Omnipresent “One Love”, sultry beaches, spicy food — and more.
We reached Treasure Beach, a sprawling village shared by large holiday villas and the humbler locals’ houses. Our new home for several nights was Jake’s Hotel — an agglomeration of quirky, colourful villas and rooms. Ours was about twenty metres away from the sea. It had two easy chairs, but we preferred to sit closer, on our loungers, watching the waves crashing furiously against jagged rock right in front of us.
There is a lifeguard on duty during the day, so you can venture down a ladder to the little beach in front of the hotel; but the tree-covered pool, filled with fresh seawater daily, we found to be a more relaxing alternative. Next to the pool, is Dougie’s Bar. I hit upon a winner — the Mosquito Bite — and after my first sip, don’t bother to order any other cocktail. Try it at home: ginger ale, a shot of tequila, a shot of rum, and a dash of hot sauce all poured over ice; it’ll make your neck tingle.
Jake’s restaurant is so darn good, that we mostly ate there. Most of the ingredients are sourced from nearby farmers. The dishes to either be Jamaican recipes or international favourites (as as pork pasta or burgers) given a Jamaican twist — with jerk, an exuberant mixture of herbs and spices, that are synonymous with the island. For breakfast I tried the mackerel run-down: a creamy, spicy stew with chunks of mackerel. Mind-blowing. Served with yam and festival (balls of deep-fried golden dough).
We also ordered food at Jack Sprat, Jakes’ laidback sister restaurant and bar: a jerk sausage and pepperoni pizza, as well as jerk crab. The latter arrived at our a room as a takeaway: the large crustacean resting in a pool of brown, fragrant sauce. Armed with instruments a surgeon would be proud of, we proceeded to crack the pincers, teasing out the sweet flesh, and getting our hands repeatedly doused in sauce in the process. It was a lot of work — but delicious enough to make it worthwhile.
I headed into The Lobster Pot, a shack on the beach, to order, retreating to the shade with my first Red Stripe of the day. The ubiquitous local lager is rather bland and characterless but if you have it when you’re thirsty on a hot day, there are few things more sublime.
More beer, more swimming, while we waited. Finally after about two hours, our meals arrived: a plate of subtle, salty snapper fish that fell away from its spine with each fork scrape. And conch — pieces of shellfish — in spicy, garlic sauce that we mopped up with festival.
Later, we hired a fibreglass boat with a measly outboard to take us on a river safari. As we glided through Black River town, about half-an-hour from Jake’s, we spotted a crocodile on the bank — so stationary I was convinced he’s plastic. The mangroves quickly surrounded us. Some were taller than houses, with roots descending from dizzying heights into the water. The effect was dense and as elegant as cursive; a forest that seemed to float. We reached a narrower channel and the branches arced over us, a tunnel of green. A triangular snout rose ahead of us: another crocodile. The water was clear; the boatman pulled up a beaker of it to show us how clean it was. I still didn’t quite believe him but then he takes us to a nook where the water’s shallower: there we can see it, the dark, earthy bottom, visible metres below.
On the way back to Jakes, we stopped by the Pelican Bar. This rickety, ramshackle wooden structure rises out of the sea as implausibly as a mirage — erected on the reef by a fisherman as a watering hole for his fellow seafarers. The were no fishermen when we visit: instead, every horizontal surface seemed occupied by tourists. We gingerly squeezed into a gap next to a gaggle of shrieking, leathery spinsters from England who were giddily imbibing cannabis and cheap whisky. It was a relief to flee, to make our way across the sea’s stippled surface, which is glowing in the early evening light.
On our day of departure, Google Maps guided us along obscure byways towards Montego Bay’s airport. We left the coast, climbing up into lush hills. The roads were potholed and narrow and winding, with foliage crowding in at their edges, making it impossible to know if we were about to smash into oncoming traffic. I proceeded slowly, hooting my horn and praying. We arrived at the airport two hours later relieved, and a bit surprised that we’d got there unscathed.
While we waited for our flight, I’m reminded of what the server at Hibiscus Lodge said when I told him it was my first visit to Jamaica. “What took you so long?” he asked.
Well, if you’re South African, it’s far away and expensive to get to the country — you can get tropical beaches and poor service a lot closer to home. But if you live in North America (NYC is four hours away) or plan on visiting the continent anyway, then then that’s completely different. With its abundance of feisty food, tropical beaches, cannabis galore, and near-constant strains of Bob Marley on the breeze (I’m surprised that the locals aren’t completely sick of One Love by now) Jamaica will be a fun and flavour-filled adventure.