Not for "Spring Breakers"
It has cool mountains, cool waterfalls and cool rivers for bamboo rafting, plus warm beaches, warm ocean and a less frenetic ambiance.
by Mary Ashcraft
Jamaica, with its sunny beaches, rum, world famous coffee, majestic mountain peaks and only a short flight from the United States, has been in our consciousness for so long we may begin to take it for granted. That would be a mistake because this little island has something more to offer in its quiet coves and turquoise lagoons than beach bikinis or lack thereof at Ocho Rios or "Spring Break" when college kids invade Negril. The big city names of Kingston and Montego Bay have a comfortable, familiar ring to the ears, so it just may be time to look a little farther into the Jamaican landscape and head for the less touristy, less well known, quiet harbor area of Port Antonio and the lush calm of the Blue Mountains.
First stop though should be a visit to Kingston, Jamaica's exciting capital. It is an adventure not to be missed. It is crowded, hot, has traffic tie ups and crammed busses, but it is also a showcase for the country's colorful culture mix. From it's National Gallery of local art with a powerful, walk-in, room-sized piece of art called "Conversations" by Dawn Scott, changing of the guard at Hero's Park (a-la Buckingham Palace), the Bob Marley Museum (Reggae star and culture hero who gave Jamaica's music to the world), or Coronation Market with an endless supply of goods from mangoes and straw goods, to flip flops, are as close to the real Jamaica as one can get. Because of the extreme poverty on the island, it is a good idea to keep a close watch on your money purse and not to wander off the beaten track. Just use your common sense.
In Old Kingston Harbor is the small fishing village of Port Royal. Pirates led by the swashbuckler Henry Morgan ruled this16th century stronghold. Friday night is street night and a good time to wander around with all the locals and soak up the atmosphere. Loud Reggae music is booming from turned up amps, and restaurant tables are set up in the streets to seat the crowds. The saying is that no one cooks at home on Friday night. Gloria's Rendezvous Restaurant is the place to head for and it's easy to find because everyone knows where it is. I can vouch for the Curry Goat, Bammys (made from Cassava flour), Jerk Pork and a spice cake dessert called Bulla, and Ive been told that the favorite local brew is Red Stripe Beer.
Those who have heard of the raucous, wild, anything goes attitude of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios will wonder where the quiet bays and dreamy lagoons are. Well, they are in the classy, less frequented area of Port Antonio clinging to the base of Jamaica's dramatic Blue Mountains. These mountains that cut through the island like a giant spinal column are sprinkled with an amazing range of types of hotels and inns.
High above Kingston's harbor in the Blue Mountains lies Strawberry Hill Hotel with its scattering across the hillside of traditional Georgian style cottages. Built on the site of a once active coffee plantation, this charming hotel offers steamer-trunk elegance with hand carved island antiques, Spa, pool, conference room with audio-visual equipment, and library/game room. All rooms have CD player and CDs on loan, coffee-tea maker and heated mattress pads for those cool evenings. It is also so close to Kingston that a quick, thirty-minute taxi ride down the mountainside enables one to frequent the local dance halls and nightclubs with an evening of Calypso and Reggae music and instruction in the latest Ballroom dancing. An alternative might be to join the fashionable crowd for a performance at the National Dance Theater. Then it's back to the peace and quiet of the hills. Non guests are welcome to dine in this hotel's romantic setting which has a dramatic view of Kingston from the dining room. The view will keep you occupied while you wait, and wait, and wait for the meal to appear. Triple A gives this picturesque hotel a Four-Diamond award. Rooms range from $295 for a Deluxe Bedroom to mountain $595 for a two-bedroom Mountain View 2 suite.
Rambling over the fern covered foothills of the Blue Mountains in Port Antonio is the Fern Hill Club Hotel. Each room has a private veranda with views of the mountainside, the park-like setting and protected beach of Frenchmans Cove and Navy Island once owned by movie star, Errol Flynn in his hay-day. Flynn is alleged to have said that Port Antonio was more beautiful than any women he had ever seen and rumor has it he'd seen almost all of them. His hell-raising and wild parties are now legend. The British used the island for its navy base in times past which explains the name.
The Fern Hill Club Hotel's sixteen suites have private Jacuzzi's on verandas with tropical gardens. All have satellite TV, but no telephone. Its garden setting welcomes guests to hike its trails, and the open-air restaurant is an ideal spot for bird and butterfly watching. Guests can sit with binoculars in hand over morning coffee and search for the Doctor Bird or the bee Hummingbird the size of a honeybee. The many levels and stairways are easy for most, but would be difficult for older people or those with any disability. Room Rack Rates, European Plan, range from $77 for standard room to $242 for a two-bedroom villa. Bed and Breakfast Plan ranges from $95 for a standard room, to $260 for a two-bedroom villa. Year round MAP ranges from $129 for a standard room to $304 for a two-bedroom villa.
