JamaicaWords Kevin Gould
Photography David Loftus
Our driver’s name is Delroy. “But you can call me Everton,” he offers. Because here in Jamaica, the more names you have, the more lovers you have – and that’s a good thing. Delroy/Everton has muscle-bound arms like condoms full of walnuts, and his two mobiles ring permanently off the hook. One’s for the wife, the other’s for girlfriends – old and new.
Mobiles jangling, Delroy (or, more fittingly, Del Boy) pilots us to Ocho Rios, a former fishing village turned tourist town, and we tumble into The Joint sports bar. Owner Jackie sees how tired we are from our flight and immediately whisks out plates of curried goat and glasses of powerful carrot-and-ginger juice. “It’s kicky,” she warns. “You need a bit of spunk.”
Couples Sans Souci has clean, airy rooms for us, and we wake to the thrum of Caribbean waves pounding the shore. Chef Carlton whips up a breakfast of ackee, saltfish, callaloo, peppers and festival dumplings. “This is what makes Usain Bolt run so fast,” he says. We soon find most Jamaican foods are credited with helping the ‘Lightning’ Olympian’s performance on the track. Festival dumplings, however, are heavy and bready enough to make you drowsy within world-record time.
It’s off to Ocho Rios market. Here, as everywhere, people are gracious and kind. They’re also obsessed (like our Casanova driver) with sexual potency. It must be the weather. A chatty bloke named Adam, with a tattoo that declares Jesus is coming, shows us bizarrely named fruits such as soursop, naseberry and stinking toe. “Now that’s a good front-end lifter…” is his sales pitch.
Wherever we go, people speak to us in a gorgeous, rich Victorian English and, between themselves, a rapid, rhythmic patois. Music throbs as Delroy whisks us off to our next stop – the village of Boscobel – with reggae ‘riddims’ emanating from his car stereo. We pass scissored-leaf banana trees and stately girls with tall hair and big smiles.
In Oracabessa, we come across the cliff-top hideaway Goldeneye, where Ian Fleming wrote all of his James Bond novels, and which Island Records founder Chris Blackwell has turned into a luxury hotel-villa estate. Above it, with a soaring view of the azure sea, is Firefly House, where playwright Noël Coward lived and died, and which once hosted the Queen Mother for lunch. The place is faded and fabulous.
Down the overgrown, under-maintained road, we stop at a stall selling Dutch pots – Jamaica’s ubiquitous casserole – manned by a friendly, toothless Rasta with a flapping belt. He sends us along the tree-kinky road to Annotto Bay for fish tea.
Annotto Bay was never a rich place: the cargo ship Empire Windrush left here in 1948, laden with Jamaicans seeking a better life in the UK. Today, Nature Irie’s road food shack overlooks the quiet bay, four huge Dutch pots boiling aromatically on improvised fires inside old car wheels. “This is nature food,” states Mr Irie, dreads piled high inside his knitted tam. Bloody delicious is what it is: shiny parrotfish and grunt fish boiled with pumpkin, carrot, turnip and dasheen, plus escallion and scotch bonnets.
We head along the coastal road to Port Antonio – former banana capital of the world. The truck in front has an ‘Ease Off’ sticker on its bumper, but nobody’s rushing anywhere. In the town’s buzzy market, you can buy anything from split peas to church hats, but we decide to drive on to Boston Bay, spiritual home of jerk.
We meet Little David, award-winning jerk master, who tells us his secret: “You kills your meat fresh.” His vest is white and his teeth are gold. “Then you rubs in your jerk spices, fridge it for three days, then grills it over flavoury wood.” He’s at pains to explain how pimento and cinnamon wood flavour the meat, but pine makes it bitter. The bar next door has 10ft-tall boom boxes and is festooned with explicit posters advertising the power of Mandingo and Jagra tonic drinks, which have been “Raising more than eyebrows for 10 years”. We wash our jerk chicken down with bottles of cold Red Stripe and raise a cheer for Little David.
Inland now to Castleton and its famous botanic gardens. The countryside is lush and preposterously fertile. There’s a rainbow in the sky, and deep gorges cleave the green hills. Outside the gardens, at Daddy Rock Belly’s stall, we meet three elderly lady customers, who offer us some of their thick cow-skin soup. “It give you more bamboo than Castleton have,” they claim.
