It’s a paradise island where they speak English and offer a variety of vacation ideas like no other. And it doesn’t warrant its reputation as being dangerous, writes Isabel Conway.
Starting our 960 feet high adrenalin-rush climb up cascading waterfalls from a bleached white Caribbean beach, I never gripped a man’s hand so hard or so gratefully.
Jamaican super athlete Usain Bolt may be the fastest man on earth at the Olympic Games in Rio but on our fast ascent of Jamaica’s thrilling Dunn’s River Falls, my dreadlocked guide was determined to break a record or two also.
Much younger climbers were left far behind as Philip Hutchinson and I forded gushing water, leapt over stones and plunged into…well… plunge pools skirting Lovers Cave featured in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail among the obstacles on the way up.
A sprightly 64, Philip was the oldest and most sure-footed guide here only letting go of my hand briefly to pet an evil looking striped spider dangling from overhanging lush foliage.
In advance of my recent first visit to Jamaica I had visualized nothing more energetic than adjusting my beach bed cushions while raising another delicious rum cocktail to my lips, watching the gentle crystal turquoise waters lap the shore.
If that is your idyllic holiday picture you won’t be disappointed because Jamaica does ‘ laid back’ and ‘slow lane’ to perfection.
Restless, easily bored holidaymakers (myself included), worrying at frying our pale Irish skin in the sun or overdoing ‘all inclusive’ drinking and non-stop grazing, wanting the sights and smells of a foreign marketplace, contact with the locals, and active stuff will all be in their element in Jamaica.
There are many different Jamaicas. Luckily, I managed to discover some contrasting sides of the third largest and one of the most beautiful and historically interesting islands of the Caribbean in just a week.
From good value all-inclusive hotel resorts to oh so posh villas like fabulous Amanoka Villa ( www.butlerandlloyd.com ) that came with a small army of staff, its own private beach and fleet of canoes in Discovery Bay where Christopher Columbus ventured ashore for a drink of fresh water, choice depends on the size of your bank balance.
The jury is out on how you get around Jamaica though. Many holidaymakers opt for locally arranged tours and some go a la carte using regular bus services between the bigger centres or taxis.
The kamikaze drivers I saw, especially in urban areas and small roads deterred me from getting behind the wheel.
Newly appointed Honorary Ireland Consul, long term resident accountant Brian Denning (who grew up in Sligo) had some hairy motoring moments on Jamaican roads in his early days on the Island “At least they drive on the same side of the road as us or they are meant to” he joked.
We met up to explore Irishtown, a settlement in the Blue Mountains, Connemara and Ulster spring among the familiar place names. They reflect historic connections between both islands.
Our links go right back to the 1600s when Irish workers were brought in as indentured labourers after Cromwell captured Jamaica. They endured and survived the harshest of conditions here.
Jamaica’s secret paradise coves of sky blue and emerald green waters, lush interior rainforest, hills with hiking trails, sugar cane plantation mansions, some today luxury boutique hotels and golf resorts (like splendid Tryall, a former sugar plantation where I stayed a few nights), rusty roofed poverty stricken shacks concealed behind curtains of bamboo and straggling Banana plants, it’s all here.
Arrive at the main tourist point of entry, Montego Bay airport, and you are met with dazzling smiles, cheery greetings and reggae inspired wall art.
I was barely on the ground when a handsome young Jamaican working for Club Mobay, the airport’s fantastic visitor service was steering me towards fast lane immigration.
A potent rum punch in hand, sinking into a deep easy chair in the Club Mobay separate arrivals lounge as Bob Marley wafted from the speakers we were instantly in touch with Jamaica’s fabulous relaxed easy vibe.
Boarding a bus to the nearby Riu Palace Jamaica Hotel where I spent my first night (Thomson Falcon Holidays), gave us a crash course on Jamaican patois.
Though English is the first language you hear the slightly bizarre charming patois everywhere.
“We like fluffy girls here in Jamaica” (fluffy translates as buxom) ”If you are slim girl we call you a thin slice …both are compliments” he quickly adds.
An irritated looking male passenger who has been called a” jerk” is told not to worry. It’s a term of endearment in Jamaica and also the island’s best loved spicy add on to a variety of grilled meats.
In the days that follow, touring the island with my charming guide Carey Dennis I was “trashy” (translation: well dressed) and “looking fat” (big sigh of relief: looking good).
