Jamaica: Cool in the Caribbean

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

"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