Going back in time in Jamaica
Sister Lou's River Stop sits on a salt spring tributary of the Black River in Jamaica. (Dan Harris)
As soon as you land in Jamaica, be it in Kingston or Montego Bay, the first thing you will notice is the country’s soundtrack. It is ever present. Wherever you go, the reggae, dancehall and ska music will follow. Roll down the car window to see the street sellers with their Rastafarian artwork and hear the fast and expressive patois being spoken.
If that satisfies your curiosity for what Jamaica is like, then you may as well find an all-inclusive resort to stay at. But if you care to discover the real Jamaica, then you should brave the country’s many pot holes and head to the Jamaica’s south west corner. A 95km drive from the island’s second largest city Montego Bay or 150km west from the capital Kingston brings you to Treasure Beach, a small fishing town in the parish of St Elizabeth that illuminates Jamaica’s colourful communities and varied past.
Treasure Beach’s residents descend from just a handful of families, and many, like independent tour guide Damian Parchment, trace their origins back to Scottish fishermen who were shipwrecked on the coast in the mid 1600s. Parchment leads tailored tours (876-430-7852) to some of the most secluded places on the island, including the high cliffs of the Pedro Bluff area, which offer incredible views of the Caribbean’s crystal clear waters; the Spaniard Caves, which both the Tainos (Jamaica’s indigenous people) and the Spanish used as a hiding place; and Lovers Leap, a 520m cliff overhanging the sea from where two slaves once leapt to their death for fear of being separated.
Alternatively, if you are an early riser, you can head on your own to Treasure Beach’s Calabash Bay to watch the fishermen hauling their first catch of the day. The remoteness felt here could not be further from the party scene of Montego Bay.
To be truly transported back in time, though, drive 25km northwest to the town of Black River, a once thriving sugar port that became a sort of ruin following the demise of the slave trade in 1838. But with some funding from the National Heritage Trust, many of its 18th- and 19th-century buildings have been restored. Stay in the rickety Waterloo guest house, built in 1819, the first building to have electricity on the island and the first house in St Elizabeth Parish of such grandeur to be owned by a black man, Dr Frank Ferdinand.
Historian and tour guide Allison Morris’ family has lived in Black River for six generations and unlike some other tours in Jamaica, her one-hour stroll through the town does not shy away from the country’s slavery past.
“The slave trade is part of our history, we have to mention it,” she said. “Put simply, we are here because of slaves, sugar and logwood.”
The Logwood tree, whose bark was used for a long time as a natural source of dye, was one of the main economic drivers in Black River, and today local guides will take you sailing down the 30km stretch where the logs were transported and eventually shipped to Europe. It makes for a beautiful excursion and an opportunity to meet some of the town’s most famous residents – the crocodiles.
Once hunted for their skin, the freshwater crocodiles are now free to roam the banks as they please, often hiding in the spider-like roots of the mangrove trees, which also serve as a perch for multiple species of birds.
The parish of St Elizabeth is hugely green, and despite getting the least amount of rainfall in Jamaica, it supplies more fruits and vegetables to the rest of the island than any other parish in the country. Sample the local produce, such as tomatoes, watermelons and carrots, at one of the monthly farm dinners at Jakes Hotel in Treasure Beach, born from a collaboration between the hotel, local food organisations and farmers.
The dinner is just one of Laura and Jason Henzell’s initiatives, whose hotel is at the centre of the region’s self-styled community tourism. From the ackee and saltfish (a traditional Jamaican dish made with ackee fruit and salt cod) to the banana cake, most of the ingredients used at Jakes are sourced from nearby farms.
According to Jason, the Treasure Beach he knows is still the same town his great grandfather fell in love with after receiving a telegram from his uncle who had already moved there. It read: “Sell everything. Bring no 9 hardy fishing rod and polo sticks. And come.”
So he did and he never looked back.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the height of Lovers Leap. This has been fixed.