Comforting Words: 03/2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Land of My Birth - Part One

A few of my Facebook friends said that they are waiting for my notes (post) on my honeymoon/visit in Jamaica. Therefore I cannot disappoint. My only hope is that after reading my thoughts they will remain my BFF’s.

The starting point must be that wonderful day, February 14, 2009, in -17 degrees Celsius weather in Edmonton, Alberta. A day before turning 44 years old, my life experiences had already included many a beautiful, cold and wonder-filled days.

However, February 14, 2009 was that much more special as at 3:30 that afternoon I would marry not just the person who has become a true friend but one who loves me unconditionally to the core of my being – flaws and all.

Less than a week later, Robert and I would leave our home in Calgary for the land of my birth – Jamaica. This would be his first visit ever and this was my first in almost seven years.

As I thought about how best to share our experiences and my personal thoughts about Jamaica of 2009, it seemed the best way to approach it was in two parts. This first post, Land of My Birth Part One, will focus on Jamaica as a tourist/holiday destination.

In Land of My Birth Part Two, I will share with you my thoughts about Jamaica through the eyes of a returning citizen, particularly as one visiting from North America and in a time when the greatest economic recession of our times is unfolding.

Through the Visitors’ Lenses

After some debating and persuading, Robert agreed that visiting Jamaica with a ‘local’ the true experience is in travelling around the island instead of holding up in an all-inclusive resort. So, our trip was designed by me that we would ‘circle’ the island, staying at various properties for 2-3 days, and make day trips to nearby must-see sights, etc.

We arrived at the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, early in the afternoon and after a fairly lengthy time in Immigrations due to the fact that there were about 4-5 flights on the ground, we got into the Customs Hall.

There our experience with the Customs Officer we met was going fairly well until she finally found ‘gold’ – something that she could tax to get money into the Government’s coffers.

Having not smoked in over 12 hours, Robert was ready to pay whatever she wanted for a piece of Swarovski we had for gifting. How this story ended is part of the material for Part Two.

Kingston, Jamaica

Finally in our rental car heading for my dear woman-friend and mentor’s home, Robert saw for the first time examples of why many regular tourists do not venture into Kingston.

Like most travelling Canadians, he took in good stride what must have been shockers for him and busied himself photographing (1) the bikers travelling in the middle of traffic, forming four lanes on two lane roads, (2) passengers in the back of vans and (3) fully armed police and soldiers in the middle of the city.

This was soon forgotten as we hungrily dove into the fully laden table of Jamaican food our hostess had waiting for us. Her generous meal was the precursor of many more such meals in Kingston over the next few days.

Our first evening (Friday) ended at the piano bar at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, a place that soon became Robert’s favourite spot for anything in Kingston. Saturday started at the 24-hour café at the Pegasus for early morning cups of Blue Mountain coffee as our hostess does not drink the stuff and her cupboard was coffee-free.

Since we met, Robert has been insisting that he is not all that into seafood. Things took a dramatic turn after his first bite into freshly caught red snapper, accompanied by festival (a cornmeal based dumpling/biscuit/bannock) and bammy (made from cassava).

“I have never had fish tasting like that in my entire life!” he declared and would continue to say as we travelled around the island.

Touring the campus of the University of the West Indies, shopping at the Sovereign Centre and drinks and conversation at a beautiful multi-million dollar home in Jack’s Hill, St. Andrew were some of the things we accomplished in our first two days in Kingston.

Sunday morning found us in the congregation of my former church – The Universal Centre of Truth for Better Living (UCT) – and what a joy and blessing that was!

No one knew I was coming, although our hostess had mentioned to the senior minister that she had special guests. Aside from the welcome of our hostess, being at UCT was a homecoming. The music, the sermon, the new building and the people was almost overwhelming for me. Robert was rocking and getting jiggy to the music, particularly the saxophone rendition of “Great is My Faithfulness – my favourite hymn – by a young man named Courtney.

In fact, his ‘blowing’ was so awesome that when the Minister announced that he would be playing at “Jazz in the Garden,” at the Pegasus that night, we bought tickets on the spot. It was money well spent, as not only did we get to hear Courtney do his thing again but we were entertained by Jamaican greats such as Dean Fraser on his horns, Karen Smith’s wonderful voice, not to mention Michael Harris and the E-Park Band led by Peter Ashbourne.

Robert fell in love with the Pegasus hotel and its offerings all over again and started asking about rates – as if he is planning to move into a room there for the rest of his life.

