Riding North

Call it “triptus-interuptus”.  After two and a half months in Negril I had to make a brief five-day trip to New York for work.  When I returned, smuggled deli meat safely tucked below a pile of dirty laundry Les sprung it on me – our next motorcycle adventure.  This was not to be our typical ride to points west or south or into the hills.  While I was gone he and our ad hoc MC had planned a grand overnight trip to the North Coast.

I was barely unpacked and transitioned back into my Jamaican lifestyle when I found myself on the back of the Shadow heading to meet the rest of our group at the Shell station.  Heading north on the A1 our ride took us the familiar route towards Montego Bay.  As we headed out the skies looked somewhat threatening and we managed to stay dry until we reached Scotchies in MoBay.  While ordering lunch the rain started to fall lightly so after we finished we stuck around a bit longer waiting on the weather to pass.

We continued east on the highway, a first for me.  At many points the road hugs the coast and the views are incredible.  As we’d rise over a hill the first thing in our line of sight would be the deep blue water of the Caribbean Sea directly in front of us, as if we’d fly off that hill and land right in it.  We made our next stop and smell the roses stop just outside of Duncans Bay on an overpass and took in the sights below.  Verdant hills rolled out in front of us, cascading into the sea with little homes and what looked like a church marking the way.

At times during our ride I’d close my eyes and I’d forget I was in Jamaica.  The newer super-highway was smooth as silk unlike the roads in West Jamaica that I had become used to.  Even with my eyes open there were times I had to remind myself where I was; it could have been South Florida pretty easily.  From my vantage point on the highway the North Coast appeared more developed, more “Americanized” if you will.  It had a certain “sheen” to it that the more rugged west and south coasts did not.

I was reminded again how diverse the geography of Jamaica really was.  It’s a small country with many different terrains and the northern part of the island seemed more lush and green and jungle-like.  St. Ann Parish is known after all as the “Garden Parish”.

We slowed as we passed through Discovery Bay, one of the few bustling cities that the highway did not bypass.  We stopped for a few minutes at a gas station so I crossed the street and quickly checked out the Coast Guard Station and the cargo ship docked and off-loading something or another.

As we motored along the clouds above our heads started to thicken.  We rode past the row of resorts, one on top of another in Runaway Bay as the rain started to softly fall.  Soon enough soft rain fall turned hard, dropping on my exposed arms and face like tiny shards of glass falling from the sky.  Before we knew it were in a full-on downpour.  I buried my face in Les’ shoulder, hunching over as we sped to the next shelter spot.  That spot was Flavours, the restaurant attached to the Cardiffe Hall Public Beach.

The resorts that we passed pretty much seal off the beaches of Runaway Bay to anyone except their guests.  This is why there is an ample public beach on either end of town, Cardiffe Hall being one of them.  It was a Sunday and the place was filled with families enjoying their day.  Despite the rain kids played on the shoreline and in the surf uninterrupted.  A small soccer game was starting on the lawn next to the restaurant.  A medium-sized jitney-type bus was parked in the lot; folks kept going in and coming out with plates heaped with home-made food.  We were the only non-Jamaicans in the place and we soaked up the vibe while ringing out our wet clothing.

The rain stopped but we all looked at the dark skies; we took the chance and hopped back on the bikes hoping that we’d follow the storm east.  Forging ahead we rode into Ocho Rios.

Ocho Rios is a large city no doubt.  From the highway we could see the high-rise buildings ringing the coast.  We passed under a huge overhead conveyor belt built by Reynolds Jamaica in 1952.  The belt extended six miles inland where it would be loaded with bauxite from those mines.  The bauxite was then carried out to the deep-sea pier where the waiting ships we load it in and take it out.

Understanding how tourism grew up in Jamaica clued me in to why I was finding this part of the island more “sterile” than the west.  Ocho Rios and the surrounding area was where international tourism first took hold.  At the end of the 19th Century grand hotels began to open in places like Moneague and Port Antonio.  In 1948 the Shaw Park Hotel and Tower Isle opened in Ocho Rios.  The well-heeled international traveler came by steamship in these early days dictating a tenor of exotic elegance, a tenor to the place that seems to exist to this day.

We were well on our way on our last leg to our destination:  Port Maria.  The road was wet, the sky ominous.  We didn’t have far to go to meet our host…close, yet so far.  Once again the sky opened up.  Once again we got soaked as we sped towards a small rum bar up ahead.

