Insiders Guide To Jamaica

You want to know the best and coolest experiences Jamaica has to offer? Jon Baker offers a unique genuine insiders guide to the island.
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You want to know the best and coolest experiences Jamaica has to offer? Jon Baker offers a unique genuine insiders guide to the island.

Yeehaw it's Geejam

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JAMAICA

Having been a regular visitor to Jamaica for the last 20 years one thing I can attest to is that one, and that means anyone, is all the better for a good, maybe a great guide who knows every nook, every cranny and every gem. And luckily we have managed to track down one of the countries most clued up residents – British born record company boss and legendary entrepreneur Jon Baker.

Having been introduced to Jamaican in the late seventies culture - via of all things punk rock- Baker moved to New York and was instrumental in popularising hip hop in at first the tiny JA style hotspot the Negril Club on 11the Street and the Roxy. By the nineties Bakers’ label Gee Street records had enjoyed international hits with PM Dawn, Queen Latifah and the Jungle Brothers before merging with Jamaican Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Baker, having moved to the island lock, stock and barrel in the mid nineties has owned property on there for some 20 years and is now the man behind Gee Jam – a company that will facilitate locations, pre and post production for film and fashion shoots .He also owns the prestigious, Gee-jam  – which includes a recording studio (where most recently Bjork recorded her latest album) and   a boutique hotel where Kate Moss, Bobby Gillespie, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz often stay. “ I am always taking around guests around the island,” says Baker. ‘It might be the Vogue fashion photographer Ellen Von Unworth, rapper Kanye West my old mates from London or my family who include my 75 year old mum, my 12 year old son and my 15 year old daughter, all of whom live in the UK.” Uniquely qualifies Baker can supply a guide to the island like no other.“ I take a lot of people on a tour that starts in Kingston and ends in St Elizabeth but takes in the whole of the North Coast,” adds Baker.“ But you could take the whole or any part of it and still have a great time.”

Baker’s Tour

A lot of people fly into Kingston and immediately leave for elsewhere believing all the bad press they’ve read. But Kingston is an incredibly vibrant city and has nightlife that can compete with the greatest cities in the world. To begin I would stay at The Kingston Hilton Hotel for a few nights. Run by Frank Rochille the Hilton is the hub of JA and is different from any other Hilton in the world. The nightclub has salsa nights; soul nights and you’ll see everyone from super models to mercenaries and super rich bankers sitting at the poolside restaurant. It has a great Japanese restaurant and a top class French restaurant as well as a 24 hour cappuccino bar and patisserie. It is very safe and very central.

While in JA there is accompany called Stoosh which is a an extremely hip clued up outfit r\an by Terry K.James who will sort you out absolutely anything you might want from a helicopter to a villa in the mountains – there is nothing they can’t get. They specialise in high end but can also supply the alternative to hip cool people. They will find you drivers who can protect you from any hassle and will safely take you to anywhere you might want to go which is an important consideration in Kingston.

For reggae lovers I would recommend a tour of all the great recording studios, such as Studio One, or go and see Bob Marley’s s house on Hope Road. Not as boring as it might seem this is of course a must if you’re a fan of Marley as it’s housed where Marley lived and was also where an attempted assassination took place and it’s a great place with great restaurant .It sounds cheesy but it’s not.

Another house worth visiting is Devon House in New Kingston which is a   stately home built by a Venezuelan gold millionaire in 1889 and  is filled with antiques and you can get a tour that checks the illegal gambling room upstairs - the stairs to which are hidden in the ceiling – the sumptuous   ballroom with the original relief ceiling and original chandelier.

For those of who whose interest in piracy extends a bit further than nicking a few tunes off the internet, near to Kingston lies the former buccaneering capital of the world - Port Royal  (which was the richest and most debauched city in the world in the 17th Century) and even though it and the great pirate captain Henry Morgan and his treasure was swept away in the great hurricane of 1697 you can still visit the Port Royal Fort and museum that was erected shortly after the disaster to defend the area.

But even though the pirates have gone the people still really live it up every night of the week in Kingston. You have a street called the Hit strip with the Quad nightclub with a jazz bar called Christopher, a floor called Oxygen that plays hip hop and on top the Voodoo Lounge with great old reggae dancehall music while the Escape- on Nutford Blvd is a 24 hours club with a restaurant and coffee bar that plays great reggae music.

