Towering behind Kingston and enticingly visible from anywhere in the island’s eastern third, the Blue Mountains conform with few people’s mental image of Jamaica, land of sand, sea and reggae. Forming one of the longest continuous ranges in the Caribbean, their cool, fragrant woodlands are shrouded in mist and offer some of the best hiking on the island, including Blue Mountain Peak, the remarkable botanical gardens at Cinchona and estates producing some of the most expensive coffee on earth.

South of the range, St Thomas is one of the country’s poorest and least developed regions, despite a rich history. Tourist development remains negligible and there are only a handful of hotels, but these are good bases nonetheless to visit the delightful mineral springs at Bath, or the deserted beaches around Morant Point Lighthouse.

Contrasting in scenery and atmosphere, on the northern side of the mountains is the northeastern parish of Portland, justifiably touted as one of the most beautiful parts of Jamaica, with jungle-smothered hillsides cascading down to postcard-perfect Caribbean shoreline. Though increasing, particularly at the luxury end, tourism is less conspicuous here than in other resort areas, but that’s all the more reason to come – the wetter climate supports some stupendous natural scenery, including beautiful waterfalls and the magical Blue Lagoon. The parish capital, Port Antonio, has plenty of historical charm, while inland you can hike in pristine rainforest or take a gentler rafting trip on the Rio Grande. Some of the island’s best beaches are also found here, and they’re far less crowded than those further west, with lovely places to stay to boot: from surf-pounded stretches at Long Bay and Boston Bay to calm and idyllic Frenchman’s Cove and Winnifred Beach, visitors come to Portland to chill out and experience a lower-key Jamaica than found elsewhere.

Top image: Blue mountains © Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

The Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains begin where Kingston ends, and a starker contrast would be hard to imagine, with the chaotic concrete maelstrom fast replaced by lush tranquillity and staggering natural beauty. The mountains are named for the mists that colour them from a distance, and their craggy slopes form an unbroken, undulating spine across Jamaica’s easternmost parishes, a fabulously fertile wilderness with a surprisingly cool, wet climate. The dense forest provided perfect cover for the Windward Maroons during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though as a whole the mountains have proved largely inhospitable, with today’s sparse population concentrated in settlements like Gordon Town and Newcastle.

The northern slopes of the mountains are covered by a huge quilt of dense, primary forest, but deforestation has badly affected the southern side, where great chunks have been cleared by coffee planters, farmers and (catastrophically) hurricanes Gilbert and Ivan in 1988 and 2004. Though cattle are farmed on some of the denuded lower slopes, to try to protect the wilderness from further devastation 200,000 acres were designated a national park in 1993, with the stated aims of managing natural resources for long-term sustainable use and generating income opportunities through ecotourism (see blueandjohncrowmountains.org). To assist with the latter, hiking trails have been carved into the interior of the forest, often following ancient mule trails over the mountains.

Tourism here, though on the rise, is small-scale with just a few hotels and budget options – but most have spectacular locations. Coffee is the mainstay of the local economy, and excellent tours for those keen to see how the stuff is produced are to be found at the coffee factory at Mavis Bank and at smaller plantations such as Old Tavern. Dark and earthy, Blue Mountain coffee is considered one of the world’s best by experts, and prices reflect that assessment, though you can usually find it cheaper here – at hotels, coffee factories or direct from the farmers – than anywhere else. Visitors also come here to hike up Blue Mountain Peak or to follow the well-maintained trails at Holywell or around Lime Tree Farm – superb trekking, for which you’ll nonetheless need to be well prepared. Elsewhere, the botanical gardens at Cinchona are a delightful spot, a magical splash of colour 5000ft up.

Many visitors find mountain residents more gentle and welcoming than Jamaicans elsewhere – despite the evident poverty and grinding workload that many of them face.

Blue Mountain coffee

Coffee trees from Ethiopia were introduced to Jamaica in 1728 by Governor Sir Nicholas Lawes, and they flourished on the cool slopes of the Blue Mountains. Cultivation reached new heights of excellence during the first half of the nineteenth century, when expert coffee growers arrived from revolution-torn Haiti, soon meeting an increased demand from European coffeehouses. Jamaica became one of the world’s main coffee exporters, producing up to fifteen thousand tons of beans per year.

