Mass tourism has yet to reach Jamaica’s southern parishes – the beaches aren’t packed with sun-ripened bodies and there still remain some great off-the-beaten-track places to visit – so if you want to catch a glimpse of Jamaica as it was before the tourist boom, head south. Though without the turquoise seas and white-sand beaches of the north, Jamaica’s southern coastline is among the most spectacular on the island. The scenery is wild and unspoilt, with giant cacti standing sentry at the roadside and thickets of makka thorn bushes, wetland morass and twisted mangroves giving way to glimpses of undeveloped coves, the volcanic sand twinkling in the sunlight. It takes a bit of extra effort to get here, and you’ll need a car or a tour to see some of the more remote highlights, but it’s definitely worth it.

The parishes that make up south-central Jamaica are immensely varied, with the landscape ranging from mountain to scrubby cactus-strewn desert, and from typically lush vegetation to rolling fields more redolent of the English countryside. To the west, in the beautiful parish of St Elizabeth, Black River is the main town, an important nineteenth-century port that today offers popular river safaris and a handful of attractive colonial-era buildings. If you’re after somewhere to stay and swim, Treasure Beach is a better target; it’s an extremely laid-back place with lovely yellow-sand beaches and some unique accommodation options that are fast making it a major destination in the south. As for touring around, you can make for the Appleton Estate rum distillery on the Cockpit fringes, the fabulous YS waterfalls or drive around the tiny villages of the attractive and untouristed Santa Cruz Mountains.

Further east, the parishes of Manchester and Clarendon are less diverse and a little less appealing. Manchester, with its cool evenings and misty mornings, has the major town of Mandeville, a very English inland touring base that makes a pleasant, if unspectacular, change from the coast, and the much smaller market town of Christiana, an unspoilt retreat with a single, delightful old hotel. Along the coast, there’s marvellous river and sea swimming, and some great fish restaurants at Alligator Pond, while the combination of mineral spring and black-sand beach at Gut River provides one of the most picturesque spots on the entire island. The parish of Clarendon is total farming country, with large citrus groves in the north and sugar-cane fields everywhere else, but it offers a handful of unusual places to visit including the mineral spa at Milk River.

Although remnants of the once lucrative bauxite industry are still around (in the form of massive empty factories and dried-up red mud lakes), it is agriculture that has been and continues to be, despite St Elizabeth’s dry climate, the main stay of the local economy, producing most of the country’s agricultural surplus – which is why the area is known as Jamaica’s “breadbasket”. Recently, tourism has begun to make an impact, though it is unlikely ever to approach north-coast levels. The emphasis is on small-scale, community-based, environmentally friendly tourism, avoiding the disruption to traditional lifestyles that the industry has caused elsewhere on the island.

Black River

Although it’s St Elizabeth’s largest town, BLACK RIVER is a quiet spot, and most travellers only nip in briefly to take a boat trip on the river in search of crocodiles, or stay a couple of nights whilst exploring the delights of western St Elizabeth. It wasn’t always this way, though: in the mid-nineteenth century the town derived substantial wealth from the trade in logwood, used to produce black and dark-blue dyes for the textiles industry and exported in great quantities from Black River’s port. For a brief period the trade helped to make the town one of the most influential in Jamaica, with electricity, the telephone and the car all first introduced to the island here, and a big racecourse built to the west of town. However, with the introduction of synthetic dyes, the trade in logwood began to dry up, and today, the only signs of those illustrious days are some wonderful but decrepit old gingerbread houses.

Black River and the Great Morass

The main reason most people come to the town is for a boat safari on the Black River itself, which, at 71km, is Jamaica’s longest. The river – so named because the peat moss lining the river bottom makes the crystal-clear water appear an inky black – is fed by various tributaries as it makes its way down from Balaclava, on the Manchester/St Elizabeth border. It’s the main source for the GREAT MORASS – a 201-square-kilometre area of wetland that spreads north and west of Black River and provides a swampy home for most of Jamaica’s surviving crocodiles as well as some diverse and spectacular bird life. It’s the best place to spot the crocodiles, a rapidly dwindling bunch now protected by law, who once lived in great numbers around the coast of Jamaica until hunting and the deterioration of the swamplands began to take their toll.

