Saturday, June 20, 2009

JAMAICA for Beginners

JAMAICA For Beginners

By Bill Kelly
Atlantic City Monthly Casino Journal
April, 1990

Sitting at the mushroom bar by the pool of the Wyndham Rose Hall Hotel, Montego Bay, Jamaica, I concluded that it doesn’t take long to learn everything you have to know about Jamaica to enjoy it to its fullest.

Even if you’ve never been there before – so you can’t live up to the pitch to ‘come back’ – you have an idea what Jamaica is all about – Sea, sun, beautiful beaches, calypsos – reggae and no problem, mon. As far as I’m concerned, it ranks as the top contender in my own “as close to paradise” ratings war, a contest I’ve just begun.

For starters, it wasn’t my choice destination. I only went because my high school buddy Mark insisted I join him for a four-day weekend, Friday ‘til Monday. He would put the flight and hotel on his credit card, and I could pay him back later when I had the dough. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had to get out of Dodge.

Round trip on Air Jamaica, at $220, was less than many flights to Florida. No passport, no problem. Just bring a birth certificate and photo ID.

Mark said he chose the Wyndham Hotel adjacent to the historic Rose Hall Great House, because it had a golf course. The plan was for him to play golf on Saturday while I hired a car to visit Goldeneye, the north shore villa where English spy-thriller writer Ian Fleming penned his James Bond – 007 novels.

Bob Marley tunes graced the Air Jamaica cabin as we touched down in Montego Bay, which is the island’s second largest city after the capitol of Kingston. An island dancing and singing troupe greeted us at the gangplank, and a cashier changed our yankee dollars to Jamaican at 7 for 1.

As the taxi took us the ten miles east to our hotel, it was apparent that they were still making repairs after the devastating storm Gilbert hit, on September 12, 1988, leaving fifty people dead and much of the island in ruins. One wing of our hotel was still being renovated, and that which was open was relatively new.

If you visit Jamaica, you have three basic choices of accommodations: You can stay at a hotel like the Wyndham, and pay as you go, or try an all-inclusive resort, which includes everything, including meals and drinks from the bar, and for one set price. In either case, little cash changes hands on the hotel premises or compound, it seems. They either put it on your hotel tab or ring it up on your credit card.

The third choice is renting, through a travel agent, one of the small, beachside villas, like Goldeneye, or something less exclusive, which nonetheless comes with a maid, cook and resident native guide.

Many of the hotels and resorts were at one time winter homes and plantations of aristocratic English families, and each, like Rose Hall, has a unique story. Rose Hall for instance, was once the home of a women who killed each of her three husbands.

The Tryall Club, in Montego Bay, was owned by the late Sir William Stephenson, the paymaster who Churchill dubbed “INTREPID.” Tryall sports a world-class golf course.

Then there’s the Ruins, at Ocho Rios, now a restaurant built around waterfalls.

When we arrived at our hotel, I realized that the two best things about Jamaica for Americans are that it’s in the same time zone and the locals speak English at their native language. The rest of Jamaica still gives you the feeling that you’re visiting an exotic foreign port. And you are.

The bell captain who arranged for a car to drive me to Goldeneye on Saturday flashed an engaging smile as he promised me the best driver on the island. I had to laugh when I focused in on his name tag – Billy Love, a name that Fleming would have certainly appropriated for one of his characters.

It was cloudy and rainy on Friday afternoon when we arrived, but it was a beautiful sunny day when my driver, Douglas Scott, began the 74-mile drive east along the main coast road, which circumnavigates the island.

The first stop was to visit his friend, the Bush Doctor, who sold me herb medicine for sunburn, arthritis and a sex potion, all for $40 Jamaican, or $5.50 American. But he never told me whether the sex potion was ingested or applied locally.

Other tourist attractions along the route included Columbus Park, where Chris put ashore in 1494, nearly 500 years ago. Then there’s the Bauxite plant where James Bond tangled with SMERSH agents in the first 007 flick Dr. No.

We also passed a dozen all-inclusive resorts, like Jamaica Jamaica, Couples, Boscobel Beach and Hedonism. Each has beach view rooms, without TV (which you don’t miss), but plenty of food, sailing, snorkeling, pool and disco. Some have a nude beach, others welcome children.

After a few inquiries, we found Goldeney, a hundred yards off the main road, not far from the sleepy fishing village of Orcabessa. I took some pictures of the house and the beach, both of which have been kept pretty much the same as when Fleming wrote there. It is not however, a public tourist attraction like the nearby villa Firefly, Noel Coward’s home.

Back at the hotel on Sunday, I took a snorkel dive off the nearby reef, only forty yards from the beach and came up with a beautiful red and black conch shell that I thought would look good on my fireplace. I took off my mask, and looked around for a Bond girl in a bikini to show off my prize. But to my surprise, it was still alive, and something was squirming around inside it, so I chucked it back.

We took a taxi to town that night, requesting the island best drive, Mister Scott, and dropped off Billy Love, who finished work for the day and came along for the ride.

Scott and Love suggested that we try a local dish at Pork Pia, where we had the pork jerk and chicken jerk ($24 Jamaican, $3.50 American), with a bottle of Red Stripe beer. Jerk is the description of the way it is cooked, barbecue style, between a flame and burning wood above the meat that gives it a unique smokey flavor.

At the Cave disco, we met up with a contingent of Boston College students on spring break. Having been shunned at Fort Lauderdale and finding Key West too expensive, they found Montego Bay more accommodating. But after a while, dancing to the island’s number-one song “Twice My Age,” sung by an enchanting girl in reggae style with the refrain, “I’m in love with a man twice my age,” we went out to the beachside bar to sip Red Stripe with some Swedish sisters on a holiday, as the half-moon slipped into Montego Bay.

The next day, after a quick snorkel dive to the reef, we asked Mr. Scott to drive us to the airport for our return flight. I told Scott the next time we return, we want to circle the island via the main coast road, from Montego Bay to Kingston, where Morgan the Pirate’s Port Royale is located. Then on to Negril, which Fleming said is the most beautiful beach in the world.

As expected, Scott replied, “No problem, mon.” And he meant it.

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