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