Mike MacEacheran | Rum & Reggae in Jamaica, Thomas Cook Travel
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Rum & Reggae in Jamaica, Thomas Cook Travel

Jamaica doesn’t wait to get you settled. Or give you time to slip into holiday mode. The trim driftwood and clapboard bars and jerk chicken huts that encroach upon every strip of sand don’t help. Neither does the rum shack, blaring Sean Paul records that waits for visitors outside Montego Bay Sangster International Airport. The locals call it Mo Bay, and it couldn’t be more appropriate. They’re so laidback, they can’t even get to the end of their own sentences. “Wagwan,” says the first man we meet, all waxed-Rasta dreads, dazed eyes and toothy smile. What he means to say is “Good afternoon young man, how are you and what’s going on?”

Day one

We’ve come to enjoy Jamaican culture through arguably its two greatest gifts to the world – sugar-sweet rum and pounding reggae, our direction dictated by taste more than by beach time. The setting is pure Lilt advert, too: palm-fringed beaches, wayward rude-boys rhyming and rapping, swaying hammocks in the breeze, a paint chart’s worth of blue waters, and laidback coconut and mango-sellers that purr “Yeh mon” or “Wagwan” at you more times that you could shake a hairy, tropical fruit.

The first rum cask we unplug is along the coast past Ocho Rios at the wonderful GoldenEye resort, former home of James Bond author Ian Fleming, now a hotel, restaurant and barefoot beach bar. It’s the home of Blackwell Rum, created by owner Chris Blackwell, the man who signed Bob Marley to his London-based record label Island, funding the production of classic records like Could You Be Loved, Buffalo Soldier and No Woman No Cry. His vintage rum comes out of the very best pot stills from the Appleton Estate, the oldest and most famous of all Jamaica’s sugarcane plantations. The house cocktail – what else but a GoldenEye? – is made with a dizzying splash of rum and pineapple juice served in a margarita glass with a wedge of lime. Sinking a few, we get an inkling of what Christopher Colombus and the first British naval officers felt like when they arrived in this tropical Eden. All wobbly sea-legs and Jolly Roger smiles.

Beyond the bar a gigantic tropical orchard of mango, lime, orange and ackee looms. This is where every celebrity worth their rum punch has paid to plant a tree to help support the local community of Orcabessa – Elizabeth Taylor, Kate Moss, Pierce Brosnan, Jude Law, Mr and Mrs Jay-Z, Caine, Campbell, Ford, Branson, Depp, you name them, they’ve put down roots here. The week before we drop in, One Direction sunned themselves in hammocks on the beach – the same one where Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) wrote Every Breath You Take. Dang.

On a nearby hill 10km east is Firefly, another must-see mansion with a colossal reputation for rum-stoked parties. It was here, overlooking the property’s manicured lawns, that former owner Noel Coward had afternoon tea with Sir Laurence Olivier, Winston Churchill, Errol Flyyn and Sophia Loren. The Queen and Queen Mother also dropped by for scones and cucumber sandwiches. Inside the museum, it’s surprisingly spartan – yet the glorious, million Jamaican-dollar views on a clear day stretch all the way across to the Caribbean’s other rum haven, Cuba.

Day two

Once upon a time Jamaica was a stronghold of rum-swilling pirates – or so we’re told the following morning at Port Royal, a hook of land that curves around Kingston Bay, and once dubbed the wickedest city on Earth. It was so bad, we’re told, that famous Dutch explorer Jan van Riebeeck was mortified by the place. “The parrots of Port Royal gather to drink from the large stocks of ale with just as much alacrity as the drunks that frequent the taverns that serve it,” he wrote. Cripes. The place also thrived under the rule of Captain Henry Morgan, a notorious Welsh privateer and now the face of the Diageo rum brand. Magnificent ships were once anchored in the harbour outside Fort George, now a preserved ruin to wander and learn about Jamaica’s colonial past.

Our next stop brings us to Downtown Kingston, a place that’s had a hell of a makeover in the past 15 years. What used to be sketchy, sometimes dangerous, is now the realm of chicken and burger bars, art galleries, craft coffee roasters and Usain Bolt’s very own Tracks & Records, a sports bar opened as a pilgrimage spot for fans. No matter where you go, reggae music blasts from wound-down car windows and dancehall keeps people moving along the streets with rhythm.

