Jamaica: Cool in the Caribbean

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Jamaica once thrived on sugar exports. Now it imports tourists drawn to luxury resorts, beach hangouts and the seductive sound of reggae

"No other island in the Caribbean is as beautiful or as productive," said Grace Elmore from behind the bar at Richmond Hill Inn, a colonial lookout-cum-eyrie owned by her family since the 1960s. It rises high above Jamaica's Montego Bay. "There is so much to see and do: beaches, mountains, rivers, inland areas, swimming, diving and walking. There is wonderful shopping for jewellery, clothing and crafts. The people are friendly. We export bananas, coffee, bauxite, sweet pepper, cucumber, herbs, spices..."

As Ms Elmore recited a long list of Jamaican exports, I looked down over Montego Bay, 500ft below. Jamaica's second city (behind the capital Kingston) is a shambolic affair, with a thriving Chinatown at its core and a busy Indian community – a colourful and cosmopolitan place in every sense. And Richmond Hill Inn is probably the best place to see it. Here you can take in the entire metropolis, the adjoining bay from which it gets its name and a spectacular mountainous backdrop. If you time your visit right, you can also catch the sunset, which in this westerly part of Jamaica is always a highlight of the day.

"... cheese, eggs, juices and even wines," continued Elmore. "We can plant almost anything here. The people eat off the land. You cannot go hungry in Jamaica." One item Elmore forgot to include among the island's exports is people. Jamaicans are big exporters of themselves. There are about 3.5 million Jamaicans living around the world – chiefly Britain and America. That's about the same number that live in Jamaica itself. Nevertheless, according to Ms Elmore, they all come back eventually.

"Some of those returning from abroad go bad," she continued. "Kids pick up Americanisms, music, clothes, rap and technology. These are changing the fabric of life in Jamaica. Then they start exporting drugs, which brings in guns. Haiti gives us guns for ganja [marijuana]. If only more Jamaicans would follow Usain Bolt." (The world record holding sprinter comes from Trelawny, near Montego Bay.)

Jamaica's wealth was first built on sugar. In the 18th century great fortunes were forged from sugar cane throughout the Caribbean. Jamaica was the regional economic powerhouse. A few miles from Richmond Hill, a testament to Jamaica's former sugar rush stands in the form of Rose Hall. One of Jamaica's largest plantations, Rose Hall owned about 6,000 acres worked by 2,000 slaves. The great house at Rose Hall is a grand and impressive two-storey building set in manicured grounds. In the early 18th century, it was one of 700 such houses in Jamaica, but during slave uprisings from 1831 to 1838, 685 of the houses were razed. Rose Hall was saved because it was feared that the spirit of the so-called White Witch of Rose Hall would cast a spell on anyone who touched it.

The White Witch was Annie Mae Pattinson, who was born in England but was schooled in voodoo during her formative years, which were spent in Haiti. She moved into Rose Hall in 1820 when she married the owner, John Rose Palmer. Within 11 years, she had seized control of the plantation and murdered her first, second and third husbands, while also dispatching countless slaves whom she had taken as lovers. She met her end when she was strangled in 1831 by a former slave who was enraged that Annie had killed his grand-daughter in a jealous love-match over the plantation book-keeper.

Tourism has toppled sugar from the number one spot as Jamaica's biggest earner. Just seven miles from Rose Hall is the pinnacle of Jamaican tourism: Half Moon estate. When Half Moon opened in 1954 as a hotel with 17 cottages and 30 beachfront houses on a crescent of sand, it was a pioneer that was much emulated throughout the region. But while most resort hotels in the Caribbean have – in my experience – evolved by a process of refurbishment and incremental improvement, Half Moon has adopted a more megalomanical approach. It has grown larger, while spreading horizontally and absorbing the neighbouring property.

Presently occupying two miles of beachfront and 400 acres of land, it is an undeniably impressive sight. Everywhere you look there are dazzling vistas of colonial-inspired Jamaican Palladian plantation-style whitewashed villas, pavilions and turrets set in emerald lawns with riotous tropical-flower beds, reached by avenues of palms plied by golf buggies. If you like grandeur, this is your Caribbean home-from-home. Besides the British royalty and numerous heads of state who have checked in over the years, John and Jackie Kennedy recovered here for one month after he won the US election in 1960. (Jackie's will, scrawled on Half Moon writing paper, hangs behind reception – one wonders what intimation of mortality prompted her.)

