Climbing a Blue Mountain in Jamaica
By Carol Antman
He Dared Me
When an opportunity to revisit Jamaica was offered to us, my husband Mark flashed on a magazine article he’d read about one of the best hikes in the Northern Hemisphere: the Blue Mt. Peak. Summitpost.org states, “It should only be attempted by those who are fit and…those who seek adventure and are not afraid of hiking in the middle of the night…the steep ledges, slippery rocks, fallen trees and endless other hazards make hiking this trail a danger.” “
Doesn’t that sound great? Aren’t you always claiming to be rough and ready?” he challenged.
When he dared me like that, I found him irresistible. It wasn’t the first time that had gotten me into trouble.
We could have begun the hike where more stalwart (and younger) hikers do which is a two day affair that begins in Mavis Bank but instead we booked a stay at the 120-year old Whitfield Hall.
The bone-jarring two hour pick-up truck ride from the Kingston airport ended in the Blue Mountains. Along the way were families dressed in white strolling to village churches carrying Bibles. Murals of President Obama and “Yes We Can!” were painted on tiny stores. Coffee bushes blanketed the hillsides.
Duppies in the Attic
Although I expected a rustic experience at the inn I was still shocked. “It smells like old wood smoke and mold in here.” was my first comment. Nearly everything was broken including the toilet, the hot water, the sagging furniture.
The guest book warned of “duppies” (ghosts) in the sleeping loft. Other inscriptions read: “amazing vibe…returning after fifty years and little has changed”… and “Anyone complaining about anything in this place should be ashamed of themselves”. Feeling chastised, I bucked up.
Carleton, our guide.At 2 AM our guide Carlton woke us. He wore a light jacket and cut-offs. We were clearly over prepared with our backpack of clothes for various weather conditions, trail mix, water, insect repellant, sunscreen, headlamps and first aid supplies. Carlton carried nothing.
Not even water. He plied us with strong Jamaican coffee and we headed out into the moonlight. The shadowy trail was very steep, very rutted, and very narrow. The full moon’s light dimly draped the mountainside. Speckles from villages dotted the horizon as we ascended.
The fourteen mile round trip trek is timed to avoid the heat and arrive at the peak at sunrise. It rises over 3,000 feet through elfin woodland forest, windswept scrub and miles and miles of coffee fields. Carlton made up songs and sang jubilantly as we walked,
I love callaloo, carrots, beans
Irish potatoes and celery”
In exchange, I shared my I-Pod music with him, Pimps of Joytown and Galactic. The music gave us energy. He talked about Rastafarianism and the “Babylon” culture of processed food.
Carlton follows an I-tal lifestyle of vegetarianism and limited alcohol while living the Jamaican ideal to “cool your feet”, to slow down and live simply. He’s led over one hundred hikes to the Blue Mountain summit for people from 7 to 75 years old. Many had given up and turned back. I could see why. My feet were aching; we were running out of water; the trail seemed endless. I was identifying with one of the guestbook inscriptions: “
Don’t know if I’ll ever return. In too much pain.” “C’mon Miss Rough and Ready,” Mark chided. For 4 ½ hours we trudged on despite the trail’s very bad condition. Finally, we triumphantly reached the top. The far-off view of Kingston, the undulating coastline and the rising sun were our rewards.
Thank you Baby Jesus
Awaiting our return, Delroy was preparing a Jamaican “breakfast of the Gods”. He deftly cooked dried salt cod and acee (a type of squash), callaloo (like collards), banana dumplings, roasted breadfruit and gallons of rich Jamaican coffee in the fly-speckled kitchen without electricity.
The coffee had grown right outside the door and had been roasted in a hand-turned cylinder fueled by propane. It was ground by mortar and pestle and the grounds put directly into a pot of boiling water.
After it steeped, cold water was added to get the grounds to settle and then it was poured into a coffee pot. Maybe it was the nine hours of walking but no breakfast had ever tasted as good. Another of the guest book inscriptions matched my mood, “Climbed the peak. Almost died. Thank you baby Jesus.”
Our three previous trips to Jamaica had prepared us for some hassles. But things have changed. As we traveled across the country to Montego Bay, we were never approached by persistent hair braiders, trinket sellers or “higglers”.
These entrepreneurs are now assembled in lively government-built craft markets like the one next to Scothchie’s Jerk Centre. Outside this simple thatched roof restaurant, dry-rubbed meats are roasted very slowly on large metal sheets for several hours over an open fire.
Served spicy and hot right off the grill along with Red Stripe beers, it’s as simple and authentic as Jamaica gets. People travel for hours to come here and Scothchie’s was voted number one jerk center in the country last year. Although the tantalizing aroma drifts right across the street to the huge all-inclusive Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, many guests don’t venture there.
