Enjoying the simple pleasures of Jamaica
One meal that my wife Fyllis and I will long remember was a five-course “surprise” dinner served in a lovely candle-lit outdoor setting. The other was a simple vegetarian lunch at a ramshackle lean-to perched precariously on a steep mountainside.
It’s not often that two repasts encapsulate much that a destination has to offer visitors, but Jamaica is such a place. The Chef’s Showcase dinner at the Sunset at the Palms resort had little in common with the modest vegetarian spread prepared by Fire, a Rastafarian man of uncertain age.
This exemplifies the diversity that greets travelers to Jamaica. The island-nation has an abundance of beautiful beaches, a long list of outdoor activities, an intriguing history and a rich cultural mélange.
The towns strung out along the northern coastline like jewels in a necklace demonstrate Jamaica’s split personality. Montego Bay is all hustle and bustle. Ocho Rios is more relaxed, except when one or more cruise ships disgorge their passengers.
Negril overlooks what many sun worshippers rank as the island’s finest beach. The seven-mile-long stretch of white sand lapped by the turquoise sea is lined by restaurants and bars.
Visitors seeking excitement may explore the island by horseback or Jeep, take hiking and biking excursions, climb mountains, or scamper down into limestone caves. Those who prefer to commune with Mother Nature also find plenty of alternatives.
Centuries of history
The island was originally settled by Taino Indians, who arrived around 650 C.E. Shortly after Christopher Columbus dropped by in 1494, Spain claimed it and took over, enslaving the Tainos.
Spain controlled the island until 1655, when British forces invaded and took control. The Spanish introduced sugar cultivation and slavery, both of which were expanded by British settlers. Both brought over West Africans as slaves to harvest the crops.
Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962.
Among reminders of the heyday of sugar, from the 17th to 19th centuries, are the “Great Houses” that plantation owners built. They ranged from grandiose to more modest, and today they provide insight into part of Jamaica’s past.
While Seville isn’t one of the more imposing Great Houses, what’s inside makes the structure, well, great. A museum traces Jamaica’s history, and displays artifacts from when the Taino, Spanish and British controlled the island. Scattered around the grounds are portions of the sugar cane processing factory and tiny huts where slaves lived.
Mountainous jungles and rivers
Jungled mountains cover about 80 percent of Jamaica’s terrain, which is laced with rushing rivers and tumbling waterfalls.
Most famous is Dunn’s River Falls, which plummets 600 feet down a series of natural steps that people may climb, carefully, while clutching the hand of other daring risk-takers and a sure-footed guide.
A very different water experience is a trip through the verdant countryside along one of the rivers where that activity is offered. Fyllis and I opted for the Martha Brae, a gentle waterway with an interesting story and a resident ghost.
The river is named after an Indian woman who killed herself rather than reveal the location of a gold mine to Spanish explorers. According to the legend, she agreed to lead them there, but when they reached the river, she used magic to change its course and drown herself and the unsuspecting interlopers. Some people believe that her duppy (ghost) guards the hidden entrance to the mine.
Fyllis and I didn’t spot Martha along our three-mile trip, but we saw plenty of other attractions. As Captain Gayle used a long pole to pilot the narrow bamboo raft on which we sat, he identified trees and flowers, described rusting equipment along the shore that remained from sugar growing days, and explained why and how he builds a replacement raft about every six months.
The time we spent with Gayle was one of several encounters with the people of Jamaica that became highlights of our visit. When we purchased snacks from street vendors in towns and along highways, we also found them to be friendly and happy to chat for a while with Americans.
At a beach that’s popular with locals, we spoke with families who were picnicking, and with teenage boys playing a pick-up soccer game, using coconuts to mark the goals.
Our most memorable person-to-person meeting occurred when we stopped along a road and approached several men seated on rickety chairs near a small beach. Reggie music blared from a radio, as it does throughout Jamaica — from cars, houses, stores and just about anywhere that there are people.
After introductions, the men led us along the sand, explaining that the small weathered boats we saw basking in the sun are used by fishermen. Our conversation ranged from the lifestyle of Jamaicans and the island’s economy, to politics both there and in the United States.
