When the Hollywood hellraiser Errol Flynn shipped up in Jamaica, he brought with him a glittering host of stars. Much of the glamour still remains – if you know where to look, writes Sarfraz Manzoor for the Guardian’s “Observer Magazine.”
It is a blazing Jamaican afternoon, the sun bouncing off the pristine turquoise Caribbean sea, and I am looking for Errol Flynn. The man himself has been dead for 60 years, but here in Jamaica he is not forgotten. The hard-drinking, hell-raising, skirt-chasing Hollywood heartthrob first came to the island in 1942 after the yacht he was sailing was caught up in a storm. Flynn docked his boat into Kingston before hopping on the back of a motorcycle and reaching Port Antonio. He fell in love with the place, famously declaring it “more beautiful than any woman I have ever known”. Coming from Flynn this was high praise indeed, and that is why I have come to Jamaica – to follow in his footsteps and rediscover the Jamaica that was once the playground of the rich and the glamorous.
I begin my trip in Ocho Rios, a two-hour drive from Montego Bay on the north coast of Jamaica. It was here, at hotels such as Jamaica Inn and Round Hill, that Hollywood aristocracy partied with British nobility. Jamaica Inn first opened in 1950, and Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller stayed here for their honeymoon – a photograph of the couple hangs in the restaurant – while Winston Churchill came to unwind and paint.
Over at Round Hill, an exclusive series of villas and rooms scattered over 110 acres, the likes of Grace Kelly and Claudette Colbert came for seclusion and sunshine. More recently Paul McCartney, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise have all stayed at Round Hill. Errol Flynn also stayed briefly in Ocho Rios – his friend Noël Coward owned one of the villas at Round Hill – but the actor’s home was on a small island off the coast of Port Antonio, and that’s where I am heading next.
Navy Island is a sliver of land which, legend has it, Errol Flynn won in a game of poker. Flynn lived with his wife Patrice Wymore on a boat moored off the coast and built a house on the island where he would “entertain” his other lady friends. Now Navy Island is deserted and not easily reached. “Navy Island covers about 65 acres and there are two beaches, but there is nothing there except the wreckage from the past,” says Dale Weston, manager of the Errol Flynn marina. “The wreckage from the past is exactly what I am looking for,” I tell him. He looks at me and shakes his head. “So you want to go to Navy Island, huh?” he says. “Well all right, but let me grab my machete.” “Why do you need a machete?” I ask. “You’ll see,” he replies.
A short ride in a motorised dinghy later and we wash up on the island. It is just me, Dale and his assistant, Flour. Dale hands Flour his machete and Flour begins hacking a path through the wildly growing weeds blocking our path. I gingerly make my way through the undergrowth, almond, banana and lime trees blocking the sky. Eventually we reach the ruins of an old building with ornate writing that reads: “Navy Island Restaurant and Bounty Bar”. “This is probably part of the reception area for the cottages and hotels that were on the island back in the 50s,” says Dale.
We carry on, slashing a path through bushes and branches until we come upon the dilapidated shell of a house. “We think this was probably Flynn’s home,” said Dale. The floor is a carpet of weeds, a broken fan hangs from the roof, and shafts of lights fall on to the faded walls. “This would have been where he invited his ladies,” says Dale wiping his brow. I look around. There isn’t much to see on Navy Island – a few rotting shells of buildings, ransacked cottages – but it is truly thrilling. It feels like I am walking among ghosts, undisturbed for decades, from a thousand nights of debauchery. The plan is to develop Navy Island, to renovate it and exploit its land. It makes sense, but it also makes me sad – it’s reassuring there are places so close and yet untouched.
I have been promised a tour of Port Antonio by Bentley – and that is, in a way, true. Bentley is a driver who works at Geejam Hotel, where I am staying and, having spent his life in the town, he is an ideal guide to show me around. We begin downtown, walking through the market where goats’ heads sit forlornly waiting to be turned into soup and sleeping dogs lie on benches next to their sleeping owners. “This here street used to be called Rum Lane,” says Bentley. “It’s called Williams Street now, but it was a lively spot back then – lots of bars all down the street. Mr Flynn would drink here – I remember seeing him as a young boy.” Bentley points to a nondescript building. “Mr Flynn liked to visit that place.” “Was it a bar?” I ask. “No, it was a whorehouse,” he replies.
For all of his reminiscing there is little in modern-day downtown Port Antonio that evokes the old-time glamour I am searching for. The Titchfield Hotel, which Flynn had bought, was once one of the grandest hotels in Jamaica, boasting 400 rooms and 600ft of piazza. Among the stars Flynn hosted there were Tony Curtis and Katharine Hepburn, Abbott and Costello, and Peter O’Toole.
