Jamaica is an extraordinary island. From its bustling urban areas to its lush, majestic mountains and white sandy beaches, it is over 4,000 square miles of vibrant colour, culture and history just begging to be explored.
I was recently invited on a press trip to Jamaica to celebrate the launch of the Appleton 50-year-old Independence Reserve rum. I was joined by journalists from Mexico, the United Kingdom and Russia, and over five days we made our way from the energy of Kingston through the country to the Appleton Estate in the parish of St. Elizabeth, and north to Montego Bay. After just a taste, we all agreed that we would definitely return for more. And then, of course, there was that amazing rum.
I had visited Jamaica only once before years ago, I am embarrassed to say, on a trip in my capacity as an IT administrator. It was to see how certain software was being used in the Kingston courts. I remember marvelling at the number of court rooms and how grand they all appeared with their heavy mahogany furniture. True Caribbean courts all. On one of the days we drove up to Strawberry Hill for lunch, a magnificent hotel and spa in the Blue Mountains, thousands of feet above sea level with panoramic views of the island’s capital. It was a breathtaking place surrounded by cool, crisp air and beautiful gardens. I thought “If I’m ever getting married, this is the spot!”
The press junket was scheduled for the first week of June, and we were all staying in Kingston for two nights in the Wyndham hotel. On evening of the arrival Wednesday we were taken to the Terra Nova All Suite Hotel for dinner on the terrace. The Terra Nova has a very interesting history. It was built in 1924 by Mr. H Alexander, a member of one of the wealthiest Kingston families as a wedding gift for his bride. In 1938 Major Blackwell purchased it, and during his ownership the Terra Nova became famous for its stables. It is also where his son, well-known record producer and hotelier Chris Blackwell grew up. Blackwell created Island Records in 1959, and forged the career of the late great Bob Marley among others. He runs Island Outpost, which includes a number of luxury properties including the aforementioned Strawberry Hill. The Terra Nova is now owned and operated by the Hussey family.
Our meal was excellent, and I was thrilled to see that Spicy Stuffed Crab Back was available on the menu, along with a number of other local favourites. That dish really brought back memories. At the end of a wonderful dinner and discussions about Appleton, we went back to the hotel as the next day we were booked for a tour of Kingston.
I awoke bright and early, and made sure I took advantage of the Ackee and Saltfish at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. I had already talked the other journalists into trying it and they declared it a hit. The conversion had begun! We all got onto a comfortable air-conditioned bus, and our guide gave us some information on the sights that we passed. The first most obvious one was the “Redemption Song” statue outside Emancipation Park, a large bronze of two nude figures facing each other, which has attracted much controversy, mainly due to the nudity and generous proportions.
Our first stop was Port Royal and Fort Charles by the Kingston Harbour, the seventh largest natural harbour in the world. Port Royal was founded in the early 1500s and became the centre of shipping commerce in the Caribbean Sea over a century later. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, and a museum on the site has artefacts recovered from that terrible disaster, including a pocket watch that stopped at 11.43am. What we found fairly spooky is that the earthquake occurred on 7 June, 1692, and we were visiting the fort on 7 June, 2012…at around 11am. The fort history was very interesting, as was the Giddy House – a Royal Artillery House built in 1888 that sank on one side when the earthquake of 1907 hit. To stand inside it was quite the experience, and we found ourselves unable to remain for very long as dizziness began to set in. For anyone fascinated by the olden days of shipping, pirates, forts and cannons, Port Royal is a must-visit on a trip to Jamaica.
National Heroes Park
The next stop was National Heroes Park featuring a number of large monuments. It is also the burial place for some of Jamaica’s national heroes, prime ministers and cultural leaders. The park was originally a racetrack, and covers 20 hectares. Each monument was designed to reflect the work of each hero, and to symbolise what they meant to the Jamaican people. As the clock struck the hour, so we witnessed the changing of the guards inside the front gate. It was pretty hot that day, and I mentally applauded the men that were marching around in full uniform.
