Most people hike to Cinchona Botanical Gardens from Clydesdale, though it is possible to drive all the way from Westphalia or Mavis Bank in a 4WD (guide needed) up the abysmal road that snakes through the precipitous coffee groves covering Top Mountain. The gardens are at the summit, and their semi-orderliness is a surprise after the rugged and wild hillsides below. Clinging to the ridge opposite Blue Mountain Peak and overlooking the Yallahs River valley, the ten-acre maintained gardens were initially a commercial venture, planted with Assam tea and cinchona trees – which produce quinine, used as an anti-malarial before the advent of modern drugs – in 1886. However, the inaccessibility of the site and competition from Indian plantations led to the project’s decline, and it became a government-run public garden in 1968. Botanical research is still occasionally carried out here.
Despite obvious recent neglect, the gardens have a magical feel, with eucalyptus whistling in the breeze, and Norfolk Island pine, Japanese cedar, weeping cypress, rubber and camphor trees flourishing in the mist. The vivid flowerbeds are bursting with blooms, and wild coffee smothers the slopes. You can see the whole layout from above on the Panorama Walk (preferably accompanied by one of the gardeners – leave a tip), which takes you through a tunnel-like thicket of Holland bamboo and eventually back to the main house, an ancient oblong of stone that still contains most of its original fittings. Other guided (unsigned) trails are also available, among the most rewarding the sweaty ten-kilometre hike down to Mavis Bank, the six-kilometre hike to Catherine’s Peak and the historic (and now somewhat impenetrable) sixteen-kilometre Vinegar Hill Trail to Buff Bay, an old Maroon trading route that the British used to transport supplies from Kingston to the north coast.