Fly & drive Jamaica
and a wonderful climate
Jamaica has a lush nature with exuberant vegetation like one finds only in the tropics. Plants that we keep as house plants are large trees here. Between the green, rivers rustle which one can sail on a bamboo raft. There are sugarcane, bananas, coffee, cocoa and many kinds of fruit. Add to this the blue bays and the white beaches. One only has to avoid the crowds of tourists from the cruiseships and one has a great time. The local food is also very tasty. But reckless driving on often bad roads poses a bigger danger than crocodiles with their full bellies.
Travelogue & photos: Marianne Bekkering
After a flight which takes 11 hours because of a stop in Havanna, we arrive on Jamaica in Montego Bay. When we get off the plane, the warm air surrounds us. It's 10 PM and it's still 25 degrees centigrade, wonderful.
Because it's late for our standards, we go directly to our hotel. We have a drink and go to bed.
Fields of sugercane, of which rum is made
We breakfast with delicious, fresh fruit, like papaya, pineapple, melon and bananas. This immediately gets us into vacation mood. We agreed to spend the first day on the beach, to acclimatize.
Montego Bay is the tourist capital of the island and the towns here are not really interesting: crowded, filthy and not pretty in terms of buildings. We came here because of the island's nature, which is lush, with exuberant vegetation as one only can find in the tropics. Plants we keep as house plants, are big trees here.
There aren't many beaches in Montego Bay, but the local beach, Dr. Cave Beach, which has an entrance fee, has bright white sand and is relatively quiet. It also has a restaurant which serves good food and has a laid-back atmosphere.
We both have fresh, fried red snapper, which as it were jumped right from the sea into the frying pan and then onto our plates. Add a spicy accent of onions and red pepper in exactly the right amounts and one has a delicious meal. This is the right way to leave our busy lives behind us and to acclimatize.
We pick up our car at the car rental place. We take one with automatic transmission, because we have to drive on the left here and we thought it would be hard to change gears with our left hands. We have to get used to driving on the left, but it doesn't take much time.
The "highways" in Jamaica are like secondary roads at home: two lanes and in reasonably good conditon. The secondary roads, which we usually prefer because nature is prettier there, are mostly in a bad state and have many potholes. But they are at least asphalted (or used to be).
When you drive not too fast and avoid the sometimes deep potholes, or (when there is oncoming traffic) drive carefully and slowly through them, nothing can go wrong. One has to be constantly prepared for another pothole, so drive slowly. This in constrast to the Jamaicans, who drive at a fast pace.
We don't think it's a good idea to drive at night and we won't do that during our stay. It's because of the sparse lighting of the roads, the in our view reckless style of driving and the use of alcohol here.
We take the "highway" eastward, toward Falmouth, where we exit onto a small road into the inland. Immediately the greenery around us is beautiful and lush. We planned to sail a raft on the Martha Brae river today.
Even though we are tourists ourselves, we prefer not to be part of a crowd of tourists. There are too many rafts on the Martha Brae river for our taste. So we decide to go rafting on another river, later this week: the Rio Grande, which is at least as beautiful, but which is not visited by the tourists from the large cruiseships, because it's too far away.
We drive along the river for a while, into the beautiful and green inland with many sugarcane fields. Sugercane is used to make rum.
This evening, we have dinner in the Tapas Bar in Montego Bay, a nice restaurant which sits in the higher part of town, from where one has a great view of the city lights.
The African tulip provides gorgeous accents in the landscape
Today we drive to Ocho Rios, the location of the amazingly beautiful Dunn's River Waterfalls.
The first part of the route is meanwhile familiar territory, because it follows the Martha Brae river. Then we enter a pretty, hilly landscape.
The African tulip, or - as it is called here - "flame of the forest' - a kind of large orange-red tulip, but as a blossom of a tree, is in full bloom and its large flowers provide the landscape with beautiful accents.
The sun shines and the landscape is beautiful. What more could we want? When we approach Ocho Rios, we drive through Fern Gully, an old, deep river bed which is still humid, a perfect habitat for the man-sized ferns here.
At night, we have dinner on the terrace of the restaurant of the Hibiscus Lodge, romantically in the open air, with a delicious local dish: Plantation rice. This is curried rice with different kinds of meat and fish, banana and pineapple. It is a little like paella.
