The playful, peaceful side of the south coast
Everyone who has ever been to Jamaica knows of Dunn's River Falls. It is perhaps the most photographed attraction in the Caribbean, thanks to its postcard-perfect beauty as well as its proximity to cruise ports. But many travellers will be surprised to learn that Jamaica is loaded with an abundance of alluring beauty spots, secret hideaways, and lesser-known attractions of compelling interest, WHICH are tucked away across the island. I wanted to explore some of these treasures along the St Elizabeth south coast, so I packed a bag and hit the road by car, starting from Negril.
We set out early on a Saturday morning from Negril after breakfast, and our first stop on the itinerary was a boat ride on the Black River. Along the way to the town of Black River, we drOve through Little London, Savanna-la-Mar, Bluefields, Whitehouse, and Border, major towns along the way. We linger, making many stops to take photos and to buy roadside treats. Pineapples, mangoes, naseberries, star apples, and custard apples are in season so we load up.
SLICE OF HISTORY
At a dramatically beautiful cove that suddenly appears out of nowhere at the border of Westmoreland and St Elizabeth, the fish and bammy is a temptation we can't resist. We buy some for lunch and continue to the starting point for the river adventure.
Whew! We've missed our 11:15 a.m. boat due to the many stops along the way. Happily, it's Jamaica, so no problem! A reassuring hostess informs us that another boat will sail in about an hour. We use the wait time to stroll across the old iron bridge in the centre of the town to contemplate the old, quaint buildings in the downtown area, some with layers of peeling paint on narrow streets that must date back to the early 1900s. The day is quite hot, so we head for a bar to find cold drinks. As I sip on a refreshing drink called iCool, I remember a slice of history - Black River was the first Jamaican town to welcome electricity back in 1893.
Soon, we are in a canoe with a motor engine attached heading into the almost impenetrable Black River morass, a part of Jamaica that most Jamaicans never see. The tour is called the Black River Safari Tour and our guide is Terron, a twenty-something-year-old with vast knowledge of the river and its flora and fauna. He also has a wickedly classic sense of humor. He told us that the river is 44 miles long. As we journey upstream for almost three miles, a picture of ravishing scenic beauty unfolded. The stillness of the Saturday afternoon was only broken by the twitter of hummingbirds. We saw various types of mangroves, reeds, floating vegetation, river fish, crabs, and frogs.
"Come, come, come," Terron interrupts in a commanding voice, and, like magic, at the edge of the boat appeared Crocodile Eric, to whom we are introduced. Terron described Eric as friendly, but he also reminds us that this American crocodile has an arsenal of 38 upper teeth and 30 bottom ones. "With your measly 32 teeth, if you have all of them, you can't compete with his 68," he told his passengers to an outburst of laughter. Undaunted, we pressed on to explore the other wonders of the peat-loaded Black River, which has its origins in the parish of Trelawny, sometimes disappearing underground as it journeys to the sea.
The fascinating Black River Safari lasts just over an hour and the ride is meditative and therapeutic.
ONE OF A KIND
Our next stop is at YS Falls, less than an hour away. We don't want to be late again, but it is a monumental task to ignore the hundreds of bags of mouthwatering pepper shrimp in Middle Quarters Square. We grabbed a few bags and before long, we were at the breathtaking YS Falls, riding a jitney through a 19th-century plantation littered with ancient and rare trees.
Two hours later, after inhaling some of the prettiest parts of Jamaica eyes could ever behold, cruising through south St Elizabeth, gliding by farming communities, churches, lovely homes, and dramatic mountain scenery, we arrived at our accommodation, Jakes Hotel, Villas & Spa at Treasure Beach. Jakes is a one-of-a-kind, magical, mystical hand-crafted abode by the sea, with great attention to detail. We were warmly greeted by a chorus of happy staff members, who offered us a welcome watermelon juice with a tinge of ginger. Later, we were ushered to a luxurious villa with a jaw-dropping view of the Caribbean Sea. For good measure, the stage of the world-famous Calabash Literary Festival that takes place at Jake's once every two years is located a good 90 seconds away from the doorsteps.
I was anxious to explore this intriguing property before dark, but I was tired from a full day of activity and from driving on unfamiliar roads. The hotel's general manager, Yvonne Clarke asked us to join her for dinner under the stars at 8 p.m. at the Restaurant At Jakes. At dinner, she told me about the many layers of community involvement at Jakes, and she also shared that almost all the produce used at the restaurants came from local farms. Most of the staff employed there, too, are almost all area residents.
After a tasty meal of jerked chicken, garden-fresh vegetables, and home-made ice cream, Yvonne invited us to some late-night revelry sponsored by Jakes at the Treasure Beach Sports Complex & Community Centre. The well-supported and upbeat cultural presentations and dancehall performances culminated in a 1 a.m. parish league football match that attracted national attention. You've never heard so much riotous cheering at a football match in Jamaica at 2 a.m.. A few hours later-cocks were crowing as the party folks made their way home before dawn.
MOST TRAGIC LOVE STORY
After very little sleep, Sunday was no less hectic. The first stop was Lovers' Leap in Yardley Chase, a historic site located atop the Santa Cruz Mountains with a magnificent view of Treasure Beach to the west and Rocky Point in Clarendon to the east. This spot was the scene of Jamaica's most tragic and heart-breaking love story.
Two slaves, Mizzy and Tunkey on the Yardley Chase plantation, were passionately in love with each other. But according to folklore, Richard Chardley, one of the owners of the estate, harboured a longstanding and raging desire for Mizzy's sweet blackness. In order to have her for himself, Richard hatched a plan to sell Tunkey, her lover, to a faraway plantation so that they would never see each other again. But then, as now, there are never any secrets in Jamaica, so the plan quickly leaked. When the lovers learned of the obstruction, the enslaved couple fled the plantation and were chased to a cliff that plunges 1,700 feet to Cutlass Bay. In an explosive, passionate, and final embrace of undying love and devotion, Mizzy and Tunkey jumped from the cliff to a brutal and agonising death below. Visiting the spot and hearing the story while looking down at the bay almost 2,000 feet below is a spine-tingling, unforgettable experience.
After a brief stop at the St Mark's Anglican Church not far from Lovers' Leap, we journeyed on a long, circuitous route, passing through the communities of Southfield, Top Hill, Junction, and Bull Savannah to get to a lovely seafood hideaway called Little Ochi at Alligator Pond. The ride from Treasure Beach is long, but once you get there and taste the fish soup, the steamed and fried bammy, the fish dishes, and the curried lobster, it is worth every mile spent on the back roads. The restaurant is located by the sea, with fresh catch coming in almost hourly. The ambience is very laid-back, the service is friendly, and the prices are reasonable. This is a favourite hangout spot for Jamaicans from all walks of life.