The Jamaica Inn: Dream come true
For the ultimate romantic Caribbean hideaway, Emma Wilson follows in the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe and enjoys the timeless elegance of Jamaica Inn
Saturday 07 June 2008
Bags are packed. Passports out. And Missy, my hibiscus, is already on non-speaking terms with me. She has that horticultural sixth sense that tells her I am about to cheat on her in a luscious tropical climate surrounded by an abundance of pinks and reds, which grow by day, and by night will have their petals strewn across my bed under the watchful eye of an origamied white towel swan.
Destination: Jamaica. Following in the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill and Kate Moss, I am seeking the tranquillity and charm of a cherished oasis tucked away in Ocho Rios to celebrate a belated first wedding anniversary. The directions are simple. Get off the plane at Montego Bay and be driven east along the coast, passing the alarming number of monstrous all-inclusive resorts: concrete cruise ships that don't go anywhere. Stay calm and sip your cold Red Stripe. When you reach Ocho Rios turn left and step out at Jamaica Inn. Allow your eyes gently to adjust to the powder-blue walls, the brushed cotton white sofas and the Caribbean. And breathe.
Jamaica Inn opened in 1950 and yet still boasts a conservative 47 rooms. Little has changed over the past six decades. It remains small, elegant and timeless. The drawing room is Wi-Fi enabled. But don't tell anyone. When your feet are planted in soft white sand, and barman Teddy delivers your mid-day highball the only use for your Blackberry is as a coaster.
Ocho Rios is the cruise capital of Jamaica. More than 2,000 passengers arrive here each morning – but none makes their way to Jamaica Inn, which is privately owned, offering "the personal touch" – a rare commodity in a chain-conglomerate world. The staff are key fixtures. Teddy started at 16. This August he will celebrate his 66th birthday. I suspect the secret weapon is manager Mary Phillips. Part Yoda, part drill sergeant, she instils pride and demands excellence in her outfit, the SAS of Hospitality.
Straight away we are put in the perfect beach-view room. But Mary warned us not to become attached. She was shifting us to a suite. I didn't want to move. I unpacked. I could not help myself. I was nesting, my eyes entranced by the white sand and watery horizon view. I didn't want to let go.
But while exploring the beach, our bags were shipped out. The decision was never going to be ours to make. Why was I fighting it? The White Suite is steeped in history. Winston Churchill stayed there in 1952. I looked for his cigar butts in the garden. What would they fetch on eBay?
Jamaica is unlike the average Caribbean island: it is big, diverse and therefore easy to hide away in – and, for hotel designers, easy to think big in. The bedroom in the White Suite is bigger than my apartment back home. The walk-in closet is the size of a large kitchen and outside areas are multiple.
We debate where to try next. The dipping pool is oval, with a gentle gradient path in for the less-steady tipsy movie stars of today and yesteryear. For the bold, there are steps into the sea. For the adventurous, there is a jungle path where we took our coffees at 6.30am. (Note: make Him go first so that he walks into the fine, damp spiders' webs, not you.) Foraging through dense foliage, you come to a turret oasis with water crashing below – ideal for a sentinel to keep watch from or a cannon placement. Instead, there is a sun-lounger – wide enough for two.
The White Suite does not hide the fact that it is designed for the couple who like each other. The four-poster bed, the love seat perfectly positioned for the sunrise. And the bath, especially the bath. It has legs, like a good vintage claret, fat and sturdy, that hold a traditional tub wide enough for two. Throw in some bubbles, light a few tea candles, open the shutter and lie back to enjoy the mountains in the mist and waves gently lapping underneath. It is a vista to inspire an EM Forster sequel: "Bathtub with a View".
For our "special night", Mary takes control. We are obviously too green to be left to plan our own celebration. In the dark – literally – with chilled champagne, we are summoned down the jungle path. The lounger has gone. The rock plateau has been transformed with white linen tablecloths, lanterns and flowers. It is so utterly romantic and over the top that I send Him back for the camera to capture the moment – as if we are 19-year-old Japanese honeymooners. After 26 digital flashes, we decide that black and white is the way to go. It makes us look sophisticated, classy. And less tipsy.
Jamaica Inn doubles as a nature reserve. The emerald parakeets hang out in the trees, not a cage in sight. The hummingbirds would really get in Missy's craw. Perish the thought of her pollen being spread by these frenetic, beautiful creatures. Under our balcony there is a posse of lobsters, a puffer fish straight out of Nemo, and occasionally dolphins frolicking. We adopt a Von Trapp-style family of geckos with their huge comical eyes and oversized suction pad feet. They eat mosquitoes. For that, I love them.