After the park we went for lunch at Devon House, a magnificent mansion and heritage site considered to house one of the finest restaurants in Jamaica and recognised by Conde Nast Travel Magazine in 2000. As we sat on the terrace we enjoyed a meal of local delicacies, and freshly squeezed juices for which Devon House is revered. I highly recommend the homemade ginger beer. Make sure you visit their ice cream shop “I Scream” which was named in the Top 10 Places to eat Ice Cream by National Geographic.
The next day we checked out of the hotel to head to the Appleton Estate. I couldn’t wait to spend the two-plus hours on the bus, drinking in the countryside.
The route was interesting to say the least. Our driver took the roads up and down the hillsides like they were nothing. Sizeable potholes appeared without warning, but those were nothing compared to the obstacles posed by other drivers. I’ve always prided myself on renting cars in foreign countries, but honestly if you are going to visit Jamaica I strongly suggest that you hire a car and driver to take you around. I’m not saying that driving is so dangerous that you have a 50/50 chance of surviving. I’m just saying that you simply won’t be able to relax and enjoy the sights if you have to use your full concentration to navigate the roads.
The topography and greenery were mesmerising, even as I hung onto my seat as we took another 90-degree corner.
Just before we got to the Appleton Estate, we pulled over to take pictures of the valley in which the estate sits, a picturesque land of sugar cane nestled between the hills. Once we got there we were given a tour of the factory, and spent time with the extraordinary Joy Spence, master blender for Appleton and a woman very much admired by her countrymen and international experts on spirits. You must go to the estate to learn about the rum, enjoy the pristine surroundings perfect for photographs, and to try the rum punch – a secret recipe that no bribing will disclose.
It was another couple of hours back in the bus before we reached our destination on the north coast – the Royal Villas at Half Moon Bay.
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay Resort and Spa is a RockResort and is nothing short of spectacular. It covers 400 acres and includes rooms, villas, a golf course and spa. Our six-bedroom villa had its own private swimming pool, dedicated housekeeper, cook and butler. I was on the third floor, so the walk up was interesting in my state of fitness, but my balcony and the view was worth it. OK, so I’ll get married at Strawberry Hill and have the honeymoon at Half Moon.
On the first evening we all had dinner at the villa. The next day was leisurely, but on our final evening all together we went to Scotchie’s. It is renowned for its jerk food, and is rated No. 1 out of 60 restaurants in Montego Bay by TripAdvisor. The food is superb, and the atmosphere is Caribbean casual dining at its best. I’ve always been a fan of jerk pork and chicken, but honestly if you don’t have the fish, festival or sausage, you’ll be missing out. The open air bar offered a cool breeze thanks to the revolving fan mounted to the back wall, and no one would steal the bar stools. Fashioned from solid wood I reckon they each weighed about 100 pounds.
I was the only one flying out of Kingston on the Sunday evening, and so I was driven back by one of the Appleton staff members in her private car. She was obviously very familiar with the roads as well, judging by the confidence with which she took blind corners.
This was a different route than the one we had taken north, and again I was just blown away by the breathtaking beauty of the Jamaican countryside. A river ran along beside the road as thick foliage clung to undulating terrain that rose above us as we went on our way. Fruit stands abounded at the tops of the hills, and locals stood out on the road carrying bags of sliced pineapple, mangoes and lychees. We couldn’t resist pulling over, and so moments later I was eating lychees like the world was coming to an end. Absolutely delicious!
When we finally got to Kingston we stopped at a sushi restaurant for some food. I can’t remember the name of the drink I had, but it was half Pina Colada, half Strawberry Daiquiri and all yummy. It was now time to head to the airport. Sigh.
I left with much more of a sense of how amazing a place Jamaica is. Of course it has its issues, but that isn’t the full picture. The people are so proud of their island, particularly in this, its 50th year of independence. They are fierce supporters of sports, particularly cricket, and are eagerly awaiting the 2012 Olympics. Before any film is shown at the cinemas, the national anthem is played and all stand in the theatre as scenes of Jamaica play on the screen. The food, the scenery, the culture…they all bear further indulgence. I went to Jamaica and I felt all right. You should go.