MARCH 27, 2005
Finding a More Authentic Jamaica
IT’S not particularly easy to get to Portland parish, a lush, often rainy region on Jamaica’s northeast coast. The closest airport with jet service from the United States is Norman Manley International in Kingston, which is at least two, and sometimes three, hours away by car, depending on the number of potholes, trucks, chickens, goats and bicycling Rastafarians encountered on the road.
But that journey, on the A4 “highway” (a rather grand name for a road that can barely contain two cars passing each other), is worth the effort — and not just because of the steady stream of road stands offering ripe bananas or cold coconut milk, or the ubiquitous one-room bars slinging frosty Red Stripe beers or shots of clear overproof rum (which is 63 percent alcohol by volume).
Instead, what you will find is the real Jamaica, not the isolated experience offered by all-inclusive resorts that are the typical tourist destinations on this Caribbean island.
As the A4 takes you along the arid coast east of Kingston, the Blue Mountains and the John Crow Mountains rise up out of the island’s interior. The road passes through small towns like Yallahs, White Horses, and Morant Bay (site of a rebellion that was brutally suppressed by British authorities in 1865) before turning north. Then comes your first sight in Portland: masses of tall bright green sugarcane stretching for miles down to the azure sea.
Sugarcane built Portland’s hub, Port Antonio, which was established in 1685. Few colonial-era vestiges remain, but the medium-sized town is still a central destination, with grocery stores, banks, gas stations, restaurants, a library, courthouse, and a public market that bursts with activity on Saturdays.
One of Jamaica’s first tourist spots, Port Antonio experienced a mini-boom from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Errol Flynn built an estate in the area and injected an air of Hollywood glamour. His widow still lives on a 2,000-acre cattle ranch to the east of town near Long Bay. In the past few years, more Europeans and Americans have built villas in and around Port Antonio, especially to the east on the jungle-like hillsides above the tiny oceanside enclave of San San.
But there are other destinations worth a side trip before settling into Port Antonio.
In Long Road, just east of Manchioneal, a transplanted Dutchman who goes by the name “Free-I” has built an eco-hostel with a pair of two-room spartan pine-floored cottages perched on a hillside overlooking the small harbor. There is no air-conditioning, no hot water, and a shared toilet that is reached by steep steps. But with the doors and windows propped open, a cabin room feels like a cozy summer sleep-away camp, with the loquacious Free-I as activities director.
Dinner is served on the veranda of a small bar. As night falls, gentle illumination is provided by wicker baskets, nestled among the tree branches, rigged with light bulbs. On a visit there in February, I had a savory Jamaican meal of grilled dolphin with peas and rice for $7, at 62.5 Jamaican dollars to the United States dollar, finished off with a strong pour of Appleton Estate rum for a little over $1.
Nearby, and worth a day of its own, is a mile-long swath of near-deserted white sand beach at the aptly named Long Bay. There are few guesthouses in the area, but small bars and restaurants squat among the rows of palms that are Long Bay’s backbone. Local people also go to Winnifred Beach, near Fairy Hill, and Boston Bay, a center for jerk — a method of slow-roasting meat over an open pit of wood from the pimento tree. At full tilt, Boston Bay looks like a Kiwanis barbecue convention. A thick layer of smoke hovers over the scene, music pumps, and competing jerk chefs wave you down as you cruise the quarter-mile stretch.
One enterprising chef ran up and knocked on our window as we pulled over. We followed him back to his stand, called Glasses Jerk Center. The proprietor pulled off the corrugated tin sheet that covered the meat, arranged on bamboo poles lashed together like the rafts that float the nearby Rio Grande. After free tastes of pork and chicken, we decided on the moister chicken. Another chef chopped half a bird into chunks, which he piled onto a square of aluminum foil laid out on the concrete slab that served as a lunch counter. (The cost: about $7, including a cold Pepsi and a log of cornmeal bread.)
Next stop was San San, where Maria Carla Gullotta, owner of Drapers San guesthouse, entertains mostly young Europeans looking for entree into the reggae and “sound-system” music scene. Like rap in the United States, sound system can be entertainment, protest, and a way out of poverty. D.J.’s spin tunes while M.C.’s rap — or dub — over the beat.
We accompanied Ms. Gullotta to a Friday night sound-system party held at a nearby cove. Stadium concert-sized speaker pillars cranked out alternately exhilarating and terrifying, heart-stopping volumes, while lines of young revelers chatted and swayed to the beat in a rum-and-ganja haze.
