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Jamaica: A Taste of the Island
Article and photo by Paris Permenter and John Bigley
The smiling Montego Bay hostess pushed a steaming bowl of greens closer. "Try my callaloo! I picked them myself!"
We were enjoying a Jamaican meal at a restaurant balcony perched high in the hills over Montego Bay. This was a true Jamaican feast served with genuine Jamaican hospitality. While this bayside city is the home of some of the Caribbean's most lavish resorts such as Half Moon, Ritz-Carlton, Round Hill, and Tryall, Montego Bay still maintains a small town atmosphere. Through programs such as the Jamaica Tourist Board's Meet the People program, visitors can meet local residents and learn more about the culture of this thriving city.
We were enjoying just such a dinner, arranged through the program designed to match visitors and residents with similar interests. Our hostess knew our interest in local cuisine and soon pointed to an ordinary-looking tree. Between its green leaves peeked small red fruit, bursting open to reveal large black seeds like eyes looking out at us. "That's ackee. We make our national breakfast, ackee and saltfish, from that fruit. You must try some while you are here!"
The enthusiasm our hostess showed for Jamaican food is typical on the island, a veritable produce section of fruits, vegetables, roots, and spices. It's an enthusiasm that's contagious: visit Jamaica and you will get caught up in the taste of the island: the sizzle of peppery jerk, the cold slickness of coconut jelly, the richness of a truly world-class cup of Blue Mountain coffee--not to mention the ambrosia of Jamaica's best known export: rum.
Jamaica's motto is "Out of Many, One People" and it's a saying that could equally be applied to the island's food. Residents have come from around the globe, bringing with them the cooking techniques, flavors, spices, and recipes of their homelands and blending them with the bountiful harvest of this tropical island. The result is some of the most flavorful cuisine in the Caribbean.
Good beaches and great food take up much of the day for the typical vacationer, but when it's time for a little sightseeing, Montego Bay (or just "MoBay" to locals) is home to a large concentration of great houses, formerly homes of the wealthy plantation owners whose kingdoms were powered by sugarcane.
The most famous of the historic homes is Rose Hall, located just east of the city. This was once the home of the notorious Annie Palmer, better known as the "White Witch." As the story goes, Annie was born in England and later moved to Haiti, where her parents died of yellow fever. Annie was adopted by a Haitian voodoo priestess and became skilled in the practice of voodoo. According to legend, Annie came to Jamaica, and married the owner of Rose Hall, an enormous plantation with over 2,000 slaves. The legend says Annie murdered several of her husbands and her slave lovers--before meeting a violent end herself.
Today, guided tours take visitors through the two-story home then down into the cellar, today a pub which serves a wicked drink called the Witches Brew made with rum and fruit juices. Nearby, golfers test their skills right on the grounds which once saw so much violence; the White Witch Golf Course, part of the Ritz-Carlton resort, ranks as one of the island's best.
Eco-tourists will also find plenty of nature-related attractions off the beaten path. Bird lovers should make a stop at the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary in the nearby village of Anchovy. This is the former home of the late Lisa Salmon, Jamaica's best-known amateur ornithologist. Her home became a veritable bird sanctuary surrounded by grassquits, saffron finches, and, most especially, hummingbirds. Through the years, Salmon and her guides hand-fed the birds, even the tiny hummers, and today visitors can come by during the afternoons, have a seat on the home's patio, and hand-feed the regular guests of this bird diner.
Along with the melody of Jamaica's birds, the island is also well known for the songs of Bob Marley. Reggae fans can recall the life and works of the reggae great at the Bob Marley Experience, located in the Half Moon Shopping Village. A documentary on the musician's life runs several times a day; an adjacent gift shop boasts that it has the largest collection of Marley gifts in the Caribbean.
The Bob Marley Experience is part of an extensive shopping center at Half Moon, one of many shopping opportunities in MoBay. You'll also find traditional shopping centers with the finest items: jewelry, china, crystal, collectible figurines, watches, and more. In the shopping centers, prices are firm just like at home. In Montego Bay, the top shopping centers are City Centre, a block-long collection of duty-free shops, Holiday Village Shopping Centre near Holiday Inn SunSpree, and the luxurious Half Moon Shopping Village. In town, the crafts market is an adventure in shopping, with everything from coffee bean necklaces to straw baskets in Rasta colors, all sold with some good-natured negotiation.
Through the years, our favorite Jamaica purchases have been the woodcarvings, both freestanding and bas relief of local animal life, faces, fish, and more. The finest pieces are carved from lignum vitae, or wood of life, a pale hardwood so dense it won't float. Another top product is Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, considered one of the finest coffees in the world. Spices, sauces, and jerk rubs, especially those made by Walkerswood, let visitors cook Jamaican-style dishes at home.
Try as we might, though, we've not been able to replicate the taste of Jamaica's fine cuisine, whether it's a plate of steaming callaloo or a fiery breast of jerk chicken. For that, we have to plan our next trip to the sunny island.
Husband and wife team Paris Permenter and John Bigley have authored over 20 guidebooks and also edit Lovetripper.com Romantic Travel Magazine, an online publication featuring worldwide destinations.