The man named Joshua asked if we would like to see where he lives, then led us into a miniscule but neatly organized shed that serves as his home. Saying that he has everything he needs to lead a happy life, he displayed the joy of simple pleasures that was exhibited by virtually everyone with whom we crossed paths.
That outlook, combined with Jamaica’s magnificent setting and numerous attractions, has earned it a place on our “must return” list of destinations.
If you go
Jamaica was a pioneer in the development of all-inclusive resorts, and the beach-front Jewel Grande in many ways epitomizes that. Its amenities include personal butler service, a world-class spa, and unlimited green fees at two renowned golf courses.
These and a list of other inviting attractions don’t come cheaply; room rates for two begin at $384/night. For more information, call (888) 797-2735 or visit www.jewelgranderesort.com.
Food in Jamaica fuses ingredients and flavors from various countries and cultures, and sampling it can be part of the immersion in local life. Staples include jerk pork and other meats flavored with spices and grilled, rice and “peas” (actually small black beans), and pepperpot, a soup with a fiery flavor that explains its name. More adventurous diners may test their palate and resolve with curried goat, pig’s tail and oxtail, which is prepared several ways.
It’s an open question whether Rick’s Café in Negril is a restaurant with a view, or a view where food is served. Throngs of people gather nightly on the outside deck to watch the magnificent sunset and express their appreciation with applause. Some augment the experience by dining on such local fare as jerk chicken kabobs ($12) and snapper filets ($22), topped off with Jamaican Rum Cake ($8). For more information about Rick’s on West End Road, visit www.rickscafejamaica.com or call (876) 957-0380.
The setting is very different at Miss T’s Kitchen, hidden in a quiet cul-de-sac near the town center of Ocho Rios (65 Main Street). It serves home-style dishes in a lush garden setting that hints of the magnificent scenery throughout the island.
The menu shares familiar dishes like fried chicken ($12) with jerk shrimp ($22), oxtail simmered with vegetables ($22), and Shet-Pan, which is oxtail and curried goat ($24), all accompanied by sides. For more information, see misstskitchen.com or call (876) 795-0099.
For information about Jamaica, go to www.visitjamaica.com.
The least expensive roundtrip air ticket from the Washington area to Kingston, Jamaica in mid-September is $506 on American Airlines.
Getting one’s goat in Jamaica
My wife Fyllis and I were delighted when we were invited to a picnic lunch with Betty and her kids at Sunset at the Palms in Negril. The setting was lush, the food and wine enticing. Betty, perhaps the resort’s most popular staff member, took time off from her task of maintaining the grounds.
Conversation, though, was a bit strained because Betty is — there’s no other way to say it — a goat. She cohabits the resort grounds with her mate Royal Brown and their kids — that’s “kids” as in young goats. When not sharing lunch with visitors, the adult family members help keep the grass trimmed while their offspring cavort and fill the air with their bleating.
Sunset provides a welcome site for both resident goats and humans. It’s an airy, compact oasis in a jungle-like setting that comes by its name honestly.
The rooms resemble palm-fringed tree houses, very different from the large, bustling resorts that line many Caribbean beaches. Here, guests are a part of Jamaica.
In addition, Sunset is all about service. All staff members at the adults-only, all-inclusive resort sport a badge saying, “I am your personal concierge.” Approach any employee with any request and you’ll receive their attention and assistance.
As at other all-inclusive properties, there are a number of dining options — but how often do you go to a restaurant with no menu in sight? Welcome to the Chef’s Showcase, a nightly five-course surprise meal that focuses on local fare with a sophisticated flair. It’s served in a candle-lit setting that sparkles with class and romance.
But be forewarned and prepared: It takes a while between courses. Jamaica runs on island-time, which translates to “relax and enjoy it, mon.”
As Fyllis and I reluctantly left the resort, we were serenaded by the bleating of the entire Royal Brown family, who gathered below our balcony to say good-bye. A fitting exit to a very special place.
Rates at the all-inclusive Sunset at the Palms start at $299 a night. For more information, call (877) 734-3282 or visit www. thepalmsjamaica.com.