Photo by Tara Donne.
Photograph by Tara Donne
The island’s tastiest secret is found beyond the resorts and beaches listed in the guidebooks.
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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.
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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.Goldeneye debuted a jumble of new huts, arranged around a small cove, a short walk from Fleming’s house and the resort’s original villas. The huts vary in height—designed, I’m told, to capture cooling breezes and allow guests to forgo air conditioning. And, crucially, they’re much cheaper to book than the Villas. Which is key because, up until this point, if you wanted to plan a visit to Goldeneye, you needed to either know Blackwell personally or have the excess capital to shell out potentially five figures on a vacation. (Part of the resort’s enduring gravitational pull is that many of the celebrity guests check both boxes.) With the beach huts, Blackwell has expanded, once again, the ambition of his famous resort.
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.
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.
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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.
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