Dunn's River waterfall
It splashes down via an endless series of giant steps
In the morning we walk into town to see what it's like. Our research on the internet has prepared us for a very touristic place where large cruiseships dock. And yes, the part of Ocho Rios near the port is one big shopping mall with jewellers' stores where the tourists hang out and a market with local folk art.
In the afternoon we visit the waterfalls. We were assured that at this time it's quiet and fortunately that is true. The entrance fee is only a few US dollars. Apart from the Jamaican dollar this currency is used a lot on the island.
The Dunn's River waterfall is the largest and most famous waterfall of the island. It splashes down via an endless series of steps at different heights and squeezes itself through the tropical overgrowth until it reaches the beach.
It's March, a time of the year in which many flowers bloom, so we see flowers, mainly red ones, everywhere. If you want to, you can climb the waterfall with a guide, but just sitting underneath it is okay too. It's like a natural massage.
'Undertakers love careless overtakers'
Today we travel to Port Antonio, in the far eastern part of the island. It is the old banana capital of the island with some remaining buildings on the water left over from those days.
It's a three hours drive from Ocho Rios, again in a wonderful landscape with sugercane fields, banana plantations, bays and overwhelming, lush vegetation, alternated with crowded and messy towns.
Meanwhile we got used to the style of driving here. We have to be on the alert all the time, because of the reckless driving on roads pocked with potholes, but if one drives calmly and brakes before every turn to make way for oncoming traffic, it's possible to keep the car undented.
Everywhere there are large billboards along the roads with texts like these: "Undertakers love careless overtakers", "Arrive alive", "Don't drink and drive" and "Don't be in a hurry to enter eternity". This gives a good impression of how people drive.
We stay a little outside Port Antonio and from our cottage we have a great view of the San San Bay far below us. We go grocery shopping and take a look in the town. When we leave the store, we get our first real tropical rain storm. But, even as it's heavy, it's a short shower.
The Blue Lagoon
A deep-blue bay lined by tropical forest
When we wake up, the sun shines again and we have breakfast on our terrace, which has a wonderful view of the bay. We stay there for a while, reading. We have two weeks to see all of Jamaica, so we take our time. A week is too short, but two weeks are ample time to take the trip in a relaxed way.
We have lunch at The Blue Lagoon with our favorite fish, red snapper; this time it comes with deep-fried breadfruit. It looks like deep-fried bread dough, but it is a fruit which grows on trees. In the past, this was food for slaves, because it's very nutritious, has a lot of carbs and also is cheap.
In general, food on Jamaica is very spicy, red pepper is an often used ingredient. There is a story that slaves developed this habit, to mask the taste of the bad food they got from their owners.
Blue Lagoon is an idyllic spot with a deep-blue, deep bay, lined with tropical forest.
We drive into the inland, to the starting point for bamboo rafting on the Rio Grande. The clouds are back and it will start to rain soon, so we won't go rafting today. Maybe tomorrow. Well, if it's beautifully green somewhere, it has to rain a lot.
Back in Port Antonio we visit the intimate beach of French Man's Cove, which has overgrown rocks with shrubs on both sides.
Unfortunately it's still rainy, but the beach is nice anyway; there is a strong wind, so the waves are big, which looks good and makes it more fun to swim.
Bamboo rafting on the Rio Grande
The captain steers the raft smoothly over the rapids
Next morning it is still overcast and there is a strong wind, but fortunately a little later the sun appears and we are on our way to the starting point for bamboo rafting, Berrydale, 15 km southwest of Port Antonio.
We decide to take the longest tour, which lasts for two and a half hours. We park our car and take a cab with the "captain" into the inland, toward the mountains, so we can glide back downstream.
In the cab we get a lesson in "Jamaican driving": very fast and swerving around potholes just in time. It takes a third of the time we needed to get there. When we arrive, the sun shines.
In the past, bamboo rafts were used to transport bananas from the inland to the coast. It's a wonderful trip through the inland, with hills in the background, pretty vegetation, among which large bamboo groves, and silence all around us.
For a long time, we're the only people on the river. Our captain is a nice man and he steers the raft smoothly over the rapids.
In the Devon House garden tasty cake is served
Today we move to Kingston and we planned to take a route via the highest peak (approximately 2300 m) of the Blue Mountains, a gorgeous mountain range in the eastern part of Jamaica. It's also the part of the island where the famous coffee and cocoa plantations are, between which we would meander our way down to the capital.
