Everything is done manually," Jerome said. "We don't use any machines."
The Craighton Estate is actually on Newcastle Road in Irish Town. Newcastle itself is three miles away. It is a surreal place: an old British military base, established in 1841 by Major-General Sir William Gomm to escape the yellow fever that was raging on the hot, swampy plains below. The main road cuts directly through the parade ground of the Jamaica Defence Corps. We arrived just before noon. In one corner of the vast parade ground was a basketball net. In the other was an old cannon. Painted on the stone wall were the insignia of past regiments stationed here: the Manchesters, the West Yorkshire, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Durham Light Infantry. It was another echo from home. My grandad's brother, Sep Stanbridge, was serving in the DLI when he was killed at Le Cateau a week before the end of the First World War.
As noon approached, some of the Jamaica Defence Corps started appearing on parade. A polite young bunch they were, too. "Morning, sir," they each said as they shuffled by, unfazed by the sight of a foreign intruder. On the stroke of 12, they started running laps of the vast yard: some in boots, some in training shoes. There were 166 of them – all trainee officers, it transpired, one of them a female who had beaten hundreds of male candidates in the selection process.
"It's funny, " Carey said, chuckling. "I've been here before and you can see the soldiers standing looking through their binoculars at the hill across there. There's a Rastafarian camp there, all very peaceable and civilised. You can see the Rastas looking back at the soldiers through their binoculars. It's all pretty surreal."
The steep, twisting roads up from Kingston to the Blue Mountains are riven with potholes but the bumps seem to keep beat with the Bob Marley rhythm playing over the van radio. It is a timeless, misty mountain hop of a place, a Caribbean Tolkien world. Nowhere is more entrancing than EITS Cafe, a short drive down from Newcastle. A wooden restaurant built on a hillside, it is part of a three-in-one affair, adjoined by an organic farm and a guest house. It is run by the Foxes: Robyn and her father Michael. "EITS Cafe is an acronym for Europe In The Summer, so it's a fusion of European and Jamaican," Robyn said. "That's partly influenced by our European guests. We get a lot of support from the European market. I think that's mainly because Europeans are more adventurous and they're keener on seeing real Jamaica."
An eclectic bunch of patrons were savouring the Jamaican charms of EITS Cafe. A gentleman from Germany books one of the splendidly appointed guest rooms overlooking the steep, tree-lined valley, for six weeks every six months and uses it as the ultimate, chilled-out office base. "All he needs is his laptop and the internet," Robyn said. A Rastafarian from the camp up the road comes down to make use of the Wi-Fi. And the magnificently named Robert Thunder, a native Mancunian, pays his way as the cafe's chef.
A fine job he does, too. His grilled tofu in pesto with rice and peas, carrots and cabbage was a delight to a fussy northern vegetarian whose idea of culinary sophistication is cheese on toast with beans on top. The fruit punch was equally divine.
All of the produce comes from the adjacent farm, which supplies a weekly delivery to homes and businesses in Kingston. It is little wonder that the fantastic Miss Fox has been chosen as a representative of the Caribbean branch of Sir Richard Branson's Centre of Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay.
"We have a lot going for us in our country; we have to showcase Jamaica's natural beauty," she said. "A lot of people come to Jamaica for sand, sea and sun but there's more than that. Here in the mountains, in the Newcastle area, we have an ideal adventure tourism area. You can relax and rejuvenate. It's just so beautiful."
It's the same up the road at Strawberry Hill, the former coffee plantation transformed into a haven of a hotel and spa by Chris Blackwell, the Island Records magnate. "It's a simple place, the closest you'll get to peace and tranquillity," Gregory Shervington, the genial general manager said.
It was difficult to disagree. I inspected the wooden guestroom overlooking the beautiful green vista down to Kingston. It was here that Bob Marley came to recuperate after being shot in 1976. On the veranda was a hammock and an outside shower. You could hear three little birds pitch by the doorstep, singing sweet songs of melodies pure and true. There was not a trace of a worry in sight.
Simon Turnbull travelled with British Airways (0844 4930787; ba.com/jamaica) which flies three times weekly from Gatwick to Kingston from £710 return. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) flies three times weekly from Gatwick to Montego Bay.
Jamaica Pegasus, Kingston (001 876 926 3691; jamaicapegasus.com). Doubles start at US$300 (£200), B&B.
Courtleigh Hotel, Kingston (001 876 936 3570; courtleigh.com). Doubles start at US$295 (£197), B&B.
Craighton Estate (001 876 929 8490).
EITS Cafe (001 876 944 8151; mountedge.com).
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