“I’m afraid to leave the resort,” one guest told us. His idea of a peak experience was to get his money’s worth of free drinks at the swim-up bar and drunkenly participate in the cheesy floor shows each night. In fact this region has one of the lowest crime rates in the world with tourists being targeted very rarely.
One ex-patriot told us that if your car breaks down in Jamaica, friendly people will immediately come to assist you. The government has gone to great lengths to protect tourists and lower crime. Regulated JUTA taxis for example provide safe, metered fares most everywhere.
Now We’re Talkin’
A whole different category of peak experience awaited us at the Tryall Club near Montego Bay where we were greeted effusively and shown to our villa. Still sore and dusty from our hike and stay at Whitfield Hall, it felt like another country. Our huge bedroom had a balcony overlooking the lushly landscaped 2200 acres.
A luminous beach and manicured golf course framed the hillside dotted by over eighty exquisite mansions. Our villa’s walk-in closet was big enough to live in and a jetted bathtub dominated the bedroom. “This is more like it!” I’m thinking. “Enough of this rough and ready stuff!” “
Come and let me show you the rest of your apartment and introduce you to your staff,” we were told. Rest of the apartment? Our staff? Downstairs in our private living room and kitchen Hazel awaited us. At that moment we began to experience what Tryall Club prides itself on: luxury and impeccable service. I mentioned to Hazel that I love avocados.
She picked some on her way to work the next morning and arranged them like a collage on my breakfast plate. Discarded clothes showed up washed and folded in our drawers. She arrived one morning cradling a fragrant bundle wrapped like a newborn baby. It was a breadfruit she’d picked and roasted for us. She stocked the refrigerator with a variety of choices and was dismayed when I prepared my own lunch.
Used to catering to harried travelers, she takes pride in helping her guests wind down. “I go around them like a little baby, quietly, calmly, with a little smile.” She explained. Dedication to service earned the Tryall Club Jamaica’s only Hospitality Assured Certification. Admittedly more accustomed to frugal than fancy, I surprised myself by saying, “I can get used to this.” But it got even better when we visited some of the private homes.
Dream Homes Realized
Paula Kovinski built her family’s dream house, Harmony Hill, at Tryall three years ago. When her family isn’t vacationing there, it is one of the most frequently rented villas.
The view as you enter is a Rothko painting of the blue infinity pool below the blue ocean below a blue sky. Surround sound sets a mood of tranquility. Eight gardened acres provide privacy for the 15,000 square foot home that includes seven suites and a full-time staff of eight.
It’s the fulfillment of her family’s dream to build a welcoming oasis where they and friends can create memories. Judging by the guest comments, her dream is being shared by many visitors who rave of “Paradise found” “Nirvana” and “True Bliss” Chef Lennox and staff served us at the poolside.
Fresh kingfish, vichyssoise and a guava dessert with fanciful spun sugar ornaments were an epicurean delight to eye and palate. Harmony Hill guests remark how, “This was a true vacation for everyone but especially for the women because we didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning and laundry and your staff made it comfortable and relaxing.”
Other homes range from modern to traditional. Some have art collections to rival museums. Most have private pools, killer views and access to Tryall’s many activities including golf, beach parties, nature tours, tennis, cocktail parties and children’s activities.
On a snorkeling expedition with T.J., the on-staff naturalist, we were delighted by the critters he brought to the surface. His passion for the natural beauty of the area was evident on a golf cart tour of the property as he enthusiastically pointed out endemic birds and explained about Tryall’s historic past as a sugar plantation.
A highlight for Mark was golfing. Nick, the resident golf pro, amused him with stories from the Johnny Walker 1995 Tournament that took place there as they played the impeccable course. It includes a unique hole that requires shooting through the supports of an historic aqueduct.
Returning from the beach one day, we ran into resort guests Lisa and Bob walking hand in hand. For their wedding anniversary Tryall Club had prepared a private romantic dinner for them in a gazebo at the end of the long beach dock. Apparently dining with the blue Caribbean surrounding them had cast quite a spell. Talk about peak experiences!
The subculture of staff members at Tryall is quite active since many workers spend decades working there. During our visit there was a huge staff field day creating quite a lot of excitement. Through its philanthropic arm, The Tryall Club supports a school, health services and scholarships for their neighboring community.
Many people still think of Jamaica as a dicey destination. Vacations behind guarded walls at all-inclusive resorts are for them. For an authentic experience Jamaica also offers the extremes of luxury and high-adrenalin adventure. It has a rich culture and its own distinctive perspective on living life well. As the Rastafarians will tell you, life is about feeling irie: powerful, excellent, great. As we left, I felt pretty irie, powerful from having climbed the peak and downright excellent from our diverse experiences.
Blue Mountain and Jamaica Travel Links
Carol Antman‘s column, “Roadtrips Charleston” appears in newspapers in South Carolina and many of her published articles are on her blog www.peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com. Her last story on GoNOMAD was about staying in a treehouse.
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