Jammin' through Jamaica

Simon Calder gets into the groove of this much misunderstood island to discover that the sun is still shining - brighter than ever, in fact

People said I might find Jamaica frightening, but I had not been expecting exposure to this kind of fear. I inched along, quivering, unwilling to look to right or left. Never mind a dreadlock holiday: this was pure dread.

While my knees knocked, I tried, unconvincingly, to convince myself that I was worried more about the valuable equipment I was carrying - a microphone, digital recorder and camera - than personal safety. Earlier, the suffering had been purely physical. As I obeyed the orders of a stranger, bolts of pain jolted through my body.

All this, and I had not even left the resort. Luckily, I was having the time of my life.

That scary shuffle involved walking the plank. The beam in question joins two outcrops at the Rockhouse, a property that perches on the very edge of the island - almost at the westernmost point of Jamaica. New arrivals are encouraged to cross this slender, open wooden bridge as the Caribbean seethes quietly about 30ft below. And those contortions? Instructions were gently intoned by the yoga teacher who takes a class each day at 8am. The idea: to get you in shape for the day, twisting and turning to make you supple enough for the twists and turns of life in Jamaica. And I needed loosening up for a bigger adventure.

On the flight home, I quizzed a number of British holidaymakers. The majority had not left the resort where they were staying except for the journey back to the airport. It's a carrot-and-stick thing. We'll get to the stick shortly. The temptation, meanwhile, is the sheer seduction of life on the rocks around the Rockhouse in Negril.

My fellow guests were checking out of the fast lane and checking in to somewhere that did not even have televisions in the rooms. "Rooms" is not quite the right term, though; for a very reasonable £82, I bought a day and a night in a very special place in the sun. Local materials are used to create simple cottages of stone and thatch, which are dotted around the rocky, woody estate to give the best possible view of infinity.

An attractive prospect, in every sense. The craggy foreground slips beneath you into the Caribbean (should you be tempted to follow it, the bathing is excellent - though I advise against jumping from the bridge). Your gaze follows the sea's gentle corrugations until they melt into the haze, which, in turn, drifts to the horizon and fuses with a sky as light and delicate as china (appropriately, the earliest Europeans to arrive here thought they were on course for China).

This scene has the power to hypnotise, and plenty of people willingly submit to life in a glorious and temporary vacuum. They might waft a mile along the coast to watch the sun's scarlet finale with a can of Red Stripe at Rick's Café: the place to go for collective appreciation of dusk, where nature always plays it again. Or perhaps once or twice they could wander down for dinner at Tensing Pen, another opulent property designed to cosset the rich and reclusive. But I had what I shall loosely term "work" to do.

The task: to break free of this gilded cage and carve a course across a much-misunderstood island. If you read the UK government advice on Jamaica, you might wonder why anyone would come here. After a warning of "High levels of crime and violence, including kidnaping", those carefree diners are told "Frequenting the same restaurant too often might risk you becoming a target for thieves".

On my first night in Jamaica I was introducing my taste buds to a proper searing at one of the jerk restaurants that dispenses meat and fish bathed in the startling local blend of spices. As I relished my good fortune, the TV news reported "110 murders". How terrible, I thought, to have endured so many killings in the course of a single year.

I wondered if 2006 had been particularly bloody. Then it became clear that these deaths were not over the year, but for the first 25 days of January. On an average idyllic Jamaican day, four islanders lost their lives violently. Some died in acts of retribution, others in random shootings. Life seems heartbreakingly cheap in Jamaica. Yet it is also a land of gentle kindnesses, where a visitor who places trust in the people can expect a safe, enchanting journey.

Jamaica is unlike the average Caribbean island. Its sheer size and geographical diversity makes it ripe for exploration. And because the majority of the people have lives outside tourism, it has a far stronger sense of purpose than most of its neighbours. You discover this in Savanna la Mar, 18 miles east of Negril: this forgotten port falls, appropriately, on a crease in the map, and feels as though it is yawning into life after a long slumber. The municipal weariness is offset by the colours that are so effusively applied to every available surface. Jamaica is the closest that any nation gets to a Pantone colour chart, with a particular concentration on the red, yellow and green sectors of the spectrum.

No dread in "Sav la Mar", just amused interest in what appeal a tourist might find in the delicious dilapidation of the surroundings and the vibrancy of the people.

Another appetising dimension that Jamaica offers: altitude. It is the most upwardly mobile island in the Caribbean, and so when you want to exchange "sultry" for fresh, you merely continue due west.

I found myself walking through the middle of Manchester, at an altitude of about 2,000 feet, surrounded by cool, green hills. Manchester is the parish that is at the heart of Jamaica. (To confuse things further, it lies within the county of Middlesex, which itself is sandwiched between Cornwall and Surrey.) The main town is Mandeville - a hill station in the same way that India and Sri Lanka have them, created by the British as places to go and cool off from the heat at sea level. It boasts the oldest golf course in the Western Hemisphere, which is now contained within the grounds of the Manchester Club. It was here that I met Diana MacIntyre-Pike, the woman who is transforming tourism in rural Jamaica. She runs Country-Style Tours, a collective that offers everything from an encounter with a roadside fruit vendor - who explains the origins and benefits of the succulent produce of Jamaica - to cultural encounters in local villages. Community tourism at its best: the visitor gets enriched culturally, while the hosts get enriched financially. (Back in Negril, I had discovered that the Rockhouse feeds a chunk of profits into enhancing education and reducing poverty.)