Parottee

Just beyond Black River, going east is secluded Parottee, which has also begun to promote its fledgling tourism product. Visitors are slowly coming to this quiet fishing village to explore nearby swamplands and go birdwatching, take boat tours to Pelican Bar – a ramshackle bird’s-nest of a bar built on a sand bar a kilometre off Parottee Point – or simply enjoy the kilometres of pristine, all-to-yourself, golden-sand beaches just beyond the main road. Boats to Pelican Bar depart from Basil’s Bar at the end of the Parottee main road (US$15/person; t369 2565).

Central St Elizabeth

The A2 highway speeds inland from Black River, passing through some attractive countryside before making the long climb up Spur Tree Hill to Mandeville. The main road passes through Bamboo Avenue, with its walls of tall bamboo, and there are several interesting detours worth taking, particularly in the interior of St Elizabeth. There are gorgeous waterfalls at YS, hiking possibilities in the Black River Gorge and the quiet and completely untouristed villages of the Santa Cruz Mountains. You can also visit a rum factory, beautifully placed among fields of sugar cane at Appleton, on the southern edge of Cockpit Country (see Chapter 4).

Accommodation options in the area are limited and you may want to consider visiting on day-trips from a base on the south coast or in Mandeville.

Maggotty

MAGGOTTY, east of YS and eleven kilometres from the main A2 highway, resembles a small Wild West frontier town. It’s a dry, dusty place, most of whose inhabitants work at the Appleton Estate rum distillery nearby.

The Appleton Estate Rum Tour

The Wray and Nephew rum distillery at APPLETON has a great setting in the Nassau Valley among thousands of acres of sugar-cane fields. At 250 years old, this is one of the oldest rum producers in the English-speaking Caribbean and the best known of Jamaica’s several brands. All of the rum produced here is sent for blending, barrelling and bottling in Kingston – though some barrels are sent back here to age in a warehouse viewed during the tour.

The hour-long Appleton Estate Rum Tour starts with a complimentary drink and video session, followed by a visit to the factory (heavy with the sweet scent of molasses) and the cobwebby, ageing house, and then outside to an old sugar press, where donkeys used to walk in circles to turn a grinder that crushed juice out of the sugar cane. Today it’s all mechanized, though a donkey has been put back into service to demonstrate old techniques. The tour concludes in a “tavern”, where you get to sample all seventeen kinds of rum and various rum-based liquors. Though you’re free to drop in, it’s a good idea to call ahead to arrange a guided visit, if only to avoid your visit coinciding with a big tour party.

Rum and raison d’étre

Rum – once known as rumbullion or kill-devil – is Jamaica’s national drink, and you couldn’t choose a better place to acquire a taste for the stuff. Jamaica was one of the first countries to make rum commercially and it still produces some of the world’s finest. Overproof is the drink of choice for the less well-off – it’s cheap, lethally strong (64 percent alcohol) and, supposedly, cures all ills. If you can’t handle the overproof, the standard white rums are the basis for most cocktails, while more refined palates go for the darker rums. During the ageing process these rums acquire colour from the oak barrels in which they are stored and, as they get older, they slip down increasingly smoothly with no need for a mixer.

Distilling of sugar-cane juice started in Jamaica during the years of Spanish occupation, stepping up a few gears when the British took over in 1655 and rum became famous as the drink of the island’s semi-legitimate pirates and buccaneers. The production process hasn’t changed much over the centuries, although it has become fully mechanized, putting a number of donkeys out of work in the process. The sugar cane is squeezed to extract every drop of its juice, which is then boiled and put through a centrifuge, producing molasses. In turn, the molasses is diluted with water, and yeast is added to get the stuff fermenting away. After fermentation, the liquid “dead wash” is sent to the distillery, where it’s heated, and the evaporating alcohol caught in tanks. It sounds simple enough – and it is. But when you discover that it takes ten to twelve tonnes of sugar cane to produce half a bottle of alcohol, which is then blended with water and a mixture of secret ingredients (molasses is almost certainly among them) to make the finished product, you begin to appreciate all those fields of swaying cane a little more.

