What should have been a quick flit to Jamaica became almost a long haul, with an early start (again), 2 flights and 2 hire cars and a mad drive from Kingston to Ocho Rios.
Hire car number 1 was returned to Orlando airport as planned where I was handed a ticket with my final charges of $33, not too bad until I queried the fact that it ought to have been around $21. A quick detour to the counter and the bill was changed to the correct amount. No query or argument from the counter staff – how often does that happen I wonder! Then it was upstairs to check in. Have you ever repacked your case in the middle of the check in area at the airport because your bags are overweight? Interesting. But repack it I did. I’m not sure where the additional 4Kgs came from as I didn’t do any shopping.
Two short flights on American Airlines 40 minutes and 75 minutes respectively with 15 minutes connection time took all morning. We didn’t land in Jamaica until 1330 and then had to get the car hired. They loved our old fashioned paper licences. They hadn’t seen one like that from the UK before but it is still valid and works for me. A small Suzuki Baleno is this weeks car. Happy to say its a model I was familiar with as leaving Kingston was certainly eventful. They don’t insure the tyres, now I know why. Pot holes about every 20 metres. But that was the least exciting part of the drive. Driving through the streets of Kingston you need to be prepared to dodge people wandering across the road as they please, avoid the goats and their minders, avoid making eye contact with the street hawkers when you are stopped at a junction, avoid the craters in the road and preserve your tyres, and listen to the music blaring out everywhere as well as the constant honking of car horns. I even managed some off road driving when we ran out of tarmac in the construction site. A new road build cuts across the main road out of Kingston. No diversions, no road signs and no traffic cones. Time to stop and be grateful for all of the above on the highways of good old Blighty. But once we reached the toll road it was like driving on the A30 across Bodmin in winter. Hardly any traffic, lovely new road, lush vegetation everywhere and rain.
And so to Ocho Rios – or Ochi as the locals call it – yeah mon! Well what can I say? It is certainly a tourist destination with its hotels and beaches. But it is very much a locals town. We were soon warned by a policeman in town to stay together and keep to the well lit areas – it was dark and we were trying to get some money from the cashpoint (not very wise) so we could eat and buy essentials. Actually you need to keep to the well lit areas to avoid falling over the holes in the pavement – it will look lovely when it is finished. But at the moment there are enormous holes where the trees should be – I think some of them may have come down in storms, holes in pavements for no reason, almost like pot holes caused by our cold weather and also some decorative pavements being laid (by hand and by torchlight) – yes really!!
We found a supermarket and bought the drinks mixers and had a Jamaican dinner in a local restaurant. Starter for me was a vegetarian spring roll made with Ackee and spinach. Ackee is a locally grown fruit/vegetable and has to be cooked in a special way to bring out any flavour. The big black seed has to be discarded as does the fleshy skin and pith leaving just a small amount of flesh inside. It should only be eaten when the skin has split and opened up apparently or it will poison you. I love local knowledge. If I had known this before I ordered it may have put me off but it was a lovely spring roll. My sister had goat curry which she said was disappointing and not hot enough. However the local gin was ok and inexpensive although the local brandy didn’t quite measure up to standards.
Our hotel adjoins a beach and we have a card to leave the grounds and enter it. Security/gate keepers let you in and out of the grounds at each point. We soon found that locals have to pay to go onto some beaches whilst the tourist doesn’t – which doesn’t seem right, but the people who work on the beach have permits to be there. Not too much hustling but we got chatting to the ‘Captain’ Sylvester who offered to show us some of the locality with a driver. So next day we set off early in the morning for a full day of sightseeing.
For some reason local guides always think we want to see the big fancy, expensive houses and hotels and seem reluctant to show us the real Jamaica but we eventually got through that we really weren’t that interested. I think it was when we said we really, really didn’t want to get out of the car to take a photo that it finally sank in.
Our trip out took us through local towns and villages where it was market day with all the locals coming down from the mountains to sell their fruits and vegetables and eventually up to the blue mountain and into the rain forest – beautiful. We passed plantations of pineapple, banana, mango as well as coffee (apparently Blue Mountain coffee is the best in the world) and nutmeg, cinnamon etc. We were discouraged from taking photos of people in some of the towns as tourists and outsiders weren’t always welcome which was a shame as I found the market stalls fascinating. We did stop at a couple of roadside stalls where we tried jackfruit, cut fresh on the roadside with a machete. Strange fruit which has a sticky substance inside which sets like glue, not overly sweet but interesting. I also go to chew on some fresh sugar cane and suck out the juice. Really refreshing and not as sweet as I was expecting but I think that is because we are used to refined white sugar. The bananas grown here seem to be fairly small but very tasty especially when picked and eaten straight from the trees.
Our day out included a ride on a bamboo raft in the blue lagoon. I think it was so the driver could have a sleep for half an hour and Sylvester could catch up with old friends and get some lunch. Food is cooked everywhere here on the streets – jerk chicken and pork and all cooks proclaim that theirs is the best. I have yet to find some which isn’t dry and as tough as old boots. But it is tasty.