At 8am on Sunday morning, I was at the door of St Mark's in Mandeville, established in 1816 - one of the oldest churches on the island. While the cacophony of daily life continues on the outside, on the inside all was calm. As the sun streamed through the doors and illuminated the stained-glass at the eastern end, everyone posed in their finery - more a fashion show than a place of worship, one of the congregation told me.

Just 20 miles as the Jamaican blackbird flies from Mandeville, you find the biggest expanse of pure wilderness in the Caribbean. Cockpit Country is a vast slab of limestone that has been eroded into the strangest of landscapes. It resembles a series of domes, really, interrupted by deep ravines and smothered by impenetrable vegetation. Impenetrable, that is, to almost everybody except the Maroons, who were escaped slaves who set up a breakaway community in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, the Colonel - the elected leader, who has considerable autonomy - takes visitors around town, explaining the strange history of a place built by runaways. Cockpit Country is ripening for tourism, with ancient paths being cleared for trekkers. It is, though, likely to remain off the cruise circuit.

Ocho Rios is the cruise capital of Jamaica. More than 2,000 passengers arrive here each morning - and more than 2,000 passengers go back aboard their ship each afternoon, missing out on the best part of Ocho Rios, the evenings. The place comes alive at sunset, and turns into a party to which everyone is invited. At one bar a sign read, "Captains, please leave your keys at the front desk, in case we need to move your cruise ship". They should try it some time.

Most of the three million or so visitors who come to Jamaica each year are either on cruises, or heading for the beach at Sandals, Beaches or one of the many other all-inclusive resorts dotted around Jamaica. The more thoughtful members of the travel industry worry about these "gated communities", because they tend figuratively to lock tourists in: why would you venture beyond the walls when everything for your delight is contained within them? And no need to heed the words of dread.

Sandals, which started it all, was actually a response to the political turmoil on the island in the 1970s: if Jamaica was to get any tourism at all, visitors would need to be reassured of their safety. "Some people went to Montego Bay or Negril and didn't even realise they had been to Jamaica," one tourism official told me. A shame, because so much of this rich island deserves your attention. Leaving Ocho Rios for Kingston, you drive through Fern Gully, an extraordinary few miles that feels as though you are tunnelling through the rainforest. And along Bamboo Avenue, the trees crouch over to form a pale-green canopy.

Kingston Town, the second city of the Caribbean (after Havana), is simultaneously the murder capital of the region (if you find yourself in the wrong neighbourhood) and one of the most energising, exciting and friendly places you could hope to discover.

Jamaica's capital perches on one of the greatest natural harbours in the Americas. The waterfront, though, is not merely neglected, it is as shunned as a rockabilly rebel at Reggae Sunsplash. Imagination and investment could revive it. Waiting in vain? I hope not. Meanwhile, there is much to entangle the visitor. Cricket, of course; next month's World Cup will bring the globe to Jamaica. Plus art (naive, colourful, engaging), commerce and, above all, music.

Bob greets you as you walk through the gates of 56 Hope Road in Kingston. And just in case you do not find the statue of the dreadlocked guitarist, pointing skyward, immediately recogniseable, a mural on a nearby wall will put you right. "Time Magazine the 30 sexiest black men of our time - No 2, Bob Marley". The late reggae superstar did even better with his album Exodus, "Time Album of the Century".

Bob Marley's former home is a rambling brick and clapperboard villa on the edge of Kingston. Every hour, besotted fans and curious tourists are taken around by guides like Marlon - a young man with the sweetest singing voice. As you move from hall to kitchen, the sparsely-furnished house echoes with the songs of Bob Marley.

See if you can keep a dry eye while the man who championed the downtrodden and the dispossessed sings his heart out with humanity and passion. And then hope he was right: everything's gonna be alright.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Seats are likely to be scarce, and fares high, in the build-up to the Cricket World Cup in early March.Simon Calder paid £429 for a return flight on Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com), which flies between Gatwick and Montego Bay. British Airways (08708 509 850; www.ba.com) links Gatwick and Kingston. Air Jamaica (020-8570 7999; www.airjamaica.com) has daily flights from Heathrow toMontego Bay and Kingston. NB: Air Jamaica's London number was out of order this week.

GETTING AROUND

Car rental is widely available. There are good bus, minibus and shared taxi services; every local knows where journeys start and end.

STAYING THERE

Rockhouse Hotel, West End, Negril: 00 1 876 957 4373; www.rockhousehotel.com. Peak season rates (December-April) are US$148 (£82) for a standard room, excluding breakfast. The Rockhouse and the nearby Tensing Pen are both bookable through Caribtours (020-7751 0660; www.caribtours.co.uk).

Diana MacIntyre-PIke runs the Astra Hotel in Mandeville: 001 876 962 7758; e-mail to countrystyle@mail.infochan.com. Rates start at around US$60 (£33) a night, including breakfast.

FOREIGN OFFICE ADVICE

"There are high levels of crime and violence. The motive for most attacks seems to be robbery. There is a risk in walking alone in isolated areas, even in daylight hours."





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