Jamaica’s golden age–yet another lavish travel article about the “good old days”

It was an era synonymous with glamour – the Fifties and Sixties, when Ian Fleming and Noël Coward built their houses GoldenEye and Firefly in this Caribbean idyll, and Marilyn Monroe, JFK and Jackie Kennedy jetted in. At hotels oozing old-world character, Adriaane Pielou finds “intoxicating echoes of the past” in this article for London’s Telegraph.

I find the article a bit too obsessed with the “grand old days” of Jamaica, which were not to grand for most of our readers, but the article contains some interesting tidbits and a great glimpse about how our islands are sold elsewhere as resort destinations.

Arriving in Jamaica not to the expected blue skies and sunshine but a violent, late-afternoon rainstorm, I find the heavens black and rain pelting. “They havin’ a bumpty ride!” cackles the elderly taxi driver as we leave Kingston’s international airport and head for the small Tinson Pen domestic aerodrome nearby, where I am booked on a small plane for the 15-minute flight to Ocho Rios, on the north coast.

I follow the driver’s gaze upwards through the rain-lashed windscreen. Good grief. Overhead, a small plane coming in to land is so buffeted by the wind it has flipped over on its side, with one wing tip pointing at the ground. As we wait in the traffic, the decrepit taxi belching dark exhaust fumes, I watch tensely as the plane finally rights itself before bumping on to the runway. “Everyt’ing go well, thank the Lord,” says the driver, cheerfully.

By the time I have struggled against the wind and rain into the little terminal, I am relieved to find that all domestic flights have been grounded (the pilots are looking quite crestfallen) and another taxi has been called, so I’ll be making the trip – a three-hour journey across the mountains – by road. Now all I’ve got to worry about is having to drive through Kingston. The murder count in Jamaica was 1,700 last year, and highest in Kingston. That, admittedly, was worse than usual because of the prolonged police shoot-out with kingpin drug dealer “Dudus” Coke, but terrible for a country of three million. “They shoot each other left, right and centre in the bad part of Kingston,” says my suave new taxi driver, putting on some soothing Toots and the Maytals. “But the bad part just a small part and we only going through the good part!” The residential streets we drive through look entirely tranquil – almost manicured, in fact, with their lush gardens and low walls – and despite the “Beware of the Dog” signs, there are none of the Johannesburg-style barbed-wire defences I was expecting.

Smart houses give way to dilapidated villages, then sugar-cane fields, then hilly jungle. Darkness falls and when we eventually pull up outside Villa Plantana, in the gardens of the old Royal Plantation hotel, I can hardly keep my eyes open. I just about register a graceful, large main room opening on to a terrace where candles flicker in hurricane lamps set around a pool. The trees fringing the terrace are swaying as the wind rustles their leaves and I can hear waves crashing on rocks as I drift off.

If there is one thing more luxurious than falling asleep to the sound of a stormy sea, it is waking up to a tropical morning. By 7am I have swum in the pool and am sitting on the terrace looking at a now limpid turquoise sea, listening to birdsong and crunching toast spread with the most delicious marmalade – Busha Browne’s, says the butler, made by a local company run by the enjoyably named Winston Stoner. The aroma of fresh coffee mingles with the scent of frangipani, and the warmth of the sun soon dries my swimsuit. Jamaica hasn’t taken long to begin to work its magic.

The villa is separated from the hotel by a bridge over a gully shaded by trees that must be almost 100ft tall. After breakfast, I wander through beautifully cultivated gardens filled with hibiscus and hummingbirds into a cool world of mahogany floors and wicker chairs. The hotel opened in 1957, with Churchill one of its early guests, and – having picked up The Noël Coward Diaries to read on the plane – I am thrilled to discover that the old black Steinway in the drawing room is the very one Coward used to play when he brought house guests over for cocktails.

Like his great friend Ian Fleming, who dreamt up James Bond in Jamaica, the playwright first visited the island from a bleak, blitzed-out London in the 1940s. Enchanted by its languorous beauty and sunny climate, Coward copied Fleming in building a house there, entertained everyone from Truman Capote and Frank Sinatra to Cecil Beaton and the Queen Mother, and did much to put Jamaica on the map as the ultimate glamorous holiday destination of the Fifties and Sixties. His house, Firefly – at Port Maria – is only a few miles away, so I take a trip there that afternoon.

