Hey mon! Want some ganja? Want to get high? This is Jamaica. Anywhere we go this is routinely offered, even to an old man like me walking around by myself. Amazingly the stereotypical “Hey mon” greeting is everywhere not just a media myth. These people are actually quite friendly but this country has a reputation for violence and travel advisories advise against tourism here. As we drive in from the airport we hear on the car radio a news article and interview quoting the murder rate as 3 times higher than in other Caribbean countries and government initiatives to reverse this trend. It brings the travel warnings into stark perspective.
The Spanish colonised this island in the 1400s. One hundred and fifty years later when the British replaced the Spanish the local Indian population had been wiped out. The slave trade repopulated Jamaica and it is descendants of those Africans who are today’s Jamaicans. Attaining independence from England in 1947 the country seems to subsist on sugar cane and tourism. Driving around the island the vibe is generally a sleepy tropical one.
The tourist hub of Jamaica is the second city, Montego Bay. Comprising beaches and flashy expensive resorts it is all sun and sand and margaritas. We opt to stay in the more shambolic town of Ocho Rios where the steep mountainous spine meets the sea. The result is a hinterland of lush tropical rainforest, waterfalls and swimming holes.
There is a Carnival cruise ship in on our first day so we start early and beat most of the tour groups to the most popular Dunns River Falls. Nonetheless we are still greeted by a tacky US amusement park style surround and there is already a conga line of people climbing up the cascades that make up the waterfalls. Nonetheless it is fun and cooling from the intense tropical heat.
The next such falls we drive to, the Irie Blue Hole lacked the commercialism and crowds and was much more fun.
For me the highlight of the day was dinner at Goldeneye. In 1946 Ian Fleming moved to a little town called Oracabessa in Jamaica and built a clifftop villa with a pristine beach below. From 1952 there he wrote all of the James Bond novels there, which spawned one of the most successful film franchises ever. His actual study and main accommodation is at the core of what is now a luxury resort. You can stay in his room for $8000US per night. Lesser rooms usually go for around $3000US per night. As per everywhere here there is no signposting and the only entry is through a guarded gate in the middle of a high stone wall. The only signage being “Private Access”
Securing a reservation went via a labyrinth of unanswered calls and chains of emails. Ultimately Anthony’s perseverance paid off and we secured a reservation. Photos of Sean Connery and Ursula Anders in the white bikini adorn the walls of the elegant dining space set in jungle overlooking beach pools and cabanas belonging to the individual rooms. Of course the “Vesper martini”” is de riguer. While the meal was surprisingly underwhelming for a luxury resort the ambience more than made up for it. Celebrities such as Beyonce, Johnny Depp and the Obamas among others come here. Sting wrote the song “Every breath you take” at Fleming’s desk. I suppose the barriers to outsiders coming is understandable. My guess is that paparazzi must try what we did all the time. The fact that we got in probably indicates that no celebrities were staying in house. We certainly did not see any.
Our last day we completed a loop of the east coast of the island. Driving well away from the touristed areas chaotic towns gradually gave way to quiet hamlets and more rural scenery. Sugar cane is the predominant farming pursuit here but our little car had to dodge goats and cattle as well as the occasional sleeping dog.
The highlight of this last day was the drive out to the easternmost point of Jamaica to Morant lighthouse. The side road there was a dirt heavily potholed remote track winding between sugar cane fields. Arriving at the light house a large gate bars our way in and we are about to take a couple of pictures and turn back when we see the lighthouse keeper at a distance waving his arms. My initial impression was that he was telling us to go away, but on a second look he was motioning us to come in. Jack the lighthouse keeper greets us with a broad smile and handshakes. He shows us around and takes us to the top of the lighthouse. He has been there 29 years and when asked about it he ironically states he loves the job because he gets to meet people. When we sign the visitor’s book it is obvious that weeks go by without any visitors coming.
We feel special and have seen a unique side to Jamaica away from the beaches and the luxury resorts.