Soaked to the skin, we entered the rum bar and were greeted enthusiastically by the Jamaican men in there.  These guys were pretty well sauced; turns out there was a wake happening that night and they were getting started early.  We had a great time with these guys.  Did they know where Blue Harbour was?  “Yes!  Just two minutes up the road!  Ya know Leroy?  Ya MUS know Leroy?!?”  We laughed and joked with these fellows for about 20 minutes while Leroy (turns out we must know Leroy as he is our host) was called.  Indeed we were very close to the turn off from the highway where Leroy was meeting us to lead us to our overnight home:  Blue Harbour.

Noel Coward, prolific playwriter, screen writer and song writer, fell in love with Jamaica after he visited his pal Ian Fleming at his home Goldeneye.  He was so enchanted he bought property just down the coast from Fleming’s place and named it Blue Harbour.  In addition to his house he built three guest villas and the spot soon became a mecca for the stars of stage and screen.  Frequent visitors included Sean Connery, Alec Guinness and Katherine Hepburn.

I was excited at the prospect of walking around and spending the night at this historic spot, sleeping in the same room as the mid-century Hollywood elite.  We followed Leroy through the terraced steps and gardens and he showed us the “villas” that were available to us.  The upstairs rooms of the main house and “Villa Rosa” were available – Katherine Hepburn’s villa, Villa Chica, was being held for one of the guests arriving for the funeral the following day.  My heart sank a little more with each step we took; Noel Cowards pride and joy, the place he shared with his many friends was as much a ghost as they were.  Years of neglect had turned this party palace into a mismatched run down guest house being held together with a prayer and the efforts of pretty much one man:  Leroy.

Wet and cranky I tried to settle down and settle into our “villa”.  I shocked myself at how skeeved I was, even going as far as putting a towel down on the bed.  I guess as I’ve grown older I’ve become more picky about accommodations; I wondered if I’d lost my edge and if I’d ever be able to stay in any budget oriented hotel in Jamaica again.  I bore up, channeling my adventurous spirit and remembered how I always laughed at some of these picky travelers who must have marble and 700 thread count sheets, even in a developing country like Jamaica.  No, I was not one of them – time for an attitude shift.

We met our friends and Leroy in the “bar” – really just a partially thatched area with the remnants of what might have been an outdoor kitchen and bar.  The place had nothing – not even a beer.  We met the cook and decided on groceries needed for dinner and breakfast the next day.  Chef was dispatched into town and dominoes were broken out.

I was prepared for a long wait for food so I took the opportunity to walk around a bit.  The main part of the main house was quite nice and quite interesting.  There were old photos scattered about:  Noel Coward posing with his many well-known guests.  The place was a tad musty and dusty but you could tell it was the featured part of the property.  There were books in the shelves (possibly from back in the day) and a lovely and comfortable dining area with table and chairs.  I was relieved that we’d be eating in some form of style.

Nope.  When the dinner bell rang a worn and splintered table was set up with matching worn and splintered and very hard chairs.  I’m not sure why but that is where we’d eat for the rest of our stay.  Cook did a respectable enough job with dinner; we were all hungry and we ate everything.  It was late by the time we were done so off to bed with us…and one Ambien later I was sound asleep.

We woke early and my outlook had brightened along with the day.  Even at that early hour Leroy, who had been at the wake the night before, had coffee ready, a must for this group.  I enjoyed my coffee and the view from our villa and the main house – sweeping views of the bay and that little island in the middle of it.  Despite the rugged condition of the buildings at Blue Harbour the grounds and the views could not be beat.  Looking at it with fresh rested eyes I saw the potential in this place.  Its American owner didn’t seem to have put any money into it at any point recently and that’s what it needed badly; a bunch of money and a little TLC.  Oh, and Leroy could use a hand for sure.

After breakfast we took off and headed up to Firefly.  By 1955 Blue Harbour had become a bit too much of a party for Mr. Coward.  Still wanting to entertain but also craving his “perfect peace” he bought property 1200 feet above Blue Harbour for $150.00.  He built a small home there, a swimming pool and named it Firefly.  The property was originally owned by Sir Henry Morgan and it is easy to see why Morgan used it as a lookout.  Its 180 degree views of the bay and surrounding hillside served Morgan well and allowed Coward the rest and inspiration needed to do his writing and painting there.  Noel Coward lived and worked at Firefly until his death in 1973; he is buried on the property, his grave overlooking Port Maria below.  The property was given to the Jamaican National Heritage Trust in 1978.  Soon after Chris Blackwell purchased the property and to this day supports its maintenance financially.

