There are some moments when you know life doesn’t get any better. Sitting by the Caribbean with a bottle of cold Jamaican Red Stripe and not a care in the world was pretty good. But then a pelican flew over, arced into a dive and plunged beak first into the turquoise waters. Which reminded me – it was nearly time for lunch.
Should I have the marlin salad or the curried shrimp, the blackened fish sandwich or the wonderful pepperpot soup? Oh to heck with it, make it another Red Stripe from Douggie’s Bar. Decisions, decisions.
I was at Jake’s Place in Treasure Beach, on Jamaica’s southwest coast. Jake’s is hard to describe but easy to like. In fact this was my fourth visit. Ever wondered where a travel writer goes on holiday? Well, now you know.
Jake’s is a collection of cottages in a fishing village, which seems a long way from anywhere. One magazine a few years ago voted it ‘the best hotel in the world at under $100 a night’. Prices haven’t gone up much since then, and it attracts celebs like Naomi Campbell and Marianne Faithfull (a regular visitor) because it’s so low-key and they don’t get hassled.
Jake’s is the Jamaica that people forget. They think of the huge all-inclusive resorts, and overlook the network of small hotels across the island. Mostly they’re family-owned, like Jake’s, and offer excellent value for money. Transfers between them are easily arranged, so you don’t need a car. Given the state of Jamaica’s roads (‘a national disgrace,’ one driver told us) and of its driving, this is probably wise.
Across the island in Port Antonio, the Mocking Bird Hill Hotel takes a similar approach. Set on a green hillside in the lush northeast of Jamaica, with hammocks on the balconies and views of the Caribbean, this place too believes that tourism can – and should – benefit the whole community. The hotel supports Valley Hikes, a cooperative owned by the guides who take you walking in the rain forests of the John Crow Mountains and the Rio Grande Valley.
Charn Brown, a young farmer, took us through the lush landscape and forests of bamboo, banana plants, ferns and flowers, telling us of their medicinal powers as we went. When it started to rain, a palm leaf turned into an excellent improvised umbrella. The rain cleared and we ended up at a waterfall.
Another day we met the farmer who supplies the hotel restaurant with most of its organic produce, from honey to beef. As the Lonely Planet guide rates it as one of the top ten restaurants on the island, you know that produce is good. Vincent offered to take us in his pick-up truck as he delivered calor gas to people living high in the hills in the Rio Grande Valley.
‘I want a pretty one,’ said the first lady we stopped at, so Vincent searched through his grey calor gas containers for the prettiest one he could find. It was mid-December, and the lady asked Vincent: ‘What do you want for your Christmas present?’ ‘Just a smile,’ he said, giving her a hug.
Vincent dropped us by the Rio Grande river, where we took a bamboo raft and floated downstream for three hours with our Captain, Buster. ‘I’ve been doing this since 1954,’ he told us. ‘You know, people say that Errol Flynn started this rafting idea, but that’s not true. He made it more popular, but the oldest Captain on the river remembers it happening as long ago as 1911.’
Errol Flynn put Port Antonio on the map, when he bought a home there (his widow still lives nearby) and movie stars like Bette Davis would come to his wild parties. ‘My uncle was Errol Flynn’s bartender,’ Vincent had told us. ‘He used to make rum punches in a bathtub.’
My own rum punch came to me from the floating bar, that drifts out to meet the rafts as they pass by. We glided on down, watching the herons fishing by the banks, in the shade of the bamboo, banana and plantain trees. For a while time moved as slowly as the river. It was another experience that I knew would stay with me forever. Jamaica is full of them, if you know where to look.