“So,” said the tour guide, midway through our trip to Jamaica. “What are you really looking for?”
It was a good question. In most of the places we went, our group of four women had been welcomed, warned and flirted with. But, we were rarely asked many questions about the nature of our trip. We’d flown in from England and the United States in mid-November, just before high season, intending to see the country over the course of a month, while staying in and visiting as many locally owned businesses and guesthouses as we could.
Traveling from the east of the lush island to the west, and mostly avoiding the tourist hot spots of Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril, we sought out places that were the opposite of what Jamaica, and many Caribbean islands, have become known for: resort-style luxury that doesn’t always offer locals a significant slice of the tourism pie. As a granddaughter of Jamaican immigrants, the search had special resonance for me.
“When people come to the Caribbean, they’re being funneled into this journey of the airport to the resort, and that’s all they see of the country,” said Riaz Philips, the author of the award-winning cookbook “West Winds: Recipes, History and Tales from Jamaica.” “Usually, if you follow the money trail of that passage, it doesn’t lead to any tangible benefits for the people who live and work in those countries.”
Nicole Dennis-Benn, who wrote about the dark side of Jamaican tourism in her debut novel, “Here Comes the Sun,” explained that it can be hard for Jamaicans to start successful businesses. “It’s really impossible if you don’t come from wealth already. You’re not going to find much ownership among the Jamaican working class,” she said.
Even many of the white-sand beaches that foreign visitors enjoy are off-limits to residents, and are instead controlled by hotels and resorts, which limit access to their guests. Of the island’s approximately 493 miles of coastline, less than three miles are designated as public beaches, and about half of those are used in association with hotels, according to a recent government policy paper. The public beaches that do exist are often run-down and not fit for use. That exclusion is emblematic of what some locals feel is the continuing legacy of colonialism and the history of slavery on the island.
Committed to discovering the country that few visitors see, we set out to discover if it was possible to be good tourists and travel to Jamaica beyond the resorts.
To the Blue Mountains
Our trip began with a long journey from Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport to Kingston on the Knutsford Express (a Greyhound-equivalent bus) and then a taxi up and across the Blue Mountains, high above the capital, to stay at the BlueMountView guesthouse.
We arrived at night after a treacherous drive. But we woke the next morning to the chirping of insects and a stunning sight: The guest rooms, made with an abundance of polished natural wood, are surrounded by trees, and built into the edge of a great crevasse, looking out over a plunging swathe of greenery.
It was at BlueMountView that we met Noel Lindo and his wife, Michelle. The self-described “King of the Mountain,” Mr. Lindo was born in the area. After living in London for most of his adult life, he and Michelle decided to return to Jamaica to live in 2011 — building their own house, and then the guesthouses. They are explicitly L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly in a country that is not always hospitable to gay visitors, treat guests like family — and hand-roast their own coffee on-site.
Mr. Lindo is fatherly, frank and incredibly chatty. He likes to layer stories upon stories, taking us from the streets of 1970s London to colonial Jamaica and back again.
“There’s so much to do in this mountain. It’s unbelievable,” he said enthusiastically, pointing out hiking trails in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, hidden waterfalls and coffee plantations, many of them owned by locals. Although it’s isolated, we discovered that BlueMountView is within hiking distance of Strawberry Hill, the famous hotel started by the Island Records founder, Chris Blackwell. We stopped at Eits Cafe, where we gorged on tender saltfish fritters, warming pumpkin ginger soup and sticky, delicious, caramelized-plantain crepes while looking out across the misty mountains, surrounded by the buzz of swallowtail hummingbirds.
It was through Mr. Lindo that we wound up taking a day trip to visit the parish of Portland, on the island’s northeast coast. Although perhaps predominantly known for its beaches and as the location of the Blue Lagoon, made famous in the 1980 movie, we had a more rural experience. Our first stop was the Living Daylights, an eco-farm, restaurant and bar in the jungle of Bonnie View Hill, Port Antonio, that has been open since 2018, aiming to offer guests “a piece of paradise,” with a focus on sustainability.
Jesse Crosby’s family has farmed the land for more than 50 years, but he always had ambitions to do something more with it, and when he met Brandon Powell (who has both Jamaican and U.S. citizenship), they were able to make that a reality.