Boston Bay, Portland

Loaded up on ackee and saltfish and Blue Mountain Coffee, early Monday morning we headed out for Portland. We were booked into a tree house at Great Huts and were feeling fairly excited about getting there.

Our journey was slow however for several reasons: (1) the beautiful sights along the way that had to be photographed, (2) my getting re-acquainted with driving on the narrow, cliff side roads in Jamaica and (3) stopping for Red Stripe beers along the way for Robert. This was one of the biggest thrills for him, being able to drink beers while in a moving vehicle (no open bottle restrictions) and he took full advantage of it!

One of the things I have learned in planning this honeymoon is that Tripadvisor is a very good internet resource. I relied heavily on the reviews of regular travelers posted on the site to help choose hotels and activities for our trip and was not disappointed at any time in the advice we got.

Great Huts in Boston Bay, Portland was confirmed to be a unique experience for travelers not afraid to experience nature. We were in the Gate Hut, not the closest to the sea, but we had a great view of the beach and could hear the waves crashing on the rocks at night.

While in Portland we visited Boston Jerk Centre, Somerset Falls, Blue Lagoon, and the town of Port Antonio. Food was never in short supply and for a reasonable price at little restaurants in the surrounding areas. I had my fill of jerk pork, fricassee chicken and stew peas. Robert was introduced to vegetables steamed in coconut milk/cream and would have it several times in a couple other towns we visited.

Ocho Rios, St. Ann

The trip to Ocho Rios was much easier than the one to Portland as the Government had invested in a highway construction project, which has resulted in some world class roads on this side of the island. Yet, our trip was still somewhat delayed as the sights were too beautiful to simply drive bay.

We also made brief stops along the way in Oracabessa, St. Mary as I showed Robert the places where my childhood summers and some of the best days of my life were spent.
Faith's Pen via Fern Fully as a definite stop as far as I was concerned before checking into our next hotel. And you guessed it, I had ackee and saltfish again but it was combined with some curried goat on the plate (LOL)!

A little apprehensive about our next hotel as the reviews were very mixed about this economy property, it took as a little while to find and we were pleasantly surprised. Rooms On The Beach is no 5 even 4 star property but the room was very comfortable, air conditioned and best yet we had an ocean view.

To Robert’s delight, a massive cruise ship pulled in to port overnight and we had a frontline view of it.

In my plans, Ocho Rios was to be our action spot – and that it was indeed!

The Almond Tree restaurant was the place for our romantic night out. It has been a favourite restaurant of mine for years and they proved again why they deserve that distinction. The service was first class, the meal was superb and the setting, overlooking some of the bluest waters of the Caribbean Sea, was out of this world.

Like a lamb to the slaughter, I allowed myself to be cajoled into zip-lining. After being jostled in the Ocho Rios Craft Village, shopping for souvenirs for family and friends back in Canada and mask(s) for our home, maybe the wiser idea would have been to rest in our air-conditioned room. But no, following the advice of relationship and marriage experts and the lessons of my own previous relationships, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and do something my ‘partner’ wanted to do – even if I could break my neck in the process.

It took a day before I could admit that it was really fun – zip-lining through the ‘jungles’. Chukka Cove Tours has done a really marvelous jobs organizing and executing this tour and although I would not go as far as Robert and say I felt entirely safe throughout, it was really a thrill!

“Kentucky Fried Chicken does taste different here,” said Robert after his first few bites into the BBQ hot wings we bought on our second night in Ocho Rios. My response is that everything actually has taste in Jamaica!

On our way out of this tourist town we stopped at Dunn’s River Falls, where after another breakfast of ackee and saltfish, we were set to tackle the falls. However, due to the number of groups of tourists (as if we weren’t) holding hands and making their way up, we decided to just swim around a bit before setting off for Negril via Montego Bay.

Cliff Side, Negril

Another restaurant that holds a special place in my memory, not because of its international standard of service, is the Pelican Grill in Montego Bay. Growing up, this is a place we would stop for a meal on our way back to Kingston and so I was hoping it was still there.

It was and the service and food was exactly as I remembered it. The staff was welcoming, the booths were still there and the food tasted the same as it did 30 years ago. Robert stuck with an American fare but did have and enjoyed with me Red Peas soup (pig’s tails and all). My first meal of oxtail on this trip was tasty and filling at a very reasonable price.

The highway to Negril was in great condition and we made very good time. Our next hotel had received great reviews and was the most expensive of our entire stay. Robert had been giving me praises on my choices thus far, saying he had not been disappointed in any. Quiet panic was setting in for me as the bar of expectation was now very high.

