December 21, 2012
We left Port Maria as early as we could muster and rode the part of the highway east where I’d never been before. The road curves dramatically with sweeping vistas of the sea; a different kind of sea than what we were used to, with rolling waves pounding the shore. The lushness of this end of the island was unmistakable even after Hurricane Sandy had blown through just the month before. We rode through groves of Coconut Palms, Banana, Plantain and Papaya forests with the sea a constant companion on the left. Just before getting to Port Antonio we rode over a bridge that crossed the Rio Grande, a river famous for its Bamboo Rafting. We checked out and dismissed a nearby hotel.
We drove into Port Antonio and tried to get our bearings to seek out another hotel recommendation, Ivanhoes. Ivanhoes is an old and famous guest house that came highly recommended by friends in Negril. We were a bit turned around so we stopped a police officer to ask for directions. “Follow me”, he said We were then escorted right to the door. We had doubts right away about staying there as there was no secure parking. A somewhat grumpy woman met us at the gate and showed us the rooms; they were tiny, dark and airless. That sealed the deal, we would not be staying there but we took a few minutes to enjoy the sweeping views from the balcony. The sky was clear and the entire city lay before us.
Checking our list again we cruised out of Port Antonio and south, into the country. Shortly after we left Porty the road conditions deteriorated considerably sour our ride became slower and more surgical. We pulled into a long driveway to check out Frenchman’s Cove. I’d read a good deal about the place but we’d gotten a dubious recommendation from a friend who had stayed there. She said it was definitely a nice place but she was put off by the “panic buttons” in the room. Pushing this bit of unsettling information aside we entered the office. As we’d figured just by the looks of the place, it was a bit over a budget. So we passed on staying there but took our friend’s recommendation to have lunch there on the beach. Off we went following the marked trail.
Suddenly a man in a uniform descended upon us – now this is not an inappropriate use of the word descend, the guy literally ran up and cut us off at the pass. We were clueless. We told him our intention was the have lunch at the restaurant on the beach. The guy informed us, very abruptly, that each of us would have to pay 700JMD for that privilege. Huh, what? 700JMD just for walking to and into the restaurant? Well, no…that’s the fee to enter the beach. Oh, right! But…the restaurant is ON the beach?
We tried unsuccessfully to reason with the guy. Hey – we’re “locals” – any break in that “fee”? Nope. So, you are saying that we cannot go and drop what will probably be a considerable amount of money for food and drink at the restaurant if we do not first pay a “fee” to go there? Um, yup. Guaranteed our bill would have exceeded $32US but oh well – we turned around and went back to the bikes. None of us felt it worth 700JMD to simply sit at a restaurant on a beach. Cho.
We rode on. Everything was so new and dramatic, so green it was easy to see why Portland is known as the “garden parish”. The eastern side of Jamaica gets more rainfall in general than other parts of the island so it boasts fabulous tropical jungles with raging waterfalls.
We continued on to the last recommendation on the list, Zion Country. When we walked through the gate it immediately felt “right”. It had sweeping views of the sea. The buildings were colorful and freshly painted. The property appeared to be carved into the hillside with guest accommodations on different levels. Our host greeted us warmly recognizing our friend’s name and making us feel immediately like friends. He pointed out the various elements of the property including the beach. Our rooms would be down below, just above the beach. I was really starting to dig this place. Shared bathrooms – OK, I could deal with that for one night – price – right on point. Now, where were those bathrooms we’d be sharing? Well they were right next to where we were standing at the top of a steep and winding staircase, where, ten feet below were our rooms. Since our rooms were literally right on top of the beach having bathrooms closer on that level was not only illegal but also environmentally gross. Our excitement factor was taken down several notches as we tried to visualize navigating those stairs while going to take a pee in the middle of the night.
Before we knew it though, the guest register was out and the guy was asking how many nights we’d be staying. Well, the plan was for one night we told him. “One night?” he asked shaking his head, “didn’t Tania tell you we have a two night minimum?” Well, no she hadn’t. We didn’t push – the stairway to heaven was a pretty daunting thought but we were fresh out of recommendations so we asked him for one. He quickly said, “Check out Bigga and Anesta over at Rasta Villa.” He gave us directions and we were back on our way.
As we drove through Long Bay, keeping an eye out for a seafood restaurant and dirt lane, we were feeling a little lost. We pulled over by a restaurant on the sea-side of the road to ask directions. A route taxi pulled up alongside of us.
“Looking for a place to stay?”
“We’re looking for Rasta Villa, do you know where that is?”
He smiled and handed us a card with a picture of a Doctor Bird on it. Villa Rasta it said.
