The north coast is the most developed area of Jamaica outside the capital, boasting numerous things to do and an energetic atmosphere. Highway upgrades between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios have effectively halved journey times between the two cities, opening up most of the coastline to new resort and villa developments. With many villages and towns running seamlessly into the next, it’s sometimes hard to know where each urban area starts and ends. The attraction of the north coast is nonetheless clear as soon as you leave the main road: barrelling through the diverse parishes of St Mary, St Ann and Trelawny, there is stunning scenery – sweeping cane and coconut plantations, mangrove swamps, luscious farmland and kilometres of white-sand beaches with reefs less than a hundred feet out to sea. Yet this “tourist” coast can sometimes seem like Jamaica at its most forlorn – sights are often contrived and expensive, resorts are mostly fenced-in all-inclusives and ingrained hustling can make interactions feel like a sales pitch.
Much development is centred on the “garden parish” of St Ann, so called because of the area’s immensely fertile soil. St Ann has also spawned luminaries such as Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney, and is considered by some as the spiritual centre of the island. The nucleus of the parish and the home of the famous Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios is Jamaica’s most popular holiday destination, with high-rise blocks, buzzing jet skis and thumping nightlife. But just a few kilometres to the east, the quiet coastal communities of Oracabessa and Port Maria are disturbed by little other than birdsong, with deserted coastline ideal for hiking and waterfall hunting. West of Ocho Rios, St Ann’s Bay makes a refreshing change to the glitz of its neighbour. Further west, sporadic tourism development is interspersed with peaceful villages like Rio Bueno and Duncans – and a few fantastic beaches. Inland, winding, leafy lanes pass through marvellous scenery; smack in the middle of St Ann is Bob Marley’s birthplace and the site of his mausoleum, where a cache of Rasta guides welcomes hordes of reggae disciples.
Top image: Dunn's River Falls © Alexander Sviridov/Shutterstock
East of Ocho Rios, the in-your-face tourism glitz recedes and the coast road glides through some of the most beautiful scenery on the north coast. Following Boscobel, location of the region’s aerodrome, the main settlements are Oracabessa and Port Maria – slow, close-knit communities where tourism has taken hold in a more sensitive manner, and the small guesthouses and restaurants that pepper the roadsides are generally overlooked by those who prefer sports bars and jet skis to quiet exclusivity. Low-key glamour has a lengthy history here, however, having long been a haunt of the rich and famous. Noel Coward and James Bond creator Ian Fleming both lived here and their old homes, Firefly and Goldeneye, are still standing. Firefly has been transformed into a prime tourist site, with Coward’s former guesthouse Blue Harbour an ideal spot from which to explore the area, while Goldeneye is the centrepiece of the most exclusive villa complex in Jamaica. Beyond Port Maria, the road swings inland and the coastline extends in an unbroken series of forested outcrops interspersed by deserted, volcanic-sand beaches and beautiful waterfalls reachable only on foot or by boat. Hiking uncovers breathtaking vistas – best undertaken from Robins Bay, where eco-minded accommodations offer reasonably priced guides and tours. Further inland and you are firmly off the tourist trail in the gorgeous scenery of the St Mary interior. Market communities like Dressikie and Gayle have numerous local swimming spots; ask around for directions if you’re feeling adventurous.
Jamaica’s most northerly tip, five kilometres east of Oracabessa at the Galina Lighthouse, marks your arrival in Noel Coward country. It was while at his former beach house, Blue Harbour (now a superb if quirky guesthouse) that Coward stumbled upon the historical site that was to become Firefly, perched on the hilltop high above. He bought the land from local politician Roy Lindo for £150, and from its construction in 1956 to the playwright’s death in 1973, Firefly was the Jamaican home of both Coward and his partner Graham Payn. Now it remains the area’s only organized attraction.
The house was built on the site of a former Taino settlement – with artefacts found both here and across the hillside – before later becoming the stamping ground of pirate extraordinaire Sir Henry Morgan, who used it as a vantage point during his reign as governor; gun slits in the bar recall the buccaneer days. Acquired by Island Outpost in 1992 (this arrangement is under review at the time of writing, with the museum’s future uncertain), the house remains much as Coward left it: his studio with a painting on the easel; the drawing room – where illustrious guests from Sophia Loren to Audrey Hepburn and Joan Sutherland were entertained – complete with two polished pianos; kitchen cupboards full of yellowing bottles; and the table freshly laid as it was on the day the Queen Mother came to lunch in 1965. Coward died here and is buried on the property. A statue of him by UK-based artist Angela Conner overlooks his favourite view. Even if you’re not a Coward fan, it’s worth coming up to Firefly for the panorama alone; possibly the best on the island, taking in Port Maria bay and Cabarita Island, with the peaks of the Blue Mountains poking through the clouds. You can even see Cuba on a clear day.
