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Jamaica island oasis

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An Island Apart

Pelican Bar, Dave Lauridsen

Photos by Dave Lauridsen

The Pelican Bar sits on a sandbar near Treasure Beach, Jamaica, and serves up freshly caught fish and drinks.

Certain travel fantasies just won’t die. Years ago, my wife handed me a magazine article about an idyllic little place on the remote southern shore of Jamaica and said, “We’re definitely going here.” Jakes Hotel had everything you crave in a tropical escape—untrammeled beaches, brightly colored bohemian cottages with private outdoor bathtubs, a shoeless vibe and what sounded like an endless supply of ice-cold Red Stripe. Those folded pages sat in a file marked “Someday” but the dream never faded. When we saw a free space on the calendar last summer while our son was away at camp, my wife and I knew, without saying a word, where we’d be heading.

A conch fisherman working in Montego Bay.        

Jamaica can have that effect on people. Even if you’ve never visited the island, there’s probably a reggae tune or scene from an old James Bond movie (Ian Fleming wrote all 14 of his 007 novels during summer holidays there) that makes you go, “Ahh, wouldn’t it be nice?” Or perhaps it’s the image of Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, that best symbolizes the determined free spirit of the country. More than anyplace else in the Caribbean, Jamaica, with its lush greenery and “yah, mon” attitude, invokes the feeling that every little thing is gonna be all right.

Of course, there’s another Jamaica, too. The sprawling all-inclusive megaresort was born here, and crowded Negril Beach sounds as alluring to me as a half-hour wait at Bluebeard’s Grill. Likewise, battling cruise ship mobs to zip-line or parasail around Montego Bay isn’t my idea of a vacation. And there are other concerns, too. Crime can be a factor (though the crime rate is down and rarely affects tourists) and the gap between the haves and have-nots is startling in places. But venture farther and the island reveals itself as a land of misty hills, hidden beaches and passionate locals with zesty personalities full of character and spice.

This begins with the woman at the rental car counter, who looks me up and down when I say we’ll be driving ourselves around the island. “You’re gonna go where?” she says when I mention we are heading across Jamaica’s western flank on a 10-day odyssey that will eventually bring us to Jakes. She hands over the keys to a white Vitara four-by-four, and says with a sly smile, “Keep your eyes on the road and don’t let the goats distract you.”

Rose Hall Great House in St. James.        

American visitors to Jamaica usually prefer being shuttled from airport to hotel to attraction to airport, but I wanted the adventure of taking the wheel, “wrong” side of the road and all, and making our own way. In recent years, emphasis on traffic safety has increased in Jamaica, though that’s not entirely a plus for drivers. The first thing I notice after exiting Montego Bay Airport, where most vacationers begin their trip, is how many cops are hiding behind signs and trees and pointing radar guns. Be like Bond. Just don’t drive like him.

The third-largest island in the Caribbean, Jamaica was called “Xaymaca,” or land of wood and water, by the native Arawak Indians, and it’s easy to see why, looking through forests of cedar and dogwood to the sea beyond. As was so much of the country, the area we are winding through was plantation land. During more than 300 years of slavery, Jamaica was one of the world’s biggest exporters of sugar cane, and the wealth of those years is still visible today. Rose Hall Great House, high on a grassy slope not too far outside of Montego Bay, is considered the best example of Jamaican Georgian style architecture. More than 2,000 slaves lived on the 6,500-acre plantation, but it’s the spooky story of Annie Palmer, wife of the builder’s grand-nephew, that endures. Said to be a witch, Annie seduced slave after slave, the saga goes, only to murder them when she got bored. Eventually, Palmer met the same end herself, and her tale inspired many Gothic novels. The day we were at Rose Hall, our guide sounded more excited that former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis was married on the gorgeous grounds a few years back.

One of the guest rooms at Bluefields Bay Villas.        

Jamaica’s rugged interior is still as thick and impenetrable in parts as it was when runaway slaves called “Maroons” lived free in isolated communities in those lonely hills. Here are the major sights we see for almost an hour on our drive: three jerk pork shacks on stilts, four Pentecostal church tents and the skinniest donkey I had ever encountered. Mostly, I just watch the road. At a certain point, the switchbacks coils so tightly that all I can do is inch around each corner beeping my horn in case a truck or knobby-kneed goat—and yes, there are heaps of those—commandeers my lane. Fortunately, no two points are more than a few hours apart in Jamaica (the country of almost 3 million is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut), and it isn’t long before we are pulling into our first overnight destination, Bluefields Bay Villas.

It’s hard to describe the change of scenery between the humble, countrified landscape we’ve just driven through and this polished boutique resort on the privileged side of a white wooden gate. Bluefields has six seafront villas perched high over a crescent cove so luminous with greens and blues, the views look like a child’s drawing of Earth from space. The service is out of this world, too. We are welcomed Fantasy Island-style by our butler, Marvin, bearing a silver tray with cool washcloths and two freshly made rum punches. Yes, I said butler.

