Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Culinary trail for coffee country

Published:Sunday | March 26, 2017 | 3:00 AMSteven Jackson
Visitors to Strawberry Hill take in the valleys and mountain ranges visible from the property, which is to form part of the culinary trail being developed by the Gastronomy Linkages Network.
The Craighton Estate at Irish Town in St Andrew, one of the entities that would be incorporated in the culinary tour being developed by the Gastronomy Linkages Network.
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A weekend jaunt into the foothills of the Blue Mountains by hiking or off-roading enthusiasts, coffee aficionado and gourmands who like food served in nature's cradle is a well-known pastime of Kingston's adventure seekers.

They don't see a lot of tourists replicating their experience.

But the tourism ministry wants to change that - to open up a culinary trail in the hills of St Andrew that can be packaged as a tourism product to encompass coffee houses and farms and providers of hospitality services, and sold to visiting nature lovers.

Currently, there are 55 listings for tours of the Blue Mountains among nearly 480 listings for Jamaica-based tours, according to popular tour site Viator, a subsidiary of TripAdvisor.

These tours range in price from US$60 to more than US$300 per person. And they are produced mostly by individuals offering travellers miscellaneous activities. Contrastingly, there are few official tour operators taking busloads of tourists from hotels to the region.

Today, the Ministry of Tourism will execute a soft launch of a culinary trail with an actual jaunt into the hills - there are four entities on the stop - and it will use the occasion to lay out plans for a coffee festival that is expected to become a calendar event. The first festival is planned for March 2018.

Travellers who frequent the region know that places like Gap CafÈ appreciate calls in advance on slow days, while restaurants like Crystal Edge might adjust their menu and reserve favourite breakfast dishes for the weekend's high period.

With more persons touring the area, it would mean that customer traffic would be available for such eateries on weekdays as well as on weekends.

This in turn could translate into greater investments by businesses in the shadow of the Blue Mountains, according to Nicola Madden Greig, who heads the Gastronomy Network of the ministry's Tourism Linkages Network (TLN).

"We are working with the tour operators and encouraging them to build out tours in the Blue Mountains," said Madden Greig.

There are a handful of coffee tours and places of interest to enjoy, including Blue Mountain Bicycle tours, Belcour, Strawberry Hill, Crystal Edge, UCC Craighton, Twymans Estate, Newcastle, Cafe Blue, St Marks Chapel, Gap Cafe, Eits, Hollywell, Clifton Mount, Mavis Bank Coffee Factory, Forres Park, Blue Ridge, and the Cinchona graveyard garden, Charlight Chalet Spa, Serendipity and others.

The soft launch of the festival will travel between Belcour, Strawberry Hill and Cafe Blue.

Additionally, there are 34 listings on booking site Airbnb for rooms to rent in the Blue Mountains, with prices ranging from US$34 to US$600 per night. The accommodations span

modern structures to bohemian yoga-inspired lodges.

"Right now, we are looking at encouraging tour operators rather than looking at accommodation at the moment, but the accommodations and attractions are not at full capacity and we want them to grow organically," said Madden-Greig.

The Blue Mountains is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its ridges are

populated by lush pine trees and coffee plantations and wedged by hidden waterfalls. The mountain is home to a

number of communities and over 4,000 coffee farmers.

"The festival will support the drive to offer increased activities to bring people to the island. Food is a driver of tourism, and the Government wants to use JBM, which is world renowned as a means to attract persons," said Jason Sharp, chairman of the Jamaica Coffee Exporters Association and shareholder in family-owned Coffee Traders Jamaica Limited, which owns coffee brands, operates farms, and cafes in the Blue Mountains.

Sharp noted that for the culinary tour and festival to endure, the Government would need to work on the infrastructure to support the initiative. The roadways are narrow and there is a lack of restaurants that can offer large seatings as seen in other tourist centres, such as Montego Bay.

But he also said any public investment should prioritise coffee farmers in order to facilitate their commercial operations - the production and transportation of beans to processors.

Mark Fletcher, who runs Country Traders, said that the coffee festival ought to incorporate "a targeted buying audience", rather than tourists.

These buyers should come from large coffee centres, including United States, Europe and Asia, to ensure that coffee purchase deals result from the event.

Madden-Greig, in response to Fletcher's take, said the festival was meant to attract locals, tourists and buyers from overseas roasters.

Last year, Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett met with interests in Japan, including the Ueshima Coffee Company, which owns a farm in the Blue Mountains, to discuss plans for the coffee festival his main aim being to boost the number of tourists visiting from Japan.

The last time Jamaica had a coffee festival was in 2014, when the third Jamaica Coffee and Rum Fest was staged at Baronhall Estate in Cave Valley, St Ann. It was reportedly a collaboration of the Coffee Industry Board, Frankfield Coffee Cocoa Co-operative and the Central St Catherine Coffee Growers Association.

Kingston hosted a branded coffee festival around "five to seven years ago" at Devon House, Sharp recalled. It was backed by private interests.

steven.jackson@gleanerjm.com