Tensing Pen Resort was all it was made out to be and more!

Our accommodation for the stay was Garden A, a cottage with a fair view of the Caribbean Sea.
Pleasantly surprised does not describe how we felt the minute we stepped into the reception area and were greeted by one of the most exuberant receptionist ever. The welcome cocktail and cool wash rags which Robert proceeded to drape over his shaven head was nothing in comparison to the well adorned cottage we entered a few minutes later.

Everything combined – friendly neighbours, lounge chairs along the cliffs, diving bridge, hammocks, swimming pool overlooking the Sea, the sunsets and the friendly but not pushy staff – made for the almost perfect destination. By the end of a full day at Tensing Pen, we unanimously declared that on our next trip to Jamaica this would be our base.

Beautiful as it was, we did venture outside of Tensing Pen to have various meals at surrounding restaurants and wayside eateries. One in particular became a favourite for us – Shark’s which is operated by what I like to call a strong black woman. And she can cook to match! I had the best curried goat and curried chicken there and her banana pancakes had Robert from the first bite.

Negril was intended to be our lazy stop and that is exactly what we did. Aside from coming up to eat, we basically lounged, hammock-ed, swam and tanned (Robert) all day.

At nights, we went out to dinner and returned to our verandah where I listened to Robert pleading with me to re-migrate to Jamaica asap.

Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth

Reluctantly we left Negril and Tensing Pen, vowing to come back and stay longer.

The drive to St. Elizabeth, our last stop before returning to Kingston, was long and a bit bumpy but any discomfort that Robert was feeling was muted by Red Stripe beers. We stopped in Black River for lunch at a place named Yellowtail Restaurant. For less than US10 we had hearty lunches of stewed pork and fried chicken and of course a beer for Robert.

It was my intention that we would go on the Black River Safari, to see the crocodiles and manatees, but Robert was anxious to get to our next resort. This was Jake’s Village, a place that I had never visited before and the reviews were mixed.

Not as well maintained as Tensing Pen and an entirely different landscape, more ‘desert’ like and dry, Jake’s was nevertheless a good place to be on this side of the island (South coast). The massage that I received at the Driftwood Spa was awesome!

What Jake’s has, however, over all the other places we stayed at are the skills of its kitchen staff. Both at the resort restaurant and at the adjoining-sister restaurant Jack Sprat, we had some of the best cooking ever! My only bowl of cornmeal porridge during the visit was had here and it was great! The conch soup at Jack Sprat is to die for.

Honestly, I was not entirely thrilled with our cottage (Conch) at Jake’s – the flooring of the shower was not my favourite – and I was scared to death that I would be confronted by a croaking lizard. Nonetheless, I would recommend this resort as a can do for maybe a night if one is passing through this side of the island.

It was during this stop that we visited the Appleton Rum Tour which was educational and entertaining.

Who knew that a by-product of rum making is molasses with a Viagra effect!

We left St. Elizabeth after a couple nights with my only regret being that we did not make it to Little Ochie for the best lobster in the world. Robert reminded me though that there will be a next time.

Back to Kingston

After 10 days away, we returned to the comfort of my mentor’s home in Kingston. Our time in Jamaica was coming to an end and so it was time to visit with old friends and my mother one more time before leaving.

We also found time to go for ice-cream again at Devon House and have a good bye dinner with our hostess at the best Chinese restaurant in Kingston – Jade Garden Restaurant.

Day 14 and it was time to go but before doing that we went for one last Jamaican breakfast at the Courtleigh Hotel, next door to Robert’s other home Pegasus. My meal of mackerel run-down was very tasty and Robert seemed to have enjoyed his American fare again. However, the service was not up to the standard of the Pegasus.

It was a struggle to get all the ‘grocery’ that I had bought packed into the suitcases! My daughter A had given me her list and kept adding to it via text and Facebook.

Robert out rightly refused me my right to bring back to Canada Yummy or any other brand of hardo bread – unbelievable!

Suntanned (Robert) and ten pounds fatter (me) Jamaica – Land of my Birth was left behind on March 6, 2009. It was a wonderful honeymoon destination and Tensing Pen Resort has won a special place in our hearts. Seeing old friends and spiritual guides again was a blessing and being in a place that is so familiar to me was comforting.

Most of all, the chance to make new memories was priceless. For this I am most grateful.


P.S. Next post will examine the Land of My Birth through the lenses of a returning citizen/visitor.

Labels: , ,