Peppa swimps

Undeniably a highlight of driving along the south coast is the opportunity to indulge in a bag of salty, Scotch-bonnet-spiced boiled pepper shrimp – otherwise known as peppa swimps – fished from the Black River and sold at Middle Quarters. Feel free to sample from the proffered bags before you buy; reckon on around J$500 for a small bag. Buy some to add to your picnic if you’re heading to the YS Falls or take a few minutes out to crunch them on the roadside and have a chat with the women. Incidentally, don’t be intimidated by the fiercely competitive approach of the sellers – they are often all members of the same family and if one is lagging in sales for the day, she will usually be thrust forward to clinch the deal. If available, try the equally delicious janga (shrimp) soup (J$300).

YS Falls

YS (pronounced “why-ess”), an area dominated by the YS farm, is the home of the magnificent YS Falls. The name is thought to derive from the farm’s original owners in 1684, John Yates and Richard Scott, whose initials were stamped on their cattle and the hogsheads of sugar that they exported. Today the farm covers around 2300 acres and raises pedigree Red Poll cattle – a breed that you’ll see all over the country. The YS Falls, a series of ten greater and lesser waterfalls, are great fun. A jitney pulls you through the estate and along the banks of the YS River to a grassy area at the base of the falls, where there are changing rooms and toilets. You can climb up the lower falls or take the wooden stairway, which leads to a platform beside the uppermost and most spectacular waterfall. There are lianas and ropes for aspiring Tarzans, and pools for gentle bathing at the foot of each fall as well as two spring-water swimming pools on the flat, one with private cabanas, perfect for lounging. For the more adventurous, there’s a canopy tour: once strapped to a harness you can zip through the treetops starting at the top of the waterfall and finishing just before the spring-water swimming pool. Early morning is a good time to go, before the afternoon clouds (and the bus tours) draw in; take a picnic and a book and you can comfortably spend a few hours loafing around the gardens. Cold beers, soft drinks, coffee and simple snacks are offered in the well-stocked gift shop.

Christiana

CHRISTIANA is a small market town for the surrounding agricultural community, where potatoes, yams, ginger, coffee and cocoa are grown. Lofty and cool, three thousand feet up in the hills, the town was a popular resort for “old-style” tourism in the 1940s and 1950s, when beaches and tanning were less fashionable than they are today. If you have a car, Christiana also makes a decent base for visiting Appleton and Maggotty to the west or Bob Marley’s mausoleum to the northeast in Alexandria.

Denbigh Agricultural Show

A three-day fair in the Denbigh showgrounds just west of the town of May Pen, the Denbigh Agricultural Show features displays of agricultural produce from each of the country’s fourteen parishes, exhibits of prize livestock and a coronation event for the Miss Jamaica Farm Queen. There’s also plenty of live entertainment, including singers, dancers and reggae bands, and the usual array of food vendors and craft stalls. Now in its seventh decade, the show makes for a great family day out; it’s normally held over the last weekend in July or the first weekend in August.

East of Treasure Beach

The road leading east out of Treasure Beach rises and dips through the hilly farming communities of Pedro Cross, Flagaman, Southfield and Top Hill, winding its way along with dramatic views of the sea until reaching the bustling town of Junction –where all the roads from the coast rise to meet in one chaotic main square. The drive itself is incredibly picturesque, taking in the quilt-like farming landscape, colourful street bars, watermelon vendors and the incongruous, massive homes of returned residents who have opted for the cooler climate of the hills. Once off the main road that leads to Junction, and moving towards the southeast coast, the terrain around every hairpin corner begins to change again, going from urban to rural to completely wild and arid, ending in the dusty fishing town of Alligator Pond. Here you’ll find little more than a couple of tasty seafood spots and a quiet black-sand beach that you can usually claim all for yourself. On the way back out of town, just right of the main road (there is no signpost so ask if uncertain), is the south coast road, built with a vision of local tourism development now long forgotten. Although completely undeveloped and a little desolate in places (you wouldn’t want to break down here as it could take a while before anyone passes by), the road itself is in good shape and makes an interesting way to go off the beaten track towards May Pen. For kilometres, there’s not much to see except rugged, sparse cacti and thatch-strewn coastline and then thick overgrown reeds edging the road as you approach the morass – but if you persevere the drive will eventually take you past cooling Gut River and alongside the Canoe Valley observation area for a chance to see one of Jamaica’s remaining manatees. Most travellers who take this route do so to get to the world famous – albeit in desperate need of funding – Milk River Spa in the quiet, dusty town of Milk River, where you can take a soothing dip in the mineral waters before reconnecting with the A2 towards May Pen.

