July 31, 2016
JamaiCan We Move to Mo-Bay, Please?!
Mother Nature has so generously blessed Montego Bay that it is best described as a “live postcard,” thanks to the world-class beaches, mountains and lush flora and fauna that grace the island. Add the effect of the trade winds, blue skies, and some of the most delightful people on this planet and you might find yourself looking around for your own slice of paradise. At least that was my experience while enjoying all the creature comforts provided at the all-inclusive Rose Hall Hilton Resort for a much-needed change from the unseasonably warm winter in Florida.
Day one I noticed right away that the air quality in Montego Bay was exceptional. Not needing any asthma medication by day two had me convinced that there was magic in the air. And if there was anything besides magic in the air that shouldn’t be there, the island breezes just whisk it away!
While the Hilton Rose Hall had it all and there was really no reason to leave the resort if all you want to do was chill, we really wanted to see how our Jamaican friends lived. The truth is, I wanted to know more about daily life and hopefully find out the secrets behind the gorgeous smiles and exotic beauty of the local people. The lilt of the spoken word, the infectious smiles and cheery laughter, and the unique and lovely names of the ladies sparked my interest in learning all I could during our brief visit.
We totally enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast at the resort. I tend to get myself in a little trouble when enjoying buffet meals but there was no need to even look at any of the culprits that cause me this trouble as I stopped at the fresh fruit station first. What a fabulous assortment of wonderful things to eat! Not missing a beat, Nora went right for all of the items not easily identified by the likes of us. Of course I piled on the mango, papaya, and pineapple but we needed to be introduced to several items new to my food chain including what we now know to be Jamaican apples, guava, soursop, sweetsop, june plum, and akee. And if the array of fresh fruit was not enough, there was a fruit juice station set up where the chef was blending assorted fruits to create very lovely and tasty pitchers of juice. Just watching him work was colorfully interesting as well as tasty!
I checked out all of the food options at the buffet and to my delight found that there were other local specialties that I needed to know about. There was the Bammy served with the Eschovitch fish. We saw this a few times around the island along with other local favorites like fried yucca, plantains, salt cod, and of course, the famous jerk chicken and rum punch.
First stop after a memorable and very healthy breakfast was the Rose Hall Hilton bookstore. We found out later in our trip, it was a pretty smart move. I picked up a copy of Flowers of the Caribbean , The Jamaican Chef and Jamaican Herbs and Medicinal Plants and Their Uses before heading out on any adventures. I took the time to read, okay skim through, all 90+ pages of Flowers of the Caribbean while everyone else was enjoying their Blue Mountain coffee and chatter after breakfast. The truth is, I could have spent several hours in the Rose Hall Hilton bookstore chatting with “Debbie” as she found me the books I needed and also later gave me a good lesson on the “national fruit”, the akee. But I bought my books and went about my business so she could do her job.
Next stop, a grocery store where the locals shop, Mega Mart! OK, I confess, my real reason for wanting to go to a grocery store was to shop for wine. Not that there was anything wrong with the wine at the resort but I had to see what was available in the event that I packed up my bags and moved here. Mega Mart is appropriately named, as it was certainly mega! Heck, the section that housed all of the varieties of pickapeppa, hot sauces and spices took me the better part of an hour to comb through and yes, I stocked up on spicy mango sauce. We will be tasting this holiday for months to come!
I think I was most impressed with the lesson we got about the medicinal benefits of over-proof rum and the local raw nutmeg and coco tea. Coco tea (Chocolate tea) is a product of Jamaica and instead of tea bags it is in a bar form and is comprised of ground cocoa beans, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. You grate one of the four sticks in the bar and add it to 5 cups of boiling water. Boil for a 3 or 4 minutes and strain and sweeten to taste.
I always try to check out a grocery store where the locals shop for several reasons. I like to see what the locals eat, what it costs and where it comes from. The produce section at Mega Mart was terrific, for the most part. Big corporations from America have a strong presence everywhere, which didn’t give it quite the local feel we hoped to get, but still managed to find good local products and produce. We picked up a “solo” papaya, apples, and a few other items, which we later figured out were imported from the USA. The soil and conditions in Jamaica are only suited for growing a few random items so we took it for what it was. One thing I was surprised to see was that wine prices were very reasonable even though they were all imported wines. I made it a priority to find a local wine later in the week.