And if your idea of Jamaican food was rice and peas there are many great restaurants that will cause you to think again .The Orchid Room at Devon House is a great authentic Thai that benefits from the amazing Jamaican fish while Guilt Trip at Village Orchid plaza and Aubergine at Market Place serve fantastically fresh Jamaican nouveau cuisine with a European twist.

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Of course one might find great seafood all over Jamaica but one of the finest is found on Hellshire Beach at a restaurant called Screechy that named after the chef is a great JA institution that serves up the best lobster and the best fish in the world. All the downtown locals go here on the weekend to hang out and it’s pure authentic JA shit but go with a guide or a local driver, which Stoosh can arrange.

After a mad few days in Kingston a wonderful respite is Strawberry hill that, located 400 feet above Kingston, is cool calm and collected. Stay here for two days in the incredible spa hotel which overlooks the incredible le Blue Mountains and relax - the food is fantastic and the atmosphere is so chilled I often go there to wind down after a busy week.

To continue on my ‘tour’ you will have to drive back from Strawberry Hill to Kingston Airport   and take a right, avoid the centre of Kingston and drive for 2 hours until you are in Port Antonio. One of the world’s best-kept secrets this North Eastern port was the Jamaican town to attract tourists in the 1890’s and was bought in the nineteen fifties by the Norwegian Line and divided into two areas -East and West San San and sold as lots which were bought by among others, the Aga Khan, Heini Von Thyssen and Princess Nura. Then in 1958 Errol Flynn moored his yacht there and declared that it was, “more beautiful than any woman I’ve ever seen. " and promptly bought a ranch nearby that his daughter still owns .A real playground for the rich, famous and exceedingly fashionable, in the sixties. Burton, Taylor and Peter O ‘Toole all hang out there, at Frenchman’s Cove a stunning natural inlet that is still regarded as one of the world’s top beaches. Now you can hire chalets on the beach and drink at the bar and eat at the restaurant. It is fantastic.

The great thing about Port Antonio is that there is zero crime in and you can walk about without fear of hassle or grief; you can hike up the Blue Mountains, do a customized eco tour and see the most amazing water falls such as Nani ‘s falls – Nani being the leader of the Maroons the first guerrilla fighters. But Part Antonio is   not a tourist location. You rent your villa with the staff included in the price and carry on as if you live there.

I have a studio complex just above Frenchman’s Cove in Part Antonio that,  part of the Island Out post group comprises 12 luxury cottages to hire with a pool, a gym, a restaurant that fuses Asian and Jamaican cuisine and the best home cooking in Port Antonio. It’s like staying at someone’s house but because we have 12 acres of grounds you can find your own space and yourself.

But if you tire of any villa’s home cooking, there are lots of great seafood restaurants along the fishing village front in the town. Anna Banana is great while the recently renovated marina offers Norma’s who is one of JA’s most famous JA cooks. Dickey’s is another great restaurant that is in a cave but uses silver service and waters with white gloves but you have to book 24 yours in advance.

The infamous and stunningly beautiful Blue Lagoon is just up the road from San San and is on the millionaire’s road trip. On the lagoon itself there are fantastic 6 star chalets that overlook the water, which is almost unbelievable.

A great day out while in Port Antonio is the raft ing down the Rio Grande. You take a taxi for about 45 minutes and get   a raft that will gently sail down the river and stop off at beautiful spots of natural beauty and wonderful waterfalls and there is an incredible cook called Betty who will cook up the most incredible meal on the riverside but you have to call 24 hours in advance.

Although incredibly laid back Port Antonio boasts a great nightclub called The Roof Club, which has been there for 40 years, and it hops for all it’s worth from Thursday till Saturday playing wonderful old school reggae.

If your funds don’t stretch to a villa there are a hotel s and guesthouses in the town. That might work out better .San San Tropez is run by a Neapolitan called Fabio who claims to have gone to the only pizza university in the world. There are just 10 rooms, it’s the Faulty Towers of the Caribbean, is just 100 metres from Frenchman’s and is cheap and fantastic.

Another alternative is Jamaica Heights, a guesthouse that is owned by another eccentric the German Helmet Steiner and is right on the hill allowing a panoramic view of Port Antonio.