Lit in the afternoons by an apricot light that must have prompted its Spanish name, Orocabeza (“Golden Head”), ORACABESSA is a delightfully sleepy little town, with friendly citizens and a mere handful of tourists visiting at any one time. Some 25 kilometres east of Ocho Rios, it is centred around a covered fruit and vegetable market (main days Thursday and Friday), a police station and a few shops and bars. A centre for the export of bananas until the early 1900s, the wharves around the small natural harbour closed in 1969, taking with them the rum bars, gambling houses and most of the workers. It took until the mid-1990s for Oracabessa to begin to develop as a low-key resort, when the Island Outpost corporation (whose owner, Chris Blackwell, has family connections with the area) bought up seventy acres of prime land – from Jack’s River to the Goldeneye estate at the town’s eastern outskirts. British reggae group UB40 also set up Oracabessa Records here, and artists frequently record in their studios above the town (not open to the public).
East of the petrol station, Oracabessa merges into the residential community of Racecourse (named after a long-gone donkey-racing track), and where gates, walls and trees mask Goldeneye, the resort surrounding the unassuming white-walled bungalow designed and purpose-built by Ian Fleming, sometime military man and creator of James Bond.
The James Bond Beach Club comprises a stylish strip of sand with a collection of brightly painted changing rooms, a bar and a restaurant, yet it receives a mere handful of visitors during the week. Locals do venture down at weekends, however, and the expansive oceanfront lawns, often used to stage large-scale concerts like Fully Loaded at the end of August and Boxing Day’s Teen-Splash, make a wonderfully breezy outdoor venue. For most people though, snorkelling to see the stingrays that live in the waters surrounding the beach, or a glass-bottom-boat tour around the reef (revitalized as a result of the Oracabessa Foundation’s fish sanctuary, see oracabessafoundation.org) are the order of the day. The small adjacent Fisherman’s Beach is an equally appealing place to swim, and the Rasta carvers who’ve built a shack on the sand sell seafood meals and drinks.
One of the north coast’s most attractive plantations, Sun Valley Plantation offers the best tour of its kind in Jamaica, with plenty of insight into the development of crops on the island, linking ecology to plantation politics and agricultural exports and providing plenty of room for questions and personal attention. The fascinating growth processes of bananas, coconuts, and sugar are explained, and the tour, which takes in trees and flowers, as well as the crops themselves, finishes with drinks, a light meal and fruit tasting.
From Errol Flynn to Ralph Lauren, Jamaica has always attracted the rich and famous, but the island also served as inspiration for the ultimate (albeit fictional) symbol of glamour – James Bond. As a commander in the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the British army, Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, first visited Jamaica in 1943. Staying in the Blue Mountains, he was immediately taken with the island’s sensual pleasures and declared that he’d be back to put down permanent roots after the war. By 1947, he’d paid £2000 for a plot of land on Jamaica’s north coast that had once served as Oracabessa’s racecourse, and engaged local workers to build the elegant beach house that he’d designed himself. Naming it after a bungled NID anti-German operation he’d been involved in, Goldeneye became his winter retreat and a source of competition with neighbour Noel Coward, who insisted that his Blue Harbour was far superior to Fleming’s spartan bachelor pad.
A series of magazine articles penned by Fleming on the joys of his island paradise soon lured a fashionable set to Jamaica, and Goldeneye played host to such luminaries as Sir Anthony and Lady Eden, Truman Capote, Lucian Freud, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton. Cocktails by the pool and snorkelling with his “Jamaican wife” Blanche Blackwell (mother of Island Records’ Chris Blackwell) soon began to take up most of Fleming’s time. It wasn’t until his other lover and soon-to-be wife, Lady Anne Rothermere (ex-wife of the British newspaper baron), became pregnant in 1952 that he got down to any serious writing. He cranked out Casino Royale on a rickety old Remington typewriter with the jalousies shut to block out the distracting sea view.
Clearly besotted with the island, Fleming exploited the Jamaica connection by taking his hero’s name from the author of the classic book Birds of the West Indies – and many of his characters were inspired by Jamaican friends. Pussy Galore, in the Goldfinger novel, was said to be a tongue-in-cheek representation of Blanche Blackwell. Two novels, Doctor No and The Man with the Golden Gun, were set here (scenes for the movie versions were filmed in Kingston and Westmoreland respectively), and the island served as the fictional San Monique in Live and Let Die. And of course 007 wouldn’t have dreamed of drinking any other coffee than his favourite Blue Mountain brew. Fleming later wrote “Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it.”
