Split in two by the parishes of Hanover and Westmoreland, sybaritic Negril has a front-row sunset seat, the longest continuous stretch of white sand in Jamaica and a geographical remoteness that provides this ultimate chill-out town with a uniquely insouciant ambience. “Discovered” by wealthy hippies in the 1970s, Negril is immensely popular with those who favour fast living and corporeal indulgence – but even though the main menu items are still sun, sea, smoke and sex, there are plenty of natural attractions too, including the Great Morass, the Royal Palm Reserve and some marvellous reefs.
Away from this tourism magnet, Hanover is the island’s smallest parish and, despite the deceptively steep-looking rise to the Dolphin Head Mountains, it’s also the flattest, ensuring the island’s lowest rainfall and invariably sultry weather. The decaying grandeur of sleepy Lucea has been slated for heritage development for years, but though there’s now a large all-inclusive nearby there’s little other development along its coastline, and deserted coves beg for exploration. To the south, the flat coastal plains of Westmoreland were once Jamaica’s foremost sugar-growing area, and cane plantations still surround the main commercial town, Savanna-la-Mar. Inland, the watery attraction of Mayfield Falls offers a picturesque diversion, while eastwards quiet coastal villages backed by rugged hills project an air of pastoral neglect, with undeveloped beaches dedicated to fishing rather than aloe massages and sun loungers. Villages like Bluefields, its neighbour Belmont – birthplace of reggae revolutionary Peter Tosh – and Whitehouse, have real understated Jamaican charm and a good variety of low-key accommodation, ideal if you want peace, quiet and few other foreign faces.
Visitors destined for Negril tend to bomb along the highway to and from Montego Bay airport as quickly as possible, and consequently largely overlook the coastline of the parish of Hanover. Stopping at fishing villages cut off from the super-fast highway yields insouciant stares from locals, incredulous that you’ve torn yourself away from a resort. But the Hanover coastline has its more established attractions, too. The beautifully situated Rhodes Hall Plantation is an ideal spot for riding and diving, while there’s swimming at the marvellously secluded Half Moon Bay Beach, a far cry from the resort onslaught. The bustling market town of Lucea breathes life into the area as you head northeast from Negril, with its fair share of architectural gems, now complemented by its own large all-inclusive and a second branch of the popular north coast attraction Dolphin Cove. The mini-museum at Alexander Bustamante’s Blenheim birthplace is the only “official” historical site hereabouts, and as most people choose to remain within sight of the Caribbean Sea much of the inland Dolphin Head range of hills remains uncompromisingly indifferent to tourism.
Wild-haired and brutishly handsome, Sir William Alexander Bustamante’s physical stature, charismatic appeal and legendary appetite for women earned him a fond notoriety in the ribald world of Jamaican politics. Born Alexander Clarke on February 24, 1884, into an impoverished family working on the Blenheim estate, Bustamante rose to political prominence through a mixture of insight, cunning and cynical manipulation of the illiterate populace who worshiped him as “Busta” or simply “Chief”.
Bustamante left Jamaica at 19 in search of better prospects, and his years away are veiled in mystery, though he’s said to have laboured and cut cane alongside other migrants. He returned nearly thirty years later with an assumed surname and enough wealth to become a small-time moneylender, a shrewd move that gave him clandestine influence before he entered the political arena. The Jamaica that Bustamante returned to was still languishing under Britain’s firm imperial grip. Working conditions for those lucky enough to have a job were abysmal, and the polarities between the ruling class of whites and mixed race “browns” and the black majority were as sharp as ever. Settling in Kingston, Bustamante began to win workers’ support through outspoken condemnation of inequality. By 1938 his “fire and brimstone” warnings of racial violence and black revolution (designed to scare the colonial authorities into action) were almost realized; fanned by Bustamante’s inflammatory rhetoric, a violent confrontation between police and workers broke out at the West Indies Sugar Company in Frome, Westmoreland, sparking a wave of strikes that brought the island to a near standstill. Eclipsing the tentative support for black nationalist labour leader St William Grant, Bustamante formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union – still the main union today – and became the leader of the labour movement among the rank and file.
In 1940, distressed at the volatility of his speeches, the government seized on Bustamante’s union involvement and imprisoned him as the ringleader of the 1938 unrest. On his release in 1942, he formed the Jamaica Labour Party and swept to victory in the island’s first election in 1944, trouncing his first cousin Norman Manley’s People’s National Party so decisively that Manley lost even in his own constituency. Though the PNP enjoyed a few years of power between 1955 and 1961, it was the JLP that ruled through independence in 1962, and Sir Bustamante (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954) who danced with Princess Margaret during the ensuing celebrations. He remained active in politics until 1967 and died a National Hero on August 6, 1977, at the age of 93.
