I’m sat at Ian Fleming’s desk in Goldeneye, his Jamaican home that is now a luxury boutique bolt-hole, hoping that the same muse which inspired the creation of James Bond will assist me with my Steppes Travel “On Location” blog. I have a back-up glass of finest Jamaican rum in case inspiration runs dry.
The last couple of weeks have been a romping adventure and series of surprises, driving the generally good but sporadically pot-holed and bone-rattling back roads of Jamaica. The Caribbean’s third-largest island has welcomed me with warmth, humour and some very, very comfortable and interesting lodging. Not “I could be anywhere compounds” divorced from the country you’re in, but an eclectic selection of hotels, some quite funky with creative design twists and decorated by local artists, others with a historic interest but all distinctly Jamaican.
Flying into Montego Bay, you have a bird’s eye view of the beaches that are the start and finish of many a visitor’s trip but I allow myself to be diverted by an island of huge variety and interest. Turning our backs on Montego Bay, my driver, Leroy, and I are soon passing through the town of Lucea. The famous town hall clock is one of the oldest in the West Indies, manufactured in England and intended for St Lucia but delivered to, admired and subsequently kept by the residents of Lucea. St Lucia – Lucea, easy mistake to make…
Negril is renowned for its sunsets and at The Caves, the big decision is where to deposit yourself in order to enjoy the show. The other big decision is whether you will be brave enough to leap from one of the higher jumping platforms that are built into the cliffs – quick route to the crystal clear waters that teem with fish and tickle the toes of this cliff-top property. It has been known for the highest platform to play on a guest’s mind to the extent that bags are dropped at the departing taxi and with a mad dash, a scream and a leap this mental block is erased and a soggy transfer to the airport is guaranteed! There’s a tradition of cliff-jumping in Negril and if you don’t want to put yourself in the picture, head for Rick’s Cafe in town to watch the aeronautics of local jumpers from a dry seat, with a cold Red Stripe.
An unexpected highlight was hand-feeding hummingbirds at Rocklands Estate. I’d never seen a hummingbird fold its wings, let alone perch on my finger while feeding.
Treasure Beach and the south-west corner of the island, offers a slice of laid-back rural Jamaica. It took me 3-4 days to stop “running” and synchronise my pace with Leroy, for whom every familiar face (and there were a lot of them) represented an opportunity to “lime” and every small town a chance to stop for a patty or some jerk chicken. We were even stopped by bored roadside motorbike cops and a potential fine becomes a heated discussion followed by a cigarette, followed by a heartily enjoyed joke and then a fond (un-ticketed) farewell.
Jakes is a bohemian and highly individual coastal property. The bungalows all have names (Seapuss, Cockles, Octopussy, Abalone….) and are highly imaginative in their vividly coloured decor. My room opened onto wooden decking and faced straight out to sea. One of my favourite moments here was spent with open louvred doors, a bottle of rum and Jimmy Cliff (singing the Harder they Come on my in-room sound system). Later in the bar, I spoke with Jason, Jake’s charismatic manager, to discover that it was his father who directed this iconic Jamaican film.
Jakes is a social hub of the Treasure Beach community and a place to make friends. It’s also a great base for activities including visiting the Appleton Estate rum distillery, swimming under the YS Falls, various historic Great Houses and river-boat trips to spot manatees and crocodiles. For a pub with a difference, take a boat trip to Pelican Bar, almost a mile out to sea; a shabby shack on stilts built on a shoal and a watering spot for passing fishermen.
Driving through Kingston, I discovered that Leroy was also an aspiring music promoter. While visiting his latest star-in-the-making on a university campus we were drawn by some great ska and reggae music coming from a campus hall, to discover that classic Jamaican band, Toots and the Maytals were having an impromptu jamming session with friends. This country is a must for music lovers and the Bob Marley museum in Kingston is a place of pilgrimage.
The Blue Mountains offered a cool respite after the heat of the coast. Strawberry Hill is an elegant boutique hotel that teeters on a ridge of this famous range, offering tremendous views across distant capital, Kingston, to the Caribbean Sea. The spa here will unravel the most knotted of muscles but I turned my back on holistic therapies for the opportunity to hike and mountain bike in one of the most scenic regions of Jamaica. Trails of varying degrees of challenge follow the contours (or cross them for the more adventurous). You also have the opportunity to visit mountain coffee plantations to find out first hand all about this famous Jamaican export.
The journey across the Blue Mountains from south to north coast is a very scenic drive that deposited me in the delightful town of Port Antonio, where Errol Flynn used to hang out, swashing buckles with his rabble-rousing friends. The highlight here was a little light bamboo rafting followed by a walk with a guide through the Rio Grande valley to investigate the culinary and medicinal use of wild plants. Stopping at a jungle hack/cafe/supermarket, it wasn’t long before we’d caught up on the local gossip and put the world to rights with the Rastafarian owner.
Heading west along the coast, we stopped to visit Firefly, Noel Coward’s Jamaican home. It’s now a museum dedicated to his life and kept as it was when he died in 1973. This is a site of great historical interest, used as a Taino sacred burial ground 1000 years ago by the original inhabitants of Jamaica, by pirate (and later governor of Jamaica) Captain Henry Morgan as a lookout and during the 50s and 60s a place for Coward to entertain the glitterati of the day. Coward’s statue peers out wryly from the gardens over epic coastal views of Port Maria Bay and Cabrita Island.
And so, back to Goldeneye, where beautifully appointed cottages and suites surround a lagoon and line the seafront. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a dreamy couple of days in the Fleming Villa, dining on lobster in his sunken garden, barbecuing on the private beach and watching Bond films in the private cinema (originally his garage). Tomorrow it’s back to Montego Bay airport and then reality but perhaps stopping off for a final daydream at the stunning private beach of Laughing Waters, where Ursula Andress made her unforgettable entrance from the sea in Dr No.