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."





The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?