A short hike up the Rio Grande Valley the next morning gave us a quick view of Portland’s developing eco-tourism sector. Departing from Berrydale, we first crossed the shallow Rio Grande by bamboo raft and then walked through some villages, eventually going deeper into the rain forest along a tributary, the crystal-clear Say River. A lone fisherman was spearing freshwater crayfish — a valuable crustacean that can reach one pound and is often incorporated into a gumbo-like soup that’s a reputed aphrodisiac. We reached our destination — Scatter Falls — and then clambered up above the falls to explore the underwater pools and stalactites and stalagmites of Foxes Caves.
Portland’s interior is also the home of the Maroons, former slaves who escaped Spanish and British colonists. We scheduled a visit with Ivelyn Harris, a 53-year-old herbalist and descendant of the first Maroon leader, Nanny. Ms. Harris’s home is 15 miles up the valley from Berrydale, in Cornwall Barracks. As we inched up “roads” that more closely resembled rocky riverbeds, we called upon the spirits to protect the tires and rims of our Mitsubishi rental car.
More than an hour later, after multiple stops to ask if we were headed in the right direction (forget road signs or mile markers), we arrived at Ms. Harris’s lush 21-acre hilltop compound. She served us a hearty chicken and dumpling soup in her screened-in kitchen/dining area and we drifted off to sleep in her rental cabin despite the thump of a nearby sound system.
Our last stop, the Rio Vista Resort, was a welcome counterpoint to the rusticity of previous days. The small hotel lies about 15 minutes west of Port Antonio near St. Margaret’s Bay. Our two-bedroom villa had real mattresses, starched linens, and hot water. Dinner, including a sumptuous version of that crayfish soup, was served at a poolside gazebo on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande.
We lingered too long the next morning over breakfast, a Jamaican feast of ackee and salt fish (a bland fruit fried with cod and vegetables), bammy (a starchy cassava flour bread), johnnycakes (biscuits) and Blue Mountain coffee. The dawdling left us barely enough time to make our flight. Winding back along the coast towards Kingston, I found myself driving Jamaican style, honking and passing on blind curves, windows down, embracing the sights and sounds of the island as it rushed by one last time.
BETWEEN THE MOUNTAINS AND THE SEA
Portland parish straddles a large swath of Jamaica’s northeast coast, rising dramatically up from the blue-green waters and sandy beaches of the Caribbean through dense jungle to the top of the Blue Mountains. The 21.4-mile-long Rio Grande and its many tributaries flow out of the mountains, providing some of the most beautiful rafting, hiking, and caving spots in Jamaica. (Prices were often given in United States dollars; where necessary, prices were converted at 62.5 Jamaican dollars to the United States dollar.)
Where to Stay
Zion Country Beach Cabins, in Long Road, just east of Manchioneal off the A4, (876) 993-0435, on the Web at www.zioncountry.com. Double rooms are $40 a night, including breakfast.
Drapers San in San San, (876) 993-7118, on the Web at www.go-jam.com/drapersan-e.html. Double rooms start at $48 a night, including breakfast.
Frenchman’s Cove Resort, (876) 993-7270 or www.frenchmans-cove-resort.com/reservations.html is a 48-acre enclave dotted with one-to-three-bedroom midcentury stone and glass houses, offers larger accommodations for $89 to $225 a night For about $3 nonguests are admitted to lounge on the beach or to use the same freshwater inlet once used for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot.
Rio Vista Resort, (876) 993-5444, www.riovistajamaica.com, is west of Port Antonio on the Rio Grande. One-bedroom suites are $95 a night, including breakfast; the two-bedroom suite is $140 a night (breakfast not included).
Our stay with Ivelyn Harris was booked through MaryLou Callahan at Unique Destinations, (401) 647-4730, www.portantoniojamaica.com. Ms. Callahan can also arrange hiking, birding, and nature outings, through Grand Valley Tours. Our hike with Euton Savage of Grand Valley Tours included a picnic lunch of jerk chicken and peas and rice, served on glass plates (hikes start at $30 a person).
Where to Eat
Woody’s Low Bridge Place, (876) 993-7888, on the A4 in San San, offers made-to-order Jamaican meals, all home-cooked by Woody’s wife, Cheri, like curried goat ($14.50; includes three-courses) pepper steak ($13.60) and fish cooked in the Jamaican “rundown” style (baked in a spiced coconut sauce).
San San Tropez (876) 993-7213, www.sansantropez.com, a hotel and restaurant, offers a more upscale, Italian-cuisine alternative. The menu features items everything from pizza (from $9.50), to homemade ravioli sautéed with lobster, shrimp and crab ($24) to lobster baked and sautéed in rum ($25.50). ALICIA AULT