Well after a tip that’s what the barman serving me in the pulsating Friday night disco bar of Kingston’s Terra Nova Hotel said!
Jamaica certainly dispelled some myths, such as being an island unsafe for foreigners straying beyond the high walls of resorts and that tourists are besieged by tiresome hawkers.
Peter Morrow co-owner of the gorgeous classic Jamaica Inn, a throwback to Ian Fleming and Marilyn Monroe honeymoon glamour days, in Ocho Rios (www.jamaicainn.com) says Jamaica is neither unsafe nor dangerous.
The island was cleaned up years ago and only a few “ghetto” spots attract violence, usually drugs related these days.
“A recent survey had Jamaica at the bottom of the list for violence directed at tourists over the whole Caribbean,” adds the hotelier, pointing to his office — a sundeck above his champagne coloured sandy beach and waving palms.
With an eye to their main cruise passenger market major tourist attractions are constantly patrolled by souvenir sellers, nonetheless.
Those I encountered though were neither over insistent nor rude. The trick was to refuse to buy their wares with a friendly smile and a firm ‘no’ that usually results in “no worries enjoy Jamaica man”.
Ferried on a long bamboo raft along the meandering Martha Brae river- a top attraction — suddenly a miniature souvenir of my raft is torpedoed out of the bushes landing at my feet.
The raft captain laughed "don’t worry, the guy selling it is on his bike now and he’ll catch us at the next bend.”
Sure enough an elderly Bob Marley lookalike wobbled into sight, expertly catching his merchandise between bumps on the track.
Further downriver another intrepid souvenir marketer with an armful of handcrafts swings out towards us on a rope from the riverside, almost, but not quite as fast as their flashy Olympic icon Usain Bolt.
Weekly seasonal flights direct from Dublin to Montego Bay; see www.thomsonholidays.ie or your local travel agent.
British Airways ( www.britishairways.com ) has flights daily between London Heathrow and Kingston; Thomson Airways flies London Gatwick–Montego Bay.
Direct seasonal flights from Dublin to Montego Bay operated by Falcon Thomson from June 13, featuring top locations and family-friendly all- inclusive and adults-only hotel resort properties.
WHERE TO STAY
Riu Palace Jamaica, 14 nights from €2,139 pps, junior suite, all inclusive food/wine, flights ex Dublin. Romantic beachside boutique hotel, Jamaica Inn, Ocho Rios ( www.jamaicainn.com ) in Kingston’s uptown. Authentic Terra Nova All Suite Hotel, www.terranovajamaica.com
Isabel also sampled two of Jamaica’s finest luxury villas — Windward in stunning gardens inside Tryall estate from €869 per person for 7 nights, and Amanoka, a spectacular villa with its own spa and private beach on Discovery Bay from €1,073 per person.
To book see www.butlerandlloyd.com
Further information: www.visitjamaica.com and What’s New in Jamaica on social media.
BEST TIME TO GO
Jamaica is a year-round destination but October to mid December recommended. Peak season January to March.
Scaling Dunn’s River Falls’ mix of cascades and rock pools, $10, www.dunnsriverja.com
A raft trip gliding past mango and silk cotton trees on the Martha Brae River backwater, $45 for a two-person raft, www.jamaicarafting.com
A day in Kingston, checking out lively reggae bars, colonial Devon House, the National Gallery, old harbour and bustling downtown district.
The Bob Marley Museum is a must- visit, lots of photos and other memorabilia and a special room devoted to the infamous gun attack on him, plus a film on his life and times, www.bobmarleymuseum.com
A LITTLE INDULGENCE
Half Moon Resort, Montego Bay, is where you can grab a stylish jerk chicken lunch at the open air restaurant.
Serena Williams might be in residence leading a charity coaching session or you could run into Mariah Carey winding down.
A personalised one- hour therapeutic massage at Half Moon’s gorgeous Fern Tree Spa costs $169.
WHAT TO EAT
Jamaican patties — the best I tasted were in Club Mobay, Jamaica’s fantastic airport lounge, entry a bargain $30 ( www.vipattractions.com ) at departure or $80 both directions with great food and drinks and warm Jamaican hospitality while waiting for your departing flight or transfer.
Spicy goat curry, seafood and superb tropical fruits; dinner for two at famous Miss T’s Jamaican restaurant, Ochos Rios, from €20 each.
For the truly adventurous, Mannish Water is soup made with goats’ testicles among other ingredients!
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