The Well-Kept Secret on Jamaica's North Coast

Associate editor Cathy Carroll recently visited the northeast coast of Jamaica for the first time. Her report follows.

Reed Travel Features

PORT ANTONIO, Jamaica -- Flying east along the northern coast from Montego Bay, I saw fewer hotels and wide, paved roads as the green canopy of palms thickened, broken only by the occasional corrugated tin rooftop, a stream or a cow.

From the window of my 18-seater, looming larger beneath me was the "other Jamaica" about which I'd been told -- the one teeming with unspoiled natural beauty, the one that attracts far fewer tourists than the country's other regions.

In the coming days, many experiences convinced me Port Antonio has earned its status as a well-kept secret. There was the rain forest hike, during which our guide plucked a dinner-plate-size cow-foot leaf from a branch and pressed it to my sore shoulder -- a centuries-old herbal remedy for relieving muscle pain. The ache eased. Then there was the taste of the sea urchin, fresh from its shell on the beach, that I enjoyed after an impromptu stint of snorkeling in a serene cove a few steps from my villa. And there was the swimming -- in the seemingly bottomless Blue Lagoon; at the base of the pristine Reich Falls at dusk, and in the impossibly clear waters of Frenchman's Cove.

Despite all this, however, I was not visiting an unexplored outpost. Quite the opposite.

This banana port lured "jet-setters" before there were jets. Swashbuckling 1940s film star Errol Flynn frolicked here on his estate, including the 64-acre Navy Island, which he purportedly once lost in a card game.

The tradition of hosting celebrities and the well-heeled prevails, particularly at Trident Villas & Hotel, where I was staying. Here, the sea crashed and cascaded over the jagged peninsula just beyond the French doors of my villa, a comforting sound that was punctuated only by the cries of a peacock.

Protected by the roof's overhang, I reclined on a chaise lounge set on a sleek black-and-white-tile patio and watched as the thunder and lightning of a furious storm rolled in. The rain was still beating on the patio when I went inside, lighted an oil lamp and dressed for dinner.

Later, a taxi ride up a steep hill in the dark to Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, although not quite soft adventure, helped build the anticipation for my visit. Once inside the split-level villa, I climbed the stairs, admiring the sculpture and paintings along the way, learning later that it was the work of the property's co-owner, Barbara Walker.

On the terrace overlooking the lowlands and coast, the strains of a Dinah Washington song filled the air, which already was dense with an intriguing combination of fragrances. I asked the friendly, bespectacled woman who had greeted me at the door about the sweet scent. "Perhaps it's the night jasmine blooming," she said as she served a rum punch made with freshly squeezed fruit.

I examined the menu of the hotel's restaurant, Mille Fleurs, and found "nouveau tropical" cuisine made from fresh local ingredients. There also were traditional Jamaican dishes. Some of the vegetables are harvested from Mocking Bird Hill's organic garden. It was evident why Gourmet magazine featured the restaurant last year. I chose a soup rich with the flavor of roasted garlic, followed by grouper prepared in a traditional Jamaican style, with onions and peppers, and then a world class orange-chocolate mousse.

At Mocking Bird Hill, Walker and co-owner Shireen Aga's passion for creating a "holistic, environmentally friendly retreat" appears to be well realized. They said many repeat visitors have experienced "sun and fun" Jamaica vacations and yearn for something more. "Most of our guests are professionals, over age 30, and we offer more of a retreat in which you can rediscover yourself or your partner, art, romance and conversation," Aga said.

Walker and Aga also are passionate about encouraging their visitors to leave the property and explore. In just a 90-minute hike with Valley Hikes' expert guides, trekkers can get a crash course in "bush medicine," learning the ancient herbal remedies of the Maroons, who fled through the jungle to escape slavery. Longer hikes explore waterfalls and caves or include rafting on the Rio Grande.

As a dining alternative, Aga and Walker direct guests to gourmet Jamaican specialties served by a Rastafarian named Alvin Butler in his tiny home clinging to the hillside by the sea. "He doesn't have a phone," Walker said. "You stop by in the afternoon and tell him what types of food you would like for dinner. He shops, prepares it and serves you," she said. Butler's dreadlocks were tucked into a woven beret, and his eyes shone when he described his "restaurant," which he says can accommodate six. "It's like I was born to be a cook," said Butler, who formerly worked in area restaurants. "I can make you love it. I can make you don't want to leave."

When I stopped by the Blue Lagoon Villas, I quickly learned Butler's credo is shared by Ernst Forstmayr, the villas' managing director. Writers, royalty and celebrities are among those who have stayed here beside the azure, cobalt and turquoise of a lagoon more than 200 feet deep and a mineral-spring pool known for its soothing properties.

The lagoon, with a 40% salt content, is a naturally occurring hydrotherapy spa treatment -- a cocktail of warm tropical water with intermittent jets of cool spring water. I emerged from a swim here onto the deck, where I relaxed with a Red Stripe beer, watching fish swim beneath me in the clear water. The midday sun and breeze styled my hair as I savored a lunch of jerk chicken, pork, fish and fried plantains.

Moments later, the chop of helicopter blades resounded through the lush, green cove. Wafting over the lagoon, the red and white craft touched down on the hotel's landing pad, where Forstmayr waited to greet the new arrivals. Soon they would be issued their own kayak, so they could paddle or swim to San San Beach and Dragon Bay, where guests can sign for food and drinks at resorts there and have the costs automatically added to their tab at Blue Lagoon. "Nothing is impossible for guests here," Forstmayr said.0

Yet this hotelier and others here said they know that all their dedication to pleasing guests would be worthless without their continuous vigilance in protecting Port Antonio's natural treasures.

They know it is the beauty of the environment that will continue to seize the imaginations of those who venture here and that will create the most lasting memories.

As the Caribbean poet Christine Craig wrote, "In the curve of the beach, in the swell of the hills, in the flush of the orchids, in the tangled rain forests . all our beauty, all our riches, are one."

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