Don't like Jamaica, oh no, I love it

You don't have to travel with a lover to enjoy the romance of this Caribbean island, writes Janet Matricciani

THERE ARE really only two ways to holiday in Jamaica: wild group parties at all-inclusive hotel resorts such as Hedonism in Negril, where wearing a bikini is over-dressing; or romantic escapes to deserted sandy coves with your dream partner. Having recently got married, the latter option seemed ideal to me, despite my husband's inclination towards the former.

We started off in Kingston, ignoring warnings from friends that it was too dangerous. The capital city has its own tourist attractions: the Bob Marley Museum, for example. Bob is something equivalent to Robin Hood or Hiawatha in folk-hero status here, and for $7 (pounds 4) you get a mini- tour around Bob's empty house, see the bullet holes where he was shot but didn't die and the bed where he had cancer and did, and get to watch part of an 80-minute "documentary". (Bob in concert with no supporting commentary.) If you are lucky, you might even see some of his many offspring hanging out in the back yard.

Kingston also houses the National Gallery of Jamaica, a collection of good restaurants, several five-star hotels (I recommend The Courtleigh), and much else besides.

However, our plan was to rent a car and drive north through the Blue Mountains (where Jamaica's top-quality coffee of the same name is produced), and then stay in a quaint hotel located in a small bay on the other side of the island. As it turned out, my husband suddenly had a crisis at work and couldn't come. I was forced to settle for the romance of solitude.

I hopped into a little rented Mazda and I was off. There is only one decent road across the middle of the island, but - just in case visitors find the route too easy - several side tracks lead misleadingly into the distance. The drive through the Blue Mountains is simply stunning. Spectacular bushes and yam plants hide the real produce: marijuana (known as "ganja"), and the views over hill after hill are magnificent, especially at sunset or sunrise.

Finally, after about two hours, I emerged on the northern side of the mountains. Here, the road forks in two. The left lane goes off into Ocho Rios ("Ochie" if you really want to blend in), a mega-tourist resort that is usurping Montego Bay in popularity as a port of call for cruise ships.

There is a nice Italian restaurant called Evita's on the hillside overlooking the harbour, and some pretty foliage and a few jungle flowers in Shaw Park Botanical Gardens, but the real attraction is the rather crowded Dunns River Falls: water cascading rapidly over a series of pools that eventually drop 600m into the sea.

Dunns would normally just be a photo opportunity, but then someone had the bright idea of climbing up the pools. Now, daisy-chains of humans line up patiently at the bottom just for the pleasure of laboriously winding their way up the shallow pools amid the thronging masses. If you are this desperate to hold hands, go to a singles resort.

Ocho Rios and Mo Bay are also popular destinations with the honeymoon crowd. My friend Charlotte got married at the Sans Souci Hotel, one of many resorts run by the Superclubs group. The hotel will organise everything (photographer, video, flowers, champagne, cake, and music) - all you need to do is supply the groom.

I took the right turn at the fork and headed for the Blue Lagoon (yes, the one made famous by the Brooke Shields film). This is a delightful location, set at the end of a short but appalling road. (Watch for the tiny sign indicating your arrival.) A lingering dip in the lagoon, with its mixture of cold and warm patches, is therapy of the most blissful sort. The water is completely unpolluted, as are most of Jamaica's water spots and beaches.

Refreshed, I motored on to Port Antonio, a bustling colonial town that is rapidly being restored to its former glory. The downtown markets are fast and furious fun. I was too late to drive the hour-and-a-half up to Berringsdale, where rafts set off on leisurely two-hour trips down the river. This was apparently a favourite activity of Errol Flynn and Princess Margaret, though not together, I guess.

Finally, I arrived at the romantic Dragon Bay Hotel, located on the coast about 40 minutes drive from Port Antonio. Double rooms - and almost all guests are couples or families - are about $100 (pounds 61), with a free upgrade to a suite if the manager takes pity on you for being a woman all by yourself. I ended up in a beautiful suite with wicker furniture, a huge bed and windows looking onto a private cove.

I ate lunch by myself and lay out in the sun, even declining the offer of a scuba trip. In the evening, I watched the Saturday night show but when the fire-eating "Jungle King" suggested I take a walk in the woods with him, I knew it was time to call it a night.

The next morning, it was time to begin the eastern route back to Kingston. Along the way, I discovered the fairly hidden Reach Falls (I had just finished my dip when the tourists arrived); the mineral baths at the aptly named town of Bath (my skin turned a peculiar shade of green that wouldn't wash off for several days); and a beautiful deserted beach, Long Bay, the best kept secret on the island. As the customary early- evening torrential downpour began, I headed for Kingston, ready to tell my husband what a singularly romantic time I had had without him.

FACT FILE

jamaica

Getting there

Air Jamaica (tel: 0181-570 7999) offers non-stop flights from London to Jamaica for pounds 440 plus pounds 20 tax from 1 October to mid-November, rising to about pounds 700 around Christmas.

Getting around

Island Rental Cars, based at the Hilton Hotel in New Kingston, rent cars from pounds 45 to pounds 60 per day.

Where to stay

In Kingston, the Courtleigh Hotel costs about pounds 60 per night; the Hilton or Meridian Hotels cost about pounds 100 per night. Dragon Bay Hotel rooms and villas cost from pounds 60 to pounds 150. Contact the Jamaican Tourist Board (tel: 0171-224 0505). For details about Hedonism II, contact Calypso Travel (tel: 0181-994 7878). An all-inclusive week, with flights, costs pounds 1,199. For other packages, contact Elegant Resorts (tel: 01244 987999) and Thomson Holidays (tel: 0171-387 9321).

Further information

Jamaican Tourist Board, 1-2 Prince Consort Rd, London SW7 2BZ (tel: 0171-224 0505).

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