Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Taking it easy in Jamaica

For perhaps the first time in my life, I had only two goals for my very short excuse for a spring break: 1) get some sunshine, and 2) relax. With that in mind, we looked through the options for cheap destinations with some culture and some sunshine and landed on Jamaica. After some invaluable input from a couple of friends, we decided upon Treasure Beach, a surprisingly untouristed beach on the southwest coast of the island.

We rented a car in Kingston and decided to navigate the old fashioned way -after all, it's a small island with only a few main roads... how hard could it be? So with D. at the wheel on the left side of the road and me in the passenger seat armed with a map that could at best be called "approximate," we set off. Two things about driving in Jamaica - 1. although the roads are bad, once you get away from the populated areas, it's really not that hard, and 2. there are no road signs. And I mean none. Needless to say, we got hopelessly lost. After narrowly missing about three hundred pedestrians as we wildly tried to find our way out of the maze-like town of Mandeville, and a pit stop at Juici Patties, home of Jamaica's favorite snack, to build up our stamina again, we drove down tiny country roads, asking directions of confused Rastas along the way, until someone took pity on us as we were stopped on the side of the road studying the map, and we followed him to the beach.

Once there, however, it was perfect. We got a little room in a villa right on the ocean, with a veranda overlooking the waves. The beach really was undiscovered - there were no big hotels, no gift shops, no buses or cruise ships, no hassle or vendors, and barely any tourists. Most of the time you could walk down the beach completely alone. The trade-off is that the beach itself is probably less conducive to swimming than some of the more famous ones, and it's not the stretch of white sand you see in the pictures. However, it was totally worth it not to have to fight the crowds for a spot, and the water was still warm and pleasant. Of course, there were very atmospheric restaurants and the requisite cocktails right on the beach (Jake's is a must-visit for dinner and drinks), but mainly you could wander around and swim in peace. I almost hate to write about Treasure Beach, because the reason it's such a gem is that nobody knows about it... but from the sounds of it, the developers are coming, so get there while you can.

We made a day trip over to the Lovers' Leap cliffs, so called because two slaves apparently jumped to their deaths there rather than be separated, and to the famed Little Ochie's restaurant at Alligator Pond, but mostly we just enjoyed the calm and quiet of Treasure Beach.

At the end of our stay we had one day in Kingston, but it turns out Kingston isn't much of a destination and it's almost impossible to get around without a car, so we restricted our visit to the former home and recording studio of Bob Marley, the tour of which consisted of "this is the tree where he liked to sit and smoke ganja, and this is the hammock where he liked to lie and smoke ganja..." and a lot of singing of reggae songs. Kingston is definitely not a recommended destination for tourists, unless you are a dedicated Bob Marley fan.

As for food, Jamaica was certainly not vegetarian friendly. Their specialties seem to be fresh seafood and "jerk," a spicy seasoning that can go on just about anything, but is mostly found on chicken and pork. The most unusual thing we tried was the typical breakfast of ackee and saltfish - ackee being a weird red fruit whose flesh looks and feels rather like scrambled eggs when cooked. It was actually kind of good. I was also a fan of "bammy," a sort of bread made out of cassava, and of course the Blue Mountain coffee and Appleton rum. On the whole, though, I didn't think food was Jamaica's strong point, though my opinion might be different if I were a meat-eater.

In sum, Jamaica was a lovely place to go for a relaxing holiday. With a bit of planning (get a GPS) you can avoid the crowds and have a paradise to yourself. There are some opportunities for hiking if you have more time, and of course there are the resorts on the northern part of the island if you are into that. We'll probably be back someday to see some other parts of the island, but it's admittedly not at the top of the list, mainly because I prefer to have a few more options than just hanging out at the beach, and while I'm sure there are some in Jamaica, they weren't immediately obvious. For now, though, it was 85 degrees and sunny, the pina coladas were flowing, and it was exactly what I wanted.

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