Fleming returned to Goldeneye each January to spend two months writing, but the years of hard drinking and partying began to take their toll and by the late 1950s his health had seriously deteriorated. Fleming survived long enough to supervise Cubby Broccoli’s movie version of Dr No, filmed in Jamaica with Chris Blackwell as location manager. In the first few months of 1964, Fleming returned to Goldeneye and wrote his last 007 novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, infusing the pages with a strong sense of nostalgia for Jamaica. Though his Bond novels had by then sold some forty million copies, Ian Fleming died (on August 12, 1964) without ever really knowing what a sensation he had created. Four months after his death, the release of the movie version of Goldfinger signified the beginning of worldwide Bond mania.
A series of twisting outcrops protecting a natural harbour mark your arrival in the diminutive capital of St Mary, PORT MARIA. As you round the last bend, a stunning view of tiny and forested Cabarita Island is revealed, right in the middle of the bay and well known for its variety of bird species. Once one of Jamaica’s most picturesque towns – nestled around a crescent bay with lots of cut-stone and faded gingerbread fretwork alluding to more auspicious times – it’s now rather a scruffy place with little to keep you. West of the centre and marked by two sizeable royal palms at its gates is the quaint cut-stone St Mary Parish Church, dating back to 1861, with the weathered gravestones of its cemetery extending down to the sea. Nearby, in the middle of the playing field, is a monument to black freedom fighter Tacky, while the covered “ben-dung” fruit market (main day Friday) – so called as you must literally “bend down” to get items spread out over the ground – is a maze of dingy paths winding through piles of yams, bananas and assorted local produce.
A bridge crossing the murky Ochom River brings you into the centre of Port Maria, where the streets of yellow stone and timber are laid out in a rough grid. Bear in mind that the centre effectively shuts down on Wednesday afternoons – not a good time to appreciate the usual hustle and bustle. At the eastern end of town is Pagee Beach, where you can arrange a combined fishing trip and visit to Cabarita Island (approx US$25/person) with local fisherman “Wiggle”. He moors his boat at one end of the greyish sand, which, although strewn with sea grass and debris, extends in a long picturesque sweep backed by palms. If you’re here in early August come along to the annual Fisherman’s Regatta, held on the first Wednesday after Independence Day, which showcases a fishing competition as well as lining up all the local sound systems along the town’s streets.
In the late eighteenth century, Port Maria saw one of Jamaica’s bloodiest rebellions against slavery, an uprising that sowed the seeds for emancipation eighty years later. Led by a runaway slave known as Tacky (a European spelling of the Ghanaian name Tekyi, meaning “the great”), who was said to have been a chief of Coromantee descent, the rebellion sparked violent protests throughout the island. It aimed at a complete cull of whites and the creation of an all-black colony. The revolt began on Easter Sunday 1760, when Tacky and a small group of slaves from local estates murdered their overseers and marched to Port Maria, killing the storekeeper at Fort Haldane and seizing arms and ammunition. Five months of fighting ensued, with £100,000 worth of damage to nearby plantations. However, the thousand-strong slave army could not compete with British military force, which utilized loyal slaves and Maroons (following the 1739 treaty) in guerrilla warfare. The rebellion was savagely quashed and severe punishments meted out: Tacky was captured by Maroon marksmen and killed, his head cut off and displayed on a pole in Spanish Town; others were chained to stakes and burned alive, gibbeted or hung by irons, as an example to others contemplating sedition. It’s said, however, that in one last defiant gesture, Tacky’s sympathizers removed his body under cover of night and gave him a proper burial. After Tacky’s death, many of his followers committed suicide rather than live enslaved. Three hundred Africans died fighting, with fifty more captured and executed and three hundred transported abroad. Only sixty whites lost their lives.
A series of small villages and estates around 23km from Port Maria, ROBINS BAY is the ideal place to explore the stunning section of coastline between Port Maria and Annotto Bay, the last part of the north coast without development. Tourism here is based largely around the tranquil Rasta-oriented community of Strawberry, named after the Strawberry Fields campsite popular with American hippies in the 1970s, whose free-love shenanigans drew sighs of consternation from local people. An earlier claim to fame is that the campsite’s pretty white-sand cove was where Spanish governor, Don Christobel Arnaldo de Yssasi, fled the island in 1657 as the British closed in.