The industry suffered its first crushing blow with emancipation in 1838, as streams of former slaves left the plantations to set up their own small farms. Soon afterwards, Britain abolished preferential trade terms on coffee, and direct competition with the coffees of South America crippled small Jamaican farmers. The decline continued into the twentieth century, and it was only after World War II that the Jamaican government took belated steps to save the Blue Mountain plantations. It established quality guidelines for both cultivation and processing, stipulating that only coffee grown at a certain altitude and on the regional soil type could claim the Blue Mountain name (you’ll see coffee produced in Mandeville called High Mountain and elsewhere around the island Low Mountain). This exclusivity heightened the coffee’s cachet and helped to underpin its reputation as one of the world’s finest. Given that expansion of the precious beans was finite, high prices were ensured.

During the 1980s and 1990s, production of Blue Mountain coffee reached its zenith, with Japanese companies drawing on a big domestic market to invest huge amounts in the best of the plantations. Until as recently as 2010, up to eighty percent of the crop was sold to Japan; with traders there controlling the larger part of the market, Europe and North America saw very high prices for the coffee. While today Japan still imports around a third of the crop, deals between the Jamaican government and China appear to have widened the market, and Jamaican exporters have sought new deals in North America, Europe and Russia, as well as in the Far East.

Blue Mountain coffee has always been vulnerable to hurricane damage, and hillside deforestation has only heightened this. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004 the usual rainfall for September fell in two days, resulting in the loss of valuable topsoil and mature plants in landslides. With entire plantations wiped out, there was a shortage of beans for three years, costing Jamaica US$30 million and leading to a huge burden for small-scale mountain farmers, many of whom had effectively no income during 2005. More recently, coffee rust disease has added to farmers’ travails, with around twenty percent of trees lost since 2012. While natural risks certainly help to maintain Blue Mountain Coffee as a limited and high-end label, the on-the-ground reality for coffee workers is that of extreme livelihood insecurity, heightening the need for tourism revenue.

Blue Mountain Peak

Undeniably the most rewarding hike in Jamaica, Blue Mountain Peak (7402ft), the highest point on the island, seems daunting but isn’t the fearful climb you might imagine – though it’s hardly a casual stroll, either. It is magnificent by day, when you can marvel at the opulence of the canopy, the thousands of orchids, mosses, bromeliads and lichens, the mighty shadows cast by the peak and the coils of smoke from invisible dwellings below. It’s also thrilling by night when, after a magical moon-lit ascent, Kingston’s lights occasionally twinkling in the distance, you find yourself at Jamaica’s zenith as a new day dawns.

From Abbey Green, the climb to the peak is around thirteen kilometres, and can take anything from three to six hours depending on your fitness level. If you’re staying at one of the hostels, you can start at around 1am and catch sunrise at around 5.15 to 6.15am, depending on the time of year. A full moon also means you’ll get natural floodlighting – otherwise, take a flashlight. Signposts make much of the route easy to follow without a guide, but in this remote area it’s sensible to go with someone who knows the way. Don’t stray onto tempting “short cuts” – it’s illegal, you’ll damage the sensitive environment and you’ll almost certainly get hopelessly lost. Rescue patrols can take days to mobilize effectively, by which time you’ll be in serious trouble.

Blue Mountain Peak is the furthest you can go into the Blue Mountains, as thick forest and treacherous terrain means that even the burly pig hunters seldom venture further east, preferring to enter the John Crow range from Millbank in Portland.

The peak trail

The first stretch of the trail, a steep series of switchback turns through thick forest aptly named Jacob’s Ladder, is said to be the most arduous, and you’ll appreciate arriving at the halfway point at Portland Gap Ranger Station (7km), where you can rest at the gazebo, top up water and let the rangers know that you’re walking the trail (leave a note if you arrive in the early hours).

Once past Portland Gap, it’s another five and a half kilometres to the peak through twisted montane and then low-lying elfin forest, in which the gnarled soapwood and dogwood evergreens are so stunted by low temperatures, exposure and lack of nutrients that they grow no higher than 8ft. You’re still only about 6000ft up, but you might already be a little dizzy from the rising altitude; if so, go slowly and eat a high-energy snack. At 7000ft, the plateau at Lazy Man’s Peak is where some call it a day, but it’s certainly worth struggling on for another twenty minutes.