Dividing Lucea and the north coast from the flat sugar plains of Westmoreland to the south, the Dolphin Head Mountains are a languid series of low-lying hills said to resemble a dolphin – though no one seems to know where you get this perspective. The range rises to 1789ft and is known for its abundant bird life, plus 23 endemic plants including species of orchid and bromeliad. Most of the hillocks are partially cultivated by small-scale farmers, and there’s none of the cool air or remoteness of full-scale ranges like the Blue Mountains. There are no organized tours in the area, though you may be able to arrange an ad hoc guide at the tiny village of Askenish on the Lucea East River, the nearest settlement to the highest peak, or at Mayfield Falls in Westmoreland.
Full of the paradisiacal charm that originally brought tourists to Negril, the wide curve of white sand at unspoilt Half Moon Bay Beach offers no braiding booths or jet skis, just a little sea grass and some small islets (boat trips available). Nude bathing is acceptable and snorkelling equipment is cheap, while you can also arrange bamboo rafting, kayaking and horseriding in advance. The overgrown flat track behind the restaurant was once an illegal airstrip used for ganja smuggling. Bear in mind that all-inclusive groups do visit on Sundays so it can get crowded and rowdy at these times.
LUCEA (pronounced Lucy) was a flourishing port town during the plantation era, its wharves thronged with ships exporting locally produced sugar. Even Henry Morgan, during his respectable period as governor of Jamaica, moored ships here at Bull Bay Beach, a stunning cove just west of town. In slightly more recent times, Lucea yams, a tasty tuber with excellent storing properties, were exported in vast quantities to the Jamaicans who migrated in the nineteenth century to work on sugar plantations and the Panama Canal in Central America, and yams are still the mainstay of local agriculture – though these days, only the occasional shipment of molasses leaves the docks.
Despite being the capital of Hanover, Lucea is no showpiece; peeling paint pervades and even the best buildings display broken windows or sagging walls – a sharp contrast to the whitewashed faux-palace exterior of the sprawling Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort just east of town. Nonetheless, it’s a beguiling jumble of austere stone architecture and salt-and-sun-bleached clapboard houses, gaudy store-fronts and snack and rum bars, all clustered around a seething central bus park. Nearby, the Cleveland Stanhope Market spills out onto the streets on Saturdays (8am–2pm), selling local produce and household goods. Lucea’s western portion contains many older buildings; noticeable is the cut-stone steeple of Hanover Parish Church, dating back to 1725 with some fine monuments, while the cemetery’s walled area is a Jewish burial ground, presented in 1833 to the Jewish community who settled here during Lucea’s commercial heyday.
After Negril’s glittering hedonism, southwest Jamaica, with its slow fishing villages, few organized attractions and less serviceable roads, can come as quite a surprise. Restaurants remain wholeheartedly traditional, with mannish water and eye-rollingly insouciant service replacing waffles and exhortations to “have a nice day”. Locals tend to be more genuinely friendly and, unfettered by high-rises, the countryside is magnificent.
Alluvial plains occupy the western half of Westmoreland parish, with the multi-tributaried Cabarita River meandering down from the Dolphin Head Mountains through vast cane fields, to arrive at the parish’s concrete capital, Savanna-la-Mar, where brisk trade and honking horns fight against the soupy humidity. A few kilometres inland from Sav-la-Mar, Roaring River marks its entrance above ground with a spectacular blue swimming hole, having carved out an inky cave on its way, and more fabulous swimming is available at Mayfield Falls.
Hills rise up once more to the east of the parish beyond Savanna-la-Mar, hiding lush stretches of coastline and beach with reef-fringed shallows below at the contiguous fishing communities of Bluefields, Belmont and Whitehouse; a series of low-key hotels and guesthouses are perfect to appreciate the area’s unhurried charm.
Birthplace and later home of reggae-revolutionary Peter Tosh, BELMONT is a slow coastal village with a lot of life going on beneath the surface, stretching back from the main road into the hills above. Just three kilometres from the public beach at Bluefields (and 19km from Sav-la-Mar), Belmont has its own deserted fishing beach at the village’s southeastern end which in some ways is even more attractive – and you’ll always meet some interesting locals while you’re there. Offering a range of accommodation from basic to exclusive, the village is certainly a great place to relax, swim, take a boat trip, and discover rural south coast Jamaican life.