Signposts for Robins Bay and Strawberry Fields Together indicate the turning from the main road, and the road meanders along a craggy section of coastline past the hotel, working plantation and orchid houses of Green Castle Estate (a left turn after a kilometre). A right turn at the signed crossroads in the village beyond leads you past the incongruous concrete of Robins Bay Village Resort and down into Strawberry. The community itself, perennially laid-back, just has a couple of basic, quiet, friendly bars that offer Jamaican food, and you can look out for local fine artist/sculptor Busha (crazy-inspirations.de) who has some of the most detailed wood carvings to be found anywhere in Jamaica (ask for directions).
East of Port Maria the road swings inland, allowing the coastline to remain undeveloped, with disused plantations, ruined villages and a plethora of fruit trees growing wild. A hiker’s paradise, there are scores of attractive black-sand beaches and deserted waterfalls to explore – notably Kwamen Falls, a twenty-foot drop into a deep blue lagoon, and Tacky Falls, better accessed by boat but equally impressive. The staff at the listed accommodation can set up guides and tours along the coastline from Robins Bay, whether on foot or by boat (US$25–100). Strawberry Fields Together also offers mountain biking and possibly the best ATV/quad bike tour on the island, up through the forest along hillside trails. More leisurely pursuits include fishing trips, and an invigorating River Water Therapy Experience, with river gorge hiking, natural whirlpool massage and rock climbing. Day passes to Strawberry Fields Together, including the cove, cost US$15, which covers use of showers as well as volleyball, table tennis and use of a barbecue and wood-burning pizza oven. A short hike upstream directly from the River Lodge property passes a series of impressive rock pools and cliffs, eventually opening out into a clearing with bamboo towering overhead.
Light years away from the sleepy fishing village of a few decades ago, OCHO RIOS (usually just called “Ochi”) has long been overtaken by the tourist industry. Developed specifically as a resort, planners often overlooked aesthetics in the chase for foreign dollars. Each week thousands of cruise-ship passengers disembark here (especially from December to March), and Ochi is fully geared up to easy-access tourism with numerous neon-fronted in-bond stores, visitor-oriented restaurants and several slickly packaged attractions. Ochi isn’t the best choice for the classic Caribbean beach holiday – the meagre strips of hotel-lined sand just can’t compete with Negril and Montego Bay. Yet in spite of its scenic deficiencies and the fact that local culture takes a bit of a back seat, Ochi does boast a certain infectious energy, and the fact that its town and tourist area are one and the same means there’s less of the “sitting duck” atmosphere of the Montego Bay strip. Harassment here too, has become only a minor irritation.
“Ocho Rios” is a corruption of the Spanish name chorreros, referring to the “gushing water” of the many local waterfalls – there are not “eight rivers” here. In contrast to its poetic name, the town has a somewhat violent history as the site of several bloody battles that took place when Spanish governor Don Christobel Arnaldo de Yssasi refused to give in to the British after their capture of the island in 1655. Major skirmishes took place at Dunn’s River in 1657, Rio Nuevo in 1658 and Shaw Park in 1659, when Yssasi’s men were attacked by a group led by his erstwhile ally, Juan de Bolas, a former slave who had defected to the British. In 1660, Yssasi fled the island, but local Spanish legacy remains in a smattering of place names and through the fragrant pimento tree, first discovered by the Spanish in St Ann and commercially planted here ever since.
The British left a more pervasive mark, with their huge sugar cane, lumber and cattle farms, though most planters were absentees. Ocho Rios remained little more than a fishing harbour until the twentieth century, when tourism and bauxite began to physically sculpt the land. In 1923, a great house at Shaw Park became Jamaica’s first exclusive hotel, and by 1948 it had been joined by the Sans Souci Lido, Silver Seas and Dunn’s River (now Sandals). Recurrent crop failures led local planter Alfred DaCosta to chemically analyse the St Ann earth in 1938, finding that the soil contained high levels of bauxite, the chief raw material used to produce aluminium. Foreign companies Reynolds and Kaiser bought up huge tracts of land, and in 1968 forty acres were reclaimed from behind what is now Ochi’s Main Street. The harbour was dredged, and Reynolds built a deep-water pier, while Jamaica’s Urban Development Corporation imported sand and built another jetty for cruise ships. More than three decades later, their efforts have brought about the firmly established resort town of today.
Jamaica’s best-loved waterfall and a staple of tour brochures, Dunn’s River Falls are overdeveloped but still breathtaking, and remain the island’s major tourist honeypot. Masked from the road by restaurants, craft shops and car parks, the wide and magnificent 600ft waterfall cascades over rocks down to a pretty tree-fringed white-sand beach that’s far cleaner than the one in town. There’s a lively reef within swimming distance, and snorkel gear is available to rent from several touts.
