Why Jamaican cuisine has never been better
The lush area between Kingston and the sleepy beaches of Port Antonio.
Go for more than coffee
Gloria’s Rendezvous is a relaxed 44-year-old institution beloved by prime ministers and musicians for its grilled fish and bammy (cassava cakes); Stop after exploring the vast collection of Caribbean art at the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston. On Hope Road, near the Bob Marley Museum, you have to brake for the very unique ice cream at Devon House, made with the dark ale of the island. During your stay, tour the historic property, anchored in a grand Georgian-style house built in 1891 by Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Steibel. EITS Café, above Kingston, is run by father-daughter couple Robyn and Michael Fox from their guesthouse and Food Basket Farm. Their eclectic meals blend European ingredients with Jamaican dishes like smoked marlin or oxtail. After lunch, head to Belcour Lodge, a former 18th-century coffee house owned by third-generation Jamaican and cookbook author Robin Lin Lumsden. You can visit their citrus orchards (used in their five fruit marmalade) and 75 bee colonies, which produce their Belcour mountain honey; be sure to try Robyn’s famous ginger cake. In this region, there are four or five historic coffee plantations to visit along the slopes of the Blue and John Crow Mountains. At the oldest, Clifton Mount, you can arrange a scheduled hiking excursion to arrive for a sunset coffee and stunning views of the Blue Peaks. Then refuel next door at the Crystal Edge ‘cookshop’ (known locally as ‘Winsome’ after the beloved owner) with canonical Jamaican country cuisine like chicken soup and brown fish stew. .
Lying in the sky
The Woodside Villa, a five-bedroom colonial villa 4,000 feet above sea level, offers 360-degree mountain views from a wraparound lanai and a spring-fed pool surrounded by guava and peach trees. Paul, the cook, and his assistant Mark prepare spectacular meals, including the most delicious of barbecue chickens. Chris Blackwell’s mountain chalet complex, Strawberry Hill, offers bird’s-eye views of Kingston from its infinity pool. The restaurant on the site of the original home serves Jamaican specialties like curried goat’s tail oxtail and incorporates fresh local produce into dishes like the quinoa and rasta salad (made from ackee, calaloo and citrus vinaigrette). Sip tropical drinks at the clubby, a wood-paneled bar with a rare stone fireplace (for chilly mountain nights) and walls adorned with vintage black-and-white photos of big names in jazz, rock, and reggae. If you want a day trip to the mountains but stay by the beach, try the sleepy old coastal town of Port Antonio down the hill, once a favorite haunt of mid-century British royalty and Hollywood bon vivant. Geejam, just ten minutes from town, is a rustic yet stylish hotel with forest and ocean views and elegant wooden treehouse-like rooms. The last time I was there, two rock stars were making a record in the recording studio there. The Bushbar serves delicious Asian-influenced cuisine with Jamaican ingredients. Don’t miss the stunning white sands of Frenchman’s Cove or the trio of unspoiled local natural waterfalls – Reach, Somerset and Scatter – all within a 20-minute drive.
THE SOUTH COAST
From unspoiled Treasure Beach to the crowded resort town of Negril.
Make it seriously local
For the best breakfast in Treasure Beach, head to No-frills Smurfs, where owner Dawn roasts her own coffee to accompany ackee and salt fish. For lunch, try the virtuous jerk, goat cheese curry and excellent soups, especially the superb Mannish Water (goat’s head soup, supposed to make a man more “masculine” on his wedding night) at Murray’s Fish. & Jerk Hut, on the Kingston and Ochi Roads head southwest. Hosted every full moon (or almost) by the Jake Hotel and hosted by organic pioneer Liz Solmes on a farm in Pedro Planes, Jakes Full Moon dinners feature local produce. (Book through Jakes Treasure Beach.) Ask your hotel to book a fisherman to transport you to Floyd’s Pelican Bar, 400 yards from the sea on a sandbar near Treasure Beach. Play dominoes, sip a Red Stripe, and order freshly caught and grilled fish. Down south to St. Elizabeth and on their way to the must-see YS Falls, the Middle Quarter Shrimp Ladies sell bags of Black River shrimp boiled with supersonic chili. (As you drive several vendors of Pepper Shrimp will descend on your car, so be firm but fair when you get your snack.) My favorite place to eat in Negril is the Cosmos Seafood beach spot. Come for a swim and stay for a lunch of traditional red pea soup with dumplings and Escovitch-style fried fish. In Rockhouse, you can reach three locations on a beloved property. At the restaurant, order an old-fashioned ‘synting’ (crawfish, squid, snapper and shrimp simmered in a dilapidated coconut sauce) and a hot sweet potato for dessert. There’s a vibrant scene at Pushcart Rum Bar, which is the perfect place to try a wide selection of Caribbean rums and tropical drinks, or you can go virgin with a concoction of squeezed watermelon and basil at the Juice Bar.
Avoid the spring break crowds
Negril’s white-sand beach and world-class limestone cliffs, which stretch for 7 miles, attract a lot of attention, but can get crowded while on vacation. My favorite place to stay here, Tensing Pen has tree bungalows, a pool and phenomenal swimming and cliff diving from the edge of the property. Rockhouse, with its chic stone huts that rise right above the cliffs, has a die-hard clientele that returns year after year. Or you can just visit Negril: Personally, I love the remoteness of Jakes Treasure Beach, where Jason and his mom Sally have created their own secluded beach town with colorful cottages and villas. Once you get past the blues without a cell phone, what seeping in the breeze of Treasure Beach is total relaxation.