Jamaican Island Exploration

The afternoon rain storms seem to have set in over the west and so we drove in the opposite direction with little other agenda than that of exploring.  We followed the coastal highway east from Mo’ Bay towards Ochos Rios.  We discovered much of the countryside to be so familiar to that of parts of Zimbabwe, that at some time I said to Keith to “pinch me!  This looks and feels like we are in Mutare!”  In so many ways it could have been –  Mutare by the sea!  Flamboyants, figs, bananas, sugar cane, bougis, even trees that looked remarkably like our acacias!

Inland roads

The road wound away from the coastline at times and through gaps cut through limestone toward the interior.  At some points we were driving with some relatively high limestone cliffs on our inland side and noticed plenty of caves and crevices reminding us of Jamaica’s pirate history.  We drove off the main road to visit the coastal town of Falmouth where a brand new cruise terminal is being constructed and will be one of the Royal Caribbean Cruise lines ports of call. It will be the only new thing in this little town which looked to all intents and purposes like a film set for Pirates of the Caribbean!

Falmouth church

Weather battened and beaten stone buildings hold solid place besides tiny wooden houses once painted bright tropical colors but now faded to pastel shades.  Buzzing shops and informal markets are alive with a sudden mass of people, cars, mini-buses and battered pick-ups all thrusting and shoving their way through the little tangle of town streets and all following their own set of rules.  We just brought our own set into the general melee!

We escaped the sudden chaos and set back onto the coastal highway heading towards Runaway Bay and whatever else we would see along the way.  The lure of the mountainous inland proved too much and we branched off towards the interior.

Traveling through the steep hills we wound our way ever upward on narrow and often pot-holed roads that twisted like some tormented serpent through the impossibly thick and lush vegetation.  Little communities clustered around make-shift church buildings, goats and chickens, evidence of farms and small-holdings with dwellings set further back and surely with the most fabulous views over the ocean far below, are carved out of this bush.  Impossibly speeding mini-buses roar around the corners honking horns to warn of their imminent arrival, send the occasional bicyclist and ubiquitous goats scattering or hugging the crumbling edge of the road.  It never fails to amaze me how one always seems to find the fastest drivers in the most laid-back cultures!  Nothing else ever seems to be in a rush or has only the vaguest awareness of time!

Fishing at sunset

It was fantastic to find ourselves high above the coastline and in the Jamaican hills.  There were views everywhere you looked.  Toward and out over the ocean, taking in the bays and coves and distant headlands, the reef showing in places with gentle surf cresting white waves against the shallow coral shelves and inland to west and east, mile upon mile of rolling hills and deep valleys all cloaked in impenetrable dark green vegetation.  As a descendant of pioneers growing up in a land dependant on agriculture, the impression of rich untapped agricultural wealth was overwhelming.  But then I suppose it could be looked at too as rich virgin nature in a world of ever increasing over development – and relished as such.  We certainly did.

Fall in Franschoek

There were originally two very distinctive European influences on this most southern tip of Africa, the Cape, both brought through the Dutch East India Company.  The sailing ships trading exotic spices and Cape winelands Boschendaalgoods brought from the Far East and India needed a safe harbor and fresh food and water on their long journey to and fro Europe and brought Dutch farmers and settlers to the then uninhabited Cape.  At the same time the persecution of French Huguenots had forced many of these people out of their native France and into Flanders and Holland.  A business deal was struck between these displaced French and The Company (as it became known) bringing many of these Protestant families to settle and farm in the Cape.

“Wheat before wine” was the mantra but it was soon proven while water went stale, wine remained palatable even after many months at sea, and so more and more vineyards were planted.  The French settled predominantly in Franschoek (French Corner).  Long after the French language and accent has disappeared many of the names in that region still give testimony to their heritage today.  As do the restaurants and wines of this region.Avenue to Boschendaal

It is vaguely reminiscent of Sonoma Wine country in California but the mountains are bigger, greyer and somehow more forbidding.  We stopped at Boschendaal along the way – it is a magnificent estate and enormous.  Here it is possible to enjoy wine-tasting, picnics and distinctive gift shopping as well as history.  They have a gorgeous old French Huguenot Manor House preserved and available to self-tour which is easy to do as it is only five rooms!  Fascinating and well worth the $2 fee to get in.

 

Once again the gardens surrounding the manor are beautiful and in this perfect weather an outside amble is just compulsory.  The little gardener responded to my greeting with a toothless grin and some word that sounded like “Oily” and indicated the old oak tree that he was sitting under.  I looked up to see this gorgeous owl just sitting there as calm as can be and patiently observing me as if he was waiting for acknowledgement!  Wonderful!