Impressively proportioned, with water running so fast you can hear it from the road below, the falls are surrounded by dripping foliage and more than live up to their reputation, despite the concrete and commerciality. The main activity is climbing up the cascade, a wet but easily navigable hour-long clamber. The step-like rocks are regularly scraped to remove slippery algae, and the thing to prevent a stumble is to form a hand-holding chain led by one of the very experienced guides. It’s thoroughly exhilarating, as you’re showered with cool, clear water all the way up – wear a bathing suit. There’s a restaurant and bar, and full changing facilities at the beach and at the top of the falls. Hundred-strong queues frequently form along the beach; to avoid the crowds arrive at opening time or late in the afternoon (last climb at 4pm), when cruise passengers are already aboard their ships.
An alternative to the crowds and the admission price of Dunn’s River Falls are the unmaintained waterfalls above the enclosure. To get there, take the main route to Dunn’s River but carry on up past the car park to where the tarmac ends. Follow the dirt path into the bush to your right for five minutes, and there are several more waterfalls higher up the road. You may well need a local guide to find them; local ranger “Brother Mike” from Sun Venture Tours is the ideal candidate (US$70/person, min 4 people).
One of Jamaica’s best-loved street-food institutions, Faith’s Pen is a string of aroma-intensive food stalls some 26km south of Ocho Rios. Blackened by years of barbecue cooking, the stalls still do a cracking trade with locals avoiding the toll road to and from Kingston. Each sells a variation on the same theme (go for the cook with the longest queue to find the tastiest food): roast yam and saltfish, jerk chicken or pork, ackee and saltfish, roast corn, curry goat, mannish water or fish/conch soup, alongside beers and natural juices. Food sells for between J$300 and J$1200. You eat at benches, with whizzing cars and the strains of Irie FM blaring from ghetto blasters serving as background music. Though not the most picturesque place for a meal, Faith’s Pen is the consummate, and most delicious, on-the-road eating experience.
You can reach Faith’s Pen in twenty to thirty minutes’ drive from Ocho Rios: head out of town on the A3 through Fern Gully, continuing through the emerald fields dotted with dilapidated gingerbread houses and restored plantation homes to the quiet village of Moneague. From here, avoid Highway 2000 to Kingston in favour of the old A3 route through to the southern end of Moneague – you’ll find the vendors a ten-minute drive south.
In amongst the glamorous frontages of all-inclusive hotels, the studios of Irie FM are marked by a colourful billboard opposite the Coconut Grove shopping centre. Irie was Jamaica’s first reggae-only station and remains the island’s most popular – airwaves were previously dominated by American soul, gospel and country. Since its first transmission in 1990, Irie has championed the cultural legitimacy of a musical genre branded subversive until the early 1970s. Today, the station provides the soundtrack for the nation. Wherever you go, you’ll hear the music, the popular talk shows and the patois jingles: “Irie FM – a fi wi station” or “My radio dial stuck pon Irie FM, and guess what – me nah bother fix it”. Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Aswad and Third World, among many others, have recorded at Irie’s Grove Studios, and the station has brought a bit of Kingston-style culture to Ochi.
Although there isn’t that much underwater at Ocho Rios main beach – you’ll find richer pickings east of the harbour or at the reef at the bottom of Dunn’s River – the sand is lined with watersports concessions. Prices are set and displayed at boards by the entrances, and offerings range from jet skiing and banana boats to water-skiing and parasailing. Kayaks and windsurfers are also on hand. Half- or full-day deep-sea fishing for blue marlin or sailfish is available, as are glass-bottom boat rides along the coast to Dunn’s River Falls. For divers, the best spots are Devil’s Reef at the eastern end of town and a couple of shipwrecks further out to sea.
On most days, the coast reverberates to sound systems aboard pleasure cruises. Day-trips go to Dunn’s River for snorkelling and climbing the falls (try to go on one that leaves early in the morning, before the crowds), while romantic or soca sunset cruises enjoy the afternoon or early evening, usually with unlimited alcoholic drinks and snacks.
Some of the most fun activities are swimming, tubing, kayaking and rafting on the White River just to the east of Ochi. Bear in mind that the rapids are only mildly challenging even after heavy rain. Nonetheless, fear of accidents (and no doubt associated litigations) has led to a degree of over-cautiousness by commercial operators; this notably doesn’t include the lower-key attractions Irie River and Blue Hole.