Bluefields is a splurge, for sure, but the payoff is huge. Almost all bedrooms face the bay, the talcum-white beach is as empty as Negril’s was 30 years ago and the staff-to-guest ratio hovers somewhere around 5-to-2 (and that’s not counting the friendly house cat, Tom). Bluefields was designed for maximum loafing. With a chef quietly watching to see when you get hungry, a pool that’s yours alone and kayaks and an ocean trampoline beckoning, it’s easy to get used to. The greatest luxury is freedom. Houston Moncure, who manages the place, which is owned by his Washington, D.C.-based family, explains, “In a normal hotel, you wake up, go to the breakfast restaurant, come back, change, wash off. Change to go to lunch. Change to go to dinner. At Bluefields, that doesn’t happen. It’s entirely on your time. You don’t do anything you don’t want to do.” That first evening, my wife and I have a late nap, a sunset swim and a candlelight dinner of pan-seared lionfish with king crab in a jerk mango sauce. After several fabulous nights like this, we try to imagine what it would feel like to have Tom’s life and curl up at Bluefields permanently.

Artist Jah Calo in Belmont, Jamaica.        

The farther we travel along the south coast, the more “tourism” gives way to authentic Jamaica. Following the A2 Highway down from Bluefields, we stop to pay respects at reggae great Peter Tosh’s white-concrete mausoleum. Continuing south, the town of Black River is a vibrant outpost with an end-of-the-road feel. Once it was among Jamaica’s grandest and busiest shipping ports—the first spot on the island to have electricity and telephones. Elegant old merchant houses and parish churches lend majesty to High Street even now.

We arrive in Black River on Emancipation Day, a national holiday commemorating the abolishment of slavery in 1834, and a citywide party is in full swing. Jubilant dancers dressed in the yellow, green and black of the Jamaican flag lead a brass band playing “I Shot the Sheriff.” At the food tents, smiling old women stand chatting over flaming pans of “rice and peas” and ackee and salt fish, the national dishes of Jamaica. It’s barely noon, but the look in the eyes of the lanky teenagers cavorting around a DJ’s truck loaded with turntables and huge speakers—the type of “sound system” that played an essential role in the development of ska and reggae—suggests that this celebration will last well into the night.

It is significantly quieter on the river itself. The Black River safari tour is now the area’s biggest draw, along with YS Falls and the fascinating Appleton Estate rum tour. Jamaica’s largest wetlands are home to almost 150 bird species, three types of indigenous mangrove trees and what looks to me from our skinny little riverboat like a very healthy population of “endangered” American crocodiles. Keep your hands inside the boat, is all I can say.

Chaises with a view at Jakes Hotel in Treasure Beach.        

Lest we become dinner ourselves, we graciously thank our captain upon our return to town and head like wide-eyed pilgrims down a lonely farm road to Jakes. Treasure Beach is a sleepy community on a forgotten stretch of coastline that’s home to fishermen, farmers and expats. Many locals are said to be descendants of Scottish sailors shipwrecked there in the 1830s, which explains the fair skin and green eyes, even among those who have dreadlocks and speak in a patois.

Jakes itself does not disappoint. So much of the pleasure in travel is the anticipation, but this is that rare arrival that lives up to long-held expectations—and not for the reasons I expect. The hotel is the town hub, not just because of its fairy tale location on Calabash Bay or its theatrical suites and cottages done up like Moroccan ksour. It is the atmosphere that draws people in. You feel like you’re part of something. Jakes hosts a biennial literary festival that features luminaries such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. The hotel’s charitable Breds Foundation helped build a nearby sports park and community center where Serena and Venus Williams ran a tennis clinic for kids. Last year, a dorm-style hostel called Jacks Sprat Shack opened across the way from the hotel to give students and other budget travelers an opportunity to experience the magic of this coast.

Jason Henzell is the quiet force behind it all. His grandfather, Basil, came from England in the 1930s with fishing rods and polo mallets, eventually settling on an acre of land he bought on the beach for 100 British pounds. Jason’s mother, Sally, and her late filmmaker husband, Perry, who wrote, directed and produced the reggae-infused cult film The Harder They Come, added to the property and built a restaurant, pool and 30 cottages with quirky details such as walls embedded with conch shells and bottle glass.

A bubbling pot of jerk chicken.        

Jakes isn’t especially fancy, yet it oozes charm and cool. An older gent named Dougie mans the tiki bar with enough charisma to crack a coconut (his rum cocktails are knockouts, too). The private roof deck on our oceanfront suite, Octopussy 2, has the perfect day bed perch for watching passing clouds and dolphins. Next door to the hotel at a casual eatery called Jack Sprat, locals and guests mingle over jerk crab and conch soup under towering guayacan trees as a crescent moon rises to welcome us.

We spend days meandering between the hotel and “town,” which in Treasure Beach means a collection of barefoot guesthouses and some open-air shops and cafés. The most unexpected is Callaloo Butik, run by Paris-based fashion designer Sophie Eyssautier, whose rarified taste in housewares and chic beach design add fabulousness to the faraway seafront. It takes serious willpower to walk away from a one-of-a-kind hand-painted end table bearing the iconic Red Stripe logo that would look perfect in my man cave back home.

Then again, who needs stuff when you’ve got paradise? One afternoon, Henzell points toward the ocean and says we have to try the Pelican Bar, a tropical speakeasy three-quarters of a mile out at sea. A bumpy boat ride later, we hop onto the wooden gangway of the remote watering hole under palm thatching on a dot of white sand. The fish is as fresh as it comes, the views clear to the horizon, the happiness meter off the charts. We clink a couple of cold ones, dip our feet in the Caribbean and toast to living the dream.

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