Sue Lebrecht home

The Spirit of Jamaica

Published in The Toronto Star Newspaper

To come and go, without ever seeing the real Jamaica, is easy. Simply retreat to your all-inclusive resort and stay put.

You’ll have a private white sand beach that’s cleared of seaweed and raked smooth each morning. You’ll have a big, beach towel, options to snorkel, parasail, windsurf, waterski, kayak and sail. You can join a beach volleyball game, participate in a crazy T-shirt contest or take scuba lessons. Depending on your resort, there may also be tennis courts, fitness classes, gardens for strolling, pool tables, and spas offering massage and aroma therapy.

Morning, noon and night you’ll have meal buffets and menu options. Cocktails will be served to you at your hammock or lounge chair. The sunshine, warm breeze, turquoise water and sudden gust of wind that blows bright yellow butterflies down the shore, past palms and thatched umbrella sunshades—won’t be hard to take, day after day after day.

Come evening, you can sit on a terrace overlooking the sea, watch movies or learn reggae dancing at the in-house disco. Heck, rumor has it, you can even order illegal “green tobacco” from discreet employees.

More than 60% of Jamaica’s hotel rooms are all-inclusive establishments. They’re self-contained communities, each geared to indulge a distinct lifestyle. For example, Swept Away, Couples and six different Sandals properties are for sweathearts-only. Hedonism II entertains “swinging” singles. Beaches, Point Village and Boscobel Beach cater to families.

That’s a small selection, but whatever the resort and its theme, one generality holds true for all-inclusives: they’re designed to keep you content—without any reason to leave. Ultimately, of course, you’ll never want to leave, and naturally will plan to come back.

So, stepping out of this comfort zone requires effort. And I’m not talking about visiting Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios. Everybody does that. Hey, it’s a fun, quirky experience, holding hands in a long chain of strangers, hiking up a 600-foot-high waterfall over tiers of limestone. I’m not knocking it—do it, if you haven’t.

But, what I’m talking about is doing something that’s a little less tourist-bonding and a little more locally-interactive.

I’m talking about taking a taxi into Montego Bay—MoBay, as they say—and walking about. Noticing that locals wear Jamaican T-shirts, proudly advertising their own country. Visiting the craft market and watching how the price of a straw hat goes down when you smile. Trying a traditional dish like seasoned jerk pork or ackee and salt fish with green banana. Ordering a locally-brewed Red Stripe.

I’m talking about hearing reggae everywhere. Not just in your hotel lobby, restaurant and pool-side bar, but in taxis, passing cars and buses and from roadside homes. It’s not necessary to rent scooters and zoom up to Bob Marley’s birthplace to realize the king of reggae lives on here as much as—if not more so than—Elvis in America.

Granted, venturing out can be intimidating. Beggars, pickpockets and a wide assortment of petty hustlers hang around the resort-lined north shore. You’ll be asked to buy “ganja—marijuana, mon”, and badgered to buy crafts.

Memorize this: “Me No Wan Nuttin”, and bone up on a little Patois, the Jamaican dialect of English. A few expressions can go a long way in curtailing hagglers. If you can sound like a frequent visitor, you’ll be respected as one and left alone.

Also, consider heading south; in-your-face sales persistence lightens considerably away from the rich resort areas and high touristed spots.

Instead of Dunn’s River Falls, visit Y.S. Falls in the southwest of the island. The quieter cascade near Middle Quarters requires a winding countryside road trip past concessionaires selling bags of spicy peppered shrimp. Do indulge.

Y.S. Falls features a wooden staircase and viewing platforms up alongside a terraced waterfall as well as a swing rope. Young employees hold the rope and offer their hands for your feet to climb to its highest knot. When they let go, you swing over a deep pool and release to plunge.

While in the neighbourhood, go south to Black River for a wildlife boat tour. The mangrove-lined Black River is home to more than 100 species of birds and to approximately 250 endangered American crocodiles.

One tour company, Irie Safari, knows about a dozen crocs on a name-and-feed basis. The operator glides its pontoon boat into various dark, dead-end channels, calls a reptile by name—“Come Freddie, come”—grabs the beast when it approaches, pulls its immense dragon-like body lengthwise against the boat, invites you to touch its long, sharp-clawed fingers and leathery skin, then feeds it pieces of chicken.

For a touch of history, visit an old plantation Great house, like that of Good Hope, south of Trelawny. It was built in 1755 when nearly 20,000 white English land owners ruled the island and lorded over nearly 300,000 imported black African slaves.

Set on a high perch, it faces Cockpit Country, a wild, mountainous region where slaves fled from Spanish captors when the English overtook the island in 1655. Descendants, called Maroons, exist there today.

The estate offers horseback riding, swimming, tennis and lodging. Its former money safe is a honeymoon suite. Humming birds hover at a string of feeders in the garden and flocks of parrots squawk from surrounding tree tops.

Rafting on the Martha Brae River was one of my memorable experiences. Rafting—which is offered on four separate rivers—is drifting downstream on a bamboo raft. You sit with a friend on a raised cushioned seat while a guide maneuvers the 20-foot-long craft around river bends with a long pole.

“Our national motto is: ‘out of many, one people’,” said our guide Derek, a Rastafarian, whose long locks of hair lay hidden, bundled under a woolen blue cap. “My last name is Galloway. They say it’s Scottish, but I won’t know a Scottish person if I see one.”

We passed the ruins of an old sugar mill, a termite mound, banana trees and crabs crawling on tree roots. Morning glories draped the river’s banks and between groves of bamboo sat vendors selling cold beer, miniature souvenir rafts and carvings of men with grand appendages.

Of the endowments, Derek smirked, “it’s true, don’t ja know?”

Yes, Jamaica is filled with pride, and also of music, culture, history, strange food, sites and activities. But you wouldn’t know it, to lie on a private beach.