Another thing that merits mentioning regarding our trip to Mega Mart is that Jamaicans enjoy what is referred to as a “box lunch”. While living in Japan, we enjoyed “Bento boxes” for lunch when going native so I had to see what a “box lunch” in Jamaica consisted of. Well, my box lunch selection was difficult. There were so many options. I wanted to have some curried goat and patties but wasn’t in the mood for the spice fix just yet so I ordered the roasted chicken and rice box lunch. I waited my turn with all the locals and eventually had the opportunity to select whether I wanted a breast or a leg/thigh with my rice and peas (red beans) and pasta salad. I picked up four box lunches with bottles of water for $20 USD and got 20 Jamaican dollars change 🙂
My box lunch was more than enough for both Nora and I but we made sure that every delectable morsel was consumed before calling it quits. The chicken was cooked to perfection and my portion was huge. The red beans referred to as peas were mixed with the rice, which was cooked with coconut milk instead of water (this was common throughout the island), hence adding to the protein of the chicken. Nora also mentioned this method of cooking the rice wasn’t as hard on her stomach (she’s very sensitive to many foods).
After enjoying the amazing array of treats at the resort and a boxed lunch in town, I wanted to explore and see what was out there for foraging. We put on our walking shoes and started our hike. Less than a mile from our resort we started to see some promising greenery. We enjoyed exploring in and around the massive banyan trees that decorated the resort and eventually found our way to some “fruit trees”. At first glance, we thought we found a Jamaican apple tree and I jumped as high as I could to grab a branch and bring the fruits close enough to pick. They were red and looked a lot like Jamaican apples. Nora was happy to pluck a few while I held the limbs of the tree down so she could reach them.
Instantaneously we were both covered in biting ants! With fruit secured with our other finds from our walk (sorry for to the couple whose souvenir golf ball I took!) I did what I could to help brush the ants out of Nora’s eyes, hair and off her body since she bore the brunt of their anger. Thankfully they weren’t as vicious as our Florida fire ants and we could get on with our adventure of exploring the nineteenth century aqueduct ruins.
Even better than finding out the history of the stone ruins was exploring all of the fruiting trees along the seaside. No one should ever go hungry in Jamaica as we strolled by an abundance of banana palms, grapefruit trees, soursop trees, avocado trees and almond trees before turning around. Of course there were scads of other trees that wouldn’t be contributing to the breakfast spread with the banyans being king.
Next stop, bio-luminescent bay with David Machete and Justin Rambo on the “Insatiable.” Apparently there are only a few places on the planet where one can experience the magic of the bio-luminescent effect in the sea. We arrived at the boat dock a little before sunset and waited for the others to arrive. Our boat had a total of ten on it including Capt. David and his mate, Rambo. They fixed everyone some of their very good rum punch and headed out into the bay. I think the secret to good authentic rum punch is using the locals’ favorite rum, over proof rum. It means just what it sounds like it means – a very high alcohol content rum used for many things besides just mixing strong drinks. Apparently most Jamaicans keep a little over proof rum around for medicinal purposes, including antibacterial applications to cuts and wounds.
We enjoyed a fantastic sunset and pleasant boat ride while the sky darkened. Once we stopped, those who wanted to jump in the water to experience the bio-luminescent effect with all senses could do so. It was amazing to see what looked like silver tipped waves softly tossing our boat about as the stars came out. Rambo took a gaff and dipped it in the water. As he moved the pole about in the water, a trail of eerie yellow green lights followed creating an ethereal effect. Any movement in the water created this effect including the waves and the odd fish that broke the surface of the water. The water in the bay was only 4 or 5 feet deep but very mucky on the bottom. Those who opted to swim or just be in the water got to glow like lightning bugs. Locals say if you get in the water, your urine will glow when you pee the next day. I can’t vouch for that.
Day three we found ourselves on the road driving across the country to Port Antonio. Coming from Florida, it was a little hard to believe that it would take the better part of a day to travel just 120 miles until we got on the road. There was so much twisting and turning that it wasn’t possible to go very fast without being a danger on the road. It was indeed a tedious drive but very beautiful. Half an hour into the trip, Samantha stopped and got me a beef patty and a vegetable patty at “Juici Patties”. I am guessing this is as close to fast food as you can get since McDonalds and the other fast food joints pulled out of Jamaica a while back. The patties were fresh and hot right out of the oven, and were very inexpensive.
Further down the road we stopped by the roadside at a little stand and bought a soursop and chili shrimp. The chili shrimp were actually crayfish that had been heavily peppered and cooked. For 200 Jamaican dollars (less than $2 USD), I got a small parcel of tasty morsels that lit my mouth on fire. Too bad it was so early in the day as an ice-cold Red Stripe beer would have been the perfect accompaniment. Samantha wanted to buy some sugar cane for the trip but there wasn’t anyone on hand to peel it so that will have to wait for the trip home.
