Sun | Dec 16, 2018

Casa Maria : A colourful history

Published:Thursday | September 22, 2016 | 12:00 AMOrantes Moore
For the past two years, former school principal Maureen Cunningham-Johnson has been general manager of the historic Casa Maria Hotel in Castle Gordon, St Mary.
The Casa Maria Hotel in St Mary was a popular party venue for Hollywood celebrities throughout the 1950s and 1960s.


One mile west of St Mary's capital, Port Maria, is a small community with a fascinatingly colourful history, which nevertheless remains largely forgotten.

The district of Castle Gordon is home to both a quaint little resort, the Casa Maria Hotel, and the 'Look Out', where Jamaica's second lieutenant governor, the 17th-century pirate Henry Morgan, policed the coastal sea waters.

Morgan's observation post, which can be found on the hill above the hotel, features remarkable views of the north coast, and in 1956 was developed by English playwright Noel Coward into a luxurious retreat, Firefly, which was visited by dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II.

Similarly, throughout the 1950s and 1960, the resort, then known as Castle Gordon Hotel, enjoyed a reputation as one of the Caribbean's trendiest celebrity chill-spots.

According to Casa Maria's general manager Maureen Cunningham-Johnson, James Bond actor Sean Connery dined regularly at the restaurant, and the venue routinely hosted parties attended by Hollywood stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Errol Flynn, who allegedly drove a brand new Cadillac into the hotel swimming pool during one of his many alcohol-fuelled escapades.

While the 19-room hotel is no longer a hub for A-list celebrity action, it remains a popular destination for international holidaymakers and local missionary teams, and is fast earning a reputation as one of the island's most picturesque pizzerias.

Cunningham-Johnson told Rural Xpress: "Our pizzas are very popular and every weekend for the past two months, we've been doing a special offer where you can call in and order a pizza with the toppings of your choice, and collect it within 20 minutes. We've got people from as far as Ocho Rios, Highgate, and Annotto Bay coming here for pizza and to hang out by the pool."

Before entering the leisure and tourism industry in 2014, Cunningham-Johnson managed schools, students, and teachers in St Mary for more than 30 years, and believes the skills she learned at the Ministry of Education (MoE) are valuable assets that have helped streamline her shift into the new role.




The former education officer, principal, and teacher explained: "I was born in Chapelton, Clarendon, but got my first job in St Mary, at Richmond Secondary (now St Mary Technical High School) where I taught home economics for 25 years.

"For me, this new job is just about transferring knowledge and ideas from one area to another. I wouldn't say it's been easy, but I'm getting there. I'm a 'people person' and because of my experiences in the MoE, I am known to a lot of persons, which really helps with my transition and ability to bring in new business."

Looking ahead, Cunningham-Johnson says the hotel will undergo further renovations in a bid to tap into new and undiscovered markets. "We're constantly upgrading and try our best to customise rooms, based on the guests' requirements," she confirms.

"Casa Maria is the only hotel in Jamaica facing east, directly into the cool trade winds with a nearly constant breeze blowing off the water, and so you'll find that a lot of our guests don't want any AC, they want the windows opened.

"There are no commercial activities nearby so the sound you hear mostly is the surf, which is good because a lot of people just want somewhere that's relaxing, peaceful, quiet, and secure."

For more info, call 725-1005, 831-1107 or 509-0964, and visit www.casamariaho