West of Ochi, the coast road sees plenty of tourist traffic, though the invasiveness of large-scale development is generally restricted to beachside – such as at the established resort neighbours of Runaway Bay and Discovery Bay. Elsewhere, low-key guesthouses and boutique hotels can be sought out. With its thriving market and Georgian architecture interspersed with weather-beaten clapboard houses, St Ann’s Bay is the small, unpretentious capital of St Ann, while the ruined Spanish capital of Seville is just a few minutes away. Further west, the boundary of St Ann and Trelawny parishes marks a distinct change in the landscape, from languid hills to rugged hillocks. Undeveloped yet energetic interior communities like Brown’s Town and Alexandria perch on the fringes of Cockpit Country, close to the stunning cross-country B3 route to Mandeville. Inland, Bob Marley’s Mausoleum remains the only major attraction.
The legacy of the ambassador of reggae is impossible to over-emphasize, with his lyrics today continuing to strike a chord across every social stratum. Born February 6, 1945, Robert Nesta Marley was the progeny of an affair between 17-year-old Cedella Malcolm and 51-year-old Anglo-Jamaican soldier Captain Norval Marley, stationed in the Dry Harbour mountains as overseer of crown lands. Marley’s early years, surrounded by a doting family and the rituals of rural life, had a profound effect on his development. He clung to his African heritage and revelled in the cultural life of Kingston, where he spent most of his later life. Marley was known as a spiritual individual, emanating energy and charisma, but he was also a lover, fathering eleven children by various women including those by his wife, Rita Anderson, his 1966 marriage which lasted until he died. Appropriately enough, his 1970s membership of the Rastafarian sect the Twelve Tribes of Israel gained him the name Joseph, “a fruitful bough” according to the Bible.
Fusing African drumming traditions with Jamaican rhythms and American rock guitar, Marley’s music became a symbol of unity and social change worldwide. Between 1961 and 1981, his output was prolific. Following their first recording, Judge Not, on Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label, his band, the Wailers (Marley, Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh), went on to record for some of the best producers in the business; most agree that their finest material was recorded in collaboration with volatile genius Lee “Scratch” Perry. In 1963, the huge hit Simmer Down meshed perfectly with the post-independence frustration felt by young Jamaicans, and the group’s momentum of success began in earnest. International recognition came when the Wailers signed to the Island label – owned by Anglo-Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell, whom Marley saw as his “interpreter” rather than producer. The first Island release was Catch a Fire in early 1973, and the eleven albums that followed all became instant classics. With the help of Blackwell’s marketing skills, reggae became an international genre. Differences with Blackwell led to the departure of Livingstone and Tosh in 1974, but Marley continued to tour the world with a new band called Bob Marley and the Wailers.
In the run-up to a performance at the 1976 Smile Jamaica concert – staged by the government to quell rising tensions in a factionalized election campaign – gunmen burst into Marley’s home and tried to assassinate him. The attempt was bungled, and most of the shots hit manager Don Taylor (who made a full recovery), though Bob and Rita incurred minor injuries. Undeterred, a bandaged Marley went on stage, choosing to leave after the concert to recover and record in Britain and the US, a period which produced the album Exodus. Two years later, he returned to perform at the historic One Love Peace Concert, the result of a short-lived truce between the political garrisons of the PNP and JLP. He was the headline act of a line-up that also included Peter Tosh spitting vitriol at the politicians, and Marley ended his performance by enticing arch-enemies Michael Manley and Edward Seaga on stage to join hands in a show of unity. But Marley’s call for unity and freedom was not restricted to Jamaica; one of his greatest triumphs was performing the protest anthem Zimbabwe at the independence celebrations of the former Rhodesia.
In the midst of a rigorous 1980 tour, Marley was diagnosed as suffering from cancer; he died a year later in Miami, honoured by his country with the Order of Merit. Marley died without making a will, and years of legal wrangles resulted in his widow being granted the lion’s share. The Rita Marley Foundation (ritamarleyfoundation.org) continues to sponsor the development of new artists and to manage Bob’s legacy, and many of the Marley children have also forged their own musical careers. Ziggy, Cedella and Sharon found success as the Melody Makers, while Damian “Junior Gong”, his son by 1976 Miss World Cindy Breakespeare, is an established star with four albums and three Grammys to his name. Steven Marley has found success as both producer and recording artist, and US-based Kymani has had a number of reggae-hip-hop hits. In the hearts of both Jamaican and global fans, though, the master’s voice can never be equalled.