 

We explored the little town of Franschoek and a special place called the La Quartier Francais which is world renowned for its food and accommodation – and it was impressive – and then I did a side trip to the Huguenot museum.  Most interesting and I just wish I had written down the names of those Huguenot ancestors that we have from the 1700’s.  I learnt a lot in a short time.

At Le Quartier Francais

It was getting late then and we still hadn’t had lunch so we decided to put lunch and dinner together and we drove out of Franschoek up the mountain to a beautiful vineyard with fantastic restaurant called La Petit Ferme.  The view from the restaurant was expansive back over the villages and towards the southwest and watching the light change over the valleys as we lingered over late lunch brought back some long-forgotten memories of our time in the Cape while at university.

 

I enjoyed the most mouth-watering lamb wrapped in aubergine on rosemary potato gratin with yogurt sauce drizzled over all …. it was melt-in the mouth tender and SOOO delicious!  La Petit Ferme grow most of their wines to sell in their restaurant and so it’s almost the only place you can enjoy their wine – had the most refreshing and delicious Sauvignon Blanc Fume full of green grass and melons!  My sommelier daughter would be proud of me!

View from restaurant

Jamaican Jottings – intro to the “eyeland”

Ridiculous to assume and yet we all seem to!  We go on pre-conceived notions that are simply just not true or at the very most – have only a particle of truth.  Take Africa for example.  How many times have you heard someone say “Africa” and “jungle” in the same breath?  Well, yes, there is certainly some jungle in Africa and even rain-forest but what about the miles of desert sand, savanna or even teeming cities?    In the same way, the word “Jamaica” seems to immediately bring certain images and life-styles to forefront.  Reggae, Rum and Rastafarian to name a few!

Jamaica from the air

So it was with more than the normal curiosity that we embarked upon our latest adventure and traveled to the  island of Jamaica in the Caribbean ocean.  Most of our trip was to be spent in the luxurious environs of a five-star Luxury  Sandals Resort, but we had also decided to take an extra couple days and explore on our own.  It is not something that many of the thousands of tourists that visit Jamaica each year do.  Many arrive and are met by their Resort Representatives and escorted to one of several all-inclusive resorts catering to almost every type of person or vacation imaginable.  Most hardly ever feel the need to leave their beach-side retreat.  And for many this is probably the best way to do things.  However, if you are at all adventurous or class yourself a seasoned traveler, Jamaica is a treat waiting to be savored!

As I began to research this destination before our arrival I found more and more of fascination and interest in this island.  It was one of many “discovered” during Christopher Columbus’ epic sailings.  It was later fought over between the British and the Spanish and when the British took control in the 1600’s they turned it into a pirate haven.  They allowed pirates to wreak havoc upon Spanish galleons for some pirate return and to British gain.  Later still it became a place of plantations and wealthy gentry while there was still a fortune to be made in sugar.  Runaway and freed slaves formed their own communities in hide-a-way and hard to find places on the island. Sailors, soldiers and others generally seduced by island life have continued over the centuries to add to the exotic mix of peoples.  During Manley’s government rule it became synonymous with the free-wheeling lifestyle of the 60’s and 70’s and Jamaicans were known for liberal attitudes towards anything amoral.

Forgotten sugar mill aqueduct

While there will always be some around to hold to this image, they seemed no easier to find on the north coast of Jamaica than they would be on the east coast of America!  Instead we were delighted to be met with a friendly, enthusiastic welcome from a people genuinely pleased to have us visit their “eyeland” who, upon discovering that we intended to explore a little on our own, bent over backwards to ensure our stay was better than expected.  Take the Avis car Hire people.  Big smiles and thorough service with advice and time to converse with us while upgrading our modest rental to a more rugged 4×4 so that we would not feel any discomfort on their inland roads.  Which were, as they warned, in a patchy state of repair!  With almost every afternoon in summer seeing short but torrential downpours and the island covered in steep mountains, it was not surprising.  However, in contrast, the coastal road, was mainly a four lane, well-maintained highway with clear sign-posts and very easy to navigate.

In fact, all the Jamaicans employed in the service industries seemed to us to be highly motivated, friendly, hard-working people and toWood carvers enjoy their employment.  Remarkable to us too was the healthy condition of the population.  The fit and strong Jamaican athlete appears not to be the exception but instead it seems that most of the people we saw must spend a considerable amount of time working out!  We hardly saw a fat Jamaican or a very skinny one and this despite the great disparity between rich and poor as one so often finds in a third world country.

The island is a lush and fertile land with soft white sand beaches in coves with natural harbors, hills that climb quickly to misty mountains, an abundance of fresh water springs and streams  and a climate that encourages any number of tropical fruits and crops, all surrounded by changing hues of aqua blue Caribbean.  The sea provides another bountiful harvest, and all this is gleefully offered to the visitor providing Jamaica with one of their most profitable sources of income, that of tourism.

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