The peak

If you’ve arrived at the peak before dawn, you’ll be completely bowled over. The inky black slowly melts into ever-intensifying pinks, oranges and purples until finally a hint of wispy blue heralds the sun and reveals the surrounding ranges. It’s quite possible you’ll be here alone, the highest person in Jamaica and feeling – literally – on top of the world. As the sun burns off the mist, the spectacular panorama becomes recognizable; you can make out Cinchona and, on a good day, Buff Bay and Port Antonio’s Navy Island to the north and Kingston, Portmore and coastal St Thomas to the south.

Cinchona Botanical Gardens

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.

Hiking and biking in the Blue Mountains

Most places to stay in the mountains are a good starting point for information and guided tours, with some offering ascents or ridge walks directly from their properties. Cycling is also an attractive option; several hotels offer day-long biking expeditions, calling in at small coffee farms and private homes, including Mount Edge Guesthouse and Forres Park.

Extreme weather conditions, ecological protection projects and lack of funding mean that of thirty recognized hiking trails in the national park, only twenty or so are open at any given time; information on weather conditions and trail access is available at the main ranger station, located at Holywell, and at smaller stations at Portland Gap and Millbank (not always manned). Ordnance survey maps are also on display. You can get information over the phone from the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust in Kingston, which runs the park. Bear in mind that adventures in the rainy season (May–June & Sept–Oct) pretty much guarantee getting drenched.

All usual, common-sense guidelines apply to mountain hiking and biking. Bring decent boots or training shoes, plentiful drinking water (pine bromeliads hold much water between their leaves, but as they’re home to insect nymphs and tree frogs, you’ll only want to sup in an emergency), snacks, insect repellent and a torch.

It’s almost always advisable to use a guide in the Blue Mountains; given changeable weather conditions and poor maps (alongside few obvious landmarks), it’s very easy to get lost. Security can also be a problem for unaccompanied hikers, particularly on the Kingston side of the mountains. A guide will ensure your safety, clear overgrown paths and provide an informed commentary. Contact the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust for more information.

The mountain environment

The Blue Mountain range is Jamaica’s oldest geographical feature, formed in the Cretaceous period (between 144 and 65 million years ago). Though the peaks are named for their cerulean tint when seen from afar, some of the rock actually is coloured blue by crossite minerals.

Mountain trees and plants

Categorized as montane (high-altitude woodland), the forests are mostly native cedar, soapwood, sweetwood and dogwood evergreens, with a few blue mahoe, mahogany and teak trees, but the eucalyptus and Caribbean pines introduced in the 1950s are also having an impact. The primeval-looking cyathea (tree fern), with its diamond-patterned trunk and top-heavy fronds is particularly distinctive; the tallest are more than 150 years old. Below the dense canopy are shrubs, of which the red tubular flowers of the cigar bush are the most identifiable. Every tree trunk or exposed rock is festooned with brightly coloured epiphytes, including inexhaustible swathes of dirty lime-coloured old man’s beard. Wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and rose apples provide a free feast, and you’ll doubtless encounter prickly climbing bamboo, the only variety native to Jamaica; each one blossoms simultaneously with tiny white flowers once every 33 years – due in 2017 and 2050. Alongside are over five hundred species of flowering plant, including 65 varieties of orchid. Begonias, blue iris, agapanthus, lobelias, busy lizzies and fuschias proliferate, while wild ginger lilies lend a delicate perfume.

Animals and birds

Other than mongooses, coneys and the wild pigs that roam the northern slopes, there are few mammals. You may hear the scuffles of feral cats, mice and rats in the undergrowth, and a few Jamaican yellow boas inhabit the lower slopes. The presence of bats is poorly documented; you’re most likely to see them around the limestone slopes of the John Crow Mountains to the east. By contrast, bird life flourishes; the forests ring out with the evocative whistle of the rufous-throated solitaire, and mockingbirds, crested quail doves (known as mountain witches), white-eyed thrushes, blackbirds and Jamaican todys add to the cacophony, backed by the squeaking mating calls of tree frogs.

Insects

The mountains are the sole habitat of one of the rarest and largest butterflies in the world, the six-inch giant swallowtail, but its distinctively patterned dark brown and gold wings rarely flutter into view – again, the warmer John Crow range yields the most sightings. Insects, on the other hand, are multitudinous – in summer it’s common to see thousands of fireflies (known as peenie-wallies) clustering on a single bush and lighting it up like a Christmas tree.

