Folks are friendly in the mountains of Jamaica, but in an unpracticed way. They will tell you how to behave and it’s always best to listen for your own sake: They’re almost always right. Then they’ll tell you a funny story. Definitely listen to that.
To illustrate: We had walked from our resort to a local bar in Irish Town for a couple of Red Stripe beers. It was a purely local place, but we were welcomed with smiles and instructions on how to attain said beers.
It so happened to be Saturday night and a special jerk barbecue was under way. I asked the chef what we could get. He summarily ignored me, but the fellow he was serving explained. Later, the chef summoned me: Now it was my turn for an audience with him, and not any sooner.
When it came time to order and we were deciding between jerk chicken and pork, he told us bluntly: “You having pork, you having a half-pound.” And that’s what we had.
In Your Bucket Because….
- You want to escape touristy Jamaica.
- You love the outdoors, biking, and a great cup of coffee.
- Ideal for couples and active vacationers.
Headquarters: Strawberry Hill
Irish Town, named for its earliest colonial settlers – who made wooden barrels for local coffee plantations — lies at the foot of 3,000-feet-high Strawberry Hill, now an eponymous resort owned by recording mogul Chris Blackwell.
He brought his most well-known musician, Bob Marley, here to recover after a 1976 shooting. Mick Jagger, U2, and other name guests have graced the premises.
It’s as plush as it gets in the Blue Mountains, although the stilt cottages are built appropriately simple, decorated with beautiful mahogany four-posters dressed in fluffy down comforters, romantic gauzy veiling, and mattress warmers to ward off the evening chill.
With only 12 units, a spa, a sauna and plunge pool, a fashionable negative-edge hilltop pool, and views of blue-tinged peaks and Kingston’s twinkling lights, price tags are not cheap at Strawberry Hill.
Dining, too, is quite costly compared to elsewhere here in Jamaica’s farming groun’, which is why we ended up in Irish Town, which has a few eating spots and roadside kiosks selling fresh tropical fruit, snacks, and beverages.
Mountain Highs and Coffee Buzz
Getting up the Blue Mountains is part of the adventure. Cooler by five to ten degrees than sea-level Kingston at their feet and as far removed as you can get from Jamaica’s resort and urban scenes, the Blue Mountains’ appeal reaches as high as their loftiest peak.
That loftiest peak – Blue Mountain – incidentally, reaches 7,402 feet into the clouds, the second tallest in the Caribbean after Dominican Republic’s Pico Duarte. The highest you can reach by road is about 4,000 feet. The mountains are most famous for growing some of the world’s most cherished coffee beans – one potent form of Blue Mountain high.
Impatiens grow wild and ferns carpet sheer hillsides. Banana tree stands, heliconia, red ginger flowers, Caribbean pine, and thick bamboo frame the narrow, torturous road that seems at points too skinny for one vehicle.
Which is one good reason to hire a car to take you to your mountain accommodations from the Kingston airport. At Blue Mountains elevation, you’ve arrived to Old Jamaica, still unscathed by the resort influence.
From Strawberry Hill, trails take you on aerobically vertical walks up and down the hills to see nature, a crafts studio, an Episcopal chapel, and a coffee field.
Biking the Blue Mountains
Driving and biking tours go beyond, upwards past 5,060-foot St. Catherine’s Peak and into Holywell Recreational Park, part of 200,000-acre Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, home to 3,000 species of flowering plants, 30 percent of which are not found elsewhere.
At Holywell, trails poke into the habitat of Jamaica’s 255 bird species, including the yellow-billed parrot and the delightful “doctor bird.” The national bird, this hummingbird trails a long elegant tail.
You can also rent one- or two-bedroom cabins in the park complete with fireplace, kitchen, and a fabulous view. (Book well in advance, especially for weekends.) Here, you’ve reached an elevation of about 4,000 feet high into the clouds; the weather turns misty; rainforest vegetation runs rampant.
A few guest houses and lodges also accommodate mountaineers, who more often come from Europe than America. All can arrange tours of coffee factories – Jablum in Mavis Bank is the most popular – and biking excursions.
The latter typically start with lunch. Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours Restaurant and Coffee Shop at Silver Hill is the meeting point for one operator’s two-hour guided ride. After lunch mid-mountain, you can zoom downhill from there or be transported to Holywell for a longer descent. No pedaling necessary.
Bring your camera; the tour stops often for snapping and snacking. Operators provide one-speed mountain bikes (with good brakes), helmets, and knee pads.
It’s an exhilarating adventure one doesn’t forget soon: the essential Jamaica high.
- Visit the Visit Jamaica Web site for more information.
- Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours 876-974-7075.
- Holywell Recreational Area 876-920-8278.
- Strawberry Hill 800-OUTPOST, 876-944-8400.