Travel Secret Jamaica

Heaven on earth is a little village called Negril.

Why does Negril. stand out more than any oilier pan of Jamaica? Maybe because in Negril each of the tiny inns lining seven miles of white beaches (known as Negril’s second highway) has its own unique brand of Jamaican hospitality-innkeepers who know you by name and restaurants where you’re treated like a member of the family. Maybe because you can wander over to the Pickled Parrot and toast the setting sun with the locals, who will tell you where to find the best conch steak in Negri! (try Sweet Spice on Sheffield Road) and other secrets the guidebooks don’t record. Or maybe because the former fishing village has yet to lose its laidback, insouciant feel, unlike much of the island, where places like KFC are popping up like palm trees. Negril is one of the few resort areas where words like tranquility and serenity still have real meaning. If there is a heaven on earth, the little over 1,000 Jamaicans who make Negri] their home have found if And they are more than willing to share.

The only requirement for enjoyment in Negril is that the visitor be wise enough to adopt the townspeople’s inherently nonchalant altitude towards concepts like industry and efficiency, Traces of the island’s early British roots remain, but the Puritan work ethic never made it. In Negril, the most important thing is the flex. the atmosphere or mood. Life is about living, and work is merely a means to an end, never a way of life.

Of course, most Jamaicans have a rather carefree attitude toward time, as T learn when I step off the asphalt runway, into the Montego Bay Airport’s tiny lobby. I am greeted by the sound of a calypso troupe singing “Welcome to Jamaica” and lines at customs that rival those at JFK, except they are moving about four times slower. Around mc. travelers grumble. Waiting in line at an airport the size of a large grocery store when only two planes have unloaded is my introduction to die Jamaican ilex. Only the pair of newlyweds to my left seems unperturbed as they sway together to the melody of the troupe’s song.

I keep in mind that directly to my west lie the emerald and turquoise waters I spied from the airplane’s window seal. I try to absorb the beat of the calypso pulsating through the languid air. Decompress, I tell myself. Feel the rhythm.

That altitude serves as my shield for my introduction to Jamaica. Nothing can bring me down for long. Not the 45-minute trek from Montego Bay to Negril in a beat-up Daihatsu van, whose brand-new shocks do nothing to make the ride over the pothole ridden, barely two-lane road any more comfortable. Not the incessant honking of the other drivers on the road-which in Jamaica means either “Much respect” or “Move out of the way,” depending on the mood of the driver and angle of the curve. No matter, I am in the flex. And I am rewarded later that first day when 1 stand knee-deep in the bathtub-warm waters directly behind the inn where I am staying, watching as a lightning storm to the north turns the horizon into a thing of indescribable beauty.

In Negril, I stay at the Charela Inn. a wonderfully quaint place right on the beach with varnished wooden floors and proper European lavatories (complete with bidets) run by Daniel Grizzle and his French wife Sylvia. Sylvia’s influence permeates the 49-room inn, from the décor of the rooms to the tantalizing mix of West Indian and French food served in the restaurant. (I never actually meet Mr. Grizzle, as he is referred to by the inn’s staff; he is away when I visit. But each morning as I sit down to a breakfast of fresh native fruit-bananas, pineapples. mangoes-and Ting, the grapefruit soda that pops up everywhere in Jamaica. I’m greeted by a picture of him and his two sun-bronzed grandsons-the happy grandfather on the beach outside his inn.) The typical hotel/motel amenities are missing from the Charela Inn-no TVs. no complimentary toiletries and, for some strange reason, no room numbers on the doors. But I laugh quietly to myself when Lorraine, the inn’s manager. tells one guest, ” Ya did’nt com ta Jamaica ta watch television na did ya?”

Negril’s relaxed continental attitude makes it a top destination spot for Europeans traveling to Jamaica-70 percent of the island’s European visitors stay here. Hippies traveled to Negril en masse during the ’60s to take advantage of the town’s beautiful surroundings, peaceful atmosphere, and the Rastafarian huts where they could spend the night for a buck. The first real development in the little fishing village didn’t occur until 1973. The town obviously loves tourist dollars, but it also knows why the tourists come: Zoning laws prohibit the construction of any building taller than a palm tree. Even with people like me roaming about, the essence of the place remains the same-the flex is unchanged.