Montego Bay was going to be avoided as we thought it was just a tourist trap where everyone goes to sit by the hotel pool for a week. But we took ourselves off there for the day. The drive down is stunning in places as you follow the coast road. Once in Montego Bay we found a parking place and was quickly given some inside knowledge to pay for the space or be clamped. So we followed the chap into the market place (expecting a scam) and was taken into the parking office where we paid our money (about 50p) for 2 hours parking. For this knowledge we had to visit his sisters stall and also her other friends, no pressure to buy but they do like to show you everything. They also earn lots from the passengers from the cruise ships. We escaped into the bustling main street and a few minutes walk found us at the emancipation monument. We queried a couple of items with a chap in the grounds who took us through to the cultural centre – just what we were looking for. The museum is a fascinating building telling the story of Jamaica, slavery and Rastafari, which is also steeped in its own history as the building was used as courtroom and slave market in times gone by.
We decided that we would have a beach and personal admin day, to save some money and catch up on all those little jobs that need doing such as washing your smalls and shaving your legs. The sky is a bright blue and the sea a very inviting aquamarine and the sun is shining brilliantly – perfect. There are about 6 sun loungers provided free on our stretch of beach, the rest you have pay for. We found a bench under a tree and settled down to read once we had had our dip in the ocean. We were quickly joined by a young man of 49 years who started chatting away. Great for the first ten minutes then we just wanted to be left alone to chill and read. But he didn’t go away. As he smoked more he became more garrulous and it was flattering at first to be complimented on my lovely knees and face (I offered him my glasses) and the first proposition was amusing but it soon became irritating and very indecent. However, I have received 2 marriage proposals, an offer of a gigolo and an indecent proposal this week so thanks Jamaica you have done wonders for my self confidence. The mosquitos have started to bite and my legs are now sporting some lovely looking red lumps which itch like mad and look wonderful as an accessory to my red heat rash bumps, so maybe the ganga does make everything look better!!!!
Today we are off to Mystic Mountain and Dunns River Falls. Sometimes you just have to do the tourist thing.
What an absolutely brilliant day! First stop was Mystic Mountain. We thought it would be an all day visit but no it lasted about 3 or 4 hours in total. We paid for the bobsled ride (images of Cool Runnings in my head) and general visit. Neither of us fancied the zip line as it isn’t always the most comfortable of experiences. We were lucky to be able to see humming birds coming to the feeding stations for a drink of sugary syrup. Gorgeous, but they are so fast and almost impossible to get a picture of – if you look hard enough you will be able to see them. We took the nature trail walk with a guide who was knowledgeable about the flora. The trail ended at the half way point on the chairlift (same as those in a ski resort) where you have to go down to come back up to the top. It only takes 20 minutes! Thats where we spent most of our time. But we did see a mongoose on the path down. The bobsled ride down through the jungle was such good fun and well worth doing.
Then it was on to Dunns River Falls where we walked up a waterfall. Not sure what to expect we were put in a group of about 15 people, mostly strangers at the start and all very friendly one hour later. The guide was brilliant and made sure we all got a good soaking very early on. Fortunately we had invested $5 each last week in Florida in Walmart on some water shoes. Ours were luminous orange whilst everyone else was sporting the Jamaican park shoe in Jamaican flag colours. If you are ever in Jamaica the walk up the waterfall is a must do. The guide and group go at a slow pace. They are happy to take your photo with your own camera whenever the opportunity presents itself. There is also the obligatory cameraman/videographer with the group who will sell you a DVD at the end. Only downside for us was running the gauntlet of vendors on the exit from the park – absolute nightmare as they won’t take no for an answer. But we escaped with our money intact.
Our final day and we found a little known and fairly new nature park with its own waterfall walk. Really lovely and inexpensive with an on site museum at St Anns call Konoko Falls Park. This was after our drive up Fern Gully which we had been warned off as it was ‘dark with narrow winding lanes’. Well, all I can say is that they have never driven in Port Isaac or Polperro in Cornwall. Yes it was winding – approx. 63 turns in 3 miles and not overly bright as the ferns and trees meet to make it quite dim, but it was lovely. The roadside vendors sell ‘rude’ carvings of men ( I don’t think they would be allowed through customs) and also dress a ‘hide’ with ferns and flowers = pictures for tips which means you don’t have to buy a souvenir.
This makes me sound tight – but I really dislike being hounded and pestered to buy something. I’m not the best with souvenirs as I hate dust collectors and have nowhere to put things anymore. But I do like to window shop. Trouble is when you have seen one Jamaica t-shirt and wood carving you have seen them all and everyone wants you to buy theirs.
One of the sad but common sights you see in Jamaica is the amount of rubbish polluting the rivers, beaches and road sides. Fishermen were catching fish with litter strewn across the beach behind them. There are some initiatives in places to reduce the amount of rubbish build up in towns and waterways as the Jamaicans beome more environmentally aware. Single use plastic is being replaced with degradable containers in tourist attractions and plastic bags in supermarkets are being replaced with bags for life. But it is likely to be a slow process.
All in all Jamaica is somewhere everyone should visit at least once in their lives. It is a love or hate destination and I loved it, despite the mosquito bites.