THE SUN descends over Kingston town, casting a warm blood orange-hued glow over the city and dramatic dock beyond. At street level music systems crank out raga, cars beep, locals chat animatedly by beer shacks and jerk chicken stands as our car weaves masterfully through the throng of traffic. “Rush hour,” explains our driver, handing me a beer as I sit back, watching the sunlight fade. We’re here to unwind in two legendary, recently refurbed resorts: Golden Eye and Strawberry Hill – and already I’m relaxed.
Jamaica is having a bit of a “moment”. Stars have been flocking to the island of late (not least HRH Prince Harry on his recent Caribbean tour.) In addition to the buzz surrounding Golden Eye and Strawberry Hill, GeeJam, one of the island’s other hot hotel residences and partnering resorts, has become the go-to for any recording artist in search of a recording haven (Alicia Keys is in residence when I am there, making her album at the hotel’s studio. Snoop Dog took it over last month.)
Sensing the movement, perhaps, in March British Airways also increased its flight frequency for the summer to Kingston from Gatwick Airport from two to three flights a week.
GoldenEye owns almost mythic status in Jamaican history. The home of Ian Fleming from 1946 (and place where all James Bond novels were penned), there’s not a celebrity or icon who hasn’t frolicked on its beaches. Noel Coward loved staying there so much he bought a house, Firefly, nearby in 1949. Throughout the 1950s, the small strip of northern coastal land was a hub for visiting luminaries including Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Errol Flynn, who gallivanted on its beaches. The property later gained Rock and Roll status when Island Records founder and Jamaican resident Chris Blackwell purchased it in 1976, attracting The Rolling Stones, Sting and others to hang out and party.
He’s done the same with GoldenEye in the past year, adding 25 acres, building 21 swanky new hut residences and suites for guests around the pristine beach and lagoon, adding a dramatic saltwater pool and beach bar-meets-infinity pool, refreshing the original Fleming Villa as a sleek MTV cribs-style (but chicer) five bed residence, and launching a lagoon spa. The result is quite something: a secluded Jamaican oasis with a blissful beach on one side, emerald lagoon waters on the other, and lush jungle-bedecked hills in the distance. It’s easy to see why the resort is attracting fresh waves of glitterati – P Diddy, Jay Z, Beyonce, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss are some recent visitors.
But enough of the celebrities. My abode for the duration is one of the new beach huts, a one bedroom suite complete with vaulted ceiling, living area (with gigantic daybed), ceiling fans, roll top bath, kitchen, garden (with outdoor shower), and — most blissfully — a terrace with steps directly on to the beach. The vibe is laid-back luxury — I pad around bare foot in a bikini, lounge in the resort’s beautiful tie-dye bath robes (made by a local artist) and mix myself drinks at the kitchenette.
Vibrant stylish furnishings come courtesy of 1960s doyenne Barbara Hulanicki. The Bizot beach bar is meters away and cranks out rare reggae, ska, and hip hop throughout the day. Each of the suites has all the frills you’d expect, including free wifi, tea, coffee, bottled water, cable TV. At night I fall asleep to the soundtrack of gently lapping waves. It’s heaven. The food is pretty good too, modern Jamaican food a twist, and bistro classics if you want them. Slow cooked ackee and salt fish in the morning with a coffee starts the day. Coconut crusted shrimp in the evening is a hit. The barmen at both the resorts mix a mean rum punch. GoldenEye is primarily about relaxing but there are watersports on offer if you choose. Jet skis are available to hire. Snorkelling, kayaking and paddle boarding are free. I spend one afternoon paddling round the lagoon and in to the next bay. The spa is recommended; all the treatment rooms are in self-contained huts built in to the hillside with open shutters that allow a gentle breeze. Treatments use locally-sourced ingredients. (I had a warming deep tissue pimento and ginger massage with tropical birds tweeting outside which sends me in to a relaxation coma.) Nearby the town of Oracabessa is worth a look for a slice of local life. I also visit Firefly, Noel Coward’s dramatic hilltop residence, which boasts staggering views across the coastline.
And on to Strawberry Hill… The drive from GoldenEye to Strawberry Hill — which is perched high in the hills overlooking Kingston — is a winding traverse through the Jamaican Hills. It’s a fascinating, and beautiful, window in to Jamaican life. I stop to buy jerk chicken from roadside stands and fresh (fresher than I’ve ever tasted) pineapple. The final zig zag in to the clouds seems endless at one point, but we eventually turn a corner in to the Strawberry Hill grounds and it’s clear that it’s worth it. Strawberry Hill is 3,100 meters above sea level. Originally a 18th century coffee plantation, then a restaurant, it’s been owned by Chris Blackwell since 1972, who transformed it in to a hotel in the 90s, adding several rooms, and later the pool. The hotel has just completed a careful restoration and facelift for 2012.
There’s something utterly charming about this place. The small 19th century-style white wooden hut residents are perched in to the surrounding hillside around the main clubhouse, and feel like a window in to a bygone colonial era. Original features, such as traditional cut out wooden decorative panels featuring giraffes and lions have been kept. Cute kitchenettes in rooms feature original decorative tiles. Each has small balconies overlooking the mountainscape.
They have all the luxuries — soft billowing sheets and four-poster beds — but there’s also a feeling of old-fashioned rusticness too. Floorboards creek, the doors are locked using (wait for it) actual keys, there’s no air conditioning (you don’t need it that high up) and no internet, except for in the clubhouse. At the heart of the property, and at it’s highest point, is the clubhouse and restaurant, which features one of the most dramatic and stunningly beautiful infinity pools I have ever seen. A glacial pane of water gives way to palm trees and Kingston bay beyond. Guests can eat by the pool, or sit on the open terraces.
At night local Kingstonians come up to sample the Jamaican fare. Like GoldenEye, Strawberry Hill is also steeped in cultural history. Bob Marley famously convalesced here after being shot in 1976. The Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithful, Grace Jones, Sting, Peter Tosh, and Willie Nelson have also drank in its bar and today an expertly crafted playlist still infuses the atmosphere with grooves from 8am onwards. Nearby, guests can wander to the local Craighton Estate Coffee Plantation and buy Blue Mountain coffee. The hotel also has a decent spa. But really it’s all about the views. I spend one, two, then three days periodically looking up from a book to take in the majestic landscape – shrouded in mist one minute, and drenched in sunset the next. It’s genuinely breathtaking. Only a visit to the Bob Marley museum in downtown Jamaica is enough to lure me down to Kingston (well worth a look – if only for the fact that the guides actually sing Bob Marley tunes at you.) There’s just about room for one rum punch then its home.
KINGSTON: NEED TO KNOW
Stay at GoldenEye from £355 per night. Price is based on two sharing a Lagoon Suite and includes breakfast.
Stay at Strawberry Hill from £150 per night. Price is based on two sharing a one-bedroom cottage and includes breakfast.
To book: visit www.islandoutpost.com or call 01895 522 476
All-inclusive World Traveller fares are available to book on ba.com for £679. World Traveller Plus fares are available from £1,095 and Club World fares from £1,975.