Firefly, on a hilltop with what must be one of the best views in the Caribbean, is owned by the Jamaican National Heritage Trust, but run by Island Outpost – the hotel group owned by Chris Blackwell, who launched Island Records and made Bob Marley a star. It appears just as Coward left it. There are his 78s on a turntable, his short-sleeved Hawaiian shirts and silk PJs in the wardrobe, his medicine bottles in the bathroom cabinet (I shut the door quickly) and a smell of mildew. I feel
I have stepped back decades. “The table is set as it was when the Queen Mother came to lunch on February 28, 1965,” intones the caretaker, who worked for Coward. The author, who died in Jamaica in 1973, is buried in the garden and his presence is almost palpable.

I am sorry to leave Villa Plantana, but arriving at Rio Chico – another of the big houses available for rent, where I am to spend the next two nights – I laugh out loud in delight. The sprawling sometime family home of Butch Stewart – the super-rich Jamaican who founded the Sandals hotel chain, ubiquitous throughout the Caribbean – it is an open-sided, six-bedroom house arranged on two storeys and set amid rolling lawns on a headland near where the Dunn’s River waterfall spills into the sea. Beyond the pool, in a shallow stream, a table has been set up in the water for lunch. Total heaven. Later, behind the house, I find steps leading down to a little cove where a swing chair shaded by low-hanging trees makes a spot perfect for reading and lazing, feet in the warm sea. At 5pm, my reverie is interrupted by the butler. “Apologies for the intrusion, but would you like dinner served in the Italian garden, or on the beach, or on the cliff terrace?” asks the hyper-courteous Rocky. Well, there’s a question. What a brilliant place this house must be for parties.

But there’s no time to ponder that; I have places to go, people to see. From Ocho Rios, past Mick Jagger’s house, it is a two-hour drive along the north coast to Montego Bay. The driver-guide points out the intelligence of the goats that graze on every roadside, staring at the traffic as if waiting for a bus (“So smart – you don’t never see one squashed out dead flat at the side of the road, do you now?”), and enumerates popular local sayings for me. “Most def”, “too blessed to be stressed” and “if it ain’t so, it nearly so!” are my favourites. Used to the much smaller Barbados, St Lucia and St Thomas, I am surprised at how long it takes to get anywhere in Jamaica (145 miles long by 50 wide). Eventually, though, we pass through the stone-pineapple-topped gates marking the entrance to Round Hill, built in 1953 on a former coconut plantation (with Noël Coward among the original investors), and the old, grand Jamaica once again becomes evident.

Clipped lawns dot hillsides strung with red-roofed villas half-hidden behind billowing bougainvillea. In the reception, with its chequered floor and old-fashioned board where guests hang their keys, an elderly concierge takes my case; he could be the brother of the pianist in Casablanca. Kingsley, as he is called, steers the golf cart up the hill and recites the names of guests he has met in his 38 years here. “Many but not all I found most impressive,” he says sonorously, putting the key in the door of my cottage. At any other time I would be pressing him for details, but instead I am just relishing the shabby-chic all-white interior and marvelling at the view. No wonder Ralph Lauren has a villa here. “Mr Lauren isn’t here now, but in winter, he come most every weekend,” says Kingsley, tottering off.

Half an hour later, in a little wooden pavilion housing a library, yards from the beach, I open a slightly mildewy biography of Ian Fleming and, after days of blue skies and sunshine, feel glad rain has started to patter again, giving me an excuse to read. “Afternoon tea now on the terrace,” says the Austrian manager, Josef Forstmayr, and soon I am settling into a wicker armchair by a potted palm with a pile of books and plate of cakes, relishing the tropical downpour. In the bar, with its overhead fans and gleaming mahogany chairs, the walls are hung with black-and-white photographs. Tanned faces grin out from half a century ago – Grace Kelly, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Kennedy and JFK… I can’t help grinning back.

Dinner is so-so; breakfast, as ever on this island, perfect. En route back to Ocho Rios, I make a detour to see Jamaica Inn – opened in 1950, with blue-and-white painted cottages strung along a white-sand beach, the place where Marilyn Monroe honeymooned with Arthur Miller – and then it’s on to the grand finale. Arriving at GoldenEye, in Oracabessa, at dusk, is like stepping on to a glamorous film set when all the actors have gone home. A wooden bridge links the new development of 17 beach and lagoon-edge villas, opened in 2010, with the cliff fringing the headland that obscures the original GoldenEye – Ian Fleming’s house, which Chris Blackwell bought in 1976. (Fleming had recommended a teenage Blackwell as location scout when Dr No was filmed here.)