One mile from Frenchman's Cove in Port Antonio is the Dragon Bay Hotel. In its hidden bay are thirty villas in the British Colonial style with 600 feet of protected, serene bay frontage. Separating the villas, suites and rooms from the beach are gardens of tropical foliage. In the central building are the Drunken Dragon Pub, fitness center, TV room and gift shops. The soft sand beach has trees for escaping the sun and volleyball courts for active day or night games. Nearby is the thatched roof, open air, Cruise bar that made its movie debut in "Cocktail" and is named after the film's star, Tom Cruise. Evenings are alive with a biweekly beach party, live Reggae and Calypso bands and nightly live entertainment. During these musical evenings, guests are encouraged to drop their shoes and inhibitions and join in the dancing. Then, afterward it might be time to make an appointment for a Dragon Bay massage. Room-only, summer rates range from $120 for Superior Room to $240 for Penthouse. Winter rates range from $ 175 for Superior to $ 350 for Penthouse. Meal plans vary from $15 per person for full breakfast to $ 100 for superior inclusive which includes full American Plan plus drinks by the glass and non-motorized water sports.
Nestled on a blue lagoon with the dramatic Blue Mountains as backdrop are the Blue Lagoon Villas with one-,two-,three-, or four-bedroom Deluxe Villas. All have outdoor and indoor dining, living or entertainment area, fully equipped kitchen, and sun decks with steps leading down into one's own private piece of the lagoon. Here one can swim, snorkel, or gain Scuba certification. The Blue Lagoon villas and restaurant have entertained many famous people including Anthony Hopkins, Billy Baldwin, Bernard Picasso (son of Pablo), and princess Elizabeth before she became Queen of England. If you crave to rub elbows with the rich and famous, this is your place. All meals in the al fresco restaurant are served on colorful breadfruit or banana leaves and eaten with the fingers. They do give you a large finger bowl for those greasy fingers. The mood here is one of very casual elegance. All rates include rent a car with A/C, airport pickup by chauffeur, Champagne upon arrival, first breakfast, full Jamaican bar, paddle boat, maid service, butler and chef, satellite TV, sound system, tennis courts, helicopter landing pad, free access and charge account at the Blue Lagoon villas and at Dragon Bay Beach Club and government tax. Jan.15-April 15, 2000. One bedroom Deluxe Villa $5,000 per week to four-bedroom Super Deluxe Villa $12,000 per week.
Mocking Bird Hill is an intimate hotel in the Caribbean style on the slopes of the Blue Mountains and only ten minutes from the small town of Port Antonio. Taking advantage of the island talent, all rooms have island crafted bamboo furniture and locally printed fabrics. Local craftspeople turn the hotel's old newspapers into note cards, which the hotel then buys back. There are rooms with a balcony view of the sea or private patio nestled in a garden of tropical vegetation. The main dining and lounge areas are decorated in cooling blues and whites and are enhanced by manager Barbara Walker's sculpture and artwork. Its gourmet restaurant Milles Fleurs has an international following and features imaginative menus using only fresh, local produce in its Nouvelle Tropical cuisine. On the property is the hotels own Gallery Carriacou featuring the work of local artists.
For its efforts toward eco-friendliness and embracing a holistic approach to the property, Mocking Bird Hill has won the Green Hotel of the Year award. The feeling here is like a visit to the home of a friend albeit a friend who feeds you well and even does your laundry. For anyone who might be interested, it's also Gay-friendly.
Off-season rates (May 1-Dec. 14, 2000) range from $125 for Garden room with balcony to $160 for Superior room with balcony. Complimentary services are happy Hour between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., laundry service, beach towels and daily news. There is a $15 full breakfast charge, a $36 charge for a three-course dinner or a MAP Plan for $46 per day.
The small town of Port Antonio is well worth a visit. It is far from the tourist scene, and you will find here that people are going about their daily lives in a more natural way. The Crafts Market is probably the highlight as it is connected to the regular fruit, vegetable and meat market where one can really mingle with the friendly local people while buying wood carvings, straw baskets, sandals or tee shirts. Take a rest from shopping and sample from the feast of Jamaican food. Your taste buds will stand up and cheer at the variety of spices in the pepper pot soup, jerk chicken or pork or meat filled pastries called patties which are a direct descendents of Cornish pasties. You can decide whether you want to nyam and scram (eat and run), or relax and suss (gossip).
All the hotels in this area are near these attractions and recreational facilities: Frenchmans Cove Beach, Long Bay Reach Falls, Somerset Falls, Rafting on the Rio Grande, Aga Khan Island, Mountain Trail Hiking, Bird Watching, Nonesuch Caves, Deep Sea Fishing, Boat Safari, Blue Mountain. Coffee Plantation and the quiet town of Port Antonio with its large, local, outdoor market.
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PHOTO CREDITS: Mary Ashcraft, and Contributed Photos
© 2000 ROMAR TRAVEL GUIDES