Jamaica, Marley and Me: Every little thing is very hunky-dory indeed
Sunday morning. I am floating on my back in the Caribbean Sea off Jamaica and the words of various Bob Marley songs are going round and round in my head.
I'm suspended in the salty water, bobbing up and down about 20 metres from the wooden jetty. My toes are pointed roughly towards Colombia. My right arm - if I extended it and pointed my finger (which really I'm not that bothered to do) - would be more or less pointing towards the fashionable tax haven of the Caymans. But my head is pointed at the island of Jamaica, and at the back of my mind is breakfast. It's early o'clock, eight am or so, and it's time to roll over and swim for shore.
I take two strokes. God, it's warm. Breaststroke temperature. I look down through the crystal-clear water and see a ray glide by over the sandy bottom, a couple of metres below. It's heading directly towards the two pelicans who are trawling the shallow waters for their fishy breakfasts.
'Watch out!' I want to tell it.
But how would you warn off a ray? And given that the circle of life has to keep on turning, would I really want to? Yes, swimming at Jakes on Treasure Beach can prove quite a philosophical minefield.
I reach the jetty and pull myself up the ladder, shrugging off the philosophy as I step onto solid earth. Within minutes I'm dry, a shirt is over my shoulders and I'm back at my table. Like magic, juice appears. Then coffee. Then ackee fruit and saltfish. Mango was involved somewhere. And so was grapefruit. And then a Bob Marley song starts up in my head again: every little thing's going to be all right - and I find myself wondering how the hell he could have been so sure about that?
For here at Jakes every little thing is very hunky-dory indeed. And how else could it be at the world's coolest hotel? The place itself is a small collection of tres-funky en suite cabins dotted under shady mango trees and centred around a small rock pool. There's a top-notch restaurant, lovely shaded gardens and a small bar just by the jetty.
If the boho charm of the small fishing village of Treasure Beach (or the impromptu games of dominos with the locals) isn't your thing, there's lots in the area to do. Top tip is to wave down one of the wooden fishing boats that flit up and down the coast, and hitch a ride past the pods of dolphins up to the Pelican Bar - a rickety wooden creation, built on stilts in the ocean.
If the Pelican Bar doesn't float your boat, take a trip inland to Ys Falls where they've made an art of the waterfall leap - with rope swings that throw you out over dizzyingly high drops, and a zip wire that lets you fly through the canopy of the tropical forest.
Nature boys and girls might instead elect to take a river safari on the Black River to spot the crocodiles, heron and egrets that make their home in the mangrove swamp. They'll be enthralled.
Because it's hard not to be amazed by the Eden that is Jamaica. The tropical island is graced by hundreds of waterfalls, many of which have plunge pools where you can swim or splash about - and no matter your age, there's something utterly magical about clambering behind a curtain of falling water and then hurling yourself through the cascade into a deep rock pool.
The north of the island, from the towns of Ochos Rios to Montego Bay, is where most of the resort hotels have staked out their claims, so that's where many visitors to Jamaica end up. It's also home to a list of must-visit beaches, many with James Bond links (such as Laughing Waters, where Honey Ryder walks out of the sea in Dr. No - be still my heart). But if you're an old-school Bond fan and are set on visiting Golden Eye (former home of author Ian Fleming, and now a rock star hotel hangout), you'd better bring a platinum credit card. Fleming's next-door neighbour was Noel Coward - you can only imagine the parties.
It's not all beaches though. Jamaica's got roots, and culture - and bike rides? Yes it does. Someone suggested we take a bike ride, so we joined the Blue Mountains Downhill Cycle Tour - my kind of cycling. We jumped on the bus taking us along the coast, then turning inland, then upland. We worked our way up the north side of the Blue Mountains. Higher and higher, passing small rural villages with tin-roofed houses painted in primary colours, past crystal-clear waterfalls, the roads barely clinging to the side of the mountain.
Just as we reached the cloud level, we stopped and grabbed the bikes to freewheel back down the mountain, meandering around and only coming to a stop when we hauled up at a cooling waterfall for our last swim on the north side. For the following day we were Kingston bound.
The capital of Jamaica is ground zero of the island's soundtrack. The Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Toots, Minnie Small, Augustus Pablo, Althea and Donna, Prince Buster, Beenie Man, Sizzla - and of course, Robert Nesta Marley.