The road spins helter-skelter style into Kingston, with its big-city vibe. Here we dine with Winston Stona, the man at the helm of Busha Browne’s, makers of hot sauce. He serves up dark ’n’ stormies – dark rum with ginger beer – and teaches us Jamaican chat-up lines. “I beg your rudeness,” runs one. “Better hold on the grass girl, cos I’m gonna move,” is another. Feeding us thick steaks, he says: “Better belly burst than good food waste.”
The next day, as Kingston basks under a hot sun, we cool off in the refined surroundings of Devon House, where we burst our bellies on spicy shrimp patties from The Brick Oven restaurant. Next door, I-Scream offers lush ice creams in 27 flavours. Our stand-out fave is Devon Stout – like Guinness, but more malty-sweet.
There’s a huge contrast between stately Devon House and Coronation Market (since burned down in last May’s Tivoli Gardens shoot-out). In Coronation, the air is sledgehammer hot, and salty with cuss words. The stallholders are witty and shout their wares above the reggae beats and full-blast tellies. It’s brilliant fun and we leave with armfuls of fresh fruit, herbal tonics and spicy mackerel for the drive west.
Thirty minutes over the mountain and we’re devouring pork and chicken portions at the All Seasons Jerk Centre on Spur Tree Hill. The jerk here is cooked on coal fires, and the meat is tasty and rich. There’s a roof terrace and bar where we drink in the soaring country views, and a few Red Stripes, too.
Coasting down the hill, we alight briefly at Eglington to sample Win’s peanut porridge. It’s thick, very sweet, and flavoured with cinnamon leaf and bark – for you know what.
We reach Alligator Pond, where the Little Ochie seafood shack radiates in bright carnival colours against the volcanic-grey beach. We rock up to the bar and order spanking fresh seafood, which Blackie and his chefs, Spending and Butty, fry, jerk, steam or roast for us. We depart with feisty jerk crab sauce and coconut shrimp all over our mouths and T-shirts.
Jake’s hotel at Treasure Beach is a dose of glam, hippy chic. It feels laid-back and music bizzy, and after a brief rest here we’re ready for the road again. Soon we hit Howie’s Number-One Food Stop – a 24-hour truck stop, where massive pots bubble over pimento wood fires. The menu promises yam dumplin’ and pumpking. We try the soft conch soup and crunchy fried chicken, but avoid the peanut porridge… a bloke can only take so much potency.
Down the road, we’re besieged by ladies, some in curlers, all thrusting peppered janga (crayfish) at us. They’re bright red and bright tasting, and about a quid a bag. Later we’re besieged again, this time by the laughing crowd at the village of White House. In their cluster of lagoon-side stalls they’ve made parrot fish and snapper escoveitch, served with the soft local flatbread, bammies. Girls are getting hairdos, truckers are getting a heavy dose of flirtation, fishermen are getting drunk, and we’re getting a cheap, fun fish lunch.
This area’s also known for its mannish water, but we’re pleased not to find it: goat’s testicle broth isn’t everyone’s idea of having a ball. Drifting through the orange groves and towns of Ramble and Anchovy, we’re soon back in Montego Bay, where we started, and where we come to realise squeezing into our clothes for the journey home is going to be a challenge.
On the plane en route to Jamaica, we had met a Rastafarian lady called Empress Rita, who made us promise to visit her indigenous village before we departed for home. We find it 15 minutes out of town and are greeted by villagers Natural, First-Man, Empress Ayara and their spiritual leader, Kanaka, whose immense dreads are threaded through a serviette ring. “How’s life, Kanaka?” I ask. “It’s agreeing with me!” he grins.
The men’s clothes are tailored from jute coffee sacks and look dead stylish. We’re given our initiation into Rasta life: these folk are serious in their devotion to nature and to His Highness, Haile Selassie. They have made Ital food for us: true Rastafarians follow a healthy vegetarian, almost vegan, diet. “Our body is our only possession,” says Kanaka, giving us a juicy coconut and carrot salad. “We have to look after it.” The Rastas’ respect for, and knowledge of, the land and its herbs is impressive, and Kanaka explains which herbs from the botanic garden are the most potent for… well, you can guess what.