Portland

Portland, north of the Blue Mountains, is generally considered the most beautiful of Jamaica’s parishes – a rain-drenched land of luscious foliage, sparkling rivers and pounding waterfalls. Eastern Jamaica’s largest town, Port Antonio, is an attractive destination in itself, but most visitors prefer to base themselves along the exquisite coastline heading east, containing fabulous beaches, the Blue Lagoon and a number of exquisite hotels. The surf-pounded stretches of sandy beach at Long Bay and Boston Bay are well-established destinations for budget travellers, who come for the waves and chilled-out atmosphere – while roadside vendors at Boston Bay also do a roaring trade in authentic jerk pork and chicken. The gorgeous waterfalls at Somerset Falls and Reach Falls are within striking distance wherever you stay, while heading into the John Crow Mountains in the interior you can be poled down the Rio Grande on a bamboo raft or hike through the rainforest along the centuries-old trails of the Windward Maroons.

Brief history

Portland’s history is distinctly one of boom and bust. The parish was officially formed in 1723, one of the last to be settled, despite Port Antonio being blessed with two natural harbours. Reports of the difficult terrain and the constant threat of Maroon warfare had deterred would-be settlers, though eventually the Crown was obliged to offer major incentives, including land grants, tax exemptions and free food supplies. The early economy was dependent on sugar until a surprise replacement crop – bananas – proved perfect for Portland’s fertile soil towards the end of the nineteenth century. Port Antonio boomed, ushering in a golden era of prosperity with businessmen pouring in, and in 1905 the town’s first hotel was built on the Titchfield peninsula. Cabin space on banana boats was sold to curious tourists, who rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous – publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, banker J.P. Morgan, actress Bette Davis – swanning in on their private yachts.

The boom proved to be short-lived, though the high-end tourism it had helped to engender remained. With the enthusiastic patronage of movie stars like Errol Flynn, Port Antonio’s place in the glitterati’s global playground was assured, and Jamaica’s first luxury hotel was built at Frenchman’s Cove – to this day a testament to faded glamour. The movie business injected much-needed capital, too, in the 1980s and 1990s – films shot here include Cocktail, The Mighty Quinn, Club Paradise and Lord of the Flies. Celebrities still sequester themselves in Portland, but the area can’t compete with Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios for mass tourism. Although Portland is a long way from the prosperity of its heyday, its natural water features and beauty spots are open to anyone who cares to find them – a lower-key Jamaica that’s a welcome change for many visitors travelling the island.

Bananas

Brought to Jamaica from the Canary Islands in 1520, the banana remarkably only became popular in 1871, when captain Lorenzo Dow Baker took a shipload of the foodstuff formerly deemed unpalatable from Port Antonio to Boston. His gamble paid off handsomely – the entire stock was sold for a healthy profit and mass demand ensued, earning him and others colossal fortunes. By the second half of the nineteenth century, sugar was already declining, and farmers rushed to plant the new “green gold”. With high rainfall and fertile soil Portland was perfectly placed, and armies of planters and pickers arrived to earn pitiful wages, living in wretched conditions while production output hit thirty million stems per year.

The arrival of banana ships at the wharves was signalled by blasts on a conch shell, followed by frenetic activity as the labourers cut stems and carried the fresh fruit off the estates and onto waiting trucks. At the dock, the banana stems were taken to the checkers, who ensured that each had the nine hands required to count as a bunch – hence, in the banana-boat song, Day O, “six hands, seven hands, eight hands, bunch!”. Once aboard the ship, the tallyman gave the carrier a tally to redeem for payment, and workers made their weary way back to the plantation or to the bar.

Sadly for Portland, the boom didn’t last – by the 1920s, Panama disease and hurricane damage had decimated the crop, and World War II compounded the problems. Today, the end of long-standing preferential trade terms with Europe has caused many farmers to abandon bananas (being unable to compete with huge US operations) and the days of the banana as an important export crop certainly look numbered.

East of Port Antonio

Made all the more alluring for its delicious sense of faded glamour and relative lack of visitors, the rugged stretch of coast east of Port Antonio is one of the most attractive parts of Jamaica. It’s a fairy-tale landscape of lush, jungle-smothered hills rolling down to a coastline studded with fantastic beaches, such as Frenchman’s Cove, San San and Winnifred, and swimming inlets like the Blue Lagoon, a fabulous aquamarine pool of salt and fresh water made famous by the eponymous 1980 movie. A series of super-smart hotels vie for business with a handful of less expensive guesthouses (though none are as cheap as you’ll find in town), while for eating you can plump for romantic international feasts accompanied by live jazz or mento at the salubrious restaurants of the region’s best hotels – most of which are open to non-guests – or more authentic Jamaican cooking at Winnifred Beach and the renowned jerk stands at Boston Bay.