A word or two on Bob, because you can't visit Jamaica without encountering Mr M. He's everywhere. On T-shirts, mugs, temporary tattoos - even the airport billboards look like they've been nicked from a 1980s student flat.
And that ubiquity sparks not a little scepticism. Like most of my generation, I loved his music when he was alive - but since his death it had seemed to me that something happened which plasticised his memory. As if in death he'd become the Bono of Jamaica.
But all that was before I went to Trenchtown in downtown Kingston and met Sophia and Chris - the two main forces driving the Culture Yard project, and the pair who inadvertently reminded me that, in life, Bob Marley was very much the real deal.
Chris spelled out the history of the Culture Yards, which grew from a squatter camp into a post-World War II housing project (aka, "the government yards of Trenchtown", as a certain song would have it). The post-war period saw a huge influx of rural people into urban Kingston, so the country folk had to learn city style - and into this melting pot came a young kid called Bob Marley. The rest is musical history.
Marley and his family lived in the yard which now serves as the Culture Yard base, and as Chris brings the history to life, the song No Woman, No Cry slowly morphs from being an iconic song into a simple description of Marley's embryonic years. So many of the things Marley sings about are still here: his home, his single bed... plus the poverty, and life's ongoing struggle. If you've got an enquiring mind, and a vibrant sense of song, you'll love the Culture Yard - but take note, it may change your mind about a few things.
Now we had the musical vibe going, we went vinyl diving at Rockers International (Kingston's last record shop) down on Orange Street - a street that was once the birthplace of ska, but now just cooling its heels and considering its next move.
We pushed on to the Tuff Gong studios - the Marley-owned recording studios, where he made his last three LPs. We entered the studio past a funny smelling shrub growing outside the front door and I got to tinkle the keys of the Johanna in the room where Marley recorded Redemption Song. It may have been my awful piano playing, or maybe the heat of Kingston was getting to us, so we set off up the country roads above the city, back into the Blue Mountains, where the world-famous coffee is grown. The winding drive brings us through towns named after the Irish who settled here, and also introduces us to the magnificent flora of Jamaica.
The growth is unstoppable. It seems like the forest wants the road back, and is going all out in a land grab. I know the plants of Ireland - but I just don't have the vocabulary to describe what grows here. I can see the bromeliads, the orchids, the banana trees. There's a succession of guava, guango, and many breadfruit trees. The mighty angel trumpet trees are all in flower - but what's this one called? And this?
We stop into the Craighton Coffee Estate and are regaled with tales of roasting and grinding while we make inroads into the rum cake and coffee (which is, of course, amazing). Nosing around the colonial-period estate house afterwards, I spy an original William Orpen sketch, dated 1910, hanging on the wall.
"Oh yes, he visited here - back in the day."
Of course he did. And that's because Jamaica attracts the famous, like nectar does the bees.
And those bees are still coming. A short drive from the coffee plantation to the area known as Irishtown we call into Strawberry Hill - the former weekend home of Chris Blackwell of Island Records, now reopened as a hotel. Sort of like Airbnb, but for multimillionaires.
Strawberry Hill is aimed squarely at the boho brigade, and I've got to admit it is gorgeous. High in the mountains, with the lights of Kingston sparkling in the distance, you understand why rock royalty like to spend a little time up here. Photos of former guests and gold records dot the walls, and if you were ever bored you could commandeer the piano in the bar.
Jamaica? No, I'll go of my own accord.
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
Jerk is the Jamaican seasoning and you’ll find titter-inducing jerk centres everywhere, selling wood-barbecued chicken or pork, plus a host of other spicy specialities. If you’re really into double entendres, try the cock soup.
Domino & Red Stripe
If you want to be real old school in Jamaica, you just need to know these two things — the island versions of 45 and Guinness. For dominoes you play either ‘partner’ or ‘cut throat’ and the banter is as important as winning. Almost.
For more information on planning the trip you’ve always dreamed of in Jamaica, see visitjamaica.com — or on social, try facebook.com/visitjamaicaUK or instagram.com/visitjamaica.
For Jakes Hotel in Treasure Beach, use jakeshotel.com — you won’t want to leave.
In the north of the island try riu.com/en/hotel/jamaica/ocho-rios or the Hilton Rose Hall resort near Montego Bay is lovely (rosehallresort.com).
Sunday Indo Living