But it rains cats and dogs and everyone tells us that this is not a good time to take the route we planned. Also, in this weather, the mountain peaks are obscured by clouds, so there aren't any interesting views. It's always a little nebulous in the mountains, but today there are real, fat, grey clouds.
We wait a little but then decide to take the second most beautiful route, which is via Anotto Bay. Fortunately the weather gets a little better later.
We don't really want to visit Kingston itself, but we do visit Devon House, an old colonial mansion, built in 1880 by a rich Jamaican. It's a beautiful house and in its garden, under the trees, tasty cake is served.
The stables were converted into a bakery and an ice-cream parlor. The house is frequented by Kingstonians who like to go out after dinner to have dessert in the garden. The mansion also houses a nice restaurant on its back porch.
A view of the sea, rolling over the coral reef right before our eyes
We considered to drive into the Blue Mountains this morning, but it's overcast again and so there won't be much to see.
Today we drive to Treasure Beach in the south. The first part of our drive is not spectacular in terms of nature - dull and much drier than the rest of the island - so we take the toll road for a while. It's the only one on the island and it doesn't have potholes. Later, the landscape gets prettier and so we take the secondary roads again.
We pay a short visit to Lover's Leap where, according to legend, two slaves jumped to their deaths, from the rock into the sea, because their owner wanted the girl for himself and forbade the two to see each other.
We drive on to Treasure Beach, where we stay at Jake's, a little paradise: a clay cottage, immediately on the sea, a shower outside on our terrace and a wonderfully laid-back atmosphere.
We have a nice cold drink at the bar, sitting in chairs that encourage laziness, with a view of the sea rolling over the coral reef right before our eyes. In the evening we have a candlelight dinner, tasty and romantic, in the garden under the trees.
This time we have Jerk Chicken, a chicken dish for which the chicken is marinated for a couple of hours in a sauce of oil, red pepper, onion, soy and herbs, after which it is cooked on the barbecue. Familiar territory for us, because we have a Caribbean cookbook and sometimes make this dish at home. On Jamaica, it is served with a kind of spinach or pak choi.
YS falls and Black River
Mangrove forests where trees have aerial roots
Today we want to visit the YS falls and take a boat trip on the Black River, at a small distance from where we are, in a boggy mangrove area with crocodiles.
We drive to the town of Black River and immediately after entering we cross the bridge from where the boats leave. One can rent a boat from a local fisherman or a more luxurious one, which is covered. Both trips take some one and a half hours.
The landscape again is beautiful and completely different from the one around Rio Grande. Here are large mangrove forests where the trees have long aerial roots. There are also large ferns which live in brackish water. It's a boggy, flat landscape with hills in the background.
We see birds and a few crocodiles, which are so tame (read: stuffed) because of the chickens the guides feed them, that one can see them "in action". Tough luck, no action.
After our boat trip we have lunch in Black River with "patties", deep-fried dough envelopes with tasty, spicy stuffing. Then we drive to the YS falls a little farther.
After parking our car, we board a kind of tractor-drawn train to the falls. Not as impressive and beautiful as the Dunn's River Falls in Ocho Rios, but still worthwhile. If we'd seen the YS falls first, we would have thought of this one as wonderful, which means we saw them in the wrong order.
On the way back to Treasure Beach we take Bamboo Lane, which is lined with overhanging bamboo on both sides, forming a kind of tunnel.
Before you know, there is rum in your fruit drink
Today we say goodbye - with pain in our hearts - to our cottage at Jake's and drive to Negril in the far west of the island. We have planned to spend our last few days here, idling on the beach.
Unfortunately Negril is a lot more touristy than we expected and the beach is not a huge as we thought when we were preparing for this trip, but for a few lazy days it's okay.
One can have all kinds of "fruit punches" on the beach. Different kinds of fruit, like pineapple, papaya, melon and banana, are put in a blender with some syrup and lots of ice cubes, which results in a delicious cold fruit drink. Be sure to say if you want rum in it or not, if you don't, it's in there before you know.
All in all, this was a great vacation on an amazing island with lush tropical nature, gorgeous waterfalls, beautiful rivers and a wonderful climate.