The region southeast of town as you continue along the A2 (though long forgotten by all but the most learned and aged locals) is known as Surinam Quarters in honour of the English who resettled here when the former British colony was captured by the Dutch in 1667. The scenery becomes drier, with swaths of pasture and plenty of cattle.
Consciously controversial, Peter Tosh (born McIntosh) was Jamaica’s best-known lyrical agitator. Born an only child in Belmont on October 19, 1944, he was raised by an aunt in the west Kingston tenement yards dominated, at the time, by the explosion of harmony groups that transformed post-independence Kingston into a hotbed of aspirations. Every newly arrived country “bhuttu” (or bumpkin) wanted to be a singer and Tosh followed suit, embarking on a mission to reveal home truths from a ghetto perspective. He saved to buy his first guitar and in 1964 formed vocal trio the Wailers with teenage allies Bunny Livingstone and Bob Marley. In 1972 they signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island label, and recorded Catch a Fire and Burnin’ together while Tosh put out tracks on his own Intel Diplo HIM label (Intelligent Diplomat for His Imperial Majesty), all the time becoming increasingly bitter over pay and personal disputes with the man he referred to as “Whiteworst”. By 1974, he and Bunny Livingstone had gone their separate ways.
Having already earned a reputation as the Wailers’ social conscience and an uncompromising egotist, Tosh took on the mantle of chief critic of what he called Jamaica’s “Babylon shitstem” (system), publicly berating politicians for double standards and hypocrisy, and lighting spliffs on stage with a cool disregard for the law. His bellicose militancy did him no favours with the island’s police; in 1975 he was busted on a trumped-up ganja charge and beaten to within an inch of his life. As soon as his wounds had healed, he answered back with Whatcha Gonna Do, a cocky release chiding the futility of police brutality, smokers’ anthem Legalize It and the defensive Can’t Blame the Youth – inevitable airplay bans ensured record sales and Tosh cemented his position as the roots reggae revolutionary.
Tosh stayed in Jamaica, but his status and fortune – collaboration with the Rolling Stones in 1978 and a deal with EMI attracted global recognition – drew awkward parallels with the sufferers’ lot he espoused. In a country where money and fame draw a barrage of demands from old friends, causes and shady characters, the intensely spiritual and suspicious Tosh began to display signs of paranoia, believing himself both a victim of an establishment assassination conspiracy and haunted by duppies. His prophecies of destruction were fulfilled on September 11, 1987, when gunmen opened fire in his living room, killing him and two friends, and wounding five others. Rumours concerning the motive spread, some arguing that renowned “bad man” assassin Dennis “Leppo” Lubban was exacting financial retribution for a prison stint he saw as Tosh’s rap, others muttering of a government-backed gagging.
Remembered by Jamaicans as a formidable ladies’ man with a razor-sharp wit, Tosh himself provided his best biography: the “Red X” tapes, shot on scratchy film in a darkened room, show him philosophizing on his mantra, reggae and Rastafari and form part of the essential Tosh documentary Stepping Razor Red X.
The centre of some of Jamaica’s most violent labour disputes, Frome sugar factory was built in 1938 by British company Tate and Lyle’s subsidiary West Indies Sugar Company, and was at the time the most modern facility in the West Indies. Constructed during a period of high unemployment, it drew job-seekers from across the island in their thousands. Most were unlucky, and even those who were given jobs received a pittance far lower than the salary they’d been promised. Under the fiery leadership of Alexander Bustamante, the workers banded together in protest. The dispute swiftly turned ugly; cane fields were set on fire and a full-scale riot broke out on May 3, 1938. The unrest left four dead from police bullets and one hundred demonstrators, including Bustamante, in jail. Further industrial disputes through the twentieth century ensured that Frome’s volatile reputation for collective bargaining endures.