The mark of this is that you can bump into one of the original percussionists from Bob Marley’s band The Wailers playing bongos and shakers in a quiet, leafy courtyard of the Bob Marley Museum. This is where we find Bongo Herman, dressed in tricolor woven tam to cover his wax-knotted dreads. “Yeh mon, feel the riddim,” he says. “Straight up, we’re keeping Bob’s spirit alive.” Judging by the crowds of autograph hunters, it’s a sentiment that clearly works.

Rastas like Bongo may be in the minority, but they remain the lifeblood of the island. They are muscular and assertive in your presence – unshaven and dreadlocked, squinting and sun-bleached. The next we meet is Ricky Chaplin at Tuff Gong Studios, the studio that birthed songs such as Redemption Song and Could You Be Loved and now used by the likes of Shaggy, Snoop Dogg and Lauryn Hill. A bear of a man with snake-like dreads that would terrify even Medusa, he’s an infectious character who loves nothing more than to spread the reggae vibe. Following a nose-around the recording booths (still home to the original Marley microphones and recording equipment) he breaks into an impromptu, frenzied performance of one of his own records. “Burn, Fire Rastaman,” he wails at us like a man possessed. It leaves us in no doubt: that’s sure some strong reggae spirit.

Day three

The main reason people take the winding road from Kingston into the Blue Mountains is to visit St Andrew for a starlit dinner at Strawberry Hills, a sprawling gable-ended coffee planter’s guesthouse with the most sought-after cuisine on the island. When I take my seat, with all of Kingston burning in neon light below, we’re told that Usain Bolt had been sitting on the table next to me the night before. The fastest man on Earth was with his Mum and they ate rice and peas. Double dang.

What we also hadn’t expected to find is that the place is one of the modern faces of Jamaica’s rum and reggae story. Its owner is that man again, Chris Blackwell, and the downstairs lobby is given over to his Gold Disc Collection of Bob Marley’s greatest triumphs along with some others also worth a rock history footnote (U2, Robert Palmer, Sly & Robbie, Grace Jones). The restaurant and bar, too, are framed by classic sepia portraits of Mick and Keith from the Stones, Grace, Bono and the lot J-J-J-Jammin’ with Bob and a whole variety of liggers on the veranda. That’s a real slice of reggae history.

The other main reason that people take the road into the Blue Mountains isn’t to drink rum, but to sample the fine coffee grown on the humid, tropical hillsides that topple all the way down into Kingston Bay. The aroma is over-powering from the nearby Craighton Estate Great House and Coffee Plantation in Irish Town, based around one of the island’s best-preserved Georgian-style houses, but that’s another entire story in itself.

Day four

On the south coast of Jamaica there is a string of coastal towns that are one highway removed from modern Jamaican reality and the hustle and bustle of Montego Bay, the most laidback of these being Black River, which locals have taken to calling Treasure Beach. We get off the highway, speak to one of the skippers that linger on the dock and take a $40 speedboat ride out across Parottee Bay to the Pelican Bar. Another friend recommends it to me. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “And nothing keeps that place down.”

He’s right. It’s a makeshift drinking saloon built by now retired boat captain Floyd Forbes from scrap timber, driftwood and boatyard junk, propped on stilts in the middle of the seabed. It’s around half a kilometre from the shore, but even that doesn’t detract day-trippers. The boys behind the bar will tell you about the time the island was hit by a tropical hurricane strong enough to shake every coconut off every tree (upturning cars, blowing down houses and claiming some 300 lives) – but still the Pelican Bar stood it’s ground. “Yeah mon,” says Walter, one of the gold-toothed cooks. “We comeback from anything.”

Resurrection or not, this is definitely our new favourite rum shack. Inside, there is a rickety, ramshackle box-sized kitchen, where youths defy all odds by cooking delicious catfish, an ice-box for beer, and a coconut tree-trunk table where the boatmen play dominoes. Outside, the planked gangway doubles as the sundeck, and sitting, with legs dangling, all but two sounds disappear. The lazy swirl of water over the sandbank below is punctuated by the occasional pop of beer bottle tops.

The real beauty of Jamaica is that you know there is just about good life everywhere. We wash ashore a few hours later, maybe like the late great Henry Morgan once did, with rum in our bellies, cawing parrots in the palms and the setting sun at our backs, a pure golden moment worthy of that Lilt commercial. Time doesn’t exactly stand still in Jamaica, but it sure does slow down some. Wagwan. It says all you need to know.