If Half Moon evokes an early James Bond thriller, you'd be right. Not only did Ian Fleming write all

his novels in Jamaica (his home, Goldeneye, near the town of Oracabessa, is now a luxury retreat), but a bungalow at Half Moon starred as 007's bedroom on the fictional voodoo island of San Monique in Live and Let Die. Half Moon now has 398 bedrooms built into hundreds of villas, cottages and what look like miniature palaces, ministered to by more than 700 staff. It's less a resort, more a suburb of Montego Bay.

If Half Moon continues to expand at its present rate, within 200 years it will have taken over Rose Hall – and while it is undeniably excellent at what it does, I longed to see another side of Jamaica.

Scotchies restaurant is just a few miles along the road into Montego Bay, but in every other respect it is light years apart from Half Moon. Reputedly the most authentic source of jerk cooking in Jamaica, Scotchies looks like the real deal: it is a completely nondescript roadside shack, except for a sign daubed with "Scotchies". A very basic open-air restaurant unfolds before you, seemingly nailed together from bits of wood painted in bright colours. You order at the counter and take your choice away to eat at your table, rather like a Jamaican version of McDonald's.

Jerk is a way of smoking or grilling meat and seafood. It originated from the Taino Indians who pre-dated the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494, but it was perfected by the runaway slaves known as Maroons. Absconding to the mountains, the Maroons preserved the meat of birds and wild pigs by marinating it in pimentos, hot peppers and spices and then smoking it over hot coals sprinkled with water. From this has descended present-day jerk. Smoking is the authentic way, but, for the sake of speed, grilling will suffice.

There's certainly very little ceremony about it at Scotchies. Chunks of cooked chicken were hoiked out of plastic washing-up bowls and put on paper plates alongside typical accompaniments: yam, sweet potato, banana dumplings and "festival", a sugary piece of dough shaped into a sausage and fried. I have little idea what jerk tastes like at Scotchies since my chicken was almost completely obliterated by a sinus-clearing chilli sauce that I ill-advisedly applied, but I got an inkling of spiciness. It could equally have been any old grilled chicken.

If you drive westwards along the coast from Montego Bay, you get a glimpse of everyday Jamaican lives. Dense tropical vegetation is punctuated by roadside shacks, peek-a-boo views of the ocean and simple fishing villages where men listen to reggae while the women do the work. Every few hundred yards, a roadside stall sells coconuts, bananas, apples and breadfruit picked from wild fruit trees that proliferate everywhere.

After about 30 miles, I reached the hamlet of Negril, which straddles Westmoreland and Hanover parishes on the westernmost tip of Jamaica. I wished I'd arrived sooner – I mean sooner in life. It is the sort of place that makes you forget what brought you here in the first place, and what it is you have left behind. It made me feel like a visitor, not a customer, or a patron, or a source of ready cash.

Negril was a drowsy and remote fishing village located on a huge arc of pristine honey-coloured sand when hippies "discovered" it in the 1960s, drawn by the isolation, generally fine dry weather, beach and sunsets. Soon, a rainbow-hued cross-cultural rastafarian-hippy bohemian beach party scene was in full swing. Today, Negril has evolved from those halcyon days, but not out of all recognition. In terms of infrastructure, there is nothing to speak of. A single coastal road splits the "Seven-mile Beach" (in fact just over four miles long) from the Morass, a croc-filled swamp-cum-nature reserve. While hotels have sprung up, you'll find no high-rise and little concrete. You can leave the heels and outfits behind, turn up in a T-shirt and shorts, pour another rum and watch the daylight surrendering spectacularly in the west to a soundtrack of reggae which throbs from every open window.

At the southern end of the Seven-mile Beach, beyond the nudist colony, the sand gives way to the 30ft-high West End cliffs which plunge into warm, clear water where dolphins play. These volcanic outcrops are pocked with jumping-off points at different altitudes, depending on whether you want a simple entry-level immersion or the full vertigo special.

The most celebrated jumping-off point is Rick's Café, an eating, drinking and live reggae experience, which Richard "Rick" Hershman opened in 1974 with the words: "Your body has finally arrived where your mind has always been." Rick's has been packed with bodies ever since, some with minds still attached. The reggae only paused when hurricanes Gilbert and Ivan blew the place down in 1988 and 2004 respectively.

