From Kingston we headed over the Blue Mountains, through coffee plantations, banana palm groves and lush forest to the north coast. We didn’t see much of it, crammed into a public minibus with about twice as many passengers as there were seats, and wedged up against roof high luggage.
When you hit the north coast you can turn west toward the resorts and cruise ship stops of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, or east where life is slow, villages are small and tourists are few. We turned east.
The largest town on the northeast coast is Port Antonio, and even it has only 12,500 people.
This is unvarnished Jamaica. There are relics from its boom time as a major banana export port in the colonial days.
But most of the town is modern and quintessentially Jamaican.
Here’s a first – catering for grave digging.
In the afternoons, vendors set up jerk pork and chicken stands along the waterfront, roasting the meats on charcoal barbecues made from oil drums.
One afternoon we were perched on the sea wall enjoying some spicy barbecue chicken when a herd of goats came wandering past with their owner following along behind.
At night, ramshackle huts masquerading as bars and restaurants pump out music so loud we could feel the physical impact of the boom boom just walking past. They start around 9pm and thump until 4am. Sleep proved elusive.
In 1946, Errol Flynn sailed into Kingston when his yacht Zaca was damaged in a storm. While waiting for repairs he came up to Port Antonio. He was immediately smitten, declaring it ‘more beautiful than any woman I have ever known’. He loved it so much he bought a hotel in the town where he entertained Hollywood royalty – Tony Curtis, Katherine Hepburn, Abbott and Costello – as well as hundreds of acres of farmland along the coast. Legend has it he won Navy Island, just off the coast, in a poker game.
Port Antonio’s small marina is named after him.
He pioneered rafting on the Rio Grande river which flows down from the Blue Mountains to enter the sea at St Margaret’s Bay just west of Port Antonio. We took a taxi up to Grant’s Level where boatmen will take you the eight miles down to the river mouth on a bamboo raft made to the same traditional design as the ones used by Errol.
The water was very low. Our boatman bumped over stony rapids declaring the water was “bony”.
The bird life was prolific.
And the scenery was outstanding.
We stopped for lunch at a riverside shack where a group of ladies dish up delicious goat curry, fricassee chicken and fried fish with plantain, breadfruit and festival (deep fried balls of doughy deliciousness which Jamaicans eat with everything) all cooked over coals.
A bit further down the river, a rocky outcrop close to the bank creates a secluded spot called Lovers Lane. Local legend says Errol would bring a different lady here every day, and two on Sundays. Maybe. He had a reputation as a ladies’ man and, well, his nickname was The Big Australian. It’s customary for the boatman to steer the raft through the gap while the couple on the back ‘make a wish, have a kiss’.
By late afternoon the light on the river was beautiful. It was a fine way to spend half a day.
East of Port Antonio a rough road ribbons its way along the coast passing turnoffs to some lovely coves and beaches. Both the 1963 and 1990 remake of Lord of the Flies were filmed at Frenchman’s Cove, but really any of these beaches would have been appropriate.
There’s a resort hotel at Frenchman’s, so we continued further east to Fairy Hill where a track leads down to Winnifred Beach. It’s a locals’ beach, one of the few not subject to private lease. Apparently it pumps with reggae on the weekends, but midweek it was quiet. A sweep of white sand, calm water, a single fisherman tempting snapper with a hand line.
Just back from the shore there are a few shacks selling jerk chicken, fried fish, patties (a Jamaican snack similar to a pastie) and cold drinks.
It would be easy to spend more time at the eastern end of the island. There’s some challenging hikes in the mountains, loads of calm beaches and good surfing at Boston Beach. But we were now on a timetable to get to Montego Bay to fly out. We caught a bus west.
The resorts of Mo Bay, as the locals call it, held no attraction for us. We stayed instead near Falmouth, an hour east.
Falmouth was named after the town of the same name in Cornwall which was the birthplace of the governor of Jamaica at the time. It prospered as a port for trade in African slaves, and declined once slavery was abolished. This left a slew of Georgian buildings long since lost in other parts of Jamaica.
Unfortunately, it’s fast being reduced to a bland facsimile of a real Jamaican town. The local market has been shifted to the edge of town to make way for trinket shops and faux Jamaican market stands flogging over-priced souvenirs to the thousands now being disgorged from cruise ships on a daily basis.
A few hours was enough. And anyway, the real reason we were here was not in town.
Where the Martha Brae River empties into the Caribbean Sea at a lagoon on the coast east of Falmouth, the mix of salt and fresh water creates perfect conditions for dinoflagellates, marine plankton which glow when disturbed by movement in the shallow, warm waters. Bioluminescence.
We stayed at a little hotel literally on the edge of the lagoon. Our balcony was over the water.
Once it was properly dark, we headed out in a glass bottomed boat. Within a few minutes we could see the bioluminescence through the boat bottom. Reaching over the side, our hands in the water created a trail of luminous blue green.
The boat stopped and we jumped over the side. The water was warm and silky. A blue green glow surrounded us and the more we moved, the more colour emerged. It was like a halo of colour surrounds you as you move through the dark. It felt freaky and magical at the same time.
It’s really hard to photograph but these might give you some idea of what it was like.
It was a neat way to finish.
Lots of visitors to Jamaica just jet into one of the resorts at Montego Bay, soak up some sun and go home. But to do that is to miss the real Jamaica. The small towns and villages where locals are genuinely friendly, the surprising beauty of the tropical forest, the smoking jerk chicken stands, kicking back at the local beaches with a Red Stripe beer and the local dogs for company, the pot holed roads and dodgy transport, the constant wafting aroma of ganja, the incessant thump of reggae. That’s the Jamaica worth coming for.
And that’s a wrap for this trip. As we write, we are in Auckland airport on our way back to Brisbane. To our Australian readers – see you soon!