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Moving swiftly on just 3 miles west along the coast is the village of Boston, which is where Jerk seasoning originated. Get the most amazing food just off the side of the road and then head to another of the world’s most beautiful beaches called Long Bay where you might be tempted to rent a cheap chalet and eat at Yahima - an excellent restaurant called that also has cottages to rent.

As you travel further west you will get to the Parish of St.Mary and Port Maria. This is where Noel Coward lived and you can stay in his old property, Firefly, that now comprises of a number of really charming villas all of which can be rented with in house cooks dishing out great local food.

Just a little further West is the town of Oreccabessa. Here you can rent, The Bolt House, which is where Ian Fleming hung out although you can also rent villas on his old estate, Golden Eye that is part of Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost Group. This is my favourite spot on the island. It’s a museum dedicated to how the Bond creator lived and you can stay there. It’s not five star but the cabins are shabby chic and overlook the private beach, The food is included in the price and is great, it’s an eco area a spa, jet ski, eco safari’s everything you could possibly need Most of the villas you rent in this area are all inclusive and competition between the local chefs is very high but Golden Eye is one of the best.

Moving further West along the coast is Ocho Rios which is a tourist destination and not somewhere I would really go to apart from a visit to the Island Village which is a quite useful complex that sells great clothes and wonderful food. I’d also go for a swim with the Dolphins in Dolphin Cove but it’s quite busy.

I’d say the same about Montego Bay. Maybe It was great 20 years ago but now it’s package holiday hell as lot of the best beaches are connected to all inclusive hotels .If I was to stay in Montego I would choose the traditional Half Moon Club Hotel or the Ritz Carlton or rent a villa at Roundhill an old school resort where Ralph Lauren has a house.

But I would suggest instead of either Ocho Rios or Montego go to Negril, which is a wonderful destination just around the coast on the islands most western tip .The beach is 7 miles long and there are bars, restaurants all along which could satiate even the choosiest traveller. You can go to Negril and find a room for $ 20 US or $500 US a night. My favourite is the Caves, which is a small all-inclusive Boutique hotel perched on a cliff looking back along the beach. Others hotels are the mid to high end, Rock House and Tin Son Ren both of which are great fun. Negril is very laid back but you can do every type of water sport imaginable and you can even, if your that way inclined, go to Mrs. Browns tea house and can buy a pot of tea laced with magic mushrooms. But please don’t try paragliding and the tea together. It’s not fun.

My last port of call on my unofficial trip around the island is Treasure Beach in St. Elizabeth. This is directly opposite Port Antonio- but on the other side of the island - and is the perfect way to end your trip. Stay at Jakes Boutique Hotel which is a very low key but beautiful little spot, right on the beach that will soak up your remaining few days with aplomb.

From St. Elizabeth you can drive on the new highway straight back to Kingston which I where we started and where you will reluctantly board your plane home.

www.islandoutpost.com

www.geejam.com

PLACES TO GO

DEVON HOUSE

26 Hope Road, New Kingston

876-929-6602

Hours: 9 am-5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday

Admission charged

BOB MARLEY MUSEUM

56 Hope Road, Kingston

876-927-9152

Hours: 9 am-5 pm, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday;

12:30-5 pm, Wednesday and Saturday

Admission charged

GUARDSMAN'S SERENITY FISHING & WILDLIFE SANCTUARY

40 minutes east of Kingston via A1/A2 west

Open daily

Admission charged

RESTAURANTS

Restaurant prices indicate the price of a meal,

drink and gratuity for one person.

$ = up to $15 per person

$$ = $15 to $30 per person

$$$ = $30 to $45 per person

$$$$ = over $45 per person

Asian Restaurants

ORCHID ROOM

Devon House, 26 Hope Road, New Kingston

876-968-2098

($$$)

This dinner-only restaurant serves authentic Thai cuisine. Pad Thai, pepper steak, curried dishes, stir-fried chicken and satay fill the menu.

Continental Cuisine

BLUE MOUNTAIN INN

Gordon Town Road

876-927-1700 or 876-927-2606

($$$$)

Reservations are required for this beautiful eatery half an hour out of Kingston in the misty Blue Mountains, tucked behind a bougainvillea-draped entrance. The menu features beef and seafood, all served in a classic English-inn atmosphere. White-glove service makes this a truly elegant evening. The restaurant is open for dinner only.