The north coast is sometimes referred to as “Columbus Country”, as the conquistador got his first sight of Jamaica at St Ann’s Bay. Sailing in during his second voyage in 1494 to claim new territories for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Christopher Columbus was so impressed by its beauty that he named it Santa Gloria. He was rather less enamoured during his fourth and final voyage in 1503, when his unseaworthy caravels forced his crew to spend an unhappy year marooned here, awaiting rescue from compatriots in Hispaniola. Plagued by illness and worried by a partial mutiny, Columbus used bribery and superstition (his prediction of a solar eclipse led them to believe he was a god) to coerce indigenous Tainos into providing food for them.
Columbus died in Spain in 1506, but his son Diego was appointed Governor of the Indies. He directed Juan de Esquivel to establish the first Spanish colony on the island, Sevilla Nueva, in 1510. Situated on the site of the Taino village of Maima, Sevilla Nueva eradicated Jamaica’s Amerindian population in fifty years. The encomienda system of serf labour – the antithesis of the unfettered Taino lifestyle – was brutally enforced, and caciques (Taino chiefs) selectively murdered. With their society in tatters and forms of authority destroyed, the Tainos were easily branded and enslaved. Alongside Africans, transported to the island by the Spanish for the purpose, they were conscripted to build the new city. Less robust than the Africans, the Amerindians were unable to bear a life of slavery; ill treatment and European diseases soon eradicated those who didn’t commit suicide. But while the Tainos expired, New Seville rapidly developed into a sizeable town, with churches, irrigation and a wharf. Its occupation lasted only until 1534, however, when the marshy, disease-inducing environment was abandoned in favour of Villa de la Vega, or Spanish Town.
Cranbrook Flower Forest is an exquisitely landscaped, 130-acre nature park with grassy lawns, tilapia fishing pond, resident peacocks and a swift-running river with marvellous swimming pools for adults and splashing children alike. No ghetto-blasters or vendors are allowed, and it’s the perfect place for a picnic or barbecue in the purpose-built gazebos. Beyond the pond and lawns, pathways overhung with tropical flowers, tree ferns, orchids, philodendrons and sheaves of giant bamboo run parallel to the riverbank. Strategically placed steps lead down to the deeper pools, but for the best swimming you’ll need to walk a kilometre to the riverhead, a gorgeous 20ft-wide pool where the river gushes up from the rocks. Surrounded by lush greenery, the turquoise water is cool and refreshing. In conjunction with Chukka Cove, the park’s latest attraction is an adrenalin-fuelled canopy tour with nine zipline traverses of varying lengths and degrees of fear factor, whizzing you through the treetops. It’s best to bring your own food and drink to Cranbrook, though you can buy snacks from the tuck shop and bar.
With the highway speeding off towards Montego Bay, it’s easy to miss the turning for DUNCANS, a peaceful village huddled under the hills of Cockpit Country, with a clock-tower timepiece that hasn’t worked for almost thirty years. Most visitors passing through come to stay at the restful and secluded villas of Silver Sands, a wide and windswept beach with powdery white sand and superlative swimming – accessed from just west of town. The coastline here is sublime, though the Silver Sands beach has a hefty day fee for non-guests and is totally out of the reach of locals. A neighbouring public beach, just west of the Silver Sands entrance, is unfortunately rocky, though swimming is possible.
RIO BUENO is a quiet village of crumbling eighteenth-century buildings cowering in the shadow of a towering animal-feed factory and lumber export dock – fortuitously absent when the place was used as a set for A High Wind in Jamaica. Now cut off from the main highway, which bypasses the town, you’ll need to look for the two turnings east and west of the village carefully; they’re easily missed. It’s popularly agreed that the “crescent harbour” in Rio Bueno was where Christopher Columbus – having spent a night anchored off St Ann’s Bay during his “discovery” of the island in 1494 – decided to land, recording the bay’s rapidly running river and horseshoe dimensions in his diary. Columbus made a lucky choice as Rio Bueno also boasts one of Jamaica’s deepest harbours. History is also present in the form of a ruined British fort, named after secretary of war Henry Dundas, and dating back to 1778, and in the blue- and white-painted St Mark’s Anglican church, built at the sea’s edge in 1833. The original Baptist church was burnt to the ground by hostile Anglicans – the present incarnation above town was erected in 1901.