Dinner on the patio at the Charela Inn is accompanied by the sounds of the house band playing old reggae tunes and the crashing of the waves. After dinner, lovers stroll from inn to inn along the seven-mile beach, stopping to have a cocktail at one. chatting with the “yardies,” or locals, at the next.

Negril may be Eden, but Babylon is creeping ever closer. A few miles north of the Charela Inn are big-name resorts such as couples-only Sandals and Hedonism M (also known as the Human Zoo), which offer the same McVacations all over the world. A beach, a wall, and a few armed guards, and you have the makings of an all-inclusive vacation-complete with little to no interaction with local culture. The innkeepers of Negril worry that the larger resorts will eat them up, that progress will destroy the heart of the little hamlet, that one day sleepy Negril won’t be sleepy anymore.

Luckily, places like the Pickled Parrot remain. The small restaurant sits overlooking the larger of Negril’s two bays and is run by an American expatriate who packed up his family and moved to Negril six years ago. From the nearby cliffs, the occasional brave diver leaps into the waters below, providing entertainment for the yardies and tourists who gather there each day at dusk 10 pay homage to the setting sun. With the exception of tortilla chips flown in from the mainland once a week, everything on the grill’s menu comes from the island’s bounty.

Somehow I manage to summon up the willpower to take leave of Negril’s laissez-faire attitude temporarily for a hair-raising hour and a half journey to Mayfield Falls. The road to the Tails winds perilously through the Jamaican hillside. Avoiding dogs, goats. the occasional cow, or duo of schoolgirls on the road makes the trip even more hazardous. 1 assume there is no real danger-not even when I can reach out the window and touch the leaves of a tree perched on the edge of a 400-foot drop.

We reach what Roy thinks is the mouth of the falls-although he’s not really sure-and pile out. determined to hike up the waterfalls even as a light afternoon shower begins to fall in the forest around us. A little shack made of bleached wood defies gravity near the road*s edge-a convenience store of sons, filled with Red Stripe. Ting, and Sprite, miles away from anything resembling a city or a town. After using the local version of the gas station bathroom, we load back into the van-the falls are further up the hill.

An hour later, we’re out of the van and have hiked halfway up Mayfield Falls when Dennis, our guide, grabs my hand and pulls me to the mouth of one of the river’s many waterfalls. There’s a small cave underneath, he says. He dives under, reappears, and dives again. Easy enough. Stepping gingerly midway through the waterfall. I pause, balking at the idea of blindly diving headfirst through the water. Then I dive, half-heartedly (a mistake), the back of my neck bearing the brunt of the water’s force. In an instant I’m positive I’m going to perish high in the Jamaican hills solely because, as my mother would say. I have gotten ahead of myself- once again.

Suddenly, from the other side of the sheet of roaring mountain water appears a gnarled and weathered coal-black hand. I grasp onto il and am pulled through the falls into the tiny grotto underneath. Not six inches from my face, the water rages on.

Inside the cave all is still except the sound of my own shallow breathing and Dennis’ lyrical voice. “Ya gave up.” he says solemnly, turning to look me in the eyes. “If ya give up, ya’ll be washed away in da waters. Here and in life.” A truism found in the heart of the Jamaican mountains.

After three days spent traipsing through the village, bargaining at A Fi Wi Plaza (patois for “our plaza”) hiking in the hills, and dancing on the beach, the thought of leaving Negri! when I’m only beginning to know her depresses me as I pack for our trip back to Montego Bay. Certain images remain embedded in my mind: giggling schoolgirls walking two by two along the narrow streets, the view from the hills above Mayfield Falls. the solemn laces of the Rastafarian wood-earrings in the marketplace. Despite recent moratoriums on building in the village. I suspeel the next lime 1 see her, Negril will not be the same somnolent paradise on the bay. As I walk to the van where Roy waits. Lorraine stops to speak, “You look just like an island girl,” says Lorraine, noting my new tan. smiling in approval. She’s right; I do. I am relaxed. I am content. I am the embodiment of the Jamaican flex. And 1 plan on slaying that way for quite a while.


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