Flawed paradise: Catching the buzz of the real Jamaica
Beyond the reputation of poverty, murder and drug-dealing, Jamaica has a rich culture and vibrant people. It is like nowhere else on earth
Street soccer in Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica. Photograph: Phil Clarke Hill/Getty Images
“Can I go again?” I asked the chap holding the rope over the waterfall.
His face cracked into an infectious smile. “Yeah, mon. If it’s nice, do it twice.”
Wise words. I grabbed the rope and again flung myself headlong into the bath-warm water 30 feet below, leaving him chuckling to himself like a hyena in a tent of laughing gas.
Jamaica will do that to you. The smiles are everywhere, from the taxi drivers at the airport to the hawkers flogging tourist tat at traffic lights to the curious kids staring wide-eyed at the white tourists in the Trenchtown ghetto.
It is an island of extremes, of joy and music and glorious sunshine, of political strife and bloodshed and crippling poverty. It is, above all else, utterly enthralling, like nowhere else on Earth.
You can “do” Jamaica various ways. Most people seem to choose the easy option and stay in all-inclusive resorts. These cater across the spectrum, from partying couples to sun-seeking families, and all do a job. But to me, this seems a huge pity and wasted opportunity. Stay in an all-inclusive and you could be anywhere. Only the accents of the staff will give it away.
Granted, it’s fairly unlikely that if you are in Tenerife some dreadlocked Rasta will emerge from the sea at sundown trying to sell you ganja from the rucksack on his back. But you get my drift.
The other way to do Jamaica is to explore it yourself.
First, go to the capital, Kingston. Stay in a hotel – the Jamaica Pegasus is a good option. It’s safe and comfortable and, if you ask nicely, has rooms with a magnificent view of the city.
Or, if you’re really feeling adventurous, get an Airbnb in Trenchtown, the ghetto where Bob Marley and a hundred other reggae stars grew up. While there, visit the Trenchtown Culture Yard, a wonderfully recreated example of the Government Yards, where fortunate families were housed in the post-independence heydays by the state. By all accounts, it was something of a utopia, until the political strife of the 1970s. Employing gerrymandering tactics, politicians divided and conquered by housing their own supporters, and the Yards descended into a murderous ghetto with a no-man’s land between the warring factions.
From there, visit Tuff Gong studios, which is keeping the spirit of Marley alive, as if it needed to be. For he is everywhere in Jamaica. One wonders if the locals are not sick of him. I can see why they might be. Bono is intolerable enough as it is, but imagine we used his face to sell everything from beer to babygros? Emigration would be the only option.
After Kingston, explore the rest of the island. Rent a car, if you are feeling confident, or hire a driver if you are feeling flush. Go up to the Blue Mountains. It’s difficult to fathom just how lush it is there. Life is everywhere. Ireland is an arid, desolate hellhole in comparison.
Visit the Craighton Estate Coffee Farm, where the world famous Blue Mountain coffee is still picked by hand before being shipped off to Japan, where it sells for $80 a kilo. Then trot along to Strawberry Hill, the rockstar hangout which was the boyhood home of Chris Blackwell, the owner of Island Records, which sold millions of albums by top artists from Marley to U2. It’s an oasis of luxury and well worth the effort, if only to gawp at the photos on the wall of everyone who’s stayed there, from Grace Jones to The Rolling Stones.
If you fancy some resort time, head to the north coast and the Riu in Ochos Rio, which is perfect if you want to let your hair down and sup cocktails on the beach all day before partying all night. If you are travelling with your family, the Hilton Rose Hall in Montego Bay will cater to you and your brood’s every need.
Personally, I preferred the south side of the island. Then again, I was staying in Jake’s Hotel in Treasure Beach, one of the most idyllic places I’ve ever had the pleasure of resting my head. It was breathtakingly beautiful, with individual cabins bang on the seaside, wonderful fresh food, beaming staff and the most relaxed atmosphere this side of a valium-testing laboratory. Space precludes me from wittering on too much about it, but suffice to say, if ever there was a location to wash away the stresses of life, Jake’s is it.
From Jake’s, it’s a quick drive to Black River where you can take a boat trip through a massive crocodile-infested mangrove swamp. I scared our guide half to death by demanding to reach in and shake hands with one three-metre long specimen that approached our boat. They’re surprisingly soft. And have immaculate teeth. Lots of them.
Also in the area is YS Falls, which I preferred to the more famous Dunn’s River waterfall in Ochos Rios, which, while picturesque, is a massive tourist trap and gets hugely overcrowded. YS is equally beautiful and, best of all, it’s full of locals, attracted by the range of swimming pools. To tourists, who all have them in their hotels, the pools are a minor attraction, but to Jamaicans they are a rarity to be enjoyed whenever possible.
The countryside around it is all stone walls, low trees, green fields. Squint a bit and ignore the 35-degree heat and you could be in Kerry. Until a mongoose runs across your line of sight and spoils it all.
Finally, immerse yourself in the cuisine. It’s wonderful, all earthy, wholesome cooking. The most humble ingredients are turned into magic, like the best pork I’ve ever eaten which was doled out at a rickety roadside jerk shack in Buff Bay. Fatty, spicy, soft as butter, it melted in my mouth, leaving me quivering with pleasure.
Menus are varied, but expect to see loads of fresh fish, pork and chicken, goat curry and rice and peas, alongside curios like mannish water, bammy, festivals, yams and face-meltingly hot peppers called Scotch bonnets, so named because they make your face scrunch up like a Rangers fan after being beaten 8-0 by Celtic. Probably. All washed down with local rum punch or the ubiquitous Red Stripe beer.
On the subject of booze, the Irish influence is everywhere. Jamaica loves Guinness, for a start. Then there are places with such exotic names as Irishtown, Sligoville and Athenry (pronounced At-Henry). Irish roots run deep, ever since thousands of us were shipped over by Cromwell to work on the plantations. Indeed, the Jamaican accent has more than a smidge of the Irish about it. Close your eyes, and you’d think you were in Cork.
All in all, it sounds like paradise. But, here’s the awkward bit. I’m not sure if you know how travel journalism works, but generally a publication gets invited to send a hack on a free foreign trip by a PR firm or tourist board. The fortunate scribe gets treated like a king or queen and, in return, they wax lyrical about the destination. Everyone’s back gets scratched. Which explains why you rarely read bad things in travel puff pieces. But not this one.
Because it would be utterly remiss of me not to point out that, while I loved it dearly, there are some home truths about Jamaica that cannot be ignored.
Unless you stay in an all-inclusive resort and never leave, you will see parts of Jamaica, particularly in the mountains and the ghettoes, that are toe-curlingly poor. The murder rate is horrifying, although tourists are very low on the list of victims, which is overwhelmingly made up of local drug dealers. You could say the same for Dublin or New York or any large city. Kingston is no different.
Your ears will bleed if you hate reggae. It’s everywhere. That said, if you hate reggae, you really need to go and have a long hard look at yourself
On the subject of drugs, ganja is a way of life for many. If you are a “when in Rome” type, be aware that while the stuff has been recently decriminalised in Jamaica, you could still get lifted by the notoriously corrupt police for buying it on the street and will probably have to bribe them.
It rains a lot in the rainy season. Who knew? The locals, never missing a beat, call it liquid sunshine. It’s thankfully warm, but so heavy it’ll dent your skull. And when the rain hits, the roads instantly turn into rivers. Even when dry, they’re rubbish and getting around is a bit of a nightmare.
Finally, your ears will bleed if you hate reggae. It’s everywhere. That said, if you hate reggae, you really need to go and have a long hard look at yourself.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Jamrock is a fascinating place that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone with a sense of wonder and adventure. If you were, to paraphrase our friend at the waterfall, to ask me would I do Jamaica twice, there’d only be one answer: Yeah, mon.
How to get there: There are no direct flights from Ireland to Jamaica. British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Kingston. Prices from about €780 return.
When to go: The climate is tropical, and daytime temperatures are about 30 degrees all year round, with little difference between winter and summer. During the rainy season, from late April to October, it is hot and muggy. Rainfall occurs mainly in the form of thunderstorms in the late afternoon.
What to bring: The local currency is Jamaican dollars, but US dollars are widely accepted. Cash is king, particularly in rural areas.
Mobile phone coverage is patchy in the mountains and Wi-Fi tends to be limited to hotels.
Bring light clothes, a sweater or jacket for the evening and, if it’s rainy season, a light waterproof jacket. Sun hat, sunscreen and mosquito spray are advised.
Where to stay:
Jamaica Pegasus, Kingston. Rooms from about €200 jamaicapegasus.com
RIU, Ocho Rios. All-inclusive packages from about €180 per room per night riu.com
Hilton Rose Hall and Spa, Montego Bay. All inclusive packages from about €370 per room per night rosehallresort.com
Jake’s Hotel. From €180 per night, cottages and bungalows also available jakeshotel.com
All prices quoted for two people in February, which is high season.