Alligator Pond

At first glance, the ramshackle fishing village of ALLIGATOR POND is not one of the most attractive spots on the south coast. But if you’re passing, it’s worth stopping to get the feel of a part of Jamaica pretty much unsullied by tourism, and to eat some superb seafood. Where the main road into Alligator Pond opens up into an unofficial town square, a dirt road to the right leads to several small shacks selling lobster and fish fresh from the boats.

There’s no tourism scene here as such, but there’s a bar at the water’s edge, and local families arrive at the weekends for a day on the beach. It’s also a great spot for watching the sunset – or the moonrise over the hills, which slip down to the sea in the unmistakeable shape of an alligator’s head.

Canoe Valley

The drive from Alligator Pond to Alligator Hole and Milk River is what Jamaicans call a “lonely road” (with a shiver of misgiving), but it’s a lovely drive through an isolated area known as Canoe Valley, or the Long Bay Morass, much of it along the coast, with goats and sea birds usually your only company. The area is barely touched by development and remains a naturalist’s paradise, with the dry, cactus-strewn slopes in the west giving way to mangrove swamps as you head further east – brilliant for birdwatching. In several places, you can access the beautiful, completely deserted stretch of brown-sand beach along Long Bay. It’s not really a place to swim – the water is usually rough and currents strong – but it’s a marvellous spot for a walk, with plenty of driftwood and shells to collect.

Gut River

One of the most picturesque places on the south coast, Gut River runs under the road towards the sea, emerging in a clear blue stream edged by coconut palms and huge aloe plants, where you can swim and watch frigate birds and egrets flap lazily around. Unfortunately, developers have recently taken over the land adjoining and although no current plans are in place to build anything specific yet, they have put up a massive wall making the river difficult (but not impossible) to access. These semi-built structures and the interest of the new owners means that on weekends, especially Sundays, the spot draws a crowd and often a sound system too; best to visit early in the morning on a weekday.

Milk River

There’s little to the village of MILK RIVER, a couple of kilometres inland from Alligator Hole, other than the spa, the usual crowd of schoolchildren and a smattering of churches, although there are rumoured plans to build a large all-inclusive hotel close to the spa. The river itself is named for its colour in the early morning, when it is shrouded in mist; swimming is not a great idea, given that the river is home to a number of crocodiles. Three kilometres beyond the spa, past rows of giant cacti, is the tiny fishing village of Farquhars which has, at its western end, a passable black-sand beach where you can swim in the ocean. Expect lots of good-natured attention from the locals, as tourists very rarely venture this far.

Milk River Spa

The hot mineral springs at Milk River were first discovered in the early eighteenth century. Mineral spas were subsequently built in the area – first opened to the public in 1794 – and are today housed in the basement of the Milk River Hotel. Renovations on the main baths, including new tiles and mosaic designs, have added to its appeal, as well as the opening of three additional, larger baths at the far end of the hotel – only open on special occasions. Many of the guests at the hotel and spa are return visitors who swear by the curative powers of the water for a range of ailments from rheumatism to gout, nerve diseases and sciatica. Other visitors find their curiosity tinged with concern about the high radioactivity levels of the baths – more than fifty times that of the waters at Vichy in France – although the staff will assure you that this is quite harmless so long as you don’t stay in for more than fifteen minutes at a time.

Mandeville

You can almost feel the wealth in MANDEVILLE, Jamaica’s fifth-largest town. Founded in 1814, the big money started to arrive here in the 1950s as a result of a now-defunct but once highly profitable bauxite industry that grew up around the town. More recently, returning expatriate Jamaicans, attracted by the cooler climate (you’ll need a sweater in winter) and the relatively low crime rate, have begun to invest their accumulated savings in large homes and small businesses around town, and Mandeville has grown at an unprecedented rate. Tourism has dipped in the last few years, although from the early days of the Mandeville Hotel in the 1890s, the town was popular with British soldiers who came to escape the heat of the coastal areas and to recuperate from their fevers and diseases. To this day the town still retains something of its early colonial air – most noticeably at the very English Manchester Golf Club, just west of the town centre. For sightseeing, a car is definitely a major asset; although you can see everything in the town centre on foot, getting out to the old great house at Marshall’s Pen or visiting the local coffee factory will require your own wheels.