Errol Flynn

For many, the bumpy six-kilometre route between Boston Bay and Long Bay, with its great views of pounding surf and rolling pastureland, will always be known as Errol Flynn country. The erstwhile screen idol bought a 2000-acre estate here in the 1950s, and his widow, Patrice Wymore, managed the groves of coconuts and guavas and its grazing beef cattle here until her death in 2014. The prime seafront property had already been on sale for some years, but her passing may well speed the pace of change.

By the time he arrived in Jamaica in 1947, Errol Flynn’s movie career was already in decline. The era of the swashbuckler was drawing to a close, and the Australian actor – star of classic movies like The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood – had begun to fall from favour with the studios. Nonetheless, coming ashore in his famed yacht Zaca (now moored in Monaco and allegedly still haunted by Flynn’s face and the sounds of a wild party), Flynn quickly worked his way into local legend. Well known for his powers of seduction, formidable drinking and addiction to gambling, the star reputedly lost Navy Island off Port Antonio in an unfortunate poker bet.

Flynn loved Jamaica, buying the Titchfield Hotel in Port Antonio, plus Navy Island, and later, with his third wife Patrice Wymore, setting up a ranch near Boston Bay. A string of celebrities attended the wild parties at his hotels – but unsuccessful efforts to resurrect his movie career and continuing bouts of heavy drinking and ill health were already taking their toll. During his final years, Flynn spent much of his time at Titchfield with the teenage actress Beverley Aadland. On his death in 1959, Aadland asked that Flynn be buried in Jamaica, but Wymore insisted that his body go to Hollywood. Today, despite the tarnishing of his reputation through tales of his exploitation of local girls, many people in the area remember the one-time heartthrob with affection.

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is where 14-year-old nymphet Brooke Shields (and now-obscure cherub Christopher Atkins), playing child castaways on a deserted island, frolicked naked in the movie of the same name. Enclosed by high cliffs and forest, which give a deep green tint to the noticeably turquoise depths, the lagoon is a result of several underwater streams running down from the mountains. The whole effect is very picture-postcard, and swimming here is serene, with a layer of chilly fresh water covering waves of warm sea below. The lagoon drops to 198ft at its deepest spot – just enough for World Freediving Champion David Lee to set the world record here: in 2002 he dived without assistance to 167ft in three minutes 45 seconds. Lee’s parents run scuba/watersports operator Lady G’Diver, which offers dive packages and courses in specialist freediving at the lagoon.

At the time of writing, facilities at the lagoon were nonexistent following a protracted land dispute – swimming is free, though touts inevitably cash in on parking fees (going over J$500 would be exorbitant). However, the lagoon’s western side was recently acquired by Lee Chin of Trident fame, and the seriously creative designers at Geejam are tasked with building a spectacular contemporary restaurant and villas in keeping with the serene surroundings, likely to open in 2016.

Winnifred Beach

Winnifred Beach (also known as Fairy Hill Beach) is one of the most appealing beaches in all Jamaica; to get there, turn left and then immediately right just east of the Jamaica Crest Hotel at the start of Fairy Hill village, following the road for a kilometre through a neat housing scheme before descending through the forest. You can drive right down onto the beach if it hasn’t been raining; if it has, park where the tarmac ends and continue on foot.

Used as the setting for the Robin Williams movie Club Paradise, the wide, golden crescent of sand is supremely laid-back and justly popular with Jamaicans. The small reef just offshore is perfect for snorkelling (you’ll need to bring your own gear) and protects the bay from the waves, ensuring clear, calm, bright-blue water that shelves gently from the sand. At weekends, local operator Scotty offers children’s horse rides along the sands, and fishermen will provide boat trips to nearby Monkey Island. At the western end, a small mineral spring offers a freshwater rinse (the changing facilities are best avoided).

Given Winnifred Beach’s secluded beauty it’s perhaps no surprise that the government attempted to authorize a private villa development here, threatening the beach’s public access like so many others on the north coast. Local resident Cynthia, co-proprietor of much-loved lunch spot Cynthia and Painter’s, has spearheaded the campaign to keep it public (wfree-winnifred.com). At the time of writing, six years since the dispute first arose, a court case was still under way to ensure public right of access. Unpaid locals currently manage and clean the beach, so you may be asked to pay a small unofficial “fee”. You’re under no obligation to pay (most Jamaicans refuse) – but there’s no harm in tipping people you see genuinely tidying up the place. Seek out Cynthia if you’d like to contribute to the campaign.