Arriving at midday, we were treated to a sweaty, fun farm hike led by Mr. Crosby. He picked cinnamon leaves from the trees for us to sniff, jostled down coconuts for us to drink from and showed us hidden plantain trees. This was followed by a delicious farm-to-table meal cooked by Simi Brenner, the owner of the Moussa Pot, a vegan restaurant, that included a chickpea curry with moringa leaf, ripe plantain and coco yam leaf and a salad made from June plum, cucumber and sorrel leaf. The Moussa Pot has since moved to a new location in Portland, but the Living Daylights will continue to offer farm-to-table meals in future.
Our second stop in Portland was the self-governing Maroon community of Charles Town in Buff Bay Valley, whose residents are descendants of proud Africans who escaped enslavement by fleeing to mountainous regions. It was one of the few times in Jamaica where we were viscerally reminded of the island’s dark history and its continuing legacy.
A tour of the small museum charted the history of the Maroons and how they have protected their freedom and culture over centuries, creating their own communities and belief systems while fighting against British slave owners and colonialists in a series of wars. Marcia Douglas, the current leader of the community (and the first woman to hold the position), held up a heavy shackle that would have once been clasped around an enslaved person’s neck. Later, other members of the community brought out drums and sang. We were taught dances that bind the present and the past.
“What we’re offering in the tourism sector is our heritage, our ancestral inheritance,”Ms. Douglas told me after the tour.
Treasure Beach and community tourism
Another long, bumpy drive took us from the Blue Mountains down to Treasure Beach, a village in the southwest parish of St. Elizabeth. It’s probably the area in Jamaica best known for community tourism — low-impact travel that works in relative sync with the locals. Once a fishing village, over the past 30 years, Treasure Beach has become a beacon for tourists looking to travel off the beaten track.
The town is small, hot and with dusty roads lined by cactuses and flowers. Its treasures were somewhat hidden; shacks that looked inconsequential at first glance came alive at different times of the day. The stunning beaches were a more obvious draw, along with a variety of well-priced, locally owned guest rooms and villas on Airbnb, such as the Azteca Villas: a collection of newly built guesthouses, with a small shared pool, only a few minutes away from the beach and the main, albeit tiny, strip of shops and places to eat.
We spent the bulk of our time in Treasure Beach, sampling locally owned highlights like Smurfs Café for the best Jamaican breakfast in town; Eggy’s Beach Bar for the coldest Red Stripes right on the sand; and Gee Wiz for tasty, reasonably priced vegan food in an eclectic setting — the restaurant is painted in fading, cotton candy colors and flanked with statues of long-beaked fish, while the huge, pillared dining room boasts colorful murals.
Floyd’s Pelican Bar, built from driftwood and palm fronds on a sandbank in the middle of the ocean, has to be the area’s best-known spot. Constructed in 2001 by Floyde Forbes, it’s a slick operation these days, requiring a boat journey that costs $40 per person at a minimum from Treasure Beach. But the vibes, a mile away from shore, are sun-drenched and otherworldly. The freshly caught fried escovitch fish and bammy (a type of cassava flatbread) were the best I had on the island.
Treasure Beach is still an anomaly in Jamaica’s tourism sector.
“There’s no question that over 90 percent of Jamaica’s traditional room stock is all-inclusive,” said Jason Henzell, the chairman and co-owner of Jakes Hotel, the largest business in the area, who also runs a nonprofit to support locals. “I sat on the board of the Jamaican Ministry of Tourism for eight years, and I know they had been quite hesitant about community tourism. Not necessarily in Treasure Beach, but overall, because they were worried about crime. That’s the cold, hard truth.”
The Ministry of Tourism did not respond to requests for comment.
But then, he said, Airbnb changed everything. “It happened in spite of the ministry not wanting it. It’s almost as though Airbnb was made for Jamaica, right? Because, you know, every Jamaican is a character.”
The other reality of Treasure Beach, though, is that much of the beachfront land has been bought up by non-Jamaicans. Mr. Henzell, who has helped landowners sell property in the area, tells me that land these days goes for over $1 million an acre, putting it out of reach of most locals.
