Blue falls, deep lagoons, and magicked mountains—the Caribbean island shimmies to a tune of its own.
Jamaica The Caribbean
Sonia Nazareth | POSTED ON: September 22, 2020
Reach Falls is a most rewarding sight in Jamaica, where pristine white cascades are surrounded by emerald forest. Photo By: Sonia Nazareth
All cities have that one iconic experience; a phenomenon that makes it to T-shirts and keychains, fuzzy toys and jackets. In Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, it’s the Bob Marley Museum.
At 56 Hope Road, a colonial-era wooden house continues to channel the spirit of the reggae legend. Inside, Marley’s star-shaped guitar, the costumes of his back-up singers, the hammock in which he lay as he drew inspiration from the distant mountains, and his personal recording studio seem alive with his presence. A short drive away, Trench Town, in which Marley grew up, with its cramped living quarters, low levels of literacy and once high levels of crime, gives me an unfenced sense of life in the ghetto. Here amid people plagued with the same concerns of social inequality and instability, the force that drove musical greats like Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, to sing about love and resilience, becomes evident.
Forest of Cloud
Before submitting to the seduction of a music scene—and in Kingston that is what the Vatican is to Rome—my guide, Lisa, encourages me to seek out a litany of island gems that shine as bright. Jamaica is Edenic, especially in the summer: waters as vivid as dreams, cloud-piercing mountains, rafting trips, creole food that charms the senses. And the cities needn’t be left far behind to experience this side to Jamaica. On my 45-minute drive from Kingston to the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, the soundtrack of horns that bellows like cattle is replaced by birdsong in under 20 minutes. Everywhere I look there’s fecund habitat of tropical mountains dominated by cloud forest. We hike the 1.2-kilometre Oatley Mountain trail, a gravel-paved loop that ascends through broadleaf trees. We scan them for migratory and endemic birds that pepper the area, such as Jamaican tody and rufous-throated solitaire. A haiku of fern, butterfly and an absurdly colorful red-billed streamertail abruptly halos me. Amid the mist of the cloud forest, no one can tell that I’m moved to tears.
The next day we drive two hours from Kingston to Port Antonio (Portie, as it’s fondly called by locals), the capital of Portland Parish on the northeast coast. Despite this town’s colourful history of having been the hideout of stars like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe, and stories of its booming banana exports in the 1970s, there’s nothing smug about Portie. It presents a palpable sense of local life, and is the gateway to an embarrassment of riches.
A 20-minute drive away from Portie, for instance, is Boston Bay, with its neat beaches, surfer-friendly waves, and a cluster of jerk stalls. The practice of seasoning and smoking meat (usually chicken or pork) marinated in jerk spices is believed to have come down centuries ago from the Maroons (slaves brought in from Africa). I order a plate, and the meat arrives suitably tender, with a side of fried breadfruit, plantain and bammy (pancakes made from cassava flour). In each bite is the unique character of Jamaica, that holds traditions that have evolved from its intimate connection to Africa.
Bay of Plenty
Forty minutes east of Portie are the superlative Reach Falls. En route, we’re treated to views of Long Bay, whose powdery sands and beach homes look like they’ve stepped out of an ornamental placemat. The Falls themselves are a contrarily rewarding place, punctated by elements of both challenge and chance. I tread carefully down a rocky path, slick with moss and moisture, until I confront a cascade of white, tumbling over limestone tiers, engulfed by verdant rainforest. With the right rubber-soled shoes and guide, it is possible to wade along a watery path to the edge of the falls. Lisa encourages me to abandon the safe ship of paradise, to plunge from the rocks into the emerald green pools, to splash about in the natural, heart-shaped jacuzzi.
Boxer and the Boom Box
The main jade pool at the Falls seems familiar, and Lisa points to the fact that it was featured in the movie Cocktail (1988) starring Tom Cruise. A 40-minute drive away lies the Blue Lagoon, whose waters put Brooke Shields under the spotlight in 1980. Stuck halfway between Jamaica and a Hollywood fairytale, the blue-green waters glint with an ethereal quality.
Boxer, my guide, who was a boxer before he took on this job as boatman at the Lagoon, is the gentlest person I’ve met. With calm energy, he points at the larger-than-life vacation homes that dot the banks. His enthusiasm rises with the subject of birds and sea turtles, clearly his long-time friends. From him I learn that the “Blue Hole,” as it’s known in these parts, is fed by freshwater springs and mixes with the warm seawater. And that the colours of the water magically morph from emerald to azure through the day, depending on cloud cover. The lagoon plunges to a depth of about 180 feet and was the site of a famous dive by French filmmaker and conservationist, Jacques Cousteau. Primordial vegetation surrounds the lagoon, clearly serving as inspiration to couples who come by in boats, eager for a Me Tarzan-You Jane bonding session. I glance into the clear water, eager to jump in, but find myself confronted by my favourite kind of voyeur. A sea turtle going around in circles. The only sound that ruptures the silence is the sound of music, playing from a boom box, and a group of local teens dancing. That’s the other thing about Jamaica. Everything is music.
Rafting Down the Rio
In 1942, Hollywood heart-throb Errol Flynn discovered the sultry charms of Jamaica and reportedly popularised rafting down the river Rio Grande on thin bamboo rafts, made of long logs bound together. These were formerly used to transport locally grown produce, especially bananas, from the interiors of Portland to the coast for export. “Rafters Rest” the place from where the journeys begin is a 17-minute drive from Portie. To follow in Flynn’s footsteps, I’m first instructed to dress in layers, not unlike a self-regulating eco-system. Bathing clothes under my comfy loose outers. Captain Leroy guides the oar-steered raft for three hours down the 9.5-kilometre ribbon of bright blue.
The journey stimulates all my senses. The eye in the sighting of trees along the banks. The ear in the dulcet calls of birds. The skin at Lover’s Lane, a narrow moss-covered stream, where you’re meant to kiss and make a wish. The nose, after taking in the delicious aromas of food at Ms. Belinda’s, a riverside restaurant with the freshest fish, curried goat and seasonal vegetables. Leroy’s been singing evangelic songs along this river for years, telling stories about the history of rafting and the romantic possibility of a full-moon tour. He’s lost none of the gusto he had to begin with. Heaven is in revelling in what you have.
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There are no direct flights between India and the Jamaican capital, Kingston. Flights between Mumbai and Delhi that require two layovers (one usually in London, and another in an American gateway city like Miami) are more economical, while flying directly into New York and then taking a direct flight to Kingston is faster.
Indian travellers are eligible for a free visa on arrival in Jamaica.
Kingston The Jamaica Pegasus Hotel overlooks Emancipation Park and offers basic, comfortable rooms and a sumptuous breakfast buffet (www.jamaicapegasus.com; doubles from Rs18,000).
Port Antonio Unspoiled scenery engulfs guests at the spacious Goblin Hill Villas. The best part? You’re just a short drive away from Reach Falls, the Blue Lagoon and the Rio Grande (www.goblinhill.com; doubles from Rs18,000).