Port Antonio

The days of movie stars coming to stay in PORT ANTONIO are long gone, and these days the town feels a little isolated. That said, sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, this somewhat sleepy place has a charm all its own – there are many remaining timber buildings and with a smart new marina and plans to develop Navy Island and the Titchfield peninsula, things seem to be stirring once again. There’s not a huge amount to see here and there’s little in the way of watersports or shopping, but “Portie” is a friendly and beguiling place with a bustling central market and a couple of lively nightspots.

The town is easily navigable, with two main streets, and you can walk the handful of sights in a couple of hours. West Palm Avenue runs into West Street (from the western entrance of Port Antonio to the central clock tower), while Harbour Street cuts through the middle. To get your bearings, walk the steep climb up to the now defunct Bonnie View Hotel from the town centre; while the hotel itself is now closed you’ll get a great view over the entire town.

Most people find Port Antonio something of a relief after the harassment of the north coast, and any hassle you do encounter tends to be fairly half-hearted. Even so, don’t wander off the main streets after dark, and also be wary of police roadblocks east of town.

The Rio Grande valley

Portland’s interior – the Rio Grande valley – is a fantastically lush and partially impenetrable hinterland of tropical rainforest and waterfalls. The Rio Grande, one of Jamaica’s major rivers, pours down from the John Crow Mountains through a deep and unspoilt valley of virgin forest. Despite its beauty, the area is little explored; many people do rafting trips, but there is also superb river and mountain hiking.

Many of the rivers and springs here are named after local Maroon leaders – Nanny, Quao, Quashie and Quako – and the major remaining Maroon settlement is Moore Town. If you’re craving rustic isolation, some of the other villages beyond have lovely settings and fascinating names – Alligator Church, Comfort Castle – indeed, the only thing holding up booming ecotourism here is the abominable road, which in its higher reaches is barely navigable by car.

Rafting the Rio Grande

Once a means of transporting bananas, rafting down the majestic Rio Grande is now Portland’s most popular attraction, ever since Errol Flynn raced with his friends in the 1950s. It’s a delightfully lazy way to spend half a day, although the sun can get fierce.

From the put-in point at Berridale, ten kilometres southwest of Port Antonio, the thirty-foot bamboo rafts (each with a raised seat) meander down the river for two hours through outstanding scenery, poled downstream by a captain and stopping periodically for swimming, waterfall hunting or to buy snacks. Tickets are sold at Rio Grande Experience in Berridale (daily 9am–4pm; US$78/raft; t993 5778) and by hotels and tour offices in Port Antonio. The trip is one-way, terminating at Rafters’ Rest in St Margaret’s Bay, so if you’re driving, leave your car at Berridale and have an insured driver take it down for US$15, or else use a taxi – to Berridale and then back to Port Antonio from Rafters Rest costs around US$30. If you’re desperate to save cash, the Berridale route taxi from Port Antonio (J$220) runs close by the put-in point, and route taxis to Port Antonio from Kingston and Buff Bay pass the entrance to Rafters’ Rest regularly.

A recent popular addition to the trip downriver is to arrange a lunch en route cooked by master chef Belinda, who descends on foot from the hills with the freshest ingredients and cooks delights like curried fish, jerk pork or crayfish right there on the river bank. Order through your hotel or call Belinda directly on t389 8826.

You’ll also find people touting unofficial rafting trips in Port Antonio and St Margaret’s Bay for a lower price. Don’t hand over the cash until you’ve finished the journey at Rafters’ Rest, and don’t go with anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable.

St Thomas

St Thomas, nestling below the Blue Mountains, is the most neglected of Jamaica’s parishes, and as a result, its villages are somewhat impoverished with meagre facilities for tourists. For some, however, the region offers a slice of the “real” Jamaica, untouched by the demands of tourism. The main attractions are the rambling old spa town of Bath in the foothills of the mountains, and also remote Morant Point, where a candy-striped lighthouse overlooks a stunning beach. A couple of waterfalls in other areas are interesting diversions, though there’s little to do in the parish capital, Morant Bay, except to reflect on one of the bloodiest periods in Jamaica’s volatile history. The parish’s friendly people remain probably the biggest draw; large-scale sound-system parties and stageshows (such as the excellent roots-reggae East Fest, held in late December/early January) are to be found on public holidays, and, largely due to the presence of the descendants of free Africans, St Thomas is the cradle of Jamaica’s African-based religions, with roadside Kumina sessions found frequently.