The house is well maintained indeed.  Unlike the heritage Homes often toured in the United States there are no ropes, no guides.  Original furnishings and art work are all in place; Mr. Cowards paintings are still on easels in the art studio.  The home is lovely with sweet details but modest.  It was a nice way to “meet” the writer as the home surely reflected who he was.

The weather was more than cooperating and we enjoyed riding with the bright sun shining down upon us.  Our next stop was Fern Gully.

Alex Hawkes theorized that Fern Gully was once a series of waterfalls that cascaded down into the sea, carrying the dirt from the mountains upon which Ocho Rios is built.  Another theory says that Fern Gully was at one time an underground river whose roof had caved in.  Whatever it was, it was soon recognized as a natural treasure and soon after that promoted as a tourist attraction at the beginning of the 20th Century.  At that time there was a path that carved through the gully where visitors would walk or ride horses or take carriage rides, exploring the native flora and examining the prehistoric ferns.

Fern Gully, c. 1920

Over the next 100 years Fern Gully saw its ups and downs.  The combination of increased motor traffic, hurricanes and flooding wreaked its havoc, at times just about obliterating the ferns for which the place was named.  Over the years commissions, committees and the government made restorative efforts which included replanting native ferns and other plants.  When we turned up the road for the three mile ride we saw evidence of some culvert work being done, probably to divert flood waters from the North Coast’s ample rainfall.

I immediately felt like I was in fairy land.  The narrow road wound through the dense jungle.  I looked up at the canopy above my head and the sun dappling through the foliage.  In some ways it looked, smelled and felt very similar to our windy west county roads that are surrounded by Redwoods and our own brand of ferns.

We continued our ride west and, always suckers for a roadside attraction, made a stop at Columbus Park in Discovery Bay.  In 1494 landed his ships on this spot in quest for fresh water.  Jamaica has the most abundant resource of fresh water of any island in the Caribbean and to this day is still a source for the multitude of cruise ships that dock in Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios.  Columbus Park was built in 1968 to honor this landing and is chock full of artifacts that depict Jamaican history.  These include a water wheel used at a sugar plantation, a canoe hollowed out “Arawak Style”, and a tally for the banana trade.  Most are labeled and have plaques and the park is filled with Pimento Trees.  I enjoyed walking about, looking at the old stuff and taking in the exquisite views.  There was even a replica of Columbus’ boat that you could walk out to the front and feel as though you were sailing the seven seas.

I passed by what looked to be a grave and upon a second look saw that it belonged to one Edward Moulton Barrett.  I giggled – my maiden name being Barrett but did a little research to find out that this was the father to the famous poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and relative to the Barretts of Wimpole Street.  What I learned was that Edward Barrett and his family had been in Jamaica for centuries and owned 10,000 acres that included a sugar plantation.  Their great-house was in Falmouth so its puzzling as to why the guy was planted here in Discovery Bay yet there he was, his grave on a bluff overlooking the sea.

Riding home I reflected upon my experiences in the North.  Evidence of colonial times were extremely clear in this historically rich area of Jamaica.  Evidence of early international influence was clear as well.  As different as the northern and southern regions of the US are just about as different as the northern and southern regions of Jamaica in history, culture and terrain.  West Jamaica, Negril in particular, saw its first tourists over seventy years after the Moneague Hotel opened its grand doors.  The North Coast tourists were monied and elegant, arriving by steamship and staying in these country estate-like hotels such as the Moneague.  The first Negril tourists hacked their way through a road built in 1959 (portions of which can be walked to this day at Half Moon Beach), arriving on foot or mini-bus heaving back packs and staying in family homes or in camps on the beach.  They were young, they were hippies and they were in the wild, wild west.  Their parents were coming off the cruise ships in Ochi.

This is why, thirty-five years after Negril’s first resort opened, the area and its visitors still carry that feel of casual cool and hippie chic.  Negril tourists, even the most mainstream have a spirited sense of adventure.  We did not meet or hang out with any tourists while we were on the North Coast but did bump into a couple.  The general feeling I got was more buttoned up and more mainstream than the folks in our neck of the woods.

Our ride to the North Coast was one of the most fun adventures during our winter sojourn in Jamaica.  It was great to get out of my same old used to be and explore parts of the island I’d never seen before.  This winter I’m hoping to do so again, my bucket list includes a few days in Port Antonio and/or perhaps a ride on the road that goes through Fern Gully all the way to Kingston.

There’s so much more to see!

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