Mother Nature so generously blessed Montego Bay that it is best described as a “live postcard” thanks to the world-class beaches, mountains and lush flora and fauna that grace the island. Add the effect of the trade winds, blue skies, and some of the most delightful people on this planet and you might find yourself looking around for your own slice of paradise. At least that was my experience while enjoying all the creature comforts provided at the all-inclusive Rose Hall Hilton Resort for a much-needed change from the unseasonably warm winter in Florida.
My mother and I were fortunate enough to get to stay here with my close Jamaican friend from college and her family. Right away, everyone we came into contact with welcomed us to the island. I’m not sure if it’s because we were with a local or because we were tourists.
From day one, we noticed that the air quality in Montego Bay was exceptional. My mother usually has bad asthma and breathing difficulties, but she ended up not needing any asthma medication by day two, which had me convinced that there was magic in the air. And if there was anything besides magic in the air that shouldn’t be there, the island breezes just whisk it away!
While the Hilton Rose Hall had it all and there was really no reason to leave the resort if all you want to do was relax in paradise, we really wanted to see how our Jamaican friends lived. The truth is, I wanted to know more about daily life and hopefully find out the secrets behind the gorgeous smiles and exotic beauty of the local people. The lilt of the spoken word, the infectious smiles and cheery laughter, and the unique and lovely names of the ladies sparked my interest in learning all I could during our brief visit.
We totally enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast at the resort. I tend to get myself in a little trouble when enjoying buffet meals, but there was no need to even look at any of the culprits that cause me this trouble as I stopped at the fresh fruit station first. What a fabulous assortment of wonderful things to eat! I went right for all of the items not easily identified by the likes of us. Of course I piled papaya (my favorite fruit), but I was introduced to several items new to my food chain including what we now know to be Jamaican apples, different colored and types of guava, soursop and sweetsop, june plum, and akee. If the array of fresh fruit was not enough, there was a fruit juice station set up where the chef was blending assorted fruits to create very lovely and tasty pitchers of juice. Just watching him work was colorfully interesting as well as tasty!
We checked out all of the food options at the buffet and to my delight found that there were other local specialties that I needed to know about. There was the Bammy served with the Eschovitch fish. We saw this a few times around the island along with other local favorites like fried yucca, plantains, salt cod, and of course, the famous jerk chicken and rum punch.
First stop after a memorable and very healthy breakfast was the Rose Hall Hilton bookstore. We found out later in our trip, it was a pretty smart move. My mom picked up a copy of Flowers of the Caribbean, The Jamaican Chef and Jamaican Herbs, and Medicinal Plants and Their Uses before heading out on any adventures. She took the time to read (or skim) through, all 90+ pages of Flowers of the Caribbean while everyone else was enjoying their Blue Mountain coffee and chatter after breakfast. She could have spent several hours in the Rose Hall Hilton bookstore chatting with “Debbie” as she found my mom the books she needed and also later gave us a good lesson on the “national fruit”, the akee.
Next stop was a grocery store where the locals shop, Mega Mart! OK, I confess, my real reason for wanting to go to a grocery store was to shop for chocolate. Not that there was anything wrong with the sweets at the resort, but I had to see what was available in the event that I packed up my bags and moved here 🙂
Mega Mart is appropriately named, as it was certainly mega! Just the section that housed all of the varieties of pickapeppa, hot sauces and spices took me the better part of an hour to comb through and yes, I stocked up on spicy mango sauce. We will be enjoying the flavors of this island for months to come!
I think I was most impressed with the lesson we got about the medicinal benefits of over-proof rum and the local raw nutmeg and coco tea. Coco tea (Chocolate tea) is a product of Jamaica and instead of tea bags it is in a bar form and is comprised of ground cocoa beans, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. You grate one of the four sticks in the bar and add it to 5 cups of boiling water. Boil for a 3 or 4 minutes and strain and sweeten to taste.
I always try to check out a grocery store where the locals shop for several reasons. I like to see what the locals eat, what it costs and where it comes from. The produce section at Mega Mart was terrific, for the most part. Big corporations from America have a strong presence everywhere, which didn’t give it quite the local feel we hoped to get, but we still managed to find good local products and produce. We picked up a “solo” papaya, apples, and a few other items, which we later figured out, were imported from the USA. The soil and conditions in Jamaica are only suited for growing a few random items so we took it for what it was.
Another thing that merits mentioning regarding our trip to Mega Mart is that Jamaicans enjoy what is referred to as a “box lunch”. While living in Japan, we enjoyed “Bento boxes” for lunch when going native so I had to see what a “box lunch” in Jamaica consisted of. There were so many options. My mom wanted to have some curried goat and patties, but wasn’t in the mood for the spice fix just yet so she ordered the roasted chicken and rice and “peas” (red beans) box lunch. I waited for her, while she was in line with all the locals. She picked up four box lunches (for our friends as well) with bottles of water for $20 USD and got 20 Jamaican dollars change.
Her box lunch was more than enough for both her and I, but we made sure that every delectable morsel was consumed before calling it quits. The chicken was cooked to perfection and my portion was huge. The red beans referred to as peas were mixed with the rice, which was cooked with coconut milk instead of water (this was common throughout the island), and made it soft and flavorful. I found this method of cooking the rice wasn’t as hard on my stomach (I’m very sensitive to so many foods).