When we reach the site of the Titchfield all I can see is an army training barracks. “The hotel burned down in the 60s – the annexe is all that’s left, and it’s being used by the military now,” says Bentley. We carry on driving, past colourful food shacks and huge mansions that offer a reminder of Jamaica’s colonial past.
It wasn’t just Errol Flynn who made Jamaica his home; Noël Coward and Ian Fleming also settled on the island. Coward bought a villa at Round Hill and later his own home, Firefly, on land which originally belonged to the pirate Henry Morgan. Ian Fleming lived on the estate he named Goldeneye, in the tiny town of Oracabessa, now owned by former music mogul Chris Blackwell, whose Island Outpost manages many of the island’s premier hotels. I meet Blackwell on James Bond Beach, just by Goldeneye, where he is eating with friends while keeping an eye on his iPad and numerous phones. The 73-year-old Blackwell is Jamaican aristocracy: his mother had an affair with Ian Fleming, and Blackwell himself was a friend of Errol Flynn.
“I remember him well – he punched me once for stealing his girlfriend,” he recalls. “I was still only in my teens. It was very glamorous mainly because of Errol and Ian Fleming and Noël Coward. It was just incredible back then – I couldn’t even begin to tell you what it was like.” “If I want a taste of that life, what do I need to do?” I ask him. “You have to visit Firefly,” he says.
I leave Blackwell and drive along the bending roads to Firefly. The former home of Noël Coward has been turned into a museum, and visiting is like stepping back in time. There are faded photographs of guests who visited Coward – a luminous Elizabeth Taylor, an elderly Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and Sophia Loren. Coward’s piano still stands, his record player with assorted albums, his typewriter with paper still inside and towels hanging in the bath. It is almost as if Coward has just dashed out and will be returning at any moment. Firefly overlooks the sea, the Blue Mountains in the distance. A bronze statue of Coward, sitting on a bench, gazes out towards the coast. I look out into the darkening sky, trying to take in the spectacular view, and see a rainbow.
Coward and Flynn couldn’t have been more different – the English homosexual and the Tasmanian womaniser – but they were close friends. An entry in Coward’s diary for Tuesday 27 March 1951 reads: “Dined with Errol Flynn and his wife Pat. Drinks on his yacht, which is beautiful, then barbecue dinner on his island – palm trees – lit by torches. Both of them extremely nice; a really lovely evening.” Pat was Patrice Wymore, the third wife and widow of Errol Flynn. She is now 83 and, like Noël Coward, I have a dinner date with her.
In the restaurant of the Geejam Hotel, Patrice lights a cigarette, takes a drag and recalls her time with Flynn. “He loved it here because it was the only place where we would not be disturbed by the press,” she says.
After Flynn died Patrice ran a boutique at Frenchman’s Cove during the 60s. The cove is often listed among the best beaches in the world, and back then stars such as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton would fly in by helicopter before partying on the beach. “It was wonderful,” she says. “I remember rafting on the Rio Grande: we would go early in the morning – a bar on one raft, food on another and musicians playing on a third – and we would spend the whole day rafting down the river. Have you done that yet?”
It is my last day in Jamaica and I am standing on the banks of the Rio Grande, a luminous blue ribbon that was once used to transport bananas. Errol Flynn popularised the idea of using thin bamboo rafts to silently glide along the river. Among those Flynn went rafting with was Truman Capote, who had a huge crush on the actor and once grabbed Flynn’s crotch with both hands while Flynn was driving the pair to Kingston.
I clamber on, and with a gentle push my designated rafter nudges us out on to the river. It is hypnotically serene – out in the great wide open, no sounds except the gentle scrape of the wooden oar on the pebbled waterbed, the occasional cry of a bird, the wind rustling through the banana trees. The sun is intense, and as the raft glides under towering bamboo arches, past fern-shrouded groves and over rippling shoals my rafter points out a narrow passageway of moss-covered stone. “Mr Flynn named this Lovers’ Lane,” he says. “He used to take his lady friends here in the moonlight.”
We squeeze through Lovers’ Lane and stop for lunch at Belinda’s Riverside Shack. Belinda cooks food for rafting travellers on a wood-fired grill using local ingredients that she carries on her head during the long walk from her home to her shack.
“I’ve prepared grilled parrot fish, roasted breadfruit dumplings and callaloo,” she tells me. It is delicious – richly spiced and exotically textured. I finish the food and say goodbye to Belinda, heading back to the raft, which makes its way to its final destination, Rafter’s Rest.
The rafting trip is a wonderful end to my journey back in time to Jamaica’s glory days. Errol Flynn, Noël Coward and Ian Fleming are all long gone, but the Jamaica they loved has not entirely disappeared. These days it may be more famous for guns and gangsters than glamour, but that old, elegant and beautiful Jamaica still stands, its rich and fabled past sparkling like the shining turquoise waters of the Caribbean sea.
For the original article, plus travel information go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/sep/26/errol-flynn-jamaica