Ice Cream

I SCREAM

Devon House, 26 Hope Road, New Kingston

($)

We normally wouldn’t put an ice cream parlor in a restaurant section, but I Scream doesn’t serve up your typical dairy dessert. You can find grapenut, guava, mango, soursop and even Devon stout ice creams. Need we say more?

Jamaican Restaurants

GROG SHOPPE

Devon House, 26 Hope Road, New Kingston

876-929-7027

($-$$)

This excellent restaurant offers both indoor and open-air seating in a pub-like setting. Just steps from Devon House itself, the restaurant menu includes pub lunches such as roast beef or corned tongue as well as escovitch fish or steamed fish in white wine, onions, tomatoes and herbs. Many Jamaican specialties are offered, including curried goat, ackee and saltfish, roast suckling pig, baked crab backs, curried chicken, jerked chicken and stuffed cho-cho.

HOT POT

2 Alamont Terrace, Kingston

876-929-3906

($-$$)

This favorite local hangout serves three meals a day: Jamaican favorites such as ackee and codfish, rundown and escovitch fish. Wash it all down with fresh juices – tamarind, coconut water and, if you visit during the holiday season, sorrel. This popular place offers a real taste of Jamaican food and a genuine Jamaican atmosphere to match. Very casual.

IVOR GUEST HOUSE

Jacks Hill

876-978-3476 or 876-978-3479

($$-$$$)

When you’re ready for a break from continental or Jamaican food, this elegant restaurant serves Cantonese and Thai delights. Don’t miss the dim sum on Sunday afternoons.

LA FRESCA BAR AND GRILL

Terra Nova Hotel, 17 Waterloo Road, New Kingston

876-926-9334 or 876-926-2211

($$$$ )

We enjoyed an elegant dinner at La Fresca just days before Christmas one year. It was our last night in Jamaica, and we dined outside on the great house verandah. Local residents, decked in their holiday splendor, filled most tables. The restaurant and the hotel were lit by tiny white lights and the dinner was one we’ll never forget.

Menu selections include peppered shrimp, grilled lobster tail, fish escovitch, fish soup, conch fritters and fried fish.

PEPPERS

31 Upper Waterloo Road, Kingston

876-969-2421

($-$$ )

Want to feel like a Kingstonian? Then do as the locals do and head to this casual restaurant, grab a picnic table, and order up some jerk and a Red Stripe. This is an open-air affair, completely casual. Specialties of the house include jerk chicken, jerk pork and jerk fish. Garlic crab and grilled lobster are other favorites. There are two bars here, as well as a dance floor. The site is a popular after-work place for Kingstonians, who come on Wednesday and Friday nights for seafood, Tuesday for wine and cheese accompanied by live country music, karaoke on Thursdays, and oldies tunes on Sunday evenings. Like the Hot Pot, we recommend this casual eatery for a real taste of Jamaican food and a real Jamaican atmosphere.

STRAWBERRY HILL

New Castle Road, Irishtown

876-944-8400

($$$)

The open-air restaurant at Strawberry Hill serves a continental breakfast daily followed by lunch and dinner featuring new Jamaican cuisine. These innovative dishes are the creation of Jamaican-born Chef James Palmer. The Sunday brunch is a Kingston event; look for diners in their Sunday best. Dinner dishes include blackened sirloin steak with red onion marmalade; grilled jumbo shrimp brushed with rum molasses; and grilled chicken breast with roasted corn.

Strawberry Hill also offers a spa menu. Items such as grilled yellowtail snapper with mushroom-tomato broth and free-range grilled chicken breast on a bed of steamed callaloo with peanut wine sauce liven the palate without adding unnecessary calories or fat. We recommend this restaurant both for its spectacular view and for its innovative cuisine featuring Jamaican dishes with a culinary twist.

Seafood Restaurants

EL DORADO RESTAURANT

Terra Nova Hotel, 17 Waterloo Road, New Kingston

876-926-9334 or 876-926-2211

($$$)

El Dorado is the fine dining option at Terra Nova, known for its seafood dishes as well as steaks. The air-conditioned restaurant is a favorite meeting place for the power lunch crowd and is open noon to 2:30 for lunch and 7 to 11 pm for dinner.

Steak House

BLUE MOUNTAIN INN

Gordon Town Road

876-927-1700 or 876-927-2606