Was it the same place? Normally I would assume it was but in Jamaica you just never knew. Still we followed the route taxi as it turned up a rocky dirt road next to a (closed) seafood restaurant. We enter the gates of Villa Rasta, aka Rasta Villa where the driver, whose name was Blue, introduced us to our host Bigga. Anesta, Bigga’s wife and Blue’s niece pulled in a few minutes later. After business was discussed we were led to our rooms – spacious, comfortable with “real” pillows and “nice” bedding. Since we failed at our lunch attempt at Frenchman’s Cove we were ravenous. No problem – Bigga pulled a chicken out of the freezer and began to cut it up. Oh well. Hungry or not, dinner wouldn’t be ready for a while so we took in our surroundings.
What I miss about staying in small hotels and guesthouses is the camaraderie that is formed with other guests from all over the world. While sitting and chatting with Bigga and Anesta their other guests began to file in. There was a young man from Sweden, a chef, traveling solo and a nice couple from Germany. Later that evening a young American couple checked in, fresh from their first route taxi experience traveling from Kingston. It was so warm sitting around the kitchen, learning about each other and ultimately sharing a wonderful meal family style. We were having such a pleasant evening we decided to extend our stay in Long Bay for one more night.
December 12, 2013
The rain stopped…well, slowed…slowed enough for us to decide to mush on. We figured we’d be on the road for about another hour. The last leg of our ride proved to be the most uncomfortable and stressful. Rain was still falling, the sun was setting and the road was rough. Finally, just as the darkness was starting to set in, we turned up the unpaved and rain-soaked road to Villa Rasta. Thing 1 was stressed. He pulled close to our bike, and said in a stage whisper that was loud enough for me to hear, “How did you guys FIND this place??” In his mind it was six or seven years ago when there had been a crime wave in Long Bay and a tourist was supposedly murdered up a lane such as this. I didn’t respond, I figured once he got there and got settled he’d chill out.
The last five feet of the road is steep and rocky. On our previous visit we discovered it to be safer if Peg and I walked up or down the hill and met the bikes at the main. It’s too bad that this bit of wisdom never entered our minds as we made the final push in the rain and the mud to our beloved guesthouse. As soon as we started that final ascend I watched, as if in slow motion, Ron’s bike sliding out from under him. I don’t even know what I was thinking when I shot my leg straight out – as if to stop him from falling. Needless to say, Les lost control of the bike. I’m not sure if I flew or slid but somehow I landed straight on my ass in a mud puddle. Les remained standing but pinned against a fence with the bike leaning against him and its engine searing into his calf. As I looked around, Ron was struggling to get up, favoring his knee. Peg was lying off to the side of the road in the push writhing in pain. From what seemed out of nowhere neighbors gathered around, one running up to the gate at the top of the hill yelling for Anesta and Bigga, who were down there with us in no time. Anesta brought her truck down and transported Peg up to the house, we followed behind on foot.
By the time I arrived the kitchen and dining room had effectively been turned into a MASH unit. The domino table looked like an instrument tray in the ER. First Aid kits contents were all over the place; bandages, tape, tweezers, Hydrogen and Peroxide covered all surfaces as the injured were triaged and treated by all in attendance. Pain meds were distributed and soon enough the injured were bandaged and treated and we got settled in our rooms.
Now – where were we? We hugged up Bigga and Anesta warmly and met a German couple who were also staying there. They were still in a bit of shock from our dramatic entrance but eased into our presence soon after that. Thankfully Bigga had dinner ready because Thing 1 was really, really cranky. All of us ate voraciously, everyone enjoying the wonderful chicken prepared lovingly except for Thing 2. Somehow he had lost his appetite between our rain stop and our arrival. He opted for Rum instead.
The rest of the evening proceeded very pleasantly as we caught up with Bigga and Anesta. Les, Ron and Bigga settled into a domino game, Bigga being a Jamaican National Champion at the game. We learned that they had sold the Villa to an Italian woman and they would be vacating the property on New Years Eve. They were not quite sure what their next move would be. Anesta was tossing around the idea of buying a condo in Negril so we discussed those options for a while. Neither wanted to leave Long Bay – it was where they had both grown up.
I looked over and saw that Thing 2 had polished off a half a bottle of Rum and slowly wound into action. What took place was like Robin Williams going off but with a gritty French accent. His performance went vertical once Bigga and Anesta had turned in for the night. The guy just went off, telling fanciful tales of hanging out in biker bars in Kingston, throwing knives, jamming with Jimmy Page – fantastical stuff like that for at least a solid hour without shutting up. I have to admit at times he was pretty funny and entertaining but I soon tired of his voice and stopped understanding the flow of his stories – it was, simply put, exhausting. In between breaths we made our escape back to our room where we could hear him still going strong and the Germans were his only audience.