I met Hector "the Bird Man", a professional cliff-jumper at Rick's. He jumps from trees that grow on tops of the cliffs, affording a harrowing 60ft drop. For $20 (£12), the Bird Man jumps to order. Asked about the correct technique, he replied: "Try not to hesitate or you'll have second thoughts; keep it tight, and make sure your legs stay together." And what's on your mind when you fall? "How I'm gonna get my next 20 bucks."

Rick's is open from noon, but the atmosphere picks up from 4pm when the cliff-jumping and diving culminate in the most stupendous dive of them all at about 7pm when the western sky becomes a furnace of crimson glory. Watching this epiphany from the cliffs while eating locally caught conch, lobster or shrimp somehow adds a dimension and depth that you don't get from watching the sun set from a beach.

For a full immersion in local culture, get yourself in the mood with a Magnum tonic wine mixed with Red Bull. After you have watched the sun set at Rick's Café, head to Alfred's for live reggae on the beach until 11pm, and finish at Jungle nightclub which "gets really hot" by about 2am. There will be rum galore.

In January 1996, a Grumman HU-16 aeroplane came in to land at Negril while the Jamaican Defence Force (JDF) was practising manoeuvres outside Negril lighthouse. Thinking that the plane was smuggling drugs, the JDF woke up and opened fire. The plane landed perfectly safely (so much for the JDF), and out stepped Chris Blackwell – who managed Bob Marley and founded Island Records – Jimmy Buffett, the singer and business man who owns the Margaritaville chain of bars and restaurants in Jamaica, and Bono from U2.

Blackwell's Island Outpost group of resorts hotels operates the Caves in Negril, a charming hotel that makes a selling point of the Gruyère-like structure of the West End cliffs. Some caves double as bars, others as private dining areas. The 16 rooms are simple huts built to the local architectural vernacular. You can fling open your shutters (there are no windows) and let in the reggae and the sound of the ocean.

Besides Chris Blackwell, the other non-Jamaican who knows all about Negril is Roberta Pryor, graphic designer, hypnotherapist and author of the unpublished novel Ah Negril!. Pryor has lived here for 28 years, and runs what she calls a "spiritual playground" overlooking the ocean.

"When I moved from the US in the 1980s, Negril was a tropical paradise. The hippy-ish people and the hilarious Jamaican sense of humour made it exciting," she says. "After Grateful Dead gave a concert at Ocho Rios in the 1980s, for months afterwards the place filled with these Dead-heads with their shoeboxes of psychedelics. Every time the immigration van passed by they disappeared into the bush. Since then, we've had a sewage system put in – that made a big difference; it was killing the reefs. We have also had tourism, which attracted all kinds of people wanting to make a buck, not all with good intentions. Obviously I still love the place, or I wouldn't be here.

"Negril is where you go when you didn't want to be around a ton of people," she says. "You drop your worries and problems and appreciate how beautiful the world can be."

Travel essentials: Montego Bay

Getting there

The writer travelled to Montego Bay from Gatwick with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). BA Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com/montegobay) offers seven nights at the Half Moon, Montego Bay, from £1,466 per person, including return BA flights from Gatwick, B&B accommodation and transfers (price is for January 2010 departures).

Virgin Atlantic (08448 747747; virgin-atlantic.com) also flies from Gatwick.

Staying there

Half Moon, Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica (001 876 953 2211; halfmoon.com). Doubles from US$308 (£205), room only.

Richmond Hill Inn, Union Street, Montego Bay (001 876 952 3859; richmond-hill-inn.com). Doubles start at $97 (£65), room only.

The Caves, Negril (001 876 946 1958; islandoutpost.com). Doubles start at $473 (£315), full board.

Eating & drinking there

Rick's Café, West End Road, Negril (001 876 957 0380; rickscafejamaica.com).

Jungle Nightclub, Negril (001 876 957 4005; junglenegril.com).

Alfred's Ocean Palace, Negril (001 876 957 4669; alfredsoceanpalace.com).

More information

Jamaica Tourist Board: 020-7225 9090; visitjamaica.com

Life and Style
love + sex
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn