I HAD never been particularly desperate to visit Jamaica despite its proximity to Cuba – to which I am a frequent and enthusiastic visitor. In truth I imagined it to be overrun with tourists and relatively hostile. What I encountered, though, was completely different to what I had imagined. I certainly cannot claim to be any sort of expert after a week, but I do not exaggerate when I say that literally every human contact I had with locals in Jamaica, whether I was wandering around various towns and ports off the beaten tourist track, or in hotels or resorts, was uplifting. The Jamaican people, from my experience, are incredibly friendly and totally captivating with a lovely sense of humour and fun. From the first minute we arrived at the airport, after a (not-too-boozy) club class flight on British Airways, I felt at home.
We were ultimately destined for what had been described to us as the most beautiful part of Jamaica: Port Antonio. Well, Port Antonio turns out to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet, let alone Jamaica. Discovered by Errol Flynn in the 1940s, it soon became the paradise hideaway for the fabulously rich, impossibly amusing and notably gorgeous jet set.
Port Antonio reminded me a little of my other favourite part of the world: the west coast of Scotland, around Arisaig, with similar small perfect white beach coves and verdant green hills rising up from the sea. Having said that, Port Antonio is obviously climatically very different and is completely surrounded by lush tropical rain forest and the craggy Blue Mountain range that towers over the landscape in the far distance at over 9,000 ft is on another scale.
Port Antonio is extraordinarily unspoilt. This has a lot to do with the fact that it is moderately difficult to get to and like most great destinations, you can’t fly there direct. We flew in a tiny plane with four seats from Montego Bay. The conversation over the engine noise was enthusiastic but difficult, and the view was entrancing as we wound our way along the coast to Port Antonio in about 45 minutes (alternatively it is a lovely four hour drive) with a virtually unbroken tree line from shore to the hazy distant mountainous horizon.
We were there to take part in the annual Port Antonio International Marlin Fishing Competition. For those who love big game fishing, this is the place to be, but I won’t regale you with our fishing stories, exciting as they are. Suffice it to say we caught, tagged and released three magnificent specimens while drinking good local rum and smoking Royal Jamaica cigars in the company of some extraordinary characters, who each at least deserve a chapter of a novel.
However, had we not been fishing we would have had no shortage of activities, from exploring the mountains, rain forest, rivers, and beaches to simply relaxing in paradise. The town itself is also intoxicating, pulsating and full of life and has a lot to offer the intrepid traveller as do other local town and coastal villages, where there are refreshingly few tourists to be seen.
Our journey continued through Jamaica, and we stayed at some wonderful resorts and hotels – some of which were so all-encompassing in their luxury and charm that it would be easy to stay put. Relax and enjoy, but do take as much time as possible to check out the real Jamaica as well. See right for my pick of the country’s places to stay.
LUXURY AND SANCTUARY: WHERE TO STAY
Geejam has only six bedrooms, each one a self-contained world-class luxury apartment set in the middle of the rain forest with a panoramic veranda. The “chalets” feel completely isolated, but are in fact connected to the hotel facilities, which include an excellent restaurant and a very cool bar, a pool and private beach by wooden paths cut through the glorious tropical vegetation. An additional facility is a state of the art recording studio, this being the brain child of legendary record producer Jon Baker. Recent guests before we arrived included Tom Cruise and Grace Jones. If you want complete tranquillity and slightly edgy sophistication I cannot over-recommend this wonderful, eccentric and very boutique hotel.
After Geejam, we drove back along the coast, which must rank as one of the world’s most beautiful car journeys, to stay at Rio Chico, the jewel in the crown of the Caribbean empire belonging to the iconic hotelier Butch Stewart. Rio Chico is a stunning colonial villa (built in 1898) set on a peninsula in 14 acres of exotic gardens with its own private beach, every facility imaginable and great staff. It has eight bedrooms and can sleep up to 18 and must be one of the most amazing private residences available for hire in the Caribbean (starting at low season for around $45,000 per week). Rio Chico is exactly the sort of place that the bad guy in a James Bond film bides his time in enviable luxury before failing to take over the world.
THE ROYAL PLANTATION, SANDALS
Located near Ochos Rios, this is Butch Stewart’s principal focus of activity, part of the massive Sandals Hotel & Resort group. I was convinced it would not be my cup of tea, because it is only open to couples and is principally an all-inclusive resort. However our colonial style, richly-panelled rooms were magnificent and enormous with a huge balcony and Jacuzzi. We even each had our own personal butler who attended to our every need 24 hours a day. The food in the numerous restaurants was really delicious, the range of wines and spirits available excellent, and the bars which were far too numerous were also superb. One could, as we did, go out and explore Ochos Rios and visit other restaurants and bars, tour the numerous world class golf courses (I would particularly recommend Cinnamon Hill – an immaculate golf course set in heart of a rain forest) and explore the country side, but I can completely empathise with those who decide to simply hang loose, make no decisions and not leave the resort.
TRAVEL AND ACCOMMODATION
Return Club World flights with British Airways from London Gatwick to Montego Bay in October costs from £1599.80 per person, including taxes. Return economy flights with British Airways from
London Gatwick to Montego Bay in October costs from £629 per person, including taxes.
To book, visit www.ba.com/montegobay or call 0844 493 0787.
Stay at Geejam from £300 per room, per night including full breakfast and complimentary return ground transfers from Norman Manley Airport in Kingston airport (complimentary transfers for stays of four nights or more). All rates are per room, based on double occupancy.
To book, call 01895 422 476 or visit www.islandoutpost.com.
Seven nights at Sandals Royal Plantation, Ocho Rios, Jamaica on a Luxury Included® basis costs from £1,589 per person, for October departures. Return flights, resort transfers and butler service are included in the price. Prices subject to availability. To book, call 0800 742 742 or visit www.sandals.co.uk.
Seven nights at Rio Chico Private Estate, Ocho Rios, Jamaica costs from £3,581 per person, for October departures. Return flights, resort transfers and butler service are included in the price.
Prices subject to availability and based on 12 people. To book call 08000 223 773 or visit
www.uniquevillasofjamaica.co.uk. For further details on Jamaica, visit ww.VisitJamaica.com.
Contacts: BA www.visitjamaica.com www.geejam.com ww.riochico.com www.sandals.co.uk