And patrolling the grounds is Shadow III, Jamaica Inn's most loyal resident. Like everything else, Shadow is unchanging. She is the third generation of black labrador here and she is now 18. Like her predecessors, her role is simple. She finds the couple who need her most and she adopts them, escorting them to breakfast and for sunset strolls. She completes their perfect picture.
Did I mention the unspoilt private beach where sea turtles come and lay their eggs? No, not a line from the brochure. I saw with my own eyes the strange tractor marks that lead from the sea and encircle a beach umbrella. (I didn't know that three months later I would be back at the same spot, barefoot, in a New Year's party frock to witness 300 little babies crack out of their shells. Or that I and other barefoot black-tie guests would help to coax them in the direction of the water and discourage their attraction to the inland lights. That was a New Year gift still to come.)
The turtles obviously have good taste. This year the US edition of Condé Nast Traveller ranked Jamaica Inn as the best hotel in Jamaica. Things you will not find at Jamaica Inn: all-you-can-eat buffets, a booze cruise or any children under the age of 12. Instead, you can play croquet, have a cocktail with the ghost of Errol Flynn, or sit at the piano where Noël Coward tickled the ivories.
Jamaica Inn is steeped in nostalgia of a bygone era. And with it comes a loyal clientele. In February, high season, nine out of 10 guests are on repeat visits. Generations of regulars. They dress for dinner: black tie. They dress for the beach. If you catch them in matching casual attire, you might think they are off to a cocktail party or a Tatler fashion shoot. No. They are heading to the gym.
If you want classy charm, with understated elegance, then this is it. I am not alone in this conviction. The Man in room 41 sought out Mary to inform her that Jamaica Inn had saved his marriage. The ambience of Jamaica Inn had unlocked their jaws. They talked. They smiled at each other. Romance and kindness were rekindled.
Just don't be surprised if by the end of your stay you are already booking for next year. I did.
Other secluded island retreats
Keep going west, and you find find yourself in the resort of Negril. And, almost at the westernmost point of Jamaica, Rockhouse is planted prettily on the corrugated coastline. Local materials have been used to create simple cottages of stone and thatch, dotted around the rocky, woody estate to give a sense of space and serenity. To soothe the body as well as the soul, a yoga teacher takes a class each morning at 8am to get you in shape for the day. Best of all, you can feel good about spending money: Rockhouse feeds a chunk of profits into enhancing education and reducing poverty.
Rockhouse Hotel, West End, Negril (001 876 957 4373; www.rockhousehotel.com).
Round Hill Hotel
Jamaica is the closest that any nation gets to a paint manufacturer's colour chart, with a particular concentration on the red, yellow and green bands of the spectrum – which makes the dazzlingly white Round Hill hotel stand out.
Sprinkled over a peninsula west of Montego Bay, Round Hill, on the site of an old plantation, comprises pretty suites and villas that have been recently refurbished courtesy of Ralph Lauren. Many feature open-sided living areas, but however airy and enticing they are, the main appeal lies towards the horizon: a sugary beach, protected by the curl of an offshore reef . It's not hard to see why the likes of Clark Gable, Bob Hope and JFK were regulars.
Round Hill Hotel, Montego Bay (001 876 956 7050; www.roundhilljamaica.com)
This year marks the centenary of Bond author Ian Fleming's birth. Goldeneye, near Oracabessa on the north coast (pictured, above), was his Jamaican retreat, the place where he wrote his novels. In recent times, a transformation has been wrought by Island Outpost, the luxury hotel chain run by media mogul Chris Blackwell. Now the original bungalow, plus several villas trickling down a path to the shore, is one of Jamaica's most desirable boltholes, with 18 acres of grounds, a tennis court, infinity pool and private beach. Celebs flock to the place – Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Bono and Sting have all visited – and it's not hard to see why: the views are spectacular, the staff-to-guest ratio very favourable and the home cinema is, of course, stocked with the complete set of Bond films.
Goldeneye, Oracabessa, St Mary (UK bookings: 01895 450 731; www.islandoutpost.com)
Montego Bay is served by Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick. Charter flights are operated by First Choice (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk/flights) and Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com) from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester. Kingston is served by Virgin Atlantic and British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) from Gatwick.
Jamaica Inn, Ocho Rios, St Ann (001 876 974 2514; www.jamaicainn.com). Suites start at $290 (£153), room only.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) warns: "There are high levels of crime and violence, particularly in Kingston... The motive for most attacks on tourists is robbery. Although the Jamaican government has a system of mobile police patrols, there is a risk in walking alone in isolated areas or on deserted beaches, even in daylight hours."
Jamaica Tourist Board: 020-7225 9090; www.visitjamaica.com.
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