“We know that tourism is our number one revenue. And a lot of the time when people are living in a prime area, especially working class Jamaicans, they tend to displace them,” said Ms. Dennis-Benn, whose upcoming novel will explore land ownership.
But, Mr. Henzell pointed out, the majority of large guesthouses in Treasure Beach, four out of five, are owned by locals. And, he added, “you have some foreigners who are extremely respectful of our community, respectful of our traditions, respectful of our heritage and culture.”
Last stop, Mel’s
Our last stop, two hours from Treasure Beach, was Mel’s Botanical Retreat, situated on Cave Mountain, in Westmoreland, the westernmost parish of Jamaica. The retreat, featuring three handbuilt wooden cabins and a communal kitchen, is high above the shimmering Caribbean Sea and nestled in the lush jungle. At present, it’s being run by a teenage girl named Kiara Clayton. She is motherless and grieving, but trying to do something very special: keeping a dream of Black-woman-owned community tourism alive.
Kiara’s mother, Melessia Rodney, founded the retreat, built on the site of her family’s longtime goat pasture. In the summer of 2021, she was pregnant with her second child and had recently married the love of her life. But then, in August, she died: At age 36, Covid took her and her unborn baby.
Five months later, 15-year-old Kiara decided to take over the business; balancing it alongside schoolwork and her ambitions to study to become a lawyer or an entrepreneur in America. Despite her age, she understands the power of legacy. With the help of her family and her mother’s many friends from all over the world, she is continuing to host guests at the retreat.
One night, Kiara joined me in the communal kitchen to talk about the business and why she decided to carry it on. “She wanted it to be this Black Jamaican woman-owned business. She just loved being strong and independent,” she said.
What makes the property special among the thousands Airbnbs across Jamaica is its commitment to these ideals. “It’s really rare, in Jamaica, to have a woman born in poverty, and become as successful as Mel became with her goat pasture,” said Stacey Davis, a family friend who helped Mel in the early days of the retreat. “Every flower in that retreat, everything you see, she did by hand.”
Although Kiara has faced some financial struggles with maintaining the property since her mother died, it remains a haven for guests seeking that ephemeral and elusive trait: authenticity. Mel, and now Kiara, encourage guests to engage with the local community on the south side of the island.
At Benta River Falls, an hour or so’s drive away from Mel’s, we were treated to a joyous day at a series of cascading waterfalls and deep pools, led by two energetic guides. The property’s owner, Stacy Wilson, played dominoes with a bunch of men in the small bar next to the falls, while we ate a delicious plate of crispy fries, and giggled with the pink-haired bartender. Mr. Wilson’s American cousin, Jahcobee Faith, explained that the family has owned the area since the 1970s, but only set up business in 2017, charging, at the time we visited, $20 for tourists and a nominal 500 Jamaican dollars, or about $3.25, for locals.
Closer to Mel’s, Bluefields beach provided all the white sand and azure, temperate water you could wish for, along with the knowledge that it is one of the few beaches on the island that explicitly remains open for locals. It’s looked after by the Bluefields People’s Community Association, which promotes sustainable social and economic development. With towels spread out under a tree, we sipped strong rum cocktails and played with local children in the water. We were guests, but we were accepted.
The reality is that Jamaica beyond the resorts is beautiful but impoverished, and still visibly recovering from the pandemic. It can get expensive if you don’t drive and need to rely on taxis to get around, though route taxis, as used by locals, can offset some costs. Traveling around the country feels completely safe in a group, as long as you keep your wits about you, and remain polite.
Stepping out of your comfort zone is a must: Taking the easy options will not lead you to the communities that will really benefit from the money that tourism can bring. It’s on us, as tourists, to seek them out, move within them with an awareness of our relative privileges, and remember the human stories behind their businesses. There are deep sacrifices that some working-class Jamaicans have made to try and bring a new type of tourism to the surface.
As Kiara said to me, measuring her words, at the end of our conversation: “It was Mel’s dream and now it’s my dream, but it probably doesn’t have to work out the way it was going to work for her, for me. Maybe something else is destined for me.”
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