Editor Zoe Walker Ahwa explains why she was utterly charmed by that island in the sun, Jamaica.
It’s the warm spirit of the locals, the colours, the music, or maybe, it was the weed. But two weeks in the laidback chaos of Jamaica left me both completely relaxed and exhilarated – and promising to make my way back to the Caribbean idyll.
Its rich musical roots are what connects it to most Kiwis, with many of us growing up listening to, or hearing our rellies listen to, old-school reggae/Bob Marley. Jamaica continues to hold a unique charm in style circles: a glamorous getaway for the jet set of the ‘50s and ‘60s, recently a hipper set, including model Bella Hadid, British Vogue fashion editor-at-large Julia Sarr-Jamois, Brother Vellies accessory designer Aurora James and musician Solange, have holidayed on the island. Designer Ralph Lauren famously has a villa within the luxury Round Hill resort, his spring 2018 collection an ode to his Jamaican retreat. Beyoncé and Jay-Z filmed tour footage on a Jamaican beach, Lorde shot her music video for Perfect Places here, and recently, Kanye held his Sunday Service concerts in the capital, Kingston. Meanwhile, Rihanna, the ultimate arbiter of cool, has been working on a reggae-inspired album.
For my husband Dan and me, Jamaica was a dream destination for our dream honeymoon: the music, the weather, the food, the rum and the chilled-out vibes. We arrived in February to a balmy 30°C, leaving the touristy Montego Bay to head down the coast in a clapped-out taxi.
Getting further from the city revealed more of the ‘real’ Jamaica: speeding through small villages along roads with giant pot holes, swerving from chickens, cows and locals walking roadside, and delighting in small houses painted vibrant shades of orange, pink, green, yellow, purple and blue. We stayed in three incredible hotels in very different areas of the island, each showcasing a special side of Jamaica’s beauty and with a unique rhythm of their own.
It’s exactly like it is in the photos. This magical spot routinely took my breath away, with its thatched-roof villas sitting on limestone cliffs overlooking the crystal-clear blue water of the lagoon (appropriately named Pristine Cove). The tranquil hotel is situated in tourist favourite Negril, famous for its white-sand Seven Mile Beach. But the only hints of that tourist buzz are the party catamarans that fly past each afternoon, making their way down the coast to Rick’s Cafe for sunset.
One afternoon a particularly rowdy boat made a short stop in the lagoon, with a bartender commenting nonchalantly, “That’s naked people,” – a boat from nearby clothing- optional resort Hedonism II. This is peak Negril tourism; very different to Rockhouse’s casual luxury. As well as a must-visit spa and pool looking out on the glittering Caribbean Sea, the resort has three restaurants, including the fine-dining Rockhouse Restaurant and more casual Pushcart Restaurant & Rum Bar. The pool bar offers the requisite rum cocktails, Red Stripe beer and ‘jelly’ (fresh drinking coconut).
Jakes, Treasure Beach
This ramshackle charmer of a hotel is situated on Jamaica’s relatively remote south coast, a winding, two-hour drive from Montego Bay. The quiet streets of the seaside village Treasure Beach felt a little like those in a small Coromandel town in summer – colourful flowers in bloom, random craft stores and paths down to Frenchman’s Cove beach nearby. Here, you’ll find famous beachside restaurant shack Eggy’s (named for its stylish and friendly dreadlocked host Eggy), amazing seafood and the heady smell of weed from British tourists eating lunch. From here, you can be picked up to go on a small fishing boat to visit another local icon: the Pelican Bar.
On this rickety wooden structure, perched on stilts on a sandbar in the middle of the sea, you’ll find locals playing dominoes, drinking beer and chatting – as well as lots of tourists stopping by. Back at Jakes, there’s a range of villas, cottages and rooms available, each with its own bohemian aesthetic; think mosaics, coloured glass and terracotta. Most guests congregate at Dougie’s Bar, looking out onto the hotel’s pool and makeshift beach, with a jetty extending into the water. We spent hours here, hypnotised by the rhythm of the ocean, the insane golden sunset on the horizon and pelicans sweeping past in the wind. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot dolphins in the distance too.
One of the hippest stays in Jamaica, GoldenEye is a collection of private villas, cottages and beach huts set on land that was once owned by the author Ian Fleming. In 1946, he came here to be inspired and to write; the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was written here and Dr. No and Live and Let Live were filmed nearby. In 1976, it was purchased by the founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell (the man who produced Bob Marley and the Wailers), who slowly developed it into the sprawling 21ha resort it is today. Walk the GoldenEye gardens and you’ll get an idea of the clientele: regular and well-known guests often plant trees, and you’ll spot plaques from Kate Moss, Grace Jones and others. This is low-key, modern luxury at its finest, and feels different to the typical Jamaican resort: no inclusive packages and at times it feels as though you’re the only people in the resort. We stayed in the more ‘affordable’ laidback beach huts, with high ceilings, a lush outdoor shower and private veranda. More expensive villas overlook a beautiful lagoon, where you can kayak or swim over to the spa. There are three pools, but our favourite spots were the secluded Button Beach, a sheltered bay with its own bar ‘shack’ and music playing in the background, and the Shabeen rooftop bar where we watched the sun go down with Red Stripe beer in hand, on our final night on the magical island.
How to get there:
There are no direct flights to the Caribbean from New Zealand, with the simplest access to Jamaica through major US cities into international airports in Montego Bay and Kingston. American Airlines flights depart regularly from Miami – a direct 90-minute trip.
A little local insight:
Marijuana – or ganja – is a key part of Jamaican and Rastafarian culture, and you will smell it wherever you go. It was decriminalised in 2015, with locals allowed to cultivate up to five plants for their own use at home. For tourists, it is illegal except for medical marijuana. But the law is what you would describe as ‘very chill’, with possession of up to two ounces considered a petty offence and not resulting in a criminal record. Smoking in public is prohibited, although you will see it happening everywhere. Some resorts will have a note advising their rules; most are fine with guests smoking as long as it’s discreet (i.e. you’re not toking it up in the hotel’s restaurant; you’ll see people smoking poolside in some resorts). The Rockhouse hotel even included it as part of their resort passport – a list of local activities to tick off.
Words: Zoe Walker Ahwa
Photos: Corey Hamilton
This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly, issue 4, 2019.