Here is the best way to get a cup of coffee in Jamaica: Drive from a resort along the North Shore, up into the lurid, wild Blue Mountains. The road here looks like a string draped around and through the hills—a thin, wiggling patch of asphalt carved onto ledges, inclining ever higher. About an hour and a half inland, somewhere around 3,000 feet, look for the roof of a shack. You’ll rarely see a whole building; houses up here are built below the road, simultaneously elevated and subterranean. But you’ll see a roof, a landing, and stairs leading down along the hillside. Take the stairs to the house below. Smell the air. Coffee. Smoke. Find the person in charge. Ask for a cup. And then watch him prepare the coffee, right there in front of you, a dozen or so yards from the steep farm where it grew. Pay the man and relax. Enjoy it. There is no ordering it “to go.”
I’m ashamed to admit how many trips to Jamaica it took me to discover fresh-from-the-source Blue Mountain coffee. Suffice it to say, I have been a bad traveler here—the kind who flies into Montego Bay, gets into the car that’s been dispatched from the resort, checks in, and never leaves the grounds. I didn’t mean for it to turn out this way, but you get into a routine. You find a place you like (in my case, Jake’s, a little bohemian hotel in Treasure Beach, on the island’s southwest side), you note that it fulfills your needs, and then you settle into a rhythm. Don't get me wrong, rhythm is good. Especially on vacation. But when it means never veering from the road between airport and hotel, year after year, on an island like Jamaica, it's a problem. This was not how I wanted to live in the world. I needed to be better.
As it happens, Chris Blackwell was willing to help. Letting him give you a tour of Jamaica is a bit like letting the archangel Michael show you around Heaven. He didn’t invent the place, but he’s its advocate nonpareil. As the founder of Island Records, Blackwell brought the island’s sound to the world. (Have you heard of Bob Marley?) As a financer of The Harder They Come, he helped release one of the island’s most iconic films. As the founder of Blackwell Rum, based on an old family recipe, he gave Jamaica the craft spirit it deserved. And as the man behind Goldeneye, he created a retreat so well-trammeled by the rich and famous that it seemed, for a time, there was simply nowhere else for celebrities to vacation. Blackwell has lived in Jamaica, on and off, his entire life. His mother’s roots on the island date back to the 17th century, and he took his first trip there, from London, at 2 months old. That he was willing to show me around seemed somewhat absurd. But there it was. I'd check into his resort, and then, together, we would explore the country through his eyes.
Goldeneye, to be clear, is not an easy place to leave. The land—the former home of Ian Fleming, where he wrote each of the 14 James Bond thrillers that would cement his place in literary and cinematic history—sits next to the tiny town of Oracabessa, on the northern coast. A warm, blue-green lagoon curls from the ocean around a small island and then lets out into a bay. You can look one direction and see a jungle, then turn around and see pristine white sand.
I arrived at Goldeneye in mid-August, the night Usain Bolt was to win his first of three gold medals at the 2016 Olympic Games. A small crowd had gathered to watch the race, projected on a screen set up against the ocean, so that the runners, at times, seemed to be sprinting across the darkening horizon. Blackwell arrived just before the race started, having ordered a round of cocktails for the guests. We talked. We drank. We had dinner at a long table, joined by 12 others. The night ended at Blackwell's private, lagoon-side bar. Blackwell lowered a lamp from the ceiling so that it hovered just a few feet above a card table. It was nearly midnight. A small group of friends—some old, some new, and then me—drank rum punch and passed around a spliff. Blackwell disappeared for a moment and then emerged again with backgammon and a large, freshly rolled joint. He played backgammon deep into the night.
Here is the best way to get lunch in Jamaica: Not all that far from the airport in Montego Bay, in a smoky complex of open kitchens arranged around a courtyard, is Scotchie’s. It’s highway-side; if you’re heading east along the main coastal road, no GPS should be required to find it. I had been welcomed at the airport by a man who goes by McGyver, Blackwell’s friend and driver for 20 years. As soon as I got into the car, he handed me a Red Stripe. Fifteen minutes later, he announced, “We’re going to try something,” and then veered sharply onto a side road and parked. This was Scotchie’s. McGyver instructed me to have another beer at the courtyard bar, then disappeared for a moment and returned with a breast and thigh of charred, crisp jerk chicken and a side of hot, buttery breadfruit. I’d never had breadfruit before; some describe it as bland, but, like many pale beige foods, it has the ability to become a kind of vehicle for flavor—in this case, a slab of fresh, melting butter. Scotchie’s is very good. Go to Scotchie’s.
The first one we pull into is a small farm run by a grower named Dennis. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all made coffee exactly this way, and Dennis is proud of his joe. It's not cheap at $20 a pound. But here’s the thing: You can see it growing out the window of the hut where it’s prepared. Dennis grinds the beans in a big hollowed-out stump, using a blunt, rounded club as a pestle. The water is heated over an open fire on the floor. He serves it to you in mismatched ceramic mugs.