Bath

The little-visited village of BATH stands at the edge of the John Crow Mountains. Born when a runaway Spanish slave stumbled across hot mineral springs in the late 1690s, it was discovered that the waters could cure wounds. Ironically, the same slave’s master sold the spring and some 1130 acres of land surrounding it to the British in 1699 for £400; they swiftly carved a road through the hills and erected a spa building here in 1747.

Bath Botanical Gardens

In the 1700s, Bath glittered in the colonial spotlight, but just a century later it fell from grace through a combination of political disputes and hurricane damage. A reminder of its heyday is to be found at the Bath Botanical Gardens established in 1779, adjacent to the dilapidated Anglican church. This was where many plants – including cinnamon, jacaranda, bougainvillea and mango – were first introduced to the island, but the ravages of time and Hurricane Gilbert (which levelled the village for the second time in 1988) have ensured that little remains of the carefully ordered labels. You’ll still see descendants of the breadfruit trees brought from Tahiti by Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty fame in 1793, alongside guava trees, royal palms, bamboo and crotons. The annual breadfruit festival in September commemorates the seminal event in Jamaican history.

Bath Fountain Spa

Taking the waters at the rambling old Bath Fountain Hotel and Spa remains the main attraction for visitors to the village. The spa has ten small cubicles, each with a sunken tiled bath. The water is high in sulphur and lime and, like most mineral baths, slightly (though not dangerously) radioactive – no more than thirty minutes is recommended due to the risk of dehydration.

Bear in mind that outside the hotel and spa you will most likely be accosted by a group of aggressive hustlers offering to take you to the open-air spring at the hotel’s rear; while this hot and cold “Sulphur River” is a pleasant spot (water from the two springs is diverted to the spa inside and mixed to provide a bath of a more even temperature), the unofficial “guides” most certainly are not, and their amateur massages are inevitably exorbitantly priced.

Hiking trails lead from the spa for kilometres across the Blue Mountains; the best is the Cunha Cunha Maroon trading route through the John Crow range to Bowden Pen – for a guide contact the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust or Sun Venture Tours.

The breadfruit and the Bounty

Up until the late eighteenth century, Jamaica was not self-sufficient in food, relying on imports to feed the ever-increasing slave population. As a result, the American War of Independence (1775–81), which severely disrupted food supplies, brought tragedy, with thousands dying of malnutrition and related disease. To eliminate this catastrophic dependence, planters lobbied the British government for a source of cheap food that could be grown locally. The starchy, nourishing breadfruit – about which Captain Cook had rhapsodized, “If a man plants ten of them…he will completely fulfil his duty to his own and future generations” – was at the top of their wish list.

Setting sail from England in 1787, the HMS Bounty commanded by Captain William Bligh, was assigned the task of procuring breadfruit plants from their native Tahiti. After a dangerous journey around Cape Horn, captain and crew were garlanded with flowers before loading up the breadfruit plants and moving on. Three weeks later, on another arduous crossing with a captain who seemed to care more for his plants than for his men, the ship’s crew mutinied. Bligh was cast adrift in the Pacific with a handful of loyal followers, while the rest made for Ascension Island and their place in history. Incredibly, Bligh survived. He found his way back to England, where he was cleared of any blame and entrusted with another ship, HMS Providence, to complete his mission. The Jamaican House of Assembly conferred him a substantial gift of 500 guineas to encourage his endeavours, and the Providence left England in 1791, finally delivering the breadfruit to the island in February 1793. The plants were propagated at Bath Botanical Gardens and eventually spread throughout the island, an important step towards Jamaican self-sufficiency.

Three Finger Jack

A roadside marker at the village of ELEVEN MILES recalls Jack Mansong (known as Three Finger Jack), a formidable nineteenth-century runaway slave who, after the bungled attempted murder of the slave trader who’d transported his parents from Africa – one Captain Henry Harrop – escaped from his execution, carrying Harrop to a cave where, with delicious irony, he forced his master to become his slave. Fuelled by the promise of a rich reward, Quashie, the Maroon who had relieved Mansong of his fingers, shot him in the stomach and cut off his head, preserving it in a bucket of rum all the way to Spanish Town.