Attractive ST ANN’S BAY stretches up the hillside entirely inland from the coast road. Characterized by its porticoed shop-fronts, sloping streets and old-fashioned atmosphere, it’s small enough to cover on foot in an hour, with two central thoroughfares, Bravo and Main streets, meeting in a crossroads. The Main Street shops and market hog the action, and dominating from the top of the street is the town’s distinctive 1860 courthouse (observation gallery open to the public). In the middle of a nearby roundabout, Christopher Columbus strikes a noble pose above sunken ships, and just before the road forks, the pretty Catholic church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is constructed of stone reclaimed from an earlier structure – Peter the Martyr Church, the first stone church in Jamaica, built in 1524 by the Spanish in nearby Sevilla Nueva. The quieter left fork of Main Street holds the library, with its Marcus Garvey memorial statue out front proclaiming the words “We Declare to the World – Africa Must Be Free”. The house where he was born is a private residence, but a parade in his honour takes place every August 17, and the library itself is a good source of information on Garvey’s life.
Staying in St Ann’s Bay has its advantages, especially if you have your own vehicle; you escape the dust and bustle of Ochi while being close enough to enjoy its good points, as well as enjoy the inland sights and scenery.
Born at 32 Market Street in St Ann’s Bay in August 1887, the Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey was one of the most powerful black rights activists of the twentieth century. His outspoken denunciations of colonialism and racism and his concrete efforts to unite and empower the African diaspora influenced politicians, musicians and academics alike. Rastafarians call him a black prophet, and his philosophies form the basis of their faith.
Reputedly of Maroon descent, Garvey was the son of a master stonemason with an uncompromising attitude, who pursued multiple lawsuits against those who had slighted him on racial grounds. Though lack of funds ended the young Garvey’s formal schooling at fourteen, he continued to study privately and spent long hours in his father’s library. Prodigious from an early age, Garvey was made foreman of his uncle’s printery at eighteen. But small-town living offered scant opportunities, and in 1906 he moved to Kingston and found work as a printery foreman – a significant coup when supervisors were usually white. As an activist in the fledgling trade union movement, Garvey was disturbed at the injustice meted out to black workers, and he left in search of better prospects in Costa Rica. There, he worked on a banana plantation and set up workers’ newspapers to publicize the deplorable conditions for West Indian migrants. During a stint in England in 1912, he read up on black nationalists at Birkbeck College, and Booker T. Washington’s seminal text Up From Slavery informed Garvey’s increasing militancy.
In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica and formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) “to champion Negro nationhood by redemption of Africa; to make the Negro race conscious, to advocate self-determination, to inspire and instill racial love and self-respect”. But Jamaica’s middle classes weren’t ready for such radicalism, and Garvey immigrated to the US in 1916 to seek a more sympathetic audience. Black Americans identified so strongly with him that by 1920 the UNIA had become the largest black pressure group ever to exist in the US, with a membership of millions. Though outlawed in most of the colonies, Garvey’s self-published Negro World achieved the largest circulation of any black newspaper in the world. With the financial backing of thousands who bought shares, Garvey formed the Black Star Line Shipping Company to foster trade links between black nations and enable repatriation to the African homeland.
Though known principally as a “Back-To-Africa” advocate, Garvey was equally concerned with improving the situation of blacks wherever they found themselves. His assault on post-colonial nihilism was his greatest achievement, countering feelings of inferiority and powerlessness fostered during enslavement, and advocating black pride by emphasizing the historical achievements of Africans: “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will”. Garvey was regarded as a subversive by white America, and his supporters saw his 1922 two-year imprisonment on a trumped-up mail-fraud charge as an attempt to muzzle the message. Pressure from UNIA members secured his release, but in 1927 he was deported back to Jamaica on a wave of publicity. A loss of momentum ensured that the Black Star Line foundered, and Garvey never recaptured his early success. Tiring of constant battles with authority, he moved the struggle to the UK, where he died in obscurity in 1940. His importance was only recognized posthumously – in 1964 his remains were returned to Jamaica and interred in Kingston’s National Heroes Park. In the 1970s, reggae music inspired a resurgence of Garveyism in Jamaica, with Rastafarian musicians like Burning Spear immortalizing his life and work. Today, Marcus Garvey’s ideas remain central to the Jamaican national consciousness.
Brainchild of Lisa and Chris Binns, Stush in the Bush (stushinthebush.com) is an innovative organic farm-to-table tour with as much focus on fine ingredients and flavoursome food as on ecological sustainability. Rustic bush and high-end stush (poshness) collide here, with their gorgeous self-built and off-grid cabin also the focus for a product line in tasty chutneys, herb marinades and deluxe cooking sauces made from homegrown ingredients. The tour takes in education on farming methods and food quality alongside tasting a variety of unusual fruits and vegetables. You can pick your own micro-greens to cover delicious thin crust pizza made outdoors in front of you (think plantains, peppers and fresh pesto), or opt for a fuller vegetarian spread, eaten for lunch or by evening torchlight, all washed down with stushy sorrel squash or lemongrass ice-tea.