For years Jamaican sugar was a loss-making enterprise run by the government-owned Sugar Company of Jamaica. The industry’s decline since its 1960s heyday came to the fore with the removal of preferential tariffs to the EU for former colonies in the 2000s – a crippling effect, but deemed to be in the interest of fair and free trade by the World Trade Organization. In reality, Jamaica’s problems were exacerbated by cheaper (and increased) global production, and the country’s inability to invest in technology through three decades of poverty had made its plants obsolete. After a brief, failed flirtation with a Brazilian bio-energy giant, three plants including Frome were finally sold to Chinese firm COMPLANT in 2011, which released much-needed investment for the beleaguered industry. Plans to diversify into other products like ethanol and molasses now generate excitement, but this is offset by fears of re-mechanization with the inevitable loss of hundreds of manual jobs. With food production largely undercut by cheap imports, diversification is limited, and Frome today remains the largest single employer in western Jamaica. Two hundred years after sugar gave the British Empire unprecedented wealth, the bargaining power of organized labour seems to be replaced by Jamaica’s ability to bargain in a world of Chinese expansion and global competition.
BLUEFIELDS is where pirate Henry Morgan sailed from to attack Panama in 1670, and the calm seas and sheltered bay have attracted every generation of Jamaican settler. The most interesting building is the privately owned but now virtually derelict Bluefields House, uphill from the police station. It was once a temporary home to Philip Gosse, “father of Jamaican ornithology” and inventor of the modern aquarium, who researched Illustrations of the Birds of Jamaica and A Naturalist’s Sojourn in Jamaica during an eighteen-month residence in 1844–45. In the gardens stands a breadfruit tree said to be one of the first in Jamaica, planted by Captain Bligh when he brought seedlings from Tahiti. These days, the most famous (occasional) resident is sprinter Usain Bolt, who’s said to favour the region’s calm (and its real estate opportunities) when he’s not enjoying city life in Kingston.
Low-key Bluefields Beach, the narrow, white-sand public beach here, gets very busy with Jamaicans at weekends – though weekdays you’ll have it largely to yourself. To find it follow signs to Bluefields Beach Park, itself a collection of units selling drinks, jerk chicken and full meals at the beach’s northwestern end.
At one time these two villages in the southeastern corner of Westmoreland parish were easily distinguishable separate entities, but, as with much development in Jamaica these days, there’s now just one extended urban area. A prominent south coast fishing port, WHITEHOUSE offers little beach life but plenty of commercial bustle with a fruit and vegetable market (Wed & Sat) and fishing beach, where on afternoons you can see huge hessian bags of flapping specimens weighed and bartered over, while women scale furiously. Boats return here from trips that can last as long as a week, with the fish transported islandwide. A variety of basic stalls at the market cook up a taste of the fresh catch at lunchtime – washed down with white rum, and a reggae beat to aid digestion.
Whitehouse’s satellite Culloden boasts greater sleepiness and all the decent accommodation hereabouts; the Sandals Whitehouse European Village and Spa lies just to the north, the first full-scale resort on Jamaica’s south coast on a formerly beautiful beach-fringed isthmus and crocodile swamp, with a large reef just offshore. Its name does beg the question, nonetheless, why anyone would come to rural Jamaica to stay in a European village.
On the southern slopes of the Dolphin Head Mountains, 22 mini-cascades and numerous swimming spots on the Cabarita River make up Mayfield Falls. The Original Mayfield Falls tour operator based at the side of the river offers the experience of a tranquil guided walk through bamboo-shaded cool water with swimming holes every twenty yards – a fabulous, sensuous treat compared to the contrivances of the more famous Dunn’s River Falls further east. Wear a swimming costume and bring water shoes or flip-flops as the stones are tough on bare, wet feet – while mosquitoes can also be a problem. You’ll at time be wading in chest-high water, so though you can ask the guide to keep cameras and other personal effects in a waterproof bag, avoid bringing a host of valuables with you. Hiking guides are also available for walks in the surrounding hills.
Capital of Westmoreland it may be, but there’s little to keep you in commercial SAVANNA-LA-MAR (known to most people simply as Sav). It’s the area’s main shopping centre, but as the profusion of low-lying concrete keeps the air still, it’s a hot and uncomfortable place and most people depart as quickly as possible. As it lies almost at sea level, successive hurricanes have flattened Sav through the centuries; in 1748 the wind drove the sea far enough up needle-straight thoroughfare Great George Street that boats were left dry-docked in the middle of the road. Today, most of the main street is taken up with pharmacies and general stores selling an assortment of imported designer bootlegs, though this is also the place to go if you want true yardstyle string vests, bandannas, barely-there dancehall attire or reggae music from street vendors, all at half the price of those at Negril. Great George Street ends abruptly at the seashore, where you’ll find a rough-around-the-edges fruit and vegetable market (Mon–Sat 7am–1pm), and two remaining high walls of an eighteenth-century fort that the British never completed.