Back in the car we pressed on for Port Antonio. The windy road was now following the coast providing us gorgeous scenery to take in while Samantha navigated the twists and turns. We passed a magnificent white castle before finally laying eyes on Port Antonio in the distance. The trip must have been about three hours and we all were ready to stretch. What better place to stretch and enjoy a local beach than Frenchman’s Cove. I believe that there were villas for rent for those who wanted to stay on the property but we were just day-trippers so we paid the admission fee (Jamaican residents get a discount and everyone pays less if they pay in Jamaican dollars) and hiked down to the beach.
There was a place to change and it had lockers and a shower, which I greatly appreciated several hours later when I needed to get the sand out of my britches. Frenchman’s Cove had a little restaurant, which we did not check out. The cove itself was incredible. There was a crystal clear fresh water river that emptied into the sea at the cove. They surf was pretty rough but I had been really wanting to jump in the ocean for the last few hours and went right in. The ocean was very warm, sort of, but the cold river current emptying into the sea made my feet cold. The cove was probably only 100 feet wide but the beach wrapped around and continued along the river. There were rope swings to enjoy that dangled over the river. Somebody had the good sense to put a thick rope across the cove to alert swimmers that they had better turn around just in case the lifeguard didn’t alert them. Our lifeguard on duty was very friendly, maybe too friendly with the ladies but heck, that’s not unique to Jamaican lifeguards!
The cove was a picture of tranquility even though there were a dozen or so spring breakers and a few other visitors enjoying the beach. As I took in the beauty of the place, I noted that this would have been a perfect pirate hideout or a safe place to wait out a storm. I will have to do a little reading on this place because it is very special.
After our beach visit we needed to head back to Ocho Rios for our final night there, but Nora and I were starving.
On the way, we came across a small Rastafarian “cook-shop” (food stand/restaurant) with a sign out saying they had fresh vegetarian specials that immediately caught Nora’s attention. As we stopped to get take-out, Chef Oliver came out of his shack and said he’d “take good care of us,” and that he did!!! My meal consisted of all the local favorites, freshly prepared the Rasta way.
He even climbed his tree to get Nora fresh coconut water, now that’s service!!
Our final couple days we spent relaxing and hiking around the towns and finished the trip with a stop to a local school where people took their education seriously! I was beyond impressed with what a few determined parents and community members were able to build with a couple of old shipping containers, recycled materials, and a lot of time and hard work! Being an educator for over 25 years, I was thrilled to see people take back the school system and re-introduce writing, cooking, and language (and much more!) to their elementary school children. What a heart-warming end to an already amazing vacation!
Tips/facts from Jamaica:
• Jamaican apple vs. ackee- Learn the difference and only eat ackee properly prepared by locals (if picked before opened and ripe, it’s extremely poisonous!)
• Allow for time on the road. The island might look small if you’ve taken a road trip in your home state, but between the roads, poorly placed road-signs (if any), and the mountains, what might take you an hour back home, will take you 3 here!
• Medicinal benefits of over proof rum. A local favorite and for good reason! Over proof rum is an excellent anti-bacterial agent to be used for any type of abrasion or laceration. It is also used as an anti-pyretic or to help with symptoms and prevention of the common cold and sore throat.
• Health benefits of coco tea. Good news for chocolate and tea lovers alike! Coco tea has been shown to be full of antioxidants (one of the highest sources in the world) to help provide with a good mood and energy boost without the same effects that coffee has on you central nervous system (CNS). In Ecuador, this same drink was given to hikers to prevent and help symptoms altitude sickness. It’s been found throughout most ancient civilizations and for good reason. It provides the body with numerous essential vitamins and minerals (the big ones being magnesium, iron, copper, calcium and phosphorus) and helps lower blood pressure and supports almost every system in your body. Pair it with metabolism and cognitive boosting spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and you have yourself a healthy tonic!
• Coconut milk rice. Try cooking rice in coconut milk for a more flavorful and easily digested side. Locals in Jamaica use a powdered form of coconut milk, but I’m sure any other type is just a good, maybe even coconut water!
• Adopt a Rastafarian lifestyle for a day. The Rastafarian culture follow a very natural and peaceful state of mind, not eating red meat or dairy and the more strict followers don’t eat any animal products, not even chicken or fish. Rastafarians are very respectful to both humans and animals alike, they never add salt or harmful chemicals, and don’t need traditional medicines, only that which comes from the Earth. Feel free to go for longer than a day