Here is the best way to get a snack in Jamaica: Drive anywhere, smell the air, and be prepared to stop.
This—exposing strangers to a piece of Jamaica they might otherwise have missed—is what Blackwell has done his whole life. In his early 20s, working as a water-ski instructor at a hotel near Montego Bay, having barely graduated from Harrow School, Blackwell heard a band playing at the hotel, a jazz quartet with a blind pianist. For reasons that escape him now, he told the band that he’d like to record them. He’d never done anything of the sort. But the next day he figured out how.
This pianist was Lance Hayward. It was the late 1950s. That record became Island Records’ first release. A few years later, he heard a recording of a young Jamaican singer named Millie Small. He recorded her, too. Her cover of “My Boy Lollipop” sold 6 million records.
“I’m not a great salesman,” Blackwell reflects now. “I’ve never really been able to sell anything I wouldn’t buy.” Driving around Jamaica with Blackwell, sampling its coffee, talking about its music, watching him take in the landscape like it’s his first time on the island, you get the sense he would buy every last inch of it if he could. It explains why, for nearly six decades, he’s been its No. 1 salesman.
“What I love doing is turning people on to something,” he says. “It used to be turning people on to Jimmy Smith. He was my favorite jazz artist. But also, before that, when I was really young, I loved to take people into the mountains and show them the views. I loved that. I think of myself as a kind of guide.” I can verify that he still does this—that there was no reason for us to drive three hours out of our way yesterday for a cup of coffee, to take the twisting, nausea-inducing mountain road instead of this flawless new highway, no reason other than that Blackwell wanted to show off the scenery and bask in its glories himself.
Here, in the lush Jamaican mountains, is the island at its finest—the freshest food, the most picturesque vistas, the tallest trees and clearest water.
Later, as we made our way through Oracabessa towards Goldeneye, he expanded on this point. “I want to get people out of the resorts,” he said. I mentioned to him how heretical this sounded coming from a hotel owner. For decades, the prevailing economic principle of hoteliers with island properties has been to keep vacationers on resorts, so they can spend their money there and only there. But Blackwell isn’t so much a hotelier. He’s a host. Which is why, just before we parted ways that day, he invited me to his stay at his home, a farm called Pantrepant.
Here is the best way to get orange juice in Jamaica: Go to Pantrepant. I hadn’t planned on going there, but Blackwell insisted. “It’s worth it just to see the tree,” he said. “The tree is so good.”
The drive from Goldeneye to Pantrepant is almost two hours: an hour or so on a coastal highway, and 30 minutes on roads decreasingly worthy of the name. Eventually, the road fades into a rock-strewn trail. At the top of a hill, a Georgian farmhouse sits under the shade of a giant guango tree—the tree—a great, low cloud of branches, vines dangling gently to the ground. It's about 300 years old, and possibly Jamaica's largest. “I bought the property because of the tree,” Blackwell says.
Blackwell has been hosting friends and family at Pantrepant since he bought the property, all 800 acres of it, in 1990. But until recently, no part of it has ever been available for strangers to book. That Blackwell now, at nearly 80 years old, has finally begun opening up his home to guests may strike observers as proof that he's gone off his rocker. He deserves both the privacy and the idleness offered by a retirement on his farm. His contributions to Jamaican tourism are already extensive, perhaps unparalleled. But to Blackwell, the properties he’s opened have never been about simply giving foreigners a place to stay. They've been part of his lifelong pursuit as hype-man for the island he loves. Observed through that lens, he had to eventually welcome visitors to Pantrepant. Here, in the lush Jamaican mountains, is the island at its finest—the freshest food, the most picturesque vistas, the tallest trees and clearest water. Blackwell’s mission is to lead people beyond the resorts, and Pantrepant is the pièce de résistance: a place where the resorts seem to not even exist, seem to never have existed at all.
After breakfast, a few minutes before I was scheduled to depart for the airport, I hopped in the back of a truck and drove down the hill to the swimming hole. I took my shirt off, set my shoes on a stone near the edge, and jumped in. It was 10 in the morning; the sun was high but the water still brisk from the night. It was some of the cleanest-feeling water I’d ever swum in, sparkling and cool, fed by a white, misting waterfall just a dozen yards upriver. I floated into the current and swam against it for a moment, then gave up, turned on my back, drifted. I could have let the Martha Brae River carry me from there, down along the pastures, through the orange groves, eventually out into the roiling ocean. Instead, I got out, packed my bag, and went home. On the plane, I had a glass of orange juice—Minute Maid, bright orange, from a can. Here is my final piece of advice: If you do all this, or even a portion of it, do not end your trip with airplane orange juice.
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