Island in the sun

Juliet Highet

With its deep lagoons, warm climate and richly perfumed tropical plants, Jamaica’s history has, since the 15th century, been strongly influenced by the waves of visitors who have arrived on its shores and decided to make the island their home 

I had forgotten how spectacularly gorgeous Jamaica is – black volcanic beaches on the road to Port Antonio, on which long scented trails of jasmine drift; wild hibiscus and gladioli romping around the little farms with their lacy fretwork balconies edging deep verandas. In the evenings, old ladies with weathered faces sit in their rocking chairs and men in dreadlocks puff gently on strange-smelling ‘cigars’. American actor, Errol Flynn, who ended his days in Jamaica, said of it: “Never had I seen a land so beautiful.” 

I had not remembered, either, how handsome the people are in all their diversity, with a gene pool that includes the original Arawak, African, European, Arab, Chinese and East Indian. Little wonder that the island’s national motto is: “Out of many, one people.” Most visitors head straight for the north coast of Jamaica, to the resorts of Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril, with their celebrated silver crescent-moon, palm-fringed beaches. 

But Jamaica has so much more depth and history than any other Caribbean island. This raunchy, piratical land’s ‘photogenic opportunities’ conceal much melancholy. After Christopher Columbus had ‘discovered’ Jamaica in 1494, claiming it to be “the fairest island that eyes have beheld”, the thriving colony of Arawak people was all but wiped out. In the centuries that followed, Jamaica was settled by a variety of people, including the Spanish in 1509, who were responsible for the introduction of slavery – importing West Africans to work on the sugar plantations. 

A more endearing aspect of Jamaican history stems from an elegant, somewhat decadent set who came to holiday in the 1940s and 50s, some of whom chose to stay. One of them was Noel Coward, that master of acerbic British wit, who described Jamaica as “the island that has given me so much happiness and peace and time to work”. His home, called Firefly Hill, set in the gardens where he was buried 1,000 feet above Blue Harbour, was one of the first places I visited while staying at Ocho Rios. I was escorted round by Coward’s butler, who obviously admired Coward’s style and, as he put it, “breadth of vision”. He told me how Coward used to love to paint there and wrote Private Lives in that modest rustic seclusion, an escape from his Monte Carlo lifestyle. Nevertheless, Coward used to entertain Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming – the latter two of whom had villas along the coastline – and even Britain’s Queen Mother. 

At the Carinosa Gardens, on the edge of Ocho Rios, 14 crystal-clear waterfalls crash down the mountains, the dense foliage around them starred with wild lilies and ginger, spotlit by shafts of sunlight. If the atmosphere of Ocho Rios is, despite tourism, mercifully still that of a charming small town, Port Antonio’s is positively somnolent. Once the cradle of Jamaica’s tourist trade in the days when Hollywood stars hung out there, the town itself seems to have changed little since then, with relics like the disused railway station still intact, as well as creaking, deserted wharves from which the bananas that once made this town prosperous were exported. 

But now there is a shopping centre painted so imaginatively with trompe l’æil that you wonder whether the arm hung languidly out of a window is real or not. The older local people recall glamorous parties frequented by the likes of Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis and – earlier still – Clara Bow. But Port Antonio still is the playground of the seriously rich and famous, who hide away in discreet palatial villas on the shores of the allegedly bottomless Blue Lagoon. 

A mongoose scuttles across the road on the way to Montego Bay, and lines of goats on leads trail disconsolately behind school children. Some of them carry plastic bags of yellow ackees, a delicacy of a fruit even for Jamaicans, for whom it is their national dish when blended with salted codfish and plenty of hot pepper. 

Montego Bay, or Mo’Bay, is the venue for reggae’s international showcase, the annual Sunsplash. It’s Jamaica’s second city, and the island’s tourist capital, with some of its finest hotels, splendid villas to rent and golf courses, on one of which we spot a retired couple chasing goats off the putting green. In spite of the fact that it undergoes an annual invasion of hundreds of thousands of sun-seekers, its downtown area has preserved the authentic atmosphere of one of the island’s oldest settlements, with many buildings dating back to the 18th century. 

According to the wine merchants’ bills from this period, it would appear that much merrymaking went on among the plantation set. At the 1765 Town House, which has been a restaurant for centuries, press cuttings show that everybody seems to have eaten lobster there, from Queen Victoria to the Rolling Stones. That other face of Jamaican history is evident in the elegantly restored Sam Sharpe Square, named after the man who led his fellow slaves in a revolt. The surrounding streets, also grand relics of former times, are stunningly painted in jonquil yellow and cobalt blue. 

One of them leads down to the Fustic Street Market, ‘fustic’ being a dye produced from a tree. This is a real Jamaican market, as opposed to the tourist Craft Market, in which the female traders ruthlessly rule the roost. They’re called ‘higglers’ and you too have to haggle relentlessly with these women, who keep their money buried in their capacious bosoms in cloth ‘threadbags’. 

Apart from the fact that pirate ‘Calico Jack’ and his female fellow buccaneers were captured at Negril in 1720, this fourth north coast resort has little claim to fame in history. However, the town and its famous seven-mile beach have built their own reputation as a centre of hedonism. 

The town is known as ‘Funky Negril’ and sees the local residents mix more readily with visitors than in any of the other resorts. This is arguably because at the all-in resorts, residents rarely stray off the property – a source of great annoyance to local traders. But they do get to meet each other on a more equal footing than that of server and serviced on Negril’s glorious beach. It seems that the whole of Negril goes to Rick’s Café at sunset to drink Rum Bamboozles and watch youths dive 100 ft from the clifftop to the water below, with a backdrop of “the best sunset in the world”. 

All while listening to reggae, naturally.  

About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer specialising in travel, the arts and culture


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