The following recollections were penned fresh in the air flying back to Vancouver after a few special days in Jamaica. It was my first time on the Caribbean island, and since we only ever get to go to a place for the very first time once, all future trips here – and there will be future trips here – are in for it tough against this magical one.
When I close my eyes and think of Jamaica I’m heading over the Blue Mountains in a van that twists northeast across the island as the sun plays between cloud and peak and valley. Mesmerized by the golden green of it all with a happy belly full of Scotchie’s jerk chicken, I hum along to the driver’s music (Bob Marley’s Waiting In Vain) while reading a jealous text from home about snowstorms, smiling through the surprise of an island that was not at all what I imagined it would be.
Maybe if I had landed among the tourist hordes in Montego Bay or lingered longer in the capital of Kingston my first impression would have been a different one. I’m glad it wasn’t.
I love a good road, and the one to Hotel Mockingbird Hill on the island’s northeast coast is pretty incredible. It cuts through Portland Parish in the same direction as the prevailing trade winds, the seemingly endless green hills it snakes through trapping the rain clouds that never touched us. This was long the domain of the Maroons, isolated communities of former African slaves and descendants of Taino Indians — the island’s original inhabitants. Their free settlements resisted the Spanish-ousting British during the 17th and 18th century, helping to undermine institutionalized slavery and imprint upon the island the dominant strands of its cultural DNA.
The surreal drive was punctuated by sudden shocks of birds I’d never seen before (eg. Jamaican Woodpecker, Smooth-Billed Ani) and terrifying interactions with other vehicles. I was content to be a passenger, staring into the dense, jungle-blurred mystery of tree ferns and Juniper Cedars on one side of the narrow, precipitous road while occasionally catching glimpses of distant coffee plantations on the other. I remember thinking that no amount of study or physical immersion would allow me to make sense of what I was seeing — I’d spent too long in other forests among different trees with more familiar creatures. It was a neotropical Narnia, fantastic and brooding, heavy with heat and dripping with photosynthesis. It’s all real, I kept reminding myself. And I wasn’t even stoned.
Indeed, the Jamaica impressed in these first hours and kilometres can’t be overwritten. For me it will always be seen through the prism of memory in that magical, not-quite-dusk light, on the move, the driver fighting the corners in low gear, singing loud and carefree past isolated homes, shacks and countless roadside food stands and bars:
“From the very first time I blessed my eyes on you, girl
My heart says, “Follow through.”
But I know now that I’m way down on your line
But the waiting feel is fine
So don’t treat me like a puppet on a string
‘Cause I know how to do my thing”
At the coast we headed east from the town of Buff Bay toward Port Antonio, the country’s original tourist draw. Its gilded position has since been usurped by other, more modern resort destinations far to the west, but its old shimmer is still there despite its sun-worn and weathered patina. Its past enjoyed quite the cast of characters. Legendary Hollywood icon Errol Flynn was famously shipwrecked here in 1946. He liked it so much he stayed, purchasing nearby Navy Island for himself along with hundreds of acres of coastal farmland. At the around the same time, James Bond creator Ian Fleming – fresh from the war – built a home for himself not far off (which he christened “Goldeneye”) and set many scenes in exotic locations within a short drive of it. What a clever man.
Thereafter, the area became a magnet of sorts for all sorts of monied types, attracting eccentrics from the United States and Europe, including one Baroness Elizabeth Siglindy Stephan von Thyssen, whose grandiose waterfront Trident Castle is now rented out for weddings, recording sessions (eg. Arcade Fire’s Reflektor) and music video shoots (eg. Snoop Lion’s Here Comes The King). I had had no idea what I would see when the jungle finally gave us up and we arrived on the north coast, but Port Antonio – colourful, faded, busy, hot – and its bucolic surrounds (including the castle) didn’t come as a shock. One paradise begat another.
That night in the hotel, after a hearty crayfish dinner (and more rum than I was used to), I fell asleep in the lookout above the pool, leaving a cigar half smoked and a German-language pulp novel from the hotel library unread (I don’t read German). The wind woke me up. It was blowing the stars bright between new, short-lived clouds formed up on their way out to distant Turtle Bay and the ocean beyond. My disoriented, tired eyes watered at the fresh pressure of it, obscuring the faraway lights and sending me quick to bed proper, happy.
I would go back to that perch every chance I could, skipping the tempting pool for it in down-time, its canopy view helping to ground senses flummoxed by so many new sights and sounds. Birds, particularly. There was much to witness and do off the property, but the place proved a magnet for winged weirdness. How does one see the impossibly appointed Black-Billed Streamertail (a creature I never knew even existed until the moment I saw it) and not feel it was like a sucker punch from nature? You know nothing of me. And thus, you know nothing.
Though the grounds of the Hotel Mockingbird Hill were rewarding in this way, it also made for a great base of operations, allowing for easy trips to and from places like the fabled Blue Lagoon, an extinct volcano fed by underground streams that turn the 180-ft. deep water a shockingly beautiful hue of blue. Though it’s silly to compare edens, if I had to spend hours there or at Frenchman’s Cove, a stunning beach with powdery sand, turquoise water and mercifully few tourists, it would be the latter every time. Even now, scrolling through photos of it high in the sky and feeling the warmth of that sand back in my toes, it’s like a half-remembered dream.
And then came an unforgettable morning spent floating the wide and shallow Rio Grande on a bamboo raft, drinking Red Stripe beer and watching banana harvesters walk the steep, muddy banks. It took a few hours to get from Berrydale to the river’s terminal, Rafter’s Rest, and it was about as tranquil an activity as I’ve ever enjoyed. This was a favourite thing to do of Flynn’s and Fleming’s.
Fleming’s wife once took famed English novelist Evelyn Waugh – wearing blue silk pajamas and a pink ribboned hat – on the same trip, and it was an experience she later relayed in a letter to a friend:
“Once afloat, Evelyn sadly confided that he got no pleasure from natural beauty. Unsympathetically, I requested silence for bird-watching. We were passing a flock of wading egrets. ‘Owls!’ cried Evelyn, loudly, frightening them all away.” – Ann Fleming.
Poor Evelyn apparently had his raft overturn that day, no doubt ruining his blue silk pajamas. Thankfully, I was kept relatively dry, save for the morning beer. The egrets I saw were left undisturbed (and they were Herons, to be perfectly honest).
We took the same route back towards Kingston at the end of the trip, making several stops and purposeful detours along the long, winding way. One of these was to a mountainside coffee plantation called Old Tavern, where Dorothy Twyman lives with her son David. Dorothy roasts the beans in a back room off the kitchen of her cottage. As you can probably well imagine, this made the place smell amazing.
David manages the farm, which sits spectacularly in the clouds as if in a Hayao Miyazaki film. I kept him talking about the difficulties of the coffee business, partly because I was genuinely fascinated and sympathetic, but also so that he would keep on filling my cup. Old Tavern’s beans are almost all earmarked for Japan, and at top dollar. Never in my life had I tasted better coffee.
Back in the capital, sipping good rum in the bar of the tony Spanish Court Hotel on the night before my dawn flight home, the old duel between expectation and reality flared up in my notes. By way of a lifetime of ignorance complicated by stereotyping films and various other cultural touchstones, I had always imagined Jamaica very differently; overrun with Babylonian tourists, colonially impaired (and therefore politically overcomplicated), occasionally irresistible and always in a marijuana haze. My takeaway, rather, was one of near-constant awe. As I sat there nursing the end of my drink, I kept wondering how that had happened. Perhaps I’d just gone the right way.
This trip was undertaken with the assistance of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). Visit their website for more on what the island has to offer. I also suggest you follow the JTB on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.