I check into one of the beach villas, a high-ceilinged wooden house right on the beach. There is a pale-blue Smeg fridge in the kitchen, a high bed draped in a mosquito net, and a bathroom – with clawfoot bath – opening on to a second, outdoor, bathroom with a shower under an almond tree (unnervingly overlooked by the adjacent villa). My dinner of grilled fish and salsa is light and full of flavour, prepared by local chef Conroy Arnold, who learnt to cook as a barefoot boy at his grandmother’s side, then went to New York and ended up at Nobu.

Next morning he explains the GoldenEye ethos: “Mr Blackwell wants us to use organic local ingredients wherever possible, support the local fishermen and farmers, involve local people as much as possible, not like the 1,000-bed hotels that import everything from Miami.” Breakfast is served in the sunshine at the breezy Bizot Bar beach restaurant – muesli with chopped guava, then the dense, delicious, toasted Jamaican hard-dough bread with Winston Stoner’s insanely divine double-boiled guava jelly. Tapes from the 1970s French Riviera radio station Radio Nova play in the background. So cool.

Later, at the watersports centre, I choose a jet-ski and buzz out into the bay at a reckless 25mph. “If you go at 110mph, they leap about 30ft, which is quite fun,” says Nick Simmonds, the South African general manager. “Chris Blackwell jet-skis as a workout.” In the somnolence of mid-afternoon, I have a massage in the shady, half-open-air spa, then afterwards move into GoldenEye itself. It’s a shame someone has seen fit to erect a totem pole and a giant portrait of Bob Marley in the elegant old drawing room, but the desks Fleming typed at still stand there and in the main bedroom.

While the large, jolly housekeeper who as a girl worked for “Commander Fleming himself, oh yes!” busies herself inside, I retreat to the private beach with a Ting (the Jamaican soft drink that has become a rival to Busha Browne’s in my affections) to read Casino Royale, the first of Fleming’s 13 Bonds, which he wrote at the desk in the bedroom. At dusk, I wander back to find hurricane lamps lit and the table in the sunken garden set for dinner. Later, in Fleming’s bedroom, I fall asleep to a now familiar soundtrack of tree frogs, crickets and slapping waves.

At 6.30am on my last day, I am lying in an outdoor roll-top bath under an almond tree in the big, shady garden bathroom, finishing the Bond, with a coffee cup balanced on the edge of the bath. The temperature is delicious, in the bath and out. I feel utterly in love with the world. This – right here in this bath – is my nomination for the most idyllic spot in the Caribbean.

“Ma’am, do you have family in Jamaica?” asks the portly, middle-aged Jamaican squeezed into his booth at passport control at Kingston airport. (I arrive after a hair-raising detour to see yet another atmospheric old hotel, Strawberry Hill, 3,100ft above Kingston in the Blue Mountains and reached via one hairpin bend after another). Taken aback, I tell him I don’t. “You care to consider adopting me?” he asks, as he hands my passport back, flashing a gold-toothed smile. “I no trouble and
I good about the house.” It’s the first time I have ever gone through airport security laughing.

On the flight home, I reflect on how depressing it has been to see so much poverty, despite the evidence of wealth and investment: the new cruise-ship port at Falmouth will service 6,000-passenger mega-ships, while zip-wire circuits and bobsled rides are among Jamaica’s new attractions. But it has been intoxicating to discover that the ferociously lush and lovely island Coward and Fleming wrote about so seductively still exists. The “peace and silence and cut-offness” and the “gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday” that Fleming loved is there and waiting. It is a thrill to luxuriate in the hotels they knew, oozing old-world atmosphere and character. But it is also reassuring to know that, for all their languid glamour and laid-back charm, the hotels (as the GoldenEye manager let slip) bristle with closely monitored security cameras.

For the original report go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/centralamericaandcaribbean/8916286/Jamaicas-golden-age.html

One thought on “Jamaica’s golden age–yet another lavish travel article about the “good old days”

  1. It’s not just about the “good old days.” You can still have an incredible vacation like this at Goldeneye or other places – at a huge price. This is the “high end” of the market, but there will always be people who can afford it. As for me, I love to wander round Frenchman’s Cove, with its gracious gardens, beautiful beach and manicured river and villas tucked away on cliff tops – I can feel the spirits of all those celebrities and movie stars who used to stay in those very same villas… It’s a bit run down now, but has an atmosphere of gentle decay (and duppies, Jamaicans say).


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