Community tourism

The creation of big tourist “ghettos” on Jamaica’s north coast has completely disrupted traditional lifestyles there and means that, often, the only contact overseas visitors have with Jamaicans is when they’re serving drinks or driving tour buses. In the face of its own gradually developing tourist scene, Jamaica’s south coast, where the absence of large-scale beach resorts offers visitors more of a feel of the “real” Jamaica, is keen to escape such insensitive development. Planners and hoteliers are showing increasing interest in the concept of “community tourism”, which aims to contain and control tourism by fostering closer connections between the tourist and the community. In Mandeville, Diana McIntyre-Pike of Countrystyle Community Tourism Network (t507 6326, waccesscommunitytourism.com) can put together tailor-made tours of the island with themes including “Taste, Nature and Roots” and “Marvellous Mandeville”. The cost is US$60 per person including lunch and a community/host guide but not transport. She can also arrange homestays (US$40–$60).

Pedro Cays

If you spend any time in this part of Jamaica, you’ll appreciate the importance of the local fishing industry. Tiny fishing villages are scattered along the coast, with boats pulled up on stretches of the beach; even in tourist areas like Treasure Beach, fishing remains vital to the local economy. Many of the fishermen make month-long trips to the Pedro Banks, a series of sandy cays in rich, but treacherous, fishing waters some 129km south. Over the years, full-scale communities have become established on these tiny blips in the ocean, and the abandoned behaviour of the fishermen and the few women who live on them semi-permanently are the stuff of local legend. However, things on the cays are more organized these days, with a police post ensuring some semblance of order, and two-way radio transmitters. The cays are the preserve of Jamaica’s hardiest fishermen, so not a destination for a day-trip, but if you want to try your hand at fishing JA-style, ask around at any of the fishing villages.

Treasure Beach

South of the main A2 road between Black River and Mandeville, snoozy TREASURE BEACH is the bright spark of south-coast tourism. A string of laid-back fishing villages tucked under the Santa Cruz Mountains amid some of Jamaica’s most beautiful countryside, the area is the ultimate antidote to the island’s more commercialized resorts. Tourism is very much a community concern here: many of the accommodation and eating places are owned by local families, and as there are no fenced-off all-inclusives to create a barrier between the locals and the visitors, everyone mixes easily together. One of the safest areas in Jamaica, this tight-knit, proud community has both a solid tourist infrastructure and a strong sense of its own traditional values. It’s a tiny spot, with no neon beach-bars or jet skis or sun loungers on the beaches, and attracts a mix of hip, bohemian jet-setters and young backpackers who simply want to unwind and absorb Jamaica’s gentler, more pastoral side.

The Santa Cruz Mountains rise up from the sea just east of Treasure Beach and run northwest, providing a scenic backdrop for the village and protecting the area from rain clouds coming from the north. As a result, Treasure Beach has one of the driest climates in the country, and the scrubby, desert-like landscape – red-earth savannahs strewn with cactuses and acacia trees – is often reminiscent of the African plains. Despite the dry weather, though, this is very much farming country, and you’ll see rolling plantations of carrots, scallions, thyme, onions and watermelons scattered around the area. You may also notice that many of the residents have a very distinctive appearance – red or blonde hair; blue, green or yellow eyes; light skin and freckles – that is said to be the result of intermarriage between locals and a crew of Scottish sailors who were shipwrecked here in the nineteenth century. Whatever the reason, Treasure Beach’s “red” men and women, as they’re known, are famed islandwide for their unusual beauty.

There’s a good and ever-expanding range of accommodation options here, including a delightfully eclectic collection of villas and beach cottages to rent, some great places to eat and a couple of diverting attractions, while the bays that make up the area feature some spectacular undeveloped golden-sand beaches. You’ll probably stay on the long sandy sweep of Frenchman’s Bay, where tourism has largely displaced fishing as the main industry, or smaller Calabash Bay, where you can still see brightly coloured fishing boats pulled up on the beach below the newly constructed villas and guesthouses. To the east, Great Bay remains a basic fishing village with a sprinkling of guesthouses and some spectacular scenery, while west of Frenchman’s Bay the road runs out of town past Billy’s Bay, home to some of the more upmarket villas in Treasure Beach, some pretty, deserted beaches and a lot of goats.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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