EAT & DRINK
Expect to pay around £1 for a Red Stripe beer, £5 for a portion of jerk, and £20 for a seafood feast.
All Seasons Jerk Centre Spur Tree Hill, Manchester Parish. Order at the kitchen, where there are eight chairs at the counter, or take your jerk to the end of the building and upstairs to the big open bar. Underneath this, there’s a café serving soups and rice dishes.
Daddy Rock Belly Castleton Gardens. Tiny caravan kitchen serving Spanish rice and veg dishes, sandwiches and deep-fried festival dumplings. Two steps away, get your fresh cow-skin soup and cobs of boiled corn from cauldrons open to the elements.
Devon House Trafalgar and Hope Road, Kingston; +876 929 6602, devonhousejamaica.com. This is gracious colonial-era Jamaica. In the leafy courtyard, you can shop for knick-knacks. There’s a posh rum and cigar bar, and fine dining at Norma’s On The Terrace restaurant. Brick Oven has cold drinks and baked goods. Also visit I-Scream next door – expect to queue.
Digesting Yam Melrose Hill, Manchester Parish, just after Porus village. A dozen purpose-built concrete stalls (with parking) in a large lay-by, all selling roasted yam or cold drinks. Clean toilets (for a nominal fee) in the well-kept park behind.
Howie’s #1 Food Stop at the turn off for JS Falls, Holland St, Elizabeth Parish. Huge cauldrons under a roof, by the busy road. Organised family seating area, bar right next door and, across the road, brightly painted open-air benches.
The Joint 9 Evelyn Street (opposite the clock tower), Ocho Rios. Bustling sports bar bedecked in football memorabilia, amid reggae sounds.
Little David’s Jerk Centre Boston Bay, Portland Parish. Corrugated roofs cover the open pit and counter areas, with half a dozen rickety rustic tables. You can also eat your jerk at the booming bar next door, or carry it 10 minutes down the track to the lovely beach.
Little Ochie Alligator Pond, Manchester Parish; +876 610 6566, littleochie.com. Grab a seat on one of the terraces or beached boats, then order from the kiosk. Well stocked bar, small clothes/souvenir shop, and a stall selling CDs from every reggae genre. Check the CD works before paying!
Nature Irie Fish Tea between Annotto Bay and Bluff Bay, just after Iter Boreale. Order at the front and eat at the counter, in the bar (specialising in healthy fruit punches), or across the road, perched on the sea wall.
White House St Elizabeth Parish. Makeshift market stalls selling escoveitch fish and warm, soft bammies. Stallholders besiege you when you pull up. Eat leaning against a stall or in the car. They will happily sell you cold drinks.
Win’s Spur Tree Hill at Eglington, Manchester Parish. Watch the traffic whistle by from Win’s roadside open cauldrons. A couple of split logs above the road offer a place to sit and shoot the breeze; try Donald Alin’s stall next door for jelly coconuts and sweet juice.
Castleton Botanic Gardens St Mary Parish; +876 927 1731 50. Free daily, open daylight hours.
Firefly House Boscobel, St Mary Parish; islandoutpost.com/local_culture/firefly. Informal visits from 9am to 5pm daily. Donation expected.
Montego Bay Rastafari Indigenous Village +876 410 1770, rastavillage.com. Visits by arrangement. The Rastas offer massages – book ahead. There’s a large, overpriced souvenir shop, too.
Couples Sans Souci Ocho Rios, St Mary Parish; +44 01582 794420, couples.com. A wonderful beachside location offering loads of facilities and well-made food.
Goldeneye Oracabessa, St Mary Parish, +876 975 3354, goldeneye.com. The only place to get that true 007 experience.
Jake’s Hotel Calabash Bay, Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth Parish; + 876 965 3000, islandoutpost.com/jakes. Hippy-stylish and starry. Owned by the Henzell family – Perry Henzell wrote and directed the cult Jamaican film The Harder They Come.
Round Hill John Pringle Drive, Montego Bay; +876 956 7050, roundhill.com. Elegant, plantation-style hotel with palatial villas, a glamorous Ralph Lauren bar and smart Jamaican fusion food from chef Martin Ian Maginley.
Jamaica Tourist Board; visitjamaica.com.Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) flies London Gatwick to Montego Bay three times a week, Tue/Fri/Sat. Fares start from £774.30, including taxes.