The Morant Bay Rebellion

In August 1865, Baptist Deacon Paul Bogle – supported by George William Gordon, a wealthy mulatto member of the National Assembly – led a 87-kilometre march from St Thomas to Spanish Town to protest to the island’s governor, Edward Eyre, over legal inequity, which invariably supported white landholders over small farmers who struggled to find decent land to cultivate. A generation after emancipation, living conditions for Jamaica’s black population remained abysmal, with food shortages, lack of access to property and high taxation, and it was only a matter of time before people registered their grievances. After being turned away, the marchers returned to St Thomas with plans to create a “state within a state” at Stony Gut, Bogle’s home village. Worried by the force of the uprising, the police had two of Bogle’s supporters arrested on trumped-up charges of assault and trespass. On October 7, Bogle and his men marched to Morant Bay in military fashion and disrupted proceedings by surrounding the courthouse. Despite the protest’s peaceful nature, the authorities issued a warrant for Bogle’s arrest – yet the police were thwarted by the sheer power of numbers and forced to swear oaths that they would no longer serve public officials.

The colonial authority’s response

Undeterred, on October 10, eight more policemen set out for Stony Gut, but again they underestimated Bogle’s support and were quickly overpowered and forced to swear allegiance to him. Back in Morant Bay, they impressed the seriousness of the situation on then-Custos Baron Von Ketelhadt, who promptly arranged for one hundred soldiers to set sail aboard the HMS Wolverine from Kingston. On October 11, Bogle and his men again marched into Morant Bay, raided the police station for arms and attacked the courthouse where the council was meeting. Eighteen soldiers and council members were killed as frustrations erupted; the courthouse was burnt to the ground, and arms, gunpowder and foodstuffs were taken from the town’s shops. Unrest quickly spread, and the government troops aboard the Wolverine arrived too late to quell the disturbance when they put ashore on October 12. Fearing that the whole country would soon be engulfed, the authorities gave free rein to the army, and the protesters were crushed with brutal ferocity. A staggering 437 people were executed, another six hundred men and women flogged, and over a thousand homes razed to the ground. Bogle evaded capture and fled to the hills, where he remained undetected for several days. In Kingston, Governor Eyre declared martial law in St Thomas and wrote a warrant for the arrest of George William Gordon, who was hanged outside the Morant Bay courthouse on October 20. There was nowhere for Bogle to hide; he was captured at Stony Gut on October 23 and went to the gallows two days later. His last words quoted slave leader Sam Sharpe from 1831: “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.”

Jamaica after the rebellion

The rebellion marked a key political and social watershed for Jamaica. Governor Eyre was immediately recalled to England and stripped of his position, and the island came under direct rule from Britain until reforms in education and the legal system could be put into place – policies that never would have got past the local elite. Though progress for the poor was still painfully slow, Bogle’s defiant legacy ensured that Jamaica remained relatively peaceful until well into the next century. The Jamaican government eventually recognized Paul Bogle (and George William Gordon) as National Heroes, and monuments to them stand in National Heroes Park in Kingston.

The southeast tip

The far southeastern corner of the island, beyond Bath and Port Morant, is a seamless feast of banana, sugar and coconut plantations, the least developed yet one of the most picturesque corners of Jamaica. The slightly dishevelled communities of Golden Grove and Duckenfield hold neat but dilapidated rows of homes on stilts, accommodating cane cutters working at the Duckenfield sugar plantation, while Rocky Point Bay has a delightfully secluded beach and a fleet of small fishing boats.

Morant Point

The cane fields and the mangroves of the Great Morass, a wide, forested wetland, lead to the serenely isolated hundred-foot Morant Point lighthouse (ask locals for directions from the Duckenfield sugar factory; the route is sometimes impassable in the rainy season except by 4WD). The lighthouse itself was cast in London in 1841 and put up here by Kru men from Sierra Leone, among the first free Africans to be brought to the island after the abolition of slavery. Tip the lighthouse keeper to climb to the top; deserted and windswept, with Atlantic surf crashing onto the rocks, there’s a magnificent panorama of the Blue Mountains, the vast mangrove swamp and gorgeous Holland Bay, a deserted swath of fine white sand and pellucid water overlooked by a few ragged palms – the perfect place to live out your Robinson Crusoe fantasies. If you can’t face the drive, arrange a tour here overland with Our Story Tours or by boat with Zion Country Cottages.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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