After enjoying the amazing array of treats at the resort and our boxed lunch in town, I wanted to explore and see what was out there for foraging. We put on our island clothes and started our hike. Less than a mile from our resort we started to see some promising greenery. We enjoyed exploring in and around the massive banyan trees that decorated the resort and eventually found our way to some “fruit trees”. At first glance, we thought we found a Jamaican apple tree and I jumped as high as I could to grab a branch and bring the fruits close enough to pick. They were red and looked a lot like Jamaican apples. I was happy to pluck a few while I held the limbs of the tree down so she could reach them.
Instantaneously we were both covered in biting ants! With fruit secured with our other finds from our walk (sorry for to the couple whose souvenir golf ball I took!) I did what I could to help brush the ants out of my eyes, hair and off my body since I took the brunt of their anger. Thankfully they weren’t as vicious as our Florida fire ants and we could get on with our adventure of exploring the nineteenth century aqueduct ruins.
Next stop was bioluminescent bay on the “Insatiable”. There are only a few places on the planet where one can experience the magic of the bioluminescent effect in the sea. We arrived at the boat dock a little before sunset and waited for the others to arrive. Our boat had a total of ten on it including Capt. David and his mate, Rambo. They fixed everyone some of their very own rum punch and headed out into the bay. I think the secret to good authentic rum punch is using the locals’ favorite rum, over proof rum. It means just what it sounds like it means – a very high alcohol content rum used for many things besides just mixing strong drinks. Most Jamaicans keep a little over proof rum around for medicinal purposes, including antibacterial applications to cuts and wounds.
We enjoyed a fantastic sunset and pleasant boat ride while the sky darkened. Once we stopped, those who wanted to jump in the water to experience the glowing bioluminescent effect with all senses could do so. I’m always cold and didn’t want to leave my cozy sweater I was curled up in on the boat, but it was still amazing to see what looked like silver tipped waves softly tossing our boat about as the stars came out. Rambo took a gaff and dipped it in the water. As he moved the pole about in the water, a trail of eerie yellow green lights followed creating an ethereal effect. Any movement in the water created this effect including the waves and the odd fish that broke the surface of the water. The water in the bay was only 4 or 5 feet deep but very mucky on the bottom. Those who opted to swim or just be in the water got to glow like lightning bugs. Locals say if you get in the water, your urine will glow when you pee the next day. I can’t vouch for that.
Day three we found ourselves on the road driving across the country to Port Antonio. Coming from Florida, it was a little hard to believe that it would take the better part of a day to travel just 120 miles until we got on the road. There was so much twisting and turning that it wasn’t possible to go very fast without being in danger on the road. It was indeed a tedious drive but very beautiful. Half an hour into the trip, my friend stopped and got my mom a legit Jamaican beef patty and a vegetable patty at the local “Juici Patties”. I am guessing this is as close to fast food as you can get since McDonalds and the other fast food joints pulled out of Jamaica a while back (good move Jamaice!). Further down the road we stopped by the roadside at a little stand and I bought a massive soursop. I figured I’d make the most of having the opportunity to get exotic fruit while I could.
We pressed on for Port Antonio. The windy road was now following the coast providing us gorgeous scenery to take in while my friend navigated the twists and turns. We passed a magnificent white castle before finally laying eyes on Port Antonio in the distance. The trip must have been about three hours and we all were ready to stretch. What better place to stretch and enjoy a local beach than Frenchman’s Cove. I think there were villas for rent for those who wanted to stay on the property, but we were just day-trippers so we paid the admission fee (Jamaican residents get a discount and everyone pays less if they pay in Jamaican dollars) and hiked down to the beach.
There was a place to change with lockers and a shower. Frenchman’s Cove had a little restaurant, which we did not check out. The cove itself was incredible. There was a crystal clear fresh water river that emptied into the sea at the cove. They surf was pretty rough but I had been really wanting to jump in the ocean for the last few hours and went right in. The ocean was fairly warm, but the cold river current emptying into the sea made my feet cold. The cove was probably only 100 feet wide but the beach wrapped around and continued along the river. There were rope swings to enjoy that dangled over the river. Somebody had the good sense to put a thick rope across the cove to alert swimmers that they had better turn around just in case the lifeguard didn’t alert them. Our lifeguard on duty was very friendly, maybe too friendly with the ladies but hey, that’s Jamaican lifeguards for you 😉
The cove was a picture of tranquility even though there were a dozen or so spring breakers and a few other visitors enjoying the beach.
After our beach visit we needed to head back to Ocho Rios for our final night there. By this time I was starving.
On the way, we came across a small Rastafarian “cook-shop” (food stand/restaurant) with a sign out saying they had fresh vegetarian specials that immediately caught my attention. As we stopped to get take-out, Chef Oliver came out of his shack and said he’d “take good care of us,” and that he did!!! My meal consisted of all the local favorites, freshly prepared the Rasta way. He even climbed his tree to get me fresh coconut water, now that’s service!!
Our final stop on the way home was to take a quick look at the Jamaican Blue Lagoon, another beautiful site!
Our final couple days we spent relaxing and hiking around the towns and finished the trip with a stop to a local school where people took their education seriously. I was beyond impressed with what a few determined parents and community members were able to build with a couple of old shipping containers, recycled materials, and a lot of time and hard work! With my mom being an educator for over 25 years, we were both thrilled to see people take back the school system and re-introduce writing, cooking, and language (and much more!) to their elementary school children. What a heart-warming end to an already amazing vacation!