Around Jamaica - Part 3 | New Discoveries In and around Ocho Rios
After a fun-filled visit to Kingston, my next stop is Ocho Rios. The new highway to get there from Kingston in record time is the talk of the town. My friends and I were looking forward to this ride, and we were wondering if the hype will live up to expectations. It turns out that there is good and bad news. The bad news is that we travelled by night so we missed all of the scenic vistas that would have made the journey unforgettably rewarding. And the good news is that we arrived in Ocho Rios in record time without making any attempt whatsoever to speed, pulling up at the Moon Palace in just over an hour after jumping on the expressway.
The Moon Palace Jamaica Grande is a new experience, too, and like the highway, it recently opened. I knew previous hotels there by different names - The Intercontinental, the Mallards Beach Hyatt, the Sheraton, the Americana, and more recently, the Jamaica Grande.
With many alluring amenities at the Moon Palace, it became a Herculean task to leave the suite, let alone the resort. There were temptations at every turn, and might as well, as the Moon Palace is not cheap. But I had a lot of ground to cover, so I bravely abstained from the assorted pleasures to allow myself time to explore, to see what else was making Ocho Rios palpitate.
ISLAND GULLY FALLS AND RIO NUEVO BATTLE SITE
My first adventure was to find an attraction called Island Gully Falls, also called Blue Hole, about 50 minutes' drive, southeast from Ocho Rios, near the border of St Ann and St Mary. The name Blue Hole can be confusing as Jamaicans are fond of calling any area with swimming on a river a blue hole. So after travelling along the winding, narrow Exchange Road for a few miles, we were alerted to look out for the second Blue Hole for Island Gully Falls, and not the first. We found our spot, and were immediately enchanted by this series of cascading waterfalls that appeared to pop out from this lush tropical jungle. Island Gully Falls is located on the White River, and parts of the journey walking to the top of the falls are precipitous, so the help of a guide is recommended. But there are also different ways to approach the falls, so the extreme 'StairMaster' route is not the only option. At this piece of heaven, one can swim, hike, dive and rope-swing, or just bask in solitary splendour. The beauty of this attraction is more than worth the journey into the hills, and without massive crowds, there is no push and shove at this waterfall.
We spent a few hours at Island Gully Falls, and after driving back down to the Tower Isle main road, we made a stop at another beautiful place - the Rio Nuevo battle site. This now impeccably maintained tropical garden was once the spot for a crucial battle that wrestled the island of Jamaica from the hands of the Spanish and threw it into the possession of the British. But despite the historical facts, Jamaicans in tourist towns along the north coast joke that the Spaniards have again taken back possession of the island based on the profusion of Spanish chain hotels between Negril and Ocho Rios.
DOWNTOWN OCHI - LOTS TO BUY AND A HEATED ENCOUNTER
For the remainder of that evening, I parked my rented car at the hotel and walked around Ocho Rios, absorbing some of the local flavour that I once knew so well. The reality on the streets is many worlds apart from the luxury of the Moon Palace. No chateaubriand or Chardonnay at the Clock Tower along Main Street, but there are dozens of small stores selling caps, clothing, beachwear and footwear all adorned in the Jamaican and Rasta colours. Reggae CDs are abundant, and a pushcart man is peddling hot 'strong back' soup and a variety of fruits. As I move off Main Street and enter the side streets that lead to the belly of town, I make further discoveries: several cook shops, cambios for exchanging money, patty and pastry shops, duty free stores, young men peddling high grade ganja and a jerk centre with a rollicking happy hour party. Meanwhile, back on Main Street near a church, a hilarious dispute between two men of unsound mind, a 'tracing', caught my attention. As their encounter became more heated, and as their engagement began to encompass lurid descriptions of body parts of relatives long departed, I knew it was time to change gear. I headed back to the Moon Palace. There, my friends and I dined at a lovely seafood restaurant at the edge of the water, under moonlight.
FRIENDLY IGUANAS, WELL-BEHAVED SNAKES AND A GLAMOROUS BIRD
The following day the first stop was at Dolphin Cove. This exciting marine attraction is located a few miles west of Ocho Rios. There, one can spend an action-packed day swimming with dolphins, sharks and stingrays. But I was surprised to learn that there was a lot more to do than swim with Jamaican-born dolphins who bounce to a reggae beat at this successful marine adventure park created by returning Jamaican residents from Canada. Boat rides are also available to get a close-up view of the craggy coastline heading west towards Dunn's River Falls. And nature lovers can walk along a jungle trail, viewing friendly iguanas, well-behaved snakes, galloping guinea pigs and a colourful array of birds. One macaw changed her pose so dutifully after each camera shot that it prompted a guest to wonder aloud if the glamorous bird was trained at Pulse, a modelling school in Kingston. With fingers crossed, just like Nadine Willis, this pretty birdie may be jetting off to Paris on contract shooting magazine covers, I thought. Moments later, I ran into a group of students from Walkerswood All-Age School who were riveted by the opportunity to take selfies with the birds.
FINALLY, CUSTARD APPLES AT MYSTIC MOUNTAIN
The next move was a gamble. We had been trying to find that elusive fruit called custard apple all across Jamaica for over a week, but with no luck, except for one in St. Elizabeth that never ripened. I knew a little secret. The fruit vendor at Mystic Mountain, the rainforest adventure park near Dunn's River, almost always has custard apples for sale, so I placed a bet that we would find the fruit there. So we stopped, and bingo, we were in luck! I bought all four, since I was pretty sure we weren't ever going to see the fruit again on this trip. And while we were at Mystic Mountain, my friends were curious and rode the Sky Explorer, a state-of-the-art chair lift that soars 700 feet about treetops, allowing brave riders a spectacular view of nature's handiwork. On a previous trip, I had thoroughly enjoyed the bobsled ride at Mystic Mountain. Each rider is in control of his own destiny, and I remember that it made us feel like newly crowned Olympic gold medal athletes.
SERENA'S SECRET HIDEAWAY
From there we drove a few miles to a private 7-bedroom seaside villa owned by Mr. John Bailey from Kingston called Canoe Cove. John had kindly agreed to meet us at Old Fort Bay to show us his absolutely breathtaking seaside villa. The view of the azure Caribbean Sea from the front terrace is a real-life fantasy, and it was immediately clear why international tennis superstar Serena Williams chose this hideaway for her Jamaica visit earlier this year.
The Bailey family has owned Canoe Cove since the 1950s and the tasteful furnishings, the breezy open spaces and the decor of warm, Caribbean colours inside make this spot outrageously luxurious. The staff too is extraordinary. Campbell, the caretaker, has worked at Canoe Cove most of his life since he was first employed by John's grandfather decades ago. And Oshane, the young butler in residence happens to be an excellent cook, and he certainly tantalised the taste buds of Serena and her friends while they stayed there. I asked Oshane to divulge the ingredients in a tasty cocktail blend that he had whipped up for us, but all he would say, reluctantly, is aged Jamaican rum, fresh fruit juices and a few secret ingredients. "Its called the Canoe Cove Special and Serena loved it to the last drop", he joked. We relaxed by the swimming pool at Canoe Cove chatting with the very warm and hospitable Baileys for a few hours, then headed west for our next stop at Runaway Bay.