Jamaica: A birthday party like no other

It's been 50 years since the former British colony gained independence and, says Boyd Tonkin, it's in the mood to celebrate

All night the waves break on the rocks just a few feet from my bed, a background rustle – with the odd roar – that seems to deepen sleep rather than impede it. My seaside suite takes the form of a miniature castle painted in duck-egg blue, set on the shore's edge, in a garden full of tropical trees and flowering shrubs. Sunloungers stand on the decking by the ocean. Above my head, a roof terrace carries canopied day beds with vistas along the indented coast and south-west towards Nicaragua. As for the decor, with its multicoloured glass and shells inlaid into every surface, it feels as if Antoni Gaudí had been whisked from Barcelona and hired as the set designer on some surreal episode of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

This is Jamaica, but not as the high-volume tourist business usually markets it. Jakes is a collection of suites, cottages and villas in the village of Treasure Beach, part of the out-of-the-way and still-unspoiled south-coast parish of St Elizabeth. "In this parish we work, not shirk," warns a sign on one road as you enter this cluster of farming and fishing communities in the semi-arid lee of the Santa Cruz mountains. That's indisputably true of the locals in this "breadbasket" for the whole island. As for the visitors – well, they have a licence to chill.

One way and another, Jamaica is making quite a bit of noise at the moment. Tomorrow, the former British colony celebrates 50 years as an independent nation, with the anniversary marked in style not just at home but in every place where its three-million strong diaspora (more people than live on the island) have put down roots. To coincide with the Olympics, the Bubble at the North Greenwich Arena has been transformed into Jamaica House, with a crammed schedule of music and other events. Meanwhile, today, across the river at the stadium in Stratford, the 100m final may well see Jamaica's super-fast hero Usain Bolt crowned with gold.

Tomorrow, reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff performs at North Greenwich as part of the Jamaica 50 festival. And it's Cliff who, via the cult film that introduced his talent to the world, supplies a link to the quieter, gentler Jamaica of Treasure Beach. The Harder They Come starred Cliff: Jamaica's first full-length feature, it was directed by writer and film-maker Perry Henzell in 1972. Henzell had married Sally Densham, an artist, designer, poet and photographer whose family came to Jamaica from Britain in the wake of the Great Crash. Sally's sailor uncle Lionel had fallen in love with the island and sent an urgent telegram to his brother Basil, her father: "Sell everything. Bring No 9 Hardy Fishing Rod, polo sticks and come."

Basil did. Eventually the family moved to Treasure Beach, a necklace of four bays – from Billy's in the north-west to Great Bay in the south-east – where the Pedro Plains meet the sea. Sally bought her own property here in 1991. First a bar and restaurant, Jakes – named after a family parrot – spawned one strikingly original accommodation unit after another, from those one-bed coastal castles through two- and three-bed cottages to a handful of four-bed villas. In addition to the on-site restaurant and Dougie's Bar (complete with signature rum punch) beside the seawater pool, the Jakes-owned Jack Sprat, just along the water, serves fresh local seafood, tasty fish stew and huge pizzas by the beach.

Jakes functions not just as a family concern, but a community powerhouse. Jason Henzell, Perry and Sally's son, manages the business and ensures that – in this gorgeous but challenging landscape – it remains sustainable. His wife Laura Henzell directs the Driftwood Spa, committed to the use of natural materials. The Henzells help, along with their fellow citizens, to manage the Breds Foundation, which raises funds for community projects in education, health, youth work and (most recently) a sports park. One of the highlights of the Jakes events calendar is the Calabash literary festival in late May. Inaugurated in 2001, and co-directed by Jason's sister, film-maker Justine Henzell, it attracts about 5,000 locals and tourists for three days of free readings and discussions from top-flight Caribbean and global authors – with plenty of music in the mix as well.

Some tourism did exist on this coast before Jakes. The 1930s Treasure Beach Hotel still flourishes. Since the Henzells first made an impact, other low-key guesthouses and villas have arrived, although the scatter of pastel-painted cabins that counts as a "resort" around here has nothing in common with the high-security, package-deal citadels of Jamaica's north coast. In spite of the village's reputation as a fashionable "chic-shack" destination, Treasure Beach life can still be tough. Healthcare and schooling remain precious, hard-won assets; the sea claims its toll of victims among the fishermen. But country manners, and country rhythms, still prevail. If you ever tire of the coast, stroll from one cheerfully painted diner to another, in search of the best ackee-and-saltfish, rice-and-peas or conch soup, amid the clack of dominoes. Wash down the meal with an Appleton's rum (distilled on an estate to the north that you can visit) or an icy Red Stripe beer. Then wander on. Pretty soon, you'll be meeting more goats than people. This tranquil side of the island deserves a big shout of its own.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Kingston from Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Montego Bay from Gatwick, while Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomson.com) flies from Gatwick, Manchester (July to December) and Birmingham (June to October).

Staying there

Jakes Hotel, Treasure Beach (001 877 526 2428; jakeshotel.com). Two-bedroom cottages start at US $234 